Thursday, 11 March 2021

My New York City Academic Life

 Within a couple of years of arriving in New York City I had enrolled in two universities. 


One stood forlornly across the street from my apartment on barren E. 9th Street, the other preened on tree-lined W. 13th.


The latter font of learning was disguised as a saloon known as The Bells of Hell. Its provost, for want of a better title, was one, Malachy McCourt, from the back lanes of Limerick; the former sheltered behind the innocuous name of the Kiwi Social Club, its president went by one name only - Nash!


Judging by his temperament and the company he kept, I suspect that Nash has long since departed this vale of tears. 


Mr. McCourt on the other hand is still hale and hearty, and displays at least as much distaste for conservatives as he did while presiding over his seat of higher learning.


Many sterling men and women achieved tenure at both universities, but their visiting professors influenced me most.


I studied under Frank and Angela McCourt at the Bells, each took an interest in my moral and intellectual development.


It’s no wonder that Frank became one of the most successful memoirists of the 20th Century – in pre-Ashes days he said little but made every syllable count.


Angela, for her part, was an astute judge of character, and could flay a man at 40 feet without removing the perennially drooping Woodbine from her lower lip, or favoring her victim with a glance.


Norman Mailer dropped in on occasion and I studied under his tutelage, and even added a smidgen of arcane knowledge to Ancient Evenings, his Egyptian novel.


And where would any of us have been without benefit of the acumen and chiseled words of Pete Hamill. 


Any small talent I have for writing a column came from that man, and his friend/rival Jimmy Breslin.


I was introduced to critical theory during adrenalized, all night tutorials delivered by Lester Bangs; while in the legendary back room, I absorbed the ins and outs of improvisation from the last of the Beats, David Amram, who awarded me a Ph.D. in Hangoutology.


I was to need all these skills and more when I attended classes at Kiwi University from 4am to whenever, at least three times a week.


The Kiwi bore a resemblance to Howard University with its large African-American student body, along with a generous sprinkling of LatinX students.


I was the token Irish student and had gained acceptance only because I had complained bitterly to my landlord about lack of heat in the winter. 


This gentleman intervened with the Kiwi administration across the street on my behalf, and gained me a scholarship - with the admonition: “no more whining, you now have a warm collegial hall to attend any time of night or day.”


It was within the Kiwi’s hallowed halls I learned to listen – that most valuable life lesson.


I was in a foreign and dangerous world and was forced to quickly learn how to fit in. And oh, the stories I heard, and the drama that I observed, and eventually became a part of!


I was fortunate, for I was taken under the wing of a philosopher of note, James Reece – known to his legion of friends as Jimmy.


In short order he instructed me how to survive in that netherworld – how to move, how to fade into shadows, and how to be, if not cool, then at least not too tepid. 


Every night he played mix tapes of bebop and red-hot jazz. At first I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, but Jimmy Reece was patient, he explained not just the mechanics of jazz but the history and philosophy behind it.  He told me what to listen for – and I did. 


One night he yelled in delight down the bar as I moved like a spastic whippet to John Coltrane’s dizzying horn – “He’s got it, the Irish kid is finally hearing it.”


It was an immeasurable gift, and I still cherish Professor Reece whenever I listen to Miles, Trane, Bird, Monk, and a host of others.


Tuition was free at each of these priceless seats of knowledge. Alas, they’re both gone, along with their faculties, leaving little hope of class reunions. But oh, what nights and the memories they’ve become!


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