When I was in 7th grade, there was in a kid named Josh in both my history class and my English class. I didn’t know him well but I knew who he was. I had taken after school Yiddish classes, held in the basement of his house when I was 7 or 8. His basement was very cool. It had been a dance studio in the 70’s. The walls were painted different solid colors. There were mirrors all along the walls with bars for stretching. On the first day of 7th grade I had mixed feelings about Josh. He wore an old used men’s shirt and cut off jean shorts. I thought that was very cool. He had sleepy looking eyes and he spoke kind of slowly. He was very polite with all the kids, popular or otherwise. He asked everyone lots of questions. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. I thought maybe he was being friendly to “un-cool” people as a put-on, which wasn’t uncommon in 7th grade. At some point I attempted to call him out on how mean that was. It turned out he wasn’t putting anyone on. He was actually genuinely interested in everyone. He didn’t even dismiss me or resent my misjudgment of his politeness. He thought it was funny. We soon became best friends.
I started hanging out over at Josh’s house all the time. We spent hours goofing around in that old dance studio, smoking cigarettes on the sly, talking about girls and music. Josh was into old music like I was. He was also heavily into reading. As was my custom at the time, I immediately checked out all of his parents’ old records.
They had a really good collection, heavy on the leftist folk records from the 60’s. I had just seen the Woodstock movie on PBS. Josh had the album. I thought it was unbelievably cool. I wanted to know about any and all old hippie-related music. Josh asked me if I wanted to go to Greenwich Village with him one weekend to see his aunt. All I knew about the village was that they had a park where crazy people took drugs and a giant record store called Tower Records where you could get any record you ever dreamed of. Josh said we could take the train and the subway and get there very easily by ourselves. I found the whole thing very grown up and exciting.
Josh’s aunt turned out to be his grandmother’s sister. Her name was Sylvia but she preferred to be called Slava. She lived alone in a small, one bedroom apartment on 8th street & McDougal in the middle of Greenwich Village. Slava was about 80 years old and no more than 5 feet tall. She was fairly hard of hearing and we had to yell our greetings to her. When I met her she had a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She grabbed our faces and kissed us when we arrived. Her eyes squinted up almost closed when she smiled. Slava was a communist. There were Soviet Life magazines on her coffee table and portraits of Lenin on the wall. Josh and I slept on the miniature couch and the floor of her living room. Saturday morning we sat with her in her tiny kitchen, yelling questions about the old days in the village, pretending to eat the breakfast she made for us. The rest of the weekend we wandered around the village, exploring. I can’t remember how many times we made the trip downtown. I can still feel the sheer excitement of 7th period on Friday afternoon, counting the few bucks we’d scraped together in our pockets. Getting ready to run to the train after the bell. Those weekends became one of my favorite parts of junior high and high school. We had found a way to transcend the limits of our little suburban 1980’s world. The village, it’s strange characters, it’s history and the music I found in it’s shops and clubs and street corners, was for me the land of dreams.