Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Why The Briefcase Fell Out of Favor by Marshall Keith

My family moved up from Louisville, Kentucky to Rockville, MD after Kennedy was elected. We were barely settled here when he got assassinated. I went down to the mall with my family to see his casket go by. We waited all day, and into the night, and I remember it was cold.

My father got a job with the Atomic Energy Commission. He wrote PR stuff for them. I was all about space travel, moving sidewalks, and hovercrafts. My favorite show was "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." It had a great theme song ("Mission Impossible" TOTALLY plagiarized it). I imagined myself growing up and carrying a briefcase. But not just ANY briefcase, Oh No! It would have all kinds of hidden compartments, surveillance equipment, and secret weapons. The Jackie Kennedy-esque women I would encounter would find me irresistible. I ask you: What woman can resist a cool briefcase and a crew cut?
I was a scared little skinny kid in Rockville. I couldn't get  with the program. A teacher lectured me for hanging out with kids from the "wrong side of the tracks".  I think I was more comfortable with the "wrong side of the track" accent. They were trouble, though. I smoked cigarettes with them, and this one kid had already had sex. (We were ten!) 

To me, coming from the South, it seemed like people were rude up here. When they addressed you, it was like they were always saying "you're an idiot" with their tone of voice and body language, and don't you dare try to contradict them!  I didn't get the whole "the South is prejudiced" thing either. There was a KKK march right down Montgomery Avenue in front of our house. My sister had an African-American friend, and some kid at school saw her playing in our yard and asked if we were N-lovers (but he used the N-word). Welcome to Rockville! I'm glad I lived long enough to see Obama elected. Progress seems so excruciatingly slow. It's nice when there's a quantum leap like this.

Somehow, even though my family was in the middle of a huge never ending financial crisis, I managed to talk them into getting me a bass for $80. My father was furious when he figured out that I would need an amp, too, which of course was not forthcoming. I got an adaptor so I could plug it into the hi-fi. I did that for a couple of weeks and discovered distortion. WHEEEE! 

Then I blew the speaker. 

This started my whole D.I.Y. approach to music. Well, actually, for awhile it was more of a "use/destroy" approach. I stopped practicing my clarinet. I just left it at school. I had fallen in love with this girl, and I figured she would want me to be cool like the Beatles. She had beautiful skin and eyes and hair, and she was all dressed nice and everything. I was wearing ill-fitting hand me downs, but I was hoping the combing down of my bangs would be my new defining characteristic.

OK, after you see "A Hard Day's Night", and you realize how cool the world can be, a field trip to the Smithsonian is- well...underwhelming. They had one kinda cool thing with these cave-people in a glass display case. But apparently cavemen didn't necessarily beat cave women over the head with a club and drag them off by their hair and have their way with them- so yeah, it was boring. (I was hoping for: "yes, not only is it THAT true, we've also learned that cave women were very crafty, and would often stab the cave men, and it is believed that while mating, they liked it 'rough'.")

On the bus ride back to Rockville, I was in the back of the bus with this other kid. We saw a cop at a light near Wheaton Plaza, and the kid says,"I dare you to give that cop the finger." So, for the first act of my new career as a ne'er-do-well, I gave the cop the finger. Big mistake! He had no sense of humor about it at all. Stops the bus. Points at me. "You! Stand up!" Takes me off the bus and makes a big scene. So then I'm supposed to write all these apology letters, and wear a shirt with a scarlet 'F' on it.

After that, the whole "briefcase" thing didn't appeal to me anymore.

By 1970 we were living in DC- just over the line from Silver Spring, in Shepherd Park. My Ma was the secretary at the Takoma Park Presbyterian church. My siblings lived in communes in Takoma Park, and my sister worked at a head shop there called Maggie's Farm. I was transitioning from irritating little brother to fellow party-er. I gave up on school. I just stopped going. Eventually, to appease my elders, I transferred from Coolidge to Wilson. I got sick of the bus ride which included a transfer and a long wait, so I started hitch hiking. After school, sometimes I would just walk from Military Rd, up 16th St, 40 blocks to home.

My parent's place in DC was a nice stopping off point for my friends coming down from Rockville to do stuff in DC like anti-war demonstrations and free concerts. None of us ever had any $$$. A couple of friends and I climbed the fence at Carter Baron to see BB King play. He was great. I went to shows at Fort Reno that summer. I remember seeing some really good bands there like Claude Jones. It was nice just being free with a bunch of people having a great time. But home life, and school were bad. The summer of '70 was the second time I ran away from home. I was 16.

I was desperate for something else besides going to school at Wilson. I heard about a school called The New Educational Project. Some hippies managed to put together an alternative to public school and get it accredited. It was for kids who would otherwise be truants, like me. That fall, I started going there, but actually there was no "there." Sometimes, we would meet at the Friends Meeting House on Florida Ave, or sometimes we'd meet at student's houses, or sometimes at the teacher's pads in Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle or Georgetown. We didn't call them "teachers"- they were resource persons. We did stuff like building models of geodesic domes or reading books on altered states of consciousness-or chanting perfect 5ths (musically a perfect 5th, supposedly has mystical healing properties when chanted). It was somewhat interesting, but the hitch-hiking/arranging for rides was bumming me out, man. All I wanted to do was play music.

Since I was unschooling myself, my Ma weaseled a job for me - being the janitor's helper at church. After janitoring, I was free to play an electric organ in the little wedding chapel, or a big ole pipe organ in the sanctuary. That pipe organ was totally cool! You could step on the bass pedals, and make a huge sound come up from the basement. The upper keyboards could be all fluty, or huge - like a big band horn section..and the sound was everywhere. It rocked! I started f-ing around with the chimes up in the bell tower, so they eventually banished me. In those days, I loved all the atmospheric stuff that groups like the Doors and other psychedelic groups did. I tried to get organ lessons, but the teacher at the church told me I would have to learn piano first. The teacher had a briefcase. So I told him to forget it.

(Marshall may have ditched the briefcase, but he is still a working musician. Check out his myspace page.)


  1. I started hitchhiking in 1970 too, when I was 10 in the fifth grade, for similar reasons: crosstown school, long waits and transfers on crowded buses, knowing that's how my older brother got around, the times . . . This was in Baltimore. When I moved to Burleith in 1984 I did what I was used to doing, stuck out my thumb on Wisonsin Ave. and got a ride fairly quickly. But the cool lady who picked me up set me straight. "No one will ever pick you up here," she said. At the time I didn't know if it was because DC was too uptight or because I was black. Unfortunately, I know now it was both. That was the last time I hitchiked.

  2. I forgot about how Takoma Park had communes. Can you imagine Maggie's Farm there now?

  3. I forgot about how Takoma Park had communes. Can you imagine Maggie's Farm there now?