What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was an oddball 17-year-old from NYC with an exceedingly silly sense of humor. I thought I would eventually become a writer of one kind or another. I had been playing the guitar for about a year, and I was completely obsessed with it (and with music in general). The first time I showed up on campus, I had some type of Muppet-like monster puppet sticking out of my backpack — I have no idea why.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
During my first semester, I commuted on the 1 train from where had I grown up, on the 19th floor of a high-rise apartment building about four miles north of Columbia on the border of Washington Heights and Inwood in the northernmost part of Manhattan. For my second semester, I was given a room in a dorm on 113th Street and Broadway, above Mama Joy’s. The juniors and seniors who lived there were very kind to me. They probably thought that I was a lost street urchin who had inexplicably taken shelter in their college dormitory.
What class do you most remember and why?
The class that completely blew my mind was “Black Holes and Relativity” — I still like to pretend that I understand advanced physics. My favorite course was probably modern poetry with Kenneth Koch. Prior to taking that class, I was terrified of poetry. I never did become a poet, but I did become a rock-and-roll lyricist who writes about six-foot squirrels from Brooklyn and mutated bits of cheese. I’m not sure that Professor Koch would be proud.
Columbia also gave me a couple of credits for taking guitar lessons with an outstanding teacher named Mike Lobel. That was cool.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Honestly, my favorite activity was to escape the campus and explore the city as often as possible. New York was bursting with all varieties of live music. I saw the Ramones play in a tiny club. I saw Leonard Bernstein conduct at Lincoln Center. I saw Gil Scott-Heron perform at a benefit concert.
It wasn’t just music that attracted me, of course. I attended several Yankee games along the way. And I was in the audience for a couple of Saturday Night Live rehearsals at Rockefeller Center, which was a really fun experience.
These days, I do have a favorite spot on campus: The patch of grass on the west side of the Low Library steps. My friends and I return there every summer to play wiffle ball. It is a perfect little field with a very high left-field wall.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
A small number of courses turned out to be duds, so I would replace those with a few more American history classes. But that would require rewriting history just so that I could study more history, which presumably violates some immutable, universal law of causality (or at least some immutable law of science fiction).