Friday, August 7, 2009

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (i)-Sundial:Columbia SDS Memories (10)

The Columbia scene in September 1965 had little connection to the people I had known at Flushing High School. Columbia was a college-level, glorified prep school for upper-middle-class whites. In entering Columbia, I was, temporarily, escaping from my social class and linking up with the left-wing intellectual youth of the U.S. white upper-middle-class, on a political and personal level.

I was assigned a dorm room in Furnald Hall during Freshman Week. My mother and father drove me and my suitcase to the campus and went with me to open a bank account at Chemical Bank's branch office at 113th St. and Broadway. I did not like having to wear a Freshman beanie, and I felt uncomfortable being required to wear a suit and tie to many of the Freshman Week orientation events.

My father and mother were proud of me because I was attending a high-status school like Columbia. They assumed that admission to Columbia meant I was going to become a teacher, a professor, a lawyer, a conventional writer or some other kind of middle-class professional, eventually marry some upper-middle-class Jewish Barnard College woman, settle down after graduating from Columbia, buy an automobile and provide them with two grandchildren. Little did my parents realize, at the time I entered Columbia, how alienated from conventional middle-class values and U.S. society I already was, and how rebellious, non-conformist and artistic were my aspirations.

To my parents, my admission to Columbia was proof that the U.S.A. was an open society for people from my class background. But Columbia wasn’t paying me to sit in their elite Ivy League classrooms. I was taking out loans, using my New York Regents scholarship and my $50 Knights of Pythias scholarship, my summer job earnings and a portion of my father’s hard-earned money to pay Columbia for the right to secure a Columbia BA and interact with upper-middle-class people. After my freshman year, I no longer asked my father to help pay for my Columbia student status.

My memories of Freshman Week are vague. I met Tom by the elevator in the lobby of Furnald Hall dormitory. Tom was from Utica and was friendly. His political views were close to Barry Goldwater’s and William Buckley’s views in 1965. But he was interested in seriously debating intellectual issues.

I enjoyed the view of the Columbia campus from my Furnald Hall window during Freshman Week. I quickly became used to living in a room alone, without the presence of any family to exchange conversation with, and without the presence of a television set. But the sound of radios playing the top hit record of the moment—“Eve of Destruction”—could be heard through the open dorm windows of some other freshmen during Freshman Week.

The other freshmen at Columbia were a varied group of people. The students from the prep schools and from the wealthy backgrounds seemed more sophisticated and self-assured than the small number of students from the working-class schools and proletarian backgrounds. Barnard women were always characterized in sexist and anti-feminist ways when they were discussed by the juniors and seniors who served as Freshman Week hosts. Freshman Week indoctrinated Columbia College freshmen with the notion that being a “Columbia whole man” meant screwing without love as many women on weekends as you could, during your four years of college. You were then supposed to marry the prettiest showpiece you could seduce, and go on to either graduate school, professional school, the officer corps of the military, or some high-paying corporate manager or free professional job.

The only senior I met during Freshman Week inside Furnald Hall who seemed like a serious intellectual was a philosophy major named Barney, who urged me to “get involved in some form of activism.” Barney had moved back into his dorm room before most of the other juniors and seniors who were not Freshman Week hosts arrived back on campus. He was active in the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan but wasn’t a member of the New Left.

Chapter 2: At UM & M, 1965 (ii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (9)

Chapter 2: At UM & M, 1965 (ii)

I don’t recall too much of what went on at work during my six weeks at UM & M. I generally ate out everyday at some restaurant. In 1965, like the subway fare, restaurant prices were relatively cheap. There wasn’t any great financial saving to be gained by bringing a bag lunch. After I finished my lunch, I usually spent my remaining time sitting in Bryant Park in back of the New York Public Library, reading or watching people. The book I read during the six weeks I worked at UM & M was Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham.

I was able to get to work on time in those days. Within the windowless room, I shuffled papers, alphabetized IBM cards, coded papers and copied down names and numbers.

I sat across from Mary. And when the workflow was light, we used to flirt in order to make the day pass faster. Mary was taller than me and Irish-American in background. She laughed often, had a boyfriend and was planning to start attending Fordham in the fall. By the end of the summer, we had developed some fondness for each other and I felt physically attracted to her. But although we both couldn’t stand working at UM & M, she was too non-activist, too non-intellectual and too non-artistic for me to fall in love with her. We kissed each other at the end of the summer and Mary vanished from my life.

During the summer, I accidentally discovered the Radio Unnameable post-midnight free-form radio show of WBAI’s Bob Fass, while he was playing some cuts from Joan Baez and Bob Dylan records. I found most of Fass’ talk boring at that time. But his show was one of the few places on the AM or FM dial where you could listen to Vanguard, Folkways, Elektra or Columbia Records folk music albums.

I had always liked folk music. I used to enjoy singing folk songs around the campfire at Boy Scout camp in the summers of 1961 and 1962. But in the summer of 1965 I discovered that U.S. folk music had a social protest and anti-war song tradition. And that this tradition expressed the same feelings that I had expressed in the first songs that were spontaneously bursting out of me.

With Dylan’s shift to folk-rock and the success of his “Positively Fourth Street” and “Like A Rolling Stone” on the hit record charts, the folk scene began to be written about much more frequently in the daily press. I had first heard of Joan Baez at the time of the October 1964 Berkeley Revolt. But not being involved in any red diaper baby teen folk scene, I didn’t relate to the early 1960s “folk boom” sub-culture. Only in the summer of 1965 did I become deeply interested in folk music.

In the neighborhoods I lived and schools I attended, nobody I knew was involved in the folk music sub-culture. Nobody I knew went to the Newport Folk Festival or was a Dylan freak. I watched the Hootenanny TV show and Peter, Paul and Mary’s TV appearances, and liked what I heard and saw. But in 1965 Pete Seeger still wasn’t allowed on TV and neither Dylan, Ochs nor Baez was allowed on TV very often. Woody Guthrie’s most anti-Establishment songs were also rarely sung on TV.

Hootenanny’s folk song selections included few topical folk songs which expressed a radical critique of U.S. society. But topical folk songs were what most turned me on to folk music. Folksingers, unlike other U.S. entertainers, seemed to be singing about contemporary realities and personal concerns and conflicts that I shared. Folk music, not rock music or Broadway show music, now interested me most.    

The first outdoor folk music concert I attended was held in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in August 1965. I stumbled upon the concert by chance one summer evening, as I was wandering through Central Park.

All seats in the Delacorte Theater were occupied. Folk music fans who had arrived too late to get seats sat in groups on blankets on the park grass which surrounded the outdoor theater. The folk music of the concert was pumped out of the theater by a large speaker system.

I sat down on the grass and listened to the last 1 ½ hours of the folk music concert. Many of the performers prefaced their songs with calls for peace in Viet Nam. I was especially moved by Theodore Bikel’s rendition of “Johnny, I Hardly Knew You.” When he sang the verse which begins “They’re bringing out the guns again” and ends “but they’ll never take our sons again,” there was loud, spontaneous applause and cheering.

It was clear that the mass of U.S. folk music fans were anti-war and that the male folk music fans were not going to let themselves get drafted into another war. Even before the days of the huge anti-war rallies, this 1965 folk music concert revealed that a large pacifist youth constituency existed within the U.S. liberal upper-middle-class.

Around this same time, the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded in rebellion and flames. I watched TV news reports of the Watts Rebellion. And I read excerpts from Malcolm X’s Autobiography in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.

Chapter 2: At UM & M, 1965 (i)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (8)

My first corporate job was at United Merchants & Manufacturers [UM & M], at Broadway and 39th St., in a skyscraper a few blocks south of Times Square. The job was as a clerk.

My father was a clerical worker at Homestead Draperies, which was a subsidiary of the UM & M textile company. UM & M also owned Robert Hall, which sold suits. My father had worked for over 35 years at this firm. As a reward for his years of loyalty to the corporation, the UM & M personnel office responded affirmatively to my father’s request that I get one of its summer jobs in 1965.

The reason why I had gone to high school in Indianapolis for 1 ½ years was that UM & M had finally given my father a promotion as a reward for his years of service. His Indianapolis job involved doing mostly clerical work and recording the special rebates that Homestead Draperies gave to the largest Indianapolis department stores. He also was supposed to assist the sales manager of UM & M’s Homestead warehouse in Indianapolis.

But the sales manager turned out to be an ex-Marine who didn’t really wish to delegate any of his more interesting or lucrative work to my father. My father soon felt the Indianapolis job was not attractive enough to give up living near his relatives in New York City and working in Manhattan. So, at his request, UM & M had shifted him back to their 34th St. and Fifth Ave. office in Manhattan in the summer of 1964.

My father accepted the System and its values during his work-life. He was not a rebel or a non-conformist. But he did tend to ask for raises more quickly than the other clerical workers and he didn’t kiss the ass of his supervisors in order to get promotions. He also wasn’t afraid to complain to his supervisors, if he felt any of their policy decisions were organizationally illogical. He was an accurate, efficient worker who was never in a job slot that required him to do anything more than make deliveries, shelve drapes and cloth, or keep records, answer phones and expedite shipments of piece-goods and drapes.

My father believed U.S. corporations could not legitimately demand that a worker be busy every minute of the day, if all the assigned work was done. “You’re being paid for your time, not just for the work you’re actually assigned to do,” he explained to me once.

Both my father’s parents had died on the Lower East Side before he was 14. During the 1920s, he quit high school to get a day job. Before he was 16, he had held three or four menial factory or delivery jobs. But he found the job-hunting process under U.S. capitalism so oppressive that he was unwilling to risk being jobless again after he was hired by his firm as a messenger-office boy at 16. So he ended up staying with his firm from 1927 until it pressured him to finally retire in 1981. During the 1930s, UM & M (then called Seneca Textile) kept him employed while others were jobless. After he served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a propeller specialist during World War II, his firm gave my father back his job with no complications.

The night before I began my UM & M summer clerical job—two decades after World War II had ended—I was as excited as if it were the first day of school. I could hardly sleep.

In the pre-employment interview, I had dressed up in a suit and tie and, during the work-week all summer, I continued to wear a suit and tie. In 1965 if you worked in a skyscraper corporate office, you wore a suit and tie if you were a man and a dress, or a skirt and blouse, if you were a woman. Nobody questioned this corporate dress code.

Dressed in my suit and tie, I was still somewhat nervous as I hopped on the bus from Whitestone and rode to the Main Street, Flushing IRT station at around 8:05 a.m.

The morning rush hour trains were crowded. Only fans kept the subway cars cool. I didn’t like the process of going to work in the crowded cars, right from the start. The subway cars came frequently, though, and it cost only 15 cents a trip. A bus ride was only 15 cents also in 1965.

When I arrived at the 1407 Broadway corporate office, I was oriented for a few hours with six other UM & M summer employees. Then I was assigned to do filing and paper-shuffling for the Leisendorf accounting firm that was going to be auditing company records that summer. After a few hours of doing the corporate office clerical work, I was ready to go home and retire for life, and live on a social security check. What a drag! What a total, tedious bore and drag! It became evident to me that working 9-to-5 in a corporate office was even more boring than going to high school. And it lasted at least two hours longer.

“Just think about the paycheck you’ll be getting. It feels good when you get that check on payday,” my father advised me in the evening. But getting a paycheck still didn’t make 9-to-5 wage enslavement feel good to me.

Yet I did not walk out on my summer job. What I earned that summer was required to pay for my attending Columbia and getting away from my parents’ apartment.

Chapter 1: At Flushing High School, 1964 (v)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (7)

Much of the summer of 1965 was spent feeling lovesick and missing the possibility of bumping into Rona again at school. Much of the creative energy which drove me to spend my time writing that summer seemed to flow from my frustrated love for Rona.

I would close the door to my room and block-out the sound of the blaring TV which my parents watched most evenings. Then I began writing lyrics to love songs expressing my longings for Rona, protest songs, poems and the beginnings of stories and novels. I ended up writing about ten songs for a cappella singing during the summer. I also started to write a play entitled A Ball In A Basket.

My first protest song was entitled “Freedom Is What We’re After.” Its lyrics included the following:

Look out world! We’re coming
We’re gonna correct your wrongs
Look out world! We’re running
From the age of games and songs.

We’re young, we’re youth
And we all shall rebel
From all on earth
Which has the stench of hell.

For Freedom is what we’re after
From the tyrannies of Man
And war and all injustice
Must be banished from this land.

I also wrote a protest song called “The New World Is A-Comin’,” containing the following lyrics:

The New World is a-comin’
Tomorrow it begins
We’re ready for the journey
For the tide is rushing in
Oh, Love will be the answer
Integratin’ all our thoughts
And gone will be the sorrow
Of the little boy who’s lost
Of the little boy who’s lost.

In my play I expressed opposition to the tendency to conform out of fear, which seemed to characterize most people I saw around me. On a few weekend mornings after breakfast, I took a bus to Kissena Park, carrying a notebook. Then I would sit for a few hours on the park grass and write the beginnings of a novel.

In mid-July 1965, I started to work for the first time in the 9-to-5 corporate office world. My only previous job had been as a newspaper delivery boy during the first half of 1963, when I delivered the now-defunct Indianapolis Times.

Chapter 1: At Flushing High School, 1964 (iv)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (6)

The professor who interviewed me said he taught music courses at Columbia. He had grown up in Indiana and was a short, thin guy in his early 40s. I can’t recall much of what was discussed at my interview. I felt very nervous and tongue-tied; although I guess I was polite and pleasant enough not to get screened out. The professor asked me a few questions about my Indiana background, my career plans and my high school band participation. After the interview, I didn’t feel that I had made a good impression. So when my letter of acceptance came that spring from Columbia, I assumed, before I opened the envelope, that it was a letter of rejection.

I didn’t like the elitist notion of an Ivy League, but I assumed that Columbia wished to let people enter it on the basis of merit, regardless of class or racial background, in order to democratize the Ivy League academic world. Unlike CCNY, Columbia provided me with the opportunity to live in a Manhattan dormitory, as well as study in a Manhattan classroom. If Columbia had rejected my application, I would have enrolled at CCNY at 137th Street, commuted from Queens and been economically compelled to live with my parents.

I remember very little of my high school graduation ceremony, which was held in the RKO Keith movie house on Northern Boulevard. I couldn’t wait to get out of my cap and gown. Rona attended as a member of the band that played “Pomp and Circumstances” and I felt sad that it was the last time I would probably see her.

The Social Studies Department chairman, Mr. Kelly, awarded me the class history medal. I assumed that if I couldn’t earn a living as a writer or playwright, I would teach history in high school in the Black community, to students from economically impoverished families.

As far as senior class-ranking was concerned, the school administration had rated me “number 2”. When my transcript from three terms at Broad Ripple High School was mailed to Flushing High School from Indiana, the Broad Ripple High administrators indicated that, under their letter-grading system, an “A” mark equaled a “94 to 100” numerical mark and a “B” letter-grade equaled an “87 to 93” numerical mark. The Flushing administration bureaucrats decided, when determining my four-year high school average and class ranking, to put a “97” down on my transcript for every “A” grade I received at Broad Ripple and a “90” for every “B”. As a result of this bureaucratic transformation of all my “A’s” into “97” and all my “B’s” into “90”, my grade average was magically inflated into the second-highest in the senior class at Flushing.

I felt intellectually amused, but socially embarrassed, by this bureaucratic transformation of my grade average. I first learned of my “super-high” grade average in homeroom one day when I read about it on the front page of the Flushing High School student newspaper. The principal wrote me a special note, however, stating that I was not eligible to give the salutatorian address at the graduation ceremony, despite my “outstanding grade average,” because I had only spent two terms at Flushing High School.

I was relieved that I wasn’t going to be compelled to give a speech at graduation based on a bogus class ranking which was achieved by bureaucratic error. Although I did score 796 on the College Boards’ American History achievement exam, in high school I wasn’t grade-oriented enough to have been able to obtain a salutatorian-type grade average, without the bureaucratic mistake.

Chapter 1: At Flushing High School, 1964 (iii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (5)

Most of March and April in the Human Relations Club was spent rehearsing the anti-bigotry play. Because Rona had the most expressive and clearest speaking voice, she was chosen by Mr. Freedman to play the teenage woman character that had the main role in the play. Around school, I would bump into Rona and say “hi.” But I couldn’t figure out any way to interest her in becoming more than just a casual acquaintance. By the end of the school year, I was as lovesick as Romeo at the beginning of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet."

Outside of the Human Relations Club meeting discussions, I can recall very little intense or significant discussion with any students at Flushing. Most of my conversation with people there was on a superficial level. I just couldn’t wait to get to college and get away from my parents’ apartment and be on my own and get away from the public school system.

Although I strongly identified with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, I kept most of what I was feeling about the System inside of me. At Flushing High School, I never really found anybody else who fully shared my sense of alienation and was willing to talk for long hours about what we could all do, as a generation, to secure more freedom.

When the weather was not too cold after classes, I spent many afternoons playing basketball in the Whitestone playground at 149th St. and Willets Point Boulevard, just north of Memorial Field. Most of the other guys I played with attended one of the local parochial high schools: Holy Cross High School or Bishop Reilly. After the pick-up games ended, we each went our separate ways.

In the playground, if you played enough basketball games with each other you would get close on a certain level. But high school guys never really talked deeply to each other, if their only point of contact was meeting in the playground and they attended different schools. Most of the guys I played basketball with were Italian-American or Irish-American. But none of us working-class guys thought ethnically very much, in those days. Each of us thought of ourselves as being, primarily, white American. Being ethnically Irish, Italian or Jewish was felt as a secondary identity.

To get into Columbia College in the 1960s, an applicant had to submit to a personal campus interview. In early 1965, I dressed up in a suit and tie and took a bus and subway to the 116th St. and Broadway station in Manhattan. I walked through the kiosk exit/entrance that used to be there (before Columbia had their station modernized in the 1970s) and located the School of Journalism building, where my screening interview was to take place.

Glancing around Columbia’s campus between Low Plaza and South Lawn, I felt that it looked more like a real campus than Queens College’s campus. The campus seemed much smaller than Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, with which I was familiar as a result of visiting my older sister there. But Columbia’s campus, situated in the middle of Manhattan apartment buildings, interested me more, because I wanted to be involved with people who lived in Harlem. Indiana University’s large campus could not fulfill that desire.

In the early 1960s, the large Midwestern state universities seemed to offer just size and football teams. I assumed Columbia would offer me both activist intellectual stimulation and interaction with the cultural riches and neighborhoods of Manhattan. I assumed that Barnard and Columbia students interacted with each other easily on a daily level, because of the closeness of the two schools.

Chapter 1: At Flushing High School 1964 (ii)-Sundial: Columbia SDS Memories (4)

I fell helplessly in love with Rona the year before I went off to Columbia. Rona was a National Merit scholarship finalist who seemed love-filled and was quite popular. She was also a first clarinetist in the high school band; and she seemed like she would make a great companion. But I found it impossible to transform our casual acquantanceship into a love affair, although we were thrown together around the high school for eight months. Another thing I liked about Rona was that she wasn’t into dressing up too much when she was outside the school building; and, instead of just wearing skirts and dresses, she also wore slacks in the early 1960s.

I first noticed Rona in Spanish class. She was a year behind me in school. But the juniors who were honor students in Spanish were put in the same class as seniors like me who were taking their fourth year of Spanish. Rona spoke often in class and was one of the pets of the teacher. But when the teacher had his back turned during Spanish tests, she was willing to pass out the answers to multiple-choice questions to the students who sat in the back of the classroom.

We were both in the Human Relations Club of Flushing High School, which met every Friday afternoon. This was a new club organized by a young social studies teacher named Mr. Freedman, who came on to his students as a friend who really loved being with his students.

Each week ten women students, three men students and Mr. Freedman would discuss at the Human Relations Club meeting topics like racial prejudice, high school dating, politics, the press, TV shows, war and peace issues, anti-Semitism, education and miseducation at Flushing, religion and school regulations. We also gossiped about everybody else at the school.

In March 1965 we decided to hold a joint meeting to fight racial bigotry with the Jamaica High School Human Relations Club, and a meeting was scheduled for early May. As our contribution to the joint meeting, we decided to put on a play which would dramatize why it was stupid for young people to pick up the prejudices of the older generation.

I then wrote a one-act musical play, which attempted to expose the irrationality of bigotry, through satire and the use of musical comedy parody techniques. For instance, to the tune of “I’m A Yankee Doodle Dandy”, I had my main character—who was to learn, by the end of the play, that bigotry was an irrational thing to be into—sing “I’m a jolly, biased bigot, a biased bigot, do or die.” I think I was influenced somewhat by the That Was The Week That Was satirical TV show of that era and by Tom Lehrer satirical record albums. I felt racism could be attacked by using satire and humor and snickering. The white racists in the South and North at that time really seemed to be on the defensive, psychologically, and on the ropes, politically. In retrospect, I overestimated how effective the weapon of satire could be in attacking racism in the United States.

By the time I finished my anti-racist musical satire, however, Mr. Freedman had secured a script for a one-act drama in favor of brotherhood from the Anti-Defamation League [ADL]. (The ADL hadn’t yet become as hostile to the Black Liberation Movement then, as it would later become). Mr. Freedman, therefore, wasn’t open to even considering something more “way-out,” like my musical anti-racist parody.