E.Y. (Yip) Harburg’s parents were immigrants in 1890, who worked in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side in New York, where Yip was the ninth of ten children (six died in childbirth). Yip was raised in a Calcutta-like density of Jewish migrants, all fleeing from the Russian Tsar’s 1880’s pogroms against Jews, all in dire poverty. He inherited his humor and politics, in the face of struggle and fantasy, from a loving, literate and socialist father and his courage from a stern Jewish mother. He spent a great deal of time in the Tompkins Square Library, reading and writing poetry—studying the works of Wordsworth, O. Henry, W.S. Gilbert–and later, at a free City College, reading Karl Marx and G.B. Shaw. His passion for the American dream of a free and equal and socially just society became his deepest life purpose.
His lifelong friends, Ira and George Gershwin (also the children of immigrants), with a few dozen other artists together in the early 1900s, helped launch a new world cultural art form—the American musical theater. After the 1929 stock market crash destroyed his electrical appliance business, Yip schooled himself with the help of Ira Gershwin and Jay Gorney to become a lyricist.
Yip’s first iconic lyric came from a failed musical revue, Americana, in the nadir of the Great Depression. The song’s title was “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” which swept not only our entire country, but also the world of nations in 1932, and still survives into the 21st century around the world. The lyrics speak eloquently of the human cost of capitalism. The great music by Jay Gorney (a fellow Russian migrant) enfolded Yip’s lyrics as a chemical fusion. The “Dime” song has been sung through the 80-plus years since its introduction by Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, then later by Judy Collins, Abbey Lincoln, Odetta, and Tom Waits. The song achieved international popularity. It still speaks not only for Americans, but also for residents of other capitalist countries.
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Jay Gorney)
They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob.
Where there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there, right there on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?
In his second inaugural address delivered on January 20, 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I see one third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, ill nourished.” In fact, the job-loss rate was about one third, and it was as certain then as it is today that black unemployment was more than double the white. The Great Depression lasted until the beginning of World War II (1941).
It is difficult to imagine how anyone in this world could not have some sense of what social, cultural and economic oppression feels like. And, it isn’t surprising that Yip Harburg, born in 1896 and raised in poverty, had an affinity for the earthy, bluesy urban sounds flowing from both the clubs and theaters. He and composer Harold Arlen, who had been a composer for many Cotton Club revues in Harlem, naturally gravitated toward one another.
Yip’s fortunes and accomplishments rose in 1938, when he and his collaborator, Harold Arlen, were selected to write the songs for the musical film, entitled The Wizard of Oz.
When I was twelve years old, I sat with my parents and two younger brothers and watched a television showing of the 1939 MGM epic film, The Wizard of Oz, along with an ever-growing population of Americans. By that time, I had acquired the requisite studied indifference to anything as frivolous as a song and dance children’s tale. That adolescent posture was irrevocably altered, as I became mesmerized, not only by the song and dance of “Oz,” but indeed by the words, the lyrics, and by how the spectacle itself spoke directly, not only to me but to everything I was beginning to understand about the world in general. There, in our humble living room, my family was laughing, singing, and being filled with optimism.
Years later, I realized that an important part of what we had witnessed was the well-orchestrated, well-directed, and well-produced words of a man who understood the rhythms, sounds, and music underlying humanity. Based on L. Frank Baum’s novel, “Oz” is widely considered a political allegory in the guise of a children’s fairy tale; a social commentary cloaked in fantasy. Here was a poet who could bring out laughter, love, and spirit in all of us, no matter what our struggle in life was. The fantasy of “Oz” appealed to the adult in all children and the child in all adults: Yip’s and Harold’s songs reached us.
Writing in 1900, Baum was probably reacting to the demise of the populist movement of the previous decade. Characters became representative: the Scarecrow (farmers), the Tin Man (industrial workers), and the Cowardly Lion (ineffective leaders of the Populist Party, whose logo was a Lion). Together with Dorothy and Toto, these characters bond to overcome the Wicked
Witches (financial interests). After navigating the perilous yellow brick road to the Emerald City, they confront the Wizard (federal government, corporate lobbyists, etc.) and timidly assert the will of the people.
The unforgettable Munchkinland operetta isn’t just a sequence of the speeches of mayors, council members, union leaders, heads of ladies auxiliaries, coroners, and soldiers. “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead!” is a celebratory anthem of a community’s victory over Evil—a universal cry against all tyranny.
The film’s signature song, “Over the Rainbow” almost didn’t make it into the film’s final cut, because some producers and executives claimed it was too complicated to sing. Nonetheless, “Rainbow” became the iconic ballad which inspires us on an emotional level, merging childlike yearnings and adult realities.
Over the Rainbow (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
And the dreams
That you dare to dream
Really do come true….
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh, why can’t I?
As both a children’s popular classic and grown-up hit melody, “Over The Rainbow” has probably been sung by more vocalists than any other song of its kind. Bing Crosby, Patti LaBelle, Barbara Streisand, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Eva Cassidy, and Ray Charles have each lent their interpretations to this tune that gives us all a sense of hope in harsh times.
Years later, Yip and Harold collaborated on the first-ever Hollywood all-black musical film for general audiences, “Cabin in the Sky” (1943), which featured black artists who had been barred from mainstream cinema in the 1930s. Appearing during the Second World War, when the US government was somewhat encouraging Hollywood moguls to participate in racial unity, this film hit, directed by Vincente Minnelli (later to be deemed a master of the film musical), showcased no less than Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, John Bubbles, not to mention the extended cameos of the legends, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
When approached to write the lyrics for a film adaption of the 1940 Broadway musical written by poet John Latouche and composer Vernon Duke, Yip would later reveal that he didn’t think there were enough “Southern” songs to work with. Translation: it wasn’t real enough. Ethel Waters once called Arlen the “the Negro-est white man I’ve ever known.” What she undoubtedly was implying is that the composer understood, on some level, creatively and spiritually, how black people were feeling at the time. “Arlen’s hallmark is his synthesis of Negro rhythms and Hebraic melodies,” as Yip once put it. “They make a terrific combination, a fresh chemical reaction.” The song “Li’l Black Sheep” from the show, for example, somehow manages to capture the traditional timber and vibrancy of black gospel music, as it merges music, song, and shout.
Harburg’s early sensitivity to feminism, the anti-slavery movement, and the anti-war message resonates with me, as the proud son of parents of African and West Indian heritage, who worked at just about every sort of job available to put themselves through college. Written with composer Harold Arlen during World War II, “Bloomer Girl” (1944) is a fascinating theatrical story that showcases the struggles of both African American slaves and women in pre-Civil War days. Amelia Bloomer was a woman’s suffrage advocate, a contemporary of Susan B. Anthony, who advocated that women wear pants instead of cumbersome hoopskirts as a form of protest against their unequal treatment.
According to Yip, “The hoopskirt was an abominable torture chamber for women. Most weighed 50-75 pounds. For the sake of style, most women were victims. Amelia, knowing that women of the time were weary of liberation talk, said: “Get rid of those heavy hoopskirts, wear bloomers like men, let’s get pants and be equal.” The spark that lit the candle for this play originated from the work of Lilith and Dan James, both active in Hollywood radical circles at the time. Lilith rightly saw hoopskirts as just another ridiculous way of keeping women in their place. When “Bloomer Girl” was written, blacks were migrating north and west into an evolving industrial work force, and women were abandoning their aprons and seeking jobs as well. “…We were trying to deal with the inherent fear of change to show that whenever a new idea or a new change in society arises, there’ll always be a majority that will fight you, call you a dirty radical or a red,” said Yip. He also asserted that this was the first time on Broadway that feminist characters helped change the values of a slave-owning man to a belief in freedom for all, inclusive of blacks and women.
In mock Southern-style, “Bloomer Girl” is about the efforts of Amelia Bloomer (renamed Dolly) and how her efforts affected their pre-Civil War family, including her brother-in-law, hoopskirt entrepreneur Horace Applegate, and his outspoken daughter, Evelina, the youngest and only remaining unmarried Applegate. Horace pushes his chief Southern salesman, Jefferson Calhoun, to court Evelina. The day before the Civil War starts, Evelina is politely instructing Jefferson on the subject of gender and racial equality. The situation gets more involved as Evelina, Dolly, and other feminists conceal Jefferson’s runaway slave/manservant, Pompey.
These plot machinations, rooted in social justice, became trademark Harburg, especially in terms of lyrics and book. Arlen’s special affinity for black music and Yip’s lifelong aversion to racial injustice were expressed well in this very successful Broadway musical. The context in which this play came about is fascinating, in that Roosevelt had ordered defense work to be integrated, perhaps in response to African-American leader, A. Phillip Randolph’s threat to organize a civil rights march on Washington. Blacks were entering factories, and some unions had fought the change with blood on their hands. Though the women’s movement was less established in that era, Harburg’s daring words and the power behind the entire production added to these leaders’ growing movement perhaps 20 years ahead of its time. “It was a show about the indivisibility of human freedom,” Yip asserted.
Among the songs that resonate for me from the production is yet another unique tribute to the Harburg legacy, “The Eagle and Me,” sung by the play’s winning character, Pompey, and the song is considered to be the first theater ballad that explicitly relates to the civil rights movement. Before this, there had certainly been more than enough of what were sometimes called “black plight songs,” such as “Ole’ Man River” and “Summertime,” which both feel more like passive acceptance of inferior circumstances, rather than as assertions of a firm desire to be free.
The Eagle and Me (excerpts; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
What makes the gopher leave his hole?
Trembling with fear and fright
Maybe the gopher’s got a soul
Wantin’ to see the light….
…Free as the sun is free
That’s how it’s gotta be
Whatever is right for bumble bee
And river and eagle
Is right for me
We gotta be free
The eagle and me.
According to Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg,
In the autumn of 1944, as one of the founders of the Hollywood Democratic Committee, Yip Harburg had been active in enlisting figures in the entertainment industry to promote Roosevelt’s presidential candidacy, and the election eve broadcast was to be the culmination of his efforts….
Yip’s most notable contribution to the broadcast was a song of a somewhat different nature than any he had worked on before. It was called “Free and Equal Blues,” and he had written it earlier that year with folk-song composer Earl Robinson. Robinson was a Seattle-born composer, who, upon graduating college in 1933, moved to New York, where he joined the Communist Party and became music director of the Workers’ Theater (which was absorbed into the Federal Theater Project in 1935).
The musical, “Finian’s Rainbow” (1947), is pure magic and notably one of Harburg’s most cherished theater achievements, as it is a fable that draws the audience into human truths that cannot be denied. Often described as a work of socialist review in the form of the American musical, it also remains a novelty in American popular culture in the way it uniquely pounces on racism, and wealth and class inequities in the world.
Yip was incensed by the violence aimed at the black equality movement during those war years, particularly the racism uttered every day in Congress by Mississippi’s Senator Theodore Bilbo and Representative John Rankin. Aware of a post-WWII climate, which caused investors to shun so-called “political musicals,” Yip decided to deal with this controversial subject on stage by having a prototype of one of the legislators turn black through a wish and forcing him to live under the conditions of Jim Crow laws. “I was making a point to every white person: Look—we use the word reincarnation. You might come back as a black, and here’s how you’ll be treated if you do,” warned Yip. With characters such as an Irish leprechaun, a union organizer, some bi-racial sharecroppers and white male gold-diggers, he also gets a few other choice messages across to audiences, such as: racism is partly motivated by greed, and the search for gold rarely ends in happiness. Cleverly embedded in this play is also the song “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich,” which articulates how society perceives a person’s problems differently based on economic and social status or class supremacy.
When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich (excerpt; lyrics by E. Y. Harburg; music by Burton Lane)
When a rich man loses on a horse,
Isn’t he the sport?
Chorus: Oh, isn’t he the sport?
But when a poor man loses on a horse,
He’s a gambler, he’s a spender,
He’s a lowlife, he’s a reason for divorce.
“Finian’s Rainbow” was not lost on black audiences or critics either, perhaps largely because it also represented a Broadway breakthrough by mixing black and white performers on stage, something Yip had long fought for. One critic appraised Yip’s satirical approach to the antiracist theme: “Prejudice is brought to trial at the bar of laughter…. In ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ the fantasy is closer to the heart of reality than to the allegedly realistic plays that create a fantastic distortion of life and its values.”
Harburg Weathers the Storm of Social Unrest
Harburg was not a Communist and had no interest in overthrowing the American government, by any means, certainly, not through violence. But he did have some friends whose ideologies were more left than even his own. So, he was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), because he refused to “name the names” of alleged Communist sympathizers for the Committee. During this oppressive witch hunt, Yip’s creative output did not suffer as much as that of the members of his potential audiences. He was blacklisted, an ironic slur, from working in films, television and radio. But the “powers that be” at the time took exception not only to his willfulness as a lyricist, but more specifically to his authoring a campaign song for 1948 presidential candidate, Henry Wallace, with composer Milton Ager and script-writer Paul Robeson, while Robeson chaired the Madison Square Garden rally before the general election. Wallace’s unsuccessful run as a Progressive Party candidate in 1948 was with Idaho Democratic U.S. Senator Glen H. Taylor as his running mate, a man who advocated for universal government health insurance, an end to the nascent Cold War, full voting rights for black Americans, and an end to segregation. Wallace’s campaign included African American candidates’ campaigning alongside white candidates in the segregated South, and he also refused to appear before segregated audiences or to eat or reside in segregated establishments.
Yip Harburg had courage of his own and a saving grace that spared his being banned from working in the Broadway Theater. Yip noted, on being banned from work in film, TV, and radio, that Broadway was the only free industry left in America…. Yip had guts. It didn’t hurt that there were still lingering rave reviews of his past work, which helped him maintain a level of respect on Broadway. “Bloomer Girl,” (a project he originated, directed and lyricized), had been an unquestionable hit, as had the more idiosyncratic “Finian’s Rainbow,” in which he conceived the book and the lyrics (and which was made into a film in 1968, and survives as a DVD and as a perennial regional production in the Czech Republic).
Yip’s next recognized collaborative effort with Fred Saidy, “Flahooley” (1951), came out of Yip’s determination to show how our economy works, “…that we cannot afford to lose the profit system if it means giving people everything they want.” The setting was in the toy factory of B.G. Bigelow, whose toy designer, Sylvester Cloud, spawns a new Christmas doll named “Flahooley,” who lets out an infectious laugh.
Bigelow authorizes mass production of this sure-seller doll just in time for the Christmas rush and then is visited by State Department officials, along with three Saudi Arabian emissaries. One of them bears an ancient magic lamp, which seems to have lost its magic. “Toycoon” Bigelow is more preoccupied with his competitor, who has managed to come up with a cheaper knock-off of the doll, and is also secretly owned by Bigelow! Bigelow fears closure of his factory, but Cloud shows up, rubs the lamp, and a genie named Abou pops out, who agrees to make as many of the “Flahoohey” dolls as the market will bear. For a while, business is booming, until the glut of over-production works against Bigelow. The local community starts destroying the dolls, then turns on Abou, who has been targeted by federal authorities as a “commie.” He and the original doll flee the scene.
The show concludes with the song, “Sing the Merry,” what might still be considered an indictment against holiday commercial exploitation. The last stanza was dropped from the song and the entire song was omitted from the original cast album:
Maybe partly because it satirized the consequences of overproduction and mass consumption and mentioned a few stores by name, the show itself was neither a great critical nor commercial success, its first run closing after 48 performances, but its social significance, as well as its appeal to young people, has been lasting. “It [‘Flahooley’] came at a very bad time,” Yip reflected. “They thought this was a dangerous anti-capitalistic show and anything that anti-capitalistic is unpatriotic.” The witch hunt of HUAC, now taken up by Senator Joe McCarthy, intensified the extremes of fear and paranoia about “Communist spying” that had been gripping the nation, and the blacklist era began.
Yip Harburg was fortunate enough to have earned some royalties from songs and shows, as well as having investments, but many of his colleagues who had also been banned from working were not as fortunate; a few of them actually left the country or committed suicide. Yet, Yip also faced unimaginable obstacles in trying to pursue a craft that was his life and blood for more than ten years. Almost all of his prospects for film work were blacklisted, including the Judy Garland picture, “A Star is Born,” and a cartoon feature adaptation of “Finian’s Rainbow.” When recruited with Harold Arlen in 1956 to work on the music for a movie about Nellie Bly, the pioneering female journalist nationally known for reporting on workplace conditions and government corruption and her brave undercover assignments, Harburg recalled meeting with the head of the International Alliance for Theatrical Stage Employees to discuss being un-blacklisted. They apparently had a file on him “thicker than all my works” and wanted to know whether or not the “Joe” in the hit song “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” from “Cabin in the Sky” referred to Joe Stalin. In true form, Harburg burst out laughing, which didn’t go over well, needless to say.
Yet, throughout all these ordeals, Yip Harburg trooped forward, continuing to challenge the inequities in our culture. Nothing that happened to him would ever beat the soul out of him. By 1957, he had created an engaging attack on colonialism and commercial culture in “Pigeon Island,” later to become “Jamaica” (1957), a musical centered on the theatrical template of an island fisherman, Koli, whose girlfriend Savannah longs for an urban existence. A rival suitor from Harlem, Joe Nashua, arrives and shakes the island’s tranquility by convincing the other fishermen to dive for pearls, a more profitable venture. Greed sets in and a mushroom cloud appears over the horizon that frightens most of the islanders, except maybe Savannah’s sage grandmother. Suddenly, the Jamaicans re-appreciate their native land, and especially the fish that feed them and the beautiful nature that surrounds them. Savannah chooses Koli over Joe, and the ominous “nuclear” clouds fade away. One of the songs in the musical, “Leave the Atom Alone” especially discomfited a few critics as “inappropriate” for the Establishment effort to defend America.
Harburg’s suave social commentary reminds us of the shallowness of being caught up in financial gain, particularly in the lyrics of “Hooray for the Yankee Dollar,” which illustrate the insidious effects of American tourism as well as the effect that the almighty dollar has on the human psyche.
Hooray for the Yankee Dollar (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
Hooray for de Yankee dollar….
Jackson, Lincoln, George Washington,
Sons of Liberty,
Brought de Yankee dollar ’round
To make us free.
In 1961, Harburg wrote the lyrics for “The Happiest Girl in the World,” whose title and promotion might have disguised the fact that it was essentially an anti-war and pro-feminist show which predated Vietnam and the women’s movement of the late sixties. According to “Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz,” by Harold Meyerson and Yip’s son, Ernie, Harburg didn’t let the sixties pass him by. He published two books of political verse: “Rhymes for the Irreverent” (1965) and “At This Point in Rhyme” (1976).
When nuclear dust has extinguished their betters,
Will the turtles surviving wear people-neck sweaters?
Yip was involved with many left-wing movements, rallies, and civil rights, environmental, and anti-war demonstrations. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s bestselling book “The Silent Spring,” which deals with the destruction of the environment, Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote a song in 1963 with the same title, only it dealt with the social environment (e.g., “the rains of hate”), the year of the John F. Kennedy and Medgar Evans assassinations, a song that Lena Horne recorded. It ends with these words:
The Silent Spring (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Harold Arlen)
Silent men, take heart, take wing,
And sing away this silent Spring.
When approached by Earl Robinson to help work on a title folk song for the Otto Preminger film, “Hurry Sundown,” Yip wrote:
Hurry Sundown (excerpt; lyrics by E.Y. Harburg; music by Earl Robinson)
Hurry down sundown
Take this old day
Wrap it in new dreams
Send it my way….
Preminger never used the song; however, Milt Okun, publisher and arranger for Peter, Paul & Mary, did, and it became the only song of Yip Harburg’s that made the charts in the 1960s.
The times were a-changing, and the latter 60s and 70s might have left Harburg a little bewildered. Speaking to Studs Terkel once about the onslaught of new songs from the sixties, he said “The new songs are anti-grammatical, and anti-poetical. They are tasteless and unmelodic.” He could easily have been talking about many of the songs in our present day. Though he admired some of the new songwriters and lyricists arriving on the theater scene, including Stephen Sondheim and Sheldon Harnick, he also must have longed for the process of creation that had worked so well for him and the composers with whom he had collaborated. In an unpublished essay called “The Young Composers,” he mused, “I suspect that much of the difference springs from the way in which shows are written today, much from the lack of great composers to challenge the lyricists to write greatly, and much from the climate of the times…. A great song requires a great composer.” And, we add, a great lyricist is also required.
From Yip, who preferred to write lyrics to music rather than the reverse, these observations come as no surprise. Nonetheless, up until his eighties, he kept his edgy sense of humor and was a mentor to countless writers and singers. In 1981, he and other Broadway writers helped start up the Musical Theatre Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, founded by Deena Rosenberg, which remains one of the few university-based programs where authors and composers can collaborate to create musical plays.
On the day of his death from a heart attack in 1981, Yip was on his way to a story conference for a film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Here was a man who was both in his time and way ahead of his time. A man who could mix tears with laughter and could change the way you saw life and the people around you. “We’ve had all the fine miracle revolutions the world could possibly dream of,” he wrote. “But we have not yet learned how to curb our egos, how to think honestly, without the primitive emotions of greed, power or hostility getting in our way.”
Stephen Holden tells us how Yip kept the faith, a skeptic who dared to dream:
When E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg died in 1981, America lost a song lyricist whose mixture of compassion, humor, conscience, and craft were well ahead of their time. The man who wrote the words for “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Over the Rainbow” was a social realist who believed in a better world, a romantic who saw through his own illusions, a man of the people who was a master of the sophisticated bon mot, a skeptic who had faith. If these qualities seem contradictory, they were reconciled in Harburg’s lyrics by an expansive sense of humor and an unshakable faith in human nature. If Harburg could accept a paper moon in a cardboard sky and still believe in love, he reasoned, so could everyone else. Life might indeed be a joke, but it was still a delicious one.
Harold Meyerson and Ernie Harburg. Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz? Yip Harburg, Lyricist. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, 213-215.
Stephen Holden. Introduction to The Yip Harburg Songbook. CPP-Belwin,1994. Reissue: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.
Near the end of his life, the late Reverend Howard Moody had a memoir published, which chronicled Judson Church’s historical role during the latter half of the 20th century.
As the child of one of its long-term members (Reathel Bean), I’d been eager to read Howard’s perspective and ended up reading the book cover to cover numerous times. “It was great to watch you grow in the midst of the story,” reads his inscription inside the front cover of my copy. “Those were the days, my friend.”
My sister Emmy once gave a description of Howard that sizably matched my own memories of him—a grandfatherly figure. As a young child, she was more aware of his deep and soothing tone and cadences than anything having to do with the content of what he was saying. I do remember catching a few snippets of his messages here and there, but his overall value lay more in his comforting presence than in anything else.
As a child, I was only marginally aware of Judson’s unique culture and history of cutting-edge advocacy and artistic revolution. Both had been demonstrated to me in various ways (particularly at parties), but I didn’t ask questions. To me, church was a place where you went on Sundays. It didn’t matter if it involved a crucifix or mache puppets.
Judson had provided Dad a haven from the draft in 1966. Dad had told me that he was a “conscientious objector,” which one of my teachers soon explained was something that was very difficult to be—something that required an explanation likely comparable to the one Morgan Freeman’s character provided for his failure to understand the meaning of the word “rehabilitated” prior to his parole.
In Dad’s case, he was about to fly off to Canada, when he received word that Judson would provide him not only a job as a janitor and handyman but a room in the student house next door to the church. According to another book that was written about the specific history of that building, the okay on both of these things was delivered the same day he received approval from his draft board of his alternative service (cleaning and fixing, instead of killing).
One of the earliest examples of Judson’s long history of public outreach efforts was the Judson Health Center—a free medical and dental clinic run by Dr. Eleanor Campbell. Founded in 1921, its mission was to provide care to the Italian immigrant population living on the west side of lower Manhattan, many of whom suffered the side effects of poor nutrition. Within a year of its inception, the health center relocated out of the church basement to a larger accommodation in the church’s Judson House property (next door at 237 Thompson Street), due to its sheer volume of service. By the end of 1924, the clinic was the largest of its kind in the US, having cared for 22,000 visitors and conducted 14,000 field visits that year alone.
The church’s present-day sanctuary (on Thompson Street and West Fourth Street—across the street from Washington Square Park) was to be a memorial for founder and clergyman Edward Judson’s father, Adoniram—one of the first Protestant missionaries to Burma. It soon became the home of the younger Judson’s Bearean Baptist congregation (also in the neighborhood), which had been expanding beyond the capacity of its original Downing Street building. Completed in 1893, the new building had not only received the backing of prominent Baptists (including John D Rockefeller), but a charming stone and marble building design and inlay from the Italian Renaissance—the combined efforts of noted architect Stanford White, stained-glass artist John La Farge, as well as sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Herbert Adams.
Just Google “stained glass windows” and you’ll receive digital images of minimal variety—mostly circular patterns and simply drawn images of scriptural figures which are completely non-provocative. A remarkable resemblance between the familiar images on Judson’s windows and specific members of its congregation was apparent to me, while I was growing up there. La Farge put an astonishing amount of detail into his renditions, which served as an unintentional reinforcement of Moody’s trademark claim: “The church is not the building, it’s the people.”
In grade school, I can remember a feeling of general ineptitude when it came to executing just about any assigned art project. One or more classmates would inevitably point to some misalignment on my part with the stated directions (coloring outside the lines, using the wrong piece of construction paper for the wrong thing). When it came to classroom art, I was always off the mark in one way or another. As both embarrassing and frustrating as this was, I have reason to believe that it might have had something to do with my rather unorthodox and nontraditional understanding of art—the likely result of how the term “art” had been defined and relayed to me by the Judson community.
Over the years, Dad casually mentioned several examples of art, as he had seen it presented by Judson. One involved a guy sitting on a stool smoking a cigarette (and nothing else). Another involved the destruction of a piano and the assassination of a chicken. An anti-censorship campaign I’m remembering from my teenage years took place in the same space and involved a wall-to-wall multimedia display of the human anatomy.
I don’t want to create the impression that these hard-edged works somehow define Judson’s character or culture. Judson was and is far from being a community made up of flaky, uncompromising absolutists, and it has, over the years, hosted plenty of softer elements, too. Some of the best examples are performances by The Bread and Puppet Theater.
Founded in New York during the early 1960s, Bread and Puppet is currently based in Glover, Vermont, and has perhaps been best known for its annual Domestic Resurrection Circus in and around a natural amphitheater. For me, who attended it once in the late eighties, a striking similarity between my memory of the crowded festival grounds and some of the footage from the 1970 Woodstock film was obvious—particularly with respect to what happened on the sidelines. Although the show, itself, took place on a field surrounded by hills, several makeshift stages were set up around the field, each of which would host short performances (presented by both children and adults).
For at least a couple of back-to-back Decembers in the mid-eighties, Judson’s acting group hosted an original play, entitled “The Washer Woman’s Nativity,” which depicted the birth of Christ and the wrath of Herod. At the end of each performance, a large circular loaf of bread was broken into crumbs and distributed to audience members, signifying art as an element as basic to human welfare as bread. While their performances contained political material that would invariably go over the heads of children, there was something inherently child-friendly about their puppets. They were large, imposing figures, which (in many cases) were caricatures of political demagogues. Whether you’d recognize a puppet version of (let’s say) Oscar Romero or not, you’d have to agree that something inherently cartoonish about the puppet and its droll facial expression was apparent—something that anyone of any age could appreciate.
A few years later, my youth group leader openly scoffed at the idea of having an actor as president. My father was a professional actor, so I guess the matter in question didn’t seem as outlandish to me as it might have otherwise. Not only had Dad depicted Reagan (and rapped as him) in a cabaret down the street from Judson a few years earlier, but he also delivered a mock address in his Reagan voice at a Judson party one night during this period. Still, the question looms: How did we feel about having a professional performer (someone whose job it was to put on a face) in charge of the country?
I remember no social issue more observable during my upbringing than the AIDS epidemic. It killed several members of the Judson community (at least one of whom was a close family friend), so I had no excuse to ignore it. Fortunately, I received plenty of preventative education in high school (involving the unrolling of condoms onto wooden rods in health class), and was also aware of the many ways in which AIDS could not be transmitted (i.e., by hugging and/or kissing someone who has it). Still, the AIDS epidemic provided a far-too-early exit for an unbelievably large fraction of the population and was (for the most part) labeled as a divine punishment for homosexual acts by The Moral Majority (who publicly sided with the Reagan administration).
For several years, Judson has serviced a syringe exchange program on the Lower East Side, by way of assembling harm reduction kits at regularly scheduled work parties. Saving the lives of drug addicts (in my mind) is an honorable act, yet I’m sure that this type of ministry (providing the addicts with clean equipment rather than intervention) could easily have received scrutiny and controversial reactions. The late Arlene Carmen’s hospitality bus project (ministering to prostitutes in Times Square) likely received such reactions, as well. She, herself, even spent a night in jail during a law enforcement sweep, which obviously targeted not only the prostitutes, but anyone identified as their associate.
It’s become obvious to me over time that Howard’s role was unique and irreplaceable. His leadership was followed by that of an interim, a shorter-term replacement, one or two other interims, and (currently) a more established and permanent replacement.
In 1990, I attended a performance of “Christmas Rappings” (a narrative musical covering most of the same ground as “The Washer Woman’s Nativity”) during Judson’s bicentennial celebration. The focus of the performance was largely on the music of composer/clergyman, Al Carmines, who opened the piece at the piano (which was the performance’s focal point), singing the scriptural list of who begat whom. The rest of the company would hit the stage in pairs or in small groupings (and even solo maybe once or twice) and would then disappear to make room for whoever was slated to perform the next number. Seventeen years later, the exact same musical was presented in the space in a completely different format.
The company (made up of a mostly younger generation) opened the performance, taking turns with different lines of the “begat” number from different corners of the room. At one point, two large puppets (inspired by a Bread and Puppet element, no doubt) depicted Herod—one before the slaughter, and one (with blood on his hands) after it. The focus was clearly not on Al, his piano playing, or the company of players surrounding the piano to support him. “Christmas Rappings” had become a true ensemble piece. No member of the company had an observably more or less important role than any other.
Ruth isn’t my mother. She’s my stepmother. She’s nothing like my mother. Opposite, in fact. My mother died over 20 years ago. She once wept when she lost the rainbow acrylic scarf I crocheted for her. “It’s all right, Ma. I’ll make you another one,” I assured her at the time. But I never did. Ruth and my father have been married for 17 years.
It was one day, when my father had been dating Ruth for a couple of months that I visited my parents’ home on Clara Street in the Kensington section of Brooklyn. I climbed up the stairs of our landlord’s house (he and his family occupied the first floor), past the chalk drawing of a horse I’d done at the base of the steps, up to the second floor landing, entering the bright yellow ”L” of my parents’ kitchen. My mother used to hear my mounting footsteps and meet me in the doorway with the warmest hello in her voice, her eyes brimming with welcome.
Now my father and Ruth were sitting at the kitchen table, which was covered with the usual orange tablecloth. I entered the room and started to talk about my train trip and the trivia of my morning.
From where I stood, I could see my flushed face reflected in the sun shaped mirror with the Indian silver frame on the wall beside the doorway. I stood facing my Dad and Ruth, next to the wall on which hung four of my pastel drawings (my mother had framed them all). Miniature landscapes, arranged in two rows, side by side, forming a square of orange, chartreuse, ochre—earth colors. I could see into the two living rooms—the “green room” leading into the “blue room,” as we called them, after the color of their carpets—with a glimpse of my mother’s black, wrought-iron plant stand with trailing leaves of philodendron at the far window. I could almost see my mother’s delicate, lopsided back, as she bent over the stove, frying scrambled eggs and onions with mushrooms, because it was one of my favorite dishes.
Nothing was cooking on the stove while my father, Ruth, and I were talking. But I twirled around in the open space of the kitchen, breathing in the coffee and food smells that still hung in the air of my parents’ home that had also been my home till just a year ago, when I moved to my own apartment in Manhattan.
It was the second time I was meeting Ruth. The first time had been at a family gathering—it was almost an extension of the “sitting shiva” for my mother we had done three months earlier. I saw Ruth, my father’s girlfriend, across the room, and at first glance, she looked like Ava Gardner. (My father has taken up with a much younger woman. . . . ) When she came closer, singling me out, extending her hand, calling me by name, knowing I had just lost my mother, I saw the sagging cheeks and wrinkles, but there was still a certain Je ne sais quoi that animated her. Yes, she had sex appeal at seventy-something years. Je ne sais quoi was probably the one thing Ruth had in common with my mother.
Now, in my mother’s kitchen, she was smiling at me in a forced way. “Sit down,” she finally said in the manner of a gracious hostess.
I cannot tell you what I felt. Can you understand that I was shocked? This was my home, and she, who had been dating my father for two months, was telling me to sit down in it. I didn’t let my emotions show. I kept the conversation civil. I don’t remember whether I sat down or not.
Later, I used to want to write about it, changing the dialogue, jumping off into a fantasy of what might have been.
“I should be telling you to sit down!” I might have said. Or “Don’t tell me to sit down. I live here. I’ll sit or stand as I please.” Or “How dare you? Who do you think you are?”
But she already knew. She was the next Mrs. Ehrhardt, and she would soon be telling me to sit down in her own kitchen in her Sheepshead Bay apartment, after my father would move in with her.
But for now, I only knew a tremendous sense of dislocation, of inappropriateness, of her assumed proprietorship of my father and my home. (Yes, I could write about it and elevate and dramatize the dialogue and exorcise my rage and helplessness.)
But I never did. And you know, many years have passed since then. And Ruth has mellowed a bit. And I have gotten older–and used to her. My father and Ruth, as I mentioned before, have now been married for 17 years.
In all this time, I’ve never sent Ruth a Mother’s Day card, but this year, I regretted not doing so. This year, Ruth had a gallbladder attack and had to have her unhealthy organ removed. My mother had once had a gallbladder attack, too. Another thing they had in common. A condition that affects older women. Ruth became more vulnerable after that, more responsive to my attention, my phone calls, the cards I sent, more appreciative, or at least showed that side of her nature more. That is to say, we now have more of a relationship, though she still dominates the conversation.
In her Sheepshead Bay apartment, Ruth has a tiny, hygienic kitchen with a refrigerator magnet which flaunts the words: “Ruth’s kitchen.” She doesn’t want anybody else to go in there. She doesn’t even let my father near the stove, though he did the cooking all the time I was growing up.
Just outside her kitchen, there’s a circular table with a white plastic cloth. It is a mini-dining area, set off from the living room by a brass railing. And that’s where I park myself during my appointed visits, when she asks me if I want orange juice or coffee. Above the table dangles a giant, crystal chandelier. And two steps down, beyond the brass railing, stretches the small but immaculate living room.
Near the window, I can see my mother’s plant stand, which my father brought over from the old house. Ruth’s spider plants, as well as the longstanding philodendron, are shown to full advantage on the many levels of its winding stair. The plant stand fits right in with the red velvet sofa, the sentimental painting on the wall of a woman holding a basket of fruit, the floral patterned wall-to-wall carpet, the many photographs of Ruth’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the one unframed photo of me that has been stuck into a corner of one of the larger frames.
When I first come in, my father usually greets me at the door with a peck on the cheek, his one good eye flickering with affection. Ruth is next in line for a kiss, her black eyes sparkling with animation and renewed health. We make small talk for a few seconds. When Ruth tells me, “Sit down,” I sit. So does my father. After all, this is her house.
Rath shuffles across the bar’s parquet floor, dragging his drums. The cymbals. The foot pedals. The amps. A Grateful Dead t-shirt grips his chest—bony ridges high above a soft belly like a baby’s—spilling over black jeans. Thatched hair, dry like flakes of mica. A cigarette hangs from thick lips. Drugstore readers perch on his nose. He puts his fists into the small of his narrow back. Arches. Flexes his shoulders. Old, he thinks, too old for this. The odor of spoiled beer. Stale tobacco. Dusty folds of purple velvet pulled tight against the half-moon stage reassures him. The silver fleck of his drum set beckons.
He slams the door to his dressing room, yanks his duffle onto a chair and starts rummaging through. Psychedelic t-shirts fly into the air, studded leather belts tumble out.
“Ah!” he exclaims, pulling a tangle of black leather from the bottom. His jeans fall to the floor, as he kicks and spins around the room, his skinny ass covered in goose bumps.
“Ah, yes!” he yells, wriggling into supple calfskin pants, then turns to check his butt in the splintered mirror on the door. Across one pocket, the precious Bowie signature glimmers in silver ink. His hands tremble, as he palms a cache of Black beauties, gulps them, his mouth pulling at a brown bottle. The taste of flat beer in his throat twists his lips.
“Tonight is mine,” he whispers and feels a jolt of euphoria so sudden and unexpected, his breath catches in his throat.
“Five minutes,” a muffled voice declares behind the door.
Rath preens again. His reflected image wavers and shifts, as his practiced gestures flail, then, glasses torn from his face, he strides toward the stage. Hearing memories. Voices chanting. Hands beating—the metronome of promise. He knows the sound; his heart responds. Gel filters flash rainbows, as he steps behind the drums.
“Can I sit in?” a soft voice calls from the black depths of the room.
A pin spot gleams above his head, turns his knuckles white, his blue eyes milky. He cups a hand over his eyes, peers into the shadows, and sees the glow of the cigarette machine, the neon Michelob sign that blinks Open.
“No amateurs here,” he says. A chair scrapes. He feels a shift.
“Heard that before.”
“I’m different.” The voice is soft, musical.
He peers intently into the darkness. Ash from his cigarette drops on the toe of his boot.
“Whadda ya play?” Drops of sweat bead his lip.
“Strings,” the voice says, floating up to him.
“No strings.” Rath turns his back to the darkness, his bony elbows work, as he settles the drums, adjusts their stand. Taps a pedal.
From the darkness, he hears a crescendo so sharp, so sweet, his mouth waters.
“That you?” he asks, turning back to the darkness. A wave of hunger rises.
“What kinda strings?” he asks, feeling a desperate need to hear that swell of music again.
He laughs, rough. Coughs. Wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.
“No harp in rock.” Rath pulls drumsticks from his pocket, flicks the cymbals.
The melody swirls from the darkness again, wrapping him—a perfect counterpoint to the sound of the fading cymbals.
“I’m good,” the voice repeats, insistent.
Why not? His wallet’s thin. The take from the set won’t buy gas for his truck.
“All right.” Rath hooks a thumb at the stage. He straightens his back, feels a rush of newness.
Beside his drums on the crescent of wood appears an apparition of such splendor, he stops to stare. A triangle balances on one delicate point, its body woven with golden strands. Poised to stroke its frame, a slender arm outstretches. Rath turns to see a girl, her fragile face uplifted. The muscles of his heart contract, and a surge of lightening flies through his veins, so powerful it arcs from his fingertips, flinging his arms in the air. He looks her way, nods, and with a dazzling flourish of wooden sticks, his hands crash to the snare drum.
“For you, Charlie Watts!” he yells, ripping into Start Me Up. His head nods. Sees Watts’ alabaster skull, sharp eyes, lips pulled back in concentration.
Up. Down. Up. Down. Tick, tick. Three sticks to the snare. Two to the base.
Beside him, the harp casts notes so pure and bright, he smiles, eyes closed, and smells the audience stir in the darkness. Faces, vague like stones, illuminated by the footlights.
“For you, Baker!” He slams into Toad, imagining Clapton and Cream and raggedy red hair, now white. Feels the tick-a-tick-a-tick drum solo roll from his hands, the stage and the beat, the beat, the beat, the beat, and the screams from the fans and the strings of the harp throb and sing and pulse then stop, and the darkness of the bar undulates toward him in waves of heat and cigarettes and booze.
From the fingers of the slender arm stretched across the golden expanse, the haunting strains of Pink Floyd begin. Rath’s face sags, his arms go slack.
“Ahh . . . Shine On You Crazy Diamond . . . .” he moans and slumps against his chair. He feels the leaden weight of his life. The bones in his neck chitter, as his chin drops. His sticks caress the cymbals gently, so softly they purr and hum, then break, a cascade of crystal, then crash and crash and crash.
“For you, Nick . . . ,” he whispers keeping time with the harp’s melodic coursing, its riffs, its true joyous notes, as it weaves through the music. As it ends, Rath’s heart thumps, and quiet descends.
“Old man, how ‘bout me? How ‘bout We Won’t Get Fooled Again?” a rasping voice calls from the dark. “You don’t forget The Who?”
“That you, Moon?” Rath asks, hand up over his eyes again, staring into the black past. A gelled red pin spot illuminates a hollow-eyed man, dead orbs peer beneath a shock of black hair. The face hovers, trembles in the abyss of audience.
“And me, you old fool! You don’ member, me an’ Booker T?” A spot light flickers blue on a black face, a mirage of angles.
Tat-a-tat. Tat-a-tat. Sticks beat out one bar. Time is Tight, then fade.
“Jackson. Them MGs, don’ sound the same without you,” Rath sighs. At that, the strings of the harp sigh, too. Soothing, like drops of honey.
Comes a snare, all rhythm, delicate, a riff, a rap, sticks on hide, dancing taps, evolving. It repeats, repeats.
“It’s the kid,” Al Jackson says.
“The young ‘en,” Keith Moon mutters.
“Zeppelin,” says Rath. “Bonham, gone too young. Zeppelin . . . .” he whispers into the silence and feels the pulse of life lost. Nothing but drum beats, sticks from a darkened corner, escalating, rolling, staccato, thudding like his heartbeat. Like his heartbeat.
He rises to his feet, steps onto the apron of the stage, writhing to the beat, and flings his arms wide, as rainbows flash.
“You play too, Moon. Jackson? Bonham?” he says, “Me’n the harp don’t care. Play too!”
He eases onto his stool, closes his eyes, rests the drumsticks on the snare as Bonham’s tempo lifts his wrists. The wood is satin between his fingers. His hands move like butterflies. They blur, they whir, sticks tumble in the air. Touching here, dropping there, the cymbals shudder, the base taps. Boom. Then Moon jumps in, his beats in time, strong in rhyme. Then Jackson, heavy, deep and soulful, and the harp, its music pure, its golden sound weaves through the air. A glittering net that draws them close.
Rath breathes in the sound. Through his brain it flows, his foot stomps the floor, feels its wood beneath his soles. Hears the harp, the snare, the cymbals clash, and crash, smells the audience, their sweat. Drumsticks fly, heads toss, hair snakes into light, flinging diamonds. Pin spots, spotlights, follow spots flash, top hats shudder, as they open and close, spilling red, blue, amber glows. And the rat-a-tat-tat, the boom, and the crash, the chorus of the harp lifts him and Moon and Jackson and Bonham, as the follow spot grows wider, embraces their frenzy, the rush of tapping and thudding rhythm and strings and the murmur of the audience, then gives way to scoops of white blinding light and electricity, crackling off the cigarette machine, smoke flickering from the Michelob sign, and, with a mighty swoop of wind the doors bang open, and the harp’s sweet piercing sound gathers them up. And out. And away.
Outside, a yellowed handbill pulls loose from its stapled corner on the door and flutters into the air. On it, in awkward letters, crudely scratched, the public is invited to a Tribute.
I had just turned 16. I was living in a small town in eastern France, not urban nor industrial, no longer rural or agricultural, a small town which had been bombed and partly destroyed during WWII and hastily rebuilt in the early 1950s, without charm or personality. A very functional town so close to Germany that it could have been German, except that it wasn’t at all cost. The left bank of the Rhine was definitely French, there was no question about it for the inhabitants of this small town.
Small French towns like mine had no high school; they were not important enough. For that, we had to travel by bus every day to the nearest city, or attend one of the quickly disappearing boarding schools. I was enrolled in the Lycée in Colmar, the nearest town for me, and I had to take a bus every morning at 7.10 a.m. together with my schoolmates from the village. Colmar doesn’t need to be introduced. It is well known in France and even further afield for its medieval streets and alleyways, its refined food and delicate Alsace wine. Beyond that, it is very proud to be the home of one of the great masterpieces in the History of Art: Matthias Grunewald’s 15th century Retable d’Issenheim. I learned to appreciate this amazing polyptych only years later. At 16, I found it dreary like many other representations of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ or the suffering of the martyrs. I was more inclined towards the colors and lightness of modern and contemporary art masterpieces such as Matisse’s, also present in the same museum in Colmar. To live one’s teenage years in the company of Master Grunewald is not particularly uplifting.
My school took the name of another famous Alsatian: Gustave Bartholdi, architect and sculptor, better known for being the father of the Statue of Liberty, celebrated gift from France to the USA in commemoration of its independence from Great Britain in 1776. With him, I could dream of being somewhere else. By going to a Lycée bearing his name, the doors to America were mentally opened to me. In my girl’s dreams, I could take off to the New World, to another land embodied by a massive statue carrying a torch to enlighten the World. I was enlightened too. During the particularly dull classes of physics or biology, I could let my mind wander to faraway lands and break the imaginary walls. I would picture myself as a great traveler or adventurer, discovering places still unknown to me. From time to time, I was called back to reality by our teacher who was struggling to teach the biology of the human body to giggling teenagers.
Like many girls my age, I spent most of my time with my friends. They were the center of my emotional life; my parents, always busy with their own occupation, had become the background frame of my life, even if a reassuring frame. My life was simple with its daily routine: I took the bus in the morning, I attended the classes at school, I wasted time with my friends at cafés, I took the evening bus back home and did my homework. I shared all my concerns with my close friends, and I knew every one of my friends’ problems without reserve, including every single sexual experience they ever had. We were discovering sex and contraception and relationships in a navel-gazing vision of the World. For us, our own little world and problems were at the center of the universe.
When I couldn’t take the bus (generally on Saturday because of irregular service), I would hitch-hike into town. It was an easy and safe mode of transport, particularly in this semi-rural community where most people knew each other. But in my innocence as an adolescent, I couldn’t see that I was a fresh and attractive girl, full of life and enthusiasm, with the newly formed body of a woman. All the warnings about men using women as sexual prey were theoretical to me. I was so preoccupied by my own body and its imperfections that I couldn’t conceive that grown-up men would take me in their car for any other motive than that of taking me to my destination.
I had my first lesson while hitch-hiking on a plain Saturday afternoon to go to Colmar. The father of one of my school friends stopped at the end of the village to give me a ride. I knew him quite well mainly because he had the only clothes shop in the village selling Levi’s jeans, a highly praised item in my generation, so in addition to hanging around with his son, I would be an occasional customer as well. While hitch-hiking, I was always a little nervous that the wrong person would stop and I would find myself in a difficult situation, but in his car, I felt safe and secure. Along the way, we were having a friendly chat; I remember very clearly his smiley face hidden behind a large beard which he insisted on keeping even though it had become out of fashion. I also remember, and will never forget it, that at some point in the conversation he put his hand on my thigh and asked me if I minded. It was the first time this kind of situation happened to me. In a flash, I understood the perversity of it, a mature man, about 30 years older than I was, trying to take advantage of me and my immaturity. The dark side of human nature was revealed to me in that instant. The evil side that Master Grunewald depicted so powerfully. For me, this man was a father, and as a father he couldn’t have had a sexual intent, at least not for someone my age. He was crossing a forbidden barrier. I suddenly understood that I was no longer a child or a young girl who grown-up people would try to protect, but with the recent change in my body, I had become a sexual prey. I was now a woman who would have to defend herself and make her own choices in that matter for the rest of her life. I was calm enough to take his hand and put it straight back on the gear stick. I asked him to drop me off at the next village where we had arrived and I got out of his car without saying anything apart from a brief and aloof goodbye. I never mentioned this episode to anyone, certainly not to my parents who would have had such an angry reaction that I preferred to let the matter drop. I had learned my lesson, a very important one, and I felt that was enough.
Stupidly or not, I continued to hitch-hike, the desire for freedom was much stronger than all the fears I could have. By now I felt strong enough to face other situations of this kind, I could defend myself as I just did. It was a lesson all women had to learn at some point of their life, and usually they learned it very young. Enlightened by Bartholdi’s iconic torch, I was back on my own road to liberty, still very limited in its restricted environment but nevertheless the beginning of my own free path. My previous lesson could not have prepared me for what happened that other Saturday, a beautiful sunny autumn afternoon, warm enough for a girl to forget that winter would soon be there and be as long and harsh as it could be in this eastern region.
That day, I was hitch-hiking back home from Colmar after having spent most of the afternoon roaming around town with my usual friends. It was 5 p.m., I was on the outskirts of town, my thumb up towards the cars passing by. I didn’t have to wait long until a washed red Renault four of the type still running in the 1980s, stopped by to offer me a lift. A dark-haired man probably in his thirties was driving. I told him where I wanted to go; he hardly looked at me, at least he didn’t take a frank look into my eyes when he told me where he was going. I jumped in but felt uncomfortable from the onset. He had a strange expression on his face I couldn’t decipher. On his legs, he had placed a woolen checkered blanket which covered him from his knees up to his waist. He was holding the steering wheel with one hand and had the other one on the gear change which in a Renault four was next to the steering wheel and the dashboard. Once he was in maximum fourth gear, he put his right hand under the blanket and continued driving with just his left hand. I felt something wasn’t right but I didn’t know what. It was a sentiment. I was trying not to look at him and his strange face but was instead focusing on the road ahead of us, while sneering sideways towards him from time to time. While driving, he was looking at the road, then looking at me, looking at road then looking at me, looking at the road then looking at me…..on and on for a while. I noticed his hand under the blanket was moving but I didn’t dare look at him. I was trying to understand why he would put a blanket on his knees; with my vivid imagination I thought he may have a gun hidden under it and could hit at any time. To reassure myself, I was trying to convince myself that maybe he was slightly disabled and needed a blanket for protection, but even that didn’t stand because of the strange atmosphere and odd vibes I could feel. The movement of his hand became more regular, he was definitely sliding his hand up and down his upper thigh in a very regular rhythm while continuously looking alternatively at my face and at the road. The intensity was such that it felt like it lasted for a very long time. Then everything suddenly became clear: he was masturbating under his blanket while looking at me for stimulation. I froze. I just wanted to get out and away from this sick man; a still young man who had the audacity or was so deranged as to masturbate in his car while driving a teenage girl.
I gathered my strength to ask him calmly to stop the car and let me out. He just asked why I didn’t want to go to my destination anymore. I didn’t reply, I just repeated that I wanted to stop there. I didn’t care about walking the remaining 10 kilometers to my home, I just wanted to get out and breathe again. He did as I asked and left. I was so shaken by what I’d experienced that I was unable to talk about it for many years, not even to my closest friends. It wasn’t the sexual act that shocked me, so much as the madness of the human mind. The sight of a troubled man displayed so openly in front of my young eyes. The torch of the Statue of Liberty was trying to enlighten me again in a most obscure way, not showing me the path to a greater land, but putting light to the dark and shady corners of humanity. The evil side of humanity Master Grunewald had captured so skillfully.
Thirty years later, I still go back to Colmar to see the Master, and I don’t find him tedious anymore.
It was that time in early fall when late-afternoon colors arrived, accompanied by a chill in the air.
Jessica Lorenzo had permitted herself to enjoy a few days by the shore. She was in her mid-fifties and had worked with diligence all year round, editing and publishing other writers’ work. Hardly ever had she found the time to write down the many stories that sprouted in her own mind.
Seated on the edge of a deserted boat landing, feet dangling several inches above the water, Jessica filled up a handful of pages from a yellow legal pad with the opening of a new story. She could already predict that it would become one of her very best.
Engrossed in her writing, Jessica took no notice of either her surroundings or of the passing of time. It was only when daylight began to fade, and a light, cool breeze blew in from the northwest, that she capped her ballpoint pen and opened her canvas briefcase.
At the moment when she was about to toss her writing tools into her bag, a strong, dark-skinned hand appeared from her left side and snatched her yellow pad from her.
“Hey! Lemme see what you’ve gotten there!” A young, male voice said, high above, behind her back.
Jessica did not dare to move. Her throat felt like parchment paper. She took a swift look in all directions. There was nobody at the shore. There were no boats in sight.
She heard the young man’s voice attempt to decipher her jottings and insertions:
“Hey man!” another masculine, adolescent voice snapped, accompanied by quick, heavy steps. “What’re you doing there, reading?” He chuckled. “You, reading? Ha ha ha!”
“Hey guys! Let me take a look!” A third teenager yelled, a few feet behind Jessica. “Don’t forget I’m the intellectual among us!”
An explosion of raucous laughter preceded what sounded like a playful scuffle:
“Watch out, man!”
“Nah, man. Let go! I don’t wanna mess with you!”
Jessica perceived the sound of skidding sneakers; she was afraid to turn around.
There was a noisy splash and a scream, quickly followed by two more splashes and loud gasps for air.
Jessica finally turned toward the west. Three animated figures were silhouetted against the setting sun.
“Help!” One of them yelled.
Jessica hesitated for an instant.
What if it’s all staged? Some kind of male game to lure me into the water and…? I’m not much of a swimmer. Plus, I’m not about to risk my life, least of all, to save three idle teenagers. My entire afternoon’s work is lost, because of their stupidity! Would they have dared snatch my papers away, had I been a man? Of course not!
Standing up, she peered into the ocean, shading her eyes with her hand. Her scribbled-up legal pad was drifting toward the darkening horizon. She grimaced and stamped on a wooden plank. Her story was still going through her head and she was eager to work on it.
“Help!” Two of the teenagers shrieked, in an almost perfect unison.
Their clamor jolted her back to the present moment. She took another fleeting look around. Again, the desolation of the place sent a shiver through her.
What should I do? Seek qualified assistance, of course—but, first, get out of here fast! Just in case these clowns should jump out of the water and chase me!
She took long, rapid steps over the boat landing and along the sandy shore. Her small hotel was not too far away.
Once I get there, I can report the incident. But will the boys still be alive by then? Hmmm. I doubt they’re in any real danger, to begin with. Guys that age tend to be proficient swimmers—all-around sportsmen, in fact! More so, if they’re beach community residents. Yes. It’s all a silly male game, of course. But, what if it isn’t?
There were many tourists crowding around the hotel reception desk; it was futile to wait. Jessica was not the type to run in, screaming her news, either. She rushed up the stairs to her second-floor room. She went directly to the telephone and dialed the hotel operator. The line was busy. She dialed 911. It was busy too. She continued dialing both numbers for a while.
With a snort of impatience, she returned the telephone to its cradle. Remembering her briefcase, she opened it and looked inside. There were a few more fresh writing blocks in it. She took up pen and paper again and began reconstructing her interrupted story, from the beginning.
It was close to ten in the evening, when the rumblings from her stomach forced her to put down her writing tools and look for nourishment. She remembered the hotel information card on the desk had stated the restaurant would be open for almost two more hours.
Jessica splashed some water on her face and brushed her hair. She was about to go down, when the image of the three boys flashed through her mind.
Oh. I never got around to reporting the “drowning” incident!
She caught her guilty reflection in the mirror by the door.
Hmmm. What if someone spotted me on the boat landing this afternoon and…accuses me of “abandoning the scene of an accident?” Assuming that those young guys actually drowned, that is? Better not take any risks and just order room service!
Some thirty minutes later, there was a knock on her door. A smiling black woman appeared. She announced: “Here’s your sandwich…fries…apple pie…and Coke, Ma’am. Enjoy!”
Jessica paid and tipped the maid and locked the door. She tuned the radio to the classical music station and settled down at the small, round table by the window. She gulped down her food and called for someone to take away the dishes.
Once the maid was gone, Jessica turned on the television set to the local channel. The evening news program was starting. She watched it all the way through to the end. There was no mention of either missing adolescents nor of bodies being found anywhere along the Long Island shore. For Jessica, the temptation to dismiss the incident involving the three teenagers as a mere prank was very great.
But what if their families are not aware of their absence yet? It’s only 11:30 in the evening—hardly late for a group of adolescent males to be out.
Brushing her teeth, she remembered that the law required a twenty-four-hour wait prior to reporting a missing person.
Not a very intelligent law! By that time, a victim of a kidnapping could be on another continent and a murderer far away from the scene of his crime!
She caught her image in the bathroom mirror and paused.
But I have not committed any crime! I didn’t push any of those boys off the landing! Why should I feel so afraid? Well, technically speaking, I “abandoned the scene of an accident” and failed to report it. If those teenagers really drowned, I could be blamed for it!
She brushed her hair and walked out of the bathroom.
Maybe I should return to Manhattan–or travel somewhere else for the remainder of my vacation. If I stay here, I won’t find any peace or be able to produce anything worthwhile.
Jessica returned to the desk and stared at her evening’s writing. She slapped the desk and cursed.
I will definitely never sit on any boat landing again!
She looked at the framed picture hanging above the desk and sighed. It depicted a white clipper, sailing in a serene, bright-blue ocean.
If I stay in this town, I won’t settle anywhere to write. I will forever be looking over my shoulder. Darned boys!
She shook her head and sighed, yet again.
Isn’t there anywhere where a solitary woman can have her privacy respected?
Her ruminations were interrupted by a loud knock on her door. Jessica hesitated for a moment. It was rather late to open the door to a probable stranger.
It’s almost certainly a case of “Wrong room—sorry!” But, what if it’s the police? To arrest me or, at least, to interrogate me?
There was a second knock, followed by a third and a fourth, in increasingly quick succession. She rose from the desk chair, ironing her clothes with her hands.
If it’s going to happen, let it happen here, in a place where no one knows me—rather than at my co-op in The Village.
She swallowed and asked, through the closed door: “Who is it?”
“Lucy! It’s me, Jeff!” A man answered, with a smile in his voice. Jessica shouted back: “You won’t find her here—wrong room!”
She heard the man try his luck next door, then on and on, all the way down the corridor. He repeated his search on the other side of the hall, calling out: “Lucy! Lucy! It’s me, Jeff!”
A door opened across the hall and a gruff male voice snapped: “Hey, man! ‘Lucy’—if that‘s her real name–doesn’t want to see you—get off this floor!”
“But…but…she told me she wanted to spend the night with me!”
“She lied to you, pal!” Another male voice laughed out, two doors to the left of Jessica’s. “Scram, buddy—before Security shows up!”
Jessica heard the man stumble through a nearby exit door. She exhaled and raised her eyes to the ceiling.
Phew! What kind of a hotel is this, anyway? It all looked so peaceful and welcoming on the web page! Huh!
She began gathering her belongings with alacrity.
I better leave this accursed town in the morning. But where can I go? What if the police find the kids’ corpses and track me down at home? How could I ever again face my neighbors and my building staff?
She sank down at the desk.
Better have it all out here, where no one knows me. I should wait one more day, to give them time to discover the bodies and interrogate me.
She turned the television set on and searched for CNN. She left it on and listened from bed, for any news of teenage drownings in Long Island.
I’d better not bother changing into my pajamas, just in case they come to arrest me.
The news was the usual kind—i.e., senseless wars, unspeakable crimes, corrupt politicians, and so on.
Jessica started to doze.
Yeah, politicians. They can get away with anything—but, not me, of course.
The sound of her own voice woke her up with a start.
Of course–the political angle of the incident! That is the underlying reason for my fear.
She was now fully awake again.
If I’m arrested, I stand no chance of justice!
Her heart began pounding fast, as she continued her reasoning.
I’m a financially prosperous white female; those three boys sounded to me decidedly lower class and, at least two of them were black. Hmmm.
She could hear her heart racing. She rose and walked to the bathroom.
Sheeesh. The authorities might also take an anti-female stance. Certainly, in the eyes of our society, the life of a fifty-something, single, childless female is pointless.
Elizabeth’s voice blared in her head: “You should’ve dived into the water and saved those poor guys!”
Sure! That would have been foolhardy! A middle-aged woman dragging three strapping male adolescents out of the ocean! It might be feasible for another type of woman–but definitely not for me!
Her young co-worker’s reproaching voice continued to drone inside her head: “How? How could you have allowed those three young men to drown? Three young lives, full of potential? You have lived enough! You should’ve given them a chance to live on! Why didn’t you? Why? Why? Why?”
Elizabeth’s voice drowned in the toilet’s flushing water. Recalling her brief yoga training, Jessica shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. On her way towards the large armchair by the window, she noticed the time on the bedside table clock; it was only one ten in the morning. The television set was still on, delivering the litany of the day’s news. Jessica sat back in the armchair. In time, she fell asleep.
“Oooooh!” The black woman standing near her screeched and covered her gaping mouth with both hands. “Are you okay, Ma’am?”
Jessica peered at her through half-opened eyes. Relief quickly replaced fear, as she noticed the woman’s maid uniform and asked her: “What time is it, please?”
“Oh! Good! You’re alive!” The woman advanced towards her, and Jessica repeated her question.
“Oh! The time! Sorry! Yes, of course!” The hotel maid looked at her wrist and announced: “It’s five past nine, Ma’am! Are you all right?”
“In the morning?”
“Yes, Ma’am—in the morning.” The maid continued to stare at Jessica and asked:
“Are you ill, Ma’am?”
“I guess I’m all right. I just fell asleep in this armchair.”
“Oh. I hope you didn’t miss your flight or something, Ma’am!”
Jessica shook her head and yawned. “Excuse me. I guess I need a lot of rest. I work too hard all year.”
“May I send someone with your breakfast, Ma’am?”
Jessica sighed. “I’ll need a shower, first.”
“Oh. A while later, then?”
“No, thanks. I’ll go down, myself, when I’m ready.”
The woman puckered her lips and shook her head: “There’ll be no breakfast left by then, Ma’am!” She looked Jessica straight in the eye and stated: “I’ll order you breakfast right away and you can take your shower later, Ma’am.”
Before Jessica had a chance to respond, the maid dashed towards the door, adding: “Stay in your room, resting all day, Ma’am. You look like you really need it!”
Good. Now, I have an official excuse to remain secluded all day, away from public scrutiny.
Jessica stretched her limbs and rose from the armchair, strolling in the direction of the bathroom.
When she came out, she discovered her breakfast laid out in covered, white bowls, by the window. She ate at leisure, taking her time to deliberate on her current predicament.
Once more, she waited until the maid had cleared her table, to look for news on TV.
Nothing! No reports of drowned teenagers! Most likely, nothing happened, after all. But let’s play it safe and stay here until the morning.
The rest of her day was spent in tranquility, alternating between writing and checking the news. She kept herself awake and alert, with Coke from the vending machine in the hallway.
When a siren broke her late-afternoon torpor, Jessica’s heart burst into loud palpitations.
This is it!!!
She sat up straight in her chair and waited.
Someone was at her door.
The police? Ok, I’m ready for them!
Jessica walked with firm steps towards the door. As she approached it, she recognized the voice on the other side.
The maid! Is she coming with them?
Jessica swallowed and opened the door. The smiling black woman in her black-and-white uniform was standing by herself outside her door. Jessica stuck her head out and looked both ways; there was no one in the hallway. She sighed.
“Good evening, Ma’am! How are you feeling?”
“Still a bit tired, thanks.”
“I’m about to leave for the day, Ma’am. Is there something you need? Dinner?”
“That would be nice! Er…what was that siren all about?”
“Oh, that was the ambulance. Someone suffered a stroke.”
“Oh! How sad!”
“That sure is, Ma’am!”
Jessica turned around, pointed to the trash bin by her desk, and asked: “Would you mind emptying my garbage?”
“Oh, sure, Ma’am! That’s no problem!” The woman assured her and entered the room. Noticing the many handwritten pages, strewn over the desk, she exclaimed:
“Oh! You’re a writer!” Without waiting for Jessica’s response, the maid continued: “My son Jamal is now fancying himself a writer…only that he isn’t!”
Jessica‘s eyebrows went up. The woman proceeded:
“Yesterday, he dashed through the door with a wet pack of papers and locked himself into his room for an hour!”
A wet block of papers? Hmmm.
“And, did he come out with a finished story or poem?”
“Not really! He said that his papers had fallen into the water and he had to wait for them to dry up.”
Aha! Could he be one of the three boys? I must find out!
Jessica said to the maid: “Bring Jamal’s script to me, tomorrow; I have a good position as an editor at an important publishing house.” She paused and added: “If your son has talent, I can help him get published.”
“Oh!” The maid’s eyes widened. “But I don’t think my boy is up to that!”
“He may not be, but I can tell you if he has talent and can help him develop it further.”
“Oh, Ma’am! You are so kind!”
“You’ve taken good care of me, and I appreciate it.”
“Oh, but I was just doing my job, Ma’am!”
“Just the same. Bring me your son’s script tomorrow.”
“I’ll sure try! Good night, Ma’am!”
Jessica listened to the maid’s receding steps.
Hah! It looks like I was right all along and no one drowned! What a relief! If “Jamal” is one of those three boys, which one would he be? The one who snatched the pad from me? Or the one who claimed to be “The intellectual” of the group? Or the other one? Huh! Interesting possibilities!
Shortly after her dinner dishes had been cleared away, Jessica thought she heard a knock at her door. She lowered the volume of the television set and listened. The knock was louder this time. She approached the door and inquired: “Who is it, please?”
There was silence on the other side. A few seconds later, she heard a hesitant, but familiar voice: “Ma’am…?”
The maid? At this time?
Something about the woman’s tone of voice and unaccustomed diffidence made her pause. Jessica called back: “Is there something wrong?”
“Er…not really, Ma’am. We’ve got something to give you. Something that you asked for.”
“We?” Who was she with? Her son? Hmmmm. Will it be safe for me to open the door? God help me!
The tall, young man outside her door said: “I believe this belongs to you, Madam.” and handed her a wrinkled, faded writing pad.
“I believe…” Aha! That surely must be “The Intellectual!”
Jessica took the papers and thanked him matter-of-factly. He lowered his eyes and started to go, but his mother—now clad in a flowery dress—stepped forward and nudged him. Head down, he turned back to Jessica and mumbled: “I apologize, Ma’am….” and walked away fast.
His mother looked at Jessica and nodded a silent farewell. Her habitual effervescence was gone. In place of her accustomed broad, white-toothed smile, her lips were tightly closed. Her eyes bore traces of tears. Her brow exhibited a deep frown.
Jessica nodded back and closed her door. It was not difficult to imagine what must had transpired between mother and son.
Jessica leafed through the water-stained bunch of papers. She shrugged and stashed them away in her briefcase.
Well, I might be able to make out some of it, later. Some of my original phrases may prove superior to my hasty reconstructions of that unfortunate evening.
She threw her suitcase onto the bed.
The important thing is that this strange ordeal is now over!
She shook both fists up in the air. Humming to herself, she began to pack.
The following morning, she was first at breakfast. By the time the hotel maids started their rounds, Jessica Lorenzo was already miles away in her comfortable, two-passenger car.