NOTE: I wrote this after coming home from the "all-years" reunion for Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, NY. They were closing the high school and replacing it - in the building - with four magnet programs. It was my first ever reunion and it had a profound impact. A shorter version of this essay appeared in New York Newsday.
I didn’t even know I had to get back to The Corner. When I got there, even after more than 30 years, it was as if I’d never left.
There has been “a corner” in all our lives—a store or mall; a diner or restaurant; a place for teenagers to go to when there’s nothing to do—or, something terribly important. For me, it was the corner of Francis Lewis and Merrick Boulevards in the Laurelton section of Queens — a convergence of time and place. We met at The Corner after school, after dinner, after a date or after a fight with our parents.
When I was a teenager there was a floating, ever changing, always connected group of 100-150 kids that congregated at The Corner. We weren’t an organized gang; we had no rituals, no signs, and no colors. We were a happy-go-lucky ad hoc gang connected by incredibly strong cultural, social and geographic bonds. We gathered in groups of twos, threes, fives, 20s and more. We needed a place that was cool and safe—The Corner.
Burt & Dave’s, the luncheonette on The Corner, was our clubhouse. It was seven or eight stools at the counter, three booths, a jukebox and killer burgers. It was more than a hangout. For some it was their first place of employment. For others it was the only place to go when they had a tough time at home. Even if you didn’t buy anything, Burt or Dave would let you hang around; one of them was always there – from opening at 7 a.m. until the midnight closing. Sometimes they played the roles of confessor or counselor.
It was before Vietnam, AIDS and drugs began their deadly march of attrition through our ranks. It was before the Surgeon General got tough on tobacco and before drinking yourself into oblivion was standard teenage party fare. It was a hopeful time of the perpetually unopened, unused condom in your wallet. It was the beginning of shattered innocence with the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
You could go to The Corner and just hang out. You could grab a pre-Big Mac burger, fries and egg cream at Burt & Dave’s for about a buck. You could pitch pennies, nickels or quarters against the brick wall, make a date, grab a ride to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs in Oceanside, find a party or a poker game, find a girl who wanted to make out or, in later years, buy anything from pot to coke to who-knows-what-else. It was The Corner—the nexus of our evolving young lives.
When we weren’t hanging out at The Corner, most of us conducted our social activities at Andrew Jackson High School, about five miles to the north in Cambria Heights. Built at the end of The Great Depression, this three-story tan brick edifice was the result of an FDR back-to-work program and took up most of the city block.
In our day it straddled a blue and white-collar middle class multi-ethnic community. Four thousand of us crammed into a triple session of classes each school day -- about 50 percent Black with a 50 percent mix of White Catholic, Protestant and Jewish kids. It was one of New York's first fully integrated high schools. Race riots around the country were on the near horizon.
Inside, Jackson was a marble and wood monument to the raging hormones of the teens in southeast Queens. They don’t build ‘em like that anymore. Small cities and towns around the country would kill to have a civic auditorium like the one in AJHS (although we never appreciated its size and grandeur while we were students).
Seating 1,200 on the main floor and another 300 in the balcony, the auditorium was graced by 20 elegant Tiffany chandeliers hanging from the vaulted ceiling (were they there when we were?). The formal marble stairs from the balcony are still cracked from the bowling ball Eddie Levinsohn and Hilton Manfred Obenzinger rolled down them one afternoon while we were cutting study hall. We later tried to convince the principal that it was a science experiment, “checking the nature of gravity.”
On each wall on either side of the stage, and overpowering in their size, are stone bas-relief sculptures depicting workers and their never-ending toil. The side-stage vestibules below those sculptures are acoustically perfect. It was there (and in the likewise acoustically perfect bathrooms) that the legendary girl group, the Shangri-Las, practiced the harmonies that would produce such classics as “Leader of the Pack” and “Remember, Walkin’ in the Sand.”
Some nights we would adjourn to the homes of those most socially worthy and popular for some harmless no-booze, no-drug boogie, over-the-blouse groping, make-out and teen angst. Many would meet later at The Corner to compare notes. No matter what they said, hardly anyone got laid. Nobody cared; it was a special place and a special place in time.
Fast forward to 1996. The Corner as we knew it is long gone. Burt & Dave’s was replaced, first by a Burger King and more recently by a mega-drug store. Almost 60 years to the day after it opened, Andrew Jackson as a high school would cease to exist as well. All of a sudden, The Building was four “magnet programs” in an effort to boost the futures of the disadvantaged students who now occupied the place. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, The Building surged with overcrowded classes and vibrancy. More than 90 percent of each graduating class went to college. At its demise, the final graduating class of AJHS numbered only 200.
Early in June 1996, under a hot, muggy New York City sun, a Saturday afternoon ceremony at the football field behind the school commemorated the literal passing of the torch from Andrew Jackson High School to the four focused magnet programs that would occupy the now-unnamed building. While the speakers spoke and the torches were lit, I joined a small, graying band of alumni in the bleachers. We passed around old yearbooks and (dare I say it) began giggling like school kids. It was our last “assembly” at AJHS and, as with all our assemblies at Jackson, we hardly paid attention, using the moment instead to simply enjoy the act of being together.
At the end of the formal proceedings our motley alumni crew trooped down to the track in front of the grandstand to fumble through a ragged, impromptu version of the Jackson fight song:
“Let us sing of Andrew Jackson, and be like him if we can. He was nearly always right, and he dearly loved a fight for he was a mighty man. Ol’ Hickory and victory shall be our battle cry...”
It was both hilarious and poignant as we groped for the words. It was one of those spontaneous moments to cherish.
After a few of us greybeards huffed and puffed our way through “one last lap” around the Jackson track, we took a tour of the building. From the still smelly old locker rooms to the ancient, dusty athletic trophies, it was a waterslide back in time. Some of the same old desks were nailed to the same floors in the same classrooms. The bathrooms still reeked of urine and stale cigarette smoke and, sadly, the library hadn’t changed a bit. The trophy cases in the main hallway still showcased the hardware from the Bob Cousy-led city basketball champions of the 1940s.
There was plenty to remind us of Jackson’s current state—from the metal detectors at the main entrance and the New York City Police officers patrolling the halls to the rooms with heavy security locks protecting the few outdated computers within.
To mark the passing of AJHS, an “all years” reunion was held that same Saturday evening at the JFK Airport Holiday Inn. Three hundred tickets were sold. More than 100 people couldn’t buy tickets because of room capacity. Not surprisingly, 200 extra people showed up anyway—just to be there. It was as if they knew The Corner, like Brigadoon, would mysteriously reappear in the foggy south Queens mist.
My crowd quickly and spontaneously assembled in one corner of the room, ate a fast buffet dinner and in twos, threes, fives, 20s and more adjourned to the parking lot in front of the hotel – The Corner reincarnate. Though some of us hadn’t seen each other for more than 30 years, we had no trouble picking up several conversations in mid-sentence—as if we’d been at The Corner all day.
Nobody went back inside to dance. With each passing hour, we switched partners and picked up another new/old conversation. There was no effort to impress anyone with who we were in 1996, no wallowing in maudlin nostalgia. Just as we did 30 years ago, we accepted each other at face value—content to enjoy each other’s company on The Corner and nestle in the comfort and safety of our mutual affection. It is amazing how powerfully and deeply those roots reach.
It was a night of warm, sometimes bittersweet memories punctuated by whispered words that in many cases had gone unspoken for years. And when we returned to the now empty ballroom at something past midnight, it didn’t matter; 15 or 20 of us just moved The Corner to someone’s hotel room where we sat and talked for several hours more. Someone parked their camera on top of the TV and set the shutter to snap every thirty seconds while someone else occasionally pointed the camera in a different direction. There were several goofy group shots, many hugs and a tremendous reluctance to see it end.
Finally, at about 3 a.m., people began to drift away to their homes on Long Island or their rooms in the hotel. For me, many circles were closed—circles I didn’t even know were still open. I was able to put my class clownhood to rest, never knowing at the time it was my cover for self-imposed inferiority. I found out the girl I secretly lusted for as a junior actually had an unspoken crush on me. Neither of us was aware of the other’s feelings. Damn that teenage insecurity!
As Saturday night became Sunday morning, I was reminded how fleeting life is and how quickly the good old days zoom by. I thought, for a while, that I had reconnected with some old friends and that those connections would solidify into ongoing relationships. But, time and place were against me; I’ve lived in Seattle for the past 31 years.
I did go to one more reunion – the 35th in 2000. Again, it was for anyone and everyone who ever attended Jackson and, again, very well attended. I saw some of the same old friends and it was nice but there was no magic, no reappearance of The Corner. Maybe my expectations were too high or, maybe, The Corner finally disappeared for good when Andrew Jackson High School faded into history.