Friday, April 25, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon, Part 4

Without television or radio, our access to the outside world was limited to the U.S. mail, the copy of the daily newspaper available in the library and the three pay telephones in the basement of Wickersham Hall. We relied on our masters - that's what we called the teachers, who also lived at the school and who had televisions in their living quarters - to inform us. But we did have opportunities to escape this shelter.

Traveling to other boys' schools for games or to girls' schools for dances wasn't really getting out in the world, however. We were just moving from one shelter to another. Still, the dances were exciting and an opportunity for mischief.

I can recall a winter night in Albany, slow-dancing to Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence," in the darkened rec hall at St. Agnes Academy for Girls, our chaperons patrolling like prison guards, we were damp with sweat and desire, breathing through perfumed hair, thigh to thigh we danced, and then later a bunch of us sneaking out the door to huddle in the cold dark to share a forbidden cigarette.

There were times, when traveling to and from school from home, when we were loose in the world. They took a busload of us from school to the Albany train station just before Thanksgiving in 1965. We were all dressed for travel in coats and sport jackets and London Fog trench coats, most of us headed for New York City, and from there to home. I went straight to a kiosk in the station and bought a pack of cigarettes. Soon I'd be on the train, in the bar car and trying out my new fake ID and being served gin and tonics. I was feeling grown-up, but I was only 16 and uncommonly naïve. I'd always been that way - the last kid on the block to believe in Santa Claus, the last kid to realize how babies were made. I was so trusting of adults and sure they would never lie to kids or engage in filthy physical activity.

While sitting and smoking in the waiting area, a man about twice my age approached me. "I'm in a bit of a fix," he said. "I need some help. Are you interested in earning $20?"
"Sure!" I blurted out. "But I've got to catch a train in an hour. What sort of work do you have?"
"It won’t take long, it's just around the corner," he said.
I followed him out to the street. The sky was overcast, the same grimy gray as the streets and the dust-caked windows of buildings covered in a patina of charcoal factory soot. Albany never seemed to have recovered from winter. We walked two blocks.
"Where is this work you have?" I asked.
"My place is just around the corner," he answered.
And then I realized what was happening. I felt nauseous and fearful. "I gotta go," I said, turning and running back toward the station.
"Hey! Where are you going! It's just around the corner!" the man yelled after me, but I kept running and didn't stop until I'd found a group of my friends with which to surround myself, in case he'd followed me back.

This clutch of three or four classmates was my shelter. Darrow may have seemed like a prison to us then, but it, and the boys that made it, was our refuge. I can understand that now.


Anonymous said...

Your experience at the dance reminds me of my senior prom. We were locked in a gymnasium from 8 p.m. to 6a.m. No one was allowed to drive or to go home to change clothes for the after prom. Teachers and administrators guarded the doors. When the live band hired for the event broke into "A Taste of Honey" by Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, the school principal warned them not to be so avant garde and restricted them to slow songs and cha chas for the rest of the night. We did have a local rock band for the after prom. I can't quite envision you slow dancing to "SOS," though -- it's somewhere between slow & fast. In the vernacular of musicians, half-fast.

Park Burroughs said...

Yes, "Sounds of Silence" is not exactly a great dance tune, but given the circumstances (boys and girls kept away from each other for months), we would have gladly slow-danced to complete silence.