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Memoir Part 5: I leave NYC to go to college. The Sixties

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After P.S. 35 I went on to Junior High School 22. I remember almost nothing of those years: a black box. I fretted about pimples, about the size of my thighs—I was starting to want to look good. But I recall the other boys. They were 14, 15 years old—at the height of testosterone-fueled puberty. The dress style for boys was very tight pants. Of course, you could see everything “down there,” and most of the time it seemed like everybody had an erection.

Then it was time for high school. In those days you could go to your “automatic” public high school, the one in your neighborhood, which for me was William Howard Taft. You could also take competitive entry examinations for one or more of New York’s three “special” high schools. I took exams for two, The Bronx High School of Science, which specialized in science and math, and the High School of Music and Art. I applied to both (to M&A as an art major), and got into both, one of only two New Yorkers to do so that year.

I didn’t know which to choose. Bronx Science was a couple subway stops up the old Jerome Avenue elevated line from 760. Music & Art was down the D-line, on the City College campus, on 135th Street in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. My parents told me the choice was mine. I visited both. At Bronx Science, the boys had black tortoise-shell eyeglasses, wore white dress shirts with pencil-protectors in their pockets and baggy, belted pants hitched up to their chests. And they all carried briefcases. Today, we’d call them nerds. At M&A the boys wore faded jeans and untucked blue work shirts, and carried what were then called “Harvard bags” over their shoulders—the epitome of Greenwich Village bohemian chic. If they had eyeglasses, they were intellectual-looking wire rims. The Bronx Science boys attracted me not a bit; the M&A boys were cool. Decision made!

Those were four years of interest and delight. I loved art: painting in oils and acrylics, drawing, woodcuts, sculpture, graphic design, art history. I loved studying paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, NYMOMA, the numerous small galleries along Third Avenue. The El Greco room at the Met sent me into ecstasy; I would stand in front of View of Toledo and Portrait of Cardinal Guevera and just stare in admiration. And taking the subway to high school—very adult! I’d get on at 161st Street, a big, crowded station, and try get off at 135th Street, a small local stop—well, that was the plan. The train at 7:30 in the morning was jammed. I could never find a seat, but would be wedged in between bodies so tightly that I could stand without holding onto anything. When it got to 135th Street, nobody departed; they were all headed further downtown, or to 125th Street, a transfer station. The crowd had carried me over to the side of the train opposite the door. I could never make it through the jammed bodies to exit. I’d say “Getting out” but it didn’t do any good; eventually I stopped trying. For four years, I had to go down to 125th Street, cross the platform, and take the D-train back uptown to 135th Street.

High school was a big change, because the vast majority of my friends didn’t go to M&A; our friendships thus melted away. I saw very little of Jonathan after that. I made a few friends in M&A, but not many, and I barely recall anything I did in high school, beyond a 50-mile march I organized, in 1961, when Robert Kennedy urged Americans to get out and exercise. (This also was the time Uncle Lennie made me start going to the YMCA to lift weights.) About sixty of us marched from The Bronx to White Plains and back; a local radio station reported our progress. It was my first exercise in leadership, and I liked it. I never dated a girl, which lots of the boys my age were starting to do. I remember running into Jonathan—he was going to a private high school in Manhattan. He told me, with great excitement, how he’d just finger-fucked a girl, and even offered me a sniff. It was his first sexual experience and he was very proud. Of course, I couldn’t tell him about my Puerto Rican boys.

Suddenly, in June of 1963, high school was over; it was time for college. I worked for the summer at a hospital in The Bronx, doing urine, feces and blood tests, a job arranged by Uncle Lennie, who was chief-of-staff. Did I ever have a conversation with my parents about college? Of course not. Notwithstanding Jack, who hadn’t gone to college, it was taken for granted I would. New York City high school students were allowed to apply to only three schools for free; if you wanted more, you had to pay $50 each, and Jack and Gertrude weren’t made out of money. I applied to the City College of New York, Harvard, and Clark University, a liberal arts school in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester. Harvard hadn’t been my idea. Cousin Maxine had married a Harvard man, Don (whom I idolized) and he wanted me to go there. I was interviewed at the Harvard Club, down on West 44th Street (I wore my bar mitzvah suit), and I probably talked too much about The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s book, which had a huge impact on me. But I didn’t get in: the letter of rejection said that ordinarily my grades and extra-curricular activities (which included the track team) would have admitted me, but in this Baby Boom year, Harvard was flooded with qualified applicants, so…

But City College admitted me and so did Clark, a school I’d selected out of Lovejoy’s College Guide for the sole reason that it was said to be located “in the heart of the Central Massachusetts snow belt,” and I loved, loved, loved big snowstorms. My parents said I could go to either City College, which meant living at home, or Clark, which meant leaving home. I was tired of living with my parents, wanted out, wanted the adventure and freedom of being on my own. So Clark it was.

Jack drove me up to Worcester in early September, 1963, on a hot, sunny morning. We passed a multi-car wreck on the Hutchinson River Parkway—were, in fact, the first to stop and investigate. There were dead people, bleeding people. The driver I checked on was trapped behind his steering wheel, groaning. He asked for a blanket even though it was about 85 degrees. By then, we heard sirens, so Jack told me to get back in the car and we continued on to Worcester. But I thought: is this an omen?

I don’t know whether or not it was. But entering college in the Fall of 1963 was the beginning of one of the most exciting, crazy periods of my life, and one of the most turbulent in our country’s history. John F. Kennedy was President. Dr. King had just given his “I Have a Dream” speech. LIFE magazine ran a cover story on the drug, marijuana, that was so popular among jazz musicians and Beatniks. A new rock group, The Beatles, was making waves. The Baby Boomers were about to grow their hair long and become “hippies.” Although the decade already was in its third year, 1963 really marked the start of The Sixties.

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