Young People in Washington Square


On fine Sundays, as soon as the weather turns comfortable the teen-agers from progressive schools, from the arts high schools, the escapees from too “conformist’’* homes pour into Washington Square* Park to take part in folk-song fests.

For their theater, the youngsters have picked the very center of the park — a large fountain (usually quite dry, but sometimes achieving a modest trickle). Around this fountain, and in it on dry Sundays, they strum their guitars and sing. Sometimes there are two or three in a group and sometimes a group grows fairly large, surrounding a singer with unusual talent or repertoire. You'll be able to hear as many as twenty songs going simultaneously, which seems like uproar, but isn’t: the nearby buses won’t be outshouted and the members of the trios and quartets sing quietly to each other, with total disregard for the uninitiated gawkers.

You may notice, here and there, a few men quite far from the teens in age, carrying banjos, or bull fiddles, or washbasins for percussion. These may be folklorists hoping to pick up a new version of a song, or simply exhibitionists or, very likely, people who hope to be heard and chosen for jobs in some of the smaller night-clubs. Once in a while, they form combinations which leap from the steady rhythms of folk music to surprisingly complex jazz.

The lack of interest in spectators may not be as complete as one thinks, since the costumes show a good dollop of exhibitionism. The boys wear blue jeans or khakis with one or two styles of shirt, brilliant reds or plaids open to the waist, or dark high-necked sweaters for that satanic look. The girls play more variations on the dress theme, with three basic types* predominant: the adornment scorner, who wears blue jeans and a dark sweater or her brother’s shirt, her hair cut crisp and short, her face free of the nonsense of lipstick; the Pre-Raphaelite who lets her lank hair hang poetically loose around her thin shoulders, who wears a wide floating skirt and the facial expression of a Blessed Damozel;* then there is the absinthe drinker whose desperate aim is to make her seventeen years look like the abyss of depravity, dead-white make-up sets off the black penciling around her burnt-out (she hopes) eyes, and her long paste* earrings swing slowly with her exhausted walk. No matter how they see themselves— the pioneers, the late romantics, the dissolutes — they remain to the viewer beguiling bunches of fresh flowers.