Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Memoirs From Youth, Part Fourteen: School Trip to D.C.
In the year of 1979, at the age of twelve, I found myself stuck in one of those various "free" schools with which my parents were always experimenting. (The word free here is not a reference to the tuition). This particular one was called an Academy which belied the free-wheeling lack of pedagogy, if not outright incoherence of the actual content of the school. The headmaster was an obscenely obese man with a pungent, acrid body odor, given to a fondness for the therapy and life motivational teaching of one Leo Buscaglia. We called him Principal Bob. I forget his last name.
Principal Bob would wear these Levis bell bottomed denim leisure suits and talk a lot about his parents and how much he loved them, and, well, the importance of sharing your feelings. If you were a kid who didn't "feel" like doing math or didn't "feel" like reading a book, then Principal Bob was a dream of a principal.
Though he drew the line at actually hugging his students in the Buscaglia manner, he loved to talk about love a lot in particular and the expression of the emotions in general, and noted that most of the volunteers for hugging at Buscaglia's seminars were men approaching women for hugs. Yet he reminded us "it was not about that". Then he mentioned that the Phil Donahue Show had Leo Buscaglia as a guest and made an observation that the audience was mostly female and hugged one another much more than they did Leo. At the time I did not understand the point of his observations.
"If you look deep down inside you will find them," they would always say.
"I'm looking. I'm looking," was my usual reply.
One of the academy's ideas was to essentially stick a lot kids from all grades in the same classes or classrooms since the headmaster did not want us to get "hung up about life stages or ages." I had fifteen and sixteen year olds in my class. Then there was me. I think I was the youngest.
We voted for a destination for the annual school bus trip. I insisted that we visit Washington D.C. My real reason for this choice being that I wanted to see the Watergate Hotel where the Watergate scandal occurred and above all to listen those famous Nixon White House Tapes. I also said that I wanted to hear John Birks Dizzy Gillespie sing "Salt Peanuts" with then president Jimmy Carter on the White House Lawn. After my peppy speech, the rest of the student body was stunned into silence and seemed to accept my idea, since any other place desired would have been too far and too expensive to visit anyway like, say, New York or Vegas.
"I am not sure we can accomodate all of your wishes Mitch. I don't know who that man you mentioned is. Dizzy? Is that the man's real name? Is he a rock musician? I do know Jimmy Carter is our president but he is a very busy man and hard to get a hold of. How do you know he is any good as a singer? I mean surely you might want to look at nice and important places like the White House or the Washington monument... but you want to look at..the Watergate Hotel, It's just a boring building. The Lincoln monument is so beautiful, why I'll never forget when my mom took us to first see the..."
"Watergate hotel." I kept repeating as if in a chant.
"Well Mitch D.C. it is. I'll see what we can do."
The school was broke so in order to raise money for a humble greyhound bus tour to D.C from Tampa was to hold a car wash for a week, every day, thus suspending reading, writing and arithmetic for that week. Thus we proceeded into a suburban used car lot with water, buckets and sponges and waited for any Gremlin, Buick, or Pontiac that happened to drive into this lot. I didn't pay much attention to the cars since, as I said earlier, most of the students were older than me and female, and in halter tops and cutoff denims. I really enjoyed that week in the sun, trying to get these folks' cars as clean as possible. I also wondered why you could talk about some feelings out loud and not others and I always seemed to have the sort of feelings nobody else talked about. Feelings, indeed.
Now day after day, up until about Thursday, I had to put up with the other students' musical selections on the 8 Track. After about fifty hours of Foghat, ZZ Top, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, Kiss, ACDC, Foreigner, Queen and heaven knows what else, I had to eventually put my water logged foot down. "Why aren't we playing appropriate music for our car wash?" I pleaded. "you know what I mean! Don't pretend you don't know because they had a movie named just like what we all are doing right now! You mean you haven't seen the movie? You know," I said with a wink.
"No Mitch. No! No disco! Haven't we told you before?" other kids yelled, as if in unison. They had complained before about my predominantly African-American taste in popular music.
"Well business has been slow and the song is about car washes. Maybe Mitch is right," Principal Bob finally said.
Into the stereo went the 8 Track of Rose Royce's Car Wash. I can tell you we were jammed all of Thursday and Friday. And we got a good groove going to our wash too.
Indeed we did so well that we upgraded to an Amtrak train trip!
One memorable event on that train trip, other than the taste of the pancakes that seemed to me so delicious, was that an older girl that I used to have big crush on when I was ten or eleven had decided, inexplicably, to make "sexual" advances on me late at night. She must have been fourteen or fifteen at this time. Now you understand this was just kissing and fondling of course. And it felt very good. But I had other concerns. Not only had I lost interest in her - as a person or potential "friend" - after her rebuff to my initiative two years earlier, but given that we were in public and on a train I felt it was too risky. I felt exposed. I rudely knocked her hand away from my lap and pushed her whole body away from mine when she started to hug and kiss me. I insisted that this was not the time or place.
"It is a private manner among adults. I mean Principal Bob is right in the row behind us. You are doing this now on purpose because you don't really want to be alone with me. Why can't you wait till we are home and our parents are at the Winn Dixie or something?" She got up and left without a word, moving to the another car in the train altogether,
Boy was she mad. The whole rest of the trip, and, come to think of it, decades hence, she has not been the warmest soul. I understand she now has four kids and is an aesthetician in Palm Springs.
Nothing prepared me for the sensual joy of landing in D.C. The very first sensations I experienced were aural. This being D.C. and a largely African-American population, for the first time in my entire life I heard the music I loved most played openly and loudly. It was like a reverse of the natural order of things. Wafting from cars or transistor radios, or record shops I heard simultaneously Earth Wind and Fire, The O'Jays, Sister Sledge, The Ohio Players: that kind of stuff. What joy for me! What kind of magical place was this?
Then it got even better. Not only did I hear all of this great popular music but louder than anything else was something that I thought I would never hear in public. I heard a distinctive tenor saxophone solo, no vocals, not a song but an instrumental. Wait a minute. Was that Dexter Gordon on tenor? Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin? "The Blues Up and Down?" I had that record. I had to immediately find where that record was being played.
Following my ears led me to this record store. I fled towards the sound of Dexter Gordon's tenor as if the sound was the elixir of everlasting life. All thoughts of luggage, my class, our hotel, even the Watergate Hotel and the Nixon tapes were but meaningless inconveniences. Dexter's tenor led me to this tiny record store in the heart of downtown D.C. just two blocks from the station. Behind the counter this middle aged man with an enormous afro asked me, "what can I do for you son?"
"Hello. You are playing Dexter Gordon and Johnny Griffin! Do you like Dexter Gordon too? That's the Blues Up and Down".
"Do I like Dexter Gordon?" He laughed. "Best thing that happened in this country is him coming back to the States. That's very unusual that you recognize that. Well of course we are playing that. This is a jazz store, mainly. My name is Sam and this is my place. I decided to call it Sam's records. This is like a home to me. Maybe someday you can get a place of your own when you get older too."
I kept asking all sorts of questions. Did he personally know any of these musicians?
"Well I'll be happy to tell you that Miles Davis is a family friend. His parents were friends of mine in Illinois. But I'm not that close. Sometimes we do promotional things with musicians. Like Dexter was here last week. I got this record signed by him!"
"When is Miles Davis going to record again?"
"That is a very good question. I think he's getting more health conscious now. He is gonna come back. You'll see. Let me show you something. Look the cover of this record and look at the inside. You ever see a record like that? Now this music is really different. Unusual. The last time he put a horn to his mouth this is what it sounded like. Tell me what you think. Now remember: some people approve, others don't. I'd like to know your opinion." And then he went over and put this record on. "You know," he continued, "I've always said, and I don't care what anybody will tell you but you remember this, that there's good music and bad music not this, that, or the other label of music, electric or natural music etc. You ever hear a wah-wah trumpet before?"
"What's a wah-wah trumpet?"
I had never seen any drawing like this in my life. It captivated me.
The spell of this vivid artwork and the hypnotic music was broken when suddenly the record store was invaded by cops and a screaming Principal Bob. I wondered if I was going to be arrested and felt momentary terror.
"Mitch," Bob yelled, "We've been looking all over this damn city for you. How many times have I told you to stay with the group? You stay with the team! With the group! Over and over! You always like to wander everywhere. You just wander. Not everybody is nice in this world or good you know. I'm going to talk to your mother about this and tell her you don't know how to stay with others and that you are selfish, very selfish. When you took off just now you were telling all of us that you don't love us and don't care about us. Do you realize that? A record store? You have record stores in Tampa! Why do you need to come to a record store? What is so special about a record store?" He stopped and met Sam's eyes in awkward silence.
"It's okay," Sam said, his eyes not leaving mine. "I was just teaching Mitch something about our musical heritage. You can't get much more American than that. That is about as important as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington if you ask me." Sam said.
I don't remember much about the rest of that trip except a bunch of monumental architecture. (Some of this was quite monumental). I never did get to hear those White House tapes after all. The tour guide talked a lot about them but said they were intended for adult ears only. I spent most of the rest of trip looking at Lisa in her halter tops and cut off shorts and wondering what I would do with my life when I got back home. I knew I was in for some harsh punishment by the school, a punishment which included staying at home and writing some report on responsibility towards others, or something like that. I was to be allowed to return to the school only when I was "in touch enough with my feelings" enough to hand in the report.
Yet what I remember most about that whole trip was Sam. The record store, like so many staples and cultural foundations of our collective past and youth, seems to recede now. I do miss it so.