Way back when, which is the distance of almost everything at this point, I had a T-shirt that said, “Still Crazy After All These Years.” The words were from the 1975 Paul Simon song of the same name, but I also was issuing a sort of declaration — a middle-age manifesto about the freewheeling, straight-outta-the- ’60s character I must have wanted to be.
That I lacked portfolio — had never disturbed the peace with Abbie Hoffman nor sung with the Mamas and the Papas — and was, in fact, just a mild-mannered newspaper reporter, proved no obstacle. I favored long(ish) hair, owned a few bell bottoms and yearned for street cred. I also had a wife, four kids and a house in Blue Point. Get a grip, some might have said.
At least in those days, there were few places where good manners and political correctness wilted faster than the city room. It was a grand atmosphere — maybe, still is — with opera discussed in one corner, the Mets in another, the scoop on local corruption here, the lowdown on this or that public figure there. Subversive humor, hot debate, and honest appraisal made the place sizzle. Best advice was to leave pretense at the door.
It could not have been more than 30 seconds after shedding a denim jacket to reveal my “Still Crazy” T-shirt that I was spied by a newsroom assistant. She was carrying a story from one editor to another and stopped in her tracks as I came by.
“Fred,” she said, fixing me with the sort of reproachful look parents save for children who claim they had no idea who knocked over the fish tank. “Crazy?” the woman asked, making clear she would have been no more convinced had my shirt announced, “Flying Wallenda,” or “Soviet Spy.”
Playing to the few colleagues who had taken notice, the assistant shook her head. “You’ve never been crazy,” she declared. “You?” More loudly than I would have preferred, she rendered final judgment. “Completely sane,” the assistant said as if quoting a psychiatrist’s pretrial report. “Change your shirt.” Others nodded, laughed, slapped me on the shoulder, went back to work. I wasn’t a liberated soul, at all. I was, it turned out, just me.
All this returned, dreamlike, on a cool and lovely early summer evening at Forest Hills Stadium a few weeks ago. Paul Simon, who grew up not far from the ancient tennis yard, was back in town.
“Hello, old friends,” said Simon, a tiny figure in what looked like a shiny green-yellow sport jacket. “It’s a kind of time warp, you know.”
Oh, we knew. At first glance, the bleachers seemed packed with every ambulatory senior citizen in the five boroughs and beyond. We caught the eyes of one another, smiled, and nodded, stranger to stranger, each encounter a small, silent celebration, as if to say, “You’re here? Me, too.”
Closer inspection confirmed plenty of younger folks in the crowd — some well below AARP eligibility. Simon’s appeal is rare and crosses generations. The guy is not going to show up at an oldies review in Pittsburgh, or end his days on nostalgia cruises to Bermuda.
But for people his age — Simon is 74 — it was, I think, an especially grand affair and more so because prior to the concert he told The New York Times that retirement was under consideration. Simon’s music is a link to our lives — has been since the old Art Garfunkel days. At best, his material is bold and wise and compassionate. At best, let’s hope we are, too.
Sitting toward the top row, hearing the crowd cheer every reference to New York (“Goodbye to Rosie, the Queen of Corona” Hooray!), I leaned back, looked at the people of my vintage, and then the rose-colored sky, subtly streaked, growing dim, as if the world had stopped long enough to pose for a picture.
Finally, Simon sang “Still Crazy After All These Years.” I thought of my T-shirt, the newsroom ribbing, the foolishness of false pride, the endless effort to find, and be, ourselves. Simon may have heard the sigh onstage.
Also offered was a mellow rendition of another familiar tune, “Slip Slidin’ Away.” Certain fans may have found the lyrics disquieting — “you know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away” — but, I thought, hey, pals, let’s not think about that too much tonight, not while Paul Simon is playing and we have enough oomph to applaud.