What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I was an Orthodox Jewish girl with a trunk full of jean skirts, chunky black shoes and brick Mac lipsticks. (I call this my My So-Called Life period.) I was born and raised in the ultra-conservative community of Lakewood, N.J., so college was basically my Xanadu on the Hudson. I think back to my younger self — I hadn’t even discovered highlights yet! — and wonder how I survived at all, a nebbish who tasted her first alcoholic beverage (a Bartles & James wine cooler, I think!) on the lawn during Orientation. Academically, I flailed that first year, unnerved by all those whip-smart Milton-Tilton-Wilton grads who seemed to have arrived already well-acquainted with the Core Curriculum. Not me. I was Jon Snow. I knew nothing. So I made myself home in the back of the class ... and the dining hall. God, I was really taken by the John Jay dining hall. “You mean I can take as much as I want and not have to pay for it?” (And that’s why I wasn’t a finance major.)
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
My roommate had already claimed a bed by the time I arrived. But that was OK! We’d corresponded the summer before, so it was all good. We became fast friends, Thuy and I. She was pre-med, fastidious and tidy. I was the opposite. We were the Felix and Oscar of Carman 8, not just because of her hospital corners and my discarded wrappers, but also because we were inseparable. She was warm and generous and let me avail myself of her rice cooker whenever I pleased. Her family was in Colorado, and I like to think she got my family as part of the trade — my parents were utterly taken with her. I secretly delighted in hearing her chitchat with my folks when they called. (“Hi, Mr. Goldman, how are you? How’s the family?”). Invariably, cliques form on every floor, and I attached myself to a pack of funny guys who hung out in the room right across the hall from mine. I think I fell in love with each of them at various times that year. James Kearney ’98 and Zach Kaiman ’98 were among them. They both passed away soon after we graduated, of cancer. (F you, cancer.) I can’t really think about that first year without thinking of them. May their memories be a blessing.
What class do you most remember and why?
Lit Hum with Professor Marina van Zuylen. I remember her for two reasons. First, she was French, I think, and utterly beguiling in the way only French professors are. She may as well have shown up to class riding a bicycle, a Gauloise dangling from her lips. (My memories of her have a sort of Wes Anderson filter to them.) All the guys were absolutely wild for her. She once mentioned she was hungry and in need of change for the vending machine. You’d have thought it was a stickup, the way they all emptied their pockets on the table, pennies and dimes rolling everywhere. The second reason I remember that class in particular: Apparently some big shot movie critic, David Denby ’65, JRN’66, was writing a book about the Core and would audit some of Professor van Zuylen’s classes for his research. This, I was told, was a very big deal. (My naiveté still makes me cringe.) All the fuss made me deeply insecure about whether I was smart enough to be there, and that I might be exposed as an intellectual fraud. We didn’t have a name for it then, but my first year (and subsequent years, if I’m being honest) was marked by a textbook case of “Imposter Syndrome.” So there we were, crammed into this tight, oak-paneled classroom, seated shoulder to shoulder around a table, and I’m certain I didn’t open my mouth the entire semester. Regrettably, I was like that in most of my classes.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus and what did you like about it?
At some point, I landed a job in the student activities center. Back then it was a dingy little office, tucked away in the back of Ferris Booth Hall. (By my junior or senior year, as Lerner was being built, a temporary activities center — a shed, really — was erected just outside Butler, and I relocated there.) I loved both the job and the space because it allowed me to meet pretty much every student leader on campus. Shy as I was in class, I was a social animal in every other regard, and the job was literally a dream. Every club president visited that office at least once a week to pick up mail, so I had a good, wide-range view of what was happening on campus at any given moment — from a capella concerts to political rallies. (Not to mention free meals. It’s no understatement to say I got my culinary education at Columbia.) The idea for Bacchanal, which I cofounded, was borne in that office. Side benefit: I didn’t own a computer until my junior year. Only a certain generation of alumni will remember the insane lines waiting for the free terminals in Butler. So I considered myself very lucky to have gotten the gig in the student activities center, which effectively became my home office.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I’ve thought about this periodically over the years. Naturally I wish I’d participated more in class. I wasn’t the best student to graduate from Columbia, but I didn’t really exploit the full breadth of academic life because I was so cowed by it. I never did office hours, never connected with a single professor. That’s a profound regret of mine. I also wish I’d stepped off campus more — seen more plays, explored more random subway stops, that sort of thing. But there were moments when glimmers of my bold, bad-ass self started to take shape, like the time I ran into the crew team cutie with the Elvis Costello glasses just outside Koronet the night before winter break my senior year. He was off to study abroad the next semester — this was it, probably the last time we’d see each other. We said our goodbyes, hugged and went our separate ways. Then I turned around, ran back into his arms and gave him a long, passionate kiss. Passersby stopped to gawk. It was cinematic. That’s my Columbia. And I wish I could do it over. Again and again.