Click here for Home
GOING THE DISTANCE
"MEMOIR PART 6"
Photos by Patricia Wong
Magazine page courtesy of Rainbow Publications
I opened my own dojo.
"I'm going to send a gutsy little chick down to you. She's tough and I think she'll be a good student."
MIKE WILLNER, MAY 1982
JUNE 2, 1982:
My future wife strolled into the building, looking for me.
Only, I didn't realize she was to become my future wife. The building was the Third Street Music School where I established what was effectively, the Asian Martial Arts Studio Downtown Branch. This was shortly after we'd lost the lease for our Wooster Street dojo, which was Richard Chin's school, the Asian Martial Arts Studio (AMAS). Mike Willner had set up the uptown branch of Richard Chin's school. The Asian Martial Arts Studio had become bifurcated into the uptown branch and the downtown branch, run by Mike and me respectively. We were the ranking disciples of the school, and therefore responsible for the propagation of the teaching of the two styles taught by Sifu Chin, the Chinese style of Jow Ga, and the Okinawan style of Kuen Do Ryu. We took this responsibility seriously, as invested disciples would. I described martial arts discipleship in detail, in "Memoir Part 5." As Sifu Chin's disciples, it was our duty to see that the combat techniques and philosophy that we inherited from Sifu Chin, be passed on to yet another generation of martial artists. Mike and I had complete autonomy over our respective schools (or so I believed), as these dojo were more like separate schools, rather than branches of a single school. As I would learn later, this perceived autonomy over my branch was illusory, leading me to leave Richard Chin's school to establish my own dojo. Interestingly, I just contacted Mike, after not seeing or talking with him for more than 30 years. More on this later.
Her name was Patricia Anne Cicchinelli. She was five feet two, and slim yet curvaceous. My practiced mind's eye placed her at about 120 pounds. She wore gray corduroy bellbottoms, a gray tank top and leather sandals with bare feet, and I don't mind saying that I thought she looked extremely attractive. Her Irish-Italian genes served her well. The Third Street Music School is a four story red-bricked building, that was fronted at the time, by a small courtyard, whose most notable visual characteristic was an elaborate series if interconnecting fire escapes, linking several floors. After one entered the building, one would be met by a receptionist at a check-in desk, who pointed visitors to the lobby with a sitting area to the left. I was sitting at this waiting area, because the dance floor I rented to hold classes, was being used for another purpose, before my allotted class time. Patty walked in and stared at the elevators, unsure of where to go. She then spotted me in the sitting area, and walked over to me. She said, "Hi, are you Scott? Mike sent me down."
I was indeed Scott, and I was already infatuated with this potential student. Patty filled out the enrollment forms for my class, and this began our 30 plus year marriage. Mike Willner knew Patty and her roommate, Nancy Hoy, from working with them at the same nightclub, where Patty and Nancy were part of the waiting staff. The nightclub had the rather lurid name of "Midnight Interlude." Mike and Sifu Chin were security staff (in other words, bouncers) at this nightclub. Nancy Hoy was the girlfriend of actor Barry Nelson, who was considerabley older than she. Nancy and Barry Nelson would later marry, and Nancy became Barry Nelson's widow, when Nelson passed away in 2007. One of the other bouncers at this nightclub, was a patchholder in a major club who rode a Panhead. This guy and I had a running repartee' through Mike, who passed on messages from one to the other, good natured stuff like, "Panheads rule" and "My Sportster will leave yer Pan eating dust." You know, mature mental meanderings like these. Despite the jousting with clever retorts, using Mike as the messenger, I never met this biker.
The dojo floor at the Third Street Music School was quite refined. It was rectangular, and featured a finished wooden floor. Along one of the longer walls, ran a full-length ballet barre, a feature that my students used for stretching. Lining the entire length of the opposing long wall, were full-sized mirrors. By the time Patty had joined the Asian Martial Arts Studio Downtown, the class had swelled to well over twenty, an unknown quantity of students historically for AMAS, because of the brutal nature of our training. Patty was from Florida, and one day she said to me, "You're one of the first Chinese people ( Sifu Chin was probably the first) I've ever met." Apparently, there were few or no Chinese-Americans in Hollywood, Florida in the 1970s. Our dojo consisted of this dance room on the second floor, and directly below the dojo was the Third Street Music's School's concert hall. Occasionally, a string quartet's placid concert, was interrupted by the "BLAM" sounds of bodies hitting the dojo floor, as they went sprawling onto the hardwood floor after particularly hearty reverse punches to the solar plexuses of sparring opponents. Inevitably, some mousy lookin' classical musical type would present himself at the dojo door to scold, "Shhhhh..."
In early August of 1982, Patty moved in with me where we live now, near the East River on South Street in the Lower East Side of NYC, but this move was not without drama. For reasons unclear to us at first, Patty's roommate Nancy Hoy, became irate over Patty's moving out from her apartment on East 55th Street. Both Patty and I felt the reasons were emotional, rather than financial. Nancy simply did not want Patty to leave their shared apartment. Frankly, I found Nancy strange and eccentric. She mooned over Barry Nelson, who was at least two decades older than she was, and she hoarded piles of old newspapers in her apartment, that went untouched and unread. I felt that she'd developed an unhealthy dependence on Patty as a friend, which led to her meltdown when "Patty's Excellent Adventures In Moving Out" played to it's denouement. On the day that we moved Patty's belongings to our South Street house (in New York, "house" is the accepted vernacular for any home, whether apartment or actual house), Nancy threw all of Patty's things out into the hallway, and refused to say goodbye to us.
MAY 4, 2013:
I'd gotten an email from Mike Willner, who I hadn't seen or talked to for 30 years. I recently contacted Mike, who was surprised but not displeased, to hear from me after such a protracted period without contact. Besides being fellow disciples of Richard Chin's, we were good friends before I left Sifu Chin in 1984. Mike revealed to me that he too, had left the shadow (I can't euphemistically call it Richard Chin's "protective wing," because that would be dishonest and misleading) of Sifu Chin's. Mike said, "I got married, and there wasn't room for both." Mike said much more regarding the circumstances surrounding his leaving the AMAS fold, but I feel it's not my place to elucidate those. I will say though, that my relationship with Sifu Chin was quite different than Mike's, in fundamental ways.
The chief difference was because of my personality, which is very much a loner personality (which you Iron Horse readers and Going The Distance readers, know very well). Mike socialized quite a bit with Sifu Chin, and had a much closer personal relationship with him than I did. I, on the other hand, true to my nature, did not hang around with Sifu Chin, and had a more distant relationship with him. Sifu Chin was quite enamored of NYC nightlife, and he and Mike were an integral part of that scene. This image of the Martial Arts Master Party Animal, is not exactly what one thinks of when picturing the stereotype, but there it is. People must remember that even combat arts teachers, are human. I can recall Sifu Chin mentioning frequenting Studio 54 back in the day.
Another factor making my relationship With Richard Chin different than Mike's, were our age differences. While Richard Chin and I were the same age, Mike was a few years younger than we were. I believe that this colored my perception of Richard Chin, in a vastly different way than the way that Mike viewed Sifu Chin. While Mike may have had a fatherly figure impression of Sifu Chin, this was not true of the way that I saw Sifu Chin. In principle, the tradition of discipleship calls for a father-son type of relationship, but the real world intrudes, and reality bites to corrupt this ideal. It is also a matter of the strength of ego. I always strove to be the best at whatever interested me, and my competitive nature influenced me to see instructors as not only measuring sticks to emulate, but to surpass.
In 1984, when I announced to the students at "AMAS Downtown" that I was leaving to establish my own dojo, a brown belt in Kuen Do Ryu student named Rick Osborne said to me, "How can you leave Sensei (this is how the karate students addressed Sifu Chin)? He is the source, the light!" This comment revealed to me, that Rick, no matter how advanced he became in his technique, would never believe himself to be able to reach his teacher's level. I didn't have that problem. I always fully believed in myself, my technique, and my ability to teach that technqiue. Some people are relegated to be back-burners all their lives. Sifu Chin used to call this the, "Fear of success syndrome," meaning that once such a person was approaching a successful level and had it in sight of achievement, that the person would subconsciously pull himself back, to prevent this achievement. That's one thing that Sifu Chin taught me well. Time and again, we'd see this type of student at AMAS. One of my strengths as a teacher, was my strong ego. In whatever endeavor I took up in life, I always believed that I would eventually become the best at it. Another of Sifu Chin's sayings, which I totally agree with is, "Winners are afraid of losing, and losers are afraid of winning." How true.
SOMETIME IN 1983
One of the other disciples named Jeff Pascal came to me and said, "Sifu doesn't want you to get married. He thinks it's a bad idea." In Sifu Chin's world, this was tantamount to an implicit order, to be given full consideration, and ultimately, compliance. I was stunned. Richard Chin expected his disciples to follow orders explicitly. This may have worked to the letter in Medieval China, but this has to be tempered in contemporary times, particularly with respect to disciples' personal lives. It is one thing to want procedures done a certain way on the dojo floor, but disciples' personal business is off-limits to the sifu or sensei.
Sifu Chin knew me well enough to know that such a "suggestion" would not only not be considered with any seriousness, but would be rebuffed in no uncertain terms. I told Jeff that this was none of Sifu's business, period. This was the beginning of the downhill descent for Sifu Chin and me, greased by other but separate incidents, that made me feel that Sifu Chin's attitude, was suffocating whatever goodwill we had between us.
The final straw, was when Richard Chin ordered me to take on a problem student from AMAS Uptown. I bristled at this, angry that my autonomy over the way that I could run AMAS Downtown, could be overridden by someone else. Sifu Chin expected me to not only accept this problem student, but to break his spirit and reform him. If this student had caused trouble in my dojo as one of my students, I simply would've kicked him out, with no recourse, no second chance. I told Sifu Chin that I would not take this student into my class. What I wanted with AMAS Downtown, was autonomy, and I wasn't getting it.
The decision to leave the Asian Martial Arts Studio, was an easy one for me. It was also hugely liberating. It was time to establish my own dojo. I told this to Jeff Pascale, and I recall his pleading with me to stay, for various reasons. I don't remember if this memory is accurate or not, but I seem to recall Jeff Pascale saying that Sifu Chin was willing to make certain concessions, if I stayed. Now, 30 years later, I can't think of what those concessions could have been. I was adamant, though. I'd had enough, and it was time to strike out on my own. I never saw Richard Chin after that, again. Actually, Richard Chin prophesied this. One day years before, at a meeting of the disciples with him, he said, "One day, you guys are gonna go out and open your own schools and bullshit like that..." Words innocently uttered from the subconscious? Maybe. More to come. Later.