I’m not sure when the thought of college first entered my mind. Mom only had an eighth grade education, and Pop dropped out of high school, finishing years later in night classes. My brother quit City College after three days. As far as I know, my cousin, Marilyn, a few years older than John, was the first Baisley to graduate from an institution of higher learning.
I must have had at least an inkling of an academic future when I first thought about becoming a war correspondent. I suspected that required a journalism degree. That’s why, whenever Kurt and Judy and I played the Game of Life I hoped I’d land on the “journalist” career space, even though it offered the lowest salary of any of the college degrees.
By the time I was in high school and needed to give serious thought to my academic future, journalism was out of the picture. Me, a writer? Fat chance.
I had already written off pharmacy school after I decided I didn’t want more chemistry to train for a job I had been doing for the past three years. One option remained. It was required of every New York City high school student that they apply to one of the colleges in the City University system. The only one that even remotely appealed to me was the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. That’s the place New York cops go to study Law or finish their bachelor’s degree. I figured, I like solving mysteries, Criminal Justice sounds like a way to do that for a career.
I never really wanted such a career. To tell you the truth, I never thought much about the future. I had no long term goal, or any short ones either, until a guy named Cal Beveridge brought a group of singers from Lancaster Pennsylvania to Grace Church.
I think there were seven of them: a girls trio and a boys quartet; probably a pianist too. They sang and then Cal talked about Lancaster School of the Bible (LSB). I honestly don’t know why, but after that Sunday evening service I decided I was going to be an LSB Charger. Thinking back, maybe it was the fact that you didn’t have to take the SAT exam to apply. Yeah, that was probably it.
Regardless of motivation, I applied to LSB. “Everyone majors in Bible at LSB,” said their catalog, so selecting a major was easy; but I still had to pick my minor. These were my choices and the rationale for my ultimate decision:
--Pastoral Ministry—yeah, right. A pastor was the one thing I never wanted to be. Pastors stand in front of people and talk. I’d rather be a cab driver where the people are behind you, out of sight.
--Missions—I was not the missionary type. More preaching, and in another language no less. Nuh uh.
--Music—after eight years playing the clarinet and six on tenor sax, terrified of every solo, I was through with music.
That left the final choice: Christian education. What the heck is Christian education? It seemed like such a general term it could mean anything. The perfect course of study for someone with no plan for his life.
I learned a lot of things in Bible college. Some of them were things the professors taught, like the cosmological, ontological, and teleological “proofs” for the existence of God and the reasons why a literal worldwide flood explains how the earth seems to be older than it actually is. Some were things I eventually had to unlearn in order to live in the real world, like the cosmological, ontological… well, you get the picture.
A lot of what I learned was not taught, at least not outright; it was in the attitudes passed on to me by the fundamentalist worldview of the institution and its faculty.
The hardest part of this education was the understanding that I just didn’t fit in no matter how hard I tried. It began the last day of orientation, at the freshman class picnic.
After playing some volleyball and eating hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad, the evening wound down with some campfire songs and a brief message from an upperclassman. Then we were asked if anyone would like to share a testimony. I was already known on campus as the guy with the autographed yellow door on his blue Ford, the Galaxie with writing on the fenders. To myself I was still the shy skinny kid from East 93rd Street. But for once I decided to speak up, to let my love for God break through my timidity. I stood and gave a brief testimony of how excited I was to be part of LSB and how ready I was to learn more about God’s Word.
I bombed. To the guys I’d already begun to hang out with I was now some kind of goody two-shoes, holier even than they. To the ones who’d already formed the opinion that city kids had no place in a rural Pennsylvania Bible college, I showed myself to be a hypocrite, ready to say anything to mask my true worldly, backslidden self.
I didn’t exactly fit in.
At LSB we had very strict rules concerning social behavior. We had to be in our rooms by 10:30 pm Sunday-Thursday night, 12:00 on Friday, and 11:30 on Saturday. A resident assistant (RA) would go room to room and check. I wasn’t used to curfews. My parents’ policy was, “Let us know where you are and who you’re with, and don’t do anything stupid.” That’s all. The rest was up to me, and they believed I’d make good choices.
Well, a good choice when the best place for breakfast is a 24/7 diner just minutes from campus is to go there late on Friday night. Come on, in my room by midnight? Why? If I didn’t get in trouble after midnight on a Friday in New York, why would trouble be likely in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Amish capital of the world?
So, on Friday nights, I’d dutifully be in my room, tucked in bed when the RA came around. Minutes later I, and any friends I could talk into joining me, would be ordering grilled sticky buns or biscuits and gravy, plus coffee, at the diner. We’d roll back to the dorm around 2:00 a.m., the scent and feel of grease in our pores.
Getting caught was inevitable. It was only a matter of when. I think it may have been in second semester. Which brings me to LSB’s system of punishment for minor crimes.
For the lowest level of offense, such as forgetting to go to supper on a night you were responsible for busing your table, there would be one to three hours of physical labor. How many hours depended on which offense it was—your first, second, or third. My first offense—eating out when I was supposed to be at my table—occurred only a few weeks into the fall semester. The dean’s punishment of choice for this offense was picking up the trash that blew into the chain link fence separating campus from the highway. It was convict labor, but I made the best of it.
Back when my brother was a U.S. Marine stationed in Turkey, he sent me an antique sword. Just because it was so cool, I packed it in Atsama when I left for college. I’m not sure it really belonged in Bible college, but it came in handy during my afternoon of punishment. Rather than bemoaning my lost estate and grudgingly picking up every piece of trash by hand, I made a game of it. I tied one end of a rope to a cardboard box and the other end around my waist. I picked up each piece of trash with the point of the sword and dropped it into the box behind me. Singing as I went, I looked like I was having so much fun the dean came to check on me. I was breaking no rule and collecting as much trash as could be expected, so he let me be. Still, I never received that punishment again.
Staying out late at the diner incurred the second level of retribution, a “campus.” That’s where the offender was confined to their room for a designated number of days, being allowed out only for classes, meals in the dining hall, going to the library, and practice if the campused person was on a sports team. They also weren’t allowed to talk to other students except as part of the classroom experience or to say, “pass the potatoes” at a meal.
Ever the literalist, I took my first campus, a weekend, to the nth degree. I did not leave my room at all except for church on Sunday. Even there I didn’t speak to anyone or even sing the hymns. Prior to my weekend incarceration, I arranged with friends to procure my main meals. I kept some orange juice and milk in the fridge, so a box of donuts worked for breakfast. Other meals, such as hamburgers and pizza were purchased by friends with prewritten instructions accompanied by cash including tips. I did not speak one word the entire weekend. I was proud of my accomplishment.
During my senior year, Sandy and I and another couple got into a car accident involving a drunk driver—not one of us. We ended up getting back to campus around four in the morning. We had called an RA on duty and explained about the wreck and waiting for a ride back to LBC (Lancaster Bible College - the school changed its name when it became an accredited, degree-granting college). That didn’t help. All four of us were campused for an entire week. Once again, I made the best of it.
The other male offender, Russ, and I lived across the hall from each other in a part of the dorm where no doors separated our rooms, a kind of open suite. We were also best friends who loved the same music. It was the perfect recipe for a fun week of punishment.
Russ and I worked together delivering pianos and organs on evenings and weekends. For those seven campused days we worked together, but we never addressed each other directly. Our customers wondered what was going on, and we reveled in explaining the draconian penal system of the local Bible college. But we never spoke in the delivery truck or in the dorm, even though we were alone in both of those places part of the time. Honorable men we were.
We sang a lot, though. No, we didn’t speak to each other in sing-song rhyme; that would be cheating. We just sang to pass the time, and we knew a lot of the same songs. The week passed quickly for us. For the girls, not so much. They didn’t know each other as well as we did.
I got into a lot of trouble at LBC. My total number of days campused set a record that was never broken, to the best of my knowledge. I also had the distinction of being threatened with suspension at least once a year.
One time, the dean of students called me into his office to discuss my failure to conform to the image the college wanted for its students.
“Phil, you’re sneaky and devious, and I don’t like that.”
I couldn’t argue with him. But my grades were decent, and every semester when other students did a required Christian service project, I always did two. I loved doing ministry, especially with kids and senior citizens. I even traveled on behalf of the college as part of a folk duo with my buddy Debbi. We weren’t really an “official” college group, but sometimes a church would want someone to do less “churchy” stuff for a coffee house or a youth event. So Debbi and I would play our eclectic blend of Larry Norman and Jesus rock, traditional gospel songs, folk music, and stuff by James Taylor, Stephen Stills, and other not-exactly-Christian artists.
In spite of all this, in the eyes of the college administration I was still the same pest who made a game of their most intimidating threats. Of course, even the administration had use for my expertise when it suited their purposes.
I suspected the worst one day when in my mailbox I found a “See me” note from the dean of students. “See me” notes were the one thing that intimidated me at LBC. They were always an invitation to something bad. To this day, when the dean of the seminary where I teach puts a note like that in my faculty box, I shudder. Even though the notes are now about grants I’ve received for funding teaching trips to Rwanda, I’m terrified. Old habits cling to us like leeches.
“See me.” That’s all the note said, but it was written on the dean’s personal note paper, so it had to be serious. I walked to his office with my brain sorting out the various things I’d recently done that might have gotten me in trouble, hoping the actual offense would cross my mind in time to manufacture a suitable defense. Too late. I was already there.
The secretary had me sit down for a while until the dean was free. Still, I had no clue why I was there, or which specific ‘why’ it might have been.
“Come in, Phil,” he said.
That was unusual. When I was in trouble I was always “Mr. Baisley.” What was he trying to pull?
I took the seat he offered as he got right to the point.
“I don’t know how widespread the news is, but you may have heard we’ve been experiencing some incidents of racism we cannot tolerate.”
I immediately stood up to protest.
“Sit down, Phil. I know it’s not you. You may be a lot of things, but racist isn’t one of them. Fact is, it’s those other qualities we need right now.”
“Phil,” he said in a voice too much like Richard Nixon’s, “Someone has been entering Ron Jackson’s room and damaging his stuff. They even tore up his Bible. No one has seen any of this happen, but it’s got Ron scared. We need someone, uh, sneaky, to keep an eye on things without any students knowing. I don’t care how you do it, just help me get to the bottom of this.”
Wow! This could be fun. It could also be weird. I’d be spying on Ron as well as his room. I’d have to know his comings and goings because when he wasn’t around I’d have to be there. Every incident occurred when he was in class or at the library or in town. I determined that when the mysterious Bible-ripper came back, I’d catch him in the act.
Let me tell you, detective work is boring. I spent hours over the next few weeks watching Ron’s movements and then breaking into his room and hiding in his closet with the door slightly ajar. No one else ever came in, unless they did so between the time I’d leave and the time Ron would return.
After three weeks, I had to report to the dean that I had observed nothing unusual in Ron’s room. No papers destroyed, no Bibles torn, no racial slurs scratched into the walls.
Eventually, the problem just went away. And so did Ron. A rumor surfaced the next semester that Ron had been doing those things to himself. That’s why no one ever got caught. I never quite bought that rumor. During Ron’s one semester at LBC, no one knew him better than I, although we rarely spoke. I knew where he went and with whom, what he did, and what he didn’t do. He never struck me as the type to lie about something so serious. But “blame the victim” worked, and the mystery was successfully solved. Guess we might have had a racism problem after all.
For all their talk about sex being so wrong outside of marriage, their rules against physical contact with the opposite sex, and their talk about God having selected only one mate for you, Bible colleges seem do more to lead students into premarital sex and premature marriage than statistics give them credit for.
I met a girl in the freshman registration line and we were talking marriage after a couple of weeks. We broke up before Spring Break. Sophomore year the same thing. Junior year too. One girl per year with the goal not being fun but being married. Along the way, opportunities to really get to know each other were sacrificed to the chance to make out in a steamy car in a cornfield on Butter Road. When I finally got officially engaged—with a diamond—my senior year, all I could think of was starting a good Christian family. And after knowing Sandy for only nine months, we got married. Children came years later, and divorce years after that.
As Sandy and I talked on the phone during divorce negotiations, we both reached the same conclusion: we should have remained friends instead of getting married. But what choice did we have? We weren’t trying to meet interesting people and get to know them. We were trying to find “the one.” And we were trying in an atmosphere that did everything to separate us while, at the same time, encouraging us to get together for life.
My years at Lancaster Bible College produced a lot of laughs, like putting Bob’s beloved Vespa scooter in the bathtub (Hey! We didn’t turn on the water.); going to a Blood, Sweat & Tears concert with girls who had to wear their jeans rolled up under a skirt to leave campus, removing the skirt in the car to look like real college kids; sneaking to a forbidden Christian rock concert only to see the Christian Education professor sneak into a seat behind us (“I won’t tell if you won’t,” he said.); driving back onto campus after a soccer victory over Penn State-Harrisburg with windows wide open and my car stereo blasting the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Pathétique. I guess most of my LBC memories are related to music or sports or girls. I’ve told people I majored in soccer and women. Maybe that’s why it took me five years to graduate.
I actually finished my course work at LBC in four years, concluding with a 2.85 GPA; not great, but solidly passing. However, it takes more than B- grades to graduate from Bible college. One must conform to the moral standards of fundamentalist ministry. I never quite got there. A couple of weeks before graduation day, I received a letter—not a “see me” note—from the dean informing me that I would not be graduating due to my “bad attitude.” Instead, I would be required to complete a one-year internship at a local church. Upon successful completion of said internship, my ankle bracelet would be removed and I would be set free. Okay, I lied about the last part. Bad attitude.
By this time Mom and Pop had moved to Leola, PA, just down Route 23 from the college. Their pastor agreed to take me on. I began what would turn out to be a wonderful four-year term of service at his church. During that time, Sandy and I created a vibrant children’s ministry in the two-room trailer behind the main building. We helped raise a generation of kids most of whom are still involved in churches today. Bad attitudes get the job done.
Against the advice of friends who said what LBC did was against the law, and I should sue the college, I walked the stage in May 1975 and received my Bachelor of Science in Bible. That oxymoron made my education complete.
I never wanted to sue anybody. I deserved the internship, not as a punishment but as a chance to get the seasoning, the maturation, I had not picked up in college. The 1975 employed, married, child educator was a far cry from the kid who drove onto campus in 1970, car stereo playing Life Is a Carnival by The Band. But life was a carnival back then; often, it still is.
Paul Anka was only twenty-six years old when he wrote the words, “regrets, I’ve had a few; but then again, too few to mention.” How many regrets can a guy in his sixties accumulate? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
In spite of my bubble gum robbery when I was five and my short career in drug dealing and organized crime, I was basically a good kid. I credit my parents for that. Mom and Pop trusted me, and I always tried to live up to that trust.
I never had a curfew when I was a kid. During my youngest years, I would be out playing in the street. When it came time for dinner or bed, Mom would just open the front window and yell, “Philip!” When I got older, the only rule was, “Just call and let us know where you are and who you’re with.” It’s crazy, but I think my first leanings toward being a pastor were because of Mom and Pop’s laissez faire parenting.
I had one of my religious awakenings when I was fifteen. It was on a Wednesday night. I managed to get home from the drug store early enough that summer evening to make it to prayer meeting. Pastor Watt was on his annual August-long vacation, so we had a guest preacher, Capt. Roger Lingle from the U.S. Army Chaplain School in nearby Bay Ridge. He gave a message that inspired no one except me. And when he asked for those who “really meant business” with God to step forward and dedicate their life to Christ I was out of my seat in a flash. My life was never the same after that.
I felt like I’d enlisted for duty in some kind of cosmic army. It wasn’t a “calling” per se, like to be a pastor or a missionary; I just felt like God might be able to use what little talent, giftedness, and spirit I might possess for God’s purposes. Some of those purposes got a little strange, but Mom and Pop always backed me up.
The first time my parents’ latitude was tested was during the ten days of Billy Graham’s 1969 Crusade at Madison Square Garden. Sometime before the Crusade I learned that Billy’s pianist, Tedd Smith, was working with some local Graham supporters to create an after-hours coffee house to reach the younger crowd of evangelicals. I was all over that. I signed up to be an usher at the Crusade and volunteered to work at the coffee house.
After completing the required usher training, sometime before the June Crusade, I went to a loft in a building a block away from the Garden. There I met Tedd Smith and received my training in operating a soda fountain and running a spotlight. Our house band was a group of Jesus Freak musicians calling themselves The Exkursions. One of them, guitarist Mike Johnson, went on to a long career in Christian rock and blues. The coffee house drew a decent crowd every night, and I enjoyed hobnobbing with Christian celebrities like Smith and Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea. I got pretty good at running a follow spot as well, good enough to reprise my lighting career in the boom era of Christian rock—I ran spots for White Heart among others—and later in local theater.
The part where Mom and Pop come in is when I’d come home. The coffee house was open until 11:00 p.m. After that we cleaned up the place, which took at least half an hour, and then I had my fifty-five-minute subway ride back to Canarsie and a fifteen minute walk home from the subway station. Almost half the Crusade nights were school nights. Mom and Pop thought long and hard about me coming home so late and still having to get up at 6:00 for school. But it was June. School was almost over. I guess they figured the Lord’s work could trump school work. Gotta love Mom and Pop.
The first night of the Crusade I made a friend, a guy my age named Jack who lived in Howard Beach, Queens. We took the first part of our subway ride home together that Friday night, and continued to ride together each night for the duration of the event. Our ride together was only two stops. I got off the “A” Train at 14th Street; he continued all the way to Howard Beach. It was great to have someone with whom to walk the two blocks to Penn Station late at night, and to wait for the subway together. The second Friday of the Crusade provided us, and ultimately Mom and Pop, with an adventure in ministry we’ve never forgotten.
As we had for the previous week, Jack and I worked at the coffee house. There were only two nights left of the Crusade, and we were already beginning to miss the excitement as we walked to the subway. When we reached the corner outside Penn Station, we saw a middle-aged Black guy sitting by himself on one of the stone benches, clutching a small brown paper bag. He looked lonely, and we were aggressive young fundamentalist Christians. It was a match made in heaven, or so Jack and I thought.
As soon as we struck up a conversation with the stranger, Jack and I knew that saving the guy’s soul would not be as easy as presenting to him the “plan of salvation” from the Epistle to the Romans. First off, he was mumbling just shy of incoherently. We listened carefully. He seemed to understand that we were religious people, and he clearly said he loved the Bible. That was good. We even got something about his mother. But we were totally clueless when he tried to tell us his favorite scripture passage. He kept repeating “when he was set, when he was set.” When who was set where? We just didn’t get it.
Our mumbly friend grew a little impatient with us and grabbed Jack’s arm. I could tell immediately that Jack’s career as an evangelist was coming to a close.
“When he was set! You know. When he was set. It’s my favorite part.”
Had it been the twenty-first century, I’d have Googled those words, or maybe entered them into a search at BibleGateway.com, but we had no shortcuts back then. It was my memory, a quick skim through the Bible, or nothing.
Where had I heard those words, “when he was set”? Fortunately, my race through the Bible started in the New Testament with the Gospel of Matthew. I found what I was looking for in chapter five, the "Sermon on the Mount”:
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him. . . .
“Is this your favorite passage?”
I read the first of the Beatitudes to him, and our new friend nodded vehemently, grinning from ear to ear.
“My mama used to read that to us!”
I read some more about the blessedness of the “poor in spirit,” the “peacemakers,” and “they that mourn.” The man’s eyes misted over, but the smile remained.
“I’m Maurice,” he said. “Maurice Charles.”
“Do you live around here?” Jack queried.
“I think so.”
Maurice hesitated. He furrowed his brow, concentrating deeply.
“I don’t remember where. Maybe we can find it.”
By this time, Maurice had emitted enough breath for us to realize the cause of his confusion. Alcohol. Demon Rum! Maurice was drunk as the proverbial skunk. The comparison didn’t end there; he needed a shower badly.
We couldn’t provide Maurice with proper washing equipment, so we suggested the next best thing: food.
“Have you eaten anything tonight?”
Our vast experience with television had taught us that nothing helps weaken the effects of liquor like food and coffee. This being Manhattan at 1:00 a.m. we knew there’d be an open coffee shop nearby. There was.
We carefully walked Maurice a block to the coffee shop. We figured a cup of coffee and a cherry danish would get him, and all of us, feeling better. I think it helped, but not his memory.
“I’m sure I live around here. Maybe the next street.”
We walked to the next street west, then north, then south, then another street. Jack’s missionary zeal had run its course.
“I’m sorry, Phil, you’re on your own. Maurice, it was nice to meet you. I’ll be praying for you. Gotta split.”
And he did.
Maurice and I wandered a bit more around Midtown, but his memory of home got worse, not better. It was time to go into full gospel mode.
“Maurice, I can’t let you stay out on the street tonight. If you don’t mind a subway ride to Brooklyn, I’m taking you to my house.”
He didn’t mind. Now it was time to check with my parents.
I thought, rightly, that they were still awake. The call went almost exactly as expected. After explaining why I still wasn’t home at three in the morning, I told them I’d be bringing a guest when I did arrive.
“Yes, he’ll need a place to sleep.”
“Oh, gee! I forgot I have to be at the drugstore at noon. Uh, could you help Maurice get back to Manhattan and maybe find his way home?”
I being me, Mom and Pop were not surprised. Mom and Pop being them, they said they’d take care of it.
Maurice and I got off the subway in Canarsie around 5:00 a.m. The sun was edging into the eastern sky as we walked the seven blocks to my house. He still carried the brown paper bag. I knew what was in it.
“Maurice,” I said, “You’re gonna have to get rid of that bottle now. My parents won’t allow alcohol in the house.”
He looked a little sad, like he was losing a friend, but somewhere on East 94th Street, about two blocks from home, he poured the contents of his prize into the gutter. We walked on, both a little nervous at seeing Mom and Pop.
They had already decided to be up and out of their bedroom when I got home. That way Maurice could sleep in their bed until he woke up, and I’d be able to catch a few Zs before heading to work. Pop said we could discuss the whole situation when I got home that evening.
I walked Maurice upstairs to the bedroom. Mom and Pop had the bed made up with fresh sheets, ready for their guest. They had even placed a set of towels out for him. Maurice was impressed, and also tired; but before he turned in he asked me a question.
“Are you going to sleep with me?”
My answer was a simple, “No. I have a room downstairs, and I have to get up for work in a few hours. You sleep as late as you want. My dad will get you home after you have some breakfast.”
Then I gave him an extra Bible I had and suggested he read more of the Gospels.
For years I wondered about the motivation for Maurice’s’ question. At first I thought he was hitting on me. Then I thought he believed I was hitting on him. Lately I’ve wondered if he expected to be asked for a sexual favor after I extended hospitality to him. Or maybe he was just craving human contact. Maybe it doesn’t matter. He asked an honest question, and I gave an honest answer.
Later that morning I woke up and got ready for work. Mom and Pop planned to drive Maurice into the city, hoping he would know where he lived but willing to drop him off at Penn Station if that was all he knew. They figured he’d survive.
We never really had that talk about what I’d done. They understood why I felt I needed to bring Maurice home, and they knew I’d eventually learn there might be other ways to help people than dragging them to Brooklyn in the middle of the night. Thinking about it now, I wonder what they talked about on that trip home from Manhattan.
A year and a half later I was home from college for a weekend. The phone rang and Mom answered it. Then, to the phone she said,
“He’s here. I’ll get him.”
And to me she said, “It’s for you; some guy named Maurice Charles.”
At first I didn’t recall the name, but I took the phone and said hello. Then I recognized his voice. He said he called because he wanted me to know that he’d gotten his life together. He was working, and he’d quit drinking. He was going to church as often as he could. He thought I might be glad to know that. I was. Before we said goodbye, he said,
“I still have that Bible you gave me. I read it every day.”
I never doubted that Mom and Pop would allow Maurice into their home. It was just what Baisleys did.
Mom and Pop’s trust extended even farther when necessary. During my senior year at Canarsie High, some of my friends did drugs more than the few I sold them. Occasionally they’d do them at parties. I’d always get invited to those parties even though my short-lived drug days were long past. There was a reason for that. Because of my reputation as a basically good kid, and because I was kind of crazy-fun even without chemical additives, I’d be the guy they’d entrust their drug-free girlfriends to. I’d have a great time surrounded by beautiful women, and they’d get high. A win-win if I ever heard one.
One night, however, a friend had some hash he felt guilty about possessing. He knew he’d smoke it if left on his own, so he called me—at midnight.
“Phil, can you meet me on the Parkway near the station? I’ve gotta talk to you. I’ve got some shit I don’t want to use, and I need you to talk me out of it.”
I woke Mom and Pop, telling them my friend was in a little trouble and needed my help. I didn’t know when I’d be home, but if it went past 2:00 I’d give them a call. It went past 2:00. I called. They said to wrap it up soon if I could, but take care of my friend. I don’t know how many or what kinds of drugs that guy took after that. I only know that for one night he stayed clean. I guess that was another kind of hospitality.
Hospitality was something my parents instilled in me at a very early age. We lived within five miles of Kennedy Airport, the biggest airport on the East Coast. Just about every flight to the U.S. from Europe and Africa landed there, which meant that American missionaries returning home for a “furlough” had to pass through there.
Grace was a very “missionary-minded” church. Although we never had a missionary conference, I know we had two to three missionary speakers each year. And we supported at least eight financially. I grew up hearing stories of miraculous healings, victories over demons and witch doctors, and exciting adventures with exotic animals and dangerous humans in far off places.
The adventure reached me from time to time in the middle of the night when Pop, knowing I was always ready for excitement, would wake me up saying things like, “Hey Phil, Missionary X just flew in from the Congo. The mission board called and asked me to pick him up. He’s going to stay with us tonight and tomorrow and then continue home.”
Off we’d go; me in my pajamas, to pick up a friend or, often, a stranger and offer them a bed and some meals. It’s what my family did, no questions asked.
Missionary airport runs, the occasional stray human brought home, and other hospitalities were ingrained in my genes. Eventually they became part of my life with Sandy and our children. While those years are truly another story, one incident is worth repeating in this context.
Between 1978 and 1982 Sandy and I served as local directors for an evangelical children’s ministry called Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). Since it was an international mission organization, we were often at meetings with folks from all over the world. We didn’t know many of our French, South African, Brazilian, or other area directors, personally, but we were still connected by our mission affiliation and shared faith.
One night, when Sandy and I were getting ready for a vacation in Florida, we received a phone call from a stranger.
“You don’t know me, but my dad’s the national director of CEF New Zealand. A friend and I are traveling across the U.S. on holiday, and we’re trying to keep our expenses to a minimum. Would it be possible to stay with you for a day or two? We’re only an hour or so from your town.”
I checked with Sandy. We planned on leaving for Florida early the next morning. We thought about it for a second or two, and then the Baisley in me won out. I removed my hand from the receiver.
“Sure. Come on over. Have you eaten yet? We’ll get some food ready.”
When our guests arrived we ordered a pizza. Then we explained what was going to happen the next morning. Basically it was this: we were going to give them a house key and leave them our home for as long as they needed it.
“We’ll be leaving about 6:00 a.m. Use what you need from the fridge and pantry. There’s a supermarket a few blocks away if you need anything. Just put the key through the mail slot in the front door after you lock the back door for the last time. Have fun!”
And that was it. We left our home, one of our cars, and everything we owned except our suitcases with two strangers whom we would likely never see again. It’s just what Baisleys do.
How did a Canarsie boy wind up at a Bible college in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
You know, we always called each other goodfellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, "You're gonna like this guy.
He's all right. He's a goodfella. He's one of us." You understand? We were goodfellas. (Henry Hill in Goodfellas)
I’ll never forget the first time I watched Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas, starring Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta. The opening scenes sucked the breath right out of me. I gulped and gazed at a past that seemed awfully familiar. For the first time in my life I understood what the overused phrase “there but for the grace of God” meant.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Being the youngest member of the 93rd Street Gang, I had fewer financial resources than my peers. What am I saying? I had no peers. Everyone was older than I. They received allowances; I received none. Some of them had jobs; I didn’t. When other Gang members took their turn at treating for egg creams or ice cream sodas at the corner store, or even Italian ices from Teddy Bear the Ice Cream Man, I hardly ever could join in.
Finally, in junior high, I got my first job: delivering Canarsie’s weekly newspaper, the Courier. The pay was meager—three cents profit per delivery—but I had a route of about sixty that I’d inherited from an older kid at church, so it wasn’t too bad, especially when tips often doubled or tripled my profits. It still wasn’t much, but every so often, with a little help from Mom and Pop, I got to treat the Gang to a cheap confection.
Things changed dramatically when I inherited Billy Walker’s job at a drugstore on Rockaway Parkway. It was owned and operated by a guy named Morrie. About six years earlier, Morrie hired Grace Church kid Tommy Norris as his clerk. Tommy worked there for three years, and then Morrie hired Billy, from the Gang and the Church, to take Tommy’s place. Billy worked there for two years, got a better paying offer from a construction company, and passed the job to me. It was one of the best jobs imaginable for a bright but naive young man.
At first my work consisted mostly of keeping the shelves neat, which was easy because we only had three aisles of non-prescription products. Once or twice a week I unpacked orders from our wholesale suppliers: Towns & James (T & J), from nearby East Flatbush, and another Brooklyn wholesaler whose name I can’t recall. After stocking the shelves I’d toss the empty boxes down the basement steps which were under a steel door built into the sidewalk in front of the store. It was one of those heavy doors you had to brace with a crossbar to keep it from bashing you on the head. Stepping over the crossbar was tricky, but the alternative—a brain injury—would have been worse.
The basement was my quiet place. Every few days I’d go down there, momentarily forgetting my fear of rodents, and methodically break up boxes and stack the cardboard. Every couple of months, the stack would disappear. I never knew where it went or who collected it. That wasn’t part of my job.
We also kept expired prescription drugs on shelves along the basement wall. I suppose Morrie kept records of them, as no doubt required by law, but my job was simply to put the partially full bottles on the shelf and leave them there. Like the cardboard, every once in a while they’d disappear, and I’d fill the space up again. This precipitated my brief foray into drug use and dealing.
We accumulated a lot of expired bottles of barbiturates and amphetamines on those shelves, some only weeks past their expiration date. It seemed like a waste. I knew barbiturates were dangerous, so I avoided them; but what harm could a Dexamyl do? Being on the cross-country team, I figured a little pick-me-up before practice—but never before a meet—might help. It didn’t. I’d slip a Dexie into my mouth with some water just before changing into my running gear, but the effects never seemed to be enough to make me faster, more alert, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I stopped taking them after three or four practices. Still, my teammates and other Canarsie High kids thought they were wonder drugs, so what could I do?
My career as a drug dealer lasted less than a month. First of all, my supply was severely limited. We only had a few bottles of dextroamphetamines in the basement. I wasn’t above selling expired stuff, but there was no way I was going to steal stuff out of the prescription drawers. Also, I didn’t want to take too many out of each bottle because I knew someone somewhere might be keeping a record. Judging by the fact that I was never caught, I may have assumed too much.
Fact is, I didn’t really like being a drug dealer. The money wasn’t great. How much does one charge for expired pharmaceuticals? Probably a lot more than I did. I was the bargain basement of drug dealers. Also, I never felt quite right about what I was doing. I saved every drug dealing dollar I made, maybe fifty or sixty, and eventually put them all in an envelope and gave them to a poor woman to whom I’d often deliver legitimate prescriptions. Like my gambling winnings, I felt guilty keeping them.
Once Morrie learned that I was trustworthy—well, given the previous stories, maybe trustworthy isn't the right word—he gave me two of my most important duties: filling prescriptions and fetching supper.
Getting Morrie’s supper was fun and sometimes profitable. Most of the time my boss packed his supper, which he heated on a hotplate in the back. Microwaves were a few years away. A couple of days a week, however, Morrie sent me for a sandwich. Sometimes he was generous enough to buy me one too. My favorites were the veal parmigiana from Armando’s, with an aroma that could not be held in by aluminum foil and called to me all the way back to the store; and ham salad from a non-Kosher deli. I never gave too much thought to why Morrie, a Jew, would eat ham salad; I just joined him. To this day, when people consider ham salad to be a paté made of chopped ham with bits of pickle floating in it, I cringe. Morrie and I ate a perfect blend of diced ham and mayo on a bed of lettuce. For years, after Easter’s traditional ham dinner, I’d beg Sandy to dice some leftover ham and make that kind of ham salad for me.
Supper with Morrie was awesome. Morrie was a firm believer in adding milk to soda. Root beer, with its inherent smoothness, seemed a natural for milk. Dr. Pepper and milk worked surprisingly well together. I started to draw the line when my boss insisted I add milk to a Coke. Some things just aren’t done! But the boss is the boss, so I tried it. I survived, but I never looked forward to those suppers. Even Armando’s veal parmigiana had trouble overcoming that taste. Nevertheless, Morrie and I bonded over those quiet suppers. I earned more of his trust.
That trust was shown in another part of the supper routine. Morrie generally ate around the time we made our daily bank deposit. He would open the register, count the till, and remove most of it. Then he’d prepare a deposit slip and put the wad of bills with it in a zippered pouch. My instructions were to walk to the bank, make the deposit, and stop by the deli or Armando’s for our meal. Each time I’d carefully tuck the pouch under my shirt and inside my pants so as not to arouse eyes bent on mugging.
One day, upon my return with our supper, and an empty bank pouch, Morrie seemed very quiet. We ate our dinner in silence, and then I settled into my end-of-the-day closing routine. Finally, before we locked the doors and went home, Morrie told me what had happened. While I was gone with the day’s profits, two guys came in and robbed the store. Morrie’s silence was part shock and part wanting to be a calming presence when he told me.
My first reaction was to laugh.
“They robbed the register? How much was in it? Fifty bucks? And here I was carrying hundreds in my pants right down the street.”
My second reaction was to wonder why Morrie hadn’t somehow signaled the fire station across the street. He always said he’d trust the firefighters over the police to help out if there were trouble at the store. But there were no firefighters. That provoked my third reaction. Why were there no cops? Could they have come and gone so quickly? I didn’t think I’d been gone that long. Was Morrie going to give a statement at the 69th Precinct later that night? Why didn’t the cops want to talk to me? I never asked those questions. I only connected the theft and the lack of investigation years later. My naiveté knew no bounds.
After a few months of quality service on my part, and some safe transport of sandwiches, cans of soda, and pouches of cash, I was ready for what would become the most important part of my job: filling prescriptions. This was another time when a more worldly-wise employee might have wondered why he, a high school kid, was filling prescriptions and the guy with the Pharmacy degree was sitting in the back room talking on the phone to some guy named Joey or visiting with regulars like Mooch and Curly, who never bought more than a candy bar but often tossed me a buck. I didn’t wonder, I just learned how to read physicians’ scribbles, count pills, measure powders for emulsions, and make a little extra profit by gently scratching the word “sample” off pills donated to Morrie by his brother, a physician, so we could sell them at full retail.
Filling prescriptions was great. I started teaching myself Pharmacy. I’d read the trade magazines that came monthly to the store. That’s where I learned about the latest wonder drugs and how they’re marketed. One time, we got a prescription for a drug Morrie had never heard of. He was about to call his brother when I said, “I know what that is. It’s manufactured by so-and-so for patients with such-and-such. I read about it in last month’s Journal.” I showed Morrie the article, he called our wholesaler, and within an hour I’d ridden my bike to T & J and back so we could fill the prescription. After that, I gave serious thought to becoming a pharmacist; so much so that when a recruiter from Columbia University School of Pharmacy came to Canarsie High to talk with the two kids who worked at drug stores—me and Mike, who worked at GlenRock Drugs—I was mildly interested. Then I realized I’d have to take more chemistry, which I hated, and decided on Bible college.
The question remains, why was a high school kid doing the work of a degreed pharmacist? You may have guessed already. Morrie had another job. I’m not really sure what Morrie’s other job was. I’ll just describe it and let you put a label on it.
Morrie spent a lot of his time on the telephone. People, all men actually, would come to talk with him while I was sweeping the store, stocking shelves, or filling prescriptions. Then he’d get on the phone and talk about things like “who looks good in the third at Aqueduct?” or how much money to put on the number three horse at Yonkers. It was while working for Morrie that I learned words like “perfecta” and “trifecta,” things I’m sure I would have missed in pharmacy school.
I did, however, get to do a few other things with those guys. By my senior year in high school I had my driver’s license. For some reason, they often needed a driver. I was pretty sure they had cars and wondered why they didn’t drive themselves, but I never mentioned it to Morrie. I’d just take the guys wherever they wanted to go: home from the drugstore, to and from girlfriends’ houses, that kind of stuff.
My favorite driving chore was when one or two of them would ask me to take them to Yonkers Raceway, just north of the city. The “trotters” ran there, the horses that pull their jockeys in those little cart-like seats. The guys liked to bet on, and watch, the trotters run. Since alcohol was heavily involved in these excursions, they needed a designated driver, and that would be me.
We’d drive up to Yonkers, I’d drop them off at the entrance, and whoever owned the Lincoln, Cadillac, or Chrysler would toss me the keys and a fifty and tell me, “Enjoy yourself, kid. Get a nice steak. Come back at 11:30.” I’d skip the steak, get a couple of slices of pizza, and read a book for a couple of hours. It was a great way to pocket about $45 at the end of an evening.
Guys like Morrie’s friends lived all over Canarsie in the sixties. Years later my dad told me that’s why the neighborhood always felt so safe. No petty criminals would mess with the locals. You never knew whose house you might be breaking into and what might happen if you got caught. Personally, I never gave it a thought. I just knew we walked the streets at all hours; there was virtually no crime, except occasionally when a neighbor would wash up on the shore of Jamaica Bay with a bullet in his head.
Maybe I did give it one thought. I had a friend whose dad was a garbage man. Not a city garbage man, but one of those men with a garbage truck that had someone’s name on the side. They called it “private sanitation.” Every year or so, this kid’s dad would go to the Oldsmobile dealer and drive home in a brand new Olds 98, their snazziest vehicle, kind of a middle class Cadillac. I always wondered how he could do that on a garbage man’s salary. But I never asked.
Work at the drugstore, plus my side job as a driver, put me in an exciting new financial position. I was able to buy my own car and also to travel by air to visit Billy Walker at college in Florida and to visit Clair in Buffalo. When the Grace Church youth group took their annual excursion to Rye Beach Playland, I could pay my own way and treat some of the other kids to snacks. I was riding high that last summer before Bible college.
Years later I talked to Pop about my youthful exploits as an amateur pharmacist. He explained some things to me about the neighborhood we called home. I won’t go into details. You can probably guess them if you’ve seen any gangster movies in the past fifty years. Private sanitation was a “Family” business. The funeral homes with their elaborate Italianate sculptures and owners who spent thousands on Christmas displays we kids drooled over, they were “Family” too. We were a “Family” neighborhood; safe, sound, and sometimes deadly.
“Phil,” my dad added, “You know Uncle Tom [Mom’s cousin] married a Gambino, right?”
The first time I watched Goodfellas I gulped. Now you know why.
Hospitality was something we Baisleys learned early and often, as you’ll see in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
I think my favorite band of the mid-60s was the Dave Clark Five. I admired Denis Payton, their tenor sax player. Scott, Sal, and I even tried to duplicate the Dave Clark sound (as well as the Beatles). Scott played guitar, I played sax along with a bass guitar plugged into a tape recorder for an amp, and Sal played drums fashioned from a set of hassock covers. We weren’t quite ready to be featured on Cousin Brucie’s radio show.
In the latter part of the 1960s, AM radio was still king. My favorite station, WABC, played your basic Top 40 hits, which included the Beatles, great but far from the earth-shakers they were a couple of years earlier. Other musical styles forced their way onto the charts, bands like Steppenwolf and the Stones, and folk duo Simon and Garfunkel; but bubble gum music (à la 1910 Fruitgum Company and Ohio Express), essential pop from Tommy James and the Shondells and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; and future Muzak staples like MacArthur Park (Richard Harris), Love Is Blue (Paul Mauriat and his orchestra), and This Guy’s in Love with You (Herb Alpert) dominated the AM airwaves.
Then, one afternoon, Scott came over. His face shone like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai; maybe not literally, but Scott had visibly been in the presence of something holy. He burst through the back door and said,
“Do you have an FM radio?”
“Beats me. Why?”
“WABC has an FM station, and they play stuff nobody plays on AM. It’s like underground stuff. I can’t explain it. You’ve gotta hear it.”
I told Scott that Pop had a little box on top of the hi-fi, and it may have been some kind of radio that hooked into the record player. No one ever used it, but we could check it out.
“Oh my God,” Scott exclaimed, momentarily forgetting the Second Commandment, “Your dad has an FM receiver!”
We turned it on, and switched the hi-fi to “on” without putting a disk on the turntable. And then we listened.
“Oh my God,” I uttered under my breath, momentarily forgetting there even was a Second Commandment.
I was hearing Cream’s White Room for the first time. I might as well have been standing at the Grace Church altar for the first time, waiting for the Spirit to fill me. And filled I was.
For the next two years I planned my day around that FM receiver. I exulted in the protest songs of Joan Baez and Country Joe and the Fish. I laughed at the tongue-in-cheek rock of Frank Zappa and folk of Tom Paxton. And then I heard a style of music that totally, in 1968 vernacular, blew my mind.
A twangy guitar and plunky piano introduced a song about someone who “pulled into Nazareth,” feeling “‘bout half-past dead.” What was that? The vocals were spectacular, but they weren’t quite right. Voices in harmony but not in synch. Instruments sounding like they came from somewhere deep in the woods. I didn't like the sound, but I loved the sound. I wanted more. By this time, I had my own stereo, a portable with speakers you could detach from the turntable and separate from each other by about twelve feet. I’d sit dead center between them and feel the music shift from side to side. I asked Pop to find Music from Big Pink by a band called The Band.
“That’s what I asked,” said Pop with more than a hint of exasperation. This was becoming an Abbott and Costello routine.
“The Band. That’s the name of the group. And the album is Music from Big Pink.”
“I know it’s a stupid name, Pop, but that’s the record’s name. Please get it for me. I’ll pay you back. Oh, if they don’t have it, I’ll just wait. Don’t surprise me with something else. Please.”
Pop arrived home that night with a square, flat package. He said,
“I asked the guy at Sam Goody about Big Pink. He didn’t know what I was talking about. But he checked the catalog, and he came back with this.”
And there it was. No Buggs. No embarrassment. I had my own copy of the Holy Scripture of underground radio.
I have to admit the first few notes of the first song, Tears of Rage, put me off a bit. It was more backwoods-y than I had expected. But by the time I reached their cover of the country classic Long Black Veil, The Band had secured a permanent place as my favorite band. A year later, Scott and I saw them live at the Felt Forum in Manhattan. Tom Rush opened for them in that intimate little space deep within the confines of Madison Square Garden. I know heaven exists because Scott and I spent an evening there.
The following spring, Scott and I made plans to attend a music festival being planned for upstate, something called Woodstock. We could afford the tickets for three days, and we figured we could sleep in the car and buy food on site. What a plan!
Mom said, “Ask Pop.”
Pop said, “No.”
I’m sure the same conversation, with slight Yiddish overtones, took place at Scott’s house. We never got to Woodstock. Four hundred thousand other kids, including a friend or two from P.S.114 days, did get there and scattered around Max Yasgur's farm in lower upstate New York. Of course, if you counted all the people my age who say they were there, the number by now has reached into the millions.
Scott and I made it to a lesser rock event a year later: the New York Pop Festival on Randall's Island. Nobody talks about that one, but it happened. You can Google it. I think even the bands that showed up (and many didn't) now claim they weren’t there that weekend in July 1970.
Some of the same headliners from Woodstock were there. John B. Sebastian, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful, kicked things off. Steppenwolf was there—John Kay wearing the tightest leather pants I'd ever seen—as were Grand Funk Railroad, Jethro Tull, and some others. Van Morrison was slated to be there, but I don't think he showed.
It was supposed to be three days of music, like Woodstock, but in a more secure environment than a pig farm. The festival was held in Downing Stadium, a decrepit concrete arena where semi-pro football teams played and city-wide track meets were held. The stadium sits on Randall's Island, smack dab in the middle of the East River in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge. Instead of 400,000 hippies in a muddy field, we were 25,000 mixed up New York kids on a football field or on the concrete seats.
The New York Pop Festival of 1970, before it was erased from people's memories, somehow acquired the sub-title "ill-fated." Seems some radical groups like the Black Panthers and the Students for a Democratic Society, among others, were promised mic time. They just took it upon themselves to decide when and how much of that time to self-promote. As political groups jockeyed for space on the stage (and in front of those mics), some of the bands did their own fighting. Jimi Hendrix's people almost pushed Jethro Tull's roadies off the stage because Hendrix wanted to follow Steppenwolf the first night. After the concert promoters and security people broke up the fight, Hendrix decided that only he would choose when he would play. (Well, he might've been a bit of a diva, but he was one of the absolute greatest guitarists ever.)
Eventually, by late Friday night, the first night of the festival, everyone had played or preached or fought except The Jimi Hendrix Experience. We knew he was there, but he just wasn't playing. We sat around waiting, sometimes napping, as Friday evolved into Saturday. It was sort of fun. Scott and I sort of slept on the 30-yard line. And I sort of got to see a rather pretty girl's breasts through a semitransparent red blouse. (There's a first time for everything, they say.) Finally, damp and tired, Scott and I moved into the concrete bleachers, still hoping Hendrix would play.
Sometime after 4:00 a.m., while most of us were sleeping, smoking weed, or having sex, Jimi Hendrix took the stage. He played through a set that included Purple Haze, All Along the Watchtower, and Hey Joe. He played a lot longer than the original one-hour time allotment.
None of us cared that it was now almost morning. We were mesmerized by the master guitarist's music and his antics. Creating semi-melodic feedback by playing his Fender Stratocaster directly into the speakers, using his teeth as a pick, striking chords then swinging the Strat round and round his neck while the chords swung round and round the concrete walls of Downing Stadium before flying off into the night.
Then it happened. The notes I'd been dreaming of all night began their ascent into the now graying sky.
At Woodstock, Hendrix had stunned the crowds with his hyper-feedbacked rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. He hadn't played it much since, but we hoped he might play it on Randall's Island. Then again, maybe not. Rumors were spreading that he was tired of the song. But there it was—Ta ta dum dum dum dummmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhwwwwwwwaaaaahhhhhwqwwaaaahhhhwaaaah-CRASH--The Star-Spangled Banner replete with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, all from one left-handed Strat.
Somewhere in the middle of the anthem, the first rays of sunlight peeked over the stadium wall and shone right on Scott and me. We thought we'd gone to heaven. (Who could have known then that in two months to the day that's where Jimi would wind up?) As the sun came up, Hendrix's final power chords were still reverberating through the ancient arena. Nobody moved. Nobody even cheered. Twenty-five thousand people were silenced by the wizardry of Jimi Hendrix in perfect tune with the fireball rising in the east.
It was heaven. It was life.
Why did my jaw drop the first time I watched Goodfellas? Find out in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.
The Beatles changed everything, and they did it by being only slightly different from everything else. Along with covering a lot of earlier rock & roll tunes, like the Isley Brothers’ Twist and Shout and Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, they created their own style of fifties music with songs like I Saw Her Standing There. They sang a show tune on their first American LP--Till There Was You from The Music Man—and then wrote songs like If I Fell and And I Love Her, which could have been in any Broadway musical of the sixties.
Beatles’ vocals could be raw, as heard in their cover of Carl Perkins’ Honey Don’t, but it was their sweet harmonies that, I believe, aided their acceptance by the parents who bought their kids Beatles records. The Fab Four’s early U.S. hits, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, exhibited some of the tight two-part harmonies for which the Everly Brothers were known. In an era where harmony was the stuff of clean cut quartets like the Four Freshmen and the Ames Brothers, and of course duos like the Everlys, it didn’t hurt that Paul and John complemented each other’s vocals so well.
The Beatles didn’t just revolutionize music by subtly altering the norm. They changed cultural perceptions. Their worldview was somewhat reminiscent of the “Beat” culture of the 1950s, but they behaved more like the clean cut kids next door than like the beatnik caricature incarnate in TV’s Maynard G. Krebs. Sure their hair was longish and floppier than most young men’s, but it wasn’t wild or dirty. As a result, John, Paul, George, and Ringo seemed safe.
I didn’t join the Beatles bandwagon in the winter of 1964, like so many of my peers. I was still playing Little Deuce Coupe regularly on Pop’s hi-fi. As “Beatlemania” entered the American vernacular, with the Liverpudlians’ first U.S. tour in January, I was not even a fan, which brings me back to my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson.
Mrs. Wilson was an institution at P.S.114. Judy’s mom studied under her, as did many other moms and dads in the neighborhood. The stories passed down from one generation to the next served either to terrify the new classes, which was generally the case, or make certain students determined to make her life hell. I was one of the latter.
For some reason, maybe my being a “top dog” sixth grader, I would not kowtow to Mrs. Wilson’s demands. I learned from my older friends in the 93rd Street Gang that her first name was Jenny and that she hated the slanderous nickname she’d had for years: Jungle Jenny. From then on I chose to let that slur slip from my lips as often as possible and as close to her earshot as I could safely get without being identified. Word got out that I hated her, even though I felt toward her like I did about most people: since they didn’t care about me, I didn’t care about them.
Shortly after the New Year began, Mrs. Wilson assigned my class to write a satirical essay, something to poke fun at current events. Being in the middle of a Cold War with Russia that threatened to end civilization as we knew it, only a year following the assassination of President Kennedy, and at a time when people were starting to hear about a tiny land somewhere in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, poking fun at current events took a lot of chutzpah for a teacher, even one as venerable as Jungle Jenny. I decided to take her up on it and write a seriously funny essay.
What would I write about? I asked the second funniest man I knew, after Uncle Freddy: Pop. He said we should see what was in the newspapers. We checked the Daily News. There on the front page was a photo of four nicely-suited and tied, albeit mop-haired, young Englishmen getting off a Pan Am jet right down the road at the newly-renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.
“Who are they?” Pop asked.
“It’s that English band, the Beatles.”
Pop stared at the newspaper for a minute, quickly scanned the article, and said, “You should write about them. They look funny.”
And I did. With a little help from… Pop, I composed a two-page essay giving my take on the craziness that was Beatlemania. I exaggerated a bit, which good satire does even in sixth grade.
I was proud of my essay, and I hoped Mrs. Wilson would be too. I waited anxiously for the papers to be graded and returned.
The day she returned our satires, Jungle Jenny called me to her desk.
“I want you to read your paper aloud today. It made me laugh.”
And then she handed me an A+.
Something changed in me that day. I began trying a little harder in class, and I stopped giving Jungle Jenny so much trouble.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Wilson wasn’t in class. Mr. Shore, the assistant principal, came into our class to introduce a sub; and he told us that Mrs. Wilson’s husband had died, and she would be taking some time off. She was gone a week, maybe two. When she returned she called each of the thirty some-odd students in my class up to her desk. When it was my turn, she reached into her bag and brought out an emerald tie tack.
“This belonged to Mr. Wilson. He wore it often. Philip, I know he would want you to wear it too.”
And that made my conversion complete. I thanked Mrs. Wilson two ways. First, by saying the traditional ‘aw shucks’ kind of “Thank you,” and then by never calling her Jungle Jenny again, no matter how near or far away she was.
When I entered seventh grade I became a permanent part of the 93rd Street Gang. I started using profanity for the first time in my life. The desire to keep my old friends from P.S.114 while fitting in with the gang created the conflict within me that I’ve described previously. And my collection of 45s grew, along with a newfound love for the Beatles.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked their music in and of itself, but Aunt Barb’s neighbor, Faith, liked them too; and during my junior high years there was nothing that made a Beatles song more enjoyable than listening to it with Faith in her parents’ living room. We sang a lot of songs together those years. I even became one of the millions of members of the “official” Beatles Fan Club.
My first favorite Beatles song was She Loves You. I was disappointed to find it did not appear on my first Beatles LP, the Capitol Records U.S. release called Meet the Beatles. That album did have I Wanna Hold Your Hand, everyone else’s favorite, but not mine.
Meet the Beatles created the first of a few ripples in the otherwise tight relationship between Pop and me. I’m not sure if his disdain for the Lads had something to do with his being part of a less popular American quartet or whether he just didn’t “dig” the new music of the British Invasion. And I’m even less sure about his motive for a purchase that embarrassed me even more than him.
After days of begging, I finally got Pop to agree to bring a copy of Meet the Beatles home from Manhattan. (I bought 45s at my local music store with money earned delivering the Canarsie Courier. Large purchases like LPs required parental financing.) When he arrived home from work on the long-awaited day, Pop had an odd look on his face. To this day I don’t know if it was mischief or desperation; but he said he couldn’t find the album I wanted, so he got me something “just as good.”
I opened the plain brown wrapper, all the purchase really deserved. I practically gagged. There in all its counterfeit glory was an album called The Beetle Beat by a band called The Buggs. The album featured covers of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, along with other England-inspired songs representative of the “Original Liverpool Sound.” To make the ruse complete, the record claimed to have been “Recorded in England.” I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. I hated my father for that moment. And I was embarrassed to be his son.
Summoning up more grace than the evening warranted, I thanked Pop; but I told him I still wanted Meet the Beatles. A few days later, when no one was around, I played the Buggs’ record. Well, they didn’t sing badly, they just weren’t real. Turns out their sound wasn’t Liverpool either. The album was recorded in the band’s homeland of New Jersey.
Eventually, thanks to Pop’s clearer thinking, and my ability to buy the occasional album with my own money, I obtained a respectable collection of the Fab Four’s American releases. Some of them were even Christmas presents. December 25th 1965 found—wonder of wonders--Rubber Soul under our tree. And I spent my first Christmas as a high schooler back in Aunt Midge’s guest room, with Uncle Paul’s new stereo record player, listening to my copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
That was 1967. My musical world exploded again less than a year later when my friend from up the street, Scott Robins, introduced me to FM radio.
FM, or “underground,” radio changed my life forever. You’ll read more about it in Episode Thirty-three of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.