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The Education of P*E*T*E H*A*M*I*L*L

“There is nothing which educates an honorable man more than living in a revolution.”
— Che Guevara, 1960

In the early summer of 1954, a young man who used to be me journeyed by subway from South Brooklyn to the gates of Columbia University. The young man was just out of the navy and wanted to enroll as an undergraduate. He was nineteen.

The university struck him as an even more wondrous and myste­rious place than he had expected. He watched these men with tweedy jackets, horn-rimmed glasses, grave, thoughtful faces; they walked among the trees, smoking pipes, carrying books, and he wanted to talk to each of them. They were like the buildings themselves: heavy with old knowledge, repositories of all those secrets an ignorant kid could not discover on his own. The young man patted the discharge papers in the jacket of his Ripley suit and walked into the Administration Building.

A secretary with a metallic smile told him to sit down. He waited nervously, reading the Post. After a while, he was led into another office. This room was dominated by a large dark glass-topped desk, absolutely clear of papers. On the walls, there were various diplomas and certificates, declaring the impeccable credentials of the man behind the desk. The man was as neat in one way, and baroque in another, as the calligraphy on the scrolls. His head was bald and polished. Cuff links adorned the white shirt that jutted from the expensive suit. His fingernails were perfectly drawn. His face gleamed, the product of tight shaves with a straight razor, followed by heaped hot towels. He was reading a book and did not look up. The lighting was muted and bookish.

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The young man did not know what to do. He felt as if he had walked into one of those novels by Henry James which he had tried to read and couldn’t. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, or whether he should stand or sit, or whether he should announce his presence with a cough.

After a while, the polished man placed the open book before him on the desk and turned in the noiseless chair.

“I understand,” the man said, without looking up, “that you would like to attend Columbia University.”

“Yes, I would,” the young man said.

“Why?” the man said coldly, looking up. He had ice-blue eyes.

“I … uh … want to … uh … get an education.”

The polished man asked the young man about his background. The young man did the best he could: He had quit high school at sixteen, worked as a sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, joined the navy at seventeen, read and studied to make up the missing years of high school. He had received high scores on the equivalency examina­tion. He had read Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Conrad in the navy and he wanted to be a writer. He was prepared to work as hard as anyone at Columbia. The bald man listened abstractedly, then smiled thinly and stood up.

“Well,” he said. “I’m afraid Columbia is not for you, young man.” He pushed his hands into the pockets of his vest. “We only have room for a certain number of students every year. We turn away thousands. The choice must be made on academic qualifications.” He paused. “Why don’t you look into the community colleges? Perhaps you could be a technician of some sort.”

“But I’m willing to work like hell.”

“I’m truly sorry,” the polished man said. “I wish there were some way … ”

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The young man walked back to the subway, feeling humiliated and angry, hating the quiet trees and the tweedy men with the books and the pipes, and the students with their scuffed sneakers, and the weathered buildings, and the sun itself dappling the walks. All right, the young man was saying, I’ll do it some other way. You hard Protestant bastards. There were other ways to an education.

Columbia did not change much. Every once in a while they announced plans to “broaden the ethnic base” and things like that. But it stayed the same on other matters. I imagine that the people who started — four or five years ago — to protest the building of the gymnasium also had polite, hard interviews with balding men. The bald men were not much interested in kids who wanted educations but who didn’t have the money or the background. They were interested in making the University more corrupt: They look money from the Defense Department to study more efficient ways of killing people. They acted smug and indifferent when the Pulitzer prizes degenerated into annual awards to save obscure newspapers. Those were only the more public sins; the others were worse.

The trouble with the people who ran Columbia was that they didn’t really care about other people very much. They had a great institution, 214 years old, and that institution would survive all sound and fury. Yes, money was short. The tuition climbed and climbed, and the neighborhood surrounding the University grew shabbier and shabbier. But Columbia didn’t change because it couldn’t change. It poor­-mouthed a lot, and reminded you of those English barons who sell off sections of the family estates to pay for the gardener. But it didn’t change. The English barons didn’t take honest jobs either.

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So the reactions to what happened in these past few weeks were a confusion of feelings. First, one felt that the paper revolutionaries were just acting out another episode in middle-class psychodrama. They talked about being Che Guevara; they were more like Regis Debray, heads filled with theories of violence, but ready to call Dad for the bail money when the going got rough. Going forward to the armed struggle with a comfortable allowance in the pocket was not the same as dying on a mountaintop in Bolivia. Climbing into a school building and locking the doors was not exactly heading into the Sierra Maestra. You felt like saying: Hey, baby, if you don’t want an education, I know 100 kids in East Harlem who would love to take your place.

But then the cops were unleashed and you realized that the kids were right again and you were wrong. In the end, Columbia acted like all owners of property: The cops acted like cops. I suppose the cops had other things built into that part of their response which was vicious and disgusting; the police, after all, are the best symbols of the middle class we have, believing in order more than justice, in timid acceptance of authority more than personal responsibility. They didn’t rough up the blacks in Hamilton Hall because the blacks were tougher; they had strategic resources only a few blocks away. But the white students were just a bunch of Jew bastards with long hair and multi-syllabic vocabu­laries. The cops broke their heads because they didn’t want their kids to grow up that way. A white cop’s kid would never grow up to be a black man.

The SDS kids must have felt relieved when it was over, because the cops reacted just as SDS had predicted they would act. Every time you accuse the New Left of being paranoiac, our institutions turn around and show that it is you who are naive and innocent and the New Left kids who really know what is happening in this society. A lot of what happened at Columbia was farce, a lot was tragedy. But there are none of us who could truly say that every student in the school did not receive an education in those two weeks. In a violent country, the bat and the blackjack are becoming as important an educational tool as the slide rule and the pointer.

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Never the Train: That Poor Dream Goes Off the Rails

Metro-North’s commuter line from Grand Central to New Haven passes through some of the wealthiest suburbs and poorest cities in America. That Poor Dream, a “reimagining” of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations by the Assembly Theater Project, takes place aboard an old-fashioned railroad car making this journey. Pip — Dickens’s rags-to-riches protagonist — now goes to Columbia and lives in an Upper West Side penthouse. He learns the truth about his anonymous benefactor en route to the leafy suburban dwelling of his hard-hearted love, Estella. (Actors’ roles are not specified in the program.) Video shows the locomotive’s progress, with towns and stations passing by.

This ensemble-created adaption goes off the rails, owing to the combined effect of glibness and earnestness. Part of the problem lies in the forced equivalencies: Affluent Fairfield County and struggling New Haven in 2014 aren’t the same as Victorian Britain, and the implied comparisons are gratingly simplistic. Like a lot of company-devised work, That Poor Dream (directed by Jess Chayes) suffers from flat dialogue and inert, unstructured scenes. And the young troupe has taken the most unsuccessful element of its previous show, home/sick — reality-TV-style confessions made by the performers, about themselves — and extended it here. It makes for a slow and frustrating journey.

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BEHIND THE PANELS

Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library has recently been building a Scrooge McDuck–like vault of comics history, acquiring the archives of such creators as Chris Claremont (Uncanny X-Men), Wendy and Richard Pini (Elfquest), and Al Jaffee (Mad). Now Comics at Columbia: Past, Present, Future invites you to swim among those riches, displaying treasures from the university’s vast collection such as Charles Saxon’s New Yorker cartoons, scripts and notes from former DC publisher Paul Levitz, and letters from such pioneers as Stan Lee, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Eisner. Tonight’s reception features presentations from comics luminaries.

Tue., Oct. 7, 6 p.m., 2014

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Dr. Strangelove: The Most Viciously Anti-Patriarchal Film Ever Made in Hollywood

Essential postwar American cinema, Hope-Crosby-style mirror image of Fail-Safe, Rabelaisian Cold War slapstick — Stanley Kubrick’s first genuinely original movie has been seen, re-seen, dissected, and iconized, but a few sly truths about it have yet to be fully grokked by the aging mezzobrow filmgoers and mysterious AFI list-makers (it’s been the third “Funniest” and the 26th “Greatest”).

First, that the hard-charging originality of the screenplay — think of it as the equivalent of turning The Hot Zone into an Apatow comedy — suggests a deficient legacy of credit owed to Terry Southern’s corner.

Second, that 1964 was stunningly early for such a balls-out attack on anti-Communist jingoism (who was the Columbia exec responsible for the green light?). Third and most vital, that the essential source of the film’s wit is the bald-faced equivalence of military-industrial ambition with giant, fat, erect cocks.

I saw this film multiple times as a young movie consumer before I understood that the entire atomic giggle-nightmare, from the bomb imagery to the characters’ names, is an extended lampooning metaphor for big swingin’ dicks, everywhere you look.

It may be then the most viciously anti-patriarchal film ever made in Hollywood — concluding as it does with the Splooge That Ends the World.

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John Carter Cash Discovers a Lost Johnny Cash Album

When it comes to settling an estate in the wake of a parent’s passing, the routine is more or less the same for any child shouldered with this sad responsibility. For John Carter Cash, going through his parents’ effects involved opening up a sizable storage vault containing a plethora of relics from Johnny and June Carter Cash’s life together. He stumbled upon a bunch of eccentric souvenirs in 2012, like camel saddles brought back from Saudi Arabia and numerous keys that locked anonymous doors in cities scattered across the country. As his parents had a penchant for collecting things — “I won’t say they were hoarders, but they had trouble throwing things away” — the miscellany he tripped over in the vault and the sheer volume of it didn’t surprise him.

What did catch him off guard were the tapes. Of the hundreds of recordings he encountered, the tracks for Out Among the Stars were just sitting there on a shelf, in the same spot they were placed shortly after the sessions that produced them. Out Among the Stars never saw its release, and there, in that dusty vault stocked with memories his legendary parents left behind, John Carter Cash found a lost Johnny Cash record, perhaps one of the most revealing Johnny Cash records ever made.

“He was still working on the road and selling a lot of tickets for his performances, but the record sales and the radio play weren’t there,” says John Carter, referring to this period surrounding his father’s stay at the Betty Ford Clinic, which ended in 1984. “He was at a great point in his life, spiritually and creatively. When I hear these recordings, I hear this side of the man in early 1984, when he was clear, when he was true, the side not many people have heard. I feel like it’s a quite viable part of my father’s life. You can hear his integrity of spirit in these recordings. You can hear the happiness in his voice when he sings with my mother, because they were together again. The strength of their love is evident, how they sound like they’re frolicking kids in ‘Baby Ride Easy.’ You can hear the laughter in their voices. I mean, there’s so much there in these recordings.”

The context surrounding Out Among the Stars is enough to secure its spot in the Cash family canon, according to John Carter. “It wasn’t long after these recordings were done in ’84 that Columbia dropped Johnny Cash. I think it’s just as an important time of his life as any, creatively.”

The omission of these songs from Cash’s catalog is bewildering, but not entirely: Despite the fact that Cash was an established American icon at that point, the early ’80s were a troubling time for him, one marked by a return to rehab for his addiction to amphetamines and the least lucrative turn of his career. Gone were the glory days of “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk The Line,” and the booming sorghum voice that got him there. At nearly 50 years old, Cash was set to lose it all, including the support of his label, and the songs he wrote throughout this period are just as vital to his being as the now-classics that dressed Man in Black.

So, how is an entire album written by one of the most prolific American songwriters during a fruitful period of self-rediscovery — one that features duets with June Carter Cash and Waylon Jennings, as well as Marty Stuart before he became a renowned country guitarist — effectively discarded? John Carter couldn’t tell you. Neither could the label. “Columbia just literally put it on the back shelf,” he says. “I talked to the guys at Sony Legacy, and they all agree it was the worst decision Columbia ever made. Now, in hindsight, we see the strength of Johnny Cash, the artist. There’s a lot more to it now; there’s a bigger picture. Gratefully, that’s what remains. That’s what endures.”

With the help of Sony’s Legacy Recordings, John Carter set about getting to work on Out Among the Stars: He shipped the two-track recordings from Tennessee to the label in New York, which digitally converted them and sent them back. With the integrity and depth previously established by producer Billy Sherrill, John Carter did his best to maintain and further flesh out the choices Sherrill made 30 years prior at the studio in Nashville, including having Stuart come back in to re-record some of his guitar and mandolin parts. “This record stood alone,” John Carter says. “We didn’t want to take away from that. We wanted to bring another dimension to the new material.”

The result, 12 songs that seamlessly shoulder up to the robust, revolutionary ballads and jaunty verses that defined Cash and influenced countless others, is a satisfying, sentimental achievement for John Carter. He was in the studio as a teenager when his father cut “I’m Movin’ On” with Jennings in one take, and he firmly believes that the tapes he found, which formally debuted on March 25, were too special to leave safe and sound with the rest of the recordings in that family vault.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Is this something that’s getting released for the sake of releasing it?'” says John Carter. “No, it’s something we believe in. It’s something that we feel he would’ve wanted released. We asked ourselves, ‘Is this something that JR would’ve wanted if he was sitting in the room? Is this something he would’ve wanted people to hear?’ I think [Out Among the Stars] transcends time. It’s not about where the world is now; it’s good, true music. There’s not that many true classic records that’ve been made. I think this is one of them.”

 

Out Among the Stars is out now on Legacy Recordings.

 

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Haerts

This Brooklyn quintet is among indie pop-infiltrated bands that Columbia signed in 2012 — Haim and St. Lucia are others — and even as the label expands their musical palette they maintain their keen sense of quality: Haert’s frontwoman Nini Fabi’s voice channels the fierceness and majesty of acts like Fleetwood Mac without sounding derivative or overly familiar (e.g. Haim, at times). Piano, guitar, and thickly packed drums soar through huge choruses and verses, but all this still sounds faint next to Fabi’s throaty soprano.

Wed., Jan. 8, 9 p.m., 2014

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Back to School: The Voice’s Fall 2013 Education Supplement

Study Now, Pay Later by Michael Rymer
A new city startup promises to eliminate student loans for those who’ll share their future income with investors

Debt Eaters by Kate Pastor
Student activists says rising loan rates ARE a distraction from the real problem of unaffordable college degrees

Watching the Wheels by Jackson Connor
Columbia planning prof and his students imagine a New York of bike shares and self-driving cars

Back to School Listings by Alexis Soloski

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After Auteur: How M. Night Shyamalan Became Just Another Director

Wait, you didn’t know that After Earth, the Will Smith–Jaden Smith sci-fi adventure hitting theaters this weekend, is the latest from Shyamalan, he of The Sixth Sense fame and Lady in the Water infamy? Columbia Pictures has done everything in its power, in both trailers and print and TV advertisements, to hide that information.

It’s a stunning—and, naysayers would say, deserved—reversal of fortune for the director, a former wunderkind who made his name a brand with early, pull-the-rug-out-from-under-audiences hits but who has now sunk so low that his participation in a tent-pole release is actively concealed.

In the history of cinema, it’s difficult to think of a single filmmaker with a lucrative career built on signature auteurist elements who’s been relegated to anonymous work-for-hiredom as blatantly as Shyamalan has been here. His involvement masked from view, and his fingerprints largely wiped clean from the project, it raises the question of why Shyamalan was hired for the project if he wasn’t really wanted in the first place.

It’s an ignominious fall for a director who was once compared—amazingly, and by straight-faced critics—to Hitchcock. Those proclamations were always over-the-top, far too in thrall to his patient (if portentous) framing and his gimmicky narratives, which devolved into self-parody just a couple movies in.

Defenders be damned, Shyamalan was always a one-trick pony, offering up ostensibly ordinary characters in literal and spiritual crisis whose circumstances were ultimately revealed to be far different than they initially appeared. That device grew tiresome the more times it was employed, until the director went over the edge with 2006’s Lady in the Water, a mushy fairy tale in which he cast himself as a writer with world-changing power.

That arrogant conception of himself also came through in his public persona, as when, before the release of Lady in the Water, he told Time magazine, “If you’re not betting on me, then nobody should get money. I’ve made profit a mathematical certainty. I’m the safest bet you got.”

Hubris like that is destined for a correction, and after the flops of Lady in the Water and 2008’s ridiculous The Happening—which aims to generate suspense from a confused-looking Mark Wahlberg and vacant Zooey Deschanel trying to flee the wind—it seemed Shyamalan’s career had finally hit a wall. His response: a CG-heavy adaptation of The Last Airbender, a children’s anime property. While the director capably handled the elaborate, action-oriented special effects the film entailed, its horrific 3D conversion and tough-to-follow-storytelling buried it at the box office in 2010. With that mainstream bid a failure, and with no one interested in enduring any more of his third-act-revelation thrillers, Shyamalan’s once-formidable career seemed as dead as Bruce Willis’s Sixth Sense protagonist. (Spoiler!)

Turning to more conventional material seems logical, and After Earth certainly fits that mold. Set 1,000-plus years in the future, it concerns the efforts of super-soldier Cypher (Will Smith) and his wannabe-badass son, Kitai (played by Smith’s own son, Jaden), to survive and come of age, respectively, after crash-landing on Earth, which was long ago deserted by humanity and is now overrun by dangerous animals.

Its milieu defined by the Avatar playbook, and predicated on a mentor-mentee father-son relationship that’s as old as the hills, the alterna-Earth premise feels blandly safe—hardly a surprise given that the project was begat not by Shyamalan (who does get a co-screenwriting credit) but by the elder Smith, who conceived of the idea and spearheaded the production. Narrative shocks be damned, the film’s guiding voice is its star’s, with the director relegated to that of an anonymous craftsman whose very hallmarks—languorous pacing, bleak color palettes, and the atmospheric dread that comes from those choices—have mostly been discarded.

That such an approach wouldn’t fit an adventure-oriented film like After Earth is undeniable. Yet there’s something more at work here—a belief, by Columbia and (by extension) all of Hollywood, that Shyamalan’s defining narrative and aesthetic styles are a liability. The fact that he’s still considered a viable directorial steward for a summer spectacle may speak to his enduring craftsmanship, or perhaps the number of friendships he has—and the wealth of favors he’s still owed—in the industry. Regardless, his absence from the marquee of After Earth remains, in a career predicated on surprises, the greatest twist so far.

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Woman Busted For Posing as Columbia University Freshman Has Nothing on the All-Time Great College Impostors

Only two weeks!

That’s how long the woman caught last week pretending to be a freshman at Columbia University was able to maintain her charade.

A short run indeed.

The alleged impostor is believed to be a 26-year-old woman named Briva Patel, police told the Columbia student publication Bwog.

Assuming the identity of Rhea Sen, a 20-year-old freshman at the university, Patel succeeded for a short time in getting actual students to buy into her sham, according to a report by the Columbia Daily Spectator.

According to Spectator, although Patel was never enrolled at Columbia in any capacity, she participated in several freshman orientation activities, including a tour of the city and a trip to Brooklyn for last month’s Afropunk Fest.

Orientation leaders and other students found Patel’s behavior a bit strange, but they initially chalked it up to social awkwardness. Spectator detailed actual freshman Cami Quarta’s odd encounters with Patel, including a botched journey to an event at the Bronx Zoo:

On her way to the party at the Bronx Zoo that capped off orientation week, Quarta and a friend wound up on the subway with Sen. Even though Quarta had been told to take the train to 180th Street, Sen showed her a text message she claimed to be from her [orientation leader] instructing her to get off at an earlier stop and take a bus. The two heeded Sen’s advice, winding up far from their intended destination. A helpful police officer steered the three of them back on the subway.

“If I was alone, I don’t know where I would’ve wound up,” Quarta said. “That was probably the first sign that showed she might have been a risk.”

Soon, [orientation leaders] started to get suspicious. Sen told Quarta that she lived on the sixth floor of Hartley Hall, and the next day that she lived in Carman 6B, which is not the way rooms in Carman Hall are numbered. Students said they were still unsure where she slept across the 14-day period she spent on campus. “People saw her running around, hiding in bushes, but as far as I know, nobody actually saw her in the residence halls,” Quarta said.

“Eventually, she tried to make friends with our first-year students, and it just got to the point where her lies were too obvious,” Lin said.

Campus officials were alerted to Patel’s ruse, she was spotted on campus grounds Thursday night and removed by university public safety officers. Apparently Patel’s resolve to be a part of the Columbia community wasn’t all that weakened by Thursday’s incident because she was spotted on campus again the very next day. This time police arrested Patel.

Let’s see how Patel’s two-week run stacks up against her predecessors:

Adam Wheeler

When : 2007-2009

Where: Harvard University

Enrolled: Yes
Age at that time: 20-23?

How Long at College: Over 2 years

Strengths: Ambitious, Academic Climber, Worked Hard at Lying

Highlights: Fabricated SAT scores, letters of recommendation, Won Several undue awards including a Rockefeller research grant

Downfall: Had to pay back $45, 806 in restitution money, Plagiarized full research papers, Lied about everything

Overall (Completely Arbitrary Score): A+

Azia Kim

When: 2006-2007

Where: Stanford University

Enrolled: No

Age at that time: 18

How Long at College: Eight months
Strengths: Committed to performing imaginary tasks

Highlights: Did good job studying for exams and doing work for classes she didn’t have, Bought textbooks for classes she didn’t have, Effectively stressed out over tests she never took

Downfall: Was never actually enrolled, stayed on campus without official housing, an id card or a meal plan

Overall (Completely Arbitrary Score): B

Akash Maharaj

When:2006

Where: Yale University

Enrolled: Yes

Age at that time: 27-28?

How Long at College: Over 2 years

Strengths: No regard for Honesty, Capable student,

Highlights: Fabricated transcript (with 18 A’s), Almost graduated without getting
caught

Downfall: Ex-boyfriend exposed him (it’s complicated)

Overall (Completely Arbitrary Score): A-

Esther Reed

When:2004-2006

Where: Columbia University

Enrolled: Yes
Age at that time: 26-28?

How Long at College: 2 years

Strengths: Seamlessly transitions between identities, Multi-tasker

Highlights: Successfully assumed the identity of missing person, Assumed several other identities outside of Columbia

Downfall: Assumed too many different identities, Bout with depression prevented her from successfully keeping the lie going

Overall (Completely Arbitrary Score): A+

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Fordham University: The Most Disgusting Food in the Country?

College-cafeteria food can be gruesome. Anita Lo, for example, started cooking because she couldn’t stand the food over at Columbia. But apparently Columbia isn’t the worst when it comes to campus food — Fordham University is.

The Princeton Review ranked the Bronx-based school in the category of worst campus food.

Recent grad McCamey Lynn told the NY Daily News that she’s not surprised by the poor rating.

“The cafeteria food has been somewhat of a joke for a while,” she said. “Everyone loves the campus, but anyone would tell you the worst part of it there is the food.”

“I’ve had friends who’ve found everything from bugs to thumbtacks in their food.”