What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
One word: innocent. Another word: dumbstruck. My four kids never believed this — between them we may have visited every college in America — but I arrived for freshman orientation without ever having stepped foot on the Columbia campus. On the way from L.A. to New York I stopped to see a friend in South Dakota. I’ll always remember being in the basement of Del’s home in Ipswich, watching Saturday Night Live with his 14-year-old son. He couldn’t believe I was going to be living in New York, and I couldn’t either.
My aunt drove me from Long Island to 116th and Broadway on a typical August day — about 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity. I eventually dragged my bags to McBain. Later that night, I remember walking onto campus and seeing a kid doing a line of coke off a retaining wall in front of Carman. So at the end of day one I was no longer innocent but I remained dumbstruck.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
My roommate Dave had just one album, the soundtrack to Nashville. We played it a lot on my quadraphonic record player. I’d shipped that thing by Greyhound Express. It weighed a ton, and when I picked it up at the Port Authority I was too cheap to even think of bringing it back to campus in a cab. So I lugged it on the subway. I’m a little disappointed that I’m not in the background of a scene in The Deuce, because me and my giant “portable” stereo system would have fit right into the surreal swirl of 42nd Street that show captures so well.
What class do you most remember and why?
I took an American religious history class at Barnard with Theodore Gaster. He was quite old then. And quite curmudgeonly. And quite brilliant. At the start of almost every class, somebody would have to rap on his office door to wake him up to come teach. Once he got going, though, it was as if we were studying the Great Awakening with someone who lived through it. His father had been the chief rabbi of Great Britain in the early 20th century; Gaster himself had written The New Golden Bough, an abridged update of a classic encyclopedia of mythology and folklore. He was a thundering lecturer, and I recall both being terrified to ask questions and gratified once I did.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Nerd alert: I have very fond feelings for the College Reading Room in Butler Library. I spent a lot of hours there, and coming out of that warm room on a cold night to see the campus in all its symmetrical splendor imbued Columbia with a little grandeur in those Son-of-Sam, stay-out-of-the-park, graffitied-subways, Bronx-is-burning years.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
One of two things: I would have landed that one drunken punch that missed. Or I would have planned my history major a little more thoughtfully. Having spent my career as a journalist, writing first drafts, I’d have benefited from an exposure to the art and craft of historiography. That said, it’s not too late.