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Braving the Big Apple

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How I went up the river, spent the night with drowsy docs, and got through grad school without breaking any bones

Back when I first decided to take the job in Alaska, my fellow interns joked that I would run into a bear, get lost in a snowstorm and be chased by wolves. Some, congratulating me, couldn't entirely mask a doubtful note in their voice; others said it outright: "Why would you want to go there?"

 

Eighteen months later, some of my Alaskan friends were similarly puzzled. "New York City?" they said when I told them I hoped to attend Columbia University's graduate journalism program. "Why would you want to go there? It's dangerous."

 

But I was determined. I knew I wouldn't get a better chance to report in New York City until much later in my career, if ever. I didn't relish the thought of going back to school, and I had been turned down for the program once before, immediately after finishing college. But I hoped that my Alaskan sojourn would improve my chances, and Columbia sounded more like work than school. Besides, I thought, nine months couldn't be so bad.

 

Living New York

The housing, however, could. My brother, Alex, and I arrived on the Upper West Side, four blocks from Harlem's famous 125th Street, on a sweltering August day. We found my room in Fairholm Hall, a nondescript brownstone on 121st Street, chopped up into graduate "suites." I would share my suite with four other men and one brave woman: one kitchen, one singleton bathroom and no other common areas among us. My room was just big enough for its generic furniture and me -- as long as I was sitting or lying on one piece of furniture or another. My first-floor window looked out through an industrial security grate onto the back of Teacher's College, where, twice a week, mounds of festering garbage bags awaited local vagrants and, eventually, the garbage truck.

 

It smacked more of a cell block than a dormitory (much less a "suite"). My brother tried to cheer me up, telling me how, if I ever managed to open the grate, I could squeeze out the narrow window on nice days and perch on the bottom of the fire-escape, reading and chatting with people going in and out the front doors. He needn't have worried -- any time I spent in that room, I would be sleeping or firmly attached to the telephone in a last-ditch scramble to round up interviews before deadline.

 

However grim my housing, New York was splendid. I had been told horror stories about police finding long-dead skeletons in the wilds of nearby Morningside Park, but by the mid-1990s, crime had fallen, and "Morningside Heights" (as Columbia euphemistically called its acreage closer to Harlem than the Upper West Side) was about as safe as anywhere. And the life!

 

Across Amsterdam Avenue were a Chinese take-out store, where I would feed my colds with won-ton soup and pot-stickers, and an Ethiopian restaurant, where I would celebrate both my move-in and my departure. The 24-hour Green Tree deli became my high-priced grocery, and at the corner with Broadway, a mom-and-pop deli kept me in bagels, coffee and pastrami sandwiches. For a kid whose aunt had once sent him H&H bagels by Federal Express when he lived in Alaska (thanks Aunt Susan!), this was heaven indeed.

 

School daze

But all was not bagels and mu shu pork. I had a degree to earn.

 

On the one hand, I knew what I was in for: I had grown up in and around a university, I had single-mindedly pursued a newspaper career since seventh grade, and Columbia had turned me down once, leaving me no doubt that the competition was stiff.

 

On the other hand, there was a lot I didn't expect. On the first day, a troupe of deans assembled to welcome us, and one pronounced the school "the West Point of journalism." (Later, classmate and West Point graduate Mark Beach noted wryly that he had graduated from "the Columbia Journalism School of the Army"). Most of did abysmally on a pop quiz of current-events, particularly when asked to name the statue gracing the school's entrance. (It's Thomas Jefferson, of course, presumably in honor of his memorable line that

 

  1. "[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

 

-- a noble sentiment, even if, as president, Jefferson censored papers critical of his administration.)

 

They threw us into the thick of things immediately, sending us out on a multi-bus tour of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Soon after, we began "RW1," the core class of the first semester, basic reporting and writing, from the ground up.

 

Our classmates talked of the close friendships they made in this class, the lasting memories, the camaraderie. My class has memories, all right, as well as a few friendships. But most memorable of all were the sparks that flew nearly every time we met. We were a volatile bunch: Southerner Parker Lee Nash, who early on took to defending Pat Buchanan; Ed Corey, whose politics mixed Seventies liberalism with a half-gallon of libertarianism; Eric Jansen, whose understanding of international politics was as incisive as his domestic Republicanism was ordinary; Randi Schmeltzer, a walking encyclopedia of pop-culture. No topic was too slight for political bickering, no discussion too short for veiled barbs from all sides.

 

All this time, we tromped around "our" neighborhoods -- sections on New York, Ari Goldman told us when we first arrived, where you wouldn't take your visiting mother for tea, neighborhoods we were to cover as if we were beat reporters for a local newspaper. Despite having covered a municipal beat before ( in Alaska and for my college daily), I spent most of my reporting days walking endlessly throughout Inwood, the tiny neighborhood perched at Manhattan's northern end, atop Dyckman Street but before the Harlem River, a weird amalgam of new Dominican immigrants east of Broadway and often elderly German, Jewish and Irish immigrants and their descendants on the west, by Inwood Hill Park. Without any actual authority beyond mere studenthood -- no newspaper, no legitimate claim to be a freelancer -- I felt suddenly robbed of the ability to just approach people and start asking them questions. Eventually, usually just in time for each deadline, I collared enough people and asked enough questions to write an adequate story. But I longed for a publication, one that would again give me not only a reason to ask questions, but an audience to write for.

 

Meanwhile, Ari Goldman, longtime New York Times religion writer and author of Finding God at Harvard, taught us. Many days, like a Zen master, he taught in proverbs and koans. "A lede," he would say, "is like a first date." And, "You can't do journalism on an empty stomach." Or, "An interview is like playing jazz." (Corey, the eldest of our class and a onetime jazz musician, objected ãÝmost jazz wasn't improvised at all, he said.) More Goldmanisms

 

Then came our trip to Sing-Sing. After weeks of uncertainty, Prof. Goldman finally confirmed it: We would be taking a tour of Sing-Sing, the infamous penitentiary "up the river" from Manhattan, guided by none other than Rabbi Irvin Koslowe, the Jewish chaplain who had walked the Rosenbergs to the electric chair.

 

The tour was everything you might expect: Chilling, depressing, grim. We were told what color clothing to avoid, so we wouldn't be shoved into a cell in the event of a riot or lockdown. The women, told to wear no jewelry or makeup, nonetheless met lewd comments and catcalls from a few of the inmates. In the chapel, we met one-on-three with a handful of inmates, some of whom were murderers, some of whom were evasive and all of whom were disarmingly pleasant.

 

And then, back in the classroom, it was as if we had been to two -- three, four -- different prisons on different days, meeting different inmates. The barbs were no longer veiled and accusations flew -- fuzzy-minded bleeding hearts, insensitive spoiled suburban brats, political correctness, vindictive double-standards -- and at the end of the table, Prof. Goldman watched us; I couldn't tell if he was bemused, in shock or simply watching. Eventually, he broke it up. (Later, he would apologize for not stepping in earlier.)

 

Sleep deprivation

A New York City resident at work. By the time of the Sing Sing clash, many of us were already looking ahead to the rest of the school year. Second semester, we were warned by many, was much harder than first; not so, others countered -- it was easier. Either way, the master's project loomed.

 

Today, Columbia touts the master's project as the essence of its program: a single article, 2,000 to 4,000 words long, delving deeply and 

incisively into a worthy topic. (The project has changed over the years, and not so long ago was more of a traditional master's thesis; alumnus Patrick Buchanan wrote his on Canada-Cuba trade and the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and its first quote, of a newspaper headline, is many pages deep.) The reality of the project can be much different. Some fail to avoid the faculty's admonition that "a story is not an idea" and spend countless pages delving into a topic without any apparent regard for a point or a news hook. Others, some quite ambitious, barely get past the planning stages. One I read in the archives was a first-person piece about a student who attempts suicide amid the stress of school and then finds she is unable to sign herself out from a truly scary mental ward. (When I mentioned the student driven to a suicide attempt, Ari Goldman said, "Which one?")

 

Still, some projects have truly been masterful. One, by Jennifer Toth, was ultimately picked up by The Wall Street Journal and later published as The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, a harrowing first-hand account. And, while searching for a topic, I couldn't help but remember the successful projects to the exclusion of all else.

 

As always, I pushed the deadlines. I changed projects three or four times in the weeks leading up to the decision day. Just a week in advance, I decided to write about fentanyl, the surgical anesthetic so powerful, and so seductive, that it was apparently the narcotic of choice for anesthesiologist junkies. I had no idea how I'd find addicted doctors, but I knew it was a story that interested me. Then, a few days later, a classmate showed me the new issue of GQ: In it was a piece on fentanyl physician addiction. Talking with Ruth Padawer, my master's adviser, she mentioned the story of Libby Zion, who died seven hours after being admitted to New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in 1984, without ever being seen by an attending physician.

 

I seized on it, and during the weeks between the end of the fall and the beginning of the spring semesters, I sat in my dorm cell calling across the

city. Just two hospitals were willing to let me follow their interns throughout a complete shift, and -- after a brief break for Christmas with relatives in the Northeast -- I went to the South Bronx on the day before New Year's Eve and spent more than 30 hours straight with a resident. Two more such visits, along with more research and interviews, showed that New York City hospitals widely violated the state's rules governing how many hours doctors-in-training may work -- the thesis of my master's project. (Not long after I wrote my project, the office of Mark Green, the New York City public advocate, also revisted the issue and came to much the same conclusion.)

 

Escape from New York

I wrote the bulk of my master's project early in the second semester -- it measured 12,000 words, and I felt it was just half of what I had hoped to write. Ruth set me straight. Gradually I filled in the holes and, with Ruth's guidance (and the help of Liz Benjamin), whittled the article down to size -- almost. In the end, it was some 6,000 words long, drawing an ascerbic note from Ruth that she hadn't remembered reading that I was exempt from the 4,000-word upper limit.

 

Staying up all night with doctors, padding around Inwood, debating everything from journalism ethics to Rudy Giuliani's latest pronouncements -- it was all heady stuff. Somewhere in there, I even learned a few things: from Jonathan Mandell, how to delve deep, find the telling details, and remember that, however narrative, journalism should always have a point; from Ken Brief, how to put together a solid story in little time; from Sandy Padwe, how to be skeptical of official platitudes and keep digging no matter what (or else!).

 

Sometime during that year -- it all seemed to blur together as it was happening, too -- I caught a game at Yankee Stadium (with Courtney Hardee and Hiro Tanaka, who did play-by-plays for us in English and Japanese); wandered Times Square at 3 a.m. after the Yankees celebrated their 1996 World Series victory (where we met a late-night wedding party and other revelers); hiked through Inwood Park; briefly interviewed Ed Koch; hung out with a private investigator; and lived longer on bagels and coffee than I ever thought possible.

 

Then it was almost over. Once again, I realized would need a job (a theme that shouldn't have been a surprise by then). Somehow, I snared an interview with Jim McGarvey, then metro editor of the Daily Record of Morris County, New Jersey. One of three Columbia students offered a job, I was the only one that accepted.

 

Within a few weeks after graduation, I was moving into an apartment between Hiawatha and Minnehaha streets in Lake Hiawatha, a one-time summer village that had been absorbed by sprawling Parsippany.

 

Compared to my previous relocations, I would be moving next door, to suburban north-central Jersey, 30 minutes from the George Washington Bridge if traffic is light, roughly midway between the Delaware and the Hudson rivers. Culturally, I was leaping across the nation's class divide, from the edge of impoverished, immigrant Washington Heights to one of America's richest counties, the home of AT&T, a place where, one local official told me primly, "we care about our schools, and we care about our roads." For the next 15 months, I would have to care, too.