What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was a kid from Santa Monica, Calif., who grew up among surfers and skateboarders, but never fit in with their aesthetic or lived by their code; therefore I never felt cool. When I arrived on Morningside Heights, I tried on a few identities in the pursuit of that elusive quality. I attempted the Woody Allen-esque, self-deprecating Nebbish (a big hit with the ladies); the Jack Kerouac [’44], leather-jacketed Bohemian (I got my puffy bomber jacket from Banana Republic and looked decidedly more Long Island than East Village); the Earnest Intellectual (arguing Aristotle and scratching his chin at The Hungarian Pastry Shop); and Joe College (pounding pitchers of Rolling Rock at The West End and dancing at The Plex, a nightclub underneath the John Jay dining hall). Eventually, I stopped “trying on” who I was and started to live more authentically in my own skin. Sadly though, I never became cool.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
Crammed into the cinderblock-walled, two-bedroom suite of 1007 Carman Hall, a whole world opened up for me. My roommate from Paterson, N.J., wore velvet boots and worshipped Bruce Springsteen. My suitemate was Korean-American and delighted me with his mother’s care packages of bulgogi and mandu. My other suitemate had a voluminous record collection, and he introduced me to Captain Beefheart and The Fuggs, and copious amounts of an herb recently made legal in my home state.
The energy of Carman was bonkers, in the best way. Mayhem spilled out from the suites into the hallway or from the hallway into the suites, at all hours. Debauchery and dignity lived side by side. We argued about whatever we were all reading in Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization. We argued movies, music, politics (Reagan was reelected during my first semester, trouncing Walter Mondale). In the lounge at the end of the hall, we made a nightly ritual of watching young David Letterman, who was groundbreaking and revelatory.
What class do you most remember and why?
In my Freshman Composition class, I learned to write with more concision and clarity. My professor was a graduate student, Steven Forry GSAS’87, who challenged and encouraged me, and actually lit up with joy when I made progress. I’ll never forget him. In my Fiction Writing class, the teacher — an author of one successful novel who had fallen on hard times — told me, “Some people write professionally, and others should only do it as a hobby. You fall into the second category.” Both of these teachers were seminal; I strived to be worthy of one, and to defy the other.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
I know it’s cliché, but there was nothing like experiencing the Riot of Spring on the Low Steps. Glorious.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I wish I would have stopped and savored it more. The heady, delirious, expansive, anxious thrill of being in that place, at that time, was such a gift. Columbia provides a perspective that is both timely and timeless. I sort of grasped that at the time, but not fully.