Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Day one hundred and fourteen ... The soft shoe.

I couldn't have been any more than four years old.

I know I hadn't started elementary school yet, that part of my childhood I recall so vividly. Like making my first friend in first grade, Carlos Garcia. I remember how he approached me on day one at Ralph M. Small Elementary school, in September of 1975, and asked me my name.

"My name is Fred-er-ick," I replied. My mother had taught me to say it proudly like that, stressing each syllable like the precise and careful woman that she was.

"Mine is Carlos. Do you want to be my friend?"

"Uh-huh," I said.

"Here," Carlos said as he handed me a tiny paper American flag, small enough to take up half the length of the toothpick it was attached to.

"It's the flag," he said. And I remember exactly how his face looked: light brown complexion, bowl hair cut, a big smile verging on a grimace, and his eyes: watery and wide, staring at me with anxious expectation as if he was giving me something he knew I had been wanting for a long time.

"Yeah. It is," I said. "Thanks."

I took it and put it in the top pocket of my Wrangler, pearloid-buttoned, short-sleeved dress shirt: the shirt my mom approved of and had watched me wearing earlier in the day; my form growing smaller and smaller as I walked with the other kids the quarter-mile to school, clutching a pencil bag full of new pencils, crying quietly.

But what I'm alluding to had happened at least a year before. It was the first time I had experienced it, and I knew I wanted more.

Life for me was pretty much easy right from the very start. I was my mother's only child. My aunt did not want children, and my uncle was living the nomadic military lifestyle with his wife and son and daughter. I was the only game in town.

I, Fred-er-ick Alexander Johnson, was king. My kind and noble caretakers were more than willing to bring me anywhere and everywhere in order to both quell my nagging, and to provide me with the proper balance of entertainment and education in my formative years.

Quincy Marketplace, in downtown Boston, was where it happened.

I used to love to go to there. There was oh so much to stimulate the senses of a small child. Brigham's Ice Cream shop was great for a cake-cone of chocolate chip. Another perpetual favorite was the puppet store. I'd go there and stare longingly at the nylon stocking faced puppets attached to poly-fil stuffed bodies clad in tuxedos or dresses. I'd play with the Styrofoam, neon-boa bird marionettes that were all the rage in the mid seventies. I also loved to sit at the outdoor cafes and suck on fruit Popsicles and chase the pigeons away. I believed that they had as much fun as I did in this scenario. Who knows? Maybe they did.

A constant at the outdoor cafes was music: live music. Usually a piano player, a guitar player, or maybe a saxophonist or even a small band: from jazz, to rock, to dixieland.

It was here that it happened. It was the summertime. I was with my mom and my babush (which is what I called my grandmother). My mother and I were enjoying a couple of cold Pepsis with long plastic straws. There was a piano in the corner of the small outdoor cafe. A man was playing ragtime and I was eyeing a conspicuous gaggle of pigeons.

Then it hit me.

I saw, from the vantage point of three feet above ground, the tapping of the cafe customers' feet. I saw the bopping of their heads. I looked at my mother and she smiled at me and took a sip of her Pepsi. What a joy. A son. Her son.

I looked in the direction of the piano man who was about fifteen feet away and looked back at my mother.

"Go on," she said. "Go say hello."

I started to walk. I tripped on a cobblestone. I took three staggered steps. The fourth step was a hop. The fifth step was a slide. And then my feet came together and I jumped in the air.

"Ooohh ...!" My babush exclaimed, "Judy, look at your son."

And I looked at her and we exchanged a smile.

Unexpectedly, I was in the center of the public dining area, a ten by ten grid of cobblestones devoid of tables or chairs, and I was being watched.

And then, I started to dance.

As I let the ragtime piano music, replete with counterpoint and jumpy rhythms, absorb in my body and soul, I moved like I had never moved before. I had flash, I had sass, I had energy.

I had no idea what I was doing.

But I looked at my mother and babush as I shook my arms and pounded my feet on the cafe stones and they were beaming. And they weren't the only ones. Many of the other fifteen or so patrons were staring at me, some with a plastic spoon midway from the chowder bowl to their mouths. And the ones who hadn't yet been alerted to this impromptu spectacle were soon made aware with a tug on the arm from their companions.

I heard the tension build in the last section of the ragtime piece. I felt the end drawing near. I could tell it was almost over. I looked at the piano player and he winked at me. As I felt the last four bars hit, I hugged myself with both arms, threw them out to the sides, and spun around two or three times. As I saw the hands of the piano man reach for the last chord, with a head still fuzzy from the spin, I took off my corduroy hat, threw it to the ground, dropped to one knee, and bowed my head.

And the place went berserk.

I slowly looked up at my mother and babush and they were clapping and smiling. I saw a tear stream down my mother's cheek.

They had no idea what had just begun.

"What's your name?" the piano man asked me as my mom approached.

"Fred-er-ick Johnson," I told him. "You play really great."

"Thanks, Frederick. You're a pretty good dancer yourself."

"Thanks," I said. "I like music."

"Good for you," he said with a smile.

And I felt the warm, protective palm of my mother on my head. I looked up and put both my hands on hers.

"I think they liked me, Mom."

"Yes, sweetheart ... I think you're right ... I think we all did."

Thanks for reading.


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