It's no secret that people of great achievement are often abject curiosities and spectacular failures as human beings, and this was certainly true of Tchaikovsky, who lived in my hometown when I was growing up.
I can't truly claim that it was my privilege to know the man, or even that to know him would have been, in fact, any kind of privilege at all. (My understanding is that this was decidedly not the case.) But I certainly remember the old man, and recall seeing his stooped and wretched specter stumbling along the sidewalks of my neighborhood.
People around town knew Tchaikovsky, of course, or certainly were aware of his strange presence. Few, however, apparently realized that he was writing music. Most folks remember him as a stunningly bad amateur painter whose crude oils of birds --robins, almost exclusively-- were entered in the art show at the county fair each summer.
Somewhere I have a snapshot of the garish tattoo of a naked clown bleeding from his eyes that Tchaikovsky had etched into one of his forearms. I can't recall how I came by this photograph, to be honest with you, but it remains among my most prized possessions, and countless scholars have tried to buy it from me over the years.
There was always a great deal of speculation that Tchaikovsky was consumptive, or infected with venereal disease. There did, certainly, appear to be something wrong with him. There were clearly health issues of one sort or another, most obviously a painful-looking skin condition. He also had dodgy hygiene, and always seemed to be in need of a new pair of shoes.
Late in his life Tchaikovsky wore a beat-to-shit pair of purple moon boots, no matter the season. This was after moon boots had long since gone out of fashion, and I suppose he picked them up on one of his regular visits to the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, where he was also said (this was in the newspaper after his death) to be an indiscriminate hoarder of "potboilers and paperback westerns."
Every afternoon he would emerge from his rented room at the Ace Hotel over on the east side by the railroad yard, and he and Friedrich Engels, another Ace resident and local curiosity, would stumble around the sidewalks of downtown engaged in heated conversation that often resulted in minor dust-ups and spitting matches. Kids used to regularly throw rocks at them.
I can also tell you that Tchaikovsky rolled his own cigarettes (Drum), and spent a great deal of time drinking coffee and banging away at the Cannonball Run pinball machine at a local pizza parlor. He was once arrested for shoplifting a porno mag from Nemitz’s (I can remember my father sitting at the dinner table and chuckling over the Daily Herald’s description of the stolen merchandise as “a gentlemen’s magazine of undetermined value.”).
Whenever we'd see him out and about, my mother would always say, "That poor man doesn't know whether he's coming or going."
"I could help him out with that," my father would say. "He's going."
The old mutterer had one sister still in town, but she was said to find him repellent, and more than once sought a restraining order against him on the grounds that he creeped her out –that, at least, was my mother’s version, which she had received secondhand from a courthouse clerk who was part of a group my mother belonged to that made quilts (with Bible verses pinned to them) for Africans.
Tchaikovsky occasionally played chess at the public library with the conductor of the high school orchestra, and somehow managed to talk this man into performing some of his compositions at the annual spring orchestra concert. Nothing much was made of his music at the time, however, and when Tchaikovsky died he was largely friendless and wholly uncelebrated.
Even to this day there are people in my old hometown who will insist that the music now attributed to Tchaikovsky was, in fact, composed by some other person, or persons.
Repeated attempts to raise money to erect a statue in his honor outside the library have been unsuccessful.