The day’s mail dumped through the slot in the steel door of my nineteenth-floor apartment on the corner of 47th and Lake Park. South Side Chicago, bad neighborhood, but somehow this award-winning architectural wonder had been built there, and because of its location in the slums, it had been designated as HUD housing (Housing and Urban Development), which meant that a starving premedical student like me could manage the rent. OK, sometimes I had to hock something, or take on an extra shift cocktail-waitressing at the glitzy downtown disco where I made my tuition money, but somehow I always got the rent money together in time.
I picked up the mail and flipped through it nervously. I had applied to five medical schools, and the acceptance (optimist) letters, or rejection (pessimist) letters, were beginning to come in. I knew where I wanted to go, and I knew where I could afford to go; and those were not necessarily the same places. But I had not applied anywhere I would not be happy to be, so it all boiled down to finances.
There it was. A catch in my throat: I couldn’t get my breath. A thin envelope meant rejection; a fat one meant acceptance, because it was full of forms to fill out and return. Here it was: a fat envelope from the University of Illinois, one of my top choices, and affordable, as it was a state school. I ripped open the envelope and read breathlessly:
“Dear Ms. So-And-So:
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the University of Illinois College of Medicine…..”
My eyes skimmed the letter. At the very bottom, as if by an afterthought, I read:
“Due to your excellent academic performance and related experience, we are pleased to offer you a full scholarship.”
I nearly fainted. My heart pounded as if it wanted to leap out of my chest.
There was a knock at the door. I grimaced. Who could this possibly be, interrupting my moment of orgasmic bliss? I stomped over to the door irritably.
“Who is it?”
Giggles in the hall.
“It’s us! Let us in!” It was the Bosom Buddies.
The Bosom Buddies were an all-woman old-time string band from East Lansing, Michigan, an easy train ride from Chicago. I was one of the two banjo players in the group, and we played fairly regularly. We played for square dances and Moose Lodge spaghetti dinners and old-time festivals and dinners-on-the-grounds, and we always had a blast. But what were they doing at my door unannounced?
“We had to come see you, and tell you the news,” said Susie the fiddler breathlessly. “We had to come in person, so you couldn’t say no.”
Uh-oh. Sweat started rolling down my ribcage. What the hell could be so important that they had to take the train down from East Lansing, taking a chance that I might or might not be home? And not say no?
“Prairie Home Companion has asked us to be their house band!” Susie squealed.
“Wow, that’s fantastic!” I hugged them all. “Congratulations!”
But why the fuck were they standing on my doorstep telling me this news?
“And,” panted Susie, “Mary (their regular banjo player) went and ran off with Sally (her lover), and formed a duo, and now we don’t have a banjo player, so we want you to join us and come out to Minneapolis! Will you come?”
My life flashed before my eyes.
This was more than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. To be the banjoist in the house band on Prairie Home Companion, the famous National Public Radio show hosted by Garrison Keeler! Fame and fortune! Respectability! Getting to actually play the banjo for a living, instead of just for fun and a few bucks here and there! Not only that, playing with the Buddies, my favorite people in the whole world!
Then I looked at what was in my hand. The fat envelope. My acceptance letter to medical school, and a full-ride scholarship. I sat down on the floor and cried.
Four women sat down with me, hugging me and asking what was wrong. I cried harder. How could I possibly make a decision like this? Each of these things was the fulfillment of a dream of many years. I knew I was one of the top old-time banjoists in the country. And I knew I was destined to be a physician. Healing was in my bones. And so was old-time music.
I remembered my manners and invited them in. They had brought their instruments, so I got out the banjo and a fifth of whiskey and we had a few tunes and got all likkered up, and then I broke the news. I couldn’t go with them. My path in life lead elsewhere. We all cried.
They left, crestfallen, and I spent the rest of the night bawling. I didn’t know whether I had made the right decision or not. It just kept bouncing back and forth in my head, and my heart felt like it was being physically torn apart.
The Buddies didn’t find another woman banjo player who was up to their standards, so they didn’t take the job in Minneapolis. Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band became the Prairie Home Companion house band, and they do a real good job of it, but they’re not the Buddies.
We all went in different directions after that. A couple of the girls joined other bands. Susie hitchhiked across the Sahara desert and got a ride with an Irishman on a motorcycle, and they got married and moved to Ireland.
I went on to medical school, and then graduate school in Anthropology, and then a residency in Pediatrics. I don’t regret my decision, but every now and then I look back to the road less traveled by and think: what would have happened if……