The Academic Life vs. Night Life

Plus, I am determined not to become a journalist


My father was right, though. In 1982, New York City was in pretty bad shape.

Landlords losing money on rent-controlled buildings were burning them down for the insurance money instead. There were block after block of charred ruins, vacant lots and boarded-up buildings in the East Village, a short walk from NYU.

The loss of cheap housing created homelessness, as did a court decision that allowed severely mentally ill people the right to refuse treatment.

An enormous number of lost souls carried their lives around in stolen shopping carts or plastic bags, sleeping in bank machine lobbies.



Wounded City: New York Magazine cover, November 1981


Graffitti was everywhere,and crime was a constant pre-occupation: wherever you went in the city, you would calculate a route where you were least likely to get mugged.

Burglary was also endemic. The burglars would then lay out their goods for sale on blankets on the sidewalk - it was said that if your house was broken into and your stuff stolen, you could go to the Astor Place street market and buy it all back.

And there was the drug trade, the end of the heroin era and the beginning of the crack wave. Sometimes when a deadly quality of drugs had hit the street, a police microphone truck would drive around bellowing something like "Do not take the J-brand heroin!"



At 18, however, I thought the city was thrilling. I loved the subways, so unlike anything in Wauwatosa, and learned everything I could about them, even signing up for a tour of abandoned "ghost" stations.

I read book after book about Andy Warhol, whose blasé approach and colorful entourage seemed to embody the fabulousness of New York.

I walked around some of the new storefront art galleries in the East Village, most of them showing works based on street graffiti.

At night, the neighborhood was full of tiny, dirty nightclubs, each its own intoxicating mix of gay and straight, con men and college girls, gin and tonics, delight and fear. I loved it.

I had finally found a place where I fit, in Manhattan and in the undergraduate social scene, with its friendships and betrayals and crushes and disappointments. I could take wild adolescent risks and then flee to the haven of my double room at the Joe Weinstein dormitory of New York University.

I believe I also attended classes.

In Union Square a year later, 1983. Same wardrobe, new haircut. Note crumbling S. Klein sign in the background.



New York University has since become a prestige school, although it wasn't at the time. Nevertheless, I had access to gifted academics in one of the intellectual capitals of the world.

That said, I can remember an enormous amount of details about the fashions and nightlife of the 80s, but only a few generalities about my university education.

I know I studied - I recall memorizing hundreds of paintings before art history exams - but I have very little memory of being inspired by professorial wit or insights.



I mostly remember the opposite, like the journalism professor who marked down a paper because it "the writing style was too entertaining, and not academic enough. The sentences should be longer."

Or the art history professor who became furious when I said I didn't like a particular contemporary painter. "But look at the way he uses light!" he cried, pointing at a lifeless, lightless canvas.

The painter, it turned out, was a buddy of the professor, and the "C" I got in that class eventually bumped my diploma down from summa to magna cum laude.



There was also the Marxist theory professor who was a gifted entrepreneur on the side, selling a board game called "Class Struggle" and a selection of books, all of which he required that we purchase for the class.

He told us that by the year 2000, we would see a either international communism or a nuclear holocaust. I am happy to report that he was wrong.



One of the first things college students ask each other when they meet is, "What's your major?"

When I came to NYU, I was quite sure was that I did not want to be a journalism major. Working on the high school newspaper had cured me of that. I was thinking marketing, or maybe political science and then a law degree.

Of course, by my third year at NYU I was safely ensconced in the Journalism department, since writing is the only thing I can consistently do well - in an entertaining, not academic fashion.


The New York Post, 1983


In those pre-Internet days, the department was divided into four groups - newspaper reporting, magazine writing, television/radio and PR.

You could which group each student was in just by looking at them. The newspaper students were odd or sloppy; the magazine students wore the trendiest clothes. The TV students had giant smiles and cans of hairspray. The PR students were a little sleazy and had usually flunked out of one of the other three disciplines. You didn't hear much from them.

I was in the newspaper section. We would show up at class early in the morning, look at the list of news events on the daily AP roster, go out and cover the story and write it for an afternoon deadline.

In those pre-Homeland Security days, we students had little trouble getting into city government events. It was a lot like working as a real newspaper reporter.

Whatever the weaknesses of NYU - the students used to joke that the letters stood for "Now You're Unemployed" - it did do its bit to prepare me for a lifetime of working in the media.


Next: Everybody is an artist.

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