My father had a life removed from us that we knew little about until we were grown. It was only a few years before he died that I understood why. We talked about it on a series of trips we took as father and son when he was losing his health, and we knew it was just a matter of time before he could not travel at all. It was on our first of these trips that he told me about New York City and the Waldorf Astoria.
Dad grew up in the poorest parts of Nashville, Tennessee. He was always a misfit there. While others resigned themselves to a life with few expectations, Dad as a young boy would go up into the attic and, using a crystal radio and a “cat’s whisker” he would search for the broadcast from the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf. It was his momentary escape but also his dream to be there one day. Not only was it his dream but one shared with him by his mother.
My grandmother’s life was fixed and limited by circumstance. Being the wife of a poor pastor with a struggling family was her lot and she knew that. However, early on she decided that Dad was going to leave and make something of himself even though others would never understand. In a sense, she also had a life removed but one she would never experience. Dad’s listening to the music of the Starlight Roof became their bond and unspoken pledge. One day he would be there for both of them.
My wife and I were with one of our daughters in New York five years ago and through the kindness of a friend were given tickets to the musical, “Hamilton.” Ever since reading David Brooks’ review earlier that year, I had wanted to see it but knew it was sold out completely. As David wrote, it is the story of a “poor immigrant kid from a broken home, feverish to rise and broadcast his voice. He was verbally blessed, combative, hungry for fame and touchy about his reputation.”
Alexander Hamilton represents for all of us “the relentless ambition of the outsider…who thinks he can remake himself and his country.” David was right. It is a play about ambition performed in the heart of the city driven by ambition. Unlike Portland, where people joke about its being “a place young people come to retire,” no one moves to New York unless they are looking for a place to rise up.
The very first song of the play caught me unaware and took me back to those conversations with Dad about the ambitions of a young man to rise up out of the slums and make something of himself:
“I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!”
I believe New York City – as for the young Alexander Hamilton – was that place for Dad. He was an immigrant Baptist from the South who found a place where many of those dreams, aspirations and interests were shared by others. It was not an escape. It was not greed. It was, like Hamilton, the desire to become a person of both virtue and honor. And it was a part of him that grew even deeper in time. And while he could not live there because of family responsibilities and decisions made, it drew him back over and over again throughout his life.
I had never been in the Waldorf Astoria but after the play our daughter wanted to visit. Walking in for the first time, I looked up and saw a small, lighted sign that said, “Starlight Roof” and then I remembered the rest of the story.
Dad was a gifted communicator and the keynote speaker at a sales convention held at the Waldorf in the Starlight. Before speaking he found a phone and called his mother. “Mother, we are here.” That was all she needed to hear and all he needed to say. They had risen up together.
Later in life, Alexander Hamilton said, “The changes in the human condition are uncertain and frequent. Many, on whom fortune has bestowed her favors, may trace their family to a more unprosperous station; and many who are now in obscurity, may look back upon the affluence and exalted rank of their ancestors.”
Our country is increasingly divided between those of “exalted rank” and “unprosperous station” but I believe Hamilton is right. I also believe even now there are young men and women sitting in attics listening for the sounds of another world that will draw them in spite of resentment, misunderstanding, resistance and discouragement to rise up and not throw away their shot.