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: https://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/11/nyregion/neighborhood-report-upper-west-side-last-call-for-the-home-of-the-dollar-drink.html