The first time I felt it was in 1970. My friend Richard and I rode the bus from the suburbs to downtown Cincinnati on a Saturday afternoon. In the chili parlor off Fountain Square all the other kids were right in our age range, 12-14, and though most of them were black it didn’t matter here, we were all spinning on our stools and eating coneys and bobbing along to the Five Stairsteps “Ooh Child” on the radio. That moment in the chili parlor stuck in my memory. Soul music and social diversity became forever associated with The City in my restless suburban teenage mind.
Ten years later, I visited New York City for the first time and it happened again. For five days and nights, everywhere we went, Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” emanated from storefronts, passing cars and the portable stereos known as ghetto blasters or boomboxes. I attended some great live music shows during that trip, including Parliament/Funkadelic at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, maybe the best concert I’ve ever seen. But the sound that echoed in my head back in the Midwest was the music in the street.
One year later I was back. My first six months in New York were difficult. City life overloaded my senses on a daily basis. Yet at the same time I felt isolated amid the millions and millions of people. Outside of work, I spent much of my time alone, reading or listening to the radio. I couldn’t afford a stereo or television. I lived in a seedy rooming house in Greenwich Village, what was known as an SRO (Single Room Occupancy). One room with no kitchen and bathroom down the hall: I cooked on a hot plate. My neighbors included an opera student who practiced all day in her room, a middle-aged hotel bellhop, the requisite junkie thief and another guy my age who turned out to be a high-end male prostitute. I spent as little time “at home” as I possibly could.
However I did make one fast friend during this solitary period. He proved to be a frequent companion, off and on, for the next few years. There was a catch, however, a complication that meant our platonic relationship would always be unrequited. My first friend in New York was a voice on the radio. But what a voice! And what taste in music! During the long hot summer of 1981 I would hang out in nearby Washington Square Park. The big portable radios would echo each other throughout the square, from the grand arch to the disused fountain, dozens upon dozens of boomboxes tuned to the same station. So from all corners of the park, I could hear the baritone announcer reading the resonant ID and promo.
“If Frankie Crocker isn’t on your radio, your radio really isn’t on…”