Chapter 3: Freshman At Columbia, 1965 (vii)
The Thanksgiving break came and I went back to Queens to visit my parents. I felt much more distance between us and felt I had changed as a result of being away from home. My sister had returned from a stay in Berkeley and was spending much time in my parents’ apartment, listening to an Erik Satie album and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album. My parents were pressuring her to become less bohemian.
I went to Flushing High School’s annual Thanksgiving football game at Memorial Field. The crowd was large, but I didn’t bump into Rona or anyone else I had known the previous year. Then I returned for the family Thanksgiving dinner and watched a football game on TV.
When Thanksgiving vacation ended, I felt both relieved and a little bit sad. Relieved to get back to my dorm room in Manhattan where I was free of old family constraints and actively living on my own in a whole new scene. But also, I was a bit sad that my parents could never really be as close to me again, now that I was living apart from them and starting to act out a different direction in my life than they wished me to go.
Back in school during the three weeks before the Christmas break, I finished writing my A Ball In A Basket play and mailed it out to one producer. By the time he returned the play and a rejection slip to me by mail a few months later, I was in the middle of writing a new play, with songs that could be sung a cappella, entitled The Barrier. The idea of either re-writing or devoting more time to trying to market A Ball In A Basket didn’t appeal to me.
A Ball In A Basket had been set in a Midwestern setting and reflected feelings of alienation produced by life within an All-American small city atmosphere and an All-American high school within white America. The Barrier was about the difficulty men and women found in communicating and becoming emotionally intimate with each other, in the context of a society moving towards escalated war in Viet Nam. The Barrier reflected some of the feelings my year at Flushing High School and contact with Rona had generated. It contained a folksinger narrator who tied the story together with the songs I had been writing. It also attempted to express a generational point of view.
I still continued to work at Grace Methodist Church in the afternoon. I listened to on-campus speakers in the evening. I began to spend more time trying to catch up on my schoolwork and pump out term papers, in order to avoid failing any courses. I became increasingly obsessed with the immorality of U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam and moved away from left-liberal radicalism to a mixture of anarchism and radical humanism. I read Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd and bought a paperback anthology of anarchist writings. I started to dress more like a radical and took haircuts less frequently. I continued to wear a sweatshirt or a turtleneck and blue jeans everyday.
I began to evaluate people primarily in terms of their attitude towards the escalating war in Viet Nam. I began to feel that U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam might lead to World War III. In The Barrier play, I included the song “Viet Nam,” which contained the following lyrics:
Will it end my life?
Subtract me in my youth.
During Christmas vacation, I felt like Holden in A Catcher In The Rye by Salinger. I tried to catch up on meaningless academic work, in-between listening to Highway 61 Revisited and a few Joan Baez records. “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles and “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel were two hit records at that time which also reflected my mood.
Away from Columbia’s campus, what especially struck me as hypocritical was the way people could still be into celebrating the Christmas spirit through shopping and ceremony, yet be so passive in terms of resisting the immoral U.S. war effort in Viet Nam. I also felt very lonely since I wasn’t emotionally involved with anyone. The people around me seemed cold and politically passive. The young women my age attracted me sexually but appeared emotionally closed to getting involved romantically with me in a way that I felt would not limit my freedom. I was glad to get back to Columbia in January 1966, where I then prepared for my final examinations.
The January exams were given and I felt the finals didn’t really measure the knowledge I had acquired. I received an “F” in Astronomy, instead of a “Gentleman’s C.” But I passed all my other courses and felt satisfied that I was able to keep up academically with the other Columbia students, without turning myself into an academic grub.
I returned to my parents’ apartment for a few weeks again, watched TV, read anti-war material and more anarchist writings and then began my second semester at Columbia. I still contemplated dropping out or transferring to Berkeley for the last three years of my undergraduate days.