When I was accepted to the MFA fiction writing program at Columbia University, in what now seems like another lifetime, I had no idea what a big deal so many who went there thought it was. I thought of it as a continuation of college. I never dreamed any so fervently viewed it as a stepping stone to a career, a literary career, or one in academia. I just wanted to write, why, I have no idea, but somewhere, somehow, I had the drive to write and learned about the MFA program from a workshop teacher at The New School, who was less than convinced it was a worthwhile endeavor, yet I applied anyway.
In any case, I filled out the necessary application, sent in three stories, and then promptly forgot about it, going back to my job as a temp in the reproduction department of an aviation plant across from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. For eight hours a day, I would take slips from engineers, many retired military guys, with numbers scrawled across, and would then find the appropriate card from which a full size blueprint could be run by placing the card in the equivalent of what looked like a massive xerox machine. Repetitive work, no doubt, but somehow I kept my mind occupied, mostly by looking at the people coming to the counter, trying to imagine what they were like as individuals, creating possible lives in response to attitudes and demeanors, all the while recognizing the majority of mid-level employees at the plant had lived regimented lives, following a clearly mapped out and discernible path.
And then, I think it was in March, the letter came from Columbia informing me I was accepted into the MFA writing program. Great, I remembered thinking, but it’s a long way till September, so I continued going to work at the aviation plant until early June when I had an argument with an exasperating, unreasonable, authoritarian former Army colonel and quit, demonstrating my displeasure by throwing a pencil against the wall. Of course, I had endured worse before, so, I suspect, the prospect of graduate school in the fall provided me with a defiance I might otherwise not have possessed, at least on the surface.
The adrenaline and exhilaration of declaring freedom from a situation perceived as oppressive was soon replaced by increasing panic when I realized I would no longer be getting a paycheck. I didn’t have much leeway, so through a friend who had a friend, who sort of went out with a girl who was a heroin addict, whose mother was manager of a coffee shop at a nearby hotel, I got a job as a waiter behind the counter, working from 6 a.m. until 3 p.m., dealing with the busy rush of the morning businessman breakfast crowd.
So, there I was, trying not to spill coffee or burn my hand on hot plates waiting on the ledge to the kitchen, wearing a black vest and bow tie, attempting to please, or at least somewhat satisfy, the line of customers demanding early morning orders to go. The manager liked me, perhaps because I was the only waiter, the others serving tables were either college age girls or veteran women who never ceased to amaze me with the way they could scurry about with four or five plates balanced along an arm. I think the manager also liked me because I knew her daughter, though she only mentioned her daughter before the drug days, and she certainly didn’t know I was aware of her daughter unsuccessfully struggling to put her teeth back in with Krazy Glue.
Meanwhile, as of about May, every one of the 20 or so students accepted to the Columbia MFA program beginning that fall, except me, had already showed up at the Writing Division office in Dodge Hall. It never occurred to me do so. I simply thought one showed up in September to register and that was that. I had no idea people were actually networking, and making connections, and plotting out career moves.
At the time, before the proliferation of MFA programs throughout the country, not to mention low residency MFA programs, which didn’t exist back then, I learned there were supposedly four schools in the running for the best graduate writing program in the country. Whether there were only four, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that those at Columbia suffered with a case of insecurity, camouflaged with assertions about the importance of Manhattan, whenever the Iowa Writers Workshop was mentioned as being better. All this meant nothing to me. I was relatively new to the workshop experience, attending three in succession with the same encouraging teacher at The New School before entering Columbia. There was a fair share of would-be writers in their mid-to-late twenties, as was I, in workshops at The New School, but there were also many older folks, people in their late forties and early fifties, and once in a while, a couple in their sixties, who regularly and faithfully attended our Wednesday evening sessions. While many were not particularly good writers, most of the older students had interesting stories to tell, by virtue of their respective experiences, and also a deep desire to get such stories out because on a personal level, for whatever reason, it was essential to do so.
As far as I know, of the incoming group with me at Columbia, I was the only one who didn’t have a BA in either English or writing. I earned a BA in political science, despite being far more interested in history. There was an interesting, enthusiastic, young political science teacher at the small college I first attended in western Massachusetts and I took courses with him every semester, beginning with a course in international relations. By the time I transferred to New York University, based on the credits I had already accrued, I was convinced to major in political science so I would graduate on time with the required credits.
Aside from political science courses, the only other courses I took were English and history, except for a required expository writing course and a sociology course which was taught by a dynamic professor with dark, curly hair and a beard who introduced himself by announcing he was a Marxist after telling us his name.
I actually thought I was pretty well read when I first showed up at Columbia. And I probably was in comparison to many other students, but not when it came to my classmates in the MFA program. I took a seminar with one teacher, whom I respect and am grateful for having to this day, because he actually provided me with a background in literature which I previously didn’t have. I remember when I looked at the syllabus for the seminar, which listed some 20 novels or so we were expected to read, not only had I not read any of them, but there were also authors whose names I’m embarrassed to mention because I had never heard of them before, famous names that were a part of the historic literary landscape.
A major miscalculation became apparent when I went to look for a work-study job, twenty hour per week positions to help supplement a student’s income, and preferably provide experience in one’s chosen field. As I flipped through the pages in the large black loose leaf notebook listing the jobs, the word “Filled” was stamped in red on all the promising advertised openings. So, while my fellow classmates obtained work study positions at The Paris Review, Grand Street, and Schribners, to name a few, I ended up with a work-study job in the public affairs office for the City of New York’s Department of General Services, which, of course, I had never heard of before, and today no longer exists under that name.
Actually, in the long run, I think it was better being exposed to the workings and insane bureaucratic intricacies of New York City government than moving effortlessly into the Manhattan literary scene, but I didn’t have a clue about that at the time. My family was apolitical, my parents both born and raised in Canada, and though my father claimed he was independent, I don’t know of an instance in which he ever voted for a Republican for President, casting his first vote as an American citizen for Adlai Stevenson because he definitely didn’t Like Ike, and he passionately believed, almost to the point of obsession, that Richard Nixon was one of the most evil and pernicious figures to ever walk the earth.
Perhaps I was naïve, or maybe it’s more accurate to say uninitiated in the workings of the outside world, but patronage was a foreign concept, and my parents had never told me to “get a city job” as a means to a secure life with a pension waiting at the end, so I was definitely entering alien territory when I started working for the Department of General Services.
I stepped into a political feud without even knowing it. The public affairs office of the Department of General Services at the time was divided between loyalists of Mayor Ed Koch and those who owed allegiance to Donald Manes, the Queens Borough President, who ultimately committed suicide in 1986 by plunging a knife into his heart shortly after he was forced to resign in the wake of some of his appointees and associates being indicted, but that was several years after I was at DGS. While working there, I was in the middle of conflicting bosses, caught between the Press Secretary, a Koch guy, who went to the same college as the DGS Commissioner, and the head of advertising, whose wife worked for Manes and whose brother and other family members were members of Democratic political clubs or other associations affiliated with Manes.
When I started there, at work on the 17th floor, as I remember, of the Municipal Building at the end of Centre Street down from City Hall near the Brooklyn Bridge, I was responsible for checking all the newspapers, weeklies from the five Boroughs, and the major dailies, for mention of DGS or the Commissioner, without regard to good, bad, or indifferent.
The Press Secretary learned I was a writer, or an aspiring writer, forget that it was fiction writer, and decided to let me try my hand at press releases. He handed me a bunch of previous press releases and told me to study the formula. It was all rather simple, and by far, the two most frequent types of press releases were ones in which the Commissioner named or appointed someone to a top or semi-top position within DGS, and those that announced the results of repossessed properties being sold at public auctions run by DGS’ Division of Real Property, though I always wondered what unreal property was.
I was working on my first press release and it was no great problem, going okay, though I was still nervous about doing well. It was falling into place, declarative statement about the DGS Commissioner announcing a Deputy Commissioner of some sort, then providing the new Deputy Commissioner’s background, gleaning his background from his resume, seeing immediately where he had made his connections along the way to get to where he was today, with me writing a press release about his appointment. A quick quote from the DGS Commissioner, and also the newly named Deputy Commissioner, and I was done, except for a quote from Mayor Koch.
I called the Mayor’s office and left a message, explaining what the call was about, and then waited. I waited until about one in the afternoon, then went out to lunch. An hour later, I was back, learned there was no message, so I called Mayor Koch’s office again. Another hour passed, and still no answer.
Finally, after maybe another hour, and one more phone call, I heard the Press Secretary yelling out my name from his office. I quickly scrambled in to see what he wanted, thrown off for a moment because I had never heard him raise his voice before, at least not to any of those working for him.
“Where’s the press release?” he demanded. “We need to get it out pronto.”
“It’s almost done,” I said.
“What do you mean almost?”
“I’m just waiting for a quote from Mayor Koch.”
Then the Press Secretary delivered the line I probably should have been aware of from the beginning, but wasn’t, and really, there was no reason I should have been, based on my previous experience.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” the Press Secretary laughed. “You are Mayor Koch.”
I stood silent.
“Get going,” the Press Secretary said, “just make up a quote for Koch and get the press release to me.”
And that’s what I did, I became Mayor Koch for two innocuous sentences. The Press Secretary was pleased with my press release, and I was happy for that, but I left work that day with a new skepticism about any statement or quote I ever read in a newspaper again.