I applied at Columbia’s Placement Office in Dodge Hall for a work-study New York City Urban Corps summer job. But the Lindsay Administration’s city government bureaucracy still didn’t have the program organized enough so that financially needy students could be assigned jobs in early June. So after I arrived at my parents’ apartment, I was forced to seek a job in the private sector.
The job I obtained was a messenger job at Rapid Messenger Services that paid the minimum wage of $1.25 per hour. Rapid Messenger’s dispatching office was located at Broome St. in Lower Manhattan. Most of my deliveries were below 34th St. and above Canal St., between the East River and the Hudson River. One of the other messengers spoke as if he was mentally retarded. Another messenger was a well-dressed, middle-aged African-American man who wore a suit and tie and came to work with an empty briefcase. The dispatcher was a white man in his late 50s with white hair who wasn’t dictatorial. He could quickly rattle off the quickest pick-up and delivery routes for the messages or packages I was responsible for carrying and he gave me my paycheck on schedule.
I found the messenger work too low-paying. But it was more interesting than doing clerical work at one skyscraper desk for seven hours a day. On hot days, it could be quite grueling if I had many rush deliveries or pick-ups to make. Yet many of the women receptionists I delivered messages and packages to seemed to feel themselves superior to messenger workers. Heavily made-up women in their 20s, they talked down to me or related to me in a snobbish way.
In mid-June 1966, the Columbia Placement Office notified me that the Urban Corps work-study job program was ready to assign work assignments. I chose to work in the mental health field for the summer and went down to the Worth St. office in Lower Manhattan of the government agency that assigned jobs in the mental hygiene field. The friendly bureaucrat in charge of giving out work assignments matched me with an assistant teacher opening at the Children’s Treatment Center.
The Children’s Treatment Center was a school for emotionally disturbed children that was located at 71st St., between Broadway and West End Ave. The work-study job was a 30-hour per week job that lasted from 9 to 3, five days a week. I acquired some special ed experience, and a smattering of special ed jargon, by working at the Children’s Treatment Center. And while I worked there in 1966, I also became involved in two activities which indicated the life direction I was going to take.
My sister had learned guitar chords and been into folk music in the early 1960s. But by 1966 she was no longer interested in playing the guitar. I was eager, however, to learn the guitar and to sing folk songs with guitar accompaniment. So I borrowed my sister’s old cheap guitar and her old instruction book and taught myself a few chords. Then I bought myself a capo and persuaded her to give me her cheap guitar. She also gave me a book of civil rights songs that SNCC had published, called We Shall Overcome. I also bought a cheap book of folk songs that Moe Ash had put out in the late 1950s.
In the evening, instead of writing plays, watching much summer TV, reading or listening to much radio or many records, I stayed in my room and practiced guitar chords and sang folk songs. By the middle of the summer, I was singing the songs I had written a cappella with the musical backing of my elementary guitar accompaniment. By the end of the summer, I was using the guitar to pump out more original folk songs of love and protest.
By Fall 1966, I thought I might be another Dylan, Ochs or Guthrie because the songs burst out so easily and naturally. I went to one Tin Pan Alley music publisher to try to get an audition, but I couldn’t get past the receptionist. I also knew no one in the industry to help me market my songwriting talent or to back me financially.
After the summer of 1966, however, I found it more satisfying to be, artistically, a songwriter-folk singer than an aspiring playwright. I felt that writing songs, not writing plays, was the easiest way for me to reach the mass of people with my message of universal love, youth revolt and equality for all people on the earth.
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
10 years ago