Perfect Day - 2001
Photograph by Sylvia Plachy
During the day, these kinds of debates would continue with the customers, many of them writers, and the clerks, at the EIGHTH STREET BOOKSHOP, run like an open forum by Ted and Eli Wilentz. In the years since, I have been in bookstores in many cities, but they were nothing like this place, where you were continually challenged to find out how much you didn't know in your "fields."
Some of the clerks anticipated the Internet by being walking search engines, and I did all my research for The First Freedom, a history of the First Amendment, from their bonanza stock of paperbacks. Long ago, a shoe store took the place of that cornucopia of ideas. At least there ought to be a plaque.
Still alive is Max Gordon's VILLAGE VANGUARD (178 Seventh Avenue South, 255-4037). With Max gone, Lorraine Gordon continues to make it the one jazz club where, even if you don't know who's playing that night, you can't go wrong. There, Charles Mingus kept changing forms, musical and physical, always larger than life. And Lenny Bruce, with the pulse and daring of a jazzman, would look at the multiply integrated audience and stun them by asking: "Any spics here tonight? Any niggers? Any kikes?" Then he'd ask them why words had such paralyzing power over them. What were they afraid of in themselves? He got busted and broken for that.
In CAFÉ BOHEMIA, onas I rememberBarrow Street, there were not only the sounds of surprise of such intractable searchers as Miles Davis, but, one night, a sudden ascent to renown. A large young man from Florida walked in with an alto saxophone and asked to sit in. The leader, the often fiery Oscar Pettiford, set off a racetrack tempo through which the amiable stranger sailed with lyrical aplomb, all the while telling his own story.
Shortly afterward, the visitor, Julian "Cannonball" Adderleythe word of his debut having spreadgot a record contract and went on to work with Miles Davis and, later, his own joyous combo.
The cabaret scene in the Village was as brilliant and protean as the jazz milieus. The magisterial Mabel Mercerfrom whom Frank Sinatra learned how to get inside lyricspresided like royalty in various small clubs. So did the more enveloping, earthier Sylvia Syms, who can hardly be found anymore in the chronicles of that era.
In addition to these waking dreams of what I had barely imagined New York life could be like, I miss a series of evenings of conversation. It was called the Theater for Ideas, organized by Shirley Broughton, a dancer. Meeting for informal, and often vigorous, discussions, such thinkers as Hannah Arendt, Hans Morgenthau, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paul Goodman explored the meanings of our lives.
We discussed politics; philosophy; prejudices; fascism; Communism; police surveillance of American "subversives"; Herbert Marcuse's double standard of free speech; "repressive tolerance"; and the participants' own works. Why can't those sessions be held now?
For me, the person who most exemplified the spontaneous pleasures of those years was the Village Vanguard's Max Gordon. A cosmopolitan of ceaseless curiosity and of a generosity of spirit that made the Vanguard homelike, Max befriended me when I came to the Village, a stranger from the provinces. Between the jazz sets, he began to introduce me to the expansive spirit of the Village, which still exists, when you happen upon it.