The Powerful Story of Christian Schleifer



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By Judy Ristity

Pizza – that was what I was fantasizing about as we drove to El Triunfo, but first we’d catch a concert at the piano museum. We never made it to the restaurant.

My pizza-related-thoughts evaporated when Christian Schleifer’s fingers made contact with the keyboard. During his performance I time-travelled back to my youth. I remembered every song he played and mouthed the words. I looked around; everyone was under his spell.

Christian loves music; it’s obvious in the way he caresses the keys and how he leans toward the grand piano, as if the Baldwin attracts him like the moon pulls the tide. And as he leaned toward the piano I leaned toward him. I whispered to Alex, “Next month, we’ve got to come back.”

Two songs later Christian stood and, in his quiet voice, announced that this concert might be the last. He was vague – something about property issues at the museum. I’d just discovered Christian, who I recognized as a valuable gift to the community, and his concerts could be snatched away from us? I needed to know more about this man.

A week later Christian, a tall, slender, soft spoken gentleman and Jan, his wife of fifty-two years,      entered Hacienda Paraiso in San Pedro. Christian told me his story, occasionally augmented by Jan. Below is just the skeleton of that fascinating interview, because if I added flesh to the bones of his life, I’d fill an entire issue of The Baja Citizen.

Like many talented people Christian had a series of dramatic ups and downs. His resiliency aided by Providence kept him afloat. At four, he suffered Rheumatoid arthritis, Scarlett fever and Rheumatic fever; he almost died. Confined to his house, a neighbor, Mrs. Alexander, gave him piano lessons. She was amazed. She arranged an interview at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. He was accepted and given a scholarship. He was four-years-old. “I read music before I read words; gave recitals at six, learned the organ when I was eight and began to play professionally the same year. I never struggled; it was easy for me.”

At eighteen, he had an early “mid-life” crisis: drove away from Ohio and classical music and headed to Florida where he played contemporary tunes. The resort was huge, upscale and he played in their tiny piano bar where he earned more than he made at any other time in his career. “Sam, an eighty-year-old bass player, taught me the ropes – one Havana cigar and flattery got us two years of meals in the gourmet kitchen. Sam demonstrated how to get tips – lots of tips”. The clientele loved the tall, thin, innocent eighteen-year-old.

One evening a tall, beautiful young woman walked into the piano bar and his life. Within four months Christian and Jan were married and his life changed again. Jan was a singer and they began touring together. They laugh as they recall, “We had an awful agent who had no concept of the layout of the United States. We played in West Virginia then the next night in Texas. Cowboys with no interest in Broadway tunes demanded These Boots Were Made for Walking. Exhausted and disgusted Christian stopped performing, “I didn’t touch a piano for fifty years.”

After touring, they were given the opportunity to select and arrange music to accompany multi-media formats: motivational, promotional and educational presentations, for which they won a Canadian award. “I said to Jan, ‘We’re set. We won’t need to worry about money again.’ Three days later we learned that Jan had cancer.” They sold everything including their recording equipment to pay for Jan’s treatment. This began a financially and emotionally dark period. “We were too broke to take a bus to the doctor’s office.” But the doctor was wise and asked, “You’ve had successful careers before, you can begin again. Jan, what do you love?” Christian immediately said, “I love sailboats.”

A few nights later Destiny came knocking. Their neighbor, Randy, said, “Hop in the truck; you gotta see this.” What Christian saw was a tall chain link fence guarding outhouses and an old vandalized sailboat which was stuck in the mud. That boat eventually carried them to La Paz.

Christian made a few calls and was told, “Sorry, I’m not authorized to SELL the boat because it belongs to the Sea Scouts, BUT I can give it to you, if you make a $1000 donation.” Might as well ask for $1,000,000 – they were broke. A week later, a $1000 check arrived from Jan’s step-grandmother, who didn’t know that her gift was buying them a sailboat and a future.

They towed the hull to San Francisco’s Pier 42 (a ramshackle marina), moved aboard and found work repairing boats at that marina during the day. At night they rebuilt their boat. Once floatable, they practiced sailing for one year in San Francisco Bay, a quagmire of wind, fog and unpredictable seas. Then, in 1979 they were ready. They sailed their 1942 Alden Sloop “Moon Mist” under the Golden Gate Bridge, into the ocean, and down the Baja Coast to La Paz. Together they had survived bad agents, near bankruptcy and cancer, but it was a night of furious seas on the way down the Baja when Christian worried they would die. Like always, he survived. They have lived in La Paz for thirty-eight years.

Christian painted these tales in Technicolor: the dangers, hardships, and shockingly unconventional ways they solved their problems. But Fate was always at the helm steering him toward safety.

After the interview, I felt exhausted by the power of his story, but thankful, also. Grateful that Christian returned to his first love, the piano. Alex and I feel lucky that we’d decided to take a Sunday-morning drive so I could eat pizza, with a “side” of music. Instead of pizza I experienced a delicious taste of his music. We hope that circumstances will allow Christian to continue giving concerts on “his” beloved Baldwin. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Judy Ristity finds humor in the ordinary, then looks again and discovers the poignant.

 

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