What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Why do you have to ask such a deeply uncomfortable question? I wore horn-rimmed glasses and listened to nothing but jazz. Because I had never rebelled as a teenager, I suddenly felt the impulse to be a rebel. Consider the irony: Teenage rebellion is meant to distance the child from the parent. Yet, I never mustered the courage to rebel while living in my parents’ home. Suddenly, as a freshman, I found myself writing for the socialist newspaper and burying myself in Marxist theory. During the placid Clinton years — the post-Cold War escape from history — this was a fairly esoteric pursuit. I befriended the radical campus Episcopalian minister, Bill Starr. I would sit and listen to his tales about the 1968 uprising that consumed the campus. When he hosted a barbecue for alumni of the ’68 fracas, I tended bar.
By the time I finished my sophomore year, I had ended my brief experiment in rebellion. My Lit Hum professor had given me a reading list that led me back to my parents’ liberalism. Many years later when I was a magazine editor, I hired my Lit Hum professor — and then had to fire him for an indiscretion. But that’s another story.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
How insular and cosseted my private school life had been. I came from Washington, D.C.; my roommate was from Washington Heights. I was shy, intimidated by the social tabula rasa of freshman year. He had a pre-existing network of friends, who became my friends. He was a wonderful guy, which made for my incredibly good fortune. I would have been lost without his generous friendship. We would visit his mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. His neighborhood was a world apart from Morningside Heights, so it felt buffered from the anxieties and stresses of adjusting to a new identity and new life. His mother fed us rice, beans and chicken — the most familiar staples transformed into layered flavors that stick to the brain. Sadly, we’ve lost touch.
What class do you most remember and why?
My freshman year I took the great historian Eric Foner ’63, GSAS’69’s “The American Radical Tradition” — or, as it was known, “Rad Trad.” After one particularly rousing lecture about the abolitionists, I joined comrades and took over Hamilton Hall. We were protesting Columbia’s plans for the Audubon Ballroom. The school wanted to take the site of Malcolm X’s assassination and turn into a biotech research facility. When I arrived at Columbia, I was immediately drawn to the campaign to save the Audubon. But let’s face it: I was a bourgeois kid, worried about grades and eager to please my parents. I wrung my hands about whether to join the takeover. After listening to Foner, I felt an almost chemical surge of radical passions that propelled me to the protest. Without much thought, I was suddenly linking arms with other students blockading the doors to Hamilton Hall. (Even then, I was wringing my hands. I left after a little bit of chanting to go write a Logic and Rhetoric essay due the next day.) A few weeks later, I received a letter summoning me to meet with deans. I’m pretty sure that I was singled out because I had led another protest movement. This time, I wrote an op-ed in Spectator decrying the draconian punishments meted out to the leaders of the protest. They were suspended. For my sins, I was placed on probation.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
My derrière was planted in a chair in the Philosophy Reading Room, a monastic corner of Butler Library. When I daydream, I remember the decades-old film of dust on the floor, the spiral staircase that nobody ever used, the terrible quality of the light, the deeply uncomfortable wooden chairs. The room was the epicenter of my social life. My only college dates came from relationships formed in that room. I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to find a workspace that has the qualities of the Philosophy Reading Room. I have this nagging sense that I’ll never be as mentally focused and intellectually alive as I was in that room.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
OK, so maybe I spent too much time in the Philosophy Reading Room.