Cassandra Jenkins at the Plaza

The singer-songwriter on her NYC childhood, her piano man dad, and a memorable rendition of Beethoven’s 5th.

New York streets are loud, unruly, and chaotic. Hive mind endures — we collectively sense when traffic lights are about to turn, feel the hot breeze of an oncoming train, intuit the flow of foot traffic on busy sidewalks. My favorite city moments occur when a group of strangers is shaken out of this state of focus by an unavoidable circumstance: Extreme weather events or exotic animal sightings (RIP Barry the Owl, long live Flaco) can lift the veil on the pretense that we’re all our own little islands. 

I spent much of my childhood in Central Park playgrounds, subway cars, The Museum of Natural History, and on special occasions, hotel bars. My father, a piano man of 74, has been filling the city’s hotel parlors with jazz standards and the American songbook for the last 45 years. He knows an unimaginable number of melodies by heart. (His rule for adding to his mental catalog: if a specific song is requested more than three times, he’ll learn a solo piano arrangement. Doesn’t matter if it’s Shania Twain or a ballad from Disney’s Frozen soundtrack.) Celebrities passed through the bars over the years, lending their tunes or requesting their favorites. Paul McCartney requested “Autumn in New York” for his daughter, Stella; Billy Joel sat in for a four hand “Piano Man.” On Jenkins family birthdays, the friendly faces of the waitstaff always made us feel like we belonged to a secret club as we blew out candles atop cheesecake at the Plaza, or crème brulėe at the St. Regis, or fries dipped in mini ketchup jars at the Waldorf Astoria.

Until its closing earlier this year, The Loeb Central Park Boathouse was a restaurant housed inside a tall white columned building in the center of Central Park, overlooking The Lake — a fitting name for a small, unexceptional body of water in a city inhabitants often refer to as “The City.” They hosted live piano on the weekends for the tourists and regulars who waited their turn for a seat in the dining room beside the baby grand. A main attraction was the rowboat dock where families, firsts dates, college friends, and tourists cast off into the water, fumbling to orient their oars. Whenever the opportunity arose, I popped my head in and stood behind the piano while my dad carried on conversations and “tickled the ivories.” 

On a spring day last year, I took a Sunday stroll with friends from out of town to squeeze into the bar for a few tunes. While restaurant guests sipped coffee and champagne, the skies turned quickly from blue to dark gray, casting a sallow hue over the city. Rainstorms have a way of letting loose on the city — fast and furious downpours that leave you laughably soaked or seeking cover with strangers. As my dad carried on with his best “Stormy Weather,” the floor-to-ceiling picture windows of the Boat House bar — quickly sealed shut by the staff — framed dozens of rowers scrambling to return to shore, and we became their spectators. Within a few minutes, the dining room was filled with people escaping the deluge as the sound of rainwater grew louder. And then, between songs, in one of the loudest cities in the world, the whole place went quiet.

Everyone watched the rain through the window like we were watching the World Series. The spell was broken after my friend Mina leaned over to whisper the first four notes of an unmistakable melody in my ear. I winked — message received — caught my dad’s eye at the piano and mouthed the words, “Beethoven’s 5th!” Without missing a beat, my dad tore into a thunderous rendition of the universal theme of impending doom, and the room filled with laughter. After a few minutes, the rain let up, soggy pedestrians returned to the park, rowboats scattered across the lake, and dining room chatter restarted as Rich Jenkins started his next tune.

Cassandra Jenkins is a singer-songwriter from New York City. Her record An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is available now via Ba Da Bing!.