Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Few New Positions

A few days before Father’s Day I received a package from my father.  It was a book titled “Dancing with the Queen, Marching with King”—his memoir of a life spent in public service.  The title is a reference to his two most memorable life experiences: his participation in Martin Luther King’s famous march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965 as one of the two official NY delegates (and one of only 13 white people to go the whole distance); and his foxtrot with the 26-year-old Queen Elizabeth at the opening of the new American embassy in London in 1953.

Normally I’m not a big fan of memoirs, but for the past few days I have been simply unable to put this one down. I have always loved and admired my father, but until this past week, I have never had a clue as to what he did during the day when he left our house at 7:30 in the morning.  I knew what his job titles were, but I never knew of his role in quelling the Rochester (NY) riots in the 1950s; of his opening up the Erie Canal to recreation; or compelling Cardinal Spellman of New York to include Black marching bands in the St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time. For all its flaws (some technical and a few narrative), this book has given me not just a glimpse, but a real hard stare into my father’s career, a career of which he is justifiably proud.

It has made me think of the kinds of questions my own children will be asked by their children about their grandfather (me).  What did he do Dad?  Why did he choose to be an arts administrator? How did he end up with that as a career?

Normally when I’m asked these questions by people networking for a new job or interested in a career change, I demur.  But my father’s memoir has given me reason to be a bit more forthcoming because as I age, I remember details less and less.  I need to put some of this stuff on paper before it disappears completely.  I’ve thought of a title for my memoir, though.  It’s called “A Few New Positions.”

I can only bring up brief episodes as being formative: such as the time my mother signed me up for an art class when I was in 8th grade that turned out to be a life-modeling class, complete with fully nude models (my friends were so-o-o-o jealous!); and another time when a bunch of us were recruited to be extras in a film being shot at the Brooklyn waterfront.  When the film was released two years later, I went to it at the CineLido East on 59th Street with my mother, both of us brimming with anticipation.  It turned out to be a soft-core porno flick and we sat in mortified silence through the entire thing.  Neither of us spoke when it ended.  We couldn’t even look at each other.  About halfway home, at 2nd Avenue and 60th Street, my mother finally cleared her throat and said, “Well, Alexander, I guess you learned a few new positions, eh…?” 

The far more important (though possibly less interesting) episodes that shaped my career in the arts involve a host of players, some world-renowned, some complete unknowns.  There are many stories, some involving priceless punch-lines, others involving staggering examples of bravery or stupidity.  Of the latter, the one that comes to mind first and foremost involves a former boss.

I was hired on a two year contract and at my first formal review I was told by him:  You work well with the staff that reports to you, you get along well with your peers in other departments.  But you have one major problem.  Shortly after you started work here, you got married and then six months later bought a house.  People look at that and say, ‘there is someone who is too ambitious.’  People don’t like people who are ambitious.  It makes them nervous.

By the time my contract wasn’t renewed 18 months later I had amassed an entire notebook of notes with back-up tapes of similar conversations, and my boss’s boss, grateful to avoid a lawsuit, allowed me to remain on staff until I found another position.

I share this story because throughout my career in the arts, there have been many times when I have, to quote my mother, “learned a few new positions” quite suddenly.  All have been a bit scary (no one likes being “between opportunities”), but I can assure you none has been as painfully unpleasant as sitting through that film with Mom at 13 years old.  If I could survive that, I could survive anything…

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