What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Having graduated a few months earlier from a public high school in Houston, I arrived in New York City in fall 1972 bearing long, wavy blond hair, parted in the middle and down to my shoulders, and wearing hiking boots, blue jeans, a long-sleeved dress shirt, a preppy sports coat and a “George McGovern for President” button in my lapel. Thirty years later, I found myself living in Washington, D.C., in the same unique Japanese-style house in which McGovern lived during his 1972 run for the presidency.
When I arrived at the College I was painfully shy, a bit of a loner and overly sensitive to the constant stream of new experiences and stimuli I was bombarded with each day. At the same time, I was excited to be on this new adventure, around interesting and bright people, and in the midst of Ivy academia. I was eager to learn and absorb all that I could.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I lived on the 13th floor of Carman (the penthouse). My room with a view looked out toward Low Library, the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge. As it happened, members of the freshman football team also lived on my floor. Coming from Texas, where Friday night lights — i.e., football, not academics — was king, I was surprised and not entirely initially pleased with my living situation. At the time, I was unaware of the concept of “scholar-athletes.”
My first roommate was a sophomore radical leftist from Boston who wanted to have nothing to do with a freshman from Texas. He quickly moved out and was replaced by another New Englander — a clarinet-playing freshman member of the Marching Band and wannabe hippie who looked up to me because a couple of my friends were attractive Yale co-eds.
When I was a freshman, my brother was a senior at Columbia Engineering. I only saw him a few times during that year, typically when he wanted to borrow my electric typewriter.
What class do you most remember and why?
That’s easy! “Development of Freudian Theory,” taught by the renowned Freudian psychoanalyst Dr. Willard Gaylin PS’56. It was a favorite among my classmates, and my only course in one of the large Law School classrooms –– perhaps prescient for me later going to law school. We read and discussed Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, Interpretation of Dreams, Mourning and Melancholia, The Future of an Illusion and many of his other works.
Everyone started having “Freudian” dreams, and we busily tried to analyze each other’s dreams, even though we warned by Dr. Gaylin that that probably wasn’t such a good idea.
We were in the midst of the women’s movement, and thus dismissed many of Freud’s concepts on hysteria and sexuality as being the product of Freud’s Victorianism. Still, many of Freud’s theories resonated. For example, I learned about the normalcy of depression and the stages of recovery, which helped me better understand the angst I went through a few years earlier when I lost my first love.
I recall an anecdote that Dr. Gaylin conveyed regarding the origins of sexuality — to wit, he was talking to his father-in-law one day, trying to convince him that sexuality begins in infancy. His father-in-law was in total denial — “children are NOT into sex” — until Gaylin pointed to his two year old daughter, sitting between them busily masturbating.
I seriously thought about becoming a psychiatrist as a result of this class, and the fact that classmates would routinely come into my room to share their problems with me. In the end, I didn’t want to go through four years of medical school, spending an inordinate amount of time and energy learning things unrelated to psychiatry. Also, my father, a professor and research biochemist, didn’t believe in the merits of witchcraft and head-shrinking — err, I mean psychiatry — and wasn’t very supportive of the idea.
My interest in psychoanalysis certainly fueled my interest in film noir (which is replete with psychological elements), and ultimately helped to inspire me to create and fund the noir film festival in my parents’ honor.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
The steps in front of Low Library and along College Walk. When the weather was agreeable, I would sit and people-watch — my favorite pastime. When the weather wasn’t agreeable, the windowsill of my room was the prime vantage point.
And, of course, roaming the stacks in Butler was a great way to discover books whose existence I would have otherwise never have been aware.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
During my sophomore and junior years I was a Big Brother to a young, fatherless Latino boy who lived on the Upper West Side. Each Saturday I would take him out to explore the city or see a Kung Fu movie (his favorite genre), and help him with his reading and math lessons. I regret that I was not more involved in community-related activities, and that I did not spend a summer as a counselor at a camp for handicapped children — job openings that I often saw advertised on campus. Also, as I was constantly seeing movies on- and off-campus, I regret never having joined one of the many campus film societies. While I was fortunate to attend a performance on campus of mime Marcel Marceau, alas, my small monthly allowance did not allow me to take full advantage of the culture that New York City had to offer.