Saturday, 4 July 2020

University of the Streets

New York City has many fine universities, some more exclusive than others - yet the one to which I was accepted required neither superior SATs or a small fortune in tuition fees. 

In fact, it’s still free and only yards away – the University of the Streets!

It can be a challenging institution – I once had a bayonet tickle my Adam’s Apple in Tomkins Square, and was jumped on by 3 desperados near Gramercy Park; but despite these inconveniences I received my bachelors summa cum laude at NYC’s extensive classroom of taverns, saloons, and most importantly, its rigorous after-hours establishments.

I also studied abroad for the occasional semester. Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union I traveled to Lithuania with the free-form poet, Copernicus.

After our concert and reception in Vilnius I listened to my companion converse with our taxi driver in a scholarly mixture of French and German. Suddenly he shattered the Soviet silence with a Brooklyn bellow, “Are you kiddin’ me! Every city in the universe has an after-hours bar!”

When the taxi-driver reassured him that such was not the case under “these damned Russians,” I knew this would be a wasted semester. 

My favorite campus was the Kiwi Social Club on 9th Street and Avenue A, technically speaking it wasn’t even an after-hours as it operated 24/7 including Christmas Day.

 I had a “Road to Damascus” moment therein when I awoke to the genius of John Coltrane’s music.

My mentor, Jimmy Reece, an African-American academic and student of the night sensed my breakthrough and heartily congratulated me, “You got it, man.  You finally got it!”

And I had. From Trane I went on to specialize in Miles, Monk and a host of other Jazz innovators.

Consider just how much all those hours of delight would have cost me at Columbia or Fordham – not to mention that in those hallowed halls I’d have done so in scholarly sobriety.

On another occasion at a Mafia joint mere yards from NYU I took a class at dawn on William Butler Yeats from a well-oiled Lou Reed that forever opened my soul to the genius of the Irish poet. Talk about a “walk on the wild side!”

While at the renowned UK Club on 13th Street and 3rd Avenue I received an ominous lecture on behavioral science from that formidable Professor of Punk, Rockets Redglare, which made my hair stand on end and put me back on the scholarly straight and narrow. 

On another liquidy morning Frank McCourt gave me an intense private tutorial wherein he declared that any Irishman who wasn’t writing his memoirs was “a feckin’ eejit” after all the fame and fortune that he had achieved with Angela’s Ashes.

I soon after buckled down and wrote my own autobiographical thesis “Green Suede Shoes – an Irish-American Odyssey.”

I received no words of wisdom from Norman Mailer but deep gratitude for fixing his beloved but debilitated Porsche. This fluke came about through a chance meeting with a Puerto Rican technical scholar at Save The Robots an early morning educational establishment on Avenue B. 

I can still picture the glow of appreciation in Mr. Mailer’s amazing blue eyes when Professor Mendez and I parked his purring, souped-up vehicle outside his Brooklyn Heights apartment.

How much did all of this late night cavorting cost me, you might inquire. It’s hard to say but I did get at least a 40% discount on my fees, for back in the old New York late night academia one always received the 3rd drink on the house, and thereafter the 5th, 7th until class ended or the professor behind the stick dismissed you for the day.

To top it all, when I was finally awarded my PhD I was gloriously debt free. Now match that against the debilitating student loans that most scholars will have accrued in their pursuit of academic excellence.

Alas in these troubled times the hallowed institution of the after-hours appears to have been supplanted by the gym and the Internet.

And yet who knows what the future will bring in this looming recession. The thirst for knowledge will never be satisfied and there will always be those who seek it out in the University of the Streets.

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