Saturday, July 4, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

My friend Mary finished Barnard College in three years by taking as many courses as possible and working like a demon. It was really quite an achievement. She got top grades too, as if she were just taking a normal course load. That's why she seemed to be either working or studying all the time.

When I mentioned to her that the same course load in Columbia College would have got me out only one semester early, not two, she was not happy with me. I was just making an observation, but in my usual way I had failed to recognize how someone else would feel hearing it. I should have just congratulated her and let her feel good. That would have been the right thing to do.

If I had done the right thing, then, later, after the good feeling had settled in, then we could have got into the differences in how our two schools counted credits, and I could show with diagrams and logic how I would have fared taking exactly the same course load. I would wait and do this at the right moment. I don't know what the right moment would be exactly, but at the right moment. Now if you're wondering, it was because Barnard counted courses as units, while Columbia assigned points to each course and counted points. My wife, also a Barnard girl, told me later how this worked against science
majors. Columbia gave most courses 3 points, a few only 2, but the awful science courses with lectures, labs, and recitations could run as high as 6 points. But to Barnard girls, each course was one course.

I had a big day out with Mary somewhere around here. Where do you think we would go in the world's most exciting city, New York? Yes, of course we went to the New York Public Library Research Collection at Fifth and Forty-Second, the place with the lions out front. I loved going there.

We found our books in the huge card catalog, and turned in our slips to the clerks, who put them into pneumatic tubes that sent them off to the stacks. Then we went and sat together on the bench waiting for our numbers to light, when we could collect our books.

Mary was working on a term paper. I was reading about the history of the New York subway system. Some small part of the notes I took may have ended up on my Abandoned Stations pages thirty years later. You can see how dedicated we both were to our obsessions. We sat next to each other at a big table and worked quietly for hours. I liked sitting near her. And then we went home.


I lived in John Jay. God! Those long corridors lined with doors, those little rooms with a desk, a bed, and a sink, and those central toilet and shower rooms. You wanted to bang your metal cup on the door until the guards let you out for exercise. It was not a healthy environment. I was only in there to sleep and read. Otherwise I got myself out of the place. As a result I did not know the neighbors much beyond giving each other a nod and a grunt in the hallway.

All right, it wasn't hopeless. No. What would cheer me up was to buy a quart of milk and a package of Nabisco Chocolate Grahams, and sit down with them and read a book. That was nice.

When the red and white milk carton was empty, I would save it, and when I had enough of them, I started building a dinosaur. A Tyrannosaurus. It must have been about three feet high when I finished it. It had the big hind legs, the fat body, the little arms, the big head. It was in the bad upright pose we used to think was how they stood. The cartons were mostly intact, but I cut the ends or sides off, with my communist scissors, wherever I needed to, to make them fit. It was held together with masking tape.

Fine, but what was going to happen when I had to move out? Toward the end of the school year, one fine day I brought the dinosaur over to Philosophy Library and sat it on a nearly unused section of desk in the back of the office space. You could see it from the reading room through the little windows. It looked pretty good there I thought.

Someone admiring it asked me whether it was a lot of work cleaning the milk out from inside the cartons. No, I said, no problem. I didn't want to say that I had not thought about it. I think I rinsed them in my little room sink, I'm not sure. It should have smelled like old cheese, or turned blue from the inside out, but it didn't. I think. I don't have a good sense of smell.

After a short time it was thought better to have the staff up in the Burgess-Carpenter office admire it, in a more private space, so I moved it up there. It stayed there for some weeks, and then one day it was gone. At least I didn't have to be the one to throw it out.

Or maybe some admirer took it home, and maybe they still have it. I can dream. I would charge money to sign it for them.


That last semester, Mary worked Sundays and I did not. One day I had the idea of calling her at
the library and asking if she'd eat supper with me, and she said she would. We went over to the McIntosh Center at Barnard and got burgers. That building is gone now. It had a line of glass doors on the outer wall of the big room we'd eat in, all marked "this is not a door" because they were only for emergency exits.

We ended up doing the same thing for weeks on end. I called her each week as if I just thought of it. She'd say yes. I would go up to the library desk and walk over with her, and walk her back as far as the outside door of the library. I think we argued about politics sometimes. It didn't matter. The next week we'd do it again. Sunday night was kind of a dead zone on campus. I don
't know where everybody went really, but I had just been grabbing something to eat by myself, and so did she I imagine, and now we had somebody to talk to, somebody else in the same boat. It was pretty nice.


Then came our last summer. Mary was allowed to work her student job until the end of the summer, so we continued in what we considered normal life. We both ended up living in a building down at 102nd St and Broadway. I was rooming with a Philosophy grad student, Carl. Mary moved down there a little later and did not have a roommate right away.

Rachel graduated. I mentioned her in the last story but forgot to say she was a year older, a year ahead of me. I didn't mention sitting in the grass with her after class a few times, near the end of term when it was warm, her long black hair shining in the sun, and her great smile. Maybe the Nice Jewish Boy thing she was into took all the pressure off, but she was easy to talk to. I wished her well in the end and I do hope she found was she was looking for. She deserved it. I'm smiling as I write this.

Lisa was away that summer, back home living the glamorous life of a Friendly's waitress. We decided to correspond, and I wrote her more letters than I ever sent to anybody. I should have hers somewhere, because I never intentionally threw them out, but I have not seen them in decades. Maybe it's better to imagine. I don't even know what we wrote about any more, except that we got to know each other better than we had done.

There were a lot of thunderstorms that hot summer. One day I forgot to bring my umbrella, and was allowed to walk under Mary's in the pouring rain all the way down to 102d St. The cold raindrops, the steam rising from the pavement, the sun peeking out ready to raise the humidity beyond endurance. We didn't talk, so we could stand to walk that close.

In mid summer our apartments changed roommates. I was the hot potato passed along to fill space, since I wasn't going to be permanent. Once again I had lined up a nice dorm room for the coming school year. Carl had found a long term roommate, and so I was sent off to Mary's apartment. Believe it or not.

This was where we made cheap food like slumgullion, and where we got tired enough to talk normally some nights. It turned out she wasn't so bad after all.

She was out more than I expected though. Weekends, she often left in the morning and wasn't back till dinner, or after. Weekdays, she got in late sometimes. Then the big guy came by one day and she introduced me. I was actually a little jealous.

One magic evening Mary and I were sitting in her room talking about stuff, and she said, "I want to show you something". She pulled a flat box out from under her bed, lifted the lid, and started removing 8 by 10 black and white photographic prints. She put quite a few of them on the desk and dresser, leaning against the wall, lining up a nice little gallery. They were nature scenes, beautifully done, and they were hers. She had taken them, and developed and printed them, the previous summer when she was away at home.

I was knocked out. I had never seen her do anything artistic. She never did much of anything to my knowledge but work and study. And here was this talent that I knew nothing about, expressed only when she had somehow found time for it, during a summer when I assume she was working at some job. The pictures were great. I must have jammered some kind of praise. I sure hope so.

I don't know how many people ever saw them. If it was a rare honor, and I think it was, I thank her for sharing it with me. It was a nice gesture.

So what was that about? Did she want me to tell her how awesome she was? Did I miss a chance there? No. I don't think so. I think the boyfriend was pulling her out of her shell, and she just thought the art history boy would like the photographs that she'd been maybe too self-conscious to show to people. And she was right about that.

When summer was over, we were done.

I can't believe this, but I have no memory of moving from there. I don't even remember by what means I moved my stuff from there to the dorm. This is New York. We didn't have cars like normal Americans.

More importantly I don't remember ever saying goodbye to Mary. Was she not there the day I left? Or did we just shrug our shoulders at each other and say "huh, see ya" as I handed her my key? I haven't the slightest idea.

It should have been a memorable occasion. There was a lot left unsaid. I know only what I thought of her and not what she thought of me. But enough was enough. I could have gone back to visit but I did not. She never looked for me either. It was as if she'd gone to some distant place. But I think she was there, only a half mile away, for years. I don't know.

It did not bother me then. I was looking forward, and finding new people and new connections. It was only years later that I started to wonder what different course my life could have taken if I had done different things at certain times, and that useless daydream only works when you have forgotten what it was really like. I need to trust my young self, and remember that it did not matter to me then.

This is not Mary's picture. The trouble I go to for this blog: I took this picture in July 2009 in New Jersey, as a pathetic attempt to show you the kind of picture I think Mary took. We might have a laugh someday at how far off this is from what she really did. I think hers had a lake in the background.

Lisa came back in September. And I met some new people including somebody really special. Does that help? I don't want to bring you down and leave you there.

Before we move on, I want to get back to that Anthem song that I linked to in the last college story. What got me onto it was Bob Lefsetz's blog The Lefsetz Letter back on March 20, 2009. As you can see it inspired my title, a blog about the war of yesterday.

The title is not just for the college stories. A lot of my stuff is about getting at the truth about the past, exploring how we know what we know, and debunking the misconceptions that turn into history. That's the war of yesterday. Nobody gets killed, but there's some disagreement. In my Beach Pneumatic pages for example, I show that the story everyone knows is wrong, and in the Bee Gees book I helped write a few of us straightened out some mythical stories. But I digress.

Bob writes about the music business. He stumbled across the song on satellite radio and the words hit him just about as hard as they hit me. Bob wrote, quoting the lyrics:
This is an anthem for the girl that got away

You can research her on the Internet, even though it might be difficult to find her, because she's changed her last name, to match that of her husband.
I admit it, I did it, when I started writing the college stories. Mary did not change her last name, so it wasn't that hard. The women of my generation did not all change their names. My wife did not, and neither did the woman in a married couple I work with now who are just three years older. And as we met my daughter's friends' parents, we kept running into other old parents who didn't change either. There was one couple with different names, with two children, and the boy had the mother's last name and the girl had the father's, a neat concept if you have two kids. Our generation were the weird ones. That went out of style fast.

Of course I have changed Mary's first name, and some other things about her. You got that, right? The narrator of Drop told you he wrote a biography of Homer G Classics. But it's still her as far as I'm concerned.

Bob continued:
This is an anthem for the war of yesterday

You can make contact, but that would be a mistake. What would you say? You might be melancholy, you might be looking for something, but chances are they are not. You want to marinate in your memories, you'd rather dream about what could be, than be confronted with what isn't.
Right. What would I say to her older self? It's too long ago. At best we could get together and have a few laughs at what fools we were, or what a fool I was anyway. That would be all right. I'd get a kick out of doing that with her. That's all I would want.

Besides, Mary is not the girl who got away. I don't think I had any chances to miss. But the song still touches me somehow, and the comments under it on Youtube show that it has reached many other people too. That's one of the great things about music. I've written a lot about music elsewhere. It has a power to touch feelings that words alone do not have.

If you would like to hear Eric Lumiere's song without the dance beat, go to In the upper right, where you see the list of songs, mouse over the little triangle under the list, until you scroll it down to "Anthem with strings 2". Click on the title. Somehow I prefer the Trance version by Filo and Peri, the one in that video. As Bob writes:
It was like the action froze at a rave, and a mindless bopper turned to the camera and started riffing on what he was truly feeling, what he was trying to escape by getting high and dancing like this.
That's life. We rarely say what we're truly feeling. We move to the beat of our ordinary routines, because that's easy and everyone is doing it, except that just once in a while, we stop. And that's when something happens. Whatever it is.
This is an anthem for the rebel of my youth
Milk carton dinosaur. What the hell? Why did I do that? Why do I do half the things I do? I haven't changed that much.
This is an anthem for the risk of loving you

Next time: Huge Hall.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading your college stories so much, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. I love how lives a parallel life to yours, and that you were ill guided when you were younger (chatting to Mary), so you have opinions on your actions which not many people have.

    The best thing about it is the world that you have created about your time at Columbia College and the dynamic between the characters. It's so good to hear about your times, and the things you got up to.