Son of Sam Got Me Out of Guitar Lessons

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12/19/2010

Neighborhood: Staten Island

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New Dorp Lane, even in 1976, was a traffic jam of cars in search of parking for the shops and restaurants up and down the strip. On the corner of Clawson Street, was Lane Music, its window drawn with a transparent yellow shade. Inside, guitars hung on one wall, while, opposite, were the doors to two practice studios, inevitably, emanating with the point, counterpoint of teacher/student tuning their instruments. At the counter, you could usually find a father settling up. Friday nights, my parents would park on the tree-lined side street, while I suffered my half-hour guitar lesson, after which I’d come running, clumsily switching my guitar case from hand to hand, searching for the Dodge Dart. On the way home, we’d stop at Pizza Town, a pizzeria that looked like a circus tent, and eat slices in the parking lot as WABC played on the radio, and Dan Ingram announced the “Weekend National Anthem,” cueing up Red Bone’s, “Come and Get Your Love.”

That summer, my best friend, Bobby, went to stay with his grandmother in Virginia, sending me a postcard of blue hued mountains, which I displayed on my dresser. In his absence, I’d pleaded with my parents to let me take guitar lessons. Recently, a neighbor, Nancy, had begun lessons, which planted the seed that blossomed into a plan of serenading Bobby when he got back, and showing him what he’d missed out on while he was gone, maybe even, someday, dedicating a song to him at the Garden, for a crowd of flickering lighters. My teacher, Ronny, with his greasy black bangs, and beard that grew untrimmed down his neck, reminded me of Paul McCartney on the “Let It Be” cover. Our first lesson was the high “E” string. I spent the week plucking it, filling the house with an atonal riff, like some giant mosquito in a fifties sci-fi anti-nuke parable. We did a string a week. As we made our way through the six strings, I wondered what could possibly be next.

Summer ended. Bobby returned. I told him I was taking guitar lessons, and he started lessons, just like that, catching up with me. My progress had stalled, as my fingers weren’t strong enough for chords, and I’d become frustrated with the seeming pointlessness of scales. Plodding through the Guitar 1 book, we finally got to a song, something titled “Sparkling Stella.” Ronny challenged me with, “When you learn it, you’ll recognize it.” I fumbled over it for weeks, but it still didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard. Conceding, Ronny played it for me. It was “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Sensing my disillusionment, he asked, “Do you like The Beatles?” At Ronny’s urging, my parents bought me a Lennon and McCartney songbook, but the beginner’s version of the rock classics were disappointing; even if I did enjoy Ronny’s rendition of “Michelle.”

Out of the blue, Bobby quit. When I asked him why, he simply shrugged. Discussing the matter with my grandfather, and hinting that I was considering quitting too, he encouraged me with, “Someday you’ll be glad you stuck with it.” My guitar sat untouched all week, only to be taken out of it’s case for a half hour at Lane Music. One Friday, during a particularly frustrating lesson that had me on the verge of tears, Ronny asked, “Are you a good student?” There was a hint of sympathy in his tone. I explained that I was in SP, Special Progress, the designation for the advanced class, with a ninety-two average, and already reading at a twelfth grade level – and all I did was watch TV! His reply was that I reminded him of himself at my age, and we both smiled. Shortly after my heart-to-heart with Ronny, he went on “vacation,” only to never return. This offered a reprieve of several weeks, during which there was a decided skip in my step, but eventually Lane Music called, and my return was arranged. I was introduced to a new teacher, Steve, a dead ringer for Art Garfunkel, with his lanky build and blond ‘fro. Steve quickly soured on my act and, weekly, would ask, “Do you think the guitar’s going to learn to play itself?” repeating it until I answered. And no, I didn’t think it would.»

Son of Sam Got Me Out of Guitar Lessons
Photo by Brandi Sims

Meanwhile, in J.H.S. 49, my cruise through seventh grade came to a screeching halt with the announcement of “Hobby Week,” wherein each student would have to get up in front of the class for a presentation on his hobby. I was going to do candle making. Candle making wasn’t my hobby, per se, but that Christmas I’d received a candle making kit and, under my parents’ supervision (i.e., my father did everything), made a candle. It would be easy, I’d reasoned. I still had the instructions, which included a diagram that lent a legitimacy to the process, and would make a great handout for the class. Besides, it was the only thing I could think of. As my scheduled presentation neared, I showed my candle making kit, and candle, to my classmate William, who was unimpressed. “Candle making’s for girls,” he said, and I couldn’t argue with him. William built models of World War II aircraft, and subscribed to a modeling magazine, and belonged to a modeling club, and even had his own airbrush. Wistfully, I told him he had no idea how lucky he was to actually have a hobby. “Why don’t you bring in your guitar!” he exclaimed. So, at the last minute, I scrapped candle making, and put together a presentation on guitar. Sitting in front of my peers, I named the six strings, and played the natural notes, and struck some major chords, which mostly went thud. As I was packing up, Ms. Van Name lead the class in applause, encouraging me to play something. I mangled “Sparkling Stella,” and slumped back to my seat soaked in flop sweat.

In 1977, New York City was held captive by a serial killer using a .44 to gun down young lovers in parked cars. There were shootings in The Bronx, and in Queens. In July, The Post published the Son of Sam letter, in which the madman explained how he was instructed to kill by his neighbor’s dog, and it seemed like the only thing anyone could talk about. After Stacy Moskowitz was killed in a parked car in Brooklyn, a rumor spread locally that Son of Sam was making his way to Staten Island. Amid much whispering, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and explained how they were concerned about parking outside Lane Music with everything that was going on, and asked if I’d understand if my guitar lessons were put on hold. In August, a parking ticket tripped up David Berkowitz, and the city breathed a sigh of relief. I never went back to Lane Music.


Last summer, Tom Diriwachter had a one-act play, "Pests," in The Drafts at Horse Trade 10 Minute Play Festival, as well as a new full-length play, "Age Out," at Theater For the New City.

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