The First 15
First, some backstory.
I was born in Brooklyn in 1953. My mother was 19, my dad 23. They were lifelong Brooklynites. Mom stayed at home, as was customary, until I was five. Dad worked on Rector St. in the city as a Purchasing Agent for the Allied Chemical Company.
My parents had an odd mix of conservative and liberal ideas. They voted for Nixon, but came to love JFK. They watched a lot of television, but my dad also read The Realist (a newspaper with a hip vibe, edited by author and social commentator Paul Krassner), and many books. He loved radio from the ‘30s. Most nights he’d listen to Jean Shepherd’s offbeat show on WOR-AM before bed.
In 1959, my sister Lola was born. She was always 6 years younger than me. I didn’t have reason to speak to her in the ‘60s.
My father had tried out for the New York baseballGiants in 1950, I learned. When I became interested in baseball, around 1958, there was only one team in town...the Yankees. I rooted for them, while my poor dad had to resort to short wave radio to hear his now-San Francisco Giants games.
I, never knowing the Giants (or Dodgers) as New York teams, was puzzled by his loyalty, although I soon figured out Willie Mays was the greatest player I’d seen.
In 1962, we both caught a lucky break. The National League returned to New York in the form of the New York Mets. Soon we were both pulling for the same team. The Mets were new and exciting, despite being awful. They stayed awful through most of the '60s , and my passion for them was always as strong, nevertheless. My dad would get free tickets from salesmen he dealt with at work, and I got to go to lots of games at beautiful new Shea Stadium.
He entered a period of deep depression after the JFK assassination. I was 10. I didn’t quite understand, though in retrospect, neither did he. I remember, the night of November 22, 1963, seeing him walking home from the subway, looking very, very sad.
I’d been in school that day, listening to an educational radio program over the classroom loudspeaker, when an announcer broke in, muttered something about the president, and soon we were sent home early.
I watched all the news coverage that night. Flipping the channels, which required sitting next to the TV, as there were no remotes, I came across local independent station WPIX Channel 11. Some program manager upstairs made the judgement that there was enough coverage on every other channel, and decided to switch to regular programming. He made a poor choice, choosing a rerun of the creaky old series “You Asked for It”. When the show ended, they switched back to their simulcast of the news coverage. I suspect someone lost their job that night.
When Lee Harvey Oswald was shot, live on TV two days later, I had taken a break from the coverage to go to the bathroom. The first-ever live murder on TV. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.
A few weeks later, on a February night in 1964, everyone watched The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I loved them. Many adults weren’t impressed. “They’re ugly”, my father opined. I started growing my hair. I never considered I might one day be in a band, because, as far as I knew, I had no musical talent.
By 6th grade, my grades started slipping. I’d started out at the top of my class in grades 1-3, at St. Rose of Lima Catholic school, but we’d moved to Bensonhurst in 1962, and I started attending P.S. 186, the local public school. At first, because my records from St. Rose were delayed, I was placed in a class for ‘average’ students, 4-3 (as opposed to the class for the ‘dumb’ kids, 4-5). 4-3 was an easy class, with a nice, attentive teacher, Mrs. Leiter. Then my St. Rose records arrived, and I was switched, halfway through the school year, to 4-1, the IGC (Intellectually Gifted Children) class. I was immediately lost, way behind in subjects like French and advanced math, and I lost the friends I’d made in 4-3, and struggled to make new ones in this group of kids who’d been together for several years already. No assistance was offered. I was on my own.
In my new neighborhood, I was introduced to a new world of tough kids, rich kids, Jewish kids, Italian kids. I was none of those (I’m Italian, but not like they were Italian!).
By the time I graduated from P.S. 186, and started 7th grade at Seth Low Junior High, I was pretty disillusioned. I found it hard to concentrate in class. I enjoyed thinking of ways to make fun of the subjects being discussed. Occasionally, I’d try out an amusing comment, which I soon learned was not appreciated by most teachers. They didn’t want independent thinking, I surmised. But I got laughs...music to my ears.
In 7th grade I signed up for the instrumental music class, and was assigned the tenor sax. A sweet, unusual looking girl named Maryanne played trumpet about 10 feet away from me. She liked the Rolling Stones, so I figured out how to play the signature riff from “Satisfaction”, hoping to get noticed. It worked, and she became my first girlfriend. However, my music teacher suggested I ought to give up music. All I ever wanted to play was “Satisfaction”.
Meanwhile, at home, things seemed shakier than ever. My dad had lost his job, and for a year or so, was home and depressed. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but it didn’t seem fun. Sometimes we’d go to a movie, but he would have to leave. We would have to leave.
He seemed restless, and my mother seemed less and less patient with the situation. He finally found a job, with the drug company Pfizer, as a ‘Purchasing Agent’. I had no idea what that meant, but I was glad he seemed like himself again.
I started not going to school, at first skipping a day here and a day there. I’d made a new friend, Mark, whose father had died recently. We were explorers. We’d leave school and explore Manhattan. We’d spend the day riding the subways. We had student transit passes, so it was free.
Soon Bruce and Andy, two other explorers with passes, joined us on our trips. We’d go to Rockefeller Center, and take the NBC studio tour. One day we went to the exotic 5th borough of NYC, Staten Island. It had recently been connected with Brooklyn by a bridge (the Verrazano, my dad’s favorite bridge, though he didn’t drive), and a bus took us to this alien place with few houses and lots of parks.
We went to Clove Lake and rented row boats. On the bus, we made jokes about how they probably didn’t have telephones, or even TV, on this remote island. I’m sure this endeared us to the other passengers.
By 8th grade, our days off began to involve girls, and drugs. I’d estimate, by this point, I was going to school about half the time. The drugs were mostly pot, supplied by the older sister of one of the girls in our class. One time she introduced us to ‘snappers’, which I tried and didn’t like.
Actually, I didn’t much like the pot either, but I experimented. My grades plummeted. I was having fun.
Back home, which was now on Bay 13th St in the Bath Beach section, my house (everyone called their family’s apartment their ‘house’) became a hangout for teens from my father’s church. He’d been running the church youth group, and when the church decided not to continue it, my parents decided to make our house open to the kids, ostensibly to keep them out of trouble. Soon those kids brought other kids they knew, mostly from well-to-do families in Bay Ridge, and it became a ‘scene’. They’d come over, listen to music, drink, and maybe even smoke pot. They were older than me, usually by 3 or 4 years, and from a different world. I tolerated them. I had no choice; they’d become de-facto residents, coming and going as they pleased, sometimes even sleeping on the couch.
Usually, they were gone by 11 or 12 at night, and my parents, who both worked, were gone by 8 in the morning. I had the run of the place all day.
I had a failing average in 8th grade, and was unceremoniously ‘transferred’ out of JHS, and on to high school. Ironically, I’d taken the test to get into one of the elite NYC high schools, Brooklyn Tech...and passed! I was convinced I was the only student to ever attend Tech without passing 8thgrade, or getting a JHS diploma. My parents never said much about my non-graduation.
My first year at Tech, the 1967-68 school year, was uneventful. My grades were only fair despite my efforts to improve. By 1968, as I started my sophomore year, I found two new passions: playing bass guitar, and the anti-war movement. And so, by 1969, I was ready for anything. After all, I was 15.