The Saga of Old John

The early years sneak up on my mind when I am unprepared, the way the morning sun sometimes comes up doing an Irish jig in the elms lining Eastern Parkway. Cavernous old apartment buildings along Ocean Parkway and Ocean Avenue conceal ghosts of relatives who once feasted us full on holidays. My parents’ old pictures show how they lived there as children during the Great Depression.

We had to dress up for the holidays: Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashonah. Sometimes we wore the wool sweaters granny’d knit for us as rapidly as we outgrew them. We’d walk the Boardwalk from Coney Island Avenue to Ocean Parkway and then back again, the invisible boundaries rarely transgressed. Dad and Mom stop to greet neighbors. Loud arguing roars with the Atlantic; words like “Korea” and “blacklist” slip secretly into our unsuspecting minds. Each holiday I’d sneak away with Mark Paris and race down the Boardwalk, tripping over a loose nail and skinning my new dress pants at the knees.

Mark was the self-declared president of our 8-member club in first grade. We’d meet once a week in his parents’ apartment on the sixth floor. Mark wore a mop-wig on his head and read aloud from the telephone book, pretending it was the Book of Knowledge. New members had to be initiated. They were made to don the Helmet of Wisdom–a giant spaghetti pot –at which time all the other members would, led by Mark, whack the hell out of it with ladles and spoons. It took Bernice, Mark’s mother, quite a while to discover us– and then it was only because poor Miles didn’t show up to school the next day. His head felt like the foghorn off Coney Island. Since Mark founded the club, he of course deemed it inappropriate to don the Helmet of Wisdom himself. “I’m already in it, don’t need to be tested,” Mark said. Ah, the early perks of corrupt leaders! But Bernice put an end to anyone being “initiated” again. That was the last time our club met.

Every night, grandpa and granny played gin rummy in the club on the boardwalk that is today Tatiana’s Russian restaurant. On Tuesdays, grandpa would take us to see the fireworks over the Atlantic, holding our hands so we wouldn’t get lost. One night I reached for his hand. “Take us to Coney Island, we want to go on the rides!” I begged, before looking up. And then I saw — it wasn’t grandpa! I yanked my hand away and, in terror, darted through the crowd like a marble in a pinball machine searching for grandpa, but seeing only legs, hundreds of legs, the panicky waves of the Atlantic pounding inside my heart.

There is a first experience of utter loneliness from which we spend our lives trying to recover. It is a moment in which panic consumes us, shivering up and down our spines, that first moment of abandonment, lostness. The narrow moment subsides; a seed germinates and, if we allow them, questions sprout. All other times are trial runs. We retouch the vast canvas of our loneliness continuously, painting over the cracks in our memories with oils that don’t quite match the original, now caked and dried. Our portraits stare back at us, admonishing, silent.

Isolation is different than loneliness. Alone, undistracted, we can glimpse the inspired original paintings, overcome the years of crusty distortions that sever us from our roots, from the inner core of our histories. We can sense the community before that first terror wrung the one-ness from our lives. The trauma returns, over and over again in ever-new guises. We find ways to deny it its power over us, and only then can we learn to sense our part in a much longer history than our own, of America’s brief 246 years, more of an Aegean or African celebration that dances in with a certain slant of the sun, splashing olive-green and yellow cadences through Brooklyn’s majestic sycamores, elms, and maples.

On weekends, Robert and I explore secret passageways through the basements of buildings where the wicked monster of Brighton Beach, the notorious Sycamore (who looks only vaguely like the tree), lurks in the boiler room eating frogs and little children. We trample through vacant lots playing Ramar of the Jungle and, back upstairs, we hook blankets under drawers, stretching them across the bedroom to build our TV studios.

One drizzly Saturday, Old John, the janitor who worked in the basement of the building next to ours, tells us, “Come back next week at four o’clock, bring as many friends as you can find, and I’ll have a treat for you.” But he makes us promise not to tell our parents. He also wants us to bring two cents each. We don’t know what’s up, but for a six-year-old like myself, it is a grand adventure. As the week slowly passes, Robert and I begin fidgeting at the supper table and turn the channels on the new Olympia black-and-white television impatiently. We scrounge through every cranny of the 2 1/2 room dingy apartment on Brightwater Court looking for pennies.

Finally Grandpa comes through with the four cents­–what was our pretext? Saturday arrives, and we find ourselves waiting with ten other kids outside the door to Old John’s basement. Old John holds a finger to his lips and pushes the door open.

The heavy iron door creaks and groans. Spider-webs climb from the ceiling to the floor immediately inside the doorway. All is dark, pitch-black, scarier than the giant rooster in Coney Island who went berserk one day and pecked Henrietta to death (according to Mark). “Be careful of the rats,” Old John warns, and he closes the heavy door behind us. We all hold hands. Old John turns on his flashlight. We follow the beam through a narrow corridor.

We pass several steamy rooms. “Sycamore’s behind that door, watch out!,” Mark hisses, and then laughs demonically as each of us jump in fear. Somebody in front of me starts to cry. “Quiet down there,” Old John booms into the darkness. He chortles like a cartoon villain about to foreclose on the mortgage. Nobody dares make another sound, not even Mark. Trembling, we come to a cleared area. There are several lockers in it, and some wooden benches, which Old John tells us are for children to sit on while we wait. A faint ray of light slips in through the chinks in the bricks, painting the room a dark silver in thin careful strokes. Old John lights two candles. “Do you know what these are for?” he asks moving the candles from side to side so that the shadows, already larger than the tallest among us, dances in and out of the lockers.

“To light the oven,” Mark volunteers, trying to imitate Old John’s villainous sneer. Apparently, Mark had just finished reading the story of Hansel and Gretel — or rather, he’d coerced his six-year-old sweetheart Nancy Borofsky into reading it to him as he ran around the kitchen dumping flour on the floor for reasons only he can tell.

“No, Mark. There are no ovens here.”

“Too bad. What about rats?”

Mark was fond of capturing mice in our basement. He’d rigged a series of traps, catch a mouse, take out a stopwatch — a Hanukkah present — release one of the mice in the gutter, and time how long it took Streako the Wonder Cat to dive out of his arms and return carrying the mouse, now dead and bleeding, clamped in the cat’s teeth. A gift from Streako to Mark for being so wonderful. Mark kept a 6-year-olds’ equivalent of detailed records and charts of all this. Over the years, he made graphs indicating not only the elapsed time compared to the distance, but also the phase of the moon when each “test” occurred. (Twenty years later, Mark would graduate medical school specializing in tropical animal diseases.) Harvey, his four-year-old brother, told me that Mark dove out of his bed one night, bit him in the leg, and jumped back into his own bed, a smile splashed on his face. In the morning, Harvey noticed a stop watch, pencil and pad filled with numbers on the floor.

Old John wouldn’t allow any of Mark’s nonsense. “Mark, come here. Help me give out these pencils and paper.” Mark dutifully complies. Old John says: “Hold onto them until later. The candles are so you can see what you’re writing.” Old John places the candles on top of the low lockers.

The shadows flit about the room. Everything has become bigger than life. Old John passes around his beaten felt hat; we put our pennies in it, whispering to each other: “Oh, what a great adventure!”

“Ssssssh,” Old John says. It is about to begin. Old John takes out a guitar.

Old John plays for half an hour. He sings blues, he sings folk. He straps his harmonica onto a metal hanger and hangs it around his neck, every so often weeping a tune on it. We sit transfixed in semi-darkness, our own private universe. How is it possible for one man to make a guitar weep like a rainbow, or bound into laughter like a slave kissing the free grass of the Canadian border? Music was something we heard on the radio. We were never sure how it happened; it was magic. But Old John says: “The best music happens when we all sing together.” He has each of us write down as best we could the words to some of the songs so we could remember them and be able to sing them the next Saturday.

“Next week too?” we chime, we clap, and Mark even whistles.

“Yes, next week, and the week after, and as long as you want to keep coming back,” he says. “But don’t tell your parents, because they won’t let you come again.”

We clap our hands, stomp our feet, and sing along as we get to know the words. “How d’ya spell California?” someone hollers, trying desperately to write down the words to the chorus of “This Land Is Your Land.” Robert and I both know, because when Howie was born the year before, Robert and I decided to name him California, ‘cause that’s where Uncle Dave always talked about settling down. For days after he was born we’d call him Cal, refusing to yield to the ridiculousness of Mom and Dad’s insistence on calling him Howard. (Granny was also holding out — she wanted the name Harold. The name question was a very emotional subject in the family.) We never did understand why they were being so unreasonable.

But we understood Old John. It was easy. We’d go on to sing together, week after week, freedom songs. We’d always end with “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Oh, Freedom.” We’d learned the chorus, which goes:

Oh, Freedom
Oh, Freedom
Oh, Freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.

Week after week we each bring two cents, write down verses, and sing. After six weeks, there are more than 25 kids in that once-spooky basement.

On the seventh Saturday, my parents found out. I had told them about it because I couldn’t find two cents lying around no matter how hard I looked. They told Robert and me that we couldn’t go anymore, that Old John was taking our money to buy whiskey and get drunk, and that it wasn’t good for us to be hanging out in that dirty basement with rats crawling all over the place. Robert started to cry. I told them that Mark couldn’t find any rats, though he’d tried. That didn’t seem to reassure them any.

The same thing was happening in other families. My mother told Miles’s mother, who told Phyllis’s mother, who told Mark’s mother, on down the line. Then Mark came running: “Old John says this is the last weekend! He’s been fired and has to find another job, so everyone can come for free — spread the word!”

It seemed as if every kid in the neighborhood had managed to sneak out of their apartments and was waiting down by the basement door for Old John. There were the regulars, but then Nancy was there, and Jack, and lots of other kids who had never come before. There were maybe 40 of us, from all over Brighton Beach. And the regulars brought our songs that we had so carefully written down over the past seven weeks.

Just like every Saturday, Old John pushed open the heavy iron door. It still creaked and groaned. The boilers still sneezed in the spooky dark, but we weren’t frightened anymore. Nevertheless, Old John held his finger up to his lips; still the nervous shiver hopscotched up our backs. “Maybe Sycamore knows this is the last time, and he’ll grab us!” Mark certainly knew how to work a crowd. We held each others’ hands without saying a word, and Old John led us into the room with the benches.

Old John played for a while, and we sang several songs together. After half-an-hour, he stopped. Old John never talked much, but this time he got up to make a speech. There were tears in his eyes, and we all dreaded what he was going to say. There were tears in our eyes as well.

“I’’ve looked forward to coming here with you all every Saturday,” he said. “All week I work cleaning that building, and I keep thinking: `What can we sing on Saturday?’ That keeps me going all week.”

There were creases around his eyes. The candlelight played tricks with the darkness; the D train rumbled in the background. Old John’s mouth turned upwards into a broad smile.

“I ain’t bitter — oops, I mean `not’, thank you Mitchel,” he said. I was the grammarian of the group. “You see, I’m a Negro, my skin is a different color than most of yours, and a lot of people treat Negroes in a way that just ain’t right.” I didn’t correct his grammar this time. I was angry, and so was everyone else.

I also felt guilty. The year before, when I was five years old, I was part of a group of kids walking home when we spied a man washing the windows on the front of the building at 417 Brightwater Court. I’d tried to joke: “He’s dirty because he was Black;” I’d heard someone else say that a few days before and most everyone thought that was pretty funny then. I wanted to be funny too. But a teenager, Billy Walsh, who was white — the eldest son of the Irish super — happened to pass just at that time.

Billy punched me hard on the arm. “Don’t you ever say that again,” he commanded and a rage flashed in his eyes as he wrestled to control his emotions. I ran up the stairs to my apartment on the third floor crying my eyes out and looking back over my shoulder.

When dad got home from a day of looking for work, mom told him that Billy had punched me. I had managed to leave out the reason why. Down to the super’s apartment they dragged me. Dad confronted Billy: “Why’d you hit Mitchel?” dad glared. Billy told him what I’d said and, for a moment, dad was taken aback. But he quickly recouped. “You’re 15 years old, Mitchel’s only five. You come and tell us if something happens and we’ll take care of it. You don’t hit little kids, understand?” Billy just looked at my father, and said nothing, steaming.

But out in the hall, Dad stared at me. He didn’t have to say anything, I already felt like a snail in search of a shell to curl up in and hide. I knew I’d done something wrong. “Tomorrow, you’re going to apologize.”

Sure enough, the next day dad brought me to the front of the building. The man washing the windows was closer to the first floor, now. I could see his face clearly. “Jimmy,” dad called up, “my son has something to say to you.” Jimmy stopped washing and looked down. I tried to press up against dad’s leg, but he nudged me away. “I’m sorry for what I said,” trickled out of my mouth. Jimmy, surprisingly, chuckled: “For what? I didn’t hear a thing.” And the wash of guilt evaporated, just like that. But I remembered.

A year later, Old John, fired from his job, was talking about racism. And all the kids were aghast. “We’re your friends, Old John. We don’t want you to go. We don’t want them to treat you so bad.” We all ran up to Old John and hugged him. We cried, and then we laughed and began singing again. When we were done, Old John laid down his guitar gently against an empty bench, and said: “I’ve got something here for all of you.”

Old John pulled a big paper bag from behind one of the lockers. “C’mon Mark, Robert, Mitchel, Phyllis, all of you, reach in and take one.” As I reached in, I could feel my breath flutter. My fingers felt the aluminum, cool, shiny; they ran themselves over the grooves, and my tongue tried to reach below my lower lip in the way that kids do when they’re excited.

“A harmonica!,” I cried. “A real harmonica!”

“Wow, a harmonica!,” the roomful of friends pulsed with anticipation, waiting to hear that first uneven note.

“That’s not all,” said Old John. “There’s one for each of you. So come on, now, don’t want to miss out on one, do you?”

Quick as you can say “Old John the Folksinger,” everyone in the room had a brand new Hohner harmonica clapped against their lips, merrily huffing and puffing. “Hee-haw,” a harmonica warped, “hee-haw, I’m a donkey,” and Old John threw his hands up and laughed, and laughed. So! Old John hadn’t spent the money we’d given him on liquor after all. Our parents were wrong. He’d saved every last cent we’d given him, week after week, and then he threw in some of his own money as well to buy us all harmonicas! He’d been planning this all along. And on this, his last day, he’d sprung the surprise!

What a racket there was. Old John stood in front, all agrin. “Old John, Old John, teach me how to play! Oh, wow, this is the greatest surprise ever!” We all ran up and hugged and kissed him again, and he hugged and kissed each of us. Then we went back to our benches and blasted away the basement, the darkness, the gloom of Old John’s leaving. We played every song we knew, plus he taught us one new song, just as he had every week. We all got out our pencils and paper to write it down.

“This song’s called the `Banks of Marble,’” Old John said, “and it goes like this. Ready?”

I’ve travelled ‘round this country
From shore to shining shore
And it really makes we wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer
He was plowing sod and loam
And I heard the auction hammer
It was knocking down his home.

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmers sweated for.

I’ve seen the seamen standing
Idly by the shore
And I heard their captain saying
Got no work for you no more.

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the seamen sweated for.

I saw the miners working
Scrubbing coal dust from their backs
And I heard their children crying
“Got no coal to heat these shacks!”

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for.

I’ve seen my comrades working
Throughout this mighty land
Pray we get together
And together take a stand

Then we’d own the banks of marble
With no guards at any door
And we’d share the vaults of silver
That we all have sweated for!

We sang the rousing chorus together. When I got home, I found my parents had a record of this song by the Weavers, and I played it over and over again, all day, and after supper too. I learned to play it on my harmonica.

We ended, as we always did, with “Oh, Freedom,” and “If I Had A Hammer,” and then none of us ever saw Old John again … except for Mark, who swore he’d seen him playing his guitar in the pavilion on the Boardwalk, and we all crowded around to hear Mark’s story. Mark said Old John waved to him as his parents hustled him past.

I kept that harmonica, that 15 cent slab of wood and metal, for decades, playing “Oh Freedom” wherever I went.

This essay is excerpted from Mitchel Cohen’s forthcoming book, “The Rubber-Stamp Man: Poems and Snippets.”

Mitchel Cohen is Coordinator of the No Spray Coalition in New York City. He can be reached at: