On the afternoon of Monday June 15, 1981 on the back porch of the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston one man held a small tape recorder while another man sang for three-quarters of an hour. I was the man holding the recorder. Jack Mudurian, a resident at the home was the singer.
Three nights earlier I heard Jack sing an astounding stream-of-consciousness medley at a talent show held at a nearby church. I worked as the activities director at the nursing home and when I returned to work on Monday morning, I came prepared to record Jack. He’d often boasted that he knew “more songs than Sinatra.” Armed with a 90 minute cassette, I challenged him to sing for 45 minutes straight.
As the tape rolled along it became Jack’s and my private Olympic event. He wanted to make it the whole distance, and I was rooting and coaching him along. Every ten minutes or so, the recorder still on, he’d doubt whether he knew any more songs. I’d offer a few words of encouragement, and off he’d be going again, often repeating some songs he’d already done, but dragging along with them some new ones.
In the couple years that I’d known Jack and the other residents at the home, I’d become fascinated with the way in which memories faded and reappeared. For the forty or so men in this small facility, the days of their big adventures were over. Now old adventures were getting bigger as they were retold, or they were simply being reinvented. For me, I found that the best way to get to know these people was to accept whatever they said as the truth, for, in most cases, that is what it was for them. Accuracies and facts mattered little to me, I just wanted to find out more about who they were right then.
The little I know about Jack Mudurian in the way of absolute facts is that he was born May 23, 1929. He moved into the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston in 1980. He had been institutionalized in one facility or another for a considerable portion of his life by the time I’d met him. He loved coffee and cigarettes. At 51 he had the hopped-up energy of a highly caffinated nervous system, as well as the nicotine-stained fingers of a chain-smoker.
In conversation Jack liked to sort of riff on the end of his sentences. “That’s right. That’s right, Dave, David Greenberger.” He would often walk away still improvising with the myriad possibilities of the sentence that had just come out of him. He told me once, “They called me Banjo – I told ’em my name was Banjo and they called me Banjo. But I didn’t want that name, I want the name of Jackie. Mudurian. Jackie Mudurian, Jack Mudurian. Jack Mudurian.”
I once asked him how records are made and he replied, “I don’t know. I wish I knew. I like to sing songs and I’d like to have my voice recorded.” And he walked away singing “Rose O’Day.” Another time he told me, “If a pretty girl let me kiss her I’d take her for a ride in the car, if I had a car to drive.” One of my favorites he told me is this one, which mirrors the way one song leads him to another, as you’ll hear when he changes the subject at the end: “Money is the root of all evil. You go down to the depths of poverty when you go down into money, don’t you? I don’t want money, it’s the root of all evil to me, David, David Greenberger. Can you buy me a soda, Dave? Root beer.”
That June afternoon lives on for me. Planes flew overhead, birds chirped in the trees and another resident, Francis McElroy, could be heard singing in the background from time to time. Jack made it through the 45 minutes. 129 songs filled up one side of the cassette. He wanted to hear a little bit in playback, but just as quickly decided he wanted to go get a cup of coffee. And he walked away singing. I saw him regularly for the rest of that year, while I still worked at the nursing home. Then I moved away and saw him on my visits back to Boston. But then the nursing home closed in 1987 and he moved, first to another home, then to live with his brother. I’ve not seen him since, but his singing and bits of wisdom and advice are a part of my life. “I prefer fast songs – live it up and be happy that way Dave.”
– David Greenberger
(aired on NPR in the “Lost & Found Sound” series) AUDIO