What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was giddy with excitement yet apprehensive about making it to graduation in one piece. Brimming with paternal pride and joy, my father, a church-going, high school-educated barber, drove me and my twin brother, Gregory ’73, LAW’85, to campus from our home in Queens. When we arrived at 114th Street, the hallowed limestone walls of Ferris Booth Hall were defaced by a big, black spray-painted fist and the slogan “UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHERFUCKER.” It was 1969, a year of continuing campus unrest and violence over Vietnam and the draft. Disturbing as the graffiti was, we pretended not to see it, silently praying two innocent freshmen would be safe. As it turned out, when I was once violently attacked, it had nothing to do with the politics of Vietnam or racism, it was homophobia.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
Here was the most exhilarating, adventurous year ever: Out on my own at 17! I was going to meet the boys who would become my lifelong friends — and privately hoped I’d even find a boyfriend. Coming from a middle-class, mostly Jewish neighborhood, I was now living with Christians, too, millionaires, soaking in the secrets of upscale lifestyle. “Sam,” my handsome first roommate, had been given a nose job and chin implant for high school graduation — I’d never heard of a chin implant — and he tasked me with changing the gauze dressings on the wounds left from his recent mole removals. He eventually fled our shared room in Carman to a private room in Furnald, which he decorated floor-to-ceiling as a womb. One night, from his eighth-floor window over Broadway, we witnessed somebody getting stabbed with a broken bottle, blood spewing, covering half the street. We screamed for police to come, and soon figured we’d better scram out of Sam’s pot party before the squad cars came! Sam later transferred to a psychiatric hospital, didn’t graduate from Columbia, married and became a wealthy real estate developer out West.
What I loved the most was how my classmates were unbelievably smart, caring ferociously about the arts, history, learning, truth and excellence. Many raced through class assignments that made my eyes cross, and I struggled to keep up. I tried speed to get through an all-nighter, but just once. Other kids did sex parties and ski trips, but I needed to study in my room. Through this sacrifice, I learned how to learn, how to teach myself anything. This was the most valuable of all my college lessons, and a lesson that still reigns over me. I also learned how to roll a joint, although I relegated weed to the weekends.
What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?
I get teary-eyed remembering my English composition class and Professor Michael Goldman ’56. I had come from the High School of Music and Art, where I’d been regarded as a star of painting as well as filmmaking. How adrift I felt when informed my art studio classes would be limited to only two for the entire four years! Ivy League snobbery was my Kryptonite! But Professor Goldman saw another talent in me, and encouraged me to write. I don’t know where I would be today had he not bestowed upon me such attention and direction. He was kind to me, not to mention young and very good looking. He always called me “Mr. Peterson,” which made me cringe because I wasn’t ready to be a grown-up. I ran into him on Broadway not long after graduation and he said he hadn’t been given tenure. My favorite teacher of all, bounced! Why, I’ll never know. Before graduating, I had not only written for Spectator, but had also written the most popular play in the history of The Columbia Players, Fantasm; been awarded the Seymour Brick Memorial Prize, for Love Talk, and had bylines in The New York Times, Essence and other paying publications. After receiving my diploma, writing paid my rent and gave me entrée to Hollywood, Broadway and superstars. I pray Professor Goldman is still with us, and that perhaps this piece will pass before his eyes.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
I loved the modern, spacious student lounge at Barnard, and Miller Theatre, where I savored film history with Andrew Sarris ’51, GSAS’98. Auteur films were revered back then, highbrow art you needed to plan for, pay for and leave home to see. The classic films I cherished there still live in my heart, along with Professor Sarris’s insights on what makes a film great. Yet, after all these decades, the place I remember most fondly is actually off-campus: Tom’s Restaurant.
Before Suzanne Vega BC’81 made it a pop sensation, before Seinfeld made it a TV landmark, Tom’s was the place to splurge on a real meal with your buddies. My food budget was all of $3.00/day, some of which needed to be squirreled away for pot and records. I’d eat half a meatball or turkey hero for lunch, saving the other half for dinner. We sometimes went to The West End, where the food was better and costlier, and they served booze. But they didn’t have the most beloved waitress in the world, Betty.
Betty was almost too skinny, and we thought she was ancient, though she was likely in her late 40s. She was legendary on campus for the jovial, maternal care she took in serving us kids. Her hair was taillight red, like Lucy’s. And she sported scarlet lipstick, complementing her waitress uniform which, I recall, was a light tint of emerald. She worked all hours of the night, which meant, with our grueling study schedules, we got to see her a lot. Betty was the only restaurant server whose name I’d ever known, and I never will forget her.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
All of it! I managed to find community with upper-class white people who sometimes dismissed me but mostly befriended and invited me into a world of affluence, power and sophistication. I came to accept my fellow Black students dismissing me because I was an f-word who also felt at home with Caucasians. I took ridiculous risks for peer approval that could have had me expelled or imprisoned. I treated two girls and a few boys terribly, who were actually very nice, because Columbia provided no courses on sex etiquette. I had to navigate through violent protests outside my dorm and megaphones in the hallways. I learned that a venerated professor can sometimes be a complete idiot — or open the door to one’s inner growth, accomplishment and self-esteem. I discovered that history and glamour are real. And I came to believe nothing I wanted was beyond my reach through hard work and persistence. Yes, I would do it all over again, gladly — except for getting gay-bashed. That knocked me down, literally, yet I still survived, succeeded and found lasting happiness.
COURTESY MAURICE “POPS” PETERSON ’73