December 14th, 1980. It’s bad enough that I’m I not at the Central Park vigil in memory of John Lennon with all my camp friends. To make matters worse, I am stuck at the dorkiest thing ever.
It’s called a “sing-in.” All these classical vocalists get together each year around Christmas and perform Handel’s Messiah. They cluster in different sections of the auditorium according to their vocal ranges. My cantor/opera-singer dad, his tattered libretto in hand, excitedly finds a seat with the baritones while my step-mother, step-sisters, sister, and I settle in further back. There’s a small orchestra and a conductor and soloists onstage.
As my dad and his cohort joyfully belt their hearts out, I roll my eyes. I silently hate myself for being such a good girl, the type who wouldn’t dare excuse herself to go to the bathroom, then take off and get some adult on the street to tell her which bus or subway could quickly deliver her to Central Park.
I hadn’t yet learned to navigate the city, and even if I had, I’d probably be too scared to try and get around by myself. The New York City of the late 70s and early 80s was a rough place - it was the city of Bernie Goetz, Son of Sam, and now the place where an icon had just been gunned down. I was envious of all the kids in my confirmation class at my dad’s midtown synagogue. They knew how to take the subway and they weren’t afraid. The few times my older step-sister and I took the commuter rail from the suburbs, my step-mother safety-pinned a $10 bill in each of our pockets in case we got mugged.
I wished I knew my way around and wasn’t scared so I could go meet my friends at the vigil. Of course, then I’d be there, dressed like I was going to a bat mitzvah, in the burgundy, teal, and mustard floral Gunne Sax peasant skirt and frilly high-necked blouse my step-mother suggested I wear that day. I imagine that I am doomed, at 15, to a lifetime of being on the outside, forever separate from kids my age who listen to normal music instead of the opera, classical, old standards, show tunes and of course liturgical music I’d grown up with, who get to take part in normal popular cultural events instead of the gilt-edged culture-with-a-capital-C kinds of things I am always being dragged to on the Sundays when my father has me.
The vigil wasn’t just some pop-culture event. It was a happening, one that people would remember and tell stories about forever. I’d have to hear all about it the next day from my friend David - the peaceful throngs, the ten-minute silence at 2 pm, a very different kind of sing-along than the one I’d been witnessing at the very same time, in some concert hall a little further downtown. I’d grill David for every detail, and pay rapt attention to the television news reports in an attempt to feel what it was like to have actually been there.