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Steel2Velvet

The King's English - The Close

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While putting together this story, I would appreciate any corrections of grammar, spelling or punctuation that you SF's can offer to improve. Thanks, Ron

The Close

early May, 2013

Based upon their shining-eyed curiosity and the obvious swiveling of heads, it seemed everyone seated in the brightly lit coffee shop had an unswerving interest in the handsome, statuesque man wearing a black leather jacket who had just entered from the May midday sun-bronzed street. As he walked confidently over to join me for a cup of strong, smooth Brazilian espresso, the line dance of glances followed him with every step until, in the out of place awkward silence of that room, he prepared to sit. The scooting front feet of the chair scraped a sound against the tile floor like chorded trumpets. As if cued by that herald, the room seemed to reboot; reverting back to its previous incarnation of activity more associated with lunch pairings: the marbled conversations that were perhaps about mutual business interests or anticipated schedules for the remaining afternoon or plans for later that evening. It was as if his act of taking a seat signaled the completion of a coronation ceremony, after which audience members might once more casually revert to being themselves again.

Sitting whisper close across a small table near the back wall, I could certainly understand the nature of the suspension of reality in the room a few seconds ago. I was once again filled with disconcerting wonder at an appearance which invariably leaves its imprint on all who glance his way, most individuals probably doing a double take for the effort. The full, healthy black hair in a loose pompadour meeting long, equally thick sideburns which frame a symmetrical face filled with desirably attractive features; the strong chin, a full lower lip meeting a Cupid’s bow-shaped upper lip at each dimpled corner of the mouth, the long, straight nose serving to accentuate high cheekbones, the wide placement of the eyes that, except for the color and their slightly sad quality, looked directly into mine just as if Elvis Presley were still here on earth, joining me for coffee, attuned to what I was about to say.

This meeting was likely to be my final opportunity to help this guy, or we would probably never speak to one another again. I was not very hopeful, recalling the last time we talked about the subject we were here to discuss.

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******

November, 2011

The first time I had seen Ricardo Balastella he was performing his Tribute To Elvis act while I had dinner at a friend’s capacity-packed restaurant. My friend’s neon lighted, street beacon of a restaurant is American pop culture-themed, with a large amount of amazing 1960’s and 1970’s rock memorabilia scattered throughout inside the comfortable, brightly lit, spaciously laid out establishment. The restaurant is named Elvis Costella, which is interplay between the names of two rock icons and the Portuguese word for barbequed ribs, which are the gourmet menu’s succulently prepared specialty.

My friend, a repatriated Brazilian, had once lived in Los Angeles for an extended period of time where he learned the restaurant trade; all the while planning to bring that glitzy California, Pulp Fiction dance scene-style of eatery to Curitiba, Parana, a city similar in size and population to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His dream became booths filled with laughter, great food and clinking glasses a couple years ago. Now at night, welcoming aromas of deliciously diverse dining and sounds of precisely programmed classic rock make Elvis Costella a popular evening highlight for hip, hungry, young-at-heart Brazilians.

Since the restaurant’s name seems to imply the necessity, my friend often retains Ricardo’s Elvis impersonation review, in order to draw a profitable weekend crowd in a part of Brazil where the right theme can build a restaurant’s clientele faster than any other marketing strategy. It could be stated with a high degree of accuracy that Tribute To Elvis generates a strong word of mouth buzz and an almost guaranteed overflow crowd whenever and wherever it is staged.

My initial impression that November evening, while studying him as he fronted his tight, well-rehearsed backing band of four musicians on a too small stage in the center of Elvis Costella, was amazement at how, upon his birth, Ricardo Eduard Balastella had received nearly the identical genetic code that Elvis Aaron Presley received 33 years prior. I stress genetics because many men (and some women) have put forth fanatical effort toward, fervently worked at, unblinkingly sacrificed for and suffered even the pains of surgical rehabilitation in the name of gaining a slightly nearer relativity to the features and mannerisms of “The King of Rock and Roll.” But here, this night, on this stage, of all the people on earth, was a guy who was simply born that way!

During that night’s performance, I was impressed with not only how the native Curitibano looked just like Elvis, but also with how his vocal range and timbre very closely matched those of The King. I supposed his esophageal machinations were genetic matches, as well. While working by day professionally as a dentist, Ricardo was a very good vocal stylist at night, having found the time between the two avocations to put in the hours of practice time certainly required to perfect most of the on-stage mannerisms of Elvis, while singing on key with a driving, up tempo rock band. Though some of his affected gestures seemed as if awkwardly forced (for example the traditional impersonator’s knee high half-clutching hand move, during which it appeared to me that he was air-grabbing some poor guy by the crotch) it was obvious by his unabashed enthusiasm during the show that this dentist knew that he could possibly realize more financial success using the genetic gift with which God had blessed him, than with what a diploma in dentistry could afford him. It was also quite evident that he moreover preferred this feeling of exhilaration that he was drilling into his wildly pleased audience while upon that center stage, to anything he might inject into their lives were they reclined on a paper covered leather chair in his daytime office.

Regardless of all his surroundings seeming to suggest he was nearly being Elvis, relative to visuals and music selection, as I watched the doppelganger attempt to channel his famous predecessor I realized that the only thing keeping him from a huge contract and being paid a bazillion dollars to appear regularly in some Las Vegas nostalgia review, was the fact that the man had little to no idea of what he was singing. It was obvious to me - a native English speaker who had grown up closely following the career of Presley, from Elvis’ first nationally televised performance on The Ed Sullivan Show through his shockingly sudden death at age 42 - that Senor Balastella had learned his tribute repertoire of forty or fifty songs by mere phonetic meanderings through the original recordings of The King. He had never learned enough of the language to effectively sing in English.

Since he was playing to an audience the majority of which knew little more English than he, this Elvis impersonator could pull off being photo-flashed and screamed upon by adoring fans because hardly anyone in the room cared what the heck he was singing! The audience simply knew the lyrics seemed right because the band was rocking with melodies that sounded like the Elvis songs that they have loved over time. Of course they were also assuming the English was correct because of the fact that the singer looked like the American’s album cover photos and was wearing the familiar white jumpsuit with accents and flourishes that said “Viva Las Vegas.” Added to these indications is the fact that, in this Portuguese speaking nation, a lot of foreign media influences are routinely appreciated on a purely visceral level, with little regard to linguistic foundation, let alone how incorrect the grammar or pronunciation. Most Brasileiros have been conditioned to be oblivious to details of a language not their own, willing instead to take a guess at the meaning by actions or subtitles.

While I loved the audience’s indulgence, it was off-putting to me that this impersonator’s propensity went beyond mucking up the words to the songs, but into behavior like broadly displayed smiles and twinkles and blinkies to his raving audience. While the real deal was considered dangerously sensual, a social rebel and a bit threatening to every young girl while performing during the halcyon happy days of the American 1950’s, this mock-Elvis, with his natural good guy querido amigo personality, was more Richie Cunningham than Fonzie. Ricardo’s cheerful glee was fully de-Elvising the show for this gringo. I kept thinking throughout his set, “This guy could use a good, dark sneer.” Consider: he was actually smiling a great big, gawky kid smile while singing Heartbreak Hotel, for goodness sake! But then again, his phonetically rendered line for Since my baby left me, I’ve found a new place to dwell … was something close to, “In ma lady lefla, Uh found uh place thas swell …,” as such, in retrospect perhaps that interpretation actually requires a big, clownish grin.

As the Tribute’s final chord ring of the night faded out to crowd adulation, I concluded that the act was adequate as novelty entertainment for Brasileiros, but as generator of nostalgic admiration of the roots of rock and roll it would never get off the launch pad in Schenectady. The land of Brazil got all the grace on this one.

******

February, 2012

As a way to increase location visibility, client profile and subsequent ticket count, the owner of Elvis Costella had a spark of an idea to begin opening at 11 A.M. for a limited menu businessman’s lunch, supplementing the establishment’s evening hours with its full menu. Because he never left things up to chance, before he made the final “go” decision, the owner invited a dozen or so friends one afternoon to evaluate a variety of simple, yet flavorful, entrees for which he had given consideration to feature at that time of day. Using a ten point scale for a number of factors about each dish, the cross-cultural tasters were asked to fill out forms evaluating what we were randomly served that afternoon. Since lunch was on the house and my friend serves some of the best food in Curitiba, I made sure I attended that sampling lunch.

Each taste trustee had their own booth to themselves for this rather scientific evaluation. About 14 individuals were seated throughout the restaurant and the servers delivered the entrees on stainless covered trays, with numbers on the sides corresponding to the numbers at the top of each evaluation form. I noticed that directly across the room from me sat Ricardo Balastella. I presumed that even an imitation Elvis could not refuse a free meal featuring great food, albeit a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich was not part of the fare.

The taste test was held in an almost sterile, isolated manner; no conferring with other diners, no distractions or moving around. The music from the house system was turned off during this lunch. Such a coldly void atmosphere for having lunch was definitely contrary to the festive manner in which all Brasileiros are accustomed to eating. It must have been almost painful for many in that restaurant to sit alone and in silence pondering only the food in front of them along with a pencil and printed form. Yet, we were awarded such wonderful food during the torturous ordeal that doing this favor for our restaurateur friend brightened the faces of the group members, as well as that of the owner.

After all had finished and been freed from the bondage of frustrating isolation, we noisily made our way to the exit; shaking hands, smiling to one another, chatting as if to acknowledge our camaraderie in this enterprise. What a few minutes before had been a solemnly silent labor became a convivial and light time of reflection, even as we began filing out of the restaurant to find our vehicles along the sunny side streets. I was second to the last to leave the restaurant. Behind me was Ricardo. We nodded to one another as we passed the end of the bar and approached the door. As Ricardo offered his hand for shaking, I introduced myself. He did the same. In Portuguese, I told him I knew who he was because I had seen his show a few months ago. He smiled that big toothy smile, saying he appreciated my being in his audience at some point in time. I felt a bit of reluctance to continue conversing for any length of time, not knowing his schedule and assuming he was pressed for time; but seeing as we were now moving in the same direction down the sidewalk, side by side in front of the restaurant, and seeing as I sometimes speak where and when I shouldn’t, I could not let the moment pass without asking the primary question that had been on my mind since seeing him as my peer in “normal people” clothing across the room during the taste test.

I gathered myself, “Do you understand the words to the songs you sing as Elvis?” By the quizzical positioning of his features I thought my question had taken him off balance, but in hindsight he was probably deciphering, since I had switched to English for the question.

After a couple seconds, he responded. “Yes, I do.” I sensed his answer was used in reply to that question often. He had been asked that before.

“Most people probably accept that answer,” I was speaking in Portuguese again so that he would understand that I understood. I also winked to him, as if to say I was in on the joke, “but, I know you don’t.”

At that point, no longer walking but standing facing one another on the sidewalk, Ricardo could have ignored my last inference as a sleight and simply turned to walk away. But as I would come to learn much later, that would not be in keeping with the personality or style of this humble star. Instead his countenance changed from confident performer to one of a concerned little boy who may have lost his mother while out shopping with her in a mall, “How did you know?” he asked, as he glanced around to make sure no one was nearby.

“First of all, I am an English teacher. I specialize in understanding when I am listening to bad English. Secondly, I am an American who went through adolescence during the Elvis phenomenon. So, I know the correct words to many of the songs that you sing. When I saw your show, you weren’t singing them.”

As if eager to spill his heart to a confessor, Ricardo reflected, “I sang in my brother’s night club in Southern California a few years ago. Neither the audience nor my brother received me well during or after that performance. My brother asked me why I did not sing in English. I told him I thought I was. He wouldn’t let me do my act again.”

I realized a wholly American audience would no doubt have been a brutal awakening for the man who would be King, the man who COULD be king in Brazil. Then the crux of my concern for this misunderstood stage performer became apparent, “Isn’t it very difficult to sing emotion filled songs and not even understand what emotions you are trying to express?”

His head bowed. Elvis had left the building, “Yes. It is much more than very difficult. It is frustrating. I love to write songs in Portuguese.” The man was a tormented poet, no less.

From somewhere I felt a strong desire to jump into this scene with both feet, as if I was watching a man struggling against drowning in the ocean, “I work through a language school, but I would not mind taking a private student. Would you like my card?” I said, reaching for my billfold.

He was eager to accept it and to offer me his phone number, not a cell number but a land line. He asked me to please call him at a specific time, on a specific day, to talk about the possibility of his learning English at an effective level for his stage act. Though thinking, “A scheduled phone call – is he that busy?” I wrote down the time and day, telling him that I’d call. Before parting that afternoon, we once more shook hands, this time with more sincerity, if a handshake may be termed in that manner. We also warmly embraced, as is the custom between friends in Brazil. In that brief time, he impressed me that he was a wonderful human being. I wondered if we would stay on one another’s minds.

******

Meeting the needs of professional adults at intermediate and advanced English levels over the past three years, I began teaching with big plans to make the language come alive through unique methods, tapping into my sense of humor, hoping in some way to employ skills as a visual artist with a camera to improve student awareness of correct grammar. However, working as a private contractor through a very successful and expensive school, I soon understood the rules: stay within the curriculum prepared for staid British text books and do not wander far from preordained routines, so that should I ever be absent, a substitute teacher could continue the class without interruptions to the VIP student schedule. This restrictive methodology of teaching, though relatively sweatless and measurably successful, has from time to time tended to dull my enthusiasm. I have told myself that every teacher must feel anchored when constrained from doing what they’d really like to do to individualize the classroom experience. Throughout my life, even during Vietnam War military service, I have always seemed to want to weigh anchor when moored – move on, do things my way.

In the next few days, as the call appointment to Ricardo approached, my wife noticed I was getting charged up about the possibilities that might come from teaching Elvis how to sing his songs. As we chatted about this opportunity, my wife saw my renewed energy and interest to teach English on a creative level, though I tried to suppress any desire to imagine what had not yet become reality. But still, I found Ricardo’s Tribute To Elvis page online within a social media site, becoming a subscriber, a follower of where he would be appearing and any other activities pertinent to the act. I also found myself mentally planning a curriculum based upon an orderly method to teach The King to sing in English. I was surprising myself by building up my hopes like a school boy at Christmas. My wife understood those newly formed feelings of anticipation. She understood this could be an opportunity to do something completely different, something rather amusing, unrestrained and fun! Plus, she believed in my abilities to teach, as well as realizing the stakes in this game were certainly larger than merely two grown men having fun. If this became a highly successful endeavor, Ricardo could bank a large hunk of money, while I would have a great story to tell grandkids and perhaps an even larger audience. Of course the obvious corollary to the then current box office hit, The King’s Speech, came to mind. But in contrast to that story, I mused to my wife, I would be predicating something much more vital to the free world than what Edward had to say in his address to Great Britain. The King and I might cause the planet to once again be all shook up. Uh huh.

During the early 80’s, when America was struggling to recover from a recession, lucrative jobs were difficult to obtain. In order to support my family at one point during that decade, I took the only job available, that of a commissioned salesperson. What a mismatch of talent to job that was! I was a lousy salesman for several reasons. Time after time, I talked too much. It is essential for anyone in sales to avoid accompanying a potential customer into a sale, prepared to sign the contract and then continue talking them right out of the back door exit, by flapping the gums to distraction which invariably give them pause to reconsider. I also had a bad habit of not correctly following the proven steps that resulted in successful contract closure of the sale, as articulated in the many sales meetings that I attended. For instance, it went against my nature to accept that the proper salesperson’s attitude about a customer’s objection had to be the same as a lawyer’s attitude about one offered by the other side, in a court battle. An objection had to be debased, torn down by logic, had to be overcome through skillful debate. A profitable salesperson must understand that an objection is not the end, but the beginning of the sales process. It is an opportunity, not a hindrance. While in sales, I literally hated overcoming objections from potential customers. I would end up nodding that I understood their reasons to reject my pitch. So now, whenever faced with having to convince someone to part with their money to receive something I can offer, I often have seller’s remorse. Would anyone want me for their latex salesman? I don’t think so.

After a few days filled with mental imagery of Ricardo’s successful stage debut in fully fluffed out English, at the appointed time, I made the phone call to set up our classes. I realized that I would probably have to slip into my dreaded salesman persona, since enough time had passed for my potential student to have spoken with his manager about our meeting during the taste testing at the restaurant. I felt convinced this manager would have objections to parting with additional out of pocket expenses while representing Elvis the cash cow. As I dialed the number, beating myself up for not having closed the deal on the sidewalk in front of Elvis Costella a few days earlier, I hoped Ricardo would quickly lead the conversation to the close and we would be done with this phase of negotiations. That didn’t happen.

Instead, after initial telephone pleasantries and a quick recap of our first meeting, Ricardo wanted to know the cost of the classes. Now, had I recalled Salesmanship 101, my next question should have been, “If the outcome was to be that you could successfully sing in English, how much do you feel these classes would be worth to you?” That would have been a confident starting point for negotiations. It would have been smart … beautiful. I didn’t say that. Instead I wobbled an hourly figure into the phone. My potential student said to hang on a minute, spoke to someone (I could guess who) off the phone, then returned with, “OK, I’ll get back to you on that.”

Now, every salesperson who has ever made a pitch has known that sentence means, “There is a better that 95% chance that you will never hear from me again.” If I were ever even close to being a salesman, I would have asked if there were any reasons we could not make a schedule at this time – be bold, get the objections out of the shadows and into bright daylight, in order to work on eliminating them. Had I been a salesman, I would have asked to speak to whoever Ricardo had been conferring with, as a means to inform that person of my worth as a teacher, the value of this investment and my guarantees. At the very least, I should have reminded Ricardo of my burgeoning schedule and that he should at least have a complimentary class at no charge (bringing his manager with him if that seemed satisfactory) before I fill in all my avails with professional people desiring my services. I would/should have done all those things; had I been a salesman. But, I am not a salesman and so, said, “OK, talk to you later.” I went out for some candy, along came Jim Dandy and they snuck right out the door. No one called me back.

******

So what had changed to facilitate this meeting, in a bright diner, over strong, smooth Brazilian espressos?

Though no longer in contact for over a year, I still had been regularly reading about Ricardo’s musical career on that same social media site where his show info was appearing. A week ago, I had become intrigued to learn that he was competing in an Elvis impersonator contest in Brazil’s largest city of Sao Paulo, held over the May first holiday weekend. By observing the updates ostensibly posted by Ricardo’s manager a few times a day that weekend, I became aware on Friday that over 40 impersonators were being judged on their look, the sound of their voice, mannerisms and general stage presence, by a panel in search of the perfect Elvis descendent. I read on Saturday that Ricardo made it through preliminaries into the final group of ten impressionists. On Sunday, the update stated how thankful Team Ricardo was for this educational experience, for being invited to be around so many excellent musicians and how it was such a fun weekend; which meant he lost. In fact, he came in ninth place and won only enough money to barely cover his plane fare from Curitiba to Sao Paulo. Along with the written updates on the media site were photos posted that recapped Ricardo’s efforts that weekend. Most informative was the photo of him standing between first and second place winners. So striking was the contrast in appearances that it appeared in one shot that the ghost of Elvis had come back just to stand between and congratulate these two men, neither of whom bore much resemblance to him at all. Also posted was a camcorder video of Ricardo doing his Martian version of Heartbreak Hotel for the judges. It was quite obvious why he finished ninth.

Beneath that video, logged with my name and written in English, I left a comment: Glad you had a good time and that you were a finalist, but you should never lose an Elvis contest. Within two days, I received from Ricardo a personal message on the site asking if I would call him as soon as possible. This time it was followed by his cell phone number. I immediately called, sensed he had THE NEED and so, set up this meeting over coffee a few days later.

After again congratulating him for his finalist finish, I asked Ricardo about how the contest came about and details about how it was held. He explained that, like for professional tennis and golf players, there are various Elvis impersonator weekend tournaments held throughout the year, at a number of locations globally. This most recent one happened to be in Brazil, but it was attended by some Americans, as well as Asians and Europeans contestants. These serve as qualifiers for more elite groupings of competitors, winners of which move up a leader board. Ultimately the best of the best are invited to Nevada to compete on the biggest stage of all, for the biggest prize of all: a contract to perform in Las Vegas.

Upon reiterating my contention that Momma Balastella’s baby boy should never lose an Elvis contest, our coffee was served to the table. Then I asked him if anyone in Sao Paulo had commented upon his English. He lowered his head, turning his gaze down into his coffee cup, recalling with pain that some Americans who competed suggested that if he never learned English, they would feel more secure.

“How much longer do you feel you will perform as The King of Rock and Roll?”

“About five more years.” He replied, as I noticed the slight beginnings of crow’s feet and that he had been covering some white in his sideburns with dye. Ricardo was already older than Elvis was when he died.

I rubbed my index and middle finger together offering in English, “If you want to make the big money, it’s now or never.”

He looked up, nodded and said, “There is another competition in the United States in early September. How much would you charge me for classes until then?”

I may not be a salesman, but I am neither a fool, “We have until the end of August to get you ready for America? Let’s start with four one and a half hour classes a week. At the end of each month, you pay me whatever you think those classes have been worth. If you think the experience worthless, you pay nothing.”

His eyes widened and he laughed aloud, “Are you serious?”

I squeezed his jacketed wrist, as I would my son, and looked unflinchingly into his eyes, “I know that there have probably been many people who have come through your life who have tried to fool you, use you in some way for their gain.” Ricardo was no longer laughing, but smiling a smile that sincere men share with one another upon occasion, “You don’t know me yet, but I am an honest man. I always tell each of my students that my only success is if they have success as a result of our time together. I am serious. When do you want to start?”

******

Next: The Classes

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