I’m a romantic. I believe in Grand Gestures to win the hearts of fair maidens. I cry at some point during every play I see. I’ve seen Wicked in London and Chicago and tear up every time Elphaba rises from the trap door to rejoin Fiero.
Unrequited love was my specialty. Harry Chapin wrote the words that fully encompass my early life in the song Paint a Picture of Yourself (Michael).
You’re happiest when you’re chasing clouds
With a halfway broken heart.
It’s easy to maintain a broken heart when you are shy around the opposite sex; heck, when you’re shy around people in general. I could never speak comfortably with the girls in my classes at P.S.114. I was never one to pass little “I like you, do you like me” notes to the cute Italian girl just one seat over. As I got older, I wrote those notes, more sophisticated versions, for my guy friends to pass to their girls. Love poems and the occasional love song flew from my Bic on command, but always for someone else, not me.
There was one girl I never had trouble talking to: Judy Phillips, who lived directly across the street from me in an upstairs apartment. Judy could run like the wind, which I admired. She was smart in every subject and skipped a grade in school, making her only one year older than I, but two grades ahead. And she looked a lot like Mary Tyler Moore, which made her totally unattainable. But she was my friend; next to Kurt, my best friend.
Judy was a hereditary member of the 93rd Street Gang owing to her brother having been a member a few years earlier. All the guys had crushes on her. Eventually, sometime in high school, she became Billy Walker’s girl. High school romances usually don’t last. Friendships do.
I really don’t know how I got to be close friends with the cutest girl in the neighborhood, but I’ll hazard some guesses.
First was the fact that Judy, Kurt, and I lived less than 300 feet from one another. Other gang members lived farther away, some more than two blocks. That’s a continent by Brooklyn standards.
Second, we all went to Grace Church. While it is true that Judy’s best friend, her “BFF” in this century, was Susan who lived right next door, Susan was Catholic. Sometimes you just couldn’t hang out with them. Maybe they were fasting or something. Besides, telephones were for calling best friends. Kitchen tables, living room floors, and back steps were for hanging out with the guys. Judy, Kurt, and I were “the guys.”
I have to admit, I liked best the days when Kurt didn’t show up on the stoop and it was just Judy and me. I wasn’t nervous around her, like I was with other girls. I felt free to talk about the things that really mattered to me because they seemed to matter to her too. Like my stuffed animal collection. They were real to me, and Judy didn’t make fun of me for it, unlike the other gang members.
I did admire Judy, though, long after the crush wore off. She was a reader, and so was I. I remember one day when I was over at her house and she was so excited about a story she had just read about Harry Houdini. It was in some kind of kids’ anthology. She let me borrow the book that night. I’d never borrowed a book before except from the Canarsie Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, so Judy was the first non-librarian to lend me a book. For that I will always love her. But the crush ended long ago.
I almost had a date with Judy once. Not a romantic date; this was in college and any thoughts of romance with Judy were long gone. We just thought it might be fun since, at the time, we were living only 60 miles apart; she in Philadelphia and I in Lancaster.
At the end of each school year, Lancaster Bible College held their Spring Semi-formal. It was like a high school prom (which I never attended, of course) without dancing and with gowns and tuxes not required but almost always worn. My freshman year I was dating no one around the time to be getting a date for the Semi, so I thought it might be fun to visit with an old friend and invited Judy. She readily accepted, also thinking it would be fun to catch up over a fancy country club dinner.
As the event neared, I actually was thinking it might be nice to have a real date with Judy, although I truly expected nothing to come if it but laughs. A few weeks before the big night, Judy called me. I knew something was up. She told me she had liked this guy on her campus, John Ward, for some time and had long hoped he would ask her out. Guess what? He did! John invited Judy to her college’s spring fling, and, of course, she said yes. And, of course, the two events were on the same night.
When we finished our conversation I felt a little sad. I’d lost my date for the Semi. But I felt a lot happier than sad. Why? Because my friend was happy, and that made it all right. Every once in a while I still talk on the phone with Mrs. Judy Ward.
Eventually, I developed another crush, and this led to the worst date and the best reunion ever.
I began playing woodwind instruments in fifth grade when P.S.114 offered group music lessons after school one or two days a week. I thought the bassoon with its rich brown color and deep reedy sound would be perfect for me. Like the new recruit with a background in catering is always assigned to the motor pool, I was assigned to the clarinet.
I took to the clarinet with surprising ease and soon began private woodwind lessons with a teacher who envisioned for me a stellar career as a musician. I was good, but I was so shy that every solo was an exercise in terror.
After two years of clarinet I was ready for a challenge, which came in the form of a tenor saxophone. I picked it up quickly and was soon playing solos in band, orchestra, and jazz ensemble. I didn’t love any of it.
I did, however, love Gail, the first chair flutist in band and orchestra. She was the absolute cutest girl I’d ever seen; maybe, and there are those who might debate this, even cuter than Judy.
Short, like Judy, Gail had what looked to be the softest, silkiest dark brown hair I’d ever seen. I admired it almost daily from behind her in orchestra and band.
I crushed hard on Gail, and, of course, I kept my feelings hidden deep inside me. But there comes a time when even a timid seventh grade boy has to lay his heart on the line. I asked Gail to go on a study date with me to the most romantic place I could think of: the Main Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza.
I’m a reader; always have been. I tested off the charts in Language Arts while I was still in fourth grade. To me, all libraries were special, and the legendary Main Branch was the ultimate exotic location. What better place to spend a day with Gail.
Wonder of wonders, Gail said yes. Gail said yes!
With my impeccable sense of timing, I made the date for the day after Thanksgiving, a day off from school. Oh my God, I’d have Gail all to myself for a whole day. I couldn’t believe it.
I couldn’t believe it. Like I could never believe I was good enough for those solos in orchestra, I absolutely refused to believe I had anything to offer the cutest girl in seventh grade. When the big day came, I showed up, I went through with it, but I froze just the same.
I think Pop took me to pick Gail up at her house. Then he dropped us off at the bus stop for our ride to the library. While waiting for the bus, I thought I’d be debonair and pick up a truly adult piece of literature to read on the trip: The Sporting News, that venerable weekly newspaper covering every American sport in season and out of season. That day I read it cover to cover while Gail waited for me to make conversation.
She waited through the bus ride to Grand Army Plaza. She waited for conversation about anything other than our school project while at the library. Then she waited all the way home to Canarsie while I sat reading my paper in silence. In my defense, I was awed by Gail and totally terrified I’d screw up the date. I screwed up the date. Gail and I remained one riser away in band and orchestra right through high school, but we never spoke another word to each other.
Until the Internet. Until social media. Until Facebook.
Facebook made people do crazy things in the early 2000s. One of those things was allowing a group of fun-loving but not A-list grown-up kids who had known each other at P.S.114 to reacquaint. Slowly, over a period of two years, I reconnected with old friends and acquaintances. I started talking with a couple of them about an upcoming trip to New York to speak at a conference and to visit my brother. Maybe a few of us could get together. Next thing you know, I got a friend request from Gail.
I made my trip to New York, had a fun dinner with three other old friends, plus Gail, and we set a date and potential location for a reunion the following spring. Canarsie High never has reunions because with 1,500 kids in a graduating class you hardly knew anyone, let alone wanted to visit with them ten or twenty years later.
Undaunted, our little group of event planners booked a restaurant for a champagne brunch. We invited everyone we knew and thought might like to be there. During the intervening months, Gail and I chatted a few times via Facebook Messenger. She told me about her husband, from whom she was separated, and I told her a little about my recent divorce. This time I listened carefully without my head in a newspaper.
The big morning came and we gathered at the restaurant. A couple of dozen P.S.114 grads enjoyed reminiscing over Bloody Marys and mimosas. Then the call came that brunch would be served. Gail, who had been visiting with long lost girlfriends across the room, stepped beside me. “May I sit with you?” she said. And finally, face to face, we talked.
More about love…or something like it, in the next episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.