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Tom Paxton - the Village


greenwich village in the sixties was like a university.  the commons (which became the black fat pussycat), the gaslight, the cafe bizarre, cafe rienzi, the bitter end and the cafe wha? coffee houses were the classrooms and those of us fortunate to be living/working there were simultaneously instructors and students.  though the occasional all-night second floor poker game might interrupt the process, we would ordinarily finish a 'set' at the club we were working and go immediately to the next, hoping to catch a new chord change, a pearl of a song, a moment in an improvisation - by friend or newcomer it made no difference - all of it a necessary part of The Grand Education (TGE).   

from all over the world (even places as exotic and as far away as texas?!) came seekers of the TGE.  to the haunts of jack kerouac and the mysterious dens of beatnik poetry, wearing ninety nine cent rubber shower clogs and calling them sandals came the curious pretenders from the bronx and the madcap musician from tennessee.  in black turtlenecks and jeans came the students from bowdoin and columbia to drink the imported beers at the kettle of fish, the cappuccino at the cafe figaro at the corner of bleeker and macdonald, pasta at the san remo and breathe deeply of the rich italian neighborhood; to discuss descartes and dylan (thomas, that is), religion and chess openings (you mean there's a difference), dance and pantomime, folk music and politics.  

and mind you this challenging sociability was not happening in a vacuum. the locals, many of them italians whose families had lived in these environs for generations, were not always generous in accepting a life style that danced to such a different drummer.  as the lights began to go out in the apartments, the coffee houses on the first floors or in the basements of the buildings would begin their entertainment for the evening.  seldom did the performances end before one a.m. - and some continued until three a.m. on weekends.  in an attempt to preserve some semblance of 'normal' hours, the local fire department, with it's nightly inspections and summons, was called in and became the unofficial 'curfew police'  

i lived in two rooms on the fifth floor of an lower east side tenement for which i paid $46 and change per month.  i had taken on a roommate.  his name was tom paxton.  he was from oklahoma and he needed a place in the city to sleep whenever he took leave of his typing clerk first class position on the army base where he was posted in new jersey.  for two or three nights every couple of weeks he'd drop by one of the coffee houses, sing for the basket, and then come crash with me at 629 east fifth street.  

in retrospect, i think he was the first 'famous' village singer.  not in a national sense but mostly because he actually had produced an album!  called 'i'm the man that built the bridges', it contained the song for which he was best known around the village, 'marvelous toy'.  

he was a country boy, laconic and laid back and, because of our similar rural backgrounds, shared a much more similar perspective on what new york city meant than most of our peers.  when tom's discharge from the services came through, he moved into the apartment full time and it was just about the time i started living out of a suitcase.  

one night in chicago, on the road with peter and mary and between shows, he called to tell me that 'we' had just been robbed.  and that not only had the thieves taken the air conditioner from right out of the window but that through one barely opened eye he had seen a hand reach through and take his wallet from on top of the refrigerator.  clearly i had left that part of the city in the nick of time.  

once, while peter and i were working on guitar parts in the bedroom area and tom was working on a lyric in the living room, there was a creak, a groan and then a splintering crash.  when peter and i stuck our heads into the living room there was tom grinning madly standing in the midst many splintered stool parts.  

"what happened?  did it fall apart again?" i asked surprised that the occasional rung popping out of place could have escalated so dramatically.  

"no..." he said.  "i just couldn't take it anymore."  he paused and then began again almost fervently "the rung came out like it usually did...only this time i didn't put it back and in a moment or two another rung came out and i decided that the time had come to teach it a lesson so i've pulled it all apart and i'll pay you for it and even stand up if there's nothing else to sit on but i just couldn't stand trying to reassemble the damn thing anymore!"  

we all had a good laugh at the demise of the $8.50 unfinished (and apparently unglued) stool and were back at our previous tasks when a voice rang out from the living room.

 "hey you guys!" called tom.

 "yeah, what?" we answered.

 "stay where you are.  i'm gonna do a dramatic sketch and then i'm gonna come in your room.  ok?"  he asked.

 we had no idea of what he had in mind.

 "alright."  we said.  and then after clearing his throat and in an accent most brooklyn, tom says in a stage tone "i don't care what you say harry, those are real lions in there!" and backs into the bedroom with an apprehensive look on his face and holding the broken stool top as a shield and a rung and leg made up to look like a sword.

 we lost it.  what an imagination!  what a great concept; sort of a cross between charades, pantomime and the quiz show 'what's my line'.  for the next hour or so, each of us created for the others an amazing diversity of fictitious circumstances utilizing just the the broken stool props and a few stage-setting words.  but credit due where credit is due, in that first scene, tom had not only catapulted us into Rome at the time of the gladiators but had invented that night what became popularly known amongst the village entertainers as the 'run-it'.



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