An Empty Room, Green Trolleys, and Brubeck

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An Empty Room, Green Trolleys, and Brubeck

Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra: III – Adagio-Ballad, by Howard Brubeck, performed by the New York Philharmonic with the Dave Brubeck Quartet conducted by Leonard Bernstein (1961), encountered 1966(?), re-encountered 1967

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In a nearly empty room, after perhaps weeks of silence, music begins.  A group of cellos is heard, meandering through a series of desolate chords without a clear direction, while above them a lonely French horn picks out a melody as if at random, as if trying to find a footing in the insecure and seemingly trackless chordal structure.  Then, after two minutes, the whole thing jells, and a jazz saxophone picks up where the French horn left off, and, confidently navigating the chord pattern, swings effortlessly where the French horn stumbled.  A piano picks up the stride, and struts through what now turns out to have been a 16-bar pattern, and then the saxophone comes back, and marches with the entire orchestra to a composed, if bluesy, and subdued, and melancholy conclusion.

This is the way I still picture to myself hearing part of the Dialogues for Jazz Combo and Orchestra: in my empty college dorm room on my very first night there, all alone.  It is a powerful recollection.

We are now entering the densest collection of songs for any time period I’ll be discussing in these pages.  Some years don’t rate a song; this one is worth several.  Freshman year was an explosion of new things, music among them, all discovered together.

Ending a Summer, and a Time of  Life

The preceding period had been the opposite of explosive.  In the previous piece, I wrote about how the summer after graduation was an exhausted, solitary, and introspective time, as, among other things, my stepdad recovered from a life-threatening illness and surgery and I tried to write a novel.  By the end of the summer, though, we were all pulling ourselves together.  I visited my father in New York, and my mom and stepdad vacationed in Bay City (while the Detroit riots raged).  And when I got back, and they got back, we were all refreshed and recovered, and it was time to get serious.

None of us knew much about what we were getting serious for, though.  In my case – and from talking to contemporaries, it seems that this was far more typical in those years than nowadays – I had literally never set foot on the campus of the university I would be attending and couldn’t even picture it in my head.  (I did like the cream-colored stationery with the interesting typeface but that was hardly something to start planning a future around.)

Not to Be Rushed

I really had no idea of what the place was like.  There were no websites to visit, very little in the way of counseling to advise me, and my parents were, for a set of academics, singularly clueless about where I might like to go, or why.[1] I had applied to six schools, all of them elite Eastern institutions.  I just assumed that I was good enough and would get through the screening process.  It was a near thing in the end, though;[2] only one ended up accepting me.[3]

My stepdad, now well enough, took me to Fiegel’s, an old-line men’s store on Main Street, to get some clothes for college.  I remember getting much that turned out to be too dressy, although that could have turned out to be more a sign of the changing times as we moved into the later 60s than of any norms at the University of Pennsylvania, my new school.  I had this picture in my mind of people attending football games dressed a bit like collegians from the 20s, which sort of was true for about one year.  (I ended up hanging onto those largely-unworn ties well into graduate school.)  Somehow we also acquired a huge green trunk with a removable shelf, and packed a lot of my stuff, including some records and stereo gear, into it.  Then we entrusted it to the care of the Railway Express Agency,[4] in the hope and expectation that it would be delivered to my dorm in time.

And then it was time to go.  But we did it my family’s own unique way.  My mom called her brother in Southern Maryland, her father in Boston, and an old high school friend of hers in Washington, and urged them all to be part of the sendoff in Philadelphia. All of them could and did make it.  Not only that, but we made a royal progress of what was at most a two-day journey (we’d got to Washington in one day on my high school junior trip), stopping in Pittsburgh and with old graduate school friends of my parents in Chambersburg as well.  We even toured the battlefields at Gettysburg.

So it was that not until about 5 p.m. on Friday, September 1, did we reach the point at Valley Forge where the Schuylkill Expressway diverged southwards from the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  And I knew from the maps (I’d become the family’s navigator on long car trips), that I was finally getting close to my new home.  And a sense of anticipation that had sort of been dammed up inside me until that point started to spring some leaks.  I just wanted to be at Penn, whatever that was like, and doing things my own way.  Instead I was still part of a family get-together.

But of course my parents, being who they were, were not to be rushed.  We didn’t go past the campus then, but instead made for the Sheraton in Center City, on the John F. Kennedy Boulevard.  Then we had to go to one of the Bookbinder’ses[5] for dinner.  Finally, after dinner, my parents consented to take me over to the campus; a campus cop let us in.  We found my dorm room, in an ivy-covered quad.  It would have been a little too high off the ground for a Sebastian Flyte to have been likely to come and vomit in my window, a la Brideshead Revisited,[6] though this photo taken of the same window the following summer (with the ivy unfortunately stripped) demonstrates it might have been technically possible.  Still, I was going to be almost as immediately exposed to whatever would go down out there on the quad as Charles Ryder had been.  I thought about this as we drove back to the Sheraton.

The following day, all the other members of the family group gathered.  All I wanted was to get away.  We  retrieved the Railway Express trunk, and moved my things into the dorm.  I got to make my bed, and pulled my precious stereo components together from the green trunk and the boxes in the car, but I don’t think I had time to wire them. The six of us went out to dinner at the other Bookbinder’s.  And then, gloriously, I slipped away…

Trial by Trolley

I was always the navigator, as I’ve said, and I could have walked it, and I’m sure for that matter my parents would have staked me to a cab.  But I really wanted to do it the way a Philadelphian would, by the underground trolley.  Somehow I’d researched it, and worked out that there were four lines that ran through a station a block from the hotel, and would deposit me right on campus outside the dorms.  (Just avoid the Number 10, I was warned.)  So, as soon as I’d made my leave, I went down into the portal of the 19th Street Station.

I was excited and nervous.  I remember being struck by what I would come to recognize as the peculiar smell of that tube, something reminiscent of steam and heated electrical copper.  There were four tracks, but only two were accessible from the platforms in this station; I saw bigger, faster trains traverse those tracks, and for some reason that made me nervous whether I was truly on the right line.  Eventually one of the correct trolleys came by, a shiny green thing, but needless to say, I was still nervous.

I was puzzled, too, when the trolley came to a switch in the tunnel, stopped, and waited for the track alignment to reset.  Again, I was concerned that somehow I might have things wrong, and that this new alignment would take me out to whatever place I shouldn’t go.  (You can know facts like the fact that you’re not on the Number 10, and then somehow still worry, especially when you’re just 18 and in the big city on your own for the first time.)  So at the first stop after the switch, I bolted.  I figured if I were not too far out, I could either go back, or work my way over to the campus and the dorm, whereas if I waited for the next stop, somehow it might turn out not to be 37th Street, but somewhere else entirely, and I might find I was further out in the wrong direction.[7]

So out I got at the Sansom Street stop.  If you go by there today, you’ll find it’s part of the gleaming, transformed Penn of the 21st Century, in a smart, retail-heavy neighborhood.  When I alit at the same stop on the evening of Saturday, September 2, 1967, the street was dark, empty, and a little bit sinister.  But I felt reassured somehow that I was in about the right place, and struck out in what I figured had to be the right direction.  I was correct on all assumptions.  My dorm room turned out to be only about three blocks off.  I got inside without trouble.

Lares and Penates

So I settled in, all by myself.  And that’s when I hooked up my lares and penates, the stereo components, and sat in the semidarkness.  I don’t know just what it was that made me pull out the album pictured above, with the too-long title, for the very first thing I would play, but I’m quite clear that that was the music.  I’d been turned on to the album by Bob, a high-school classmate, who like me used to sit in the small audio-visual section and play music through headphones.  I loved Brubeck’s crunchy piano chords, the searching, piercing sax of Paul Desmond, and Joe Morello and Gene Wright’s elegant drums and bass.  But most of all, I loved to hear them set against an orchestra.

The work I was listening to was a four-movement concert piece composed by Brubeck’s brother Howard, which gave the orchestra set things to do and periodically opened up windows for the quartet to jam in.  All of the movements were wonderful, but there’s no doubt that that night it was the third movement, the Adagio, that mattered.  I was lonely and a little frightened, and I embraced those feelings.  And that Adagio, described at the head of this piece, nailed that feeling.

My roommate was coming the next day, I knew.  But for that one night, I could revel in my aloneness, in a strange place, after a challenging first encounter with public transport, and a great adventure before me.

That would be a nice note on which to end this piece, but in truth there’s a little more to tell.

The next day, typically of my upbringing, started with my finding my mom at the Cathedral for mass.  Afterwards I had to play tourist courtesy of my mom’s old friend, who had been a lawyer in Philadelphia for some years before decamping for Washington (she’ll come into these stories again), and we toured, for instance the Main Line.  But I cut out when I could, got back and met and spent the night with my new roommate, with whom I hit it off pretty well (a friend to this very day).  So that was exciting.

That Guillotine Moment

The following day, though, was the one I’d really been anticipating and dreading.  I wrote earlier about how high school graduations mark the moment when the pulling apart of the ties between parents and children, so necessary and so scary, begins in earnest.  However, for sheer guillotine-like intensity and definitiveness of severance, nothing in our society, short of divorces and funerals, begins to compare to the moment when parents leave kids off at college for the first time.  I have now been through both sides of the experience, and I know.  Talk about necessary; talk about wrenching!

I rejoined my family for breakfast, and then everyone but my parents got going on their respective modes of transport out of town.  It was down to my parents and me.  My parents checked out of the hotel, and drove me over to the campus.  The new roomie, his parents, my parents and I all went to the Dean’s reception.  Then came the moment of goodbye.  I had this terrible hollow feeling.  I don’t remember the hugs and what was said, but I do remember, after my parents had left, being unable to talk to anyone.  I just needed to get out.

The campus block that includes what were then known as the Men’s Dorms, a sprawling polyhedron of connected quads, was quite large, encompassing also the University Hospital and the Arboretum, perhaps a mile around.  I went out walking, head down, crying softly.  Suddenly, someone honked at me.  I looked up, and there were my folks, one more time.  “Hey,” my stepdad yelled, “can you tell us the way to Penn?” and then they sped off.

I burst into tears.  I may have misted up and sobbed to myself before; now I was bawling.  My childhood, at this very moment, was completely gone, all used up.  A door had slammed behind me.

And After

I finished the long walk around the block, pulling myself together as I went.  I made it back to my room, and sat down and wrote Stefan and Walter, my two closest friends, that I had “a king-sized case of the blues.”  There was no one to tell me what to do anymore, I confided, and part of me wanted that back.

Still, I promptly went out and began my campus life.  They had something called Tradition Night that night.  I described it to my parents as “an orgy of chauvinism backed by the Glee Club.”  I also wrote: “One of the funniest things that happened last night was when this doddering old alumnus, representing the big alumni organization, stepped up to the microphone and said, ‘Welcome aboard.’  My first response … was ‘Who in the hell is he?’  It was obvious that anybody of his mental caliber couldn’t possibly make it into Penn today.”

I nearly choke when I read these words nearly half a century on.  The misplaced negative is the least of it.  I probably am now no younger than that “doddering old alumnus,” and odds are I couldn’t make it past a 21st-Century admissions committee myself.   Still, I take that letter as overall a good thing.  Surely the return of the insufferable arrogance of youth meant that some kind of equilibrium was being restored.

I was launched, thanks to a million and one things, including that unfairly-maligned alumnus, a small victory over the green underground trolley cars, and Brubeck’s Dialogues.


[1] I’m the product of a Harvard-Radcliffe union, and my stepdad was a Hopkins product.  I think my mom and dad couldn’t image me not at Harvard, but to the extent they entertained the notion, they pictured the other schools as being more or less like Harvard.  I’m not clear on what my stepdad was thinking.

[2] I shudder now to think how near.  I nearly didn’t get into Penn because the application process required me to have a Social Security Number, which I didn’t have, and I delayed until the last minute acquiring one.

[3] Though it sounds peculiar today to say it, I did have one ace in the hole if all had gone wrong, the University of Michigan, which I was certain would accept me if I applied.  But I was holding off applying.

[4] Invoking the name of this company, which went out of business in 1975, dates me as much as anything in this blog.  But they were a great thing; unlike the air express to which I turned thereafter, they would pick up the trunk at home and deliver it at the other end.  This ad brags about it.  Source: http://www.american-rails.com/railway-express-agency.html .  (With air express, I was in charge of pickup and dropoff.)

[5] There were two seafood-oriented restaurants of that name in Philadelphia in those days, relating to different offshoots of the same family.  I understand that only one survives.

[6] If this reference escapes you, see Page 29 of the original American edition (1945).

[7] I had not too long before had an unsettling experience trying to take the New York subway from lower Manhattan to my father’s appointment, and getting off at 116th Street – only to  find that it was not 116th Street and Broadway on Morningside Heights, where I meant to go, but 116th Street far to the east, in Harlem.  For a white boy from the Midwest in that era, it was not the desired result.  It may have given me a sense that subway tunnels were not to be trusted always to lead to the same points.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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