On August 30, 1973, “pre-global warming”, there was no hotter place on earth than Manhattan’s upper west side. It was orientation weekend for Barnard and Columbia colleges and, as a last minute legacy admit to Barnard College, I was there. Back then, air conditioning existed only in campus lounges and administrative offices. The omnipresent marble provided some cool. You had to find your own oasis and we eighteen year olds proved pretty resourceful.
My house was in Queens so the trip from home to college was not heart wrenching for my parents. For me, it was huge. I just knew my girlhood room, my cozy sanctuary would never be the same once I crossed the threshold of my college dorm. My father drove me to college when we could have taken the subway. I had only a few things and home was so close.
I remember vividly what I wore that first day: a blue flower printed belted banlon shirt dress and wooden exercise sandals. Heat and perspiration melted the dress to my skin. My father, in his seersucker summer suit, led the way around campus since Columbia was his alma mater. I dragged behind him, head down, clutching my orientation folder to my chest. Amid the confusion of parents wielding cumbersome laundry carts full their daughters’ possessions, the purposely rag-tag Columbia band burst on the scene with a great rendition of “Who Owns New York”, Columbia’s fight song. This delighted my father and embarrassed me: I did not know how to react to the band’s antics.
After we moved in to my room (white walls, linoleum floors on a air shaft room mate not there yet), my father took me to lunch in the Barnard cafeteria. We sat down at a table next to gargantuan windows looking over stately Claremont Avenue and dug into hot dogs that were sitting on a pile of beans. Actually, my father dug in, I only looked at the food in front of me wondering how on earth I was going to eat all this. For the first time in my life, I had lost my appetite due to nerves.
I kissed my father good bye and I began to enjoy the commotion and the fun of being with masses of people your exact young age. Apart from the gorgeous-blond-first-year woman who was dressed in black and had a crucifix dangling from her neck, we pretty much all looked alike. Together, we sweated on meal-plan, registration, and ID lines. For those who did not enjoy the crush of damp human flesh, carts of sale books outside bookstores on Broadway (Salters, Papyrus, Book Forum) provided opportunities to cruise and browse.
On the Barnard lawn, there were talks grouped according to prospective majors. Faculty spoke without censure. We learned from a faculty member in the English Department (who doubled as a renowned feminist) that “castrating bitch” had surpassed “whore” as the worst insult a woman could endure. This frank way of speaking further confirmed that I was no longer at the Convent of the Sacred Heart.
Night time meant party time. The preceding week, with my mother’s Gertz charge card, I bought corduroy elephant pants, clingy nylon blouses and buffalo wedge sandals. Ninety degrees or not, I was bound and determined to wear my new threads. Admission to the first party of the night in a Barnard dorm involved standing in line – the males more anxious than us to get in. An on-duty graduate student advisor chided them “Guys, let the women in before you. They live here!”. At this time in history, “girl” had fallen out of favor. You were either a woman or a young woman. Although I was aware of this intellectually, it was stil strange to be acknowledged publically as a woman rather than as a girl.
Beer tapped from kegs and dispensed in little plastic cups made this party many orders of magnitude different from mixers at my all girls’ school. The band, however played just as ear achingly loud. A young man asked me to dance as I made my way across the dance floor alone. I was grateful because I left my posse of wall flowers back at my old school. He was not my type. He had curly dark hair and deep brown eyes. The boys I was used to admiring from afar had straight blond hair and blue eyes. He was wearing a black t-shirt, midnight blue red tag levis and Frye boots. The boys I remember at my high school mixers wore jackets, ties, and sneakers with their jeans. I found this guy both dangerous and interesting.
At his suggestion, we left the dance for a pastrami and mozzarella hero from Mama Joy’s deli where the sandwich makers wrapped and stapled each sandwich closed. He knew about this place because he was a Columbia sophomore and, consequently, an orientation party crasher. The bigger question for me was how could I maintain my cool and eat at the same time? Although I found it not lady-like to eat in front of a boy, I dove into the sloppiest, most delicious sandwich I had ever had. I found out my new friend was from a Buffalo suburb. My passing familiarity with upstate New York stopped at Albany. His father was a brick layer. My friends’ fathers were heads of export agencies, swanky night club owners, lawyers and doctors. Between bites of sandwich and sips of tab, he gave me the low-down: a Columbia freshman had no hope of finding a date; Barnard first year students dated Columbia sophomores; second year Barnard students dated juniors; Barnard juniors dated Columbia seniors and that Barnard seniors dated faculty. He told me that the periodical room in Butler library was a cool place to read Ginsberg, Pound and Elliot; that you could get free coffee and cookies every afternoon at the graduate teas in Johnson Hall and that the organ concerts Sunday evenings at St. John the Divine were best enjoyed stoned.
Since my new friend's sophomore standing prohibited him from attending any more orientation events, I could go it alone or be with him, this man of the world. I chose him which at the time meant feigning interest in a double feature at the nearby Thalia Theatre: Olivier’s Hamlet and Welles’ MacBeth . My high school English teacher would have been impressed though my motivation was not scholarly.