College Walk

 
 

Forbidden Fruit

Among the nearly 600,000 London planes, honey locusts, maples, and other trees in New York City, there is one, barely 15-feet tall, that causes a buzz in Morningside Heights every summer. The tree sits in the West 111th Street People’s Garden, and at any other time of year its spreading crown of green leaves could make it pass for just another crab apple. But in August its fruit ripens, bringing the branches so low over the wrought-iron fence that any passerby can grab a free snack. It’s a peach tree, one of two in the area — the other grows at the West 110th Street Broadway mall just down the block.

Although a native to China, and more often seen in California or Georgia, the peach tree has a New York sensibility. It’s a self-starter, a loner (it self-pollinates), and its survival relies on a bit of luck. For it to sprout on its own, a pit would have to land on the ground in late October, just in time for several inches of leaves, detritus, and soil to sweep over it. Horticulturalists say that peach pits require stratification, a period of preservation to break the seed’s dormancy and promote germination. A cold but dry winter could accomplish this — provided that the pit was in a spot of southern exposure, receiving a lot, but not too much, sunshine. Despite all these variables, a peach tree can fight and grow on its own, but soon its branches become unruly, weighing it down.
This is the condition in which Barbara Hohol ’71GS found the two-year-old sapling in the West 110th Street Broadway mall when she took over its care in 2002. “It had grown so sideways its trunk was touching the ground,” she recalls. “So I cut it off, making its limb grow upright.”

A jewelry maker by trade, local activist by calling, Hohol has been living in the neighborhood since 1960, and began gardening ten years ago in the greenhouse at the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine. As a child she had worked at her father’s carnation greenhouse on Long Island. “Really, it’s instinctual,” says Hohol, adding with a gravelly chuckle, “I must be doing something right because I’m killing less and less.”

Hohol is as opinionated about most things as she is about gardening; Morningside Heights is one of them. She has often been a source for quotation in the New York Times, at turns lamenting the neighborhood’s gentrification and Columbia’s role in it, then defending the University as an inspiring institution. Her feistiness compelled three reporters to point out the tag on her license plate and e-mail address: GADFLY.

Most recently, her vigilance about gardening — specifically pruning — has caused a stir in the neighborhood. In July, Hohol cut back a wide hedge of rosebushes, much to the consternation of some community leaders who prefer a cloistered shade that blocks out Amsterdam Avenue. Hohol dismisses this as antithetical to good gardening. “Go look at the rosebush; it’s being choked by the grapevine and getting back into the forsythia. Those conditions should never — under any aesthetic — be allowed to happen.” Others disagreed, exiling Hohol from the garden. This is not the first time she has butted heads with the garden’s leadership, and in response, she is petitioning to overturn it.
 
The garden, according to Hohol, came to existence in the early 1970s thanks to the block’s residents, a number of whom were squatting in nearby buildings. “Many were Hispanic, and they planted what they ate,” says Hohol, remembering rows of tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and, at one point, even corn. While a number of the original squatters moved out, some remained to become legitimate tenants thanks to city sweat-equity programs. And in the mid-1980s, the garden came under the auspices of GreenThumb, New York’s urban gardening project.

Because of its ragtag beginnings, the garden’s soil still sits above a layer of rubble from the lot’s razed buildings. Neighbors hand-sifted the soil to make it arable, but it’s never been tested for toxicity. For this reason, the garden has eliminated all food and remains entirely floral, with orange daylilies, yew, and potted impatiens growing along the walkway.

Except for the peach tree. “It’s the icon of the garden,” says Hohol. “Its fruit is the essence of peach, not too sweet. It’s worth the risk to eat it once a year.”

A local “artist,” as Hohol calls her — making quotation marks in the air — claimed to have planted the garden’s tree, now probably 20 years old. Hohol doubts this, insisting that the artist, who has since moved away, had too little horticultural sense to have done so. The apple cores, coffee grounds, and eggshells the woman devotedly brought to the tree every day would have made great compost, Hohol says, “but we had to do a great deal of work to convince her that they were doing nothing, just sitting rotting at the trunk.”

Hohol recalls a neighborhood celebration ten years ago in the garden, in which she and other gardeners picked enough peaches to make seven pies for the whole block. It was also an acrobatic feat, requiring Hohol to climb a ten-foot ladder steadied by two men. She carried a basket attached to a long pole to make sure she got every last peach. “Those who weren’t working came to laugh at me, taking bets whether I’d fall off,” she says slyly. “Some of them hoped I would.”
— Emily Brennan

 
 

The Road Not Taken

In a small, tidy living room in a retirement village a few miles inland from Avon-by-the-Sea, New Jersey, Robert Giroux ’36CC sits with his old friend Charlie Reilly. The two men, both in their nineties, have known each other since grammar school in Jersey City, and are now next-door neighbors. Occasionally, Charlie drops by to visit.

“Tell him the story, Bob,” Charlie says.

As the editor, publisher, and longtime chairman of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Bob has lots of stories. They’re his stock in trade.

“Tell him,” says Charlie, “how he came in with a scroll of paper.”

Giroux nods once at Charlie’s exhortation, his pale, clear eyes open wide in a sturdy head crowned with wisps of silk white hair. Behind him is a modest bookcase with glass doors, and on the wall by the kitchen hangs a photograph of a young Elizabeth Bishop.

“He had typed his novel on a scroll of paper,” Giroux begins. His voice is deep, and he drops his Rs with old New York gusto — “paper” is papuh, “Bernard” is Bernahd. “And then he brought it over to my office — this big roll of paper.”

The scribe in question was former Columbia football player Jack Kerouac, and the composition, single-spaced and 120 feet long, was On the Road, which turned 50 in September. Giroux, who while at Harcourt Brace had published Kerouac’s first major work, The Town and the City, in 1950, was uncertain what to make of “the roll,” as Kerouac called it. Nor was he certain what to make of the 29-year-old Kerouac, who was in a strange, excitable mood and clearly expected his editor to give his blessing. But Giroux couldn’t get past the logistical problems of publishing the work in scroll form.

“It was my mistake,” he says. “I was just being practical. I said, ‘You can’t publish a book typed on a roll of paper.’ And he said, ‘It will be published, because it was written by the Holy Ghost.’ He was either drunk or on drugs, I don’t know what.  Anyway, he left me in disgust.”

Typed in three Benzedrine-powered weeks in April 1951 from notebooks Kerouac kept during his cross-country travels, the novel later found a home at Viking, which published it, after extensive edits, in 1957. That same year, Giroux, keeping pace artistically if not cosmically, came out with The Assistant by Bernard Malamud. On the Road, of course, went on to become a cultural touchstone, and to date has sold over 5 million copies worldwide.

If Giroux had missed Kerouac’s drift and let a big one get away, his lineup of poets and writers was still the Murderers’ Row of the New York publishing world. There was Flannery O’Connor (“she had a wonderful, suppressed sense of humor, and I loved to hear her talk”), Robert Lowell, Lowell’s wife Jean Stafford (“one of the best prose writers that I edited; she got better and better, and if she would have lived we’d still be talking about her today”), Malamud, George Orwell (“one of my favorites — a devotee of honesty in writing”), John Berryman ’38CC, whom Giroux had published in the Columbia Review where he was editor in chief, and Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot, who, when Giroux was hired away from Harcourt by Roger Straus in 1955, called Giroux and said, “I’m coming with you.” O’Connor followed, too, as did Malamud, Lowell, Berryman, and 13 others. It was the most significant migration of writers from one house to another that the industry had ever seen.

In 1965, Giroux was made partner in the firm, which became Farrar, Straus and Giroux, establishing Giroux in the pantheon of Columbia-bred publishers that included Alfred Harcourt, Donald Brace, Richard Simon, Max Schuster, George Delacorte, Ian Ballantine, Bennett Cerf (Random House), and Alfred A. Knopf.

“I was always interested in real writers,” Giroux says. “By that I mean people who were not just writing a novel, or a terrific book of some kind, but who were just going to write.”

That might sound extravagantly idealistic in such a market-driven business, but publishing was essentially the same number-crunching affair in 1957 that it is today. A missed opportunity like On the Road — whose anniversary is being marked by Viking’s first-ever publication of the ur-scroll that Giroux passed up — comes at a steep price for publishers and readers alike. As literary agent Morton Janklow ’53LAW told Columbia magazine in 1991, “the profits from the big books fund the risks on the little books.” One On the Road can give birth to a dozen potential literary masterpieces.

But Giroux, as it happened, had already struck gold by the time Kerouac came by to unfurl his megillah. Three years earlier, in 1948, Giroux, while still at Harcourt, published a book by another Columbia Review confederate, Thomas Merton ’38CC.

Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography about Merton’s conversion to Roman Catholicism and his life as a Trappist monk, sold over 600,000 copies in the original hardcover, and more than a million in paperback. And, like On the Road, it has never been out of print.

The Seven Storey Mountain was, I guess, the biggest best seller of my career,” says Giroux. “I was never one for trotting out sales, but that was a big one.”

Charlie Reilly concurs. “Yes, it was, Bob,” he says, nodding. “Yes, it was.”
— Paul Hond

 
 

Baselines

An ability to craft a fine sentence was not among the talents the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were seeking when they signed Fernando Perez ’04CC in the seventh round of the 2004 baseball draft.

But now that Perez has made the pros, he is also making prose.

This past season the 24-year-old switch-hitting center fielder with the Montgomery Biscuits in the Double-A Southern League kept an online “players journal” for the official Minor League Baseball Web site.

“It’s supposed to chronicle what’s going on in the day of the life of a minor leaguer,” Perez says. “I wasn’t interested in writing about my life, so I kind of turned the thing on its head.”

The three other players chosen to keep journals began their first entries on April 4 in a “Hi, my name is…” vein. Perez, meanwhile, came out swinging: “Some time in February, the few and the proud ball-playing snowbirds just quit on winter altogether and head south to play ball for free.”

Encouraged by his Columbia coaches, Perez committed himself to becoming a professional ballplayer after his freshman year. When teachers in the creative writing program caught wind of his talent on the diamond, they advised him “to let go of existentialism and write about baseball,” Perez says.

If Perez’s life as a professional player, which began when he signed a $200,000 deal with the Devil Rays after his junior year, were a book, it might spawn a new literary subgenre: baseball beatnik.

“The life of a nomad has always been the life for me,” he writes in a June 16 entry. “I have a backpack of clean clothes that I take on road trips, and that becomes my sock drawer when I’m at ‘home’ in my apartment with nothing but windows on the walls.”

Perez’s Minor League wanderings (his e-mail moniker is Juandrelust) have taken him on the road westward from New York City before rerouting to the South. His favorite book is Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and poetry is his reading of choice when fatigue shortens his attention span during the season. Perez recently finished the collected poems of Beat affiliate Robert Creeley, and before games he likes to warm up with a chapter from Lyn Hejinian’s My Life.

But the speed with which he tears through books is nothing compared to how fast he moves around the bases.

“If there’s one tool that Fernando has above average, even at the Major League level, it’s that he can run,” says his former Columbia coach Mik Aoki. “He can really, really run.”

A sportscaster for the Biscuits recently said that Perez can steal a base “as quick as a hiccup.”

Perez’s father, Fernando Perez, Jr., also is a fan of Perez’s speed-oriented game. Never one to critique his son’s playing, the elder Perez, who emigrated with his wife from baseball-obsessed Cuba, did offer one piece of criticism concerning Fernando’s July 30 journal entry, which began: “The trade deadline is near, and we’re in the clubhouse in Birmingham watching the ticker reel off trade news. We had been watching a horrible action movie until the guy on the other side of the love seat, Shaun Cumberland, was summoned into the manager’s lair.”

Cumberland was traded to the Reds, which set Perez off on a tangent about the harsh realities of the business of baseball and how a player’s value is the sum total of his stats, minus his salary.

“He was getting in depth about how tough it is,” Fernando, Jr., says. “I told him to lighten up.”

It would be easy to get down on baseball if Perez did not have such a great 2007 season. He batted over .300 and led the division-winning Biscuits in on-base percentage, triples, walks, and stolen bases. He is considered a player who could be called up to the Major Leagues next season, and his affable personality and thoughtful demeanor have made him a fan favorite as well.

Paul Fernandes, Columbia’s associate athletic director who was the baseball coach for 23 years, has seen a small handful of Columbia players drafted by professional ball clubs. The most recent was Greg Mullens, a six-foot-six-inch pitcher who signed with the Mets organization in 2005 and now plays for the Single-A Savannah Sand Gnats in the South Atlantic League. But the number that have made the big leagues since Lou Gehrig retired as a Yankee in 1939 is exactly two: Gene Larkin, who drove in the winning run for the Minnesota Twins in game seven of the 1991 World Series, and Frank Seminara, who debuted as a pitcher for the San Diego Padres the following year.

“Now it comes down to continuing to produce and being at the right place at the right time,” Fernandes says of Perez. “Right now he’s knocking on the door.”

Having a Columbia alumnus wear a Major League uniform would surely help the University recruit top talent, Fernandes says. Likewise, a Columbia degree helps when it’s time to take off the cleats. Both Seminara and Larkin have gone from baseball to finance. If he weren’t a professional ballplayer, Perez’s dad says his son might be a teacher. Perez, on the other hand, treats baseball as the only job he could do — as if, like so many of his teammates, he didn’t have any other options.
“It’s kind of what you need to do to make it work,” he says, adding: “If I wasn’t playing baseball, I’d probably be writing for a magazine.”
— Jeremy Smerd ’03JRN


 
 

Larry Levis in Provincetown

This is how I am summoned from nothingness,
in faded cutoffs, moonlighting at Connie’s Bakery

where I keep reading Rilke to Jenny, the pastry chef,
who rolls her eyes, & blows flour into my tired face.

Beneath my limp baker’s hat & stained white smock
I still wear my favorite Hawaiian shirt, the color

of bubble gum, absinthe & night. We are permitted
to choose but one companion for the great journey,

so Garcia Lorca is here with me; — we arrived last week
as “guest worker summer help.”  You’ll be happy

to know that our work continues, as before, in Death.
Last night we finally had that conversation about

the moon, & mirrors—why they can’t tell us
everything they see. We stood at an ivy-lined gate

two summers too late to deliver Stanley Kunitz our best
vermouth & news of Roethke and the other immortal poets

whose ranks by now, at long last, he’s joined. Instead,
our poet of black notes took off his white tuxedo shirt

&, facing Stanley’s last masterpiece, his front yard
garden, which still revises itself in preparation

for his return, García Lorca revealed thumb-sized
lavender crescent moons, the eerie constellation

across his chest above the heart, the scars of bullet holes
from Franco’s Guardia Civil; he told me everything—

from the faces of the firing squad to digging his own grave.
He says the landscape of his dreams has already drifted

from the Alhambra’s gardens, wading pools, & almond groves
to the salt marsh at Black Fish Creek & the starlit wisteria

he affectionately calls, “These endlessly creeping vines
of strumpet braids!” And the delicate braids of Challah

we braid each day rise like old lovers awakening to our touch
restored. You should see the lean, aristocratic

hands of García Lorca — they’ve never been so strong!
I didn’t think such mortal progress was still possible for us.

Or that I would again be permitted access to the knowledge
that comes in a love amplified by the stirrings of the world.

And then I recognized something in the insistent, winding
taproot of an oak, which pierced me with the recognition

that is holy, & I felt the tug of gravity’s widening spell.
So that even if García Lorca and I are just scraping by

with all the others working for peanuts in high season,
to be alive again and living in a hot seaside town

is good as any afterlife
& probably our best chance at happiness.


— Rick Hilles ’96SOA