Christopher Kox, Alum
School of Library Service 1987
In the fall of 1986 I somewhat reluctantly entered the School of Library Service. In the five years since graduating college, I had considered law, theater, journalism, wildlife ecology and clown school. I'd worked in libraries through college and afterward, so when friends suggested library school as a quick fix for diploma fever that comes with a pay increase, I was game. With offers from Califoria, Wisconsin, Chicago and Columbia, I played my enrollment cards against the clock. Berkeley and Wisconsin began early -- late August -- so I headed for Columbia just after Labor Day. I held Chicago up my sleeve since their fall quarter began in mid-October.
I did not arrange for housing. I drove my tiny Civic in from Providence with but a few clothes, a couple of quilts and Soren, a Siberian Husky. The weather was hot, so we slept in the car as I searched for an apartment. In previous years I'd spent enough time in New York to feel at ease doing so; besides, the car was both a cocoon and a quick ticket out of town.
At first, I'd drive up the parkway into Riverdale or Westchester looking for well-shaded dead ends, or parking lots beside Howard Johnson's where I could drink bottomless coffee and read past midnight. Soon, though, I adopted Riverside Park. At that time, the bridge over 125th St. was closed for repairs, insulating Riverside Church and Grant's Tomb from through-traffic. With a plane tree overhead, river to the north and south, space for the dog and the smell of roasting coffee drifting over New Jersey, I gave up on Chicago in October and settled in to Riverside.
I replaced the Civic with a seasoned Volkswagen van. Now intent on school, and comforted by the added space of the van, my trips to Providence decreased, and I began to enjoy a most splendid autumn. I showered daily in the cavernous gym deep below Dodge Hall, and watched life pass in the park. Aged Asian women encouraged me to pick what appeared to be Longans from the trees, and an unusual encampment of phantoms inhabited a sidewalk underpass on the hillside over 125th. Had anthropologists stopped to inspect they'd have found an array of furnishings made from twigs and sticks, bits of city junk and broken cable spools. During the day no one was present. Although I dared not venture in at night, each morning the site was swept clean with handmade tools that leaned, picket-style, against the arching stone culvert.
The Mets won the World Series, and the trees cleared themselves of leaves. On a particularly warm afternoon during the Indian summer, a fleet, pink flamingo flew down on Claremont Avenue behind Barnard College. As the flamingo approached it morphed into a most fetching and graceful young woman in a billowing skein of hot pink -- on rollerskates, all pirouettes and leg extensions. As she approached 120th, near the Interchurch Center, she hit a stone, folded into a pothole, and just as quickly recovered. Up and gone, she flew into the turn at Tiemann Place, then vanished.
I camped in my unheated van with Soren the Red Siberian. Lest you think Soren was a guard dog, let me explain: I once awoke on hearing a screwdriver inserted into the vent, with an alien hand outside the glass rotating it. A face appeared, and I shouted obscenities. The hand withdrew, then casually walked to a waiting car, entered and drove away. Soren sat on the front seat watching, troubled by none of this.
Within days it snowed, dense, wet, heavy. The city was still and quiet. At Ferris Booth cafeteria workers shared Frosted Flakes poured over with hot milk. On a cold and quiet night, under a sandwich or blankets and comforters, I fell into the most restful sleep I have ever known.
Library schools are too often filled with part-time students passing through like transients in a bus terminal. But SLS was special both for its location above Butler Library and for the number of full-time students who entered, studied, socialized and graduated together. In this atmosphere I'd gotten to know a number of fine students from China who extended me their sincere friendship and hospitality. One afternoon I saw one of them in an animated discussion with an older man outside of Butler Library. A few years later I am certain that I met that same older man at a dinner party in Bethesda. With his son and wife at hand, he revealed himself to be very charming, sophisticated and retired as an agent from the CIA.
I finished the library school with my class in 1987. I later spent a few years earning a doctorate at Berkeley. When I look back on my experience at Columbia I am filled not just with nostalgia for that beautiful fall and early winter at Riverside Park, but for what was the most collegial of all my academic experiences.