PHIL GROIA WAS MAYBE the best teacher I ever had. He was an expert on 1950s doowop and knew a lot of blues players, like John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal. He taught 9th grade social studies. I remember how we watched the film Gandhi in class, which is over three hours long. A student complained and Groia shot back, ‘Why don’t we watch a three-hour film about your life? I’m sure it would be more interesting!’ A young Groia was on the way to school in 1947 when he heard on the news that Gandhi had been assassinated. The last time I saw Groia was in Port Jefferson around the year 2000. He was complaining about getting harassed by Giuliani’s NYPD, and had befriended a much, much younger woman he met on the train. “I didn’t know how old she was!” he told me. Man, you were larger than life!
He passed away in 2014.
Groia had a longstanding misunderstanding with another teacher, who, incidentally, also did not like me very much. One day Groia took me aside and said, “Don’t listen to him. He’s not even a conservative Republican. He’s to the right of fascist.” This was probably how I was sorted into the left wing. I could have become another fascist, easily, but Groia intervened, like a liberal guardian angel.
Groia also liked to talk about his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s. He was born circa 1940 himself. Back then, in the Truman era, they would get small milk containers (you know the kind, in tiny cartons, the standard containers you get in public school) with their meals. But Groia and his classmates would weaponize the milk and launch the containers over the fence at other unsuspecting classmates at recess. They made good milk bombs, he said.
Because of his interest in doowop, Groia was at times invited to high profile events. He was the author of, “They All Sang on the Corner: A Second Look at New York City’s Rhythm and Blues Vocal Groups” (1983). He described being basically the only white person at one event, where he was seated next to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Supposedly, he and Chuck D got on quite well. I wish I had been there.
After the ridiculous excesses of the 1980s, the ’90s were a time of sobriety and/or dark drugs, nihilism, and serious dudes wearing black clothing. Dayglo, hair metal, Lacoste, and acid wash were out, black turtlenecks and The X-Files were in. Groia would wear a black turtleneck and sit at the head of the room with his coffee cup talking about Gandhi. He no doubt drank his coffee black, as he was such a serious dude. The inscription on the cup read, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”