Shortly after Castro’s April visit to Columbia, I had a meeting with the Dean of the Graduate School, Jacques Barzun. My first daughter was born in January and Columbia denied my application for a scholarship to continue my graduate education. With my then wife now unable to earn money, I needed a scholarship. My thesis adviser warned me that I was unlikely to get one.
Dean Barzun graciously listened as I made my case that scholarship money should be available for someone in my situation. Barzun replied that his statistics told him otherwise, that most married men with children did not complete their PhD and there was no point throwing good money after bad. He wished me well as I left his book-lined office, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that an academic career was now out of reach.
What was a young man with a BA in Philosophy and an incomplete Masters, a non-working wife and a new baby to do in 1959? Barnie encouraged me to try technical writing. A lot of Barnie’s ex-communist cousins and nephews, drummed out of their professions, survived as medical and technical writers. They knew the ropes and there seemed hope for me, but interviews and writing samples led nowhere.
Barnie set me up with an ex red who had gone into the stock market. Sol’s office was in the apex of the Flatiron Building at 23rd and 5th Avenue. Stacks of books and papers filled every corner of the office. Towers of manila folders crowded his desk, except for a small rectangle large enough for a leather bordered blotter, a pen and ink set and two telephones.
Sol was large, two hundred pounds at least, but he was comfortable with it. A light grey jacket hung over his chair, his tie loosened and his suspenders tight against his belly. He had an open, friendly face, a Zero Mostel look, and he greeted me with a hearty, “I’m nailed to the wall son, whatever you do, don’t get into this fuckin’ business.” The conversation went down hill from there in terms of job prospects, with his final advice being to go back to school.
Sol got me an interview at a large Wall Street firm, Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, Bean and Smith. I had just read William H. Whyte’s book, The Organization Man, another in the litany of critiques of America’s emerging middle class. In an appendix, called “How to Cheat on Personality Tests,” Whyte laid out a way to beat the system. Figure out what kind of person the corporation was looking for and model your answers on that person. Whyte provided actual test questions. I took the written exam at Merrill Lynch and got a call from the Personnel Department the next day. I had done better on the personality test than anyone in the history of the test and the personnel manager wanted to meet me.
The meeting began well, as I confidently answered his questions, but then he entered an area of subjectivity that threw me. “Who do love more, your mother or your father?” “What is your favorite color in nature?” “Were you closer to your brother or your sister?” Somewhere, I gave a wrong answer. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, Bean and Smith never called me back.
By the end of September I had given up. I put my wife and child on a plane to San Francisco where my parents would pick them up. I drove West with the remnants of our possessions.
My decision to give up New York haunted my long, dreary trip back to Berkeley with my tail between my legs. The used taxicab I’d bought loaded to the roof, I drove until exhaustion forced me to the side of the road where I slept fitfully in the front seat. Crossing through pine forests in the mountains between New Mexico and Arizona on a near empty highway at 3:00 am in the morning, I may have fallen asleep.
My front bumper caught the rear left bumper of a darkened trailer as I swerved to try to avoid it at the last minute. The trailer jack-knifed, hitting my car broadside. It rolled over the top of the trailer, hit the asphalt on the roof and scraped to a stop in the oncoming lane. No one was hurt. Both of us were vagabonds on the highway with all our worldly possessions. Both of us lost most of them in the accident. We got a lot of help from the Arizona Highway patrol.
I had the car towed to a junk yard, rescued what I could, shipped it off from the post office and bought a Greyhound ticket to Oakland. For most of the trip my seat mate on the window side flipped through a large stack of pornographic magazines and loudly hummed, “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do” as I tried and failed to sleep. I arrived in Oakland exhausted, my only prospects to go to work for my understanding but demanding father.