I wrote this awhile ago, before the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which are infinitely more important than my musings. But I wanted to get the post off my plate.
You’re a New York City boy/You’ll never have a bored day—Pet Shop Boys
Just like you, I’m bored. Nothing much is happening today. I woke up, made coffee for The Spartan Woman and me. We sat at the kitchen table with our laptops eating breakfast and occasionally commenting on what we read. Every now and then we share a video. Okay, I share a video, much to TSW’s annoyance if she’s in the middle of a good crossword puzzle. Eventually, I got on the exercise cycle for about 40 minutes of hard pedaling.
Every now and then I bother someone via text or FaceTime. I do miss a good newsroom, with its cast of characters, so I need to get out there virtually. I was chatting with one friend, and she said I should write about growing up, especially since nothing really is happening while we’re in our state of forced hibernation. Specifically, she thought my high school days were interesting enough to write about.
This is the second post that I’ve started at someone’s prompting. But I’ve been thinking about this one for awhile, and it’s not just Dimitra saying I should do this. It’s also Netflix’s fault/credit. Have you noticed how many of its series take place in high school? “Sex Education” is a hilarious twist on the usual high school standard stuff, with the groups of jocks and freaks. The fascination is international: Check out series in these languages—Danish (“Rita”), Spanish (“Elite”) and Italian (“Baby”). I’m sure there are more.
So of course, given my solipsism, plus the fact that there’s nothing much going on right now [um, wrong!], these shows make me think of my high school days. They weren’t like the TV shows, or, I think, the experiences of normal people. I had the pleasure (I really mean that) of going to a New York City special high school. Not only that, I was there during the early 1970s, a time that now seems both relatively trouble free and dangerously gritty. The schools are Brooklyn Tech, LaGuardia art school, Bronx Science, Hunter, and Stuyvesant. They have entrance tests, which have become a flash point in New York’s ongoing ethnic and racial battles, and they produce graduates who share certain traits. You could probably boil these traits down to a certain kind of smart-alecky attitude, a combination of street smarts and verbal aggression, and a warped sense of humor. These kids aren’t the privileged types of private school. They’re more interesting. Yeah, I’m prejudiced.
I went to Brooklyn Technical High School. The school is in Fort Greene, and Fort Greene in the 1970s was not Spike Lee’s’ joint, or today’s gentrified place of stately brownstone and cool but expensive restaurants (remember “restaurants”?). Some of the neighborhood brownstones back then were nothing more than facades held up by scaffolding, with the rest of the building burned to the ground. There were lots of those. Tech’s building itself (up at the top, and an artist’s image from my yearbook here) is huge, a city block or nearly so and sits a few blocks east of the Dekalb Avenue subway station. The four blocks from the station to the school could occasionally be dangerous, but weren’t too bad. We were strongly discouraged from venturing east of the school.
My entering class was the first to include girls. This was a big deal. A lot of the crusty old teachers were not having it, and Tech brass had to adapt stuff like locker rooms and gyms. EDIT: On the other hand, if you scan the yearbook photos, you’ll notice that there were a lot of black and Hispanic kids. New York City back in then was a more progressive city in a lot of ways, and the special high schools compensated for neighborhoods and ethnic mix, instead of a supposedly impartial entrance test, which, as we know, favors kids from wealthier zones and whose parents can pay for pre-test coaching.
The school’s mission was to train engineers in practical areas. One shop class took place in a big sand pit. The kids in one program worked on prototype planes and rockets. Others designed appliances and cars. The school really failed in training me to do anything useful but how to think; I followed the amorphous “college preparatory” track. I wasn’t really interested in the tech bit; if pushed I probably would’ve followed the industrial design track because I like to draw and design objects and maps. (I also had 3 rigorous years of French, which came real handy during trips to Montréal and Paris; I decoded signs for my father as he drove through Québec on a summer vacation. Being Tech, we were given a French kids’ science textbook, which taught me, among other things, the parts of a car and basic animal anatomy.)
Brooklyn Tech back then did not have the usual social structures of a typical American high school. Sure, there were jocks, but they weren’t a big deal. Nor were there cheerleaders. Maybe it was a reflection of the times; we didn’t, for example, have any proms. It was too uncool. If you have to break the population into groups, maybe you could say geeks vs socially adept kind of intellectual, with a sprinkling of jocks. And, being the ’70s, there was a strong druggie influence. Often, the druggie types would, as in a Venn diagram, overlap more than a little with the intellectuals.
I took a full year to get used to the place. I traveled between boroughs to get there, which was fine. I was thrilled to be part of New York fucking City. I had a couple of friends from the outset. The father of one of them ran a small ad agency. We played hooky one day and took the subway to Midtown and, much to my surprise, dropped in on his father. Dad was not shocked at all, showed us around the place, letting us talk to the artists, and gave us lunch money. Or maybe he took us out—my memory’s a little fuzzy and I was just so happy that I was going to get away with our little trip.
Gotta say, that day was an eye-opener. And going to Tech got more interesting after that. Suffice it to say that I partook of a lot of what that period in history had to offer to teenagers. One summer, my father got me a summer job in a machine shop, and I spent it talking to socialist old machinists while getting their breakfasts and making parts on a lathe for cameras bound for space missions. The shop was in Soho, and I would gobble down a sandwich and go for a walk, checking out the art galleries that were there before the Eurotrash and boring rich took over the place. I put the proceeds of that summer to a Gretsch electric guitar and Fender amp. I was ready….
…which meant playing in pickup bands at parties. One of them was in a Victorian house at the end of Staten Island, the home of a kid who was an illegitimate son of a South American diplomat. The house had secret passageways leading to various party rooms. You’d have to squeeze past people to go from room to room which led to numerous hilarious, sometimes erotic cannabis-fueled encounters. Since I knew kids from all over the city, I spent a lot of time on the subway on weekend nights, traveling from, say Far Rockaway to Greenpoint for a party and then back home. It really was paradise. Sometimes my best friend at the time and I would just walk around talking making stuff up, like teenage boys do. (It usually goes like this: “Would’t it be cool if….?”) I have a vague memory of our fantasizing that the school was a giant space ship and we somehow controlled what went on, like benevolent rules, a combination of Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, and Captain Kirk.
We Techies had a regular group from the Island, and we had our traditions. In the morning, we met for bagels and tea or coffee at this coffee shop a few blocks from the school that had a mirrored back room. Imagine the possibilities, considering our often-altered states. After school, we often met at another place owned by a guy named Tony Rana. He was a hip guy in, I’d guess, his thirties, who didn’t mind a bunch of obnoxious and usually stoned teenagers hanging around. He was a kind of counselor and facilitator and once hosted our holiday party, even contributing some booze. He’d be arrested for that now. (Years later, he opened a deli in my neighborhood and actually recognized me.)
I was a good student and although I didn’t work very hard, I managed to maintain a 90-91 average and stay on the honor roll. It kept my parents happy and mostly unconcerned about my extracurricular activities. Once, though, I was sloppy and left a couple of half-smoked joints in my shirt pocket. My mother found them. “How does it feel to be a statistic?” she asked me, and grounded me for a week or two. She said that for now, she wouldn’t tell my father. The poor woman apparently didn’t know that my dad was watering the pot plant in my room. (He told me that I wasn’t taking proper care of it, and that he couldn’t stand to see a plant mistreated.)
I did have some good times in class, although I confess I don’t remember much of my time there. One lesson I’ll always remember virtually verbatim was this, in what was supposedly a speech class taught by Robert Schreier, a guy who drove his old Mercedes-Benz convertible across the Brooklyn Bridge from the West Village every schoolday. We spent most of the class times dissecting commercials and decoding press releases and politicians’ statements. I guess you could say it really was a class in semiotics. His rap went something like this:
“You do realize why you go through years of school don’t you? It’s to get you used to being bored and to do things you don’t like doing. You boys, you like to play basketball, don’t you? So, in gym class, do they let you just play? Noooooo. You have to line up. Your ex-Marines gym teacher says ‘today you will learn how to dribble.’ Instead of tossing a bunch of balls out and letting you practice, you’re in this line. One, maybe two of you at the front of the line have to practice in front of everyone else. Those who aren’t good at it will be humiliated, both by the teacher and your classmates. Most of you will be bored, having to stand there watching. If you weren’t into. basketball before, many of you will now surely hate it.”
I took his little sermon to heart and told myself that I would figure out how to live without ever being bored. I kinda figured it out (this lockdown period notwithstanding). I tried my best and thank you, Mr. Schreier.