Independence Daze by
(18 Stories)

Prompted By Independence

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Though I realize that this week’s prompt is, er, prompted by the 4th of July, let me take it up on its broader offer to reflect on one’s own sense of personal independence. Navel gazing, to be sure, but here we all are.

I have long thought about the interplay between personal responsibility and personal independence and the arc of them through life.  At birth, one has no responsibility and no independence.  As one becomes an adult, one has (or should have) greater independence but also greater responsibility.  And I remember thinking in college that this was the optimal point: huge independence but with very little responsibility (so long as one didn’t flunk out).

But, for me, my first sense of real independence — for better and worse — was when I began law school at Columbia. As may be recalled from prior stories, I had lived in a delightful menagerie my senior year in college: a suite that included six roomies, various girlfriends and the assorted hanger on (yeah, Carl).  Much as I loved it, it also motivated me towards seeking a fair bit more solitude my next year in law school.

Columbia was known then for having few and lousy housing options for graduate students, plus I really wanted to be off-campus for a change.  Thus, during the period between exams and commencement my senior year, I decided to drive down to New York and find myself my very first apartment (and, OK, there was a girl involved, too).  I ended up with a  studio apartment overlooking an air shaft on Broadway and 108th Street, right above Cannon’s Bar & Grill. As I used to joke, the great advantage of this tiny place was that, if you had to take a leak in the middle of the night, you didn’t even have to get out of bed.

The one thing I didn’t do when I got the apartment was to get a phone installed.  Since I was going to be working in Connecticut and living at home that summer, I figured I would save some money and get it installed in September when I started classes.  Bad idea.  New York Telephone technicians went on strike — a very long strike — that summer and, unless you were elderly, disabled or pregnant (none of which I was), you got put on a very long list for installation by management personnel, which basically meant you weren’t going to have a phone until the strike was over.  And, to refresh those of you who don’t remember, this was 1971 and cell phones were decades away and you couldn’t get a phone installed without a technician coming to your place.

So, when I started law school in September in my own apartment, I felt pretty damn independent (notwithstanding the rent, tuition and other checks that my parents were generously providing me), but also fairly isolated, especially by the lack of a telephone. The fact that graduate student deferments had been discontinued two years before and there was still a legitimate concern among us guys that we would be drafted at any moment and yanked out of school also didn’t contribute to any warm and fuzzy feelings.  Plus, as other lawyers can attest, 1L is a real grind, and Columbia had a particular reputation in those days among law schools as the “Legal Marines.”

If I wanted to make a phone call those first few months, I would go downstairs to Cannon’s with a handful of change and hope its phone booth was unoccupied and not reeking of too much of anything.*  My calls usually began as follows:

“Hi, it’s John.”

“Wait; what did you say? I can hardly hear you.  You sound like you’re in a bar.”

“I AM in a bar.”

I also made friends quickly with one of my classmates and his wife who lived about two blocks away.  They gave me a key to their apartment and it was understood that I could call from there in case of an emergency.  (I could also feed their stupid cat when they were away.)

In fact, I made many new friends in law school.  Plus, my grandmother lived on lower Fifth Avenue, my parents were in Connecticut and I had a car, so I was hardly isolated.  And I must say that at times I smugly reflected on my new sense of faux independence — out of college, in my own apartment, dealing bravely with the mean streets of New York (things were pretty grungy on the Upper West Side those days).  But I certainly was relieved when the telephone strike was settled in the middle of that next winter (I just googled; it was February 17, 1972) and I could resume my dutiful college ritual of calling my parents every Sunday night and checking in.  A little less independence perhaps, but a little less responsibility, too.


* For anyone interested in knowing more about the certain je ne sais quoi that was Cannon’s, this will help:


Profile photo of jshutkin jshutkin

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau says:

    Interesting take on independence, John. I can sort of relate to the notion of being away from parents and being on your own, though I wasn’t in an apartment until I got married, a month after graduation, so I was never alone.. But being so totally disconnected with no phone…that was a great inconvenience and perhaps a bit scary too! Glad the strike finally ended and you were able to be back in touch with the world. But all in all, sounds like you had it figured out, and made lots of friends quite easily.

    • Profile photo of jshutkin jshutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I was never much of a phone talker, though I certainly do plenty of that professionally. But there was a real sense of isolation without the phone, and I can only imagine how it would freak out our children and their generation to be so disconnected. But making friends in law school was easy; we were all in the same foxhole.

  2. Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

    Great story, John. I like your notion of college as the optimal point in terms of independence vs. responsibility. Guess that’s why I have a recurring dream about being back in college. And then your first apartment, in a new city, preparing for a lifetime career – that was several additional levels of independence (and not much more responsibility), even if your parents were paying the bills. However I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to go through almost 6 months of law school without a phone. Not sure that access to a phone in an apartment 2 blocks away would be that useful, but maybe it was. And thanks for the link to the Cannon’s article – there’s a way to make that a hyperlink, JZ can tell you how.

    • Profile photo of jshutkin jshutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I will await JZ’s advice on hyperlinking; I am still a Luddite in some ways. I think I got through the phoneless phase because there were always news items suggesting that the strike was on the verge of settlement. Sort of like the rumors of Franco’s death.

      • Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

        I love your comment to Betsy, that making friends in law school was easy because we were all in the same foxhole. That is so true, even at a school as laid back as the one I went to.

  3. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    I love the sense your story gives us, written from a distance, of how you felt “pretty damn independent”—but you weren’t (really), with your parents paying the bills and your grandmother downtown. An intermediate step that, perhaps, your parents were happy to foster.

    • Profile photo of jshutkin jshutkin says:

      Exactly right, John. My parents probably felt about the same as I did when I sent my daughters off to law school, and made sure that their tuition bills and rent statements were sent directly to me. No wonder they say that independence does not come cheaply.

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