We’d run into some money trouble, but my husband and I had always adhered to the American isolationist policy regarding finances: act as if everything is fine and never, ever, under any circumstances ask for help.
Then again, a layman’s definition of insanity is to “keep doing what you’ve always done and expect different results.” So one day, when our bills-vs.-income ratio seemed especially dire, we gave up and threw a rent party.
As far as I know, rent parties began in Harlem in the 1920s. Some tenant behind on his rent hired local jazz and blues musicians and invited guests, who paid 25 cents for admission and 25 cents for items from the concession stand of homemade food and drinks. In other incarnations of the gathering, a hat was passed in lieu of a cover charge. After the cost of the musicians was covered, all proceeds went to the tenant in need of assistance.
The very term “rent party” sounds at odds with the Puritanical belief system my husband and I inherited. But it also conjures up images of the kind of community defined by Webster’s as “a unified body of individuals.” And what a unified body those early shindigs must have been, with apartments full of shimmying partygoers whooping it up to the Charleston, the Black Bottom and other dances from the ’20s.
For our rent party, we congregated on a Saturday afternoon with friends coming from near and far. The late summer light streamed into our home like a blessing, reminding me of lyrics from the 1927 song, “The Best Things in Life are Free.” The party peaked with 30 or so guests, and more than a few of us cut a rug.
We played Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong on our iPod, along with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Aretha Franklin. Such gatherings in the ’20s often sported “cutting contests,” where pianists like James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith attempted to outdo each other in virtuosity.
While we didn’t have the advantage of a piano, a few vocalists in the crowd urged one another on to some pretty fancy a cappella riffs. Our friend Omayra Rolon, also known as “The Empress,” performed her elegant and memorable rendition of the 1920s classic “Bye Bye Blackbird” in the spirit of those early jazz singers, and our 14-year-old daughter sang “Valerie” in soulful tribute to the late Amy Winehouse.
We’ve lived in the same rent-stabilized building in Washington Heights since 1995, so we know lots of our neighbors, many of whom donated whatever they could afford. Cynthia Guernsey, a local visual artist, auctioned off a painting she’d created for the occasion, a detail of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” Klimt painted “The Kiss” at the height of his Golden Period, and Cynthia’s interpretation reflected the wealth she wished for us. Checks enclosed in love letters arrived in the mail from friends who couldn’t make the party. Someone sent an anonymous gift of cash. Thank you, Anonymous.
It was heart-opening to ask for help and heartwarming to receive the love. I am grateful for our many circles of friends. Luckily, in the weeks since the party, my husband and I have both secured work. Still, our experience has left us both pondering the word “community” and the many ways this financial crisis is bringing people together.
By an apt coincidence, we held our rent party Sept. 17, the first day of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Whether in Zuccotti Park or at the home of friends, whether for a “long-term mass occupation to restore democracy in America” (as described on occupywallst.org) or to help a family pay rent, Americans’ right to “peaceably assemble” is a vital part of our First Amendment. Who knew it could also be the cat’s meow?
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