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This was probably the best September start that I have ever had in my entire life. I had one year of high school under my belt and eagerly awaited for the second. This time, the building took on a whole new look. It was as if I were a part of the place. I felt more comfortable and quite secure. The new Maurice was definitely much better than the old one.
I still was determined to continue my transition from my old school to my new school. I read the Latin phrase “Audentis Fortuna juvat” ("Fortune favors the bold") somewhere and took it as my own personal motto.
I had to take my first real bold step. I further distanced myself from the old group much to the dismay to some within the group. Who cares? This led me to be chased by some class psycho throughout the building. I found myself running from floor to floor looking for some sanctuary. I couldn’t tell the dean.
That would surely get my lights knocked out by this lunatic. I just had to avoid him. I managed to run to the boy’s locker room. It was locked. I had no idea how far he was behind me. I still heard his footsteps. I turned around and saw a slight hallway. It wasn’t lit. At the end of this partial hallway was a door. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I took the two steps toward this new passageway. I had no idea of what I would accomplish except to hide from this nutcase.
The door opened up both literally and figuratively to a whole new world. It was totally unlike any other room I had ever seen. At first, I sat still hoping that my hunter didn’t hear me enter the room. I quietly grabbed the door handle and ducked down to the side of the door. If he tried the door, I was hoping to convince him that the room was locked. I stayed out of eyesight of the door’s window.
“I mustn’t let him see me,” I thought. I felt the handle turn slightly, but he didn’t get in. He tried again and gave up. I had to stay in this room and be absolutely still. “He mustn’t hear any footsteps.”
After a while, I heard him walk away. Did I trick him? I heard the gym door close. I went out on a limb and gently walked away from the door. I peeped out of the door. He was nowhere in sight. My life was spared a brutal beating.
I walked back through the back door of the room and headed to the front. The steps and the floor were practically one and the same. As I entered the room, I was able to touch the ceiling. As I I got to the front of the room, the ceiling was completely out of my reach.
On the last three steps, if you will, were chairs and music stands. I moved the few chairs and music stands out of the way. In the front of the room just off to the left side was an old black player piano. I went to the piano and tried to play a scale. I was no Chopin, but I liked it. I was in the band room.
I went back the next day to look for the music director. His name was Mr. Keeler. He was probably the only African-American teacher in the entire building. He was completely amicable. I remember how he smiled when he spoke. He was rather soft-spoken. Little did I realize, he was quickly becoming my favorite teacher in the whole school.
He was organizing the room because he was waiting to see the people who wanted to join the band. I asked if it was possible for me to join. He asked me what instrument that I wanted to play. I asked for a trumpet.
He handed me a trumpet. It was an odd looking device that I have been hearing about since the death of Louis Armstrong two months earlier. I put the mouthpiece in my mouth. I blew and nothing resembling musical notes happened to come out. I thought that it was broken. The other boys around me laughed their heads off.
He showed me how to place my lips on the mouthpiece. I made some awful sound. It was good enough to allow me to return. One of the boys named Lenny wanted the last trumpet he saw that was available. He demanded that I turn it over to him. I did. I saw no reason to argue about it and start a fight.
I remembered that he was very friendly with the loony that caused me to end up in the band room in the first place. I didn’t need any more trouble. The director took Lenny’s name and the serial number of the horn. Lenny smiled. He thought that he accomplished something big. So did I.
Mr. Keeler went back into his room. He came out a few minutes later with a brand new trumpet. The case was unscratched. He opened it up and I saw a new trumpet still in the unsealed plastic bag. He handed it to me and told me to show up for my first practice the next day.
I came back the next day for my first lesson. I noticed that one of my rivals in this group was Fast Eddie. He cheated on the placement exam and now he wanted to prove his dominance over me in music. I found a whole new source of untapped energy within me. I listened intensely to the teacher as he taught me my first few notes. I went home and practiced.
Getting to school by 7 had its luxuries. First of all, it allowed me to get into the habit of getting a morning vanilla eggcream and a buttered bagel. There was nothing more soothing than that delicacy. Second, especially on a great day in the spring, I was able to watch the sun come up as I made my way down the hill from the bus stop to CK.
It was the dawn of a new day. For some reason, the feeling I had watching the sun come up on band days was much better than watching it come up at home. I sensed that what I was looking for was nearby. The sunrise was, and still is, the most beautiful part of the day. The birds are out. The Warth is quiet and all I can hear are my thoughts. I wondered, how can someone doubt the existence of God with this beauty in nature?
I headed to the band room. The custodian would open up the doors and let me warm up my Olds Ambassador trumpet. I would stop for a few minutes and look out of the window and watch the sun come up. Then, I would blow a few more notes.
My bagel and eggcream were already gone at this point. I looked out of the window and tried to play “Song for Susie,” hoping to sound much better than the last time I played it. Then would come the ritual of arranging music on the stand. What would he have us play today? I was ready. Soon, my buddy Fred would show up to start playing his baritone horn. Eventually, he would make jokes about my playing. That was our own routine.
I felt sorry for the time I got him in trouble with the dean. I accidentally got him in trouble with the dean. It involved him, a hairbrush, and a locker of his that he wouldn’t open. To make an extremely long story an extremely short one, the dean got wind of it and literally took matters into his own hands. Fred wasn’t too quick to forgive me the next time we met. I felt so bad for him, but I knew better than to confront an angry Catholic school dean of discipline.
My first few sessions sounded more like a cat being squeezed through a vacuum cleaner than a trumpet lesson. Still, I came back for more. Fast Eddie the Slickster, from the original gang of nine and my nearest rookie rival, on the other hand, began to skip a few lessons.
Soon, it became apparent that I was doing much better than he was. I knew that I was making better progress because he was asking me where we were and how to play the hardest passages. Soon, I was eager to move beyond the beginner’s stage. I wanted to jump in with the big boys and leave the rookies behind me. I was becoming a real musician.
I started to show up when the regular band had their practice sessions. After three weeks of showing up, Mr. Keeler invited me to bring my horn to the next rehearsal. I did it. I became the first rookie in that year’s class to move into the band. Fast Eddie the Slickster never moved out of the beginning class at that point. I was in.
Musicians, as I can tell, must be the most widely accepting people in the world. Only musicians would have you show what you can do instead of what you are. When I walked into the band room with my horn, I was introduced to the members of my section.
There was Gloria. She was an extremely pretty, very attractive Puerto Rican girl. It was like looking at an Andrea copy all over again. I fell in love with her eyes. She could have passed for a model. She also had a voice that should have been used for singing. Her smile was so attractive to me. I couldn’t help but notice her first.
The second person I met was Joan. Where Gloria was perky, Joan was down right serious. Gloria would smile often. Joan rarely smiled at all. I often wondered if her face would crack if she did smile. Joan was what I would call a true student player. She was totally serious about playing. She rarely missed a note. She was probably second in command in our section. She was a machine at what she did. Finally, I met the clown-prince, the leader of the band and the section. His name was Gene.
Gene was a master of his horn. He was also the leader of his own band. Gene knew his way around his horn. He was Mr. Keeler’s star musician. He would also be the one to show me around my horn. Gene wanted to very much become a professional trumpeter. His own horn, which was as unique as he, was nickel-plated. The rest of the instruments, except the flutes, were brass plated. He very much wanted to be another Doc Severinsen.
He would tell me this all of the time. I just had to believe him. He had no fear of the instrument. He would do just about anything he wanted with it. There were no passages in music that intimidated him. I was not only impressed with his abilities, but also with his attitude. He was easily the best musician in the entire room. I would frequently lose my place in my music because I would watch how he would play his instrument. He would stop between the breaks in the music and joke with his own band who also had been in the school band.
Together, the three of them helped me negotiate the music. Joan would get angry at me for not counting the music. Gloria would encourage me to keep trying and Gene, well, was Gene. He would play everything in strict time doing whatever his mind let him do. He would play like every day was an audition and he had to show his best effort. Gene never had a bad day, unusual for a musician. If he did have a bad day in the band room, I certainly didn’t notice it.
Our foursome had the awesome job of preparing for the spring concert, my first, and, unfortunately, their last. I also had an additional responsibility: I had to do well or face being put back with the rest of the rookies. I couldn’t afford to fail. I was soon getting known around the building for playing the horn.
This extra incentive was just what I needed. It made me feel more a part of the band instead of the track team. Soon, I left the team altogether and concentrated on the band. I was also having fun. My grades began to shoot up. I had just about the best of both worlds: the band and Brother Pat for algebra class. The trumpet became my most important possession.
I wanted to be the best rookie in the entire band. I think that I guaranteed that simply by being the first in the band. I still had more to prove to everyone including myself. I personally distanced myself from the rest of the rookies by staying with the vets. I wanted to gain more skills. I needed to listen and learn from the best in the room. Soon, I was nearly being scorned by some of my fellow rookies including my new best friend, Fred. I quickly tried to match the skills of Gloria and Joan.
Gene, in the meantime, was playing circles around me. Still, I went after him. I started with the band in February. By late April and early May, I felt extremely stronger. My range was getting better as I approached my high C. I was more confident in myself and that is always a good sign.
I saw one sign that I was getting better. Mr. Keeler came in early to warm us up for practice. Gene wasn’t there. It was just Gloria, Joan, and me. The rest of the band put their instruments down to listen to us. He opened up the piano and prepared to match our notes. Then, he took us up the scale to see how far we could go.
We started off with our C. He went to the next note. As we went higher, I noticed much later that there were only two voices, not the three that started the exercise. Gloria dropped out along the way. I wanted to impress her. I kept going up the scale. It was only Joan and me—the rookie versus the vet. We both quit when we reached our A below high C. Mr. Keeler was impressed. He had a new veteran on the way up.
I went home and practiced that day like I never practiced before. I was making great progress. I wish that Gene had come to the rehearsal earlier that day. I would have loved to try to have matched him note for note that day. I was really psyched up for the challenge.
The concert weekend arrived at last. It was a Friday night and Gene was in his shining glory. It would be his final concert as a CK senior. He was determined to make this his best concert ever. I also wanted my first concert to be just as great. He wasn’t arrogant. He was confident.
Gloria and Joan were also ready for their final appearance. It was a shame, I thought, that they were all going out at the same time. Gene overshadowed everyone in the band. He had this year in his pocket, but he was in a league all to himself. Joan and Gloria should each have had their own year to shine. Unfortunately, all of this great talent came together at the same time and was preparing to leave the same way. I wanted to make sure that this would be the concert for everyone to remember.
Gene was the consummate player. His horn had gleaned from the stage lights. He knew what had to be done. Gene was the man to beat. Beating him at his game was a monumental task. We went through the music with an unequaled energy. The music of the period had never been injected with such life.
Gene’s horn sang through the rest of the band. I played along with the rest of my section. The rest of his band which was scattered throughout the rest of the band also gave us a new life. Soon, they, too, would be gone with their fearless leader.
After the concert was over and the graduation came, I never saw Gloria and Joan again. I saw Gene for a few times after that, but soon, he was gone. I miss them so very much. I never had or took the chance to thank them for all they did for me. It was truly an enjoyable year and I knew it. This was the time of my life at this point.
I was finished with my sophomore year at CK. I wanted something to do with myself. A plan that I had in forming my own jazz-rock group had fizzled almost as fast as it was formed. That’s what I got for trying to concentrate on two things at once.
I heard that the Diocese of Brooklyn was bringing something called Operation F.U.N. to CK for the summer. I inquired as to what this program was about. It was a summer camp for special needs children. I decided to work with the group and give it a chance. What did I have to lose?
I was assigned to a boy named Joey. He and I were almost close in age. I think that I was a year or two older. He was given to me because he gave all of the other counselors a hard time in previous outings with them. Whether he was given to me as a joke or not was a problem to me. I figured that if he was assigned to me as a discouragement, I was going to make the best of it. I was going to help him AND show the other counselors that I cannot be easily discouraged.
I took Joey aside when I first met him. I showed him who I was and that I wanted to help him. I didn’t want him to get angry. I heard someone tell me at the time that he had no idea of his strength and many counselors had been hurt. I wanted him to feel comfortable with me. I took his clothing and showed him a good spot where it would be. Then we went to breakfast. I prepared his meals and took him to the playing area. We would choose a game. He would sit at the table and, five minutes later, walk away. Not only did I have to clean up our mess, but I had to run after him to see where he was going next. This would be our usual routine.
During our time together, I acquired his home telephone. I called to speak to his parents. They sounded like very mature people. Over time, even after the program ended and he went back home, I kept in constant touch with them. Of course, I would ask about him.
During this time, I met Laura. She was a fellow counselor. Although she was just two years younger than me, she was a senior counselor because she had worked in the program years earlier. Her hair was shoulder length. Her voice sounded almost cartoonish in nature. Still, she was a very delightful person. She lived not too far from CK. She was very helpful in getting me started in the program. We would chat from time to time and joke around with each other. After a while, I asked her if she would be interested in starting a relationship. She replied that she would love to give it a shot.
It didn’t take long for us to continue talking to each other. After some time had passed in the week, she invited me to come see her parents. When the day was over, her dad came to pick us up and take us to her house. When the day was over, she walked me to the bus stop. We waited at the corner of Myrtle Avenue and 76th Street. I boarded bus number 803 and headed home. I would never forget those numbers or the experience.
The next day, I was feeling too good for my own good. I kept bothering her too much. She had her hands full with her own work and my problems didn’t help the situation. When she found the time to talk, she told me to just leave her alone. I asked her what she meant. She emphatically stated that everything was over. Apparently, I failed the acceptance test with her parents. They didn’t appreciate that their white daughter brought home a black man. I spent the entire weekend poring over a piece of sheet music that brought back some really nice memories. It was called “Laura.”
Later that summer, I had another great experience with developmentally delayed individuals. I was at the first One to One Festival that was being sponsored by Geraldo Rivera. Yes, that Geraldo. I didn’t have Joey that day. I don’t know where he was. I was given a person, not a child, named David. David was 21. I was 16. He had a mental age of 3 or 4. I was his guardian for the day. I was to show him a good time.
We were doing fine. Then he asked a small favor of me. He asked if we could move up front. I figured that was not a wise choice. I thought that we would both get stomped in the crowd that wanted to also get close to the stage. Besides, I didn’t want to sit so close to the stage. I was fine where I was. That was when I learned that it was tough to say no. I lived with that response for years. Why didn’t I just go up and let him have his fun? It was his day, not mine. He probably went back to the horrible conditions that the mentally disabled have to go in order to call it home—the beatings, the mistreatment, the horrible conditions. I would go home to a warm bed, loving family, and great food. You tell me who should have had it much better. Even to this day, the voices of both David and Joey still haunt me. I miss them both.
All in all, it was a great year. I learned that I had feelings deep within me. I also learned what I was looking for—a girlfriend.
Chapter Three: The Jubilant Junior