Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sundial:Columbia SDS Memories:Chap.3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965

Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (i)

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.

Sundial:Columbia SDS Memories:Chap.2: At UM & M, 1965

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.