Who Stole My Country 54 – New York City

air-travel-1960s

Air Travel in the Sixties (or Who Stole My Travel Space?)

I took a window seat on the plane from San Francisco to New York and watched the vast country slip by below me.  Glints of silver were cars on inter continental highways.  I thought back to my drive west with my tail between my legs three years earlier. I was going back to New York City as program director of an exciting new radio station.

Berkeley had been a warm and nurturing home, but its most exciting cafe was still the newly opened Il Piccolo’s, a combination coffee shop and bookstore with a real Italian barista who barely spoke English.  San Francisco, across the bay, was cosmopolitan, but the Beats were old hat and the hippies hadn’t arrived.  San Francisco was  treading water in 1962.  In New York, on the other hand, there was a folk music revival in Greenwich Village.  Bob Dylan released his first LP in March of 1962, based on music performed in New York City.

I stepped off the plane at La Guardia, dressed in a jacket and tie, a trench coat over my arm and a battered suitcase with enough clothes for a week.  It was late in the afternoon, but I took a cab directly to the corner of Madison and 39th Street.  WBAI was in a brownstone halfway between Madison and Lexington.  Louis Schweitzer’s Vera Foundation was on the ground floor.  WBAI was on the second and third floors.  I took a creaky elevator at the end of the hallway up to the second floor.  Acting station manager Gene Bruck, who programmed classical music for the station, was surprised to see me so late in the day, but he called an impromptu staff meeting.

I knew the programmers from their work and others on the staff from telephone conversations, so I was on familiar ground.  It was with some awkwardness, therefore, that I lied and told them I wanted to volunteer “for a week or two.”  Trevor wanted me to check WBAI out and then make a report before confirming the decision to send me there, so he suggested I tell the staff that I was visiting New York on vacation and had decided to volunteer. You can imagine how that went down with cynical New Yorkers. Glances were exchanged and Richard Elman welcomed me warmly and suggested everybody get back to work.

Richard M. Elman 2

Richard M. Elman

Elman was a big man, well over six feet, with a slouch, as if he didn’t want to intimidate others.  He had a deep voice, a classic New York Jewish accent and large, brown eyes that had the capacity to look right through you.  He grabbed my arm, told me to leave my bag in his office, and took me to a bar on Madison where he ordered two Martinis.

Dick gave me a hard stare as he downed his first martini.  I knew in that instant that I was in a city with a much harder edge than Northern California’s Bay Area.  “What are really doing here,” Dick wanted to know.  My Berkeley Kumbayah days were over.

I explained that Trevor and the board wanted to make WBAI more like KPFA, with a greater emphasis on public affairs programming.  He chewed me out for telling such an outrageous lie … “volunteer?”  We talked about Elsa.  I explained that Trevor wanted me to be program director.  Dick was delighted. WBAI’s staff was eager for support and I would be welcome.  We became life long friends.

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