Alumni Spotlight: Steve Zeitlin '65

The Graded Gazette

Steve Zeitlin ’65 is the founder of City Lore, New York's center for urban folk culture and the first organization in the United States devoted expressly to the documentation and preservation of urban folk culture. After receiving his MA in literature, Steve earned a PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as a regular commentator for nationally-syndicated public radio shows; co-produced films and the storytelling series American Talkers for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday and Morning Edition; coauthored award-winning books; and penned op-eds for The New York Times and Newsday. In this month's Graded Gazette, Steve shares his accomplishments, his memories of Graded in poetry form, and the horsehair business that started it all.

How did your American parents get into the horsehair business?
The crazy story goes like this... My father's father, Samuel, was a horsehair trader in Russia during the early-1900s pogroms during which the Czar's army harassed and killed Jews. His business was buying horsehair from farmers and selling it to brush makers. He packed a suitcase filled with horsehair and boar hair and brought it with him on the ship to the US. The customs agent on Ellis Island took one look at it and had no idea what in the world it was, but decided to let him through. My grandfather then started a business in Philadelphia and brought over all five of his sons.

When World War II ended, the family could no longer get horsehair from China, their main supplier. They had heard there were good horses in Argentina, so my uncle Harry was sent down there on a ship. On the journey south, someone mentioned that the horses were better in Brazil (they weren't), prompting Uncle Harry to hop off the boat in Santos. 

Uncle Harry then sent for his youngest brother, my father Irving, and they started their business in Brazil. In the 1950s, when plastic brushes replaced those made with horsehair, the business was transformed into a plastics company called Monofil, which closed last year when my brothers retired.

Why did your parents send you and your two brothers to Graded?
I grew up as an American expat in São Paulo, Brazil. My parents, Shirley and Irv, belonged to that notable group called sojourners — those who immigrated but never fully assimilated.

In 1946, my father persuaded my mother to leave their home in Philadelphia for a trip to Brazil. Initially, my father promised my mother they would stay for two years. The two years became four, then eight, then sixteen... My mom passed away in 1999 in Brazil. Though they remained expats, and we spoke English at home. My two brothers, Murray and Bill, stayed in São Paulo, married, and raised beautiful Brazilian families. 

When I was growing up in the 1950s, America held an incredible mystique. We used to love traveling to Santos from Guarujá to visit the American ships docked in the harbor, going onboard to feel "American air" (air conditioning). We also spent a lot of time at the English club where I heard "Rock Around the Clock" for the first time and fell in love with Rock 'n' Roll. 

At the time, Graded was populated mostly by Americans sent to Brazil from big companies such as Caterpillar and Ford, missionaries, and eccentric world travelers who wanted their children to have an American education. So it made perfect sense for me and my brothers to attend Graded.

What made Graded special? What is your fondest memory of Graded?
In 1988, the wonderful class of 1965 held its 33rd Year Reunion at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. My closest friends, Arrigo Jezzi, Mike Kanarek, Bill Korpff, and Elaine Moon, helped to organize it. I wrote the toast below for that reunion and read it again at our 40th and 50th reunions. I feel it's the best way I can convey my love for that wonderful class, my wonderful classmates, and the unique world we created together. 

A Toast to the Class of 1965

Come gather around, dear classmates of mine
And let us return to the scene of the crime
Where we experienced it all for the first time,
Where Leo, Art, and David danced the can-can in a line,
Where Mike Kanarek was our Albert Einstein,
Where Woody beat EA across the finish line
(When they said he didn't – we knew they were lying),
Where our cheerleaders teased us with their short hemlines,
It was like no other place at no other time
It was Guarujá in the summertime
Where the cops if they caught you shaved your heads 'til they shined,
Where even a quindinho or a pãozinho at the barzinho could taste so sublime,
Cachaça with lemon – who ever heard of lime?
All of this happened, once upon a time.
Yes, there we stand on the first day of school
All dressed up like nobody's fool
Geez, aren't the new kids from the US supercool?
In the schoolyard where memories are lost and found
Steve learned from Arrigo how babies were born,
Shot cats eyes for keeps on the lower playground.
It didn't take much to amuse us those days,
We went through marbles, a dodgeball, a steal-the-bacon craze.
And oh yes, you must remember this –
The spelling bee Lisa Smith won with the word "analysis"
Way back in the younger grades
Elaine played Becky in Tom Sawyer, and I remember when
We debated whether dogs or horses were a man's best friend.
In 9th grade they moved us from the old school to the new
The school stunk for a month with the newly-laid manure.
Breath swirled on a cold day before school in the halls
We watched the fight of the century – Roger Reuben and Charles
In the men's locker room from the top of the stalls.
A fighting spirit was part of the scene
They say Colby fought Brennan, Charles Chan fought Mr. Beans
Why in Morumbi we'd call your bluff
Graded High School – we were tough.
We could fight each other – cause the streets had no crime
What can you say for the innocence of those times?
We sang Flow Gently Sweet Afton with Sperber before every class
Played "Intellectual Football" out on the grass.
Now according to Perry, we weren't the world's fastest learners
But – hey – we did dissect a worm and managed to light the 
   Bunsen burners!
We "studied" math with Mrs. Ho,
Diagrammed sentences with de Mello,
We wrote like hell for Ms. Patel,
After each period – saved by the bell!
Senior Jacyro, Mike the Jan, and Miss Szeghetti –
Was it yesterday I found some gum in our spaghetti?
Dona Lucia, Mr. Mickle, Penteado,
We were present for the coup 'gainst Jânio Quadros.
And we still remember – no one ever forgot
Where we were in tenth grade the day Kennedy was shot.
Was it 9th grade? A play, Shall We Join the Ladies – remember when
Someone said the wrong line, and it started over again?
We needed a bald man from the USA
To teach us what it meant to act in a play
When Colby said act, you acted – or prayed!
Alex Reti was Romeo, but yet,
We couldn't get Elaine Moon to play Juliet
He found a star for Oklahoma in Dick Vobroucek.
Jeanette as Ado Annie, Steve, the Persian Peddler
   played opposite each other.
She called him up years later – told Steve's wife
   she'd once been his Persian lover!
Once backstage some paint cans mysteriously up-ended
Leo, Woody, Steve Collins, and Evan cleaned off with a shower and
   before it all ended
Steve ran howling through the halls bare-ended!
Then with Brennan, they contended
For all extracurricular activities were suspended!
Dance parties started in the 9th grade
We learned to jitterbug, the twist, and the latest dance craze –
We danced cheek to cheek at the chaperoned canteen.
Though in Brazil, we thought that we'd try
For a class ring American as apple pie
The jeweler agreed to etch an eagle
But we got it back emblazoned with a seagull!
And then it happened – graduation
We scattered over God's creation – 
Orlando, California, Rio, Kansas, Tel Aviv
So far that some couldn't make it – maybe next time – c'est la vie.
So squeeze some tears into a glass, mix in the sweetness of the years
Chill it till the ice cubes freeze
With who we are, we've made our peace
Now we can look back with ease,
Lift a caipirinha's worth of memories.
At graduation we scattered like seeds to the wind,
With no one to share them, the memories thinned –
But we came back together from the ends of the earth
To prove it all mattered, how much it was worth.
So now that none of us can touch our toes
I know you're wondering, or so I suppose
Why do I look slightly different – is it my glasses? My clothes?
But no – you can feel proud to be among those
Who still remembers Steve's old nose!

After receiving your MA in literature, you earned your PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. What drew you to this area of study?
Even at an early age, I was aware of the beauty and power of folklore in my own life. As expats living in relative isolation, my two brothers and I grew up close. We developed our own accent and our own humor. To this day, my brother Murray and I still greet each other, "Yo, sire." Someone once asked my brother why we use that phrase. He answered, "Respect." Decades later my own children, Ben and Eliza, call each other "Swine" or "Swinedog": no respect! When my son Ben received an award at the Sundance Film Festival for his film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, he came to the stage and proudly announced, "I'd like to thank my sister, Swinedog."

In Brazil, our family had an apartment on the first floor of a fifteen-story apartment building in a lovely beach town called Guarujá. One day, Murray was passing out Chiclets, and rather than taking one, I took five. Murray responded by asking, "Why don't you just jump out the fifteenth-story window for a breeze on a hot day?" Ever since then, when I overdo anything, my brother calls it "jumping out the fifteenth-story window for a breeze on a hot day." I knew, even back then, that this artful banter was at the heart of life.

Years later, when I was studying Old English poetry in the library at the University of Pennsylvania, I took a break from my graduate studies and wandered aimlessly through the stacks. I chanced upon two or three books by a writer named Benjamin Botkin, who had worked for the WPA's Federal Writers' Project established during the Great Depression. One was called New York City Folklore, another Sidewalks of America. I opened one of Botkin's books to a random page and can still recall the children's rhyme I read there:

I should worry
I should care
I should marry a millionaire
He should die
I should cry
I should marry another guy.

This is the job for me, I immediately thought. Listening to people's stories and rhymes, searching for diamonds in the rough. Soon after this encounter, I discovered that the University of Pennsylvania had a Department of Folklore and Folklife. I arranged for an interview with the department chair, Dr. Kenneth S. Goldstein, who explained to me that folklore is a religion, and folklorists are its missionaries. I promptly reported for duty. 

You are the founding director of City Lore, an organization dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage. Tell us more about City Lore and the work you do to maintain the beliefs, customs, and stories of grassroots cultures. 
In 1985, I founded City Lore, New York's center for urban folk culture. We are the first organization in the United States devoted expressly to the "documentation, preservation, and presentation of urban folk culture." Our mission is to foster New York City's – and America's – living cultural heritage through education and public programs. City Lore encompasses a Lower East Side gallery space, performances, lectures, the People's Hall of Fame, a POEMobile that projects poems onto walls and buildings, and education programs throughout the five boroughs. City Lore documents, presents, and advocates for New York City's grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories and histories, places, and traditions. The organization also works with a wide range of partners to develop exhibitions, publications, and documentary films, and to advocate for the rights of street performers, ethnic clubs, and other grassroots cultural expressions in New York City. Described as "wise renegades" by Sonnet Takahisa, the group has also been described as a "practical application of a utopian endeavor" by the writer Marc Kaminsky. In a March 21, 2020 article in The Wall Street Journal, I'm quoted as saying, "We believe in grassroots creativity as a redeeming force in society and a symbol of the irrepressible nature of the human spirit."

You have served as a regular commentator for nationally-syndicated public radio shows; coproduced films and the storytelling series American Talkers for NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and Morning Edition; coauthored award-winning books; and penned op-eds for The New York Times and Newsday. Of which of your professional accomplishments are you most proud?
I am most proud of my latest book, The Poetry of Everyday Life, published by Cornell University Press. Part memoir, part essay, and partly a guide to maximizing your capacity for fulfillment and expression. The book taps into the artistic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the sports we enjoy, and the metaphors used by scientists. I feel that it expresses my philosophy of life and of living more succinctly than anything else I've done.

You have remained in close contact with your friends from Graded. What continues to bind you after all these years?
Let me close with this poem I wrote to Jocelyn Glacken, one of my dear friends from my high school days.

Our Brazil

In my high school annual
Jocelyn wrote 
Always remember "our Brazil,"
Our Brazil
Not the Brazil of Bossanova
Or pulando carnaval
Tipping moleques on the street 
To find a jeitinho so they don't
Shash the tires of your car
   Just some crazy expats at an international school 
In the hinterlands of Morumbi
A beach in Guaruja
   50 years, 5,000 miles 
Yet  "Our Brazil" still stays in view
Saudades, Jocelyn
A word with no translation – maybe longings
Longings, longings for "our Brazil"
I'll remember all of you until...

If you were to go back in time, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
When I was a teenager at Graded, we had an assembly program with a psychiatrist, a guest speaker from the US. After his talk, one of my classmates raised her hand and asked, "You know when I grow up I would like to become a writer, but my parents think I should go to secretarial school because I can always get a safe job as a secretary. What should I do?"

He answered, "In this world, you should always do what you want to do – and the world will roll over and find a place for you." I've always remembered that – I've tried to live up to it, and I've often shared it with young people who are asking the same questions.

How have you kept busy at home during the pandemic?
City Lore has a long tradition of documenting the ways our communities respond to rapidly changing circumstances. As we started to think about our response to COVID-19, we recalled how we were able to approach the September 11 disaster some 20 years ago with the project, Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning. After the planes flew into the World Trade Towers, we immediately began documenting the street memorials with our wonderful photographer Martha Cooper. Our work culminated in an exhibit we curated for the New York Historical Society in 2002. It has become a major archival resource for researchers, writers, and others studying and documenting that time, and is a reference and model for humanities scholars and institutions working on the current pandemic.  

Inspired by our 9/11 initiative, we launched a project called Touching Hearts, Not Hands. Already this is documenting and preserving the creative responses that have emerged in response to COVID-19 — we have collected hundreds of songs, poems, videos, images of signs from shop windows, and other material since our first eblast about the project went out on March 13. 

As part of Touching Hearts, we started a group poem called It Takes a Pandemic. The responses have been tremendous from poets and non-poets alike.