There are three days when I don’t like working the piano bar: Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Halloween has that carnival atmosphere where everybody has a request but nobody tips because they think their dime-store mask will protect them from the bad karma. I remember a Halloween, two years ago, when the only thing that showed up in my tip jar was a bobbing apple with a sloppy bite, oxidation already browning it.

People at Christmas are generous with their food but not with their tips. I get plenty of cookies that night, but everyone seems to be quietly guilty that they’re at O’Sullivan’s rather than in the warm embrace of kith and kin. It’s just a sad twirl on the dance floor, awkward passes made at anything that stirs their loins, and longing looks at mistletoe. Oh, and Christmas carol requests. Nothing but. My professors at Julliard would be spinning in their graves if they were dead.

But New Year’s is the worst.

This past New Year’s, I was sitting at my piano playing Auld Lang Syne for the millionth time, nursing a sprained ankle under my dress pants and with a glass of sassafrass beading sweat and leaving a ring on the piano. People will offer you a drink if you don’t have something amber going to waste on your piano, I’ve learned, and they don’t take kindly to being turned down. Better to have something, anything, up there rather than causing controversy with the people who should–emphasis on should–be tipping you.

A drunk lady approached me, with just the right attitude that I thought I was in for some juvenile flirting. Not that I’d mind under ordinary circumstances–people hitting on you do tend to tip until they realize you’re not going for it because you like your job–but people are possessive around the holidays. I remember when the other pianist I alternate with, Zack, got his lights punched out because he flirted with a punchy patron’s hubby.

“I’ve got a strange request for you,” she slurred. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but there’s a tip in it for you.” She stuffed a hundred-dollar bill–a real live Benjamin–in my tip jar before I could respond. “Okay then,” she continued, as if I’d actually agreed sight unseen. “Here’s what I want you to do.”

She reached into a voluminous designer purse and pulled out a piece of sheet music. Ancient stuff, yellowed and fragile-looking, though it didn’t crumble in my hands. “Play this song,” she said. “See that person over there? It’s the song of their soul, and every note you play will make them totally in the power of anybody who commands them.”

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