BY CHANA SHAPIRO / AJT //
When I was a senior in high school, I got to know a young man named Jon. Jon was a cousin of one of my close friends, who didn’t like him very much. I, however, found Jon to be fascinating.
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Jon was different from anyone I knew. He and his mother, who had recently moved to town, lived in a run-down section of the city with which I was totally unfamiliar, an area in which Jon and his mother were surely the only Jewish family.
His mother, who supported them with her earnings as a waitress in two restaurants, was seldom home. Jon, generally left to his own devices, had decided that he wasn’t interested in going to school. He didn’t waste his days, however, instead devoting all his time to practicing the stand-up bass. In fact, I learned that his worldly possessions consisted of his treasured bass, boxes of bass sheet music, string quartet and jazz records and a beat-up briefcase.
Neither Jon nor his mother had a car, and Jon never had any money, so time spent with him consisted of long walks, listening to music on my family’s record player, hours poking through bookstores and reading in the public library. There were plenty of arguments between us about the merits of attending school. I suspected that he was self-conscious about his terrible clothes, but Jon was adamant that his days were best spent reading and playing music.
One day Jon surprised me. He had come to meet me after school, and we walked and talked on our way to the library. This time he had brought his brief case along. Naturally, I always wondered what was in it, but I had never peeked or even asked about it, supposing that it held something very private. There might be photographs or letters relating to his deceased and/or departed father or even an estranged sibling, perhaps a treasured stuffed animal or blanket from childhood, or even more likely, stolen property.
“You’re my best friend,” Jon announced. “I trust you. “So I’ve decided to show you what I have here.” We sat together on a bench in the library’s garden. Jon placed the brief case between us and opened it. He took out a single item, a black turtleneck T-shirt.
“This is my T-shirt,” he declared, with a trace of profundity. I knew something significant had just occurred, but I didn’t have a clue what it was.
In those days boys wore striped T-shirts and girls wore pastel ones. Teenagers didn’t wear them to school. They were worn in the back yard, at camp and when doing chores, and they weren’t variants of white undershirts. Mothers bought T-shirts on sale, irrespective of whether they “went with” anything else. T-shirts were cheap and they didn’t have ironic sayings or trendy logos. Most important, they were never solid black. The only people who wore solid black T-shirts when I was a senior in high school were artists and jazz musicians. Honestly, I had never seen a black T-shirt in the possession of a regular person until I met Jon.
“I got this shirt in New York,” Jon explained. “A guy at a club where my mother was a waitress gave it to me. I used to watch the band rehearse every afternoon, and even though I was a kid, they used to let me sit backstage at night when they played. That’s how I decided to play the bass.”
“But who taught you?” I asked, fully aware and awed by the fact that his musical education was quite different from my own weekly uninspiring piano lessons.
“I sort of picked it up. My mother bought my bass—the one I still have—in a pawn shop when I was ten years old. It was huge, but all the guys at the club helped me get better. It was the same at every club where my mother worked.”
“But what about the T-shirt?”
“It was our last year in New York, just before we moved here. The bass player liked me. He took me to the Village and told me he wanted to buy me a present, so I could remember him. It was the shirt.”
Then, right there in the library garden, Jon took off his old jacket and shirt and pulled on the long-sleeved, black turtleneck.
“You should wear that all the time!” I exclaimed. He looked completely different, really cool and worlds better that in his worn-out shirt and jacket.
“I can’t wear it yet,” Jon told me. “Not until I’m a real musician. I’m working on it. Every day.” He took the T-shirt off, returned it to the briefcase, and put on his other clothes.
A few months later Jon and his mother left town, and I never heard from him again. I don’t know if he ever became a real jazz musician, and I don’t know who else got to see how handsome he looked in the black turtleneck. But he taught me something, and it could change the world.
What if little girls waited until they were real women before wearing spandex and high heels? What if self-centered, immature men and women waited until they were caring and selfless before marrying and having children? What if semi-literate individuals waited until they were truly learned and articulate before accepting honorary doctorates?
Believe me, if Jon is wearing a black turtleneck today, you can be one hundred percent sure that he’s playing some fine music.