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Sunday, 29 July 2007

New York, New York

The Big Bagel

By Ralph J. Carreño
I was born in New York. That was my first stroke of good luck.

It's not enough to get a gift like that. It also needs to be properly wrapped, and that's where my parents came in. In the early 1940s, New York was hardly the menacing place that it has become, in many ways, today. At that time, New York was a open invitation writ large.

My parents encouraged my budding interest in exploring the city -- my callow adventures as New World conquistador. I felt well equipped with a musical education (I studied the violin at the time), a love of reading, and an unbounded curiosity. I could also navigate the city in two languages, Spanish being our family language. (My parents were immigrants from Cuba and Colombia).

I felt snug in my family setting; my parents handing out just the right measures of discipline, responsibility, guidance, love, direction, and, yes, encouragement. I also had two older brothers, who I knew not only loved me in a family way, but liked me as a kindred companion.

I'm not sure how well I remember my very early years. (I was born in 1928). I might have invented a few memories; some might have been filtred through the gauze of family lore; others might have been complete fabrications. These early memories are just too cozy.

But I do remember my pre-adolescent years with clarity and, I'm convinced, that they contain enough verisimilitude that I'm not even kidding myself.

I remember my violin lessons especially well. My father, Toribio, a no-nonsense Cuban, fancied that I might become the next Yasha Heifitz, a Nathan Milstein, even. Twice weekly, for more than ten years, music lessons were on my after-school calendar.

My teacher was Madame Gussow, who lived in what I considered the far reaches, in the 80s, off Central Park West. I lived in the East 50s, and it was actually an easy walk to Madame Gussow's studio. Still, having to cross town fueled my adventuress spirit, as it offered up a variety of ways to get to my music lesson.

One of my frequent routes chez Madame Gussow was via 57th Street. I was about 13 when, one day, approaching Sixth Avenue, I encountered the Student Art League of New York. Fifty-seventh Street, in front the school, was teeming with students, and in this hubbub, on this day for the first time, I peered into the school building. Before me was a steep flight of stairs and, above that, a landing.

I stepped in, clutching my violin case close to my chest as if for protection. I rushed up the stairs, past swinging doors into a foyer. From this entrance, I saw what I assumed to be classrooms on both sides of the hall. As I meandered down the hall, swinging my violin case by its handle-- a certain confidence had returned to me -- I noticed that each room had a different character, even a separate ordour distinct to the activity within.

One room was filled with people working with clay -- the sculpture atelier. In another room, students hovered over pots of paints, presumably watercolours. Further along, there were ateliers for steel sculpture and, finally, life classes. I wasn't certain about that last one.

I was mesmerized. Transfixed. I only had a vague notion of what was actually going on behind these closed doors, but I knew that I had to be on the case.

I guess it was my new guise as an undercover agent that prompted me to walk -- should I say, 'stride'? -- boldly into the largest room off the hall. The bright light illuminating the room, I suppose, attracted me at first. I wasn't sure if the room was bathed in natural light, or not. But there was a kind of crystal-like quality in the air -- highlighted by shadows of lint and bugs that floated through the air-stream.

In the centre of this space was a seated figure. I shan't be coy. It was a woman, and she was naked. And I was astounded. What could I do but stare. Until then, I had never seen 'frontal nudity,' as they call it nowadays. In fact, I was unaware of female 'rear nudity,' as well.

Gripping my violin case close to my chest -- that reflexive action kicked in again -- I strolled the room in my best impersonation of invisibility. I watched the students at their boards. They were actually drawing the woman. They were also actually glancing at me -- my invisibility wearing off, I reckoned. I was as indifferent to their stares, as they were indifferent in viewing their nude model. Didn't they know that before them was a young woman -- and she didn't have clothes on? OK. She wasn't really that young. But she was in her birthday suit.

I suddenly needed fresh air. From the looks of things, my invisibility clock was also quickly running out, completely out. I bounded down he corridor, raced down the steps, and, soon enough, found myself in 57th Street and in the radiant light of a summer afternoon in New York City. I also found myself late for Madame Gussow's tutorial.

A few hours later, I took the same route home. Past Carnegie Hall, my father's mecca; past the Steinway piano showroom, across the street; past a resale shop of used furs (from the very rich, I knew). I sidestepped the Student Art League. Anyway, it was closed by then.

Did I go back? Sure. But not right away.

I was schooled in the New York public school system from kindergarten to eighth grade. PS 76, at 67th Street and Lexington Avenue, was a formidable pile, combining architectural touches of the American versions of the Edwardian and Victorian. The building was six, at least five, floors high. There was a boys' entrance and a girls' entrance. On the ground floor, behind sliding doors was the school's amply-sized auditorium.

I always thought that PS 76 was strategically placed.

Across the street, on the northern side, was the New York Foundling Hospital, run by Catholic Charities. Rumours abounded about children being abandoned on the hospital's entrance steps. I had some doubts about this, but, still, there were alot of children, of all ages, wandering the hospital grounds. Like my school, the Foundling Hospital had a Victorian -- even a Dickensian feeling -- about it. Balustrades and a balcony banked the building's exterior.

Yet another institution common the period -- including its politically-incorrect name -- was nearby on the south side of Lexington Avenue. This was New York Hospital for the Deaf and Dumb. I witnessed the use of sign language there for the first time.

And Hunter College.

Hunter was well known as a top-notch school for women. My sister-in-law, Thelma, who embodied everything that I associated with sophistication and wit, was a graduate. She was also a graduate of the New York High School of Music and Arts, a student of the piano, and a devotee of Cole Porter. How much wit can a body take!

Thanks to Thelma, I started getting free tickets to cultural events, lectures and, most important, concerts. And plays. I saw my first Shakespearean production -- featuring an all-female cast -- in Hunter's auditorium.

A bit further north on Lexington was the Seventh Regiment Armory, a formidable structure with ramparts and parapets. It was my Bastille. I had never been inside, but I was sure, if I ever toured the hulk, I'd quickly find its dungeon with suffering prisoners, descendants, of course, of the Terroir.

I did, from time to time, get a glimpse of the interior when the armory's mammoth doors swung open to reveal a dirt floor and prancing horses. The place's tantalising mystique grew on me. Most of the time, however, the armory was shut tight, its doors like a drawbridge pullied against the building. There was no need for a sign: 'Visitors not welcome' was the unmistakable message.

Many years later, at the coming-out party, I visited the armory for the first time. Of course, it turned out be the swank mecca of high WASP culture for which its well known. Adieu Bastille. Bonjour Versailles.

PS 76's neighbourhood was further enriched by a training academy for firemen (that was what they were called then) that was also nearby the school. Twice-weekly, the trainees tried to burn their school. They were never successful.

My mates and I, on the other hand, were always hoping that the training conflagration would somehow get out of control, burning our school.

In all, PS 76 was surrounded by beauty, grace, and art. It was my Florence.

(Ralph J. Carreno, to whom Junto is dedicated, wrote this until-now unpublished article in 1995 as one in a series of memoirs. Carreno died in 2000).