Posts Tagged ‘layne’

Among the Wall Street Occupiers

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

By Russ Layne
3 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 6. 43 degrees. I had been preparing myself emotionally. But did I really want to make the trip to Wall Street? Especially on a weekday, when I’d have to grapple with rush-hour traffic? Don’t misunderstand: Under certain circumstances I enjoy being among the throngs – at music festivals and peace demonstrations, for example. But I had been following what was transpiring down in the Financial District and felt the tug.

The day before, I went to the local health food store to buy a case of chocolate bars for the folks who had already been sleeping and living in Zuccotti Park, two blocks from Wall Street. There were no chocolate bars so the owner recommended tasty new protein bars. I revealed that the protein bars were not for me, but were headed to Wall Street. Not for the bankers but for the folks who could not get jobs, who perhaps had lost their homes. These bars were for the people camping out in the cold, committed to a more equitable economic system, I told her.

“Here, another box on me as my contribution,” she said. There you go, I said to myself. This movement is impacting a lot more people than I thought. Her single action alone gave more purpose to my mission.

I beat the rush-hour traffic and parked at the PATH station in Harrison, N.J. By 4:30 a.m. I was climbing the long staircase out of the World Trade Center station. Chilly. Forty-eight degrees. Yet there were more people out and about than I was likely to find in downtown Warwick, but by Manhattan standards, it was quiet, serene.

At Zuccotti Park, I saw hundreds of people wrapped in sleeping bags on the pavement, some covered with tarps, but no tents. Virtually everyone was asleep save for a few individuals holding down the information desk and the kitchen. In an adjoining area, some people were working the electronic communications systems. On the street, for at least one entire block, mainstream media trucks were parked bumper to bumper. And, surrounding the park were lots of unsmiling patrolmen who looked bored.

As I delivered the protein bars, I had a spirited conversation with a member of the kitchen help. He talked about the inspiring march and rally the previous day that drew thousands of participants. It helped re-fuel the impetus to “stay the course.” We had a good laugh over his choice of words, recalling that President George W. Bush was wont to use them. I was impressed with his ability to clearly articulate his assessment of the economic crisis. I wish Fox or CNN would have interviewed him.

With time to spare before participating in a planned noon march, I went back to the information desk and made a monetary contribution and became engaged in another sobering conversation. The person to whom I handed my money was a recent graduate from a New Jersey university who had expected to be a school teacher. Our conversation started with how our country’s wealth was totally lopsided. “Sixty percent of the wealth to 1 percent of the population; the rest for the other 99 percent,” he said. We chuckled when he mentioned trickle-down economics.

On a more serious note, there’s no joy among young adults such as himself, who can’t find work. “I applied to 42 school districts,” he said.

I winced. I’m a recent retiree from the Paterson, N.J. school system and despite chronic labor unrest during my 36-year tenure, I always had work. My research indicates that last year, New Jersey lost more than 6,000 teaching positions, ranking it fifth among all states in public education job losses.

Meanwhile, many of the organizational meetings were scheduled for 11 a.m. in Zuccotti Park. So to escape the now bustling streets of the Financial District, I sought refuge in the timeworn cemetery of Trinity Church two blocks away. There I came across the grave of Alexander Hamilton, the founder of Paterson. I paused and reflected on the conversation I’d had with the aspiring teacher. Had it not been for the financial meltdown, caused by institutions that now surrounded me, that young educator might very well be gainfully employed.

Later in the day, I was filled with the hope and optimism that once again – as had happened during the Vietnam War – it would be the young people to wake us to our feelings of powerlessness and become the real catalysts for change in America.

A Pension Isn’t Greed

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

By Russ Layne
How is it I have the time to write this piece? Two years ago, it would have been impossible. Two years ago I was a full-time speech and language therapist and the cultural affairs chairman for New Jersey’s third largest school district: Paterson. Essentially, I had two full time jobs – one for which I was paid and one for which I got not a penny. But that’s what teachers who are passionate about connecting with kids do.

Paterson was virtually the birthplace of the American labor movement. The first strike in a U.S. factory took place in Paterson in 1828. Eighty-five years later Paterson – now the epicenter of the textile industry – was the site of the Great Silk Mill Strike.

Later, Paterson’s teachers organized and that’s where I come in.

My journey to becoming a teacher, despite what right-wing talking heads and newly elected reactionary governors might say, was not through mail order. First it took four years of disciplined study as an undergraduate and then another year to complete a Masters degree. Among my peers, the reality of working with kids for a respectable salary overshadowed any desire to put wealth over our interest in social responsibility. As aspiring educators, our consciousness was more focused on how we might make a difference in society. There was little talk about making big bucks.

The Paterson School District was one of the first to offer me a job and since my predilection was to work in an urban environment, I took it. I knew very little about the teachers’ union but after much cajoling by the building representative, I became a member. The union seemed like just another insurance policy, a kind of a necessary evil. It took some learning over the years to understand that despite the fact I would not get rich teaching, the union, with its failings, was responsible for preserving two benefits that every working American deserves: decent health care and a decent pension.

In fact, often when salary negotiations were stymied, the union held firm on not compromising health and pension benefits. Trying to sustain a middle-class lifestyle on a teacher’s salary was indeed problematic. For many years, I had to teach summer school. I also taught bedridden students after school hours. When my neighbor put much of his surrounding property up for sale, we asked if we could buy a small piece to preserve some sense of privacy. His answer: “You can’t afford it. You’re school teachers.”

After 38 years of a challenging yet fulfilling career, I retired. Suddenly, I and my fellow retirees are accused of being “greedy” by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Recently The Daily Show with Jon Stewart showed pundits on Fox News declaring that teachers’ pensions are “outrageous” and “enormous.” At the same time Christie, governor of the state with one of the largest populations of billionaires, has never once considered levying the Millionaires Tax – a tool accessible to him in economically stressed times.

O.K. Governor Christie, I’m willing to give up my mansion, live-in chef, servants, and maybe even my yacht and jet, but I won’t allow you to tamper with my pension or health care.

I’ve never been one to give hyperbolic lip service to public education and its unions. As with any public or private institution, there is always room for improvement. But unions and public education are cornerstones of democracy, however imperfect. And now to be called “greedy,” because of those hard-won and hard earned benefits, hardly fits the definition in my dictionary of “greed.”

Russ can be reached at

The Story of Joe

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

By Russ Layne

Our weekly peace vigil at the intersection of Routes 9 and 9D in Wappingers Falls began in typical fashion recently. As some of us had been doing for the last seven years – I for the last two – we gathered at noon, posted our peace signs, recounted our frustrations regarding United States foreign policy, and reveled in Senator Bernie Sanders’ eight-hour filibuster to end tax cuts for the super rich.

We are a small group, nine regulars. Sometimes we’re joined by students from the nearby Culinary Institute of America and Vassar College, and by many other committed people drawn to Wappingers Falls by the chance to commune with Pete Seeger, who participates in our two-hour vigil when his schedule allows.

On this particular Saturday, we had just one visitor, a tall distinguished-looking stranger. He said his name was Joe. He appeared to be in his 60s. He said he was married and a dad. He told us he had often driven past our peace-watch and honked his horn in support. Today, however, he felt compelled to drop by in person for a while. He wanted to thank us for our efforts.

Joe said he had a story to tell, and listening to it brought me to the brink of tears. But it wasn’t just me. Some other members were similarly touched.

He said he was dying.

He said he was a Vietnam War veteran who, over the course of several decades, has been battling lymphatic cancer he contracted from his exposure to Agent Orange during the war. For years he had been in and out of the most challenging treatments, but this debilitating condition was finally catching up to him. His condition is severe. He said he’s lucky to have a supportive family at home.

As we stood in the chill, we were subjected to the angry epithets and belligerent gestures we occasionally receive from passersby. Still, our time there with Joe had a profound impact on us. He said there are innumerable ex-servicemen who share his medical condition. Many, he said, share his frustration and anger over the occasionally shoddy medical attention they get from the government, and over their general dismay with many of our nation’s foreign and domestic policies.

Joe said he had been cautioned by his oncologist to reduce the stress in his life but thought it was important to stand with us in Wappingers Falls. So he did, and his brief visit brought home the terrible pain and suffering shared by all parties in war.

Joe was with us just that one Saturday.

I think about him a lot. I hope he’s all right.

Russ can be reached at

Local Guy Makes Good

Friday, February 4th, 2011

By Russ Layne
When Duke Ellington proclaimed that a fellow musician – a fellow jazz pianist, in fact – was “beyond category,” the arts community paid attention. Ellington, the Maestro, was speaking of a man born in Goshen with the name William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith but who has always been known to jazz aficionados as Willie “the Lion” Smith.

Goshen is widely noted for many things – the historic race track, the seat of Orange County government – but not as an express stop on the jazz train. It should be because, as Ellington pointed out, Smith was no ordinary player but one of the most influential pianists in American jazz history. Born in 1897, two years before Ellington himself, Smith would go on to create a style of play called stride piano, a form that eventually became a hallmark of the Harlem Renaissance. Listen to stride piano and you hear an unrelenting rhythm from the player’s left hand with both left and right hands playing slowly or often at lightning speed. It’s no accident that Smith named one of his more celebrated stride songs “Fingerbuster.”

Here, he plays “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “St. Louis Blues.”

As a child, Willie Smith could be found playing in the hallways of the Hitchcock House, as it is still known today, one of Goshen’s more striking historic homes, which sits almost directly across from the government center. Willie’s mother, Ida Oliver, was a domestic worker for the wealthy Hitchcock family.

Ida was a woman of African American and Mohawk lineage. Smith’s father was William Bertholoff, a Jewish playboy who spent a good deal of time gambling and womanizing at the Goshen track, just a stone’s throw from the Hitchcock estate. Ida knew this was not a healthy formula for raising a child, and eventually told William to hit the road. Then, in 1901, Willie, 4, and his mother were uprooted from Goshen and moved to Newark, N.J. with his stepfather and Ida’s second husband, John Smith.

In Newark, Willie was raised in a black community adjacent to a Jewish neighborhood – the perfect setting for a Jewish black kid who would be a bar mitzvah boy in 1910. In his autobiography, “Music on My Mind,” Smith said, “A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish. They told me that I stepped up to the plate with one strike against me being born a Negro and now I take another strike right down the middle. They can’t seem to understand I have a Jewish soul and belong in that faith.” As if to prove the point, Smith eventually became a cantor in a Harlem synagogue.

In his teenage years, Smith was influenced by the rich traditions of two cultures: the invigorating gospel music of the black Baptist church and the incantations of the Jewish tradition. He was fluent in Yiddish, which proved quite handy: He was hired at Hausman’s Footwear in downtown Newark to communicate with monolingual Jewish customers. Young Willie must have done quite well because he was able to buy a second-hand piano with his earnings.

Primarily self-taught, Smith had amazing dexterity especially with his left hand. Most people might think that this special talent gave rise to his nickname, but in fact “Lion” had nothing to do with his musical prowess. As an soldier during World War I he handled heavy artillery with tenacious energy and his buddies began referring to him as “The Lion.”

Upon his return stateside, Smith lost no time re-familiarizing himself with the keyboard and developed the hot new stride style. His reputation in both Newark and Harlem burgeoned. Stride piano, not to be confused with ragtime, requires tremendous speed in the left hand while stretching and playing octaves – a style few practitioners could execute as clearly and meticulously as Smith. In fact, at the time there were just a few other pianists who could even approximate his skill, most notably Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Donald Lambert. During the Roaring 20’s, some of these practitioners would convene and create what was known as “cutting sessions” to see who could outplay whom. Smith usually won these after-hours competitions.

Ellington, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and the recently departed Billy Taylor all recognized the significant impact on their professional careers made by Willie “The Lion” Smith – a kid from Goshen.
Russ can be reached at

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Russ Layne is founder and executive director of the Sugar Loaf music series and chairman of the cultural committee of the Paterson N.J. school district’s Council on Equity and Diversity. He is also former host of the “Gumbo Shop” jazz program on WJFF-Radio Catskill.