Last night I was down on the lower Eastside of Manhattan with my two sons and grandson.
The two ten-year-olds (my youngest and my grandson are the same age for a little over two months every year) love to go to the city with their skateboards and skate around the lower Eastside where there are fewer pedestrians than some other parts of the city and people seem to mind less when two little guys skate by on their boards.
They also love to check out the unique styles of some of the people they see on the streets there, mostly young people, but not always, with oddly cut or arranged or colored hair, combinations of clothes never seen before, like clothes from different eras or different fashions on the same person, etc.
They can’t skate on Saint Mark’s Place or the nearby blocks on Second Avenue, but once you get onto most of the side streets, or over on First Avenue or A or B or C, the sidewalks are less crowded and the people seem a lot less in a hurry or adverse to boys on wheels (not that there aren’t a lot of skateboards around Saint Mark’s, but usually the boys on them are men and they’re skating in the street so pedestrians barely notice them).
We ate in a ramen noodle place owned by a chef written about in an article in the New Yorker that my oldest son had read (as I had but had almost instantly forgotten where it was) and suggested we try out. It was an incredible meal that not only satisfied our hunger but surprised us with delightful taste sensations we hadn’t experienced before.
Then we headed for a skate park my sister-in-law and her boyfriend had taken my youngest to recently, but it was locked up for the night. So we headed for nearby Tompkins Square Park, where in the Northwest corner there’s a large fenced in area with a mostly smooth surface in one corner of which two boys in their late teens were break dancing to some hip hop while around them several boys of similar age were skateboarding, doing various tricks that don’t need ramps and pipes to execute (though they had set up a small piece of plywood against an upended cement block and were riding over that in a way none of us had seen done before).
My ten-year-old son and ten-year-old grandson started skating as soon as we reached the place. No hesitation. They’re used to skateboarding wherever skateboarders can be found that they have traveled to, because skateboarders for the most part don’t seem to have that competitive jock mentality that some of the practitioners of other sports seem to maintain (usually the ones that don’t do it so well), at least among boys and young men (and obviously carries over into a lot of the often phony swagger and masculine competitiveness and tendency to be condescending to others not in on their criterion for masculinity).
But skateboarders are mostly the opposite—tolerant and pretty kind to each other. In most skate parks or even on the street where skaters congregate to practice their sport, or art, depending how you look at it, each skater works on his or her own tricks no matter at what level, and when they achieve some perfection at that trick other skaters generally acknowledge that with a positive remark or a mild clapping sound from making their boards go up and down at one end, the wheels sounding as they hit the cement or asphalt in a few repetitions.
So usually these fairly small boys are accepted as equals in their sport by other skaters, as they were in this environment as well. It was already getting dark when we arrived and the boys were skating by the light of street lamps. Pretty soon the older boys drifted off and our boys continued, jumping low objects and such.
All this time the sounds of jazz could be heard coming from a nearby area of the park, which is what I was paying a lot of attention to, because the music was profoundly good, for my taste.
The boys finished their tricks and we all walked over to where the musicians were performing at a point where several park walkways intersect, a wide enough area for several musicians to set up along an iron fence (including two full jazz drum sets), our two ten-year-olds to sit on their skates and watch them from several feet away, and my oldest boy to take photos of them and the musicians from even further away, and for me to lean on another iron fence maybe twenty feet or more directly opposite the band, and for plenty of others to either stand around or walk by without bumping into anyone.
It was a loose knit group, including those two jazz drum sets being played by two different drummers with uniquely different styles that somehow fit together perfectly. It was an open jam, sounding initially as my oldest boy said like “free jazz”—the movement that evolved from the experimentation of progressive jazz practitioners in the late 1950s and erupted in the 1960s into a full blown new style that upset not only a lot of jazz fans but a lot of old-style jazz musicians as well.
Many blamed it on the evolution of John Coltrane’s music, something they didn’t mind as much in him because he’d already proven himself a master of previous, more traditional styles in the contemporary jazz of those times. And they may have been right, because after his death, “free jazz” seemed to dissipate as a force in the music and in the decades since has been mostly practiced and paid attention to by a small minority in the music world.
But here were these drummers, eventually joined by a third drummer on congas and other hand drums, playing along with two saxophonists and a trumpeter, eventually joined by a third saxophone and a trombone player, all riffing on modular changes that extended the music into tonal formulas that were spontaneous and yet completely controlled at the same time.
(One of the arguments I got into most often in my late teens was about this kind of music, which very few if any classical musicians would ever be able to even do, let alone do well, and yet classical music was held up as the pinnacle of musical accomplishment and this music was often dismissed as “noise.”)
The musicians were mostly young, in their twenties I’d say, “white” men, though the trumpet player could have been older and one of the sax men was a “black” man closer to my age, and the conga player looked Latino (though all these categories are so false as many of these people share all kinds of common ancestory, as do we all). And for all I know they may have all been well known, even famous, at least some of them.
But whoever they were, they were all really good, especially the trumpet player, who was also the cockiest. The others seemed mostly lost in the music and unaware of the spectators and their surroundings. But the trumpet player quite often would edge up to the mic stand that held some sort of digital recorder and say something into it we couldn’t hear, or exchange a few words with the older sax player, or just move quickly around several square feet of asphalt pumping his arms as though encouraging or even conducting the music.
Which made him seem almost to be the leader of this constantly shifting group, though there wasn’t any actual “leading” going on, except in the sense that when he left for a few minutes and walked off somewhere and then returned with a bottle of water, once he put the bottle down and began playing again, the music improved, and it was already terrific.
My youngest and his same age nephew didn’t move from their seats on their boards for probably over twenty minutes or more, a sign of how good the music was. They love the Ramones and other punk rock bands as well as hip hop and some currently popular styles of music, and they appreciate jazz but it’s not something they’d choose to listen to and mostly leaves them uninterested. But here they were, mesmerized by these guys sustaining some kind of group dynamic for one continuous “song” since before we arrived at the skate section of the park and were still going when we left (close to an hour at least).
Sometimes the trumpet would riff out notes as fast as any horn player I ever heard while one of the saxes was repeating a low moaning note and another sax was running through some arpeggios and the three drummers were falling in and out of a rhythm that had my body moving without my even thinking about it.
My first true love—who happened to have very dark skin and descended in part from African slaves—lived on the South side of this park when she moved to New York from Atlantic City in 1961 after her high school graduation.
We met the day she arrived. As far as I know, her and her roommate, another “black girl” from A.C., were the only non-“whites” to live in this neighborhood then. It was mostly Polish and Ukrainian back then, though on some nearby streets that wasn’t the case.
We got looks in those days everywhere we went, and sometimes worse, confronted verbally or even physically for our “mixing”—but it only made our love stronger at the time.
So I was thinking of her, especially since back then I was also playing “jazz” in nearby clubs and had only recently heard ‘Trane playing alto sax (which one of the young “white” musicians picked up and began playing while we were listening and was still playing when we left) in ways I didn’t quite understand at the time, but wanted to.
Now here was the fruition of some of his experimentation, and of mine, with many “mixed” couples strolling by, some stopping to listen, others on their way, who could never even guess the history I’d witnessed on this spot and elsewhere over the past half century and more.
I couldn’t help smiling and feeling extremely contented and very grateful, as I almost always do.
I have passionate opinions and defend my taste and ideas, and I love deeply and try not to despise anything or anyone, at least not too much. But mostly I have reached a place in my life where I don’t envy others their so-called successes and try not to denigrate their so-called “failures”—or my own, and I accept that no matter what my passions may be, the world will go its own way with or without me.
Among everything I appreciate is the reality that I have written what I wanted to—since I was a boy and first learned to form words on a page—and over the course of my life, so far, have seen a lot of what I’ve written get out to others who heard my words or read them and responded or didn’t, with praise or criticism, but almost always on my terms based on my own standards. That’s a pretty rare and fortunate occurrence in life I’d say.
I’ve mostly created art, through writing or music or painting or collaging or acting out my own words or the words of others, and made a living by my wits, for my entire life.
There were those over-four-years in the service, and another four teaching college, and a lot of occasional manual labor or odd jobs to support my family over the years, as well as working on presidential and other kinds of political campaigns (even running for office myself), and many experiences outside of “the arts”—but mostly I’ve been able to not only create art the way I wanted to, especially through writing, but I’ve been able to make a living doing that and satisfy my soul.
And I feel like a total success at that. Somehow over the years, enough publishers dug what I did to publish twenty-seven books of my writing, and hundreds of editors of magazines and anthologies and newspapers and such did also. Some of that writing even won some awards, and again, without my having to compromise my own standards and idea(l)s.
My words can be found in movies as well, as can I saying the words of other writers, sometimes well done sometimes not. Like anything in life, there’s good and bad of varying proportions in everything I’ve done, but I am so grateful to have lived and continue to live the life I dreamed of as a kid, pursuing my dreams of creating work that I missed finding in the world of my youth and wanted to see and experience so chose to make some of it myself.
And on top of that, I’ve known the love of many fellow humans, including especially my offspring and theirs.
I’ve made mistakes, of course, the worst of which included doing anything that would hurt any of my children or others I love (or even don’t like so much). And I have done my best not to hurt anyone, other than by voicing my ideas and opinions passionately.
Last night’s experience in Tompkin’s Square Park not only confirmed my belief that I am a lucky man, but also that my ideas and beliefs, starting from when I was a little boy and couldn’t understand why people made such a big deal out of ethnic and so-called “racial” differences (back then the Irish were often considered a separate “race,” as were Italians etc.) have been mostly accepted, eventually.
I have hurt others and probably misled some. And I have changed my mind about some things when the facts changed or more was revealed. But my love of reading (compulsion really, as with writing) kept me and keeps me pretty well informed, and my beliefs and positions on various important topics of my lifetime have almost always turned out to be not just on what I consider the good side of history, but at times even prescient.
All of which means little in the grand scheme of things, as they say, but a lot in the heart of this aging hipster. For those who have let me know you enjoy my sharing this journey with you in the various ways I do that, including this blog, thanks.
For you others, thanks too for letting me see how lucky I am in my choice of friends and in the people I join with in all the attempts, some successful some not, to change the world we were given into one where our children and theirs can be more free to love and live and share their love and lives with others, despite the setbacks and sometimes triumph of those who would deny those rights out of fear or envy or a false feeling of superiority—or just plain meanness.
As Tiny Tim said (the Dickens creation not the ukulele player), “God bless us, everyone.”