This is a true story. It doesn’t have any major significance, but it’s a true story I’ve been thinking about telling for a few days, so here it comes.
In my last year at the University of Minnesota, I was strongly encouraged by my professors to attend graduate school. A good graduate school. I was given a list of schools to consider that included Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and Columbia. How was I ever to decide?
I applied to all of the schools that were recommended–the total was 10. Remember, this was before computers for all intents and purposes, and so I had to hand type each application (including a statement explaining why I wanted to get into graduate school). It was exhausting. But I got in. Specifically, I got into 9 of the 10 schools to which I applied (Stanford decided not to admit me) and got scholarship offers at almost all of them.
I really wanted to go to the West Coast–when I was very young we had lived in La Jolla for a spell, and I remembered California with great affection. And there was something, after all, old about the East Coast that I just didn’t like. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t extra-costly to book a flight to New York first, and then fly from there to San Francisco. So that’s what I did. And so one day, during Spring Break 1981, I found myself on a jet plane descending for landing in New York. I saw the dome of Columbia’s Low Library from the air (and to this day, I have a photograph to prove it). And then we landed and I walked out, wearing a suit, to find a cab.
I found one, but the driver didn’t seem to speak English. I asked to be taken to 117th and Broadway, the main gate (at least in those days) of Columbia. Instead, I was dropped at 117th and Adam Clayton Powell–a story I’ll tell another time. Through the kindness of strangers, though, I was safely bround to Columbia, where I spent some time talking with Robert K. Merton, among others, and crashed with some graduate students near Morningside Heights. Overall, I didn’t find New York very pleasant–but as I’ve indicated above, I had a bias.
Three things stick out at me from that trip to visit Columbia (where, it should be obvious, I did not attend school). The first was my meeting with Merton, whose office was behind a vault-like door. He was gracious and vain, informing me that I could be aware that Columbia was a great University because he was still there (apparently, this was entirely in character; I later met a former assistant of his who gave me to understand that this was truly Merton’s attitude). The second was when I was waiting in the department office and a courier came in telling anyone who would listen that he had been relieved of a book manuscript on the train over.
The third was entirely unlike the other two, and it’s sort of the point of the story that I wanted to tell. At one point I was just looking around, and walked down the steps in front of Low (they were featured a couple of years later in Ghostbusters). Then I turned right and walked across the street to look at the booksellers’ wares arranged on the sidewalk. There was a coffee shop, and I decided to go in and get a cup. And there she was.
Something like two or three years before this, I had taken a humanities course to fulfill a distribution requirement. It was one of those forced-march classes: each week we read a book and wrote a paper on an assigned topic related to the book. The professor who taught it was gracious enough to give us an extra week to read the 1,400 pages of War and Peace. Anyway, there was a woman in that class who sat a couple of seats over from me. She seemed smart, but in those days I was (protestations to the contrary being false) more interested in the aesthetic of the female than the mind, and she was nothing special (to me) in that regard. I never learned her name, and I never saw her in another class (there were around 50,000 students at the U of M in those days) after the ten-week term ended. I got my A and went on to do other things.
But there she was, seated in the coffee shop across the street from Columbia, a world away from the University of Minnesota. I remembered her, and she remembered me, and we talked of that humanities class and the oddities that had brought us both to Morningside Heights. And then I left for an appointment, and never saw her again, ever.
I’m not sure quiet what the point is here. But I like to think that when we go to alien places, we can find familiar faces. And I think that’s true even if those faces belong to people we’ve never met before. The world is much larger than it was in 1981; the population of our planet has almost but not quite doubled. And as a mediator and a pacifist, I like to think that there are more rather than fewer commonalities than there once were, as well as more people.
I never knew the name of that woman in my humanities class and the coffee shop across from Columbia, and I never will. But just as we shared something in common, we share things in common with people wherever we go. We just have to find them. And we should llearn their names.