The “Vestibule” of THE PROJECT, logo by Hugh Latham of Greensboro

A Time of Smashed Dreams Big and Small

Millions of Americans know what it is like to experience so much loss and death from COVID-19, another great depression in the making, and the pervasive killing of African Americans by police and vigilantes dedicated to the upholding of white supremacy. Together they have taken us closer to fascism and war at home and abroad. And with it so many smashed dreams, countless, it seems.

I have one, too, although it pales in comparison. I am forced to give up THE PROJECT at 1202 Grove Street in Glenwood a little more than a year after I rented this large and highly usable space for an amazingly low amount and without a lease. What amazing luck, everyone said. I had it all in my hands and with extras. Al Brilliant, my trusted friend and comrade, was just a few doors down and always with coffee brewing throughout the morning and afternoon whenever I walked down to visit and talk.

Things went very slowly at first. I paid the first four months of rent before I could even move anything in. I had to secure the front two windows and this was achieved thanks to a very good guy in the neighborhood who measured and ordered metal bars from Home Depot. I remember the day we painfully and awkwardly drilled into cement in the brutally hot sun. Meanwhile, Sharon was prepping and painting and doing all sorts of wonderful things inside. For example, she adorned the large bathroom with drawings Ana and Nathan did when they were young children.

Sharon helped build THE PROJECT. I could not have done it without her.

Soon after the security bars were installed, I carpeted The Big Room where I put all my drums and other instruments. There I would practice as much as I wanted and without worries of others hearing drums, drums and more drums. I am primarily a conga and bongo player and always working on timbales. I also bought a drum kit, my first in 40 years. With help from my longtime friend Turner Battle, a brilliant pianist, I bought a really nice studio piano. Along the way, I also acquired a vintage Fender Bass guitar from another good buddy, Justin Harmon. I had what I needed for musicians who played these instruments to come in and play without having to bring their own. The nucleus of what became BAZOOKA!

As for myself, I added more congas, including two vintage Gon Bops made in 1979 that are close to the ones I first played in the 1970s, and two Classic LPS. These four drums are making me ready for the next phase in a lifelong effort to sound better and better.

Jeez! It’s hard to write about any of this right now, but I’ll do the drill and say a bit more about the whole thing though I am saddened deeply for reasons I continue to go over in my troubled mind. Good thing for the photos. They tell the story better than I’m doing.

By Christmas, the whole place was looking marvelous. The Big Room was set. Also, I had moved my study from our home to a smaller room that was once a recording studio. A studio within the studio! Thanks to Sharon, one entire wall became a splendid bookcase. Now I had “the library.” It was really something. I had weeded out many books in my wonderfully cluttered study at home. Here they became what I believed were the sources for future books and other writing. The wonderful bust of Marx by Nate would soon sit on my desk, as did one of his paintings of my home study on the wall next to a portrait of Marx that someone I knew years ago had found in a junk store in St. Petersburg, Russia.  

All the time, I was moving pieces of art and things I had gathered and collected over four decades of my time in Greensboro, as well as a few possessions that remained from the first 30 years of my life, to Grove Street. Most of it found a place in one of the two front rooms which became The Office. The other was The Gathering Room with a table, a small refrigerator and some posters and photos of great musicians who have long inspired me, some of whom I shared the stage in memorable performances. Sharon ordered deep red curtains for both front rooms. They looked marvelous.

It was magical. My lifelong dream had come true. I had finally established a workplace I always wanted. The place looked just like studios and workplaces I saw as a young man in Greenwich Village in the late ‘60s when I worked my way through college playing drums in “The Peter James Quartet” with Wayne Sabella (piano), Bob “Flash” Fandrey (bass), and Peter Macaluso (tenor and alto sax). We all grew up in Bay Shore on Long Island and graduated from BS Senior High in 1966. Flash and Pete died far too early in life from similar types of leukemia. But Wayne called me last month, still kicking hard. For decades he’s been a highly regarded performer in the New York jazz and “lounge” scene, such as the latter still existed in some hotels and now will succumb to a bad tune called coronavirus.

Yet what made THE PROJECT such a dream come true is that it was happening in Glenwood, the last neighborhood of its kind in the city. I hoped to make my commitment to it and the city of Greensboro from 1202 Grove by promoting discussions and activities about politics, music, and culture in the city I have called my one and only real home. The mission statement at the bottom of the home page on the website made clear my intent and purpose as does other information on the website.

This column is all that remains of THE PROJECT now. I moved everything back home during the last three weeks. Can’t say it was the best thing to do while recovering from double cataract surgery. But it had to be done and alone. COVID-19 scored a direct hit on my fledgling band, BAZOOKA! by killing our first gig at the Elm Street Lounge downtown on March 20, the same night the new Tanger Center for the Performing Arts just two blocks down the street was to open. Smashed dreams big and small alright …

But I can recall bright moments, too. I think the brightest was the Christmas Party that Al, Sharon and I planned and pulled off one Sunday afternoon in December. Many good friends came out, some with food and drink. All seemed to have a good time at both his place and mine. At that point, Al and I were hoping to become part owners of the large building that covered most of our block, what we envisioned would become a lively center of commercial activity for Glenwood.

Ah, the plans we had for “1200 Grove Street” and the prospects of transforming the block into something new and promising for those around us. We often talked about Glenwood as an anachronism, something of the past that did not seem to fit in the present. As a working-class and poor neighborhood whose great allure is its small, vintage homes and diverse population, it could either transcend its contradictions to emerge as something qualitatively different, or be swallowed up by them and turned to ruin. There are clear signs on Grove Street that COVID-19 is bringing the latter. It certainly has for me.

What to say about all this now that my time at 1202 is quickly coming to a close? As you see from the photos, the place is practically empty and soon ready for final cleanup and surrendering of keys. A smashed dream for sure. I know only this much. I spent several thousand dollars on the place in good faith with the landlord who knew of my hope to one day be a part owner. Was that a dumb thing to do? It didn’t seem so. Still, I did everything I thought possible to make THE PROJECT in Glenwood work for me and others. I am also painfully aware how often I simultaneously crippled good efforts with poor behavior. Honestly, what is most smashing to me is the pain of losing loved ones from the craziness that often engulfed me as I tried to do too much by myself on too many fronts. In so doing, I violated a cardinal rule I always made clear to my students. I got it from Dirty Harry Callahan himself. “A man has got to know his limitations.”

Some changes to THE PROJECT are coming as you will see next week in a revised mission statement, objectives, and focus. Actually, I must decide on this stuff rather quickly. But the best of what remains for me is still intact. “This Week in Black and White” will appear as usual next week, though not without some lingering difficulties. I’m slowly readjusting to poor reading vision – it’s only temporary my good eye surgeon assures me – and also quite exhausted physically from moving everything back home. Fortunate for me, I still have one compared to others whose bigger smashed dreams have meant losing their homes or close to it in the coming of The Second Great Depression. I am practicing every day in the music room we built upstairs more than a decade ago. The dining room is now my study just as it was, oddly enough, further back in our early days in the house. And I am constantly cleaning the place and pulling weeds.

I guess I still have the power to “do the drill” as my exceptionally human and long deceased friend, Father Frank Connolly, used to urge all in his flock. I am touched by his presence quite often because he affirmed for me the glorious thought that nothing in one’s life is greater than to have “an attitude of gratitude” for whomever and whatever we have in the moment and which makes the long journey worth it.

Posted in The Week in Black and White.