I arrive in New York

And how a pet food magnate changed my life forever


I moved to New York, which changed my life and made it different than everyone else's I knew, because I checked the wrong box.

On the application form for New York University, there was a section that asked 'Would you like to be considered as a Presidential Scholar?'

I had been considered (and rejected) for a National Merit Scholarship, the winners of which actually get to meet the U.S. President. In a moment of somnolent form-filling I confused the two programs. And so I checked the box.



Age 18, and chubby, in Leningrad.


The box actually referred to a NYU-only scholarship program, sponsored by a generous pet food magnate, and designed to attract students from across country what was then mostly a New York-area commuter school.

I was selected, and the program not only helped pay for college, but introduced me to cultural events like the opera and Broadway, and to traveling.

The pet food magnate's money took me and 30 other bookish and naive 'scholars' to Soviet-era Russia, where I managed to get arrested for taking photos of suburban housing blocks. It took us to Egypt, where we bought realistic-looking pieces of parchment that local touts assured us were actual ancient scrolls. It took us to Greece, where we played shoot-'em-up with our index fingers amid the ancient ruins. Basically, it took us places we were ill-equipped to understand or appreciate.

But that comes later in the story. In 1982, I moved to New York.


Although I had spent much of my senior year in high school taking the bus down to Milwaukee to hang out with the Tense Experts, I learned that spring that I had been accepted to all three schools where I had applied.

The University of Chicago offered me a $100 scholarship on its annual $10,000 tuition; the University of Wisconsin Madison offered me $500 if I would take up electrical engineering. And then there was New York University.

My father, who was about to invest much of his savings in my tuition, insisted that we visit all three. He had been to New York on business, and I think he was convinced that one view of what was then a dank, crumbling city - it had nearly declared bankruptcy seven years before - would scare me back to UW Madison, his preferred choice.

We stayed in a Sheraton Hotel near Times Square, which in 1982 really was the Times Square of legend. There were junkies, porno theaters, hookers, card sharks, and a whole lot of drunks.

"That man is sleeping on the street," my father pointed out to me.



In Union Square, New York, in black clothing, 1982


During the day, while my father visited the local office of the insurance company where he worked, I went on a guided tour of the NYU campus.

It wasn't so much of a campus as it was a few re-purposed buildings in a few city blocks around Washington Square Park, which was then (and probably still is) full of fire-eating jugglers, men with accents selling substandard marijuana, make-out artists with guitars and parrots on their shoulders, and half-dressed students eating lunch. I thought this was fine.

The only part of the actual university I remember from that tour is the Bobst Library, in which the atrium's floor tiles were designed to create the illusion of spikes, so despondent students wouldn't jump from the 12th floor.

I loved it - I loved it all.



When we came home to suburban Wisconsin. I told my mother that New York was exciting and alive. My father told her it was dirty. It was like we had visited two different cities, my mother said later.

I enrolled in NYU and, in retrospect, I can see that my parents were good sports about the whole thing. They did still want me to go to the University of Wisconsin.

I believe, also, that there was some eagerness on their part to be rid of me, out of frustration with my recent Tense Expert-related behaviour, which involved more beer-drinking and late nights than they had come to expect from their studious, misfit daughter.

In September 1982, my parents drove me to Milwaukee Airport, and with a suitcase full of black clothing, I boarded a plane to New York.


Next: The Academic Life vs. Nightlife

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