Out of his building Jerry walked, heading towards the 207th St. IRT station in New York’s Inwood neighborhood, in Manhattan’s northern tip. It was a Friday in mid-July 1967. It had been quite wet, but today was sunny and hot.
Alright, he thought, just about made it through another week of work. It was his first 40 hours a week job, albeit a summer job following his sophomore year in college. A couple of more years, and he was gonna get his mechanical engineering degree. In the meantime, he was gaining work experience, sitting at a drafting table at a consulting company’s office in Midtown which designed heating, ventilating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems for various construction projects, be they nearby hi-rises or motels in the Midwest. Not a very exciting job, mostly just drawing lines senior designers had told him to add to blueprints, but occasionally allowing him to do a bit of figuring out how to route the lines properly, size the pipes, place pumps, and the like. It was just a couple of blocks walk to the station, time for a little thinking.
He had arrived in New York in late 1958 as an 11-year-old with his parents and older brother Larry, immigrants from Israel. Slowly they fitted into their new homeland. His father worked as a bookkeeping clerk in supermarkets in the Bronx and then Harlem. His mother worked as a sales clerk in several New York apparel stores. A car came in early 1960. In 1961, they chopped the family name, Siminkevitz, in half, as no one could spell it and it sounded Eastern European, which it was, causing suspicions in that era when the Cold War still raged. Now the name was Simms. The children had their Hebrew names changed to Larry and Gerald. By late 1963, they had become US citizens.
In August ’64 they were able to move to their present home, at that point a new building, and leave behind the apartment building they had been living in, just a few blocks away, which had turned into a slum. Much to their surprise, they found out once at the new place that a large proportion, perhaps half, of their neighbors, were black. They took this as a big blow to their pride, not really figuring out that many of the neighbors were in fact professionals, including many teachers, and were better off economically than they were. All that seemed to count was the color visual. In their minds, their old building may have turned into a slum, but at least all their neighbors were white.
They internalized the era’s dominant racism quite fast. They regarded the mushrooming civil rights movement as a threat. Jerry remembered how in May ’65, on a day everyone was home, his mom let out an “oh no” which was so loud as to make it seem a fire was underway. She was pointing through a window at a neighbor’s balcony, upon which stood a middle-aged black woman in shorts and a sheer shirt, tending to the numerous plants set upon the landing. “We’re in the jungle,” she announced. She then got upset when Mr. Simms walked over to see what this was about, and kept looking and looking at the woman. Jerry simply thought the woman seemed very attractive, and saw nothing wrong with tending to one’s house plants, but knew better than to say anything of the sort. His father could bring home issues of Jet magazines from work, and obviously didn’t get them for the articles about civil rights struggles, but for the swimsuit centerfold. But that was left unsaid and not to be discussed. Besides, Jerry was a good boy, not disposed to disagree with his mother. After all, she was still selecting his wardrobe and monitoring his one-inch-long haircuts.
Suddenly, Jerry noticed one of his neighbors walking towards the same station, an attractive, middle-aged light-skinned black woman, whom he saw in the elevator a few times. Since moving in he had noticed a bunch of attractive black women living in the building, but in general they didn’t act friendly. She, on the other hand, acted sort of giggly every time they crossed paths, like she liked him. She was usually dressed casually, but now had on a dress and nylons, wearing high heels. They smiled at each other. Once at the station, which is above ground, as are most tracks outside central Manhattan, she suddenly approached him.
“Doesn’t your father give you rides downtown?” she asked. He said no. She responded “Well, maybe it’s your brother,” in a tone which betrayed a bit of exasperation, like she knew he wasn’t being honest, and walked several feet away. After a few minutes, he decided he was acting just like his parents, who did things like shut the elevator door on neighbors rushing to catch it, so they wouldn’t have to share the elevator with … those people. He wasn’t happy about it. So he walked over to her, and said, “Well, I didn’t lie, but you weren’t mistaken either. My father did give me a few rides, but I asked him to stop. I’d rather take the subway to work; this is one of my few chances to be around people besides my family or work.”
She was quite surprised to both hear that someone would rather ride the subway than get a car ride, and that a 19-year-old man would have such limited social contact. He explained to her how he was faced with a new country and a new language at the socially crucial age of 11, had gone to a special science high school, Bronx Science, whose student body was heavily skewed in the male direction, and that was only one woman in his mechanical engineering major at City College of New York, a commuter school whose students with very few exceptions lived at home. If you weren’t a social person capable of creating situations on your own, you were isolated.
By the time the train arrived, he felt like he had a new friend, whose name he found out was Jane. They talked some more on the way to Midtown, where she too worked at an office, a law firm. She invited him to come over that evening to watch some TV and relax off the workweek.
At dinner that evening, Jerry mentioned to his mother that he was going out to visit a friend in Queens whom he had visited before, a fellow member of the engineering social fraternity from school which he had joined the previous December. His father as usual for Friday night was at work finishing up the payroll books. Jerry’s brother Larry had graduated college as a mechanical engineer the previous January, had gone into the Army to fulfill his active duty obligation under his ROTC contract, and was stationed near Tacoma, Washington.
It was but a minute’s walk to Jane’s apartment. She was watching Wild, Wild West when he arrived, and invited him to join her on the couch. She offered him a drink, which he accepted, happy again that New York residents could drink legally at 18. He also took a whiff of a sweet fragrance he had not personally smelled before. They sat on the couch, watching the show, which he had always found amusing and clever. Now it seemed ever more so. They talked, especially during commercials. She had told him of her attempt at married life, the various aspects of working for a law firm, and what it’s like to live as a single woman at an age when she was expected to be happily married and raising children.
He found himself opening up about being stifled, living by his parents’ expectations, having little to say about likes and dislikes, creating a small island of independence via his near-religious monitoring of Top 40 radio playlists, especially WABC. The music was something he got into when the Beatles and then the rest of the British Invasion appeared on the scene in early ’64, followed by Dylan and the folk-rock trend, which had merged with the “invaders,” as meanwhile Motown hits kept on coming. He was getting the feeling that his generation was coming into its own and trying to assert itself culturally, in the face of the mounting social unrest associated with the Vietnam War, civil rights struggles, and general growing political dissent.
They had been talking at close range. Suddenly he was surprised when she placed her head on his shoulder. He felt a surge of unusual courage, and placed his arm around her waist, drawing her closer. She looked at him, smiling, so he went ahead and kissed her. She was wearing the same clothes she had worn when he saw her that morning, but now her clothes appeared increasingly disheveled. “Nothing’s wrong with this,” he told himself, as the kissing got more passionate.
Per a mutual decision, he made his way home before midnight. It wasn’t like they were separated by a great distance. He of course had lots of food for thought the rest of the weekend. He didn’t see her Monday morning, or Tuesday. Tuesday evening, he was in his room, reading, listening to the radio. News breaks discussed the recent rioting in Newark and new rioting in Detroit, which seemed to be even worse, and heavy fighting in Vietnam. It was a warm New York summer night, and he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. The day’s big hit, “Light My Fire,” came on the radio, so symbolic of current events, even if unintentionally. It was followed by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack,” now an “oldie” though only a couple of months out of rotation. He suddenly noticed he was hearing it from upstairs as well, where the Turners lived. Mr. Turner was a big black man, wearing glasses, a teacher. Jerry’s mother had gone up to their place shortly after they moved in to complain about used facial tissues which she found on the balcony. He told her the situation was even worse on his balcony, the offender lived above him, and got quite emotional telling her that people like that have no respect for anyone, and he wanted to do something. She at least had the decency to tell this to the family, after earlier making some very nasty remarks about the Tuners, using some racial epithets.
The Turners had two daughters, teens, seemed like 17 and 14 at the time everyone moved in. Well, here was the young one standing on the balcony, and she didn’t seem so young any more, wearing shorts too. All he could see was her body, especially her long legs, and she was dancing rather vigorously and (he thought) suggestively to the music, bumping and grinding hard. As the song ended, she suddenly bent forward towards the balcony railing, and, smiling looked through it right at him, sitting on his convertible bed/mini couch. He felt the blood rush out of his head, startled speechless, feeling like he was caught. This lasted but a few seconds.
A couple of days later, he entered the elevator headed down, off to work, and was surprised to run into his upstairs neighbor. He found himself, as if compelled by some external force, saying hi, said he was the neighbor downstairs. Smiling, she responded “I know,” and they talked. Her name was Carolyn, and she was headed off to her summer job, though not to the same subway station. She had just graduated high school, and was planning to be a chemistry major at City College starting in the fall; her sister Donna was already a student there, majoring in architecture.
They had a really good though brief conversation. This was his first opportunity to see her face, which he found extremely enticing. His father had often said some black women had great looking bodies, but totally weird faces. Looking at her, he had to disagree strongly. Years later, he would be amazed to see a very similar face, the one belonging to the pop star Brandy. Carolyn seemed quite nice. But he also felt like he better not be pushy. He couldn’t help flashing on Penny, a very attractive black girl who was in his chem lab section a year earlier, whom he liked, but never really talked to, whom he had not seen again. There was also Jane to deal with, except she was hard to find. It took a couple of weeks to find out that she had taken up with a man more her age, close to 40.
The rest of summer was a bit hard to get through. After the summer job ended around August 20, Jerry and his parents took a trip to California, flying off to LA. They spent several days in Southern California, which all found to be a very welcomed change from New York. They then traveled north, planning to visit Larry in his military station. On the way, they stopped in San Francisco and journeyed for an hour by car to Berkeley across the Bay. Jerry found the area very mysterious and possessing a very enticing energy; this was the Summer of Love after all. But his parents were absolutely aghast at all the hippies, the political radicals, and the interracial couples and social groupings. To them it seemed like the devil’s own playground, and Jerry was not ready to contradict his parents’ evaluations. Then they traveled to Seattle and visited Larry. That area too seemed interesting. Jerry got the idea that they were going back to New York just to wrap things up and would be moving westward in months. He was tremendously disappointed to discover this was totally not the case.
Fall semester came and went. Endless amounts of schoolwork. He didn’t see Carolyn at all, though that wasn’t surprising. By this point, all his classes were in Steinman Hall, the engineering building at the north end of campus. He had stopped seeing students he knew his first year or two who weren’t engineering majors, let alone any such students who were younger, and the chemistry majors had their own building. Once in a while, when the fraternity had a party, they would invite a group of women, either a sorority, or a “house plan,” a social group at the college which was like a lower level fraternity/sorority, or a social group from a nursing school. Whatever the nature of the guests, these affairs all tended to melt into one, records being played, lots of booze consumed, some people making out on the couch, that usually reserved to the most aggressive guys, in some cases guys who were in relationships and yet were out cheating, which riled him up, like this was unfair competition. Just about every time, he would wind up behind the bar, making drinks and getting drunk, sometimes to the point of getting sick. He was seriously unhappy, and this even showed in school work, as his GPA for the semester was an unusually low 3.2. Around Columbus Day, Larry came home on a short leave and informed his parents and brother that he was headed to Vietnam come January. The war suddenly came home.
Towards the latter part of the semester, though, something totally new happened. Jerry had been intrigued by the turn the Beatles had been taking towards much more complex music after 1965. He also had heard of the Jefferson Airplane via their AM radio hits, and by way of this had heard of the San Francisco music scene, which intrigued him, in spite of all the bad associations he had been programmed with about the hippies and all that. In December, another frat party took place. Jerry had heard that a San Francisco group named the Grateful Dead was playing in the Palm Gardens down on 52nd St. He decided soon after taking his first drink that he didn’t wanna do the same old frat party thing this time, and without making much noise he walked out, headed towards the subway station nearby, and was soon on his way. He went up to the old building, a ballroom in use since the 1920s; a place where Fidel Castro and Malcolm X had spoken and John Coltrane had played with Monk, and walked in.
The first thing that hit him was the sweet fragrance that reminded him of that night with Jane, only this was much more present. He couldn’t help but take a few whiffs, figuring it was part of the mood. As it so happened, he was just in time to see the Grateful Dead set up, and soon the music started. By the end of the show, he had learned the names of all the band members. He first noticed a guy who wasn’t very tall but solid-looking, with a large clump of frizzy dark hair, who he soon learned was his namesake, the lead guitarist, who had a way of playing riffs which at times just drilled into his head, other times took him floating, and other times just induced feelings in him that seem to come out of the deep unconscious. Near him was a tall slim guy, with a mustache and a long mop of blond hair, named Phil, playing bass, except he was playing bass like no one he had heard before, using it as a lead instrument, hitting notes which shook his body hard. Between them was a guy that looked like he was barely past being a kid, and indeed Bob the rhythm guitarist was just about his age, even had the same sandy-colored hair as he did, though it was way down his back. He too played his instrument in a unique way, using chords to create a slashing line almost seeming to cut up reality into small pieces and churn the music into a fervent romp.
The band had two drummers, Bill and Mickey, and they seemed capable of calling into play strange rhythms from all sorts of exotic places, and given to laying down interweaving patters which seemed to go off as if separate tunes only to re-emerge in perfect time further down the line. And the keyboardist, Pigpen, who looked like a wild biker, seemed often subdued in his playing, only to spring into action when the music seemed to take patterns familiar from what he had been accustomed to hearing on the radio. And the times he took his turn singing lead, it seemed like the band was his backup group, as if he were James Brown and in complete command of the stage. He was sure quite a personality.
By the time he was leaving, Jerry had started getting the feeling that this band was channeling all sorts of genres of popular American music, be it blues, R&B, rock n’ roll, traditional Americana, jazz and other forms he didn’t recognize, melting it all into a sound all their own, and making it literally jump with life and innovation. It’s like they were melting music genres together as if melting metals to make new alloys. He realized he would need to take a long time to digest this experience. He also made a couple of new friends, who promised to keep him informed of any news.
In January, Larry came home on a short leave before going off to war, though he almost didn’t make it past a car accident while driving through the South, as the car slid on ice. The car was damaged, left in the Carolinas to be fixed. Larry wouldn’t need it anyway for a while. Then they all went to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to drop him off; a plane would take him further. As it so happened, he landed in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. He later told the rest of them that his pro-war macho posture did not make it past the runway as the disembarked troops scrambled to get out-of-the-way of mortar shells falling around them. At home too, the pro-war boosterism they had all espoused seemed just so irrelevant. As this was going on, a new semester had started. Resigned to the fact that they weren’t moving to California, Jerry buckled down to his studies.
He did even better than he could dream; getting a perfect 100 on the midterm in metallurgy, a class whose instructor had given out fewer than 10 As in his 30 years teaching. But something was lacking in his life. In February, he caught a glimpse of Carolyn walking around campus. Except she was with a young black guy. Oh well, he thought, no surprise. Right before spring break came the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jerry realized something was drastically wrong with the world, things could not go on like this. The very next morning, he stayed home as school was closed, as were all schools in the city, both due to the shock of the event as well as fears of widespread riots. He helped his mom do laundry, only to find himself in the middle of a fight she got into in the laundry room with a black woman neighbor. He managed to calm the situation down, though his mother’s provocative behavior angered him. Of all days to do this, he thought.
The following week, the last day before spring break, he happened to run into Carolyn as they were riding the train home. Took her a few seconds to recognize him. Back in the fall, he had started growing a mustache. It seems that after the December show, he stopped going to the barber, and his hair had gotten quite shaggy, covering his neck, while his mustache had grown around the corners of his mouth. She was quite friendly, talked about adjusting to school, also talked about how she had just broken off with someone she had briefly dated. She told him she was becoming very interested in neural chemistry, a field which was growing fast in part due to the increasing usage of psychoactive substances and ideas about how they could facilitate knowledge of the brain and all sorts of maladies such as epilepsy and mental illnesses.
They also talked of new turns in the music world. He brought up the current hit by Sly and the Family Stone, “Dance to the Music.” She informed him that Sly had been working as a DJ in the San Francisco Bay Area, introducing black audiences to interesting aspects of music by the Beatles as well as local rock groups, and familiarizing white audiences with innovative black music.
The mixing of the various musical strands which he had witnessed at the show in December was proceeding in new spaces, he realized, and he therefore shared with her his experience of that show. She was intrigued, both by the band’s name as well as the music. They also both spoke of their disgust with the world situation, war, oppression and all that, and how it all needed fixing She made it seem she wouldn’t mind were if they were to get together, though she already had a full schedule for the break, so they exchanged contact info.
Less than two weeks after the break ended, on the first Sunday in May, in fact, it was 5/5, shortly before noon, one of the people he had befriended from the December show, whom he had seen a few times and shared some stuff with, called him. He had gone to a show the previous night, and it was announced that Richie Havens, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead would be playing at the Central Park Bandshell that afternoon. Wow, he said to himself, I should invite Carolyn to come along. He rang her up, and was surprised yet delighted when she responded enthusiastically. His parents were again not talking to each other, so it was easy for him to leave. He and Carolyn met downstairs, and off they walked to the subway. It was quite an interesting ride they had, both talking a mile a second about all sorts of things. They brought up stuff from their previous conversation, but also discussed personal stuff, discovering they had a lot in common, both likes and dislikes as well as general dispositions. They seemed like excellent complements. Both their parents were not keen on interracial dating. His parents were aghast at the thought, while hers thought that black men crossing the color line were making important social inroads, but black women doing so were sellouts who were betraying the community and facilitating assimilation. Such a relationship would not be easy, they agreed.
Soon they were at the 72nd St/Broadway station, where they exited and began walking towards Central Park and the concert site. They made for an interesting pair; her clad in body-hugging blue jeans and a sheer white top, him in his bell bottoms and colorful batik-like shirt. It was a lovely lazy spring day. By the time they walked the three blocks to the park, he noticed that somewhere along the way, they began holding hands without even thinking about it. As they approached Central Park’s western edge, they noticed more and more people who seemed obviously headed towards the show. The area of the Bandshell was swarming with people. This was the most peaceful mass gathering he had ever seen, mostly on the young side, but of all sorts of backgrounds, hippies mixing with college students and with others who seemed as if they just walked out of their offices, overall a very colorful crowd.
Aromas from numerous herbs and spices wafted all around them. In fact, some scents were coming right from them, as sharing of all sorts seemed to be the mood of the day. Hard-core boozing, however, seemed largely absent, and there was a clear mood of disdain for anything like heroin and hard drugs. A smiling young stranger with overflowing curly dark hair and amazing green eyes offered them a drink from an orange juice bottle, but cautioned them “Just a very small gulp will do you.” They had arrived in time to hear some of the Jefferson Airplane’s set, which included a version of “White Rabbit,” which he recognized from his radio listening, though this version was very different, and heard a tune which included a lyric about Saturday afternoon and letting the sunshine set you free. He overheard a conversation about the band playing at the Columbia University strike the day before, and decided he should look more deeply into what was going on with that situation, which his parents had dismissed as the work of outside agitators and mentally unstable individuals who thrived on chaos.
After a short break, the Grateful Dead came on, just as he was starting to feel as if electrified, his senses perked up like nothing he has ever even contemplated before. Right before they stepped onto the stage, he saw Pigpen with a woman who seemed to be his partner, and noticed she was black. So, they were not the only mixed couple there. The band started playing, Bob stepped out to the mic, and within a few words he recognized the tune to be “Dancing in the Street.” Amazing, he thought to himself, given that he and Carolyn first exchanged deliberate eye contact to the background of another Martha and the Vandellas tune back on that day less than ten months ago. He looked at her, and she gave him a look which made it clear she was aware of that connection as well, as they both touched each other on the arm. When the line came about every guy grabbing a girl, he knew what he was feeling like doing, but in lightning speed wondered whether this gesture would be appreciated, by her or by the people around them. He looked at her, and she had a facial expression which at once reflected anticipation as well as a, “you better do this” emotion, making him realize he would be letting her down were he to do nothing. He decided that as long as she was OK with it, he didn’t care what others thought, and in any event the odds were that people around them would not mind at all.
Funny how I’m suddenly able to read people’s emotions so well, he thought, as if I can detect the energy flows. He felt himself grabbing her and pulling her towards him, while she was doing the same, their lips met, and they kissed so intensely they had to shut their eyes, making the color show they were noticing become even more vivid. This being the Dead, the tune’s version was much longer than the original. It went into a jazzy jam which seemed to spin off all sorts of colorful spirals, as if sound was translating to color. The audience was dancing like crazy. Everything became a swirl of colors, sounds, smells, and feelings. It was as if a community was being spun into existence. At some point later, he heard Jerry enunciate clearly a lyric which affected him heavily, “With all the children learning, from books that they were burning.” So, he thought, Carolyn, me, all of us, we are making it happen, we are learning from forbidden books how to remake the world into a better place. Maybe all the hard times he had gone through were simply dues he had paid to get here. For now, he was gonna be in the here and now, and would enjoy it as it happened.
Jeff Strahl was born in the British Mandate of Palestine, which was to become Israel within a few months. At the age of 11, in 1958, he along with his family immigrated to the US, and settled in New York, where he grew up. He graduated the City University of New York with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1970 and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. He left that profession, and in 1972 began attending law school at UC Berkeley. While there, he began to work for an affirmative action program on campus tutoring students in statistics in order to pay bills, He dropped out of law school, but kept on tutoring and doing groups at different levels of statistics and eventually, even more, math/calculus, and kept on doing this in one form or another till 2009. He is now retired, enjoys hiking, bicycling, gardening and music, whether playing it, listening, or dancing to it, social activism, and life in general. To connect with Jeff on Facebook, click here. This coming of age interracial love story is Jerry’s first piece for The Swirl World.
Copyright © 2015 Michelle Matthews Calloway, ASwirlGirl™, The Swirl World™, The Swirl World Podcast™, The Swirl World Inspiration Daily™, Swirl Nation™, All rights reserved. Feature photo property of The Swirl World™. Photos of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas embedded royalty-free via permission granted by Getty Images. “Jerry Does The Swirl” Copyright © 2015 Jeffrey Strahl.