If this headline and photo are to be believed, collegiate munchies have definitely stepped up a notch or two since my student days. Those burgers look pretty darn good, don’t they?
During this month of May, I’ll be reminiscing even more about collegiate and law school experiences, and this particular entry is appropriately about food. After all, especially around finals time, late night eateries near campuses do a landmark business. Back in the day, I contributed mightily to this sales uptick.
At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana during the late 70s and early 80s, late night chow options were somewhat limited, at least within reasonable walking distance. In fact, this post was triggered by a Facebook conversation the other day posted by a fellow dorm dweller (hat tip to Dr. Mark Kegel here), during which we reminisced about local eateries. A place called Greek’s Pizza deservedly enjoyed semi-legendary status, and the VU student union did a decent job on pizza as well, but beyond that the pickings were uneven.
I recall an independent donut shop that apparently had escaped regular health code inspections; I considered it a destination of desperation. There was a food truck selling pretty good stromboli sandwiches that would drive around campus. I also ate more microwaved sandwiches from the local 7-Eleven than my large intestine cares to remember. Toss in a Dairy Queen and a few other fast food places, and that was basically it.
When I got to law school at NYU a few years later, the midnight munchies situation got much better. This was, of course, Greenwich Village of the early 80s, and affordable eateries abounded. Thanks to my more gastronomically adventurous law school pals, my appetite would diversify considerably, especially when it came to ethnic foods.
Late night food options, however, reverted back to basics, with the 24-hour diners at the top of the heap. The Washington Square Diner on West 4th Street was the site of numerous 2 a.m. bacon cheeseburger runs and breakfast platters, and the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger on Broadway at Astor Place served up many a burger and cups of their awesome split pea soup. Empire Szechuan delivered tasty Chinese food into the wee hours. And after a late night of studying in the library, a pitstop at Ben’s Pizzeria for a serviceable quick slice was sometimes in order. (All of these places are still in business, by the way!)
In both college and law school, these intakes didn’t exactly make for the healthiest of diets. I have a feeling that many of today’s students are doing a little better on that count. Chipotle’s might not count as fast food, but it’s healthier and fresher than a visit to the Golden Arches. Then again, for a pure late night food experience, a good bacon cheeseburger in the wee hours of the morning beats a burrito bowl any day.
Although I’m a moderately serious sports fan, and I’ve been associated with a good number of colleges and universities over the years, I’ve never attended a school with a big-time sports program. On the pro side, I’ve maintained my strong affinity for Chicago teams (Cubs, Bears, and Bulls, oh my!), and been a fair-weather fan of the New York Mets (mid-80s), New York Knicks (80s-early 90s), and New England Patriots (Brady-Belichick era). However, when it comes to college basketball and football, I’ve been something of a waif.
I’ve been writing a lot about my college and law school experiences lately, so let’s take them from a sporting angle.
Starstruck and Bobcats
I received a very good classroom education at Valparaiso University, but its intercollegiate sports teams during the late 70s and early 80s were lackluster and not a big focus of campus life. VU had just made the jump to Division 1 basketball, and those early teams struggled for respectability. I went to only one game, against then-No. 1 ranked DePaul University, led by All American forward (and future NBA All Star) Mark Aguirre. When DePaul walked onto the court for warm-ups, the VU fans stood up — not to applaud or to jeer, but rather because we were starstruck that a top-ranked team was in our midst. The game itself played out as one might expect.
My next educational port of call was New York University for law school. During the early to mid 20th century, NYU enjoyed national success in both basketball and football circles, but by the time I arrived in 1982, intercollegiate sports had been de-emphasized to the point of irrelevance. It would relaunch its men’s basketball program at the Division 3 level during the mid-80s. They quickly assembled some good teams, even reaching the national championship game in the early 90s, and have remained competitive since then.
Each year I lived in New York, I would go to a few NYU hoops games, usually alone. D3 hoops games aren’t a big draw with the rest of Manhattan at your fingertips. Or maybe it was hard to get excited about a college team whose mascot is named after the library’s card catalog (Bobst Library Card Catalog, or Bobcat for short).
As for NYU’s football team, it remained undefeated throughout my years in the city, holding steady at 0-0. (Ba dum.)
Over the years, I’ve kept my affinity for Notre Dame football — a product of having grown up in Northwest Indiana. Fandom can be irrational; I’m neither Catholic nor a Notre Dame alum!
Because a dear friend is an Annapolis graduate (Class of 1953), I root for the Navy Midshipmen as well. Had some weird twist of fate ever led me to the Academy, I would’ve lasted about a week before getting booted out for continually questioning orders, so go figure.
During the 2000s, the University of Hawaii had a string of successful, fun-to-watch, pass happy teams, and I enjoyed pulling for them. The highlight of that run was an undefeated regular season in 2007, culminating in a Sugar Bowl appearance.
For reasons I can’t explain, I also follow from afar (usually by checking the box scores) the powerhouse Division 3 football team at the University of Mount Union in Ohio. Although they’ve been stymied in the national championship game in recent years by nemesis Wisconsin-Whitewater, they have compiled some of the most remarkably dominant seasons in the history of collegiate football.
Back to Valpo
As for college basketball, well, I’m now rooting for Valparaiso(!), which has become a very competitive mid-major D1 team since my days there. The foundation was set seventeen years ago, when the Crusaders enjoyed a storybook season, topped off by a trip to the 1998 NCAA tournament and a Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen. Its star player was guard Bryce Drew, the coach’s son, who hit a legendary, buzzer beating 3-point shot to upset powerhouse Ole Miss in the first round:
Drew followed his collegiate glory with a solid stint in the NBA. He is now the Valparaiso head coach, and when VU makes an appearance on one of the ESPN stations, I’ll often watch or record the game. They made the NCAA tournament this year, losing in the opening round to Maryland in a close game.
This month, SB Nation ran an excellent long form piece by Justin Pahl, son of a former VU faculty member, who wrote about growing up with the emerging, underdog VU basketball program during the 1990s. It’s a very good story about life and sports in a small, Midwestern university town. I took a screen shot and pasted it in above.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is getting a lot of attention for his new book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015), which urges young people and their families not to buy into the huge anxieties and nuttiness that surround the college application process. In essence, he’s saying that the people and communities that we bring into our lives have much greater bearing on life satisfaction than getting into a prestigious school.
I think the overall message is a sound one, but the topic is more complicated than first meets the eye.
A good number of friends around my age have gone through this process with their children. Especially for high school students aspiring to attend a highly-ranked school, the college admissions game has become a significant, part-time job for them and their parents, one wrought with adolescent emotions, adult anxieties, and difficult cost-benefit assessments.
Sadly, I don’t think this will change, especially in an America where families in the middle and upper-middle classes are fearful of their ability to maintain their stations in life, college costs have gone through the roof, and the promise that the kids will do better than their parents is looking more and more precarious.
As a non-parent, it’s easy for me to claim from my detached perch that I wouldn’t buy wholeheartedly into that mania, but in truth it’s very, very hard to ignore this dynamic. And the peer pressure and social expectations for young students and parents alike are significant in high school settings that are turbo-charged about college placement.
Nevertheless, as a nostalgic creature by nature, does this make me a little wistful for the days when the college application process wasn’t so riddled with anxiety?
As a high school senior, I assumed I’d go to college, but I took the process rather casually. I visited a few schools in my home state of Indiana, and I ended up applying to only one, Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana. It was a smaller school, emphasizing the liberal arts, and it seemed comfortable and close enough to home. I figured it would be good enough, and it appeared that my chances of admission were strong.
I was accepted, and that was the extent of my college “search.” Easy peasy, right?! Isn’t this a perfect example of how low key the college application process was back in the day?
But herein lies the truth behind much nostalgia: It becomes a little, well,
rose-colored fictitious. Even before the U.S. News rankings of colleges became ubiquitous and top 10/50/100 lists of schools started popping up everywhere, there was a rough sense of which schools were considered among the elite. And my story of applying to only one school and basically assuming I’d get admitted is exactly that, only mine. In the meantime, thousands of others who had more focused aspirations and their sights set on certain schools were sweating out the process.
In fact, five years later, I would ramp up my own anxieties when I applied to law schools. I was considerably more invested in the process, and I took active responsibility for researching law schools and identifying which ones might be good for me. Now, that’s the generic description. In truth, I became obsessed with the whole deal, and full of the kind of self-absorption that can inflict an ambitious young person during such life chapters. The moment I received New York University’s letter of acceptance, I pretty much knew I would go there, as I had many reasons to believe it would be a very good match for me.
So how do these schools look in the rear-view mirror some 30 years later? I’ve written on this blog many times about my experiences at Valparaiso (here, for example). My relationship with it has changed much for the better over the years, in large part because I have a greater appreciation for the quality education it gave me, and I have treasured friendships from those years that I know will be lifelong. As for NYU Law School, I am deeply grateful for the experiences, friendships, and opportunities it provided. In many ways, it was the right place at the right time for me. (You can read a bit more about that, here.)
As I reflect on all this, maybe Frank Bruni’s title — Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be — is overstating it, even if we welcome its underlying message. Many of us have been shaped profoundly by the schools we attended, though not necessarily because they were/weren’t considered “prestigious” in the eyes of others. The deeper questions associated with the college application process are more vital and complicated ones, fostering considerations about how much we should allow markers of prestige to shape our beliefs, decisions, and experiences.
In sum, for anyone who believes that upward mobility and “success” are, generally speaking, worthwhile aspirations, but that a good life embodies much more than collecting trophy lines on resumes, this conversation may be rife with honest and very human contradictions and inconsistencies. Easy peasy it ain’t.
As some of you know, I’ve been writing a professional blog, Minding the Workplace, for over six years. A lot of the material is heavier stuff, looking at employee relations, workplace bullying, employment law, psychological health at work, and so on. But on occasion I’ve written pieces with a lighter touch that may be of interest to readers here. I thought I’d dig into the archives of that blog and share a few of them:
Taking stock at midlife: Time for reading assignments? (2014) — “So, in the absence of these colleges for 40-year-olds (and beyond), how can we think and reflect upon our lives to date, our lives right now, and our lives to come? For those who, like me, sometimes turn to good books for guidance, let me introduce a thick anthology, Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), co-edited by Mark R. Schwehn & Dorothy C. Bass, both of Valparaiso University, my undergraduate alma mater.”
What now, not what if (2013) — “Currently stored on my DVR are a PBS program and a National Geographic docudrama about President Kennedy, both produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of his assassination. Although I’m a devotee of history, I have a feeling that I won’t be watching them….That lesson was reinforced to me in Stephen King’s 2011 time travel epic, 11/22/63, which takes us back to the years leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy.”
The perils and pleasures of nostalgia, even about work?! (2013) — I get especially nostalgic about two work experiences. The first was my initial year as a Legal Aid lawyer in Manhattan, following my graduation from NYU’s law school….My second nostalgic focus: Returning to NYU after six years of legal practice as an instructor in its innovative first-year Lawyering Program….Both clusters of memories, however, gloss over the fact that I was years away from discovering my true passions as a teacher, scholar, and advocate. I was clueless about a lot of things, and not exactly on the leading edge of emotional maturity.”
August 1982: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (2012) — “This month, I find myself particularly nostalgic over events of 30 years ago, when I moved from Hammond, Indiana to New York City to begin law school at New York University, located in the heart of Greenwich Village. This was a pretty big deal for me. Although I had benefited greatly from a semester abroad in England during college at Valparaiso University, I was far from worldly and had never been to New York City before applying to NYU….Within a few days of my arrival, I would start classes in Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building, on the southwest corner of Washington Square….”
Collegiate reflections: Studying the liberal arts (2012); Collegiate reflections: Working on the campus newspaper (2012) — “With Commencement season coming to a close at colleges and universities across the nation, I beg my readers’ indulgence as I use a short series of posts to reflect upon my own collegiate experience….”
Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide toward good transitions (2012) — As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition….If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.
Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age. The Economist cites research studies to back up its proposition, overcoming the presumption that this is more Boomer-inspired babble about how 60 is the new 40.”
Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010) — “Dreams die hard is something of an old chestnut, but having entered the heart of midlife, I am thankful that this often is true. I think especially of creative energies waiting to be tapped and unleashed, perhaps after some of life’s other priorities and responsibilities have been addressed, and pursued with the benefit of experience and maturity. Two long-time friends come to mind when I ponder this. Hilda Demuth-Lutze is a friend from college days at Valparaiso University (Indiana) who is the author of historical novels for young adults. Mark Mybeck is a friend going back to grade school in Hammond, Indiana, whose band, Nomad Planets, is creating a niche for itself in the Greater Chicagoland indie rock scene.”
Thirty years ago, as I approached my final semester of law school at New York University, I accepted an offer to join the New York Legal Aid Society as a staff attorney after graduation. For me, it brought together two things near and dear to me: First, to work as a public interest lawyer; and second, to stay in New York City.
I had spent the previous summer working at a large commercial law firm in Chicago. Although the firm would extend an offer to return as a full-time associate attorney, I realized that my heart was not in corporate law and kindly declined. I wanted to work in the public interest sector, and so I applied for jobs across the country with legal services organizations, public defender offices, and a variety of other non-profit and public employers. Although NYU was very supportive of students who wanted to do public interest work, these jobs were in heavy demand among young (and not so young) do-gooder types. I knew that I had my work cut out for me.
My job search stretched across the country, but New York was my top destination by a huge margin. I had moved there from northwest Indiana to attend law school, and I fell fast and hard for the city. New York of the early-to-mid 80s was a city in transition, emerging from a previous decade steeped in crime, urban blight, and corruption. It was an awesome, gritty, sometimes overwhelming place to me.
In many ways, going to law school in New York was like a study abroad experience, in that I kept discovering its endless nooks and crannies on a shoestring budget. It was still possible to explore and enjoy many aspects of the city on the cheap, with an occasional splurge or two for a show or a nice dinner.
Anyway, good fortune would smile upon me, and I spent my final semester of law school knowing that my immediate future was set. I graduated in the spring, took the bar exam over the summer, and started at Legal Aid in the fall. Between being ousted from the NYU law dorm and my $20,000 starting salary, I was propelled into the apartment share hinterlands of Brooklyn. It would be many years before my paychecks yielded more disposable income, but at least I was in a city that captured so much of the world. Armed with subway tokens, travel guidebooks, and a credit card that I tried to use judiciously, I took a lot of New York “staycations.”
Yup, this takes me back some 30 years, and that realization does a number on me. Though concededly I was quite clueless about so many things back then, this was a very good chapter of my life. Sometimes, even memories filtered through rose-colored lenses of personal nostalgia can be pretty spot on.
The other day, my long-time friend and law school classmate Patrick sent me a couple of photographs taken thirty years ago, from a camping trip at the start of our third and last year at NYU law school. It was the beginning of the fall semester, and the onset of classes had triggered a bout of cabin fever so intense that five of us piled into Patrick’s car and headed for the Catskills.
This may sound like an odd thing for a law professor to be saying, but my reaction to the start of classes was so acutely resistant that even I — a budding city dweller in the making — was willing to forgo the niceties of the law school dorm in order to escape the world of casebooks and classes.
You see, unlike my outdoorsy law school friends, I was not a regular camper. Actually, I wasn’t a camper, period, and I haven’t been since then. It’s not that I’m a high maintenance traveler. In fact, between summer storm chase tours and countless trips to New York, I’ve stayed in places that won’t be listed in any premium travel guidebooks. But when it comes to accommodations away from home, I do strongly prefer (1) a bed to sleep in; and (2) indoor plumbing.
I don’t remember a lot about the trip itself, though I know that we all got along together just fine. I also seem to recall a couple of loud guys camping in an adjacent plot who had too much to drink on multiple nights, but maybe that’s just a ritual memory of every camping trip, whether it actually happened or not.
Anyway, after a few days in the wilderness, we folded our tents and returned to the urban jungle. Soon I got back into the law school swing of things, and it would prove to be a good and meaningful year, with some fun and laughter mixed in with the work.
Wow, it has been thirty years since my last year of law school. I’m sure the muse of nostalgia will cause me to write more about that time during the months to come.
This morning I clicked on a Facebook posting from New York University, my legal alma mater, to a short piece about dorm living for law students. A photo of one of the NYU Law dorm rooms (see below) reminded me once again that many universities have upgraded their residence hall accommodations considerably since back in the day, especially in terms of private rooms and bathrooms. (Of course, this has contributed significantly to rising tuition costs, but that’s for a more serious post….) In any event, the article sent me into a brief trip down nostalgia lane.
In many ways, dorm living tends to look better mainly with the passage of time, at least when it comes to furniture, décor, and creature comforts. During college at Valparaiso University in Indiana, I lived in dorm rooms throughout my stay, first in Wehrenberg Hall, and then in Brandt Hall, two rather plain vanilla buildings built sometime during the 50s or 60s. The VU dorms were typical of undergraduate dwellings of their era, offering small shared rooms with pullout beds and bathrooms down the hall. During my last year of college, I qualified for a shared Brandt Hall first-floor room with a private bathroom, a nod to the fact that I was a good student who managed to stay out of trouble.
In the photo above, I’m standing in front of my desk. The boxes and papers to the right obscure the mattress of the pullout bed. I was packing my boxes at the end of the fall semester of my senior year, in anticipation of departing after the holidays for a final semester in England. My roommate Chris’s furniture configuration was exactly the same, the main difference being that he was a very disciplined and neat pre-med student who periodically and politely would push my growing piles of books and papers to my side of the invisible Mason-Dixon Line, as we jokingly called it. Every evening, when Chris would dutifully turn in after watching the Johnny Carson monologue, I would gather my books, papers, and — if necessary — typewriter to join other more nocturnal students in the cafeteria, which served as a nighttime study hall.
When I got to NYU in 1982, I had a much fancier address, Hayden Hall at 33 Washington Square West (yes, that Washington Square). The toney Greenwich Village exterior masked the spare accommodations similar to those of my collegiate days, with a few New York cockroaches tossed in as free bonuses. At the time, Hayden Hall was the primary dorm for first-year law students. A converted old hotel, it had a few interesting nooks and crannies in addition to the drab rooms. Its first floor cafeteria and TV room provided opportunities for breaks and socializing.
I would spend my second and third years of law school living in NYU’s Mercer Street residence hall, a (then) brand-new building featuring small apartments with individual bedrooms and kitchenettes. While I didn’t do much cooking, the fridge and stove made it possible to store and heat up Chinese take-out and delivery morsels. With some physics-defying moving around of beds and furniture, apartment units could host pretty decent parties, replete with room for dancing to Michael Jackson, The Clash, and other 80s music artists. We also had waifs’ Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for those of us too far or too broke to return home for the holidays. The Mercer dorm provided my nicest accommodations during 12 years in New York.
In fact, they remained among my nicest digs ever until I moved into my Jamaica Plain, Boston condo in 2003. For the longest time, I was satisfied with a sort of enhanced “grad student” standard of living. It took me until well into adulthood to do an upgrade!
During any given summer, thousands of newly-minted law school graduates are reaping the rewards of their toil with one final “gift” of a test: The bar examination of the state in which they intend to practice. With a few exceptions, one’s ability to practice law in a given state is dependent upon passing a grueling two or three day examination, consisting of batteries of brain-frying multiple-choice questions and essay questions that pose factual scenarios densely packed with legal issues to be analyzed.
To prepare for the bar exam, which most people take during the summer, one typically signs up for a bar review course. This is a crash course that features over a month of lectures and practice exam questions, interspersed with hours of studying legal rules and principles. Most bar review courses start right after graduation season and finish a few weeks before the bar exam itself, with the remaining time spent drilling and memorizing.
Every summer I encounter law students lugging around the thick paperbound law summaries published by bar review courses. As the weeks go by, their faces look more drawn and tired. Many of the men stop shaving and even the more fashion conscious women trudge around in sweatpants. They make for a pretty motley crew by the time exam week hits.
I remember that time oh-so-well. Twenty-nine summers ago, I was studying for the New York bar exam, reputed to be one of the toughest in the nation. The biggest challenge in studying for the NY exam was the vast number of legal subjects potentially covered on it. We had to stuff a lot of law into our heads and hope that it remained there at least through the two days of the actual test. For people like me, who assiduously took classes of intrinsic interest rather than courses that tracked the bar exam subjects, there was added misery in tackling subjects avoided during law school.
Furthermore, earlier that year, I had accepted an offer to work for The Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. I would be handling appellate-level criminal cases, which meant that the areas of law I needed to feel comfortable with boiled down to a handful of subjects. My motivation to learn, say, the rules of New York gift & estate taxation, was practically nil. (Especially with the salary I’d be earning and the people I’d be representing, neither I nor my future clients had much use for the subject.)
I spent the first few weeks dutifully going to the bar review lectures and trying to study each day, but I found the whole deal to be quite excruciating and my attention span wandered. As the weeks ticked down, however, I came to grips with the fact that I didn’t want to take this exam over again, so I’d best buckle down and give it my all. That I did. During the weeks preceding the exam, I basically camped out in the law clinic offices at NYU, where I had spent so much time in my final year of law school.
Of course, I also spent hours on the phone with law school classmates, sharing supposed insights on how to prepare for the exam, as well as gallows humor about our chances of passing. Many of my best friends from NYU were going to other states to practice, so I ran up a much higher phone bill than was prudent for a soon-to-be public interest lawyer.
I was assigned to take the exam in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan. By then I had moved out of NYU housing and was sharing an apartment in Brooklyn. I didn’t want to risk a subway delay, so I rented a room at the Vanderbilt YMCA, a manageable walk from the hotel.
The exam itself was every bit as challenging as I had imagined. My head was spinning throughout the two-day test, and when I finished, I honestly had no clear idea of whether I had passed or not. (One of the essay questions was about New York gift & estate taxation, and had I not spent an hour the night before with a one-page summary prepared by one of my law school classmates, I probably would’ve sat there in a stupor.) But I didn’t feel horrible about it, so I figured my chances were okay.
After the exam, I celebrated by going to Barnes & Noble and buying two books, the titles of which I recall to this day: William Shirer’s The Nightmare Years (the journalist’s account of being in 1930s Nazi Germany) and Tom Clancy’s first thriller, The Hunt for Red October. I treated myself to an extra night at the YMCA to read my new books in solitude. In the weeks that followed the bar exam, I was basically in a haze. Thank goodness I had that time to recoup before reporting for duty at Legal Aid after Labor Day.
In November I learned that I had passed the bar exam! It was good news all around in my office; all 12 or so Legal Aid colleagues who sat for the exam that summer also passed. I called the elementary school in Indiana where my mom taught kindergarten, and they gave her the good news over the intercom.
I celebrated by going to Barnes & Noble and buying another book, Mark Girouard’s Cities & People, a beautiful volume about urban social and architectural history — and a perfect complement to the love affair I was experiencing with New York City as a broke-but-happy Legal Aid lawyer.
Thirty-two summers ago, I paid my first visit to New York City. The main occasion for my trip was to check out New York University, where I would be starting law school that fall.
While it may sound odd in this day and age for someone to say this, I had accepted NYU’s offer of admission sight unseen, based largely on its overall reputation and strong support for students who wanted to enter public interest law. You see, I also was pretty broke, and I didn’t have the funds to visit the law schools to which I was applying. Having opted happily for NYU from a distance, I wanted to preview the situation firsthand, so I scheduled a late June visit to New York City.
I reserved a room at the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th Street. It was like staying in a youth hostel, reminiscent of my semester abroad in England the year before. Another adventure begins!, I thought to myself.
During my short trip, I spent a lot of time around NYU and its Greenwich Village surroundings. I discovered some of the cheap local eateries that would get a lot of my business during the years to come, I did some hanging out in Washington Square Park in the heart of the Village, and I paid my first of hundreds of visits to the remarkable Strand bookstore.
Of course, I also checked out NYU, including Vanderbilt Hall, the main law school building, and Hayden Hall, the residence hall where most first-year law students lived, both located right on Washington Square. I could feel the butterflies churning in my stomach in anticipation of what was to come, and a little voice inside me wondered if I was in over my head.
I did standard tourist stuff as well. Going up the Empire State Building. Taking a guided tour of the United Nations. Becoming bewildered by the city’s labyrinth of a subway system. (If you’ve ever been lost in the Dante-esque middle level of the West 4th Street stop in the Village, you know what I mean.)
My NYC recon trip confirmed that in terms of sophistication, I was a babe in the woods. I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with big cities, having grown up in northwest Indiana right outside of Chicago and having spent chunks of time in major European cities during my semester abroad. However, New York seemed overwhelming to me, ranging from its apparent vastness (in actuality, Manhattan is a mere island!) to its exorbitant prices. (Upon my return, I would report breathlessly to friends and family that a fancy ice cream place called Häagen-Dazs was charging one whole dollar for a small cone!)
Nevertheless, I also had a gut feeling that I was making the right choice. I knew that New York would fascinate me, and — nerves notwithstanding — I had a good feeling about my decision to attend NYU. My instincts would prove to be right. New York and NYU were the right places at the right time for me.
I didn’t take any photos of that visit, but I’ve held onto the guidebook I used to traipse around Manhattan. In Frommer’s 1981-82 Guide to New York, author Faye Hammel writes:
You should be advised that there is one dangerous aspect of coming to New York for the first time: not of getting lost, mobbed, or caught in a blackout, but of falling so desperately in love with the city that you may not want to go home again. Or, if you do, it may be just to pack your bags.
That quote captured how I would feel about New York for years. As would this song:
I’m now into a slightly extended binge viewing of Season 1 of “The Americans,” an FX drama series featuring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a Soviet couple operating as deep cover spies in Washington D.C. during the early 1980s, the decade leading to the end of the Cold War.
It’s a great series, and a vivid reminder of U.S.-Soviet tensions of the era. But irrespective of its dramatic quality, I was won over by the opening scene, a bar in which Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart” is playing in the background.
Yeah, it pushed my Eighties nostalgia buttons, and I was hooked.
If you’ve followed my posts here, you know that I get nostalgic even for historical eras I am too young to have experienced. But the Eighties are very much my time, and I regard the decade fondly.
Okay, so it may not have been the best years for America. This was the decade of trickle-down economics, “greed is good” (a philosophy popularized by financier Ivan Boesky, who landed in prison for overdoing what he preached), the emergence of the Middle East as a dominant hot spot, and a lot of political corruption. Many of the challenges we face today have their roots in those years.
Personally, however, I think of the Eighties as a comparatively innocent, wide-eyed time of my life. It covered the heart of my 20s, starting with my last year of college at Valparaiso University, then through law school at NYU, and finally post-law school life and work in New York City. Though I was barely masquerading as an adult during that time, I experienced a lot of growth and memorable times during the decade.
Moving to New York was a big deal, for I was a pretty sheltered Midwesterner. (To clarify, not all Midwesterners are sheltered, but I sure was.) I fell for New York completely, and during those years it was possible to explore the city on a tight budget. To be young and broke in New York wasn’t a terrible thing back then; there was a sort of gritty romance about making it on a shoestring.
Anyway, back to the “The Americans”: Season 1 opens in 1981, right after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. A few episodes into the series, we see American and Soviet intelligence operatives scrambling madly to respond to the March assassination attempt on the President. Although the would-be assassin, John Hinckley, turned out to be a mentally ill man whose actions had nothing to do with Cold War politics, neither side knew that in the immediate aftermath of the shootings.
I recall that time well. We all lived under the nuclear threat. It was part of our existence.
Yesterday it was about the Cold War, the nukes, and the Soviets. Today it’s about terrorism, airport security, and Al-Qaeda. And the economy and jobs, always. The beat goes on.