It wasn't until many years later... probably as I researched for these blog entries, that I realized how influential the community and P.S. 6, The Lillie Devereux Blake School was on nurturing the champions of business, politics and the arts. Here are some notable attendees of this educational and cultural oasis:
Phoebe Cates, actress; Chevy Chase, actor; Damon Dash, hip-hop mogul; Peter Cincotti, jazz singer/songwriter; Jose Feliciano, singer/guitarist; William Hurt, actor; Jonathan Katz, actor/comedian; Lenny Kravitz, musician; Lorna Luft, singer, daughter of Judy Garland; Tony Roberts, actor; J.D. Salinger, author; Andrew Stein, Pres. of NYC Council/Manhattan Borough Pres.; Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Mayor of NYC; David L. Wolper, Film Producer; and Peter Yarrow, singer (Peter, Paul & Mary).
As I review this chronological list, (most recent first), I'd like to think that one day; some day, my name will be anchored between those of Jose Feliciano and William Hurt.
I look back on my days at P.S. 6, and I realize that it was to be the most formative educational experience that I would ever have. I wish that our educational systems were more impartial to socioeconomic status as it delves out educatinal nourishment, and that experiments, such as the one that I and twenty or so other young African American and Latino children blossomed in, would have multiplied, exponentially, since my grade school experiences from 1960 - 1962 at P.S. 6.
Take a listen as I dial up my next stop in this journey.
The job of milk monitor bought me some extra status, because many of my peers wanted access to a few extra cookies during the milk break. My entrepreneurial spirit didn't arrive until a few years later, but now I look back at the baseball cards and the 'cookie' franchise as my preverbial "lemonade stands." Just missed opportunities!!
Then, out of the blue, I was asked if I wanted to join the Glee Club... what?? the Glee Club?? I first said, "No", until I found out it was the school choir. I quickly changed my tune, and became a "teacher's" favorite. The teacher, Mrs. Patricia T. was a student favorite, and always made the class interesting and rewarding, along with her equally talented sister, Ms. Mary T. I was singled out, and rewarded with the lead solo to the popular classic, "Yellow Bird," made famous by the Kingston Trio, and Harry Belafonte, and which would be performed during the annual "Spring Festival". It was a marvelous affair, which lasted that evening, well into the 21st hour.
No one seemed to mind that the next morning I missed the first bell by a few minutes. As I arrived, the teachers of the adjacent classes, were alerted of my arrival by the hardy round of applause from my classmates, and came into the room, boasting to my homeroom teacher, who hadn't attended the affair, of how much of a prodigy I was. It was an extreme confidence builder, and I basked in the glow for as long as it lasted. But, alas, back to the grind... we were there to learn, but I imagine the advocates of integration were doing some basking of their own. I followed that up the next year, performing a duet of "Around The World In 80 Days", with a lovely, blue-eyed classmate, whom I'll call "Dee."
Take a listen to this, as I continue on my epic journey :-))
Adjusting to the new environment that P.S. 6 offered was not a difficult one. I guess it depended on how disciplined and driven you were. Looking back, I probably did 'just' enough to get by. It's a difficult pill to swallow, and admit to myself, but I HATED to read... mind you, not that I couldn't... it's just I seldom found much to hold my interest, and make me want to read more.
So the book reports were a compilation of half-read books, magazine articles, and the like. I didn't like comic books, and their super-hero characters. I was too much of a realist... remember this was the early 60's and the images from the turmoil in the South made it's way up the coast to me, by way of the "Nightly News." I think I always had a concern for what might be coming next, but at the age of ten, the tendency was to block out the unimaginable with the affairs of the day.
I was appointed 5th grade milk monitor, and my chores included delivering the little containers of milk and cookies to all the classrooms on my floor. It got me out of class for about a half hour, daily. I didn't mind... no extra credit, nor salary, but I was satisfied with the temporary and relative freedom it bought me.
During our spare time (during lunch breaks and right after the 3:00 bell) we'd assemble to flip baseball cards, or play "Closest to the Wall." It was probably my first exposure to organized gambling... all the boys were doing it... adding to (and sometimes subtracting from) their collection of TOPPS All-Stars. For a mere nickel, you'd get 6 cards and the tastiest piece of bubble gum ever!!... and in 1960 there were All-Stars galore. From Willie Mays (now worth $61.79); to Mickey Mantle (AS-All Star)($158.00); to Stan Musial ($67.49); and a fading Gil Hodges ($12.45); from Whitey Ford ($25.17); and Hank Aaron ($63.33); to Sandy Koufax ($87.00); and Don Drysdale ($21.48); from Roberto Clemente ($106.65); to Carl Yastrzemski ($133.98). I managed to obtain almost the entire 1960 collection, including All-Star and Rookie cards... just to see them tossed years later, mistaken for debris that had accumulated in my room. I've been a Felix Unger-type ever since :-))
My teammates were the "B" brothers, Tony and Syd, two and three years my junior, but we made an unbeatable trio. Unlike the traditional stickball that was played in the streets of the ghettos of America, where the pitcher would bounce the ball to the hitter, who would then stroke it on the roof, we'd pitch our pink 'Spalding' to a catcher and the hitter, like in major league baseball. As I said, we were an unbeatable trio, taking on the likes of young teenagers, and always coming out victorious. Most friends probably thought I would be a baseball player when I grew up, but those were only playground dreams.
Surprise, in the fall of 1959, I'd get home from school, and the living room door, which was parallel to the front door, was unconventionally closed and obstructed. My mother, the forever optimist... the 'Martha Stewart' of the Lincoln Projects, had busily saved her house pennies, and purchased our first, floor-model, color, RCA television and hi-fi console. I saw the vivid colors as I passed the half-ajarred hallway entrance to the living room, where the entire family was waiting, all beaming with pride. Mom believed in "Lay-Away", and the household was better for it. That night we watched Batman for the first time in 'living-color". The old black and white was discarded down the hallway to it's new venue... the boy's room!! It was idle most of the time, as the preference now was to watch tv in color, even if it wasn't what we wanted to watch. Not all shows were being broadcasted in color, though, but the larger 19" screen still gave us the 'in-movie' experience.
For those color-tv watchin' wanna-bees, there used to be this sheet of colored film you could put over your tv screen. It was blue on the top, to emulate the sky, green in the middle to mimick the trees, and brown at the bottom to simulate the ground. Occasionally, if the scene was just right, it was believable... only to come crashing down to earth when the scene changed to someone's face!! Yeah, they actually sold these at the tv stores... very popular, too!!
This was an important time for me because later that Fall, I got to watch some of the World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers... while in my own room. Neither were MY team, so my interest was minimal... probably because my brother, Michael, four years my elder, didn't care for baseball... but the next year, 1960, my New York Yankees would solidify my lifelong 'fan-ship' and I would never be the same again.
Take a listen to this, while I pen the next episode.
As earlier mentioned, the school workload was initially challenging, and as the weeks and months progressed, I found myself adapting... but at ten years old, I was more interested in those inate abilities that seem to come natural to me. They included music, art and sports.
My first love was, and still is singing, and I listened to and mimicked all the popular artists that my ears came in contact with... and my favorite medium was television, with all of it's elaborate stage and musical productions. I loved the standards and musicals, which were very popular in the movies back then. I always felt that I could do a better job than most of the popular stage and screen stars, if given the chance.
I'd particularly love to watch the telethons, and they were mostly staged here in NYC. I wanted to sneak out of the house in the middle of the night, go downtown to the studios, and beg them to let me sing. Two things usually stopped me... my bus pass was only valid during school hours... and I would have to arrange living somewhere else to avoid the whuppin' I knew would be waiting for me. My brother Michael and I were usually well behaved, because my mother would always threatened us with enlistment in the Army if we didn't act right :-))
My love for art was evident, and even reinforced by the telling of the story of when my paternal grandfather took me out for my first walk, on the third day of my existence, and my first day home. When he returned, my mother says when she pryed open my tiny hand, I had in it a bitty stub of a pencil. She claimed that from that day on, I always had a pencil in my hand... writing or drawing. Grandpa claimed that I would make my living with that pencil. Thank goodness for the typewriter, word processor and pc, although I still, from time to time, get writer's cramp.
For as long as I can remember, I loved baseball. In a one-tv, five-children family, I very seldom, if ever, got a chance to watch a 'live' baseball game on television. So, every chance I got, you could find me going around the back of the building to the park, with my baseball, glove, and maybe a stick or a bat. By the time I'd get there, like the 'Pied Piper', I would have two, three, four, or five kids following me, petitioning for a spot in the game.
After going through almost the entire class (undefeated I might add... I'd beaten all the boys), there came my biggest challenge. I was only a little pint-sized character. Here came the biggest, toughest girl in the class. Truly, my Goliath... as big as the teacher. She had no beef with me, only being egged on by others that she couldn't beat me. That was long before I learned of "chivalry". Karen Smith, wherever you are... I'm sorry!! But you didn't mess with me after that, did you?
My brother and I have a friend, a year younger than Michael and three years older than myself. So I'm in the third grade, Myron was in the sixth, and Michael, in Junior High, the seventh. Myron must've had some kind of calcium deficiency, because by high school, he had broken just about every bone in his body (except his neck, thank goodness)!! During this lunch period, Myron and friends were rough-housing in the school yard, and I witnessed it. His friend tossed poor Myron over his back, and he hit that hard asphalt... No, we didn't have those rubber playground mats back then. Needless to say, Myron broke a leg, or a hip, or something. His friend looked at me, and I looked at Myron, knowing he was hurt, and said, "I'm gonna get my boys on you." I didn't have any boys!! I was a half-pint!! But I guess they'd heard about me going through my 3rd grade class, and figured, he was no one to play with!!
Somehow the threat got back to my mother, who made me go and apologize to Myron's friend... three years my senior!! I did, and continued to co-exist, because nobody else messed with me!! But I really digress... I was eluding to the benefits of being prepared scholastically.
In the fourth grade, I was transferred to another neighborhood school, P.S. 197 John B. Russwurm elementary school, on 135th street and Fifth Avenue, which was supposed to challenge me scholastically. It did, but I was still ahead of my class... and I'm convinced, it's not because of some superior intelligence gene... it's just being prepared. So after the fourth, and half of the fifth grade, the District powers-to-be decided to send a few of the "brightest" in the ghetto to "integrate" a lily-white school on 82nd street and Madison Avenue. I would have to take a bus (although city in nature), and I marvelled at how it paralleled what was going on in the south (forced busing to integrate schools). This was 1959-1960, and we'd just voted in a mock presidential election, and the students of John B. Russwurm elementary school had voted overwhelmingly for the Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, over our then Vice President, Richard M. Nixon. Boy, how life imitated... life!!
So, after a very short family discussion, my folks signed the transfer papers... I kissed my friends goodbye, most of whom I would never see again... and was off to another world.
Here's another piece I'd like to offer to you:
Not hangin' out, and playing during school days had it's rewards. It catapaulted me to the top of the class. A place of envy by few in the ghetto. I never tried to rub it in anyone's face... oftimes, I tried to downplay my preparedness, by occasionally giving a wrong answer or two. Usually, you would think the teacher would call on the ones sitting in the corner with their heads down, and most of the time she would. But alas, she knew who she could count on to have the right answer. I don't think she made it to those "ghetto sensitivity" classes in college :-))
After taking a spelling test, she would ask us to switch papers with our neighbor, and we would mark each others test. Somewhere in this blog, you'll see my penmanship... almost like these typewritten words you are reading. Well my classmate, Cynthia, (whose parents were good friends with my parents), with this big, cumbersome handwriting, was marking my test. As I mark her paper, I'm listening to the teacher recite the correct answers, and remembering if those were my answers. I'm expecting to get a 100%, and Cynthia gives me back my paper with a 90%. When I look to see what I got wrong, you could see she had changed two of my answers with her different color pen and awkward handwriting. The teacher made the correction, but I don't think I ever had much to say to Cynthia after that. She legitimately got quite a few wrong, by the way.
From kindergarten to third grade, I attended P.S. 133 on Madison Avenue, between 130th and 131st streets, and in the third grade, I had to battle everyday after-school for the right to have the correct answers. At first I would run home... a short but quick three block dash... I was pretty fast. Then one day, my mother happened to be going to the store and bumped into me running away from the other kids. I was given an ultimatum right there... either "kick some" or take a whipping from her, right there in the streets!! Needless to say, somebody took an ass-wuppin' that day... and it wasn't me!! From that point on, if you challenged me, I was waiting for you at three-o'clock... I wasn't gonna be "punked"... plus, my mother could look right out of her bedroom window, all the way to the school. If I decided that course of action, I knew what I was running into... an ass wuppin'. Sometimes I had to fight my so-called, good friends... peer pressure is something real!! We'd end up being good friends the next day, but they were going down!!
While I think over the next episode, give a listen to this:
My mom was a strict disciplinarian, seeing to it that we (my siblings and myself) spent the maximum amount of time on our studies; so during school weekdays, we'd have to be home, upstairs, right after school... don't tarry!! That would be your 'keester' (your ass!!). Because of this we all became scholastically inclined... hell, all we could do is look at TV for an hour a night... and to bed by nine!! Lights out, and everything!! There was a four-year divide between myself and my older cellmate :-)) Michael.
We'd talk on my level 'cause life was bland and mediocre. We didn't share many interests... nor did we want for much... we had a roof over our heads, food to eat and clean warm clothes... lots of hand-me-downs!! We had a hide-away, pullout bed, and being the youngest one, I had to pull the bed out, and push it back underneath in the morning. I thought Michael was a 'hot-blooded gypsy' in another life, because he would always get up in the middle of the night and open the window... in the dead of winter!! Guess who's bed was always closest to the window?? Yep, I kept a cold!!
One thing we did look forward to was 11:00 pm. We fought to stay awake until then, 'cause around 11:01, he was putting his key in the door. Yep, our dad, Owen Mason. He was still asleep in the mornings when we left for school, and gone by the time we returned. We'd hear that key, and break-ass down this long hallway, and run to him like a returning 'war hero'. What seemed like seconds later, moms was saying, "Alright, y'awll say goodnight and go back to bed." The rest of the night would usually be a blur... until that cold wind would hit my ass :-))
Dad loved to listen to music... his 78-rpm collection. Nat "King" Cole, Harry Belafonte, Sonny Til and the Orioles. I knew them all, word for word. That's where my early appreciation for music came from... we didn't have MTV or YouTube... heck, we had one (1) black and white with a (concurrent) one (1) hour limit... and no remote!! We were the remotes :-))
Have a listen to this, and see if you like it.
What does it take, and how do you know when you've broken in? I've been singing and making music just about all of my days. When I was a young boy, my folks celebrated their wedding anniversary (on January 1) with a gala New Years Eve party. Every year... it was the place to be... except if it was past your bedtime. Well, they let me stay up for a little while to sing my song, collect a few bucks (back in the '50's a few bucks went a LONG way).
Remember, the beginning of one of Eddie Murphy's HBO concerts, they showed a skit of him telling jokes for the grown-ups at a house party. Well, that was me... and I had enough money afterwards to buy some new batteries... 'cause by then, I'd worn out all the Christmas batteries... even the one's in my sister's toys (hope she doesn't read this) :-)) I knew then that I had something?... I didn't know what!! I just started counting the days 'til the next holiday season.
Here... listen to this and tell me what you think: