University Settlement House, the first and oldest Settlement House in the United States, was only half a block from where I lived. It had been established in 1886 to help the children of the poor immigrants to learn to become Americans, to acculturate themselves. The natural place for me to spend my evenings was University Settlement House, where I met interesting people and learned fascinating things, although I’m not sure I always learned what was expected of me. Much of this was incidental learning.
In order to be able to join in the activities of the Settlement House I had to join a club. I joined the Redbirds, wondering what the club did and what a redbird was. It didn’t matter much, because there I met my first serious chess player, a sort of security guard who spent his time sitting in or wandering the second floor hallway. I don’t know how it happened, but pretty soon we were regular chess partners. We played almost every day, and he taught me my first chess lesson.
However, University Settlement was more than chess. It was the place I was introduced to art classes and to some wonderful people who were artists. I remember that on one occasion, while the artists/social workers worked, they listened to music that I found absolutely delightful. They told me that it was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, and that I could listen to Gilbert and Sullivan on Sunday mornings on WQXR. After that, I did listen to WQXR, but not only to Gilbert and Sullivan. It was my door to classical music. I even registered for a music appreciation class being offered at the Settlement House. I remember that the first work to which we listened was Ravel’s “Bolero,” of later “10” fame, and the teacher pointing out the succession of instruments as each made its entrance. I learned to listen.
And then there was a play, something called, “Outside is Life,” written by a local playwright, in which I got a part. The play wasn’t all that great. It took place in a jail– prison dramas being popular during those years– but I was terrible, and I still remember my part in it with some embarrassment. University Settlement House opened an entire world to me, and it was a world I thoroughly enjoyed. It did its job well.
Baseball was important to the boys in the neighborhood with whom I walked to school. I had been introduced to the game in Belgium, watching a movie called, “Pride of the Yankees” about the too brief life of Lou Gehrig. As Belgians knew nothing about baseball, it was felt necessary by the distributors to show a documentary about the game, and that was fine. However, after the documentary, there was a baseball-related Popeye short in which he and Bluto made absolute hash of the rules the documentary had just taught us. Now I just had to learn about baseball. I decided to do the simplest thing and to just memorize batting averages of the leading players. Suddenly I was the local leading expert on baseball. It was amazing! It was also then that I acquired my nickname, Frenchy. I don’t know how that happened or why, and I’m glad it’s been forgotten, but at the time I suddenly felt a lot more American.