Mendel Letters 61 — College Sophomore
January 22, 2022
My sophomore year at CCNY, 1968–1969, was very eventful in a number of ways, for the world and for me. It was the year I decided to be a history major, the year of my first real long-term girlfriends, the year my friend Kenny and I got our own apartment, and the year I decided to become a serious political activist. You will have to decide the order of importance; I’ve never been able to figure it out for myself.
I met this girl who I recognized from high school at a CCNY sensitivity weekend, T-groups were very big in 1968, and finally got up the nerve to ask her out a couple of times in May. When Kenny and I got back from our west coast Big Foot search in August 1968, she and I began to date more seriously. Our dating relationship only lasted about six-months but over the years we stayed friends.
During my sophomore year anti-war activity was picking up a City College and there were also calls to open the school up to more Black and Latino students, City College is located in Harlem. I didn’t go to Chicago to protest at the 1968 Democrat Party convention. I had just gotten back to New York from the west coast, I didn’t have any money, and I needed to work. You took me back at the luncheonette on Saturdays and weekday nights I worked at the Donnell Library in Manhattan. Technically my job was shelving books and scanning to make sure previously shelved books were correctly placed. But really my job was to be a male presence in the basement reading room where there had been a series of “incidents.”
The people who returned to school from Chicago quickly divided into competing groups, the counter-culture Yippies who mostly smoked marijuana on the South Campus lawn, SDS radicals who wanted to take over buildings and defy police and school administrators, and activists more focused on anti-war actions. That fall an AWOL army soldier somehow made it to the City College campus where we set up a Sanctuary in the Finley Student Center Grand Ballroom, surrounding him for three days with students 24-hours a day. The initial plan was to sneak him out of the building when police came and shift the Sanctuary to Columbia University, about 20 blocks away. When the police arrived, I stayed with the plan but many protesters refused to leave, including my girlfriend. A friend and I spent the rest of the night and earlier morning trying to get people released from jail, including her.
During the spring semester the entire South campus was taken over by a Black and Puerto Rican student group who wanted CCNY renamed Harlem University and a radical shift in the student population that was overwhelmingly white. During the take-over I worked with a group we called Committee for an Integrated Campus formed with support from a college social worker name Joe who had previously worked with an interracial community group, the United Community Centers, in East New York, Brooklyn. Our campus group also participated in anti-war protests with the UCC, taking protests from the campus into the community. What attracted me to the Center was that it was interracial at a time when college groups were splitting along racial and ethnic lines. I also liked that its membership was not just college age radicals. It ran a summer camp and youth programs and its adult members included workers and spanned a number of age groups.
In high school I planned to become a research scientist and cure cancer. In my freshman year of college I considered becoming a lawyer and declared political science as a major. As I became more involved in the anti-war movement and civil rights activities, I also began to take classes more seriously and switched to being a history major. You couldn’t change the world unless you understood it.
After being away during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I found it very difficult to move back in at home on Jesup Avenue. In December, I was able to convince Kenny to go “halfies” with me on an apartment. We went to an apartment broker and lied about our ages, we were still only 18. We told him we were just back from Vietnam and were in our twenties. I doubt if he believed us, he just wanted to unload a 5th floor one-bedroom walk-up tenement apartment. It was on Ryer Avenue near 183rd Street in the Bronx, around the corner from the C train local, so it was an easy commute to college. It was very “slummy.” Water barely trickled in the kitchen and bathroom. The stove and refrigerator had never been upgraded. We didn’t have a telephone line but could open up the “dumb waiter” and cut into someone else’s line to make emergency calls. The rent was only $64 a month. I told you I planned to move out and asked if I could take my bed, desk, and dresser. I don’t think you thought I was serious until one day in January I pulled up in a rental van to take the furniture.
That spring I had a new girlfriend, someone I met at the Sanctuary. I originally planned to work that summer at the community center’s summer sleep-away camp, but at the last minute that idea fell through. Kenny and another friend, Frank, were planning to travel in South America that summer so I decided to join them. I only had a couple of days to get my passport and all my shots. I had to go to three different doctors to get the entire package of vaccinations because no doctor would give them all to me at the same time. That night my temperature peaked at 104 and then broke.
The night before we left we hung out at Frank’s place in the West Village, my girlfriend included. I guess she wasn’t very happy I was leaving for the summer without her because I never dated her again after that.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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