Morningside: Some Very Odd Dust

posted by SWC on August 11th, 2011 · 1 Comment | | Printer Friendly Version

Soon after I was admitted to the graduate school at Columbia, I rented a small room in the sixth floor apartment of Alexander Miner on West 116th Street near Riverside Drive. Mr. Miner was a tall sixtyish German refugee who went off with his wife each morning to run their baby stroller company. My room had a narrow casement window which opened to the serenity of a river view and the occasional dark whiff of roasting coffee drifting from the Maxwell House factory across the Hudson. On the downside, I was separated from the Miner family by only a thinly curtained, glass-paneled door, through which I heard the effects of Mr. Miner’s frequent bouts with bronchitis and his phone conversations in animated German.

Edward Kalian, an Iranian law student well into his thirties, lived down the hall and, enviably, near the entrance door, which gave him an edge on privacy. We sipped on demitasses of his expertly prepared Turkish coffee while he spoke about the politically “overheated” mail he received from home. This was still many months before the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Lionel Trilling, one of my more famous professors, lived on the first floor with his wife Diana, their infant son, James, and a young and attractive roomer who functioned as their domestic au pair.

I was happy to be living on 116th Street. Our apartment house was a little more than a block from my classes, and around the corner on Broadway were my favorite eating places: Tilson’s lunch counter for delicious tuna salad sandwiches; Chock Full o’Nuts for its justly famed doughnuts and coffee; and further southward the capacious West End Bar for rounds of cold draft beer, and thick burgers.

To help pay for my courses and cover expenses, I took a job as a page at Columbia’s Butler Library, working at the circulation desk or chasing down books in the dimly lit and cavernous stacks where I learned to use my thumbnail to gather enough light to read the Dewey decimal codes on the spines of books.

Life in the stacks was sometimes grimly boring, but I came to look forward to the hours of quiet isolation and the background gush of pneumatic tubes, through which call slips sped inside cylindrical capsules like the ones I’d seen in department stores. Besides, I had no end of assigned reading to cover, and I was of course surrounded by a zillion or so books, many of which I decided were never at all on anyone’s reading lists but had awaited decades for someone to open and breath their own particular dust.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before a pretty blonde page and I struck up a friendship with the principal aim of making the minutes fly, which we accomplished by smooching tirelessly in one or another of the small, secluded lavatories at the end of each tier; the lavatories were wisely equipped with lights that flashed whenever a capsule filled with call slips dropped into a nearby work station. Which caused, eventually, a temporary interruption in our incessant dalliance.

We did not take our romantic pastime on to the next level, so to speak. We had no relationship, and once beyond the purview of Butler Library we never saw each other unless by accident. I would return to my studies, say medieval love poetry, or to a dinner of pork and beans with a buttered muffin at Bickford’s Cafeteria on upper Broadway; but where she went I had no idea. And, curiously, there was never any sign that our amorous meetings were suspected by our fellow staff members, or the readers, or the chief circulation librarian, stately Miss Louise Stubblefield. I have since even toyed with the possibility that the entire experience might have been a fantasy, induced perhaps by inhaling some very odd book dust.

One comment

  1. Thank you for all those pictures and that trip down mmeroy lane.I never thought I’d ever see Big Rocks again. Thank you so much.I lived in White’s Addition for most of the 1960 s. We lived just up the road from the Thompson house, about a half mile in that first street against the hill.I grew up with and remember Randy and Sandra.I live in Texas now.

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