What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was like a denizen of Planet Brooklyn. A composite of a family composed of professional opera singers and doctors, my world spoke in arias and palpitations. Humbled and unknowing about the formative experience I was about to have. I had been a big deal in high school on the athletics field and in the classroom. Sometimes we learn who we are from others: “Tough,” my first friend in life would tell me; we were kids of Brooklyn’s streets. Our neighborhood was composed of first- and second-generation Italians for whom it was almost unheard of to be accepted into an Ivy League school. “Scary,” a mate whom I would meet shortly told me, “until one gets to know you.” Our reflection in a mirror is a self-image but backward. Underneath it all I may also have been nice. My parents dropped me off on Amsterdam Avenue. I got out alone, with one bag, and entered the great University through its side.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I remember it as though it were yesterday. Freshman dorm rooms were all taken, I was told, so I and a few others were assigned a room in a nearby hotel, the Arizona. Eight dollars per week, including a weekly cleaning service. This attendant became a friend to all of us. From Planet Brooklyn to Planet Arizona. A seedy, unknown place where I immediately felt comfortable. Reception was a “cat” (forgive this!) with thinning orange hair. The hotel was composed of units; each unit of six rooms had a shared kitchen and bathroom. Late ’50s dawn of the ’60s and “communes” had not as yet entered common parlance. A Guignol’s Band of characters, I discovered. A fur tanner. A harpist. My friend Helen’s room was beside our kitchen. A guy who made periodic visits to Amsterdam and brought back great hashish. Members of percussionist Buddy Rich’s traveling band, including a keyboard player and a blues singer who lived next door. Soft, beautiful chords penetrated our common wall.
Then that first year I was seriously injured running under a kickoff; my life in sports ended and my life in books began. I stayed on campus during the summer, convalescing. I recall reading the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and then saying to myself, “I love this world.” And then I promptly stepped into it.
What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?
Literature Humanities remains vivid because in each and every class, sitting in the back row, I was terrified that I would be called on. Our professor did not encroach upon my fear and lack of confidence. He was simply wonderful. Learned, insightful, passionate. He had a beautiful tenor with which he introduced me to the foundational texts of my studies and later of my work: all of the Greek tragedians, Homer, Cervantes, Plato, Herodotus, Dante. Our professor was instrumental in giving me peaceful time to know myself, helping to build confidence. In time, I learned he was temporary — an adjunct, his status was called. A brilliant professorial migrant. You could be temporary and excellent and, at some point, move on, I learned.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Around the Sundial, I felt less alone and more in touch with my immediate community. It was a strategic place to see professors going to their classrooms in Hamilton, and often I caught sight of my French professor, Jean Sareil GSAS’60. I’d spot his black tilted derby moving amidst the crowd and go up to him and say hello. When he gave dicté, he sat on his desk and his trousers pulled up; he wore bright red socks. You could be erudite and stylish. For two years I went to every one of his office hours. I was eager to see someone who was so informed of my deficits. We rarely spoke about school matters. He had truly loved to ride the trains of France and to write song lyrics, I discovered. He wrote lyrics for the famous singer and actor Yves Montand. He was about to marry a younger woman but was worried about his weight. I offered to take him to my gym. Then one day close to graduation he told me, “You have talent and should write.”
In the late 1980s I was at Columbia for an event and checked for Sareil’s mailbox. I found it and dropped in a note with my name and phone number. A few days later, he called. I recall his exact words: “I am very sick and I would like you to visit me.”
He picked me up at the Scarsdale train station. “My heart,” he said. “Doctors say there is nothing they can do. I will wait to die while listening to Mozart.” We went back to his home and I met his wife, who had prepared a lovely lunch. He said I was one of the worst French students he’d ever had but one of the few who had made something of themselves. Soon after, Professor Jean Sareil passed away. His family invited me to his memorial.
He had died listening to Mozart.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
Not a thing.