Even before we got on the plane, I was planning my getaway.
In June 1963, my seventeenth summer, my parents gave me a six-week camping trip in Europe. It was a reward for graduating high school. Not only did I graduate, I was Valedictorian. As impressive as that might sound, it was not. See, I had dropped out of the prestigious New York High School for the Arts after the first half of my senior year. I hated high school, just as I had hated junior high and grade school before that. I excelled only in the subjects that interested me: English; history; and art. As for math and science, I was terrible. I managed passing grades in biology and geometry, but when it came to chemistry and algebra, I foundered. I was just squeaking by in French. Because I had a good ear for music (by now I was playing folk music on my guitar in Washington Square and some of the minor coffeehouses), I mastered the pronunciation, which most of my classmates butchered. But all the many tenses and irregular verbs were more trouble than I wanted to put up with. I was an art major, so I got to do a lot of painting and drawing, and that was fun. But when I looked at the work of my peers, I knew that I would never be able to compete in the art world of New York City.
Besides, what I really wanted to do was write. I’d read the poetry of the Beats (“America…go fuck yourself with your atom bomb”), Arthur Rimbaud, two novels by Nikos Kazantzakis, the obligatory Catcher in the Rye (I thought Holden Caulfield was a dolt), Crime and Punishment (I really dug Raskolnikov), Terry Southern’s Candy and The Magic Christian. The book I took along to read on the trip, Cool City by Nick duMornay, was up next. This was the story of Danny, a precocious Negro juvenile delinquent surviving the mean streets of Harlem. That book had created quite a buzz among the New York junior beatnik crowd.
Although I had access to all the white privilege Danny did not, and although I had not even read the book yet, I identified with that kid. He was an angry young man, and so was I. I was angry at anyone who had power over me. I was angry at the repressive society of America. Even though JFK had been in office for nearly three years now, in many ways it still felt like the ‘50s to me. I was in a hurry to grow up and move on, to escape the shackles of adult authority. So I dropped out of NYHSA after winter recess—to the horror of my parents, who are both teachers. I confess, I got a secret glee out of horrifying my parents, although they had never mistreated me in any way. They had committed no sin other than being normal and sensible and insufferably boring.
I got a minimum wage job at Mark Cross Ltd., makers of luxury gift items: Silver-plated pen and pencil sets; diaries; and address books bound in “fine morocco leather.” Much of their business was mail order. My job was to translate the order blanks people had filled in and cut out from the Mark Cross catalog onto an official Mark Cross order form, which was then passed along to the Order Fulfillment Department. I lasted two weeks. Was this the working world? It was the most tedious two weeks of my life. Even worse than school.
My long-suffering parents found me a private school for underachievers called the Charles Dickens Academy. From the name, I envisioned an Oliver Twistian workhouse, but it wasn’t like that at all. It was a repurposed brownstone on West 73rd Street, right off Central Park West. These were children of the wealthy who couldn’t cut it in regular high school. Compared to them, I was a genius. To my surprise and delight, I found out I had already completed the required amount of math, science, and language to get into most liberal arts colleges, so I only needed to take my easy subjects: English; history; art; and drama (we did a production of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett—I played Estragon).
When they told me I was to be Valedictorian, it only confirmed what I’d already suspected: This school was a fraud, and there was nothing valid about being its Valedictorian. On graduation day, instead of getting all gussied up in a dark blue suit and reciting a bunch of starry-eyed platitudes for my sub-standard classmates, I played hooky. I simply didn’t show up. I saved my parents the embarrassment of being there by telling them my plans ahead of time. They just shrugged and rolled their eyes. From me, they had seen it all; nothing more I could do could shock them. Or so they thought at the time.
I had been accepted by the only college I’d applied to, Chandler, a small enclave tucked away in the wilds of Vermont. What I had read about Chandler seemed to suit me to a tee: no grades, no exams, and you could dream up your own courses. It was somewhere to the left of progressive. So after the summer, I would be heading north, perhaps never to live in my childhood home again. But perhaps I wouldn’t even return from this trip.
We all gathered in the KLM waiting area at Idlewild International Airport. There were twenty-four of us. Our counselor would be meeting us on the other end: Amsterdam, Holland. His name was Art Rosen, an American professor who taught English at the University of Amsterdam. I didn’t know any of the other kids, but as we waited to board our flight, we made small talk while sizing each other up. I mostly checked out the girls. There were a few who bordered on cute and one who, though not beautiful in the usual sense, attracted me enormously. She had straight, sandy-blonde hair, big blue eyes, and freckles. She also had a space between her front teeth that mitigated her otherwise-WASPy perfection. But mostly I liked that she was the least Jewish-looking person there.
See, the trip was sponsored by Camp Maplewood, a summer camp my parents had sent me to for several summers, starting from when I was about thirteen. It was a Jewish camp. Not in a religious way, but ethnically one hundred percent Jewish. Like my parents. Like my younger sister. Try as I might to distance myself from the Tribe, it enveloped me like chronic psoriasis. I refused to acknowledge my Jewishness. At thirteen, they made me get Bar Mitzvah’d, but I had not set foot inside a synagogue since then. That was one of the reasons I was in such a hurry to grow up and break free of my parents’ world. They were not religious at all. In fact, they were agnostics. That whole charade of the Bar Mitzvah was unmitigated hypocrisy. But it goes deeper than that—well, it’s a long story.
In keeping with my parents’ sensible nature, we lived in a middle-class housing development in Manhattan called Stuyvesant Town. It was a project of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to alleviate the post-World War II housing crisis. We moved there in 1950, when I was four years old. We left the home of my paternal grandmother in the Bronx when my mother became pregnant with her second child, my little sister. My Grandma Sarah was my all-time favorite relative. She lavished on me more unreserved love than either of my parents. For some reason, my parents’ capacity to demonstrate love had been stifled somewhere along the way. When I had to leave Grandma Sarah, I was heartbroken—and angry.
Stuyvesant Town was populated by other like-minded middle-class white people. There were no people of color. Roughly half the population was Jewish, and the other half was Catholic, mostly Irish. My parents only socialized with people of their own ilk: Jewish intellectuals, mostly teachers. They were all very sensible and bland. They all belonged to the same Reformed synagogue (code for “I don’t believe in God but just want to hang out with my lonsmen”). They advocated sensible shoes, sensible career choices, sensible social choices. The scope of whom and whom not to associate with was extremely limited. So, my upbringing was quite cloistered. Even the parents of my best friend, Arny Aronoff, were not educated well enough to be included in my parents’ circle.
But once I turned thirteen, I broke loose. I started hanging out with Richie Downs, an inveterate juvenile delinquent with flaming red hair who lived on the far side of First Avenue, the equivalent of the other side of the tracks. Richie and I pulled some hair-raising pranks together. In retrospect, I’m surprised we didn’t get anybody killed. Okay, I’ll tell one:
Richie always used to ride me around on his bike, which was his pride and joy. He was always tinkering with it, adding more gadgets. It was equipped with rearview mirrors, several headlights and taillights, and streamers at each end of the handlebars. He had even rigged a mount for his portable radio. He’d get on first, and then I’d hop onto the top tube sidesaddle and grab the middle of the handlebars with one hand.
The school year was winding down. It was June of 1959, and I was looking forward to going away to a co-ed summer camp (Maplewood). The radio played “Here Comes Summer” by Jerry Keller as Richie and I rode down to the East River one warm, sunny day. On one of the piers, about a dozen garbage trucks were parked in two lines. This was also the pier off which Richie and his buddies would go swimming. There were about six kids from Richie’s neighborhood already in the water. Richie stripped down to his trunks and jumped in. I looked down at the murky brown water. There was no way I was going in there. My stomach turned at the thought of those idiots swimming through that slime. The kids had rigged a thick rope with knots every few feet that served as a ladder for them to climb back onto the pier. Richie climbed out and grabbed a towel he’d brought.
“Jeez, Richie, that’s disgusting,” I said.
“Nah, it’s fine. Ya just have ta keep ya mouth closed.”
Richie eyed the fleet of giant trucks. “I got a idea. Hey, Frankie, Joey, get up here! I got a idea!”
The other guys scrambled up the rope. Richie climbed up on the lead truck―the one closest to the river. He tried the doors, but they were locked. “Anybody know how to get in here?”
I stepped forward. “Lemme see your belt,” I said.
The JDs would sharpen the edges of the buckles on their Garrison belts so they could be used as weapons in a rumble. The buckle on Richie’s was filed so thin that I was able to slip it down into the crack between the window and the door. After some manipulation, I felt it catch on the door lock. I gave it a yank, and the driver’s side door came unlocked. I opened the door and jumped down. All the guys clapped.
“The kid’s got talent,” said Joey Carbone, the biggest, oldest guy there.
It was the first time they had acknowledged my existence.
“Great,” said Richie. He jumped into the driver’s seat and released the emergency brake. He put the truck into neutral. “Everybody push!” he yelled. There were eight of us, seven pushing with all our might and Richie steering. How we got that forty-ton truck to start moving, I’ll never know, but we did, and as it rolled, it gained momentum. When it reached the edge of the pier, Richie jumped out, and the hulking mass of gray steel plummeted into the East River, making the biggest splash I’d ever seen. We all cheered, feeling jubilant and victorious. But our celebration was short-lived. We heard the sirens approaching only moments after the truck hit the water.
The cops closed in from both north and south, blocking off any possible escape by land. All the boys―all except me―jumped into the river, but there was a police boat waiting to fish them out. My mind raced. I ducked under the nearest truck and ran between the two rows, praying the cops hadn’t seen me. One of the trucks had a half-open window on the passenger side. I climbed up, shimmied through the window, and crouched down on the seat.
I poked my head up just for an instant, just long enough to see a cop wheeling Richie’s bike away. The radio was still playing: “There Goes My Baby” by The Drifters. I huddled in the truck until it got dark, then I walked home.
I never saw Richie Downs again, and I never found out what happened to him. School let out a few days later, and I went off to camp. It seemed like every time I turned on the radio that summer, it played “There Goes My Baby,” and it always made me think of Richie and wonder.
In 1959, the urban folk revival was in full swing. I had been taking guitar lessons since I turned thirteen. After learning a few folk songs and practicing in my room for a couple months, I felt confident enough to walk down to Greenwich Village on Sunday afternoons with my guitar in its brown canvas case slung over my shoulder to the Big Hootenanny in Washington Square. Hundreds of young people with guitars, banjos, mandolins, and what-have-yous would gather around the circular fountain near the Arch and form small ensembles. We would jam on all the folk standards that everybody knew: “Tom Dooley,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Silver Dagger,” and so on. Then there was the bluegrass set. Bluegrass was all about instrumental virtuosity. The songs themselves were very simplistic, so I could play the basic guitar accompaniment and sing the words and melody, but some of those banjo and mandolin cats could pick a mile a minute. They were the real stars.
At the same time, I had become an avid jazz fan. I joined the Columbia Records Club and received LPs by Dave Brubeck, Errol Garner, and Miles Davis. From there, I branched out to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. To me, the Negro giants of jazz were the epitome of cool. Although all I could do on guitar was play these simple folk songs, I resolved to become a jazz musician.
By this time, I was in high school. I talked my parents into buying me a used jazz guitar, a big, fat Gibson archtop electric and a small amp. I started taking lessons from an old jazz guitarist named Billy Bauer. He had played in Lenny Tristano’s combo back in the 1940s. Every Saturday, I would take the subway up to West 48th Street, where Billy rented a cheap hotel room in which he would dispense guitar lessons. I was one of a stream of students parading in and out at half-hour intervals. The first thing I learned was scales, the major and the various modes of minor. I learned how to position my left hand on the guitar neck so as to play any scale in any key. I also learned many new chords; major, minor, augmented, diminished. But then he tried to teach me how to read music. Apparently, this was a must if you wanted to play jazz. And that’s where he lost me. Trying to translate those little dots on the staff into actual sounds was simply too hard for me. It was like math or learning to read a new language. My brain simply didn’t work that way. Billy made the mistake of writing out a simple melody for me to play, then playing it for me. As soon as he played it, I played it right back to him, pretending to read the notes. My excellent ear was my undoing. And that’s how I screwed myself out of learning to read music.
Being at the age of having more self-confidence than was warranted, I insinuated myself into the Negro jazz musician crowd at school and soon was schlepping my guitar and amp out to Jimmy Hunter’s house in the all-Negro Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. Amazingly, I—a skinny white kid with an electric guitar and amp—passed unmolested through those streets many times. Jimmy was a big, goofy, good-natured guy with black-rimmed glasses. Not a brilliant conversationalist, but a truly gifted jazz pianist. There was also John Cruz on alto sax (not gifted, but a game trier) and a revolving cast of other horn players, bass players, and drummers. Sometimes I would bring my white drummer friend, Fred. Fred was part of the uptown preppy set I ran with occasionally. They were all children of the rich and famous in Manhattan. Fred’s mother was a glamorous Park Avenue divorcee from North Carolina. As unlikely a jazz hippie as he looked in his blue blazer, school tie, and khaki slacks, Fred was a serious and talented drummer. Besides, he had a car. There’s no way we could’ve gotten to Bed Stuy with electric guitar, amp, and a full set of drums on the subway.
We played a wide array of the best of the modern jazz that was popular at the time; Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and, of course, Miles. Somehow I was able to follow along most of the time, although I can’t say my guitar playing added much to the overall gestalt.
My art skills finally came in handy when I learned to forge the New York State driver’s license. See, in those days a driver’s license consisted of a flimsy green slip of paper that was torn off your driver’s license application. The only thing that made it an official driver’s license was the New York State seal stamped in a box in the upper right corner. You could grab as many application forms as you wanted at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, and eventually I perfected drawing the rubber-stamped seal with a black ballpoint pen. I made fake IDs for all my “jazz hippie” friends (jazz hippie just means someone who’s hip to jazz). We made the rounds of all the New York jazz clubs: The Five Spot; the Half Note; the Blue Note; the Jazz Gallery; Birdland; the Village Gate; and the Village Vanguard. It was usually dark enough where they checked the IDs so that no one ever busted us. At the time, the drinking age in New York was eighteen, so we weren’t conspicuously young. We got to see all the greats live; Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Herbie Mann, Nina Simone, and many others.
But when I dropped out of NYHSA, all this came to an end. Besides, by the time I started at Charles Dickens, I’d decided to become a writer anyway. A writer living in a garret on the Left Bank in Paris.