Way Back When Pt. 2

Brandeis University.  September 1957.  Day One.

My new roommate is not in the room, but he has staked out a bed. There’s a saxophone case in a corner, by the desk he has staked out. I unpack my suitcase.  My trunk comes upstairs. I stow that.  Still no roommate.  I think I’m hungry. I go downstairs to the snack bar, there on the ground floor of the Castle, at the back. There’s something called a “cabinet” on the menu board. I order a milk shake and an egg salad sandwich on white bread. (Are we getting the picture here? Is this person’s gestalt coming into focus?).  The milk shake turns out to be ice cream-less milk and chocolate syrup. (The “cabinet” turns out to be what the West Coast calls a milkshake; lots to learn; like “scrod.”) The egg salad sandwich sits in the pit of my stomach.  I somehow manage to not throw up.  This sets a pattern for my first two years at Brandeis–sheer terror coupled with pride at not throwing up, with some sleep-terrors and almost-pneumonia thrown in.

Gene later told me that he almost demanded a roommate change, sight unseen.  Who was this person with the Hawaiian shirts (oh yes) from California?  Gene was the essence of cool, played jazz, had jazz records, and had some very cool friends.  Gene learned music and art from, of course, New York’s High School of Music and Art.  I knew nothing of this, nothing of the other special schools, Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Hunter High.  I had no idea what I wanted to be.  I had no idea what I wanted to know, needed to know, should know. I was mush.

I was a far second academically in a small private boy’s high school in San Francisco, a pianist with some solid musicianship and rotten technique that would never improve, an only child from a non-religious but somewhat spiritual background, who had grown to mid-adolescence with absolutely no knowledge—direct or indirect—of Jews or Judaism.  None.  For me Brandeis was the co-ed college with the Leonard Bernstein music reputation that was close to Boston and had given me a scholarship and work-study.  It wasn’t Cornell (early admission but in the back of beyond), Amherst or Harvard (wait-list), nor was it Brown (scholarship, but this was way before Brown became Brown).

I didn’t know it, but Brandeis was about to turn me into a goy among the gentiles.