But with my sophomore year I achieved my objective of living on campus, settling into my new life in the dormitory. I also switched my major from advertising/business to psychology rationalizing that motivational research is best learned from that perspective. I was persuaded to make the switch because Gustave Gilbert http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustave_Gilbert was then Chairman of the department and as a psychology major I would be able to take his popular course the The Psychology of Dictatorship. Later in my career I reprinted his book of the same title. Gilbert was the author of the Nuremberg Diary and was the American Military Chief Psychologist at the trials.
However, thanks to the influence of my friend, Bruce, I again switched my major to literature during my junior year (http://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2008/02/old-friends.html). This is where my heart took me. That same year I became a dormitory counselor, which provided free room and board, and at that time I met Carol, who was to become my first wife.
I think we were drawn together because we were both lost souls (although at the time I did not see that). She too came from an emotionally “broken” home. We adopted one another and my mother saw in her a “daughter,” whom she hoped to mold and influence. Before long, we were planning our marriage. We dove into that commitment without any doubts, especially me as I saw an opportunity to “teach” my parents how to have a marriage and it was a permanent ticket out of my home.
So, in June 1963 we were married in the Church in the Gardens in Forest Hills. Only a few people attended the wedding, my immediate family, my Uncle Phil, and my friends Bud and Ed. Even her mother did not go to the wedding.
That day started ominously. Carol was staying with my family in Queens and I was in our new apartment in Brooklyn. I decided to cook myself some bacon and eggs that morning before getting on the subway. We had one frying pan in which I first cooked the bacon and when that was finished I nonchalantly discarded the grease into a wax water cup that promptly melted around my thumb. The Brooklyn Hospital was across the street and I rushed there, trying to get someone’s attention in the emergency room. My story of having to make my own wedding in a few hours was met with, “Oh, yeah.” Finally, between a couple of gunshot wound victims I was seen, treated for 2rd degree burns and my right thumb was bandaged so it was twice it’s size. Nice “touch” for the wedding night I thought.
That summer we moved into the section of the dormitory for faculty and married students and we both worked full time. The following year we maintained part time jobs to support ourselves while we finished our senior years, me at the university library and she in a variety of jobs.
By this time I was taking mostly English courses and had several with Prof. Martin Tucker who is still my friend to this day. Martin was more than a teacher. He was a mentor who gave me confidence in my abilities. And, today, more than 40 years later, I work with him as executive director of Confrontation Press. He just turned 80 and is still going strong, as a poet, as a playwright, and as the Editor of the literary journal, Confrontation, that has just published its 100th issue. About twenty years ago he asked me to write a piece about my LIU student experience for a special issue of Confrontation, "Brooklyn and the World." This was intended to be more of an evocative portrayal than a history, and I include the essay below.
When the time came for graduation, I found I lacked the necessary credits, with too many credits from too many majors (Business, Psychology, English) and too many minors (Education and Music), but not enough required courses. So during the summer of 1964 I had to take those courses to graduate while Carol worked for Dell Publishing. Upon graduation, she became pregnant, thus changing my thought of going to graduate school, either to pursue teaching or library science.
So life had other plans for me and I began my working career, but that is another story.
L.I.U.-My World in the Early'60s
Downtown Brooklyn sandwiched between the placid decade of the 50s and the Vietnam War was not unlike other communities in having a sense of optimism about its future. A thriving commercial center for small merchants, it had major islands in the same sea: the New York Telephone Company headquarters, the Brooklyn Hospital, Abraham and Straus department store, the Fox and Paramount movie theatres, the Board of Education, Fort Greene Park, and Long Island University.
It was September 1960 when I emerged from the DeKalb Avenue subway stop and made my way for the first time to L.I.U. Standing at the comer of Flatbush Avenue Extension and DeKalb Avenue, waiting for the light to change, Junior's and the Dime Savings Bank behind me, I faced a drab office building rising above the ornate but faded Brooklyn Paramount movie palace.
Farther behind me was a middle-class Queens community, my universe until this moment: a community of hard-working people imbued with the conviction that all things were possible in this society if one tried hard enough; it was with this sense I was going to college to learn business. But this seeming past eternity of punch ball; the Bungalow Bar man; picture-card trading; piano and guitar lessons; grammar school report cards that included grades for penmanship, neatness and posture; the Bunny Hop, Elvis ("a-wop-bom-a-lu-bop ... "); Ike; and high school (" ... if you don't take Latin, you won't be able to get into college .. ") was possibly fading, for I stood on the border between two lives, two cultures: was my background going to be my future, could I emerge out of this bland and benign landscape into myself? Brooklyn would have much to do with the answer.
Sitting in my first class on the 8th floor, becoming a regular occupant of that same seat, I could see the digital clock on top of the Dime Savings Bank blinking at me. This and another clock on top of the Williamsburg Savings Bank farther up Flatbush Avenue became lighthouses in my Brooklyn experience. When, the following year, I lived in the dormitory, returning late in the evening from a night in Manhattan in a blinding snowstorm, I sensed these silent timepieces watching me scurrying home.
In later years I lived in downtown Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan for a publishing firm, and regularly flew to the mid-west. Coming into LaGuardia Airport, we would sweep over Brooklyn and see the downtown area reaching out to Prospect Park while the fingers of the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges bound Brooklyn to Manhattan. Below was the beacon of the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock. Then, as now, I am drawn to that unique community I once called home.
I remember the student union on the ground floor of the small building adjacent to the Paramount building. Smoke hung in the stagnant air, bodies slumped on worn lounge chairs and elbows rested on Formica tables. Nixon versus Kennedy was the subject of heated discussion. These students, mostly from Brooklyn, seemed confident in their belief that politics could remake society. Eventually I found myself caught up in political causes as my apathy of the past waned.
With John F. Kennedy our new President-elect, the campus had a new vibrancy. A professor, delayed by listening to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony in his office, entered the classroom gesticulating those glorious rhythms. One professor challenged us to an exam: think of a question and answer it, the grade being as dependent on the nature of the question as on the answer. Another accepted a twisted pretzel from a student on the school quadrangle and published a poem on the experience.
Meanwhile I moved into the dormitory, severing remaining ties with a prior somnambulistic life. My room faced the front of the campus, with the monolithic slab of a factory that would become the shell of the architecturally renowned Humanities Building to be constructed a short time later. Behind the factory stood downtown Brooklyn, my microcosm of the real world.
The lack of classroom space mandated that the university rent space at Brooklyn Polytechnic, a neighboring institution where some of my classes were held. We made our way there along Myrtle Avenue, the elevator line rumbling over our heads, past furniture stores and shells of buildings. Decay was evident, but it was defiant decay: people stubbornly made their homes and pursued their lives here.
The return trip was frequently along Fulton Street, connecting the City Hall area with Flatbush Avenue and downtown Brooklyn. There, the cacophony of tiny record stores blurted out" ... baby, baby, baby, baby don't you leave me ... " merging with" ... be-bop-a-lu-la, she's my baby ... " The Chinese restaurant on the second floor beckoned, but I moved on toward the Dime Savings Bank, past shoe, appliance, fabric and other stores.
Across from the Dime Savings Bank was McCrory's, which embodied most of the merchant's downtown Brooklyn expectations. Here I was greeted at the door by the aroma of newly manufactured goods mixed with those of different foods cooking in various sections of the store. In the basement was a grocery where we bought food to supplement the fare in the dormitory. Shoppers would scrutinize the merchandise with almost-total seriousness as the IND subway loudspeaker announced, through corridors connecting to McCrory's, a train's arrival.
Opposite Junior's restaurant, then as now the neighborhood's most famous food emporium, was another restaurant, Soloway's, a luncheonette run by a Greek family. Hamburgers sizzled in grease while french fries were bathing in deep fat. Students gathered around most of the tables and at the counter while strains of "Run Around Sue" thumped from the jukebox.
Junior's itself was reserved for special occasions when only the most obscene dessert would suffice. Also, late at night, when we could study no more, some of us went across to Junior's bar to chat with Pete, the bartender, who offered a different education: would Maris hit 60 home runs? Mickey Mantle was the better ballplayer, Pete opined. Pete had a thick neck with a trim gray crew cut. He was a kindly father to us, probably not realizing the important role he played in our student lives.
Manhattan was a short shuttle over the Manhattan Bridge via the BMT, and occasionally we went there. Perhaps on a date, sitting at the back of St. Patrick's Cathedral until dawn to beat the curfew for female residents of the dorm; or to Greenwich Village for a Black Russian or to see a production at Cafe LaMama or on the second floor of Max's Kansas City restaurant, where the Theatre of the Absurd played; but Brooklyn seemed to be all the world we generally needed and that was where we usually stayed. We sat on the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and took in the vista of the Brooklyn Bridge, downtown Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and further up, the spire of the Empire State.
During club hours we crowded into the auditorium to hear Malcolm X speak. Or we listened to local political candidates, heated debate overflowing the classroom after the speaker left.
The Cuban Missile crisis brought us back to days when, as schoolchildren, shades were lowered, lights turned out, and we were instructed to get down on our knees below our desks and cover our heads. Our mortality, and civilization's could be ended by design or by caprice. We frantically darted about the dormitory, discussing whether we might soon be drafted.
I remember other areas I did not know until those days in Brooklyn. Working as a receptionist at the Brooklyn Tuberculosis Center several evenings a week, I participated in a too-common side of Brooklyn life: poverty. Sick, helpless people came, seeking assistance. I processed forms and offered reassurance, but felt ineffectual.
As a dormitory counselor I sometime had to accompany students to the emergency room at the Brooklyn Hospital behind the university. I spent a week there myself, with pleurisy, in a ward. The squalor and the human tragedy I witnessed are echoed in the works of Theodore Dreiser which I read in the hospital for a term paper, seeing Frank Cowperwood's lobster and squid locked in deadly combat as symbolic of our struggle with life in this land of Brooklyn.
Next to the hospital was a prison. There, from the upper floors of the dormitory, the prisoners could be seen endlessly marching in circles. The prison was later destroyed to make room for a bigger hospital, the demolition ball pounding the 19th-century slabs into rubble, crushing the infinitely trodden steps in the courtyard.
Walking past the Admissions Office one Friday afternoon, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.
I had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV, Jack Ruby assassinated him.
With the advent of these acts, in particular as the Vietnam War encroached on all our lives, I knew the life I had known in Brooklyn could not remain the same. What changed, some years later, was often for the better for me. But whatever the benefits and the sad moments, I shall remember Brooklyn most as the place that allowed me to change into myself.