Saturday, September 12, 2009

Saturday Morning in Midwood: Breakfast at Brooklyn College

Forty years after we started as a freshman at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1969 - we actually took our first course, Poli Sci 1, that summer - we were back on campus this morning as we have been on Saturday mornings since January 2008.

We're lucky enough to be teaching a 9 a.m. to noon class, The Short Story, for the wonderful Borough of Manhattan Community College's weekend BMCC@Brooklyn College program.

We've also been teaching classes for BMCC on the BC campus on Friday evenings - so we were here until 8:15 p.m. last night teaching a creative writing workshop. It's all been incredible, being back on this campus where long ago we had so many of our formative experiences.

We finished our B.A. in Poli Sci here in June 1973, then came back for the start of Brooklyn College's MFA program in creative writing from 1974 to June 1976. Before we moved to Florida, we taught day and evening sections of remedial writing for the English Department as well as the old Veterans Outreach Program and the Liberal Studies for Adults Program during the spring 1979 and fall 1980 semesters.

So all around us are memories. We took these pics on this damp silent morning as we made our way from the Hillel Gate to our classroom in Boylan Hall, stopping to sit on a bench and have a bite to eat.

Here's a view of parts of Gershwin Hall, the outdoor amphitheater and Whitman Hall. Our June 1965 graduation from Meyer Levin Junior High School (J.H.S. 285) at Whitman Auditorium was the first time we stepped on the campus.

Our friends from college who have not been at BC for years wouldn't recognize a lot of the campus. The library has expanded to what seems like four times its size in the old days, and these parts of the library are seamless additions to the old building we knew in the 70s.

We get here early on Saturday mornings, taking the B48 bus from the corner of Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue around 7 a.m. The route takes us through the Latino and Hasidic south side of Williamsburg and then through Bedford-Stuyvesant and what we call Crown Heights but may be Prospect Heights.

Neighborhoods in Brooklyn don't have the same names we knew growing up in the 50s and 60s, or represent different parts of the borough. At Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway we get off the bus for the 2 train to the last stop, Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College.

Looking back to the Hillel Gate where we have to show our photo ID to the security guard, we can remember when anyone could get on any college campus without an ID. (The technology may not even have existed back then for photo IDs; our driver's licenses didn't have pics of us, either.)

As a junior and senior at Midwood High School in 1966-68, we'd often take a shortcut through the BC campus on our way from the Flatbush Avenue B41 bus or our Grandpa Herb's car on the days when he picked us up on his way to work at the Slack Bar on Fulton Street from his apartment in Rockaway.

We once went up to the bell tower of what used to be LaGuardia Hall late one Friday in the fall of 1970. A friend of a friend somehow had a set of keys to a lot of buildings and he took us up to the top, via a series of fire-escape-type ladders, at a time when the campus was otherwise deserted. Somehow we overcame our extreme fear of heights and were really impressed with the view. It was thrilling.

In those days, there was never any sound coming out of the bell tower. Now it chimes every fifteen minutes, and when we got out of our class at noon today, it played a long sweet melody. Brooklyn College stands in for Yale in the TV show Gossip Girl.

Although the Georgian buildings have the same dignity they did back in the day, like a lot of New York City, the campus was run-down and tacky in the 1970s.

This cat is one we've seen before. He used to be a lot skinnier.

Back in the late 60s and early 70s, kids who in retrospect look like hippies - um, that would be us - sat on the quadrangle and other places until it was mostly dirt and only patches of scraggly grass. The gingko trees and others seemed pretty but less majestic 35 years ago, and where the cat is standing there was one of four ugly temporary buildings to handle the overflow of baby-boomer students (more than twice as many as today).

The prefab temporary buildings were called T-1, T-2, T-3 and T-4 and we wrote in a school paper suggesting a "name that temp" contest to give them more memorable monikers. We suggested the one housing the Financial Aid offices should be called Monty Hall.

We can't tell if Whitehead Hall always had this much ivy or we just don't remember it. Back in the 60s and 70s, Whitehead, built in 1962, was the "new" building, and it held the social sciences departments like economics, poli sci, sociology ("sosh") and anthropology ("anthro").

In the Whitehead basement, about a month before our graduation, we were one of two students - our friend Carole Robinson was the other - who appeared along with Dean Nathaniel Jones and some alumni on a CUNY TV show about new careers or something. We wore a fake-velvet turquoise Edwardian sports jacket and came down with the chicken pox the next day.

When the show finally came on TV, our family and girlfriend were excitedly watching in our house's "finished" basement. At the first glimpse of ourselves, we ran upstairs screaming and only came back to watch after being coaxed that we didn't look or sound "that bad."

The Whitehead cafeteria was here when we were undergrads. The student radicals used to hang out here, as opposed to the fraternity and house plan kids who hung out in the much larger Boylan Cafeteria. By the time we were in grad school, it had become Kosher Country or maybe Kosher King, a low-rent, short-lived McDonald's/Burger King clone.

Now there's an addition to the building and all of it is the Library Cafe, open at all hours, with lots of computers for students. It's a comfy place with some tables, counters, and plush chairs and couches. They proudly serve Starbucks coffee here too, though never when we're there on Friday evenings and Saturdays.

This Saturday morning, we got our usual perfect oatmeal and venti unsweetened black iced tea at the Starbucks on the corner of Hillel Place and Kenilworth Place. It was the wonderful Greek greasy spoon Sugar Bowl in our day.

"Lime rickey for Blondie Boy," Andreas would say when we came in. (Old photos taken from the now-gone Brooklyn Junction blog.)

This looks toward the lower campus, to the quadrangle. This is Boylan Hall. It's pretty odd these past few terms to be teaching English for BMCC in rooms where decades before we took Afro-American Literature I with Prof. Dan Mayers or Dosteovsky in Translation with our favorite BC Russian professor, Spencer Roberts.

Sometime in 1971, a student came up to our second-floor LaGuardia Hall office of The Ol' Spigot, the day session (College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, "CLAS") student government newspaper, to complain that his bike had been stolen from the unlocked bicycle racks here. We were assigned to write an article and found a bunch of students whose bikes were also stolen.

Both student papers published editorials calling for better security, and the college created a little guardhouse for one of the Wackenhuts - the BC-contracted private security force back then - to stand watch over the bicycles.

In August 2002, when the 2003 edition of The Best 345 Colleges, published by the Princeton Review, ranked Brooklyn College number one in the country for the beauty of its campus, it caused much hilarity among our friends from undergrad days, who thought the designation must be a joke.

Most of our friends have lived outside New York for years - back in the 1970s we'd all sit around talking how none of us could wait to leave the city (we waited till January 1981, when suburban Fort Lauderdale and a job at Broward Community College beckoned). We tell them it's a lot prettier these days than it used to be. Whoever did the landscaping performed the highest of mitzvahs.

This is the front entrance to the library. In our day, in a different form - no side door, no grand steps, just a creaky revolving door in the entrance to the tattered lobby where we hung out amid forlorn-looking chairs and lumpy discount couches - this was the entrance to LaGuardia Hall.

LaGuardia housed the student affairs offices and student organizations - student government, newspapers, yearbook, etc. - and some random college offices as well as the day-care center our friends successfully fought for in 1970.

BC didn't have dorms, of course - it will soon have one - but LaGuardia Hall was basically where we lived from 1969 to 1975 or so. A lot of our current close friends, including our BFF whose family's Williamsburg house serves as Dumbo Books HQ, we met in LaGuardia Hall. This plaque is really the only thing left to indicate that LaGuardia Hall existed.

At the base of the bell tower is the clock, which didn't work that well back when Lindsay and Beame were mayors and John W. Kneller, who passed away recently, was Brooklyn College president.

It was most famous because a ball was stuck between two numerals - I think it was within "III" - and was visible in every photograph. How they got it out - or when - we have no idea. In the two years we've been working on campus, the clock has been working perfectly.

So we sit on our bench in front of the former LaGuardia Hall with 40 minutes to go before class - teachers really need to be in the room at least ten minutes early to set up and put stuff on the board - with our oatmeal and iced tea and have our breakfast.

The campus is mostly still at this hour on a Saturday morning, the only sounds occasional chirping by birds. Back in the 60s and 70s, there were never any classes on weekends, and we came only for the library and special events like films, plays, and sit-in strikes.

As we get up to leave, we can look towards Bedford Avenue to see the brand-new West Quad and the new big building across the street. While we were students here in the 70s, they built an overpass over Bedford Avenue and steps leading to the quad (now, we suppose, the "east quad," destroying the Bedford Gate entrance. (Photo courtesy the indispensible Forgotten New York.)

A hideous cubelike structure called the Plaza Building went up. (Old overpass pic courtesy of the great Flatbush Pigeon blog.)

When we taught a class in the Plaza Building's basement in the fall of 1980, we'd sometimes have to walk through an inch or more of water as it flooded frequently. The only nice thing about the structure was the view of the campus from the overpass, as in this pic Jeffrey W. posted to Yelp:

The Plaza Building and overpass were demolished four or five years ago, replaced by the West Quad building, which is a big improvement.

The pics here are only from a small part of the campus, the part we traveled on our way to class. There are many more beautiful places on the Brooklyn College campus, like the lily pond - again, back in our day it wasn't as pretty as in this pic from the BC website.

On the G train going home after class, we saw a hipster with a Gators T-shirt and asked him who UF was playing today. "Troy," he told us. "It will be a slaughter." He had been, of course, a University of Florida undergrad; we went to law school there and later worked at UF, so we go "Go Gators!" too.

But we're pretty loyal to Brooklyn College and we even served on the Board of Directors of the Alumni Association and wrote the "Class Notes" for its bulletin from our graduation in 1973 till when we moved to Florida in 1981. (There's stuff about that from 1978 in our new book, Autumn in Brooklyn.)

So we're really grateful to Borough of Manhattan Community College (we've taught at seven community colleges in three states and BMCC is really well-run: start there, go anywhere) for giving us the privilege of coming back to the Brooklyn College campus to teach.


Leslie said...

I attended Brooklyn College 1974-1978. To quote the late Bob Hope, "Thanks for the memories".

Malbone said...

Wow! What great photos and memories. (I actually think that for a while I had custody of that key to the bell tower, but can't for the life of me remember using it -- and by September 1970 I had graduated.) I haven't been back in 39 years and would love to see the old place. Keep up the good work!