The Brick Prison Playhouse

It’s the thirtieth anniversary of The Brick Prison Playhouse.

Alumni of Hunter College High School always seem compelled to mention that it’s where they attended the seventh through twelfth grades, when others would simply say “where I went to high school.”

It’s understandable. First there’s the confusing name of the place: it’s neither a college nor merely a high school. Second, when you’re in the habit of telling stories from high school, and some of them take place in 1978 and some take place in 1984, unless you’re diligent about the seventh-through-twelfth disclaimer sooner or later someone is going to do the mental arithmetic and wonder.

As a junior, late in 1982, a few friends and I felt the urge to write and perform a collection of short one-act plays. With faculty help we ended up founding The Brick Prison Playhouse (so called because the school’s appearance earned it the affectionate nickname “the brick prison”), a repertory group for performing student-written plays, as opposed to the existing repertory groups that performed established plays and musicals.

Our first performances took place on February 10th and 11th, 1983. They were a success and a lot of fun. After the last performance the entire playhouse group trekked through Central Park in a light snowfall to the Upper West Side apartment of our friend Michael, where we had a memorable cast party — and ended up snowed in. The only reason I know the exact dates is because it was the great New York Blizzard of 1983.

The next morning, I had to make it back to Queens, but transit had been only partially restored throughout the city. Exiting Michael’s building I was amazed to discover that Broadway was navigable only via a shoulder-high snow trench, just wide enough for two pedestrians to squeeze past each other. Through this narrow channel I worked my way downtown to where working buses and subways could be found — with my also-Queens-bound friend Steve in tow, on crutches with a broken ankle!

(Steve was the best writer in our group. The most talented actor among us was Andrew. I’m pleased to report that today Steve is a professional writer and Andrew a professional actor.)

On the radio program Fresh Air the other day, I heard an interview with the journalist Chris Hayes. In it, he mentions that he grew up in New York City, attended a school from the seventh through the twelfth grades, and performed in a student-written play in the eighth grade. From this I concluded (correctly) that Hayes is a Hunter alumnus, and that The Brick Prison Playhouse still exists!

It occurs to me this is the second blog post in a row where I lay claim to an unacknowledged legacy. Well, acknowledged or not, this one’s an agreeable legacy to have, and the Brick Prison Playhouse’s near-mention on Terry Gross’s widely heard radio show is a nice little brush with fame on this, its thirtieth anniversary.

Quickie sex ed

It was the spring of 1979 and seventh grade was almost over. Time was running short for our Health Ed. class to cover sex education, as had been promised earlier in the semester. We’d all been anticipating it in giggly fashion for months.

Now just a couple of classes remained before the end of the school year. At that time and place I’m not aware of any political controversy about sex education in public schools; as far as I know the semester simply got away from Mr. Washington, our young and hip teacher. In one of the final classes he apologized and suggested a way to cover the eagerly awaited topic quickly: we’d all write down one or two anonymous questions about sex, drop them in a hat (or a bag or a box, I don’t quite remember), and Mr. Washington would pick some at random and answer them. No question was out of bounds, nothing was too big or small to ask. Mr. Washington pledged a complete and honest answer to every question, all but promising to kill the fun with an excess of earnestness.

I can’t remember what question I dropped into the hat, nor do I remember most of the other questions that eventually came out of it. Some were no doubt excellent ones based on real curiosity. Information about sex was not quite as easy to come by then as it is now. After all, this was before the frankness made necessary by AIDS, before Dr. Drew and even Dr. Ruth, back in the days when “Internet porn” consisted of an academic in some university office printing a topless woman made of typographical symbols on six sheets of green-and-white fanfold paper.

The hat (or bag or box) passed solemnly around the room. Each of us dropped a folded piece of paper into it, apprehensive in spite of the anonymity that some humiliating bit of cluelessness would be revealed to all. Mr. Washington received it back and, just as solemnly, fished around for the first slip of paper to answer.

He unfolded it — and cracked up laughing, bent over double! It took several long seconds for him to regain his composure; meanwhile, the tension was broken for the rest of us. Finally he read the question: “What’s it like?”

I can still hear Mr. Washington’s immortal and carefully enunciated answer, after our own laughter died down: “It is as good as they say it is.”

Whips and change

[This post is participating in Cerebral Mastication’s Indiana Jones blog-a-thon.]

As high school wound down for me in the spring of 1984, my class load was pretty light and I put in more time at my afterschool programming job in the Flatiron district. My occasional wanderings in that neighborhood — running errands, finding lunch, etc. — took me past several wholesale import shops, some with large storefronts displaying selected items from their stock in the window. One day as the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom grew near, I passed one such store and saw something that gave me an idea.

Two years earlier, my friends and I had attended a sneak-preview screening of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. When the house lights came up at the end, we noted with amusement two manly men seated a couple of rows away, complete with Caterpillar trucking caps, too overcome with emotion to get up and leave the theater right away. “This is going to be huge,” we predicted. And we had an idea.

A few months before that, New York magazine published an article about our school called “The Joyful Elite” (original article). It inspired equal measures of pride and outrage: pride because it said we were some of New York City’s smartest kids, and outrage because it said we acted like we knew it. The school was in an uproar for several days because of it; and so my friends and I capitalized on that. In those pre-Zazzle days we found a novelty printing shop in the Yellow Pages (called “Abat,” which I’ll never forget because of the memorably gruff way the owner answered the phone: “’Lo, Abat”) and ordered a large batch of “Joyful Elite” buttons. When we got them a couple of days later, we carried our supply through the hallways between classes, selling them to students and faculty for two dollars apiece. They sold like hotcakes and we made hundreds of dollars! (A big deal, in high school in the 80’s.)

So when the lights came up after E.T. and we knew it was going to be a hit, we saw a profit-making opportunity. We had Abat print up a batch of “I ♥ E T” buttons and congregated outside a big midtown theater on the film’s opening day. Aware that we were crossing some sort of a line with respect to merchandise licensing, we prepared a story to tell any law-enforcement official who asked that the buttons meant, “I love Edison Tech,” our (made-up) alma mater. Fortunately no law-enforcement official ever required us to test the quality of that lie — perhaps because we sold a grand total of two buttons to exiting moviegoers. Our immediate post-mortem explanation for our failure was that everyone who sees E.T. leaves the theater too verklempt to engage in crass commercialism. On further thought, a button was not much of a way to commemorate the E.T.-viewing experience; but at that time the only tool we had was a hammer (the hammer of printing novelty buttons) and every problem looked like a nail. The excess inventory, a cartonful of “I ♥ E T” buttons, sat in my mom’s apartment for decades. If only we’d had some sort of item to sell that was more subject-matter-appropriate.

Anyway, when I passed that importer’s storefront two years later — with the opening of the first Indiana Jones sequel just a few days away — and my eyes alighted on bagsful of six-foot-long imitation-leather bullwhips for a dollar apiece, I snatched up several dozen.

I brought them with me to the premiere showing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I arrived early enough to be near the head of a line that eventually wound from the box office of the Loews Orpheum (then on 86th Street — where I also lined up early for the premieres of Return of the Jedi the previous year and The Empire Strikes Back three years before that), down the block, and around two corners. I set a big bag of bullwhips on the ground by my feet. When my friends arrived later to hold my place in line, I made periodic forays along the ever-lengthening queue of people to sell my bullwhips for five bucks apiece, and I cleaned up. Many eager purchasers wanted to know why I wasn’t selling fedoras, too. (Answer: I’d thought of that, but they were too expensive.) A cop came and tried to shut me down but I talked him into accepting a free bullwhip instead and he left me alone.

I made hundreds!

Update: I’ll be damned, it looks like Abat still exists.

The picture

As seniors at Hunter College High School we were allowed to choose our own yearbook photos. Everyone began scratching their heads to come up with just the right way to be memorialized for the ages (or at least until our first reunion shattered the images we had created for ourselves). The results were in many cases amazingly creative.

My own idea was not so much creative as derivative, but it made up in ambition what it lacked in originality: I wanted to be James Bond. To do that I would need:

  • A tuxedo
  • An exotic sports car
  • Multiple gorgeous women surrounding me

I knew where to get the first; Chuck and I had already rented tuxedoes once, when attending the sweet sixteen party to which we’d wrangled invitations by questionable means. On this occasion I rented just the top half of a tuxedo because (a) it was cheaper and (b) in black-and-white and at the small resolution of yearbook photos, any old dark pants would do.

I had an idea where to “get” the exotic sports car. There was a Ferrari dealership in midtown Manhattan, not far from the subway route that I rode each day to and from school. I stopped by there one afternoon to ask the manager how he’d feel about it if I came down with a few friends to take some pictures for the high school yearbook. I offered to pay for the privilege, an amount that probably seemed large to me but almost certainly was tiny. He allowed as he might permit us to share a sight-line or two from afar with one of his pristine automotive works of art.

The hard part was going to be the multiple gorgeous women. …Or so I thought! I had underestimated either my own charm or the desire of girls just to have fun, but the first three hotties from my graduating class whom I approached with this idea all consented to participate.

On the appointed day I was distressed to see that Susie, one of my gorgeous women, had dressed frowsily. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “I have something nice to change into when we get there.”

Susie, Paula, Irene, and I made our way to the dealership after school along with Chuck, who was the cameraman. When we arrived, the bored sales staff who had barely given me the time of day a few days earlier all jumped to attention at the sight of the pulchritude I had in tow.

I pulled my rented dress shirt, dinner jacket, and accessories from a garment bag I was carrying. Susie asked for a bathroom in which to change. When she emerged wearing only a string bikini I forgot to breathe or close my mouth for a while. The eyeballs and tongues of the sales staff were not tucked as far back in their heads as usual.

The manager fell all over himself giving us access to the showroom and making editorial suggestions. We took a few dozen shots in various poses, up close and personal with some of the most amazing cars in the world. The girls got in character, really vamping it up. And though the image I was trying to project was one of Bond-like sophistication and suaveté, in fact I was far out of my depth. Being so close to such immaculate and expensive machines made me uncomfortable, and the (to my inhibited mind) lavish display of teen sexuality did not help matters.

But in all it was a lot of fun. The high point was when the manager suggested I climb into the driver’s seat of a gleaming red 308 (oh okay) and handed me the keys… to lower the window. We took a few shots like that, the girls trying to arrange their faces around the window as I gripped the wheel of a Ferrari.

In the days that followed, my description of that moment was like this exchange from the end of The Rocketeer:

Howard Hughes: I’ve been meaning to ask you, what was it like, strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of hell?

Cliff Secord: It was the closest I’ll ever get to heaven, Mr. Hughes.

(Of course, in the film, Cliff then glances over at his girlfriend Jenny and has the good sense to add, “Well, maybe not.” But like the stupid 17-year-old I was, I was more dazzled by the Ferraris than by the girls pretending to fawn over me.)

Only a few shots turned out to be any good and in the end I chose one that barely showed the car at all. I captioned it with this quote from Norton Juster’s children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth:

“Then where is Reality?” barked Tock.
“Right here!” cried Alec, waving his arms. “You’re standing in the middle of Main Street!”

which at the time I thought was very profound, taken out of context; and then for a long while didn’t; and now kind of do, again.

Matchmaker, part 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Matchmaker

A few days ago I read an article speculating that the one-man computer-dating company,, may be worth a billion dollars.

This inspired me to write the following rambling reminiscence of my forays into computer dating services — not as a customer, but as an operator.

It all started when I taught myself the computer language BASIC in anticipation of winning an Apple II computer in a magazine contest. To my great surprise I didn’t win (and in related news: I’m not the center of the universe) but, luckily for me and my nascent programming skills, my new friend Chuck had a computer at home, which was almost unheard of in those days. (His dad was a professional programmer and weekend computer hobbyist.)

Chuck and I bonded over our shared nerdiness. How nerdy? In our seventh-grade music class, one homework assignment was to develop a board game illustrating the differences between different eras of classical music history. We undertook an electrical engineering project, drawing up circuit diagrams, buying parts at Radio Shack, and soldering them together in Chuck’s basement. The resulting game, which we called ElectroMusiQuiz, required players to answer music-history questions on cards that could then be inserted into a slot that would cause the right answer to appear on a 7-segment LED. A right answer meant you could advance your gamepiece across the board. ElectroMusiQuiz was extremely crude, but on the day everyone brought in their board games, ours was the one everyone wanted to try! (This was before ubiquitous electronic goodies, you must understand, when upside-down illegible-word calculator games were all the rage.) It earned us a commendation from the principal’s office.

Over the next couple of years, Chuck and I spent countless afterschool hours with our heads together in front of his computer, laboriously typing in long program listings from issues of Byte and Dr. Dobbs Journal of Computer Calisthenics & Orthodontia, trying out our own creations in NorthStar BASIC and later UCSD Pascal, or just loading Adventure or Trek-80 from a 500-baud audio cassette and playing until dinnertime.

The state of the art in computer gaming circa 1980. We loved it.

Occasionally we’d watch in awe as Chuck’s dad used a modem to connect his computer to the mainframe at his office. It was an acoustic modem, the kind Matthew Broderick uses in WarGames, where a telephone handset is jammed into a pair of rubber cups, one housing a mic for listening to the screechy data sounds from the handset, and one housing a speaker for making screechy data into the handset’s mic. Such a device was only possible, of course, at a time when telephone handsets were all a standard size and shape.

One day in eleventh grade (1982-83) we learned that our school had a computer terminal with a built-in acoustic modem — a teletype-style machine, with a roll of paper for printing the output, line by line, from whatever computer you connected it to. Around the same time we learned that it was almost time for our school’s annual Carnival, and we hatched this idea: we would operate a computer-dating booth. A few weeks before Carnival, we’d circulate personality questionnaires to all students. We’d collect them and enter the data from the completed forms into a computer-dating program that we would write for Chuck’s computer. On the day of Carnival, we would set up the terminal in an unused classroom, connect it by phone to Chuck’s computer at home, and direct it to output a list of the five best matches (as determined by our program) for anyone who showed up and handed over a couple of Carnival tickets.

To my modern self, the ambitiousness of that plan is breathtaking. As a harried parent who works full time (married to another harried parent also working full time), for whom merely writing in my blog requires stealing moments here and there for days on end, the level of effort that plan implies makes me cringe. But we were young and our responsibilities were few. Somehow in the space of a few short weeks we:

  • Got approval from some teachers to set up this “booth” and use the teletype;
  • Wrote a personality questionnaire (filled with random questions pulled out of thin air);
  • Sweet-talked the Social Studies department’s office into letting us have some of their mimeograph stencils for typing up the questionnaire — most of which we ruined with imperfect typing (including one memorable copy in which the text was perfect but which was then cut in half by a line of underscores I added at the bottom for the submitter’s name!);
  • Got high on mimeograph fumes and then distributed the blank questionnaires to over a thousand schoolmates;
  • Wrote, debugged, and tested the software for enabling data entry, saving and loading the data to and from a disk file, and executing the matchmaking computation;
  • Roped Chuck’s dad into staying home on the day of Carnival in order to assist with establishing the modem connection and any technical issues that might come up;
  • Collected completed questionnaires from hundreds of students;
  • Made a crooked deal with one classmate to ensure a certain student appeared in her list of matches (and vice versa) in exchange for an invitation to her upcoming sweet sixteen party.

On the night before Carnival there were still hundreds of questionnaires to enter into Chuck’s computer. There were four of us working at it: me and Chuck; my girlfriend Erica, and her friend Mari. It was slow, gruelling work that we did in two-person teams, one reading data aloud from the forms, the other typing it in, occasionally saying, “Wait, wait…” After a while, the reader’s voice would grow hoarse and the typist’s hands would cramp up, and they’d switch roles, or swap in the other two-person team.

As the hours dragged on long past midnight and our weariness came close to despair, there was one consolation for me at least: while Chuck and Mari worked and it was Erica’s turn and mine to rest, we made out almost continuously, like the indecent sixteen-year-olds we were.

Finally, some time past 3am, the last questionnaire was entered. We amused ourselves for a short time by querying the matching engine a few times to see which of our classmates matched up with whom (untroubled by the ethical or privacy compunctions — see “crooked deal” above — that would constrain our later adult selves), then called it a night.

Not enough sleep later, we went to school and set up the computer-dating room. We pushed all the chairs and desks in a classroom toward the back wall and wheeled in the teletype, then brought in a telephone with a cord long enough to reach the nearest extension jack across the hallway in the Foreign Languages office. Next we called Chuck’s dad at home and instructed him to begin the computer connection and then jammed the handset into the terminal’s modem. After fiddling around with various settings (learning on the fly about the difference between “full duplex” and “half duplex”), we were up and running! To our considerable surprise.

Almost as soon as we posted our sign on the classroom door, a line formed out the room and down the hallway. We began collecting Carnival tickets, running the matching engine, and delivering the results — a list of fellow students’ names — in the form of printouts torn off the teletype. But the matching engine was slow, taking up to five minutes to produce one set of results, and the line of “customers” just grew and grew. Now and then someone tripped over the phone line and disconnected us, and we’d have to call Chuck’s dad again and arrange a mutual jamming of telephone receivers into modems.

As the delays mounted, the crowd’s mood started to sour, and they began clamoring for faster service. To add to our troubles, the teletype began printing strings of random characters at unpredictable intervals, occasionally dropping the connection! Before long we figured out that this was caused by the noise of the crowd getting into the acoustic modem and being mistaken for data! So we moved the queue into the hallway, closed the door, and admitted just one person at a time.

A few hours later, we closed the computer-dating booth. We had collected a small mountain of Carnival tickets and congratulated ourselves on a job well done.

(To be continued…)

Subway action hero

In which the author evades a citywide pursuit, battles a gang of ruffians, and kisses two women within minutes of each other.

From seventh through twelfth grades I attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan. I took the subway from Queens in the morning and back again to Queens after school. Most days I rode home with my friend and fellow Queens resident Chuck.

We were two geeky little guys, and we had female counterparts at Hunter: Kathy and Joelle.

They were the sort of girls who were into Tarot and Stevie Nicks and Lord of the Rings and guys who played Dungeons and Dragons. By rights, Chuck and I should have been D&D players, considering our other interests such as computers, electronics, and Star Trek; but we weren’t. That didn’t keep Kathy and Joelle from acting interested in us, though; and being still at the dipping-pigtails-into-inkwells stage of relating to women, Chuck and I feigned displeasure at Kathy’s and Joelle’s attentions.

(Not that they were especially mature themselves. Their nicknames for me and Chuck were “Cow-face” and “Moose-face,” respectively, and they delighted in pretending to annoy us.)

As it happened, Kathy and Joelle also both lived in Queens and so we frequently encountered one another en route in the afternoons. (Somehow none of us ever ran into one another in the mornings.) Whenever this happened, Chuck and I always made a big show of being vexed, and Kathy and Joelle always made a big show of following us as we tried to evade them by switching trains, walking to the far end of the platform, etc.

Of course, it was love, but none of us ever figured that out.

One time, for no particular reason, the chase was truly on. Kathy and Joelle made clear that they’d stick to us like glue on the ride home that day, so the instant school let out, Chuck and I raced for the 96th Street station and counted ourselves lucky to get on a number 6 train almost immediately, before the girls could catch up. At 59th Street we got off the 6 to switch to the N train — and there we found Kathy and Joelle waiting for us! When they saw us run from the school, they knew they’d never catch us if they followed us to the 96th Street station, so they hot-footed it down to 86th Street, where they caught the 4 express and beat us to 59th Street!

You can’t go home again

The N train no longer goes where it used to. The RR train no longer even exists. The one constant in the New York subway is change. Change, and the smell of stale urine. Two! Two constants. Here is what the MTA route system looked like around the time of this story; here is what it looks like today.

Chuck had a plan. On his cue, we unexpectedly hopped onto a departing RR train after its doors had closed (using the cool but stupidly dangerous leap-on-between-cars maneuver), leaving Kathy and Joelle behind once again. At Queensboro Plaza we switched to the 7 train, and got off at Roosevelt Avenue to transfer back onto one of the Queens Boulevard trains.

And there were the girls again, waiting for us with shit-eating grins, having foreseen our strategy. We conceded the battle and rode home the rest of the way with them.

One other time, perhaps a year later, I was waiting on the Queens Plaza platform after school with Joelle, maybe Kathy, maybe Chuck, and maybe one or two other Queens friends, when a group of slightly older kids started verbally taunting us. Naturally we ignored them. Then they began to insult the girls. I got angry and said something to them in the way of a warning, I don’t remember exactly what; then we continued trying to ignore them. The last straw for me was when their harassment became physical, to wit: tapping some of us on the head. I felt protective of my friends and grew uncharacteristically bold. I threw down my knapsack and demanded we be left alone. “What are you gonna do about it?” asked the chief bully, and gave me a shove. I shoved back and the fight was on. We circled each other with our fists up, each of us swinging occasionally and either missing or landing pretty ineffectual blows.

[I am a lover, not a fighter, but I am not above settling the hash of someone deserving. Though I don’t remember it, my mom loves to tell the story of the time I finally snapped and beat the crap out of my elementary school’s resident bully — who treated me as a friend ever after.]

The fight somehow petered out with no resolution. When a train came, his group and mine got on separate cars. It was one of the newer R-46 trains that prevented crossing from one car to the next without an operator’s key, so once we were underway, that was pretty much the end of that.

Through the window to the next car we saw the gang get off at the next stop, Roosevelt Avenue. However, as the conductor announced, “Watch the closing doors” and the door-warning chime went “ding dong,” the bully I’d fought ran back onto my train car, punched me square in the nose (knocking my head back into the wall behind my seat), and hopped back off.

I saw stars. But nothing was broken or bleeding, I had the sympathy and admiration of my friends, and the bully’s cowardly final act had given me a moral victory that I still savor.

There’s a nice little coda to the Bob-Chuck-Kathy-Joelle story in which I get kisses from both women.

In our senior year at Hunter, we had our Spring Carnival in the schoolyard. Kathy was one of a few people manning (“womanning”?) the kissing booth, and for a buck I finally got a smooch from her.

Another booth was a dunk tank — one dollar for one throw of a baseball at a target that would drop some poor sap into a tank of water. To my great surprise, there was Chuck, sitting on the hot seat in a bathing suit and T-shirt, looking distinctly dry. “I’ve got to try this,” I said, as I handed a dollar over to the booth barker — Joelle. Now, Chuck, Joelle, and everybody else in the world knew that I was athletically — what’s the right word? — pathetic. A small crowd gathered of folks who knew this fact and the fact that Chuck and I were best friends. Chuck taunted me confidently from his perch. I wound up and hurled a true baseball-style pitch. On that sunny afternoon the gods of great story endings guided my throw straight and true. The ball struck, a bell rang, and the look of astonishment on Chuck’s face as he fell into the water was worth a million bucks. Joelle squealed, jumped, and gave me a hug and a kiss.

Brushes with greatness!

I went to elementary school at P.S. 196 in Forest Hills, NY. Among my friends there was a girl named Amy Linker. A few years after we all graduated, Amy landed a co-starring role opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a popular TV sitcom called Square Pegs.

While Amy’s show was on the air, I attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where among my new friends was a girl named Cynthia Nixon. Several years later, Cynthia landed a co-starring role opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a popular TV sitcom called Sex and the City.

What does it mean? And, which of my female college classmates will be SJP’s next TV co-star?