College Walk

  Mark Steele
Whither Underground?

In the first car of a subway train, a bearded, middle-aged man stands pressed against the front window. He holds a camera to his eye, lens to the glass, waiting for his quarry to come into view. Then he sees it ahead, coming closer: a subway platform. Empty even at rush hour, it’s in an abandoned station — a “ghost station,” as they’re called. As the train passes through, the man snaps off several shots. The murk of subway tunnels hardly makes for ideal conditions, but Joseph Brennan ’73CC, ’82LS knows how to take photographs in dim light.

Brennan has been stalking these phantom stations for the better part of a decade. Columbians might be familiar with the one at 91st Street and Broadway, a graffiti-filled shell visible from the 1 train. There’s an especially grand and ornate ghost station underneath City Hall, and very occasionally the Transit Museum will take visitors on a special tour of it. Nearby is the abandoned Worth Street station, which closed in 1962.

After extensive research, conducted mostly in 2001, Brennan developed a series of Web pages devoted to these and other ghost stations, posting lengthy descriptions along with historical photographs, maps, and track plans. A genial guy, Brennan displays easy familiarity with numerous aspects of the subway system, from variations in routes to nomenclature like IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) that you hear from New Yorkers of a certain age.

Brennan started riding the subways as a high school student who commuted to Fordham Prep, in the Bronx, from his home in Rockland County. He continued to ride as a college student in the early ’70s, when the trains were covered in graffiti and sensible people didn’t relish riding alone after dark. After graduating, Brennan joined the University’s library staff, working at Butler for a number of years and picking up a master’s degree from the School of Library Service — and more train time — along the way.

During a commute several years ago, Brennan looked out the window and realized he was passing through a ghost station. The sight of it fired his imagination, and he decided to learn more. He visited libraries and consulted historical maps, newspaper articles, photographs, subway timetables. He read about the construction of the system’s different lines, identified when stations had been in use and when they ended service. He resolved to ride the subway — the whole darned thing, all 722 miles of it — to see which platforms might still be visible. He found that at some stations, he could catch a glimpse just by keeping a sharp eye out. In others, he discovered a visible door that he knew led downstairs, to a parallel line no longer in regular use.

As it happened, Brennan left the libraries in 1989 to join the precursor to Columbia University Information Technology (CUIT), and among other things helped introduce e-mail at Columbia in the early ’90s. (He gave presentations explaining why it might be a useful thing to have around.) He’s now been the University’s lead systems engineer for e-mail for several years — looking after servers, managing spam filters, solving complicated user problems. So Brennan knows his way around a computer, too. Those skills came in handy when he decided to post his subway findings on the Internet.

Once the material hit the Web, Brennan was contacted by all sorts of other subway enthusiasts — people who corrected his mistakes or had something to contribute, like the pictures of an abandoned PATH station sent by a Port Authority contractor.

Abandoned stations tend to stay that way, but they’re not completely static. Sometimes a platform is temporarily closed, or opened, or a construction project reveals some new facet of the system and its stations. Indeed, Brennan says, it might be time to update his research. So if you’re riding the subway and you happen to see a bearded man plastered against the front window with a camera to his eye, try not to distract him. He’s just tracking down a ghost.

— Marcus Tonti

Visit Joseph Brennan’s Web site at


  Mark Steele

Revolution, Ink.

Forty years ago this spring — on the morning of April 24, 1968, to be exact — some 200 students broke into Low Library and occupied the office of University president Grayson Kirk. Drawers were rifled, files unearthed, objets fondled, cigars smoked.

One of the students in the crowd had come to the Battle of Columbia with a pen in his hand. Jerry Avorn ’69CC was a reporter for the Spectator. “I kept asking myself, ‘Am I here as a demonstrator?’” Avorn said the other day from his office at Harvard Medical School. “‘Am I here as a journalist? Am I here as a sympathizer? What am I doing here?’ Actually, it was that there was a need to get the correct story out.”
Avorn and his Spectator colleagues had found news coverage of the struggle between students and the Columbia administration to be wanting in accuracy, not least at the New York Times, whose publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a Columbia trustee. Student anger — over the University’s construction of a racially divisive gym in Morningside Park, its links to a Pentagon think tank, its authoritarian power structure — had reached the breaking point; there was a sense that the story, which seemed to sprout a new head every minute, could not be left in the hands of the mainstream press. And so the Spectator writers, none of them older than 22, set out to tell what was really happening.

That was no simple matter in 1968. Even without drugs, reality was pretty distorted. By late April, Americans had seen the Tet offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., rioting in U.S. cities, and still more devastation in Vietnam. Add to that the big questions swirling in the heads of smart college kids and things get murky fast. What is truth? What is reality? What is objectivity?

Undaunted by metaphysical distractions, the Spec staff set to work. Avorn was the principal writer on an all-star team that included a future Pulitzer Prize winner (Paul Starr ’70CC) and the future international editor of Fortune magazine (Robert Friedman ’69CC). The reporters fanned out over the campus to capture events as they unfolded. Then, with a small publishing advance and a lot of adrenaline, they hunkered down for the summer in the old Spec offices in Ferris Booth Hall. And wrote.

The result of their labors was Up Against the Ivy Wall: A History of the Columbia Crisis, a 300-page book that stands as the definitive account of the uprising. Shrewd and sophisticated, the work is notable for its accomplished prose; its mastery of the intricate web of groups, committees, and personalities involved in the conflict; and for the sober critical distance that its authors managed to maintain in the heat of battle.

Even the reporters’ distaste for Grayson Kirk (for they were still students) is refined by the sureness of the writing:
Kirk’s offices had de facto been off-limits for students of the University, except under extraordinary circumstances. Only a handful of these students had ever, as individuals, even seen the President face to face. It is improbable that any had ever spoken to him. If they had it is highly unlikely that he had answered them. As Eric Bentley once said of Grayson Kirk, “He hasn’t spoken to anyone under 30 since he was under 30.”

With Kirk’s offices no longer off-limits, and with other buildings now under student control, Avorn and his colleagues were able to literally get inside the story, trading conventional arm’s-length reportage for the flesh-and-blood portrayals of New Journalism. The first draft of history was at hand.

While the young reporters chased after objective reality, another writer in Kirk’s office that morning was viewing the spectacle through a slightly different lens.

Jim Kunen’70CC had been fooling with the office copying machine when word reached Low Library at 8:30 a.m. that the cops were coming. The doors were barricaded, so most of the students clambered out the windows. But Kunen, a literary man who was reading Lord Jim for class, stayed put. In the novel, the protagonist, a first mate on a ship, abandons the vessel and its passengers during an accident — and is later sorry he did.

Kunen spent much of the week in Low, until he was carried out by the police on April 30. The next day, he got a call from a friend who asked him if he would like to write about his experience for the Harvard Crimson. Kunen composed a piece in diary form, which the Crimson ran.

“The next thing I knew,” Kunen recalled recently, “my roommate ran up to me and said, ‘Kunen, you’re famous!’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said that my friend at Harvard had called to say that some guy named Clay Felker bought the rights to my article for New York magazine and that it was going to be on the stands the next day.”
The article quickly led to a book contract with Random House and a movie deal with producer Irwin Winkler. The book, titled The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary, was an instant success. Praise poured in from the New York Times, Newsweek, and Kurt Vonnegut. At 19, Jim Kunen was a literary star.

Like Up Against the Ivy Wall, The Strawberry Statement is a marvel of undergrad precociousness, and Kunen’s voice rings with poignant familiarity. He’s the brainy, cynical, sweet-natured kid lurking on the edge of the action, too suspicious of mobs to fully join any movement, too ironically detached to chant slogans, but dead serious about social justice, and about baseball, too. He’s Holden Caulfield with hair:

Inside we rush up to Kirk’s office and someone breaks the lock. I am not at all enthusiastic about this and suggest that perhaps we ought to break up all the Ming Dynasty art that’s on display while we’re at it. A kid turns on me and says in a really ugly way that the exit is right over there. I reply that I am staying, but that I am not a sheep and he is.

The book was just the beginning of Kunen’s own strange dealings with the frayed fabric of reality. In a metafictional twist worthy of Vonnegut or Robert Coover, Kunen was asked to play a small role in the movie version of The Strawberry Statement, which was being filmed in San Francisco. When he arrived on location from the airport, Kunen was amazed by what he saw: Assembled under the night sky were dozens of fire engines, police cars, and National Guard trucks. It looked like Armageddon, but in fact it was the re-creation of the climactic bust.

“It’s kind of like knocking over a quart of milk,” Kunen said, “and the next thing you know, the entire city is flooded.”
The movie, which was scripted by Israel Horovitz, went on to win the Prix du Jury at Cannes in 1970.

The book has remained in print and continues to be discovered by new readers (and, interestingly, is a big hit in Japan), while Up Against the Ivy Wall still surfaces in college journalism courses. Jerry Avorn hopes to make Ivy Wall available to a wider audience, either through a reissue or the Internet.

As the veterans of Columbia ’68 gather at events on and off campus to look back on a convoluted history, these two remarkable volumes stand as unwavering reference points, their insights and observations uncorrupted by any long-range retrospection.

“When history is written up too currently,” a trustee comments in The Strawberry Statement, “there are pros and cons regarding its merits.”

With these books, mostly pros.

—Paul Hond


A Grand Entrance

The organizers were worried. The conference was due to start, and the keynote speaker was nowhere in sight. But Mamadou Diouf, who is Leitner Family Professor of African Studies, was none too concerned — even if this was his first international conference as director of the Institute of African Studies at the School of Interna­tional and Public Affairs.
“It’s very Senegalese to dramatize one’s entrance,” Diouf explained to the conference coordinators, never missing a professorial opportunity to analyze his own culture. “People have to wait for you and worry a little bit about whether you’re coming or not. It is an aspect of the social performance.” He added with a flip of his hand, “He’ll be here.”
Diouf was referring to Mansour Sy Djamil, caliph of the Seydi Moustapha Sy Jamil branch of the Tijanyya Sufi Brotherhood. Diouf invited Sy (pronounced “See”), whom he’d known since high school in Paris, as the keynote speaker to the conference “Toler­ance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal” to add a theological perspective to a mostly political discussion. The Tijanyya, originating from 18th-century North Africa, had been an agent of opposition to French rule there. In Senegal, to which the sect had been introduced by Sy’s great-grandfather, the Tijanyya continued to broker for autonomy and representation, helping to bring about Senegal’s independence in 1960. These efforts contributed to the country’s becoming a stable democracy — a peculiarity in West Africa.

As Diouf hoped, word of Sy’s arrival drew members of Harlem’s Senegalese community to the conference that spring morning in the International Affairs Building. Women in long, bright boubous and men in muted tunics and slippers arrived to a lobby filled with students, Columbia faculty, and scholars from across the United States.

Sy is different from most other caliphs because he left Senegal to study in Paris and Cairo. He also worked at the Islamic Development Bank in Jidda. He is an intellectual, known for spending long afternoons in bookstores wherever he travels. But he is also an engaged spiritual leader, heading two Sufi foundations now in Senegal. “He’s an original source to whom academics go for information,” said Diouf. “He’s like a reference in a text. He illuminates, but is still outside the main discussion.”

When Sy and his assistant first stepped off the elevator, it was impossible to tell leader from disciple. Both tall and draped in olive-green robes, they were surrounded by devotees and academics alike. But as one walked and the other lagged, it became clear who Sy was. The lobby filled with a low hum as Sy spoke, with an assured smile, to every guest, clasping his two hands around each of theirs. Diouf, moving quickly to greet his old friend, exclaimed to the volunteers, “You see, this is power — who has it, and who doesn’t!”

For Diouf, Sy’s entourage showed how a true leader commands power outside his own territory: He reproduces it. As Sy surely knows, a part of what makes the powerful powerful is the recognition of their followers’ desire to set them apart. In religion, it’s the sacred; in politics, it’s ceremonial; in practical terms, sometimes it’s business class.

This may be why, earlier that week, Sy upgraded the economy-class airline ticket that Columbia had provided him. “Universities are democratic institutions, and they must treat you like everybody else,” explained Diouf. “But for Sy, it’s a question of respectability, of what his followers expect of him.”

Sy’s request was not about a preference for reclining leather seats; rather, it demonstrated how well he understood his role as a leader — to be among, but separate from, his followers. Sy read in French when he’d presented his paper on Sufism, but he also tailored the discussion to each audience member he addressed, at times explicating in English and quoting from the Qur’an in Arabic, his finger circling instructively in the air. During the speeches that followed, Sy sat in the audience and periodically raised his hand, then stood to ask his questions, seizing every opportunity to better explain Senegalese history or Sufi theology.

After French philology and philosophy professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne made the conference’s final presentation, Sy stood up for the last word. Diagne had described how postcolonial Senegal had adopted a social-secular government that accommodated all of the nation’s religions, particularly the Sufi orders. Roots for this tolerance, Sy said, were found in Sufi theology itself. He recounted a story from the Hadith, in which the archangel Gabriel instructed the prophet Muhammad to welcome a non-Muslim to dinner, since he, too, was created by God. Like other religions, Sufism preaches that each individual, whether a believer or not, is part of God’s ultimate creation. For Sy, this theology has nurtured a culture of generosity and hospitality toward other faiths, which translates into tolerance in Senegalese politics.

As the conference ended and the audience left for a Columbia-sponsored Sufi arts exhibition and recital at the Schomburg Center uptown, Sy slowly proceeded out of the lobby with some of his followers. He stopped every few steps to answer a question, only to pose another in response.

“He is the center,” explained Diouf. “Everything is coming, and everything is disseminating through him. That’s how it works.”

— Emily Brennan ’03BC


The Western Intellectual Tradition

Perhaps begin with Gilgamesh’s better half, Enkidu,
From whose nose did fall the worm of death;
Or that psalmist who saw Gilead in the love act,
Two sweating selves making the little death;

But whatever you do begin with the construct you —
A tautology Descartes loved teasing to death;
Perhaps start with the monumentality of fact:
A famous thought, a first, not so unlike a last breath.

—Brian Culhane ’83SOA

Culhane’s first book of poems,
The King’s Question, will be published
by Graywolf Press this fall.