Notes of a Footnote – 3 – Dropout
Little Red in Spaldeen City
I always hated school. I hated it from the moment my mother first left me, age four, at the Winfield Nursery on Horatio Street to the day in 1959 when I slipped out through one of the Amsterdam Avenue fire doors of the High School of Commerce, never to return. I still can’t say positively whether I hated school because I wasn’t very good at it, or whether I wasn’t very good at it because I hated it. In any case, I always bitterly resented the invasion of liberty; the being subject to an authority that I had certainly never chosen and seldom found any reason to freely respect. (And I went to “progressive” schools.) I was never mistreated at school, unless it counts as mistreatment to receive one’s knowledge filtered through the personalities and accumulated prejudices of people I, with a few exceptions, didn’t really have much time for. Even in retrospect, trying to keep dumb personal antipathy and intellectual Monday-morning-quarterbacking to a minimum, out of the three dozen or so teachers I had to deal with during my school days, I remember a bare five or six with even vaguely positive feelings, and a similar number with active dislike. The best that the rest got from me was an indifferent tolerance or a sullen, cynical contempt. Of my fellow student/inmates I can’t recall anyone whom I detested on a personal basis. There were a half-dozen or so for whom I recall feeling some warmth; the others, like our teachers, were just there. I expect I survive in their imaginations in much the same light. In view of this it is perhaps ironic that my longest-standing and most continuously close friendship has been with someone I met in high school when we were both sixteen
I remember very little about the Winfield Nursery. In recollection my days there were divided between nap times and non-nap-times. The only individual whom I can differentiate from the other toddlers was a contemporary I continued to know around the neighbourhood throughout my childhood and youth. His name was Danny and he was one of the eleven children of a West Eleventh Street clan whose father came and went from prison with dizzying regularity. The only constants of his periods of freedom seemed to be that he would get himself convicted of another crime, and father another child. Danny, I’ve later been told, eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, climaxing his career with the armed robbery of Ferrara’s Cafe on Kenmare Street. The idea that a West Side Irish petty crook would have the balls to pull a stick-up in this Little Italy holy-of-holies struck the local “men of respect” as so lacking in that virtue that retaliatory measures of the most extreme nature were called for. In the event, Danny hasn’t been seen for many years, and a knowledgeable Greenwich Village bartender of my acquaintance (himself, alas, now gone under the wire) once told me that the best guess was that his mortal remains had been crudely incorporated into New York City’s transport infrastructure
What could with only mild irony be called my formal education proper began when I entered The Little Red Schoolhouse in the autumn of 1947. Little Red, considerably expanded since my day, was then confined to its original home in an old chapel at 197 Bleecker Streets, just east of Sixth Avenue. The school was founded by Elisabeth Irwin; a pioneer progressive educationalist for whom its extension high school is named. Miss (no Ms in her day, although she was, I’ve read later, a happily domesticated lesbian) Irwin began teaching in the New York Public School system circa 1916 and first introduced her child-centred educational theories in 1919 in what is now P.S. 41 on West Eleventh Street. Public funding for her methods was withdrawn in 1931 and, with the aid of supportive parents the new school opened the following year.
In retrospect (and notwithstanding the feeling of being trapped that stayed with me throughout my schooldays) the Little Red of my time – while not, by recent standards, particularly or peculiarly “permissive” – was fairly easy-going in comparison with the public and parochial schools of the period. One of my father’s pious sisters, aghast on being told that I was being sent to so aggressively secular a place as Little Red, asked in shocked tones: “But why aren’t you sending Pat to a Catholic school?” My father, mindful of his own experiences at the hands of the nuns and Jesuits, replied: “Because we like him.”
The year groups at Little Red were called the ‘Sixes’, ’Sevens’ and ‘Eights’ &c., rather than 1st, 2nd and 3rd Grade; we were encouraged to call the teachers by their first names; and a palpable ethos of “creativity” prevailed. Like S.J. Perelman’s children as described in his travel book, The Swiss Family Perelman (which I subsequently abridged as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week), we did Clay and Rhythms relentlessly, and learned to stain tie-racks at least as repugnant as those fashioned by the Perelman kids. Admittedly, we did have some gifted instructors in these activities. Rhythms and music generally, were the responsibility of a strikingly handsome black woman named Charity Bailey, whose personality and methods of teaching music to children were subsequently the centrepiece of a series of pre-Sesame Street television programmes on the PBS Channel 13. Sadly, even someone of her talent could make little headway against my congenital tin ear and a youthful lack of rhythm that would have been notable in a suburban middle-class Englishwoman. Similarly, the art teacher, Pearl Schecter, while indulgent toward my finger paint and watercolour daubs, must have realized early on that in me she was dealing with a complete visual illiterate. I still have an ashtray that I produced, aged nine, during several Clay Periods. The best that can be said for it is that the turquoise glaze is rather pleasing and that it provides a handy place to keep paperclips.
The one area of what may be called artistic endeavour in which I was not a complete cipher was school theatricals. At age ten I was cast in a Little Red holiday extravaganza depicting the Children of Israel’s Exodus. (Reflecting perhaps the influence of the large Jewish element among both its teachers and pupils, Little Red always ran rather more to Old Testament than New in Biblical matters.) My father, having witnessed my turn as the messenger describing the Promised Land to Moses – a classmate got up in a parti-coloured smock and cotton-batting beard – wrote that not only had I convinced him that, “…It was indeed a land of Milk and Honey,” but also reduced him to tears in the process. No doubt our family relationship (and the traditionally lachrymal atmosphere of school play occasions) influenced his judgement somewhat, but I like to remind myself that he was a professional theatre critic at the time, and a pretty severe one at that, as T.S. Eliot, among others, could have attested.
As the child of two hardened theatre fanatics (my mother once managed during a three week visit to London to take in 23 plays) it was not surprising that I showed an adolescent bent for acting. I think I may safely say that the only person who genuinely regretted my departure from Elisabeth Irwin High School after my sophomore year was the school’s drama teacher, Mary Van Dyke. I quickly endeared myself to her when, while still in 7th Grade, I found a chaise longue that had been abandoned near my home on Bethune Street and which was salvaged as the vital piece of décor upon which the girl playing Elizabeth Barrett could languish in that year’s senior play, a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. During the four years I was at E.I. Mary coached me through various small triumphs; notably a sock-o St. Crispin’s Day speech – part of another end-of-term entertainment – and a turn in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons that murdered the people. This performance was made doubly difficult in that during my big scene, where the son confronts his father with the guilty knowledge that he sold faulty aircraft parts during the War, I was forced to not only portray the son’s anger, pain and disillusion, but also to feed the hapless youth who was playing the father, he having dried completely. Mary, I’ve been told, had me definitely earmarked for something big in my year’s senior play, and was, as I’ve said, quite sad, I think, when I departed for the theatrical wasteland of Commerce.
In retrospect I think I would have been a disappointment to her. During my early years at E.I. I not only acted at school but also belonged to a group called The Childrens’ Own Theater. This company was run by a woman named Mary Anne Greene, and was semi-professional in that admission was charged and some of the older members received token payments. At the time I joined the group rehearsed and performed at the Metropolitan Duane Church at Seventh Avenue and Thirteenth Street. Several years earlier I had attended Sunday School for a time at this church with a friend named Billy Colvin who lived on Jane Street. These short-lived observances constitute almost the entirety of my formal church going, and they ended when I was banished for shouting juvenile scatologies down an air-vent during divine service: a practice that I have – metaphorically, at least – kept up ever since. Later The Childrens’ Own Theater moved to the ballroom of a West Forty-fifth Street hotel, after which it languished and died. During my stint with the group its repertoire consisted of dramatized fairy tales on the order of Rumplstilskin and Jack and the Beanstalk. I started by playing bits and worked my way up (mainly through attrition amongst my colleagues) to featured and even leading roles. In the process I discovered that while I could make sense of lines and convincingly convey emotions, I did not have the performer’s temperament. I suffered agonies of stage fright that were in no way compensated for by the consolations of attention, applause and approbation that are supposed to be the actor’s reward. I also came to the conclusion that as well having a negligible charisma quotient, I also had neither the vocal nor the visceral equipment required to take up the sock-and-buskin dodge as a meal ticket.
Outside these artistic pursuits I was, to put it mildly, an indifferent scholar. I did reasonably well in history (or Social Studies as it was called at Little Red and E.I.) and just about got by in English, mainly because I had a vague subjective interest in those subjects. Similarly, the sole reason I ever made progress in arithmetic was my interest in sports statistics. I’m sure I only mastered long division so as to be able to work out baseball and basketball batting and points-per-game averages. I just about managed to deal with elementary algebra (still basically arithmetic) but when we moved on to advanced algebra, geometry, trig and so on, I was left adrift in a leaky coracle of incomprehension. Looking back I can’t discern any correlation between my progress, or lack of progress, in any subject and my opinion of the teachers I had for them. At Little Red and E.I. Social Studies were the province of individual year teachers and two of those who specialized in the subject were people I particularly disliked, and one of whom I came to despise even more in retrospect than I did at age fourteen when he was my 9th Grade class teacher. This man was a Hemingway manqué of the hairy-chested school who had received a field commission to the rank of captain during World War II, coached the varsity soccer team and made much show of his earthy acceptance of budding adolescent sexuality. He subsequently won $43,000 dollars (perfectly honestly, I’m sure) on one of the crooked network television quiz shows of the period and, I’m told, wound up as headmaster of a posh New England prep school. In true Holden Caulfield fashion I thought then and still think that he was a phoney of the first water. A real phoney to be sure, in that I’m convinced he really believed all the preposterous junk he foisted on us, but a fraud none the less. As has often been the case, I was confirmed in this opinion many years later by my father when he told me about a parents’ meeting he had attended during my year under this character. In the course of the evening our teacher read out as an example of the very best work being done by our year an essay by one of my classmates on “The Blood Symbolism in Macbeth.” The paper absolutely infuriated my father who in the following discussion, to the intense indignation of both the teacher and my classmate’s mother, savagely dissected both its arguments and style, and ended by giving his opinion that its author (a girl, by the way, on whom I had a mild crush at one time) could look forward to a glowing future as a Madison Avenue copywriter – as scathing a criticism as could be made by some one of my father’s literary tastes and temper.
One teacher about whom I have real regrets was an Anglo-Scottish woman named Letty Grierson who was a specialist English teacher during my time at Elisabeth Irwin. She was extremely able in every area of her subject, and had it not been for my own idleness and lack of application I might have learned a great deal from her, particularly in regard to the formal and technical aspects of language use, that I later had to teach myself through the laborious trial-and-error apprenticeship that I continuously serve as a jobbing writer. One of Letty’s asides, that I recall and sometimes repeat, was her observation that the Readers’ Digest could usefully have abridged one of Hemingway’s novels down to the word Bang!
Another E.I. teacher whom I recall with some respect if not an overabundance of affection was a woman named Blanche Schindlemann, who was my 10th Grade teacher and a specialist in science and mathematics. She was small, sardonic, walked with a pronounced limp and, like Letty Grierson, knew her onions. Unfortunately her onions were precisely what I was least interested in and had the least aptitude for. The one frog I’ve ever dissected was cut up under her direction, and she once denounced me in class after having seen me smoking in the street on the way to school. I found both experiences equally uncomfortable but I never thought of Blanche as anything but a highly competent and ruthlessly honest woman.
Of my teachers at Little Red I remember most only by impression and foible. Mabel Hawkins taught the ‘Nines’ and was just as fair and efficient as her eminently school-teacher-ish name would suggest. Louis Sarlin taught the ‘Elevens’ (the last year at Little Red) and his conceit was that if any former pupil of his, however old, walked back into his classroom he would recognize him or her and call them by name. Leo Shapiro was Shop Teacher, and from him I learned various hand-working techniques that I use to this day. He and our Physical Education teacher, Will Stott, were partners in a summer camp called Bass Lake Farm near Pulaski in up-state New York where I spent several seasons. Will was reported to have had a try-out with the New York Yankees; and I remember witnessing during playground periods his budding courtship with a young student-teacher named Martha, the couple subsequently marrying. The rest are a blur, lost in a montage of jeans, sneakers, mittens on elastic, term projects based on various ethnic groups, indoor and outdoor traffic patrolling, Chuckles, Clark bars and similar tooth decay bought from the kiosk that used to stand on the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, and games played on the school’s fenced-in roof, in the little playground on Sixth between West Third Street and Minetta Lane, and in the big playground on Houston Street between Sixth Avenue and MacDougal Street.
Apart from those already mentioned, from my years at E.I., among the handful of teachers I particularly remember were my 7th Grade teacher, Edna Conrad: an Eleanor Roosevelt-ish woman of (to me) mature years who was the first person to notice that I was near-sighted. Her idea that glasses would improve the quality of my schoolwork proved sanguine and she joined the ranks of those voicing the universal lament that: “Pat is so bright. If only he’d apply himself…” I also remember the E.I. Gym Teacher, Barney Boston, who introduced me to basketball, the game among all those I played at which I was probably best. Barney claimed to have invented the one-hand set shot – a development generally credited to Hank Lusetti – and, in keeping with then-prevailing ethos, he sold us basketball as a non-contact sport. I was grateful to him for teaching me some basic fundamentals but I learned more about the real game of basketball in a month on the playground court at the Moricini Boys’ Club on Sullivan Street than I did in four years under Barney’s tutelage.
As at Little Red we did pretty well at E.I. in the way of music teachers. The man in charge when I arrived was Robert De Cormier, who left in 1956 to become Harry Belafonte’s musical director. He was followed by Earl Robinson, composer of “The House I Live In”, “Joe Hill” and many orchestral and choral works much admired in progressive circles of the period. I’m sorry to say that I gained very little from my exposure to these talented people, but I was getting seriously into doo wop by this time, which didn’t figure largely in the school’s musical curriculum. I remember vividly Bob De Cormier’s pained expression as he listened to four of my classmates rendering “Sha Boom” in the manner of The Crewcuts. Both the material and the wonky harmonies would have got right in amongst his musical sensibilities.
The last figure from Elisabeth Irwin to stay in my mind was Randolph “Rank” Smith, the school’s principal. I remember him as a tall, rather remote figure with a dignified stoop. He subsequently retired to New England and became a successful commercial cheese-maker.
The students at Little Red and E.I. during my time were predominantly the children of professional and business people with cultural interests and generally left-liberal sympathies. These were private schools, although I believe the fees were not overly onerous. Also, as a matter of principle and in the interests of maintaining a semblance of social and racial balance, some student fees were reduced or waived altogether. The ethnic make-up ran to about 40-to-50% Jewish and the rest mixed. Each year had at least two or three black children out of classes of about 30 pupils. One of my classmates, Stan Thomas, was the son of a Harlem policeman. He was a prodigiously talented athlete who left E.I. after 8th Grade and went on to Horace Mann in Riverdale where he was a three-letterman and an All-City running back. He also spent one summer at Bass Lake Farm and became the focus of an ugly incident when a bunch of us campers were taken to a local county fair of sorts where some of the upstate yokels became very agitated by the sight of Stan walking around holding hands with his white girl friend.
A number of kids (me sometimes included) had parents who were active and more or less well known in artistic and what would now be called ‘media’ circles. Two of my classmates at Little Red were John Paul “Jeep” Hammond III, son of the pioneer jazz promoter and Columbia Record executive John Hammond, and Jeremy Steig, son of the New Yorker cartoonist, William Steig. Jeep lived just around the corner from Little Red, on MacDougal Street, in one of the houses between Bleecker and Houston Streets that make up MacDougal Gardens, and consequently his house was very popular as an after-school resort. I distinctly remember that it was in Jeep’s house that I watched Carl Erskine strike out fourteen Yankees in the third game of the 1953 World Series, and also saw another classmate, Mike Locker, break down in tears when the Dodgers lost the sixth game – a 4-3 heartbreaker – and the Series. Jeep’s parents were divorced by this time and I can still picture his mother, a sister of Benny Goodman, who we all thought very beautiful. Jeep left Little Red after finishing the ‘Elevens’ and went (I think) to Collegiate. In later years I often encountered him around the Greenwich Village folk clubs where he was developing his career as a blues musician. I last saw him some years ago at the Cambridge Folk Festival where he was performing. Every time I met him while walking around the Festival site he would look at me in disbelief, unable to really get his head around the idea of seeing an elementary school classmate 30-odd years later on, and in England of all places. Jemmy Steig lived on Charles Street and he and I had a joint collection of Classics Illustrated comic books that was complete through Number 128. When Jemmy left Little Red to go Music & Art High School we were forced to liquidate the collection. We sold it to a man who dealt in such things from a store (a kind of juvenile Old Curiosity Shop) on Bleecker Street just south of Seventh Avenue, a site latterly occupied by a swankish Italian Restaurant. We got twelve dollars: about a 1,000th, I estimate, of the collection’s present market value. I sustained a similar loss with no profit whatsoever when my mother – while I was away one summer – threw out the shoe box in which I kept my collection of baseball cards, including the 1952 Bowman set complete with the exception of two numbers. Jemmy also became a professional musician, playing jazz flute with Bill Evans and later leading an archetypically eclectic ‘60s rock band called Jeremy & the Satyrs.
Other notables of my time at Little Red and E.I. included Robert De Niro who was in the class below mine for a couple of years and the television and film actor Jennifer Warren who was in the class above mine. Somewhat older – they were seniors when I was in 7th grade – were Mary Travers, later of the folk trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Eric Weisberg who became a virtuoso string player prominently featured on the recording “Dueling Banjos”, used on the soundtrack of the film Deliverance. In the years after we’d both left E.I. I used to bump into De Niro fairly often around the Village and, more frequently, when some of my South Village friends and I would go over to visit the East Side guys around the Mulberry and Hester Street area. He hung out over there and was known as Bobby The Indian. Of course, in Italian neighbourhoods to have no nickname was to have no caste, and Bobby, I was then told, apparently got his for maintaining a stone-face and a character of taciturnity. I’ve subsequently been told that the name originated from times when Bobby and another boy would go Trick-or-Treating at Halloween dressed as Indians. The reputation for not saying much was a change from our mutual schooldays when I remember Bobby as being a very mouthy kid indeed. I also recollect that, as a thirteen-or fourteen year-old, he was a terrible basketball player who made up in dirty play what he lacked in skill. Still, despite his penchant for tackling you, football-fashion, from behind when you were going in for a breakaway lay-up, I always got on pretty well with Bobby. And even in those days I was aware that he and I had in common the fact that, somewhat to the puzzlement of our artistic, cultivated, essentially middle-class parents, we had both chosen to immerse ourselves socially in a working-class, “neighborhood guy”, Mean Streets milieu that was not entirely natural to either of us, and into which we certainly hadn’t been born and bred.
Also in the class below mine during my entire time at Elisabeth Irwin was someone whose later notoriety remains a complete enigma to me. Kathy Boudin’s family lived in those days on St. Luke’s Place and she was distinguished among her peers by the fact that she was, like Stan Thomas, a superb athlete. I had been living in Ireland for several years when the spectacular and lethal explosion occurred at 18 West Eleventh Street, and Kathy’s Weatherman activities made her into a fugitive from the U.S. Government. In my circles we were all deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam and we all change but to this day I can make no connection between the neophyte dynamitard and armed revolutionary who is presently serving a 35 year prison sentence, and the amiable and downright girl who played demon third base and was among the best women basketball players in the city.
Kathy’s father, Louis Boudin, was a noted civil liberties lawyer, and two of her classmates, also with well-known fathers, were Joanie Bernstein and Jane Miller. Joanie’s father was Walter Bernstein, a screenwriter notoriously blacklisted during the HUAC/McCarthy witch-hunt days: a period he recalled in his script for the film The Front that starred Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, who had himself been a victim of the blacklists. Jane Miller was the daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller’s first marriage. Her time at E.I. coincided with her father’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe. While I did not know Jane more than casually, I gathered that, as one might have expected, she suffered considerably from the effects that her father’s highly public romance with Monroe had on her and her mother.
Aside from Jeep Hammond, Jemmy Steig and another friend, Johnny Ginnis, whose father wrote scripts for several television shows including Naked City, notability among the parents of my own classmates was not quite so gaudy in show business or gossip column terms; although several made marks in their spheres. One of my best friends at Elisabeth Irwin was a serious-minded, slightly gawky (that is to say, gawkier than the rest of us, who were gawky enough, lord knows) youth named Billy Mellish. His father, the Reverend John Howard Mellish, came from a long line of Episcopalian clergymen and was Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights until, in another example of the insane paranoia of those days, he was controversially removed by his own vestry as a result of his advocacy of various liberal and civil rights causes. I always liked Billy and equally admired his mother’s cooking and envied his unimpeded access to the gym in the Church Hall. My idea of heaven at that time was to have what amounted to a private basketball court. Billy’s brother, Johnny, two years older than we were, was a real star of the school. A brilliant student, a varsity basketball player and president of the Student Council, Johnny eventually sailed through Harvard and medical school and became a doctor. Billy’s academic career was almost as distinguished but (my mother reported Mrs. Mellish as telling her) he had to work twice as hard as his brother to achieve it. The last I heard of Billy he was living in Liverpool but I’ve had no contact with him, on either side of the Atlantic, since our schooldays.
Another close chum, and undoubtedly the most academically gifted of all my school contemporaries was David Balamuth. David, more than anyone I ever knew, managed the trick of achieving spectacular academic success while never being anything but the most regular of regular guys. Although a trier, he was never much of an athlete (he’d had polio as a young child), but however much time David devoted to his studies it never seemed to cut into his social life or other extra-curricular activities. He also left E.I. after 8th Grade and entered Bronx Science High School. In his four years there he carried a 99.2 grade average (his English teacher would not, as a matter of principle, give anyone a 100% grade). He subsequently took degrees at Harvard, Columbia and – I was once told – M.I.T. becoming a nuclear physicist. Through our mid-teens David and I continued to move in the same social circles despite going to different high schools, but it must be over 50 years since we met and over 30 since I last heard of him. That was during a visit to New York when an old girl friend of his told me that he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. According to Google he’s still there as an Associate Dean and I hope he’s well and happy as, from the age of six on, we had a lot of laughs together.
Two others among the handful of school friends whom I recall warmly were Timmy Hecht and Johnny Friedland. Tim’s father, Ladislav Hecht, originally from Czechoslovakia, had been a leading tournament tennis player and in the days when Tim and I were at school he still played in international seniors’ events. Tim, like Billy Mellish, was both sweet natured and (despite being quite short) a pretty good basketball player. He was also a ball boy at Forest Hills. Johnny Friedland’s father was a very successful garment manufacturer and his family lived at 29 Washington Square West. Johnny, like me, often skated on very thin ice academically speaking, but – as our 9th Grade teacher would point out in his faux-frank, “I-know-what-you-kids-are-up-to” way – he generally managed to get by on his charm and good looks. As someone who has tried with varying success to make irresponsibility and Peter Pan-ism a way of life, I was reassured when I last bumped into Johnny. It was on another visit to New York, outside his apartment building on Seventh Avenue and Fourteenth Street. Although older, naturally, he was still as casually natty as I had always remembered him, and when I asked what he was doing these days I expected the usual thing I get from or about most of my old E.I. classmates: solid and useful careers in some worthy and/or academic field. I was delighted when he told me he made most of his living as a professional horse race gambler. Well, I thought, Little Red and E.I. – those bastions of child-centred education, high-minded progressivism and serious achievement – had managed to produce at least two louche-life low-flyers after all. And members, moreover, of a generation who, strictly speaking, were too young to be beatniks and too old to be proper hippies.
In June 1958, at the end of my sophomore year, my mother was told that that if I wished to return to Elisabeth Irwin I would have to retake French in Summer School. I had just turned sixteen, was beginning to lead a serious street life and was looking forward to the first summer in ten years that I would get to spend at home in the city, and I was not about to waste it frowsting through Summer School French. In consequence, the following September I joined the 2,500-odd boys and girls who made up what could be loosely termed the student body of New York’s High School of Commerce.
Like the Polo Grounds and Gilhooley’s Bar & Grill, Commerce no longer exists. When I went there it was housed in two connected buildings; one facing Sixty-sixth Street and the other Sixty-fifth Street, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues, just north of what is now Lincoln Center, premises presently occupied [I believe] by the Julliard School of Music. In fact, the ground breaking for Lincoln Center took place during my time at Commerce. President Eisenhower was the guest of honour for the ceremony, and among those representing the school was the president of the student General Organization, a stunningly beautiful dark-haired girl named Esther Something-Jewish-that-I-can’t remember-anymore.
The popular composers George Gershwin and Burton Lane, along with Lou Gehrig are numbered among distinguished Old Commercians, and in my time musicians and sportsmen were still being produced. N.Y.U. basketball star and, later, New York Knicks executive Cal Ramsey was at the school only a few years before me; along with Sherman Garnes, bass singer with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. The school’s alumni also included, at random, a number of secretaries, garment district rack-pushers, factory workers and retail people, as well as a sprinkling of pimps and drug dealers. The make up of the school in 1958 was approximately 1,500 black, 500 Hispanic and 500 assorted odds and sods like myself. The academic contrast between Commerce and E.I. was, unsurprisingly, fairly stark. Up to that time 98% of Elisabeth Irwin graduates had gone on to college (and most of them to ‘good’ colleges) and the other 2% included several who had served in World War II. Commerce, on the other hand, saw about 10-15% of its alumni enter college, and most of those went to N.Y.U., C.C.N.Y. and similar local schools. There was a school-within-the-school at Commerce called Lincoln Park catering for the (comparatively) academically advanced. It was confidently expected that I would join Lincoln Park after my first term. The expectation, needless to say, remained unfulfilled. I did even less work at Commerce than I had done at E.I. and, although the expectations were lower, the sporting and social distractions were growing as I moved into my later teens. I was beginning, in fact, to become more and more conscious that school was seriously interfering with my education. To many people Little Red and E.I. were the epitome of ‘progressive’ schooling, and its assumed concomitant of permissiveness. It was at Commerce, however, that one stepped over the couples copulating on the backstairs and pissed into urinals containing empty Southern Comfort bottles and (non-insect) roaches. The teachers, in the main, did their best, but even in those days inner-city high schools were becoming unmanageable. And while Commerce was not by any means in the Blackboard Jungle category, there were appreciable segments of the school population (prototypes of The Coasters’ Charlie Brown) who did, or didn’t do, pretty much what they liked and were beyond effective sanction. Several members of the staff managed by virtue of their experience and/or personal qualities not only to control their pupils but to actually teach them something. Dr. Masters was in his final year before retirement when he taught me history during my first semester at Commerce. He retained and could communicate some enthusiasm for his subject, although his ideas about maintaining classroom order were quaint. If he caught two pupils of the opposite sex whispering across the room he would force them to sit at the same desk. There may have been some adolescents sometime, somewhere, whom this strategy might have embarrassed into decorum but not many among the sexually precocious history ‘scholars’ of 5-3.
Another Commerce teacher who sticks in my memory was a Mrs. Shroeder[?] who taught Civics and who appears to me in retrospect to have been a shining example of the earnest, able, liberal-minded, predominantly Jewish, men and (especially) women whose hard-tried idealism and immigrant stock aspirations for their students kept the New York City public school system ticking over for so many years. Of the others I can remember the names or faces of none except a tic-ish French teacher who, I’m sure, had serious psychiatric problems; the basketball coach, Herman Wolfe; and Miss Service.
By the age of sixteen I had turned into a pretty fair playground basketball player but I wasn’t good enough to make the Commerce varsity team. This was not too bad a knock on me as that Commerce team went to the Final of the 1958-’59 Public School Athletic League Championships at Madison Square Garden and only lost 71-58 to a Boys’ High team that had an average six-inch-per-man height advantage, and a later-legendary forward named Connie Hawkins. The Commerce team was carried by its backcourt duo of Frankie Townsend and Johnny Harris, who between them averaged 50 points a game. However, as they were 5’5” and 5’8” respectively, and the tallest starter was center, Ephraim “Tonto” Cistero at 6’3”, the team couldn’t rebound against opponents with the 6’5” Hawkins, a 6’8” center in Billy Burwell and no starter under 6’1”. Coach Wolfe was an excellent basketball man of the old New York school and consistently produced good teams. The dictum of his that I remember best was, “I don’t care if you miss the basket, but never let me see you miss it the same way twice.”
Although I wasn’t quite good enough for the varsity squad, I did make a personal contribution to the sporting history of Commerce. I was playing three-on-three half-court during one gym period when I dribbled from the corner out to the foul line and, instead of taking my usual turnaround jump-shot, I attempted a kind of sky-hook. The player guarding me – a lad named Washington Green – leaped to block what he thought would be a jump-shot and his elbow smashed through the left lens of my glasses. I wound up in Roosevelt Hospital with eight stitches immediately under the eye, which itself was bruised by flying glass, and (rather like the kid whose head got stuck in the mythical milk can) I subsequently went down in Commerce folklore, still spoken of in warning tones years after I’d left the school as “The Boy Who Nearly Lost His Eye Because He Played Basketball In His glasses Without Wearing A Shield.” I’ve been told by eye-specialists only recently that, over 50 years later, along with an incipient cataract, my left eye still shows scarring from that episode.
When I first saw Alice Service she was an airily attractive, fresh-faced blonde, 23 years old and straight out of teacher training college. We met on what was for both of us our first day at Commerce. Miss Service was Home Room teacher for class 5-3, and also taught English. I can’t say that she offered any blinding insights into Silas Marner or A Tale of Two Cities, but she managed to keep the young bucks and buckesses in line through an effective combination of quick wit and a kind of dewy, vulnerable, winsomeness, and she’d learned the script pretty well. I saw Miss Service once in the Village. I was hanging around outside the playground gates of the Moricini Boys’ Club when she walked past with a young man I took to be her beau. A few kids whistled and passed remarks as the couple went by and I remonstrated with the offenders, saying: “’Ey, be nice! I know the lady. She’s from my school.” There were muttered apologies to the effect that, “’Ey, if we knew the lady knew neighborhood guys we wou’n’ta said nuttin’.” This minor gallantry kept me in Miss Service’s good books for the remainder of the year; something my schoolwork certainly wouldn’t have done.
It was also on that first day at Commerce when the boy at the desk in front of mine turned around and asked, “Haven’t I seen you around the fountain in Washington Square?” He was personable young (in the terminology of the time) Negro; dark chocolate in complexion with a roundish face and intelligent eyes alight with sardonic amusement. I didn’t recognize him but I said it was very likely he had, because I lived in the Village and spent a lot of time around the Washington Square neighbourhood. His name, he told me, was Major Wiley and that he was originally from Charleston, South Carolina, having moved to New York two years earlier. This was the beginning of a friendship that over 50-plus years has seen Major and I travel through a considerable amount of geographic, artistic and spiritual territory together, and which continues to this day.
I had one other particular friend at Commerce and he was another (the only other, in fact,) who had been cast out from the academic paradise of Elisabeth Irwin into the everlasting darkness of public high school. His name was Jeff Albert; he lived on the Upper East Side and his father was a commercial photographer with a studio on Forty-second Street in the block between Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Because he combed his hair in the modified DA style of the prevailing street fashion and wore his shirt collar up, a la Elvis, he was regarded at E.I. as what was then known as “a rock”. He was extremely popular; being not only by a long chalk the handsomest boy in the class, but also cultivating an air of blasé indifference that was irresistible to the girls, and seemed pretty cool to the guys as well. Picture a blonde Fonzie with middle-class grammar. Jeff’s one defect in the eyes of the belles of our class was the fact of his not being Jewish. This added to his immediate glamour but was an insupportable drawback for those with long-range eyes, especially among those girls who were not minded to feud with their parents. Jeff, like me, was not much of a student. While at E.I. he took some remedial tuition from Blanche Schindlemann, but eventually he found himself, again like me, invited to try fresh academic fields. At Commerce he was put straight into Lincoln Park but I don’t think he lasted in it. We saw a good deal of one another, in school and out. In civilian life we moved in social circles where some of the old E.I. crowd, other Village kids who went to similar schools, and some of the more adventurous of the ‘neighborhood guy’ type Villagers overlapped and mingled. After leaving school Jeff worked for a time in the New York office of the talent agency MCA and when I last saw him, circa 1970, he was involved with the Fillmore East music venue. In school we (and Major) tended to do a lot of lunch. The school day at Commerce was divided into eight periods, and of these the third, fourth and fifth periods were staggered into lunchtimes accommodating a third of the student body at a time. During the first semester of my senior year I had an after-school job. It was in a men’s clothing store called Delvie’s, then located on West Fourth Street, and which later moved around the corner into the block of Sixth Avenue between West Fourth and Carmine Streets. (My only previous regular employment had been a part-time/school holiday post as a file clerk in the Western Union Building located then in the area later known as Tribeca. I got this work through my father’s friendship with a man named Joe Keogh who was a senior figure in the Communication Workers Union.) The Delvie’s job (and my later employment as pinboy-cum-relief manager of a bowling alley in Port Washington, Long Island) meant that I was excused my eighth period. On the last day before the school was scheduled to break up for the 1959 Christmas holidays I went to my first two periods, had my usual third period lunch, cut fourth and fifth periods, staying in the cafeteria with friends; and then, not much fancying the idea of Geometry, made an unobtrusive exit through the aforementioned fire-door and left the academic life for good and all. During the six weeks or so following the resumption of the school year I would leave Bethune Street every morning, as if on the way to school, and either go down to a candy store on Prince Street where I hung out occasionally, or up to Forty-second Street where I would spend the day sitting through two or three grind house double features. Considering the heart-, soul- and brain-burn twelve years of school life had caused me, I can’t say my exit from it made much of an impression. The authorities at Commerce didn’t notice that I was gone until the middle of February, by which time I had begun my first full-time job; having been hired as an office-boy/messenger by J.B. Rundle & Co.; a small industrial advertising agency with offices on the fourteenth floor of 401 Broadway.