Ruminations of an Ex-Space Cowboy (The Cornell Daily Sun 1/30/87)

Why did they have to take “Let’s Spend the Night Together” off the Ivy Room jukebox!?

The walk across the Arts Quad, in scythe-like winds, becomes progressively less enchanting with each morning’s try. It is positive relief to reach the collegiate Gothic warmth and security of the Straight.

Above the Memorial Room, a reassuring, if somewhat spooky sign: Arlo Guthrie In Concert at Bailey Hall.

“Arlo,” I think, “there are some survivors.”

From my writing window in Uris, I see hapless freshmen slip and slide over themselves as they trudge up Libe Slope to registration. Others do a comical, mincing double-step as they try to avoid falling down (with mixed success) on the equally treacherous way down.

Cornell must be the only Ivy where freshmen are still made to feel like the plebes. Why, the freshmen-dorm complex even looks like West Point. At least they don’t have to wear beenies anymore, as they did in the 1920s.

Nostalgia is fine, but I refuse to visit my freshman room (UH 4209); it still pops up often enough in nightmarish recollections of my Kafka-esque, second term stint as an Unclassified student, walking a slack, bureaucratic tightrope between Architecture, Arts and the U.S. Army. No thank you, I think I’ll pass that stop on the tour of the extant landmarks of my Cornell years (1968-1973).

At least they have women down there now, I see, as an unfortunate co-ed, caught in the vortex of an icy devil-duster, does an involuntary Westminster waltz before beginning her zero-60 descent.

It still scares me to look at my undergraduate transcript, with different grade patterns for each of the three eras of student culture I passed through: High Counterculture (’68-’70: 1.2 cum), Post-Counterculture (’70-’72: 2.5 cum), New Vocationalism (’72-’73: 3.4 cum). How I ended up graduating from this place, no less becoming an educator myself, still baffles me.

Well, maybe it doesn’t. Part of the answer lies right here, in the wonderful, book-lined recesses of the Andrew Dickson White Reading Room, to which I gravitate each morning. It was here, rummaging through the invitingly gilt-edged tomes of Beard and Becker and Van Loon, and the Cornellian collection, that I rediscovered my child’s love for History, albeit in a slightly childish way, whipping up the energy to produce self-styled, picture-filled monographs on Great Men and Movements who had somehow fallen between the cracks of “overground” historiography — like Ultramontanist Joseph de Maistre and autosuggestionist Emile Coue and the short-lived New York Dada circle.

And it was her, in this very room, that I experienced what probably was the greatest natural high of my undergraduate career, winning, much to my surprise, first prize — and $200! — for my quixotic entry in the Arthur and Mary Marden Dean Book Collection Contest.

“A Personal Biography of the Jazz Age” I called it, and that’s what it was: a collection of miscellaneous dusty books that I had picked up at auctions, second hand bookstores and the like, reflecting what my bookshelf might have looked like had I — as I then ardently wished — been a Cornellian of the ’20s, instead of the ’70s (which, frankly, were beginning to bore me): first editions of Mencken, Lewis, a 1929 Johnson Smith catalog, et al. Nothing special, really, so I thought, except perhaps my eccentric bibliography, which, with its tart, Menckenesque tone, I felt, was sure to doom me to no more than an honorable mention, but instead, somehow, put me over the top.

And I remember dashing home, in my white bucks, check in one hand, sherry bottle in the other, to tell my live-in Linden Avenue girlfriend the spifflicating news.

That was it: the apogee. My 80-Yard Run. Everything else was downhill from there. (An exaggeration, but it was pretty neat.)

Speaking of the ’20s, the twin sub decals of the Louie’s Lunch truck, permanently parked outside my Risley suite, are beginning to remind me of the omniscient eyes of Dr. M. in “The Great Gatsby.”

Then, one night, thankfully, magically, they are gone, along with the geek-babble of hunger-crazed students waiting in the cold for their T.B.B.C.s and plankton-burgers.

My favorite after-dinner divertissement consists of strolling the halls of Risley, viewing the newest flower of door culture, which, I am pleased to note, is still very much in bloom. Current student icons here: Baryshnikov, Fred the Furrier, Ron Darling, Bob Marley — a nice mix.

Best sign: “Two guys with no real names and no real lives.” Runner-up: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

“But you see,” a blue-haired Risleyite patiently explains to me in the laundry room, “Risley is not Cornell.”

Really.

No, I tell a new friend, on a Saturday night in C-town outing, no, the Palms hasn’t changed a bit. Same crowd–same demented tumult–same beer–same bartender–even same Last Canine Supper mural.

For a moment, even, the 19-year-old with whom I’d lived — but wait, this one has black hair. Phew. Speaking of time warps.

Well, they did put a new pool table in.

“How much has Cornell itself changed?” I’m asked, over and over.

Changed from when? From 1968, when I entered “the Berkeley of the East;” plenty — but, it is clear, in retrospect, ’68-’70 was an anomalous blip in the history of an essentially conservative institution.

If anything, the Hill seems to have come full circle, to the way it was just before I arrived, just before the world, and Cornell, turned upside down. The Greeks are back in strength. So is ROTC.

And there is a small counterculture of sorts — just as there was, even, in the 40s and 50s. Ithaca has always had its share of beats or freaks. Just read “Halfway Down the Stairs” or “Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me.”

There does seem to be a great enthusiasm for Cornell’s Sturm-und-Drang years — it really was just one year: 1969 — with which I can empathize, but no longer entirely share.

“You mean, you were here for the Straight takeover?!” a sophomore asks, breathlessly, as if I had been present at the creation or the Alamo.

Yes, I was, and I wouldn’t want to live through that insane, delusory, deracinating week — or period — again, The War at Home, although it did help bring about the end to our involvement in Vietnam (although that probably could have been accomplished through much less dramatic means — like voting for Humphrey, instead of abstaining in favor of Nixon, as most disappointed leftists did in the fall of ’68) left too many psychological cripples, wasted too many talents, for me to wax nostalgic about the good old freaky days. Too many of my freaky C-town comrades are still freaks, or have found Christ, or Godhead, or whatever — when they could still be down here on Planet Earth helping to accomplish some real good.

And alas, too many others who did have their social consciences pricked are too busy now working at Drexel Burnham to remember that there was a time that they were actually worried about something other than the Bottom Line.

I don’t see too much to be nostalgic about — or know too many sane, progressive humanists to be nostalgic with. And I’m too busy with my work, self-indulgent as you my judge that to be, anyway. Farewell, Aquarius.

I do miss the music, though. I miss Janis. And Jimi.

But there are still plenty of beta waves out there, if you know how to catch them.

And the Stones are still around. Who knows, maybe they’ll play Cornell again (as they did in ’65 — or was it ’66?).

In the meantime, will someone please put “Let’s Spend the Night Together” back on the Ivy Room jukebox?

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