Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Monday Night in East Flatbush: Heart and Soul with Anita Baker at Wingate Field

This was posted to Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Tuesday, August 14, 2007:

Monday Night at Wingate Field: An Evening of Heart and Soul with Miss Anita Baker

Back when I was a teenager during Mayor Lindsay's administration in the mid-1960s, when New York was called "Fun City," there was a slogan for tourists that went: "New York is a Summer Festival." I think it was to get people to believe there were fun stuff to do all summer other than get mugged or caught in a riot or smell the air after a two-week sanitation worker strike. (Just kidding! New York was truly incredible for a teenager in the 1960s! I loved it! Really...)

Now there's an incredible number of free or very cheap events outdoors nearly every night. When I went to see the Hold Steady at Prospect Park last Thursday, I had to give up seeing the Beastie Boys at McCarren Pool near my house.

Since then I've gone back to Prospect Park's bandshell on Saturday for the last event of the year's Celebrate Brooklyn! series, an African Festival that featured many great bands from the continent, foremost among them the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars. On Sunday at the McCarren Pool, I saw Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Birds of Avalon.

Last night I took the B-43 bus from Williamsburg through Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights to Empire Boulevard and then walked down Brooklyn Avenue (downhill all the way -- thanks to the fact that the North American glacier stopped at Empire Boulevard thousands of years ago) to Wingate Field to go to a free concert, part of the 25th year of the Martin Luther King Jr. Concert Series.

The headliner was Miss Anita Baker. I am sorry I missed Lauryn Hill last week and I wasn't going to miss this. I stood on line for about half an hour with a huge crowd that must have eventually become, I don't know, 4000 people? (I noticed only about two dozen of these people were other Caucasians, and about half of them were a group of retarded adults who must have come from a residential facility.)

When we were separated into different lines for each gender, the men's line sailed through. I always carry my fragile reading glasses in a hard case in my right pocket, and when the security guard from the Nation of Islam did a body search, he felt it and jokingly said (jokingly, because of my age, I guess), "Are you carrying a deadly weapon?"

I showed him my reading glasses and said, "Yes, with these on, I can out-read anyone in Brooklyn."

He smiled and said, "That's not illegal -- yet."

Wingate High School opened when I was 4 years old and living in the neighborhood. My great-grandparents had a house not far away. The high school closed last year and was broken up into four specialized schools. Jackie Robinson came for the opening day ceremonies in 1955. The school's very modernistic, very 1950s luxe banjo shape afforded unique opportunities for ditching classes, I recall being told by kids who went there.

Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn Borough President, was presiding onstage in a white sports jacket. I know him going back to 1970, when I was involved with undergraduate student government at Brooklyn College and Marty was the president of the graduate student organization. Even back in LaGuardia Hall, he was a great politican -- but tonight he's reading the names of about 700 people and businesses from page after page and the crowd wants to see and hear Anita.

We suffer through listening to the names of various winners of raffles for free meals at the Bed-Stuy Applebee's (at Restoration Plaza, a project of the community that Sen. Bobby Kennedy was involved with when I was an intern in his office the semester he was shot, in the spring of 1968) and for tickets to Cyclones games and BAM events.

We get to see people from WBLS (who doesn't love Steve Harvey?) and other local bigwigs and finally a Baptist minister comes on and tells us to all behave and be respectful and leave quickly and quietly at the end of the concert. He asks us to pray for good weather on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays ("Shabbos") and Sundays, and I wonder why there can be crappy weather the other three days. Then he says a version of the Lord's Prayer that includes "in the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

Finally our prayers are answered, the music starts, the red curtains part, and those of us standing in the back who can't see the figure onstage so well and have to rely on one of the two big video monitors (most smart people have brought those folding chairs and a few hundred get to sit in the bleachers) see her: Miss Anita, wearing a flouncy black gown, scatting and swaying. "I haven't brought anything but a bunch of old love songs," she says.

The show is sublime. She's very animated and her voice is good, though slightly distorted by the speakers, I think. Everyone has his or her favorite Anita Baker song. Some like "Fairy Tales," some "You Bring Me Joy" or whatever. My favorite is "Sweet Love."

I am tired, having woken up at 4:30 a.m. after four hours of sleep, and I leave after about seven or eight numbers. But on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and Hawthorne Street, I discover the secret of the Wingate Field concerts, known already to the residents of that block just north of Kings County Hospital: you can actually see and hear things a lot better from that corner than you can from most of the further reaches of the crowd inside the field.

So I stick around for more songs. The night is breezy and not hot, and everyone looks happy. Sleepily, I make my way past lots of cops to New York Avenue, where I hop on the B-44 bus that will get me back to Williamsburg.

Thanks to everyone for this concert, especially to Anita, and to all the stupid white people who didn't show up for whatever reason: You missed a great show.

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