Between the years 1960-64 I cut my eyeteeth as a critic and cultural journalist by working on the Hunter College Arrow, the newspaper of Hunter College, City University of New York, while contributing poetry, short fiction, and a one-act play to the college’s literary magazine, the Echo. I did this while earning a B.A. in English Literature. In my senior year I edited the Arrow, preceded in that role by people like Paul Du Brul, Jack Newfield, Brian Sharoff, and Rita Dershowitz.
A reunion of those who worked on the Hunter Arrow in the 1950s and 1960s was held on Friday, May 7, 2010, at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, 47-49 E. 65th St., New York, NY. Recently reopened after substantial renovation, Roosevelt House was the New York City home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt until the death of FDR’s mother Sara in 1941. So the place feels imbued with history; and, since most of those who worked on the Arrow came from parents rooted in the left-wing/labor movement, it seemed an appropriate venue for this gathering.
That was enhanced, for me, by the presence on its walls of a small but powerful exhibition of photographs, “Picturing Policy: Legacies of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt,” organized by Rickie Solinger. This exhibition combined images from the 1930s drawn from the files of the Farm Security Administration, the Office of War Information, and the National Archives, all relating to the Great Depression and the New Deal. Some were by figures like Dorothea Lange and John Collier; others were anonymous. All evoked the difficulties that the parents and grandparents of my cohort struggled through, whose influence had inevitably seeped into our consciousnesses as we came of age.
I hadn’t yet become involved with photography during my years at Hunter, which made it curious yet apropos to have such works present and visible during this quasi-homecoming. Meditating before the get-together on my deep four-year involvement with this college newspaper (and its sister publication, Echo, the school literary magazine), I gradually came to realize that it prefigured virtually everything that came afterward in my life as a professional writer — that the experience proved not just instructive but, in the deepest sense, formative. So, as I usually do, in part because of that early engagement with public commentary, I wrote something about it. This is the complete text of remarks I delivered at the reunion.
It’ll be be exactly 50 years next September that, in the fall of 1960, at the age of sixteen, I stepped onto the Bronx campus of Hunter College as a freshman and, a few days into the semester, walked through the door of the Hunter Arrow office.
Jack Kerouac, speaking about chance as a determining factor in one’s life, once wrote about how you can “make a turn down some alley and nothing is ever the same.” The Arrow office wasn’t exactly an alley — instead, a dingy, cramped space with beige walls, a ratty couch, several weathered desks, a manual typewriter or two, a telephone, and windows that had not seen washing for some decades, located in the top corner of an imitation stone castle intended to impress returning World War II vets there on the G. I. Bill. But that moment had the same transformative effect that any major turning point does. I wouldn’t say I saw myself as following a path in my life at that juncture; I knew I’d write as part of my future, but had no vision of what that would entail. Nonetheless, I can state now with confidence that my life would not have taken the shape it did if I hadn’t climbed those steps and crossed that threshold.
Between fall 1960 and spring 1964 I worked for the Arrow — first as a feature writer and reviewer, then as a weekly columnist, next as a sub-editor and editorial writer, and finally as editor-in-chief. Some of what I wrote fell into the category of reportage, some was criticism, some was what we now call op-ed writing, and most of it would probably get lumped under the new rubric of “cultural journalism.” No one had taught me how to do any of that when I started at the Arrow, and no one taught it to me formally during my four years at Hunter. The school offered some journalism courses, but I didn’t take any. I learned by doing, as I think we all did, and of course learned from my colleagues on the staff. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that we had no mature professional models. New York City was a metropolis rich in newspapers at that moment: the Times, the Post, the Daily News, the Village Voice, the Daily Mirror, the World-Telegram and Sun, the Journal American — don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? We read all of them, and their writers and editors were our teachers.
That scruffy little office — and the premises of Citywide Printers, the grimy, low-ceilinged Lower East Side print shop where we produced the paper — became my home away from home during those years. I spent most of my free time on campus there, much of my time in general in one or another of those spaces until we put out the final issue of the spring 1964 semester and I graduated. The people with whom I worked so intensely became, as I suppose is usually the case, my extended family.
Like many families, it had its dysfunctions. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only editor-in-chief of the Arrow up to that point, possibly still the only one ever, to be subjected to impeachment proceedings by a portion of his editorial board. The grounds, as I recall, were that I endorsed the full bifurcation of the two Hunter campuses and supported Roberta Kantor as my successor for the editorship. The separation of Hunter uptown, as we called the Bronx campus, and Hunter downtown, as we called the original Park Avenue location, seemed inevitable to me after several years of managing the logistics of a two-campus newspaper, though of course it also meant a diminution of the circulation and power of the Arrow, which is what upset some of my staff and editorial board. That divorce of the campuses happened anyway, in 1968, just a few years after I left.
And though Roberta — known to us all as Tom, having arrived with a Thomas Hunter scholarship — lost the open election for editor that year, she won it the next. So apparently others not under my influence thought she was fit for the job. I don’t know how well she did in that role. Perhaps someone else here today can speak to that. A year or so later she was dead. I can’t listen to the Neil Young song “The Needle (and the Damage Done)” without thinking of Roberta and wondering if our personal relationship — for we were lovers as well as colleagues on the paper — contributed to the burden of griefs that took her where she ended up so much too soon. Chalk her up among the missing but not forgotten at this gathering. (Correction: Roberta died in 1973. See comments, below.)
In the event, the impeachment attempt failed, rejected by the Student Council, and I served out my term. But that experience has certainly flavored my memory of those years, so my mood today isn’t entirely nostalgic, though none of those who sought to remove me from office are present at this event to enrich the psychodynamics of the occasion for me, conceivably for them also.
At the urging of David Mairowitz, who’d edited Echo, the Hunter literary journal, in 1963, and graduated a year ahead of me, I went out to northern California in the fall of 1964 to take a master’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from San Francisco State. When I completed my thesis, a set of short stories, I promptly stopped writing poetry and short fiction for twenty years, returned to New York, and began working as a freelance cultural journalist. Shortly thereafter I developed a specialization in the history and criticism of photography, started a column on that subject in the Village Voice in 1968, and in 1970 began writing also for the New York Times. That led me to considering the new digital media as they emerged, so I’ve addressed that topic substantively for decades. And, for both print and online outlets, some of them local and some international, I’ve written about everything from art and politics to cooking and sex.
Since 1967, entirely freelance, I’ve published some 2000 essays in a wide assortment of periodicals, 8 books of my own critical writings (including five collections of my essays), and, avocationally, two volumes of poetry. That work in prose-essay form has been translated into 21 languages and published in 31 countries. I’ve also founded and edited publications (including online ones), and served on the editorial boards of others. In doing all that I’ve relied heavily on what I learned during my apprenticeship at the Arrow, working under people like Brian Sharoff and Rita Dershowitz. That’s where I cut my eyeteeth on the basics of reportage and investigative journalism; it’s where I developed my sense of relationship with a readership; it’s where I became addicted to seeing my name, and my words, in print; and it’s where I acquired my undeniable appetite for provocation, controversy, and confrontation — especially for “speaking truth to power.”
Indeed, just shy of a year ago I transformed an online newsletter I’d published since 1995 into a blog called Photocritic International. While it includes a diversity of material, its primary focus has become the attempted dismantling of the unique and world-famous Polaroid Collection. This complex story involves two bankruptcies of two major corporations in two states over a ten-year period, one of them consequent to the collapsed multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme of Tom Petters, sentenced last winter to 50 years in the pen. My blog, which has received 416,000 pageviews since December 26, 2009, has become action central in the last-ditch effort to save the collection. Along the way I’ve been threatened with whopping lawsuits by a bankruptcy-court trustee in Minneapolis and Sotheby’s auction house in New York. But one possible outcome of my digging and probing and advocacy may be that the collection will get preserved intact as the irreplaceable cultural resource it is. So I proceed undeterred.
I can say, in all honesty, that I don’t think I’d be doing this if I hadn’t undergone the shaping experience of writing those early columns and editorials for the Arrow that pissed off Hillel and the Young Americans for Freedom and the Hunter administration and members of my own staff and editorial board (and, yes, also writing a one-act play about the death of God that got published in Echo in 1963 and nearly brought down censorship on the entire CUNY student-publication system). To put it another way, I trace a direct line from choosing to take those stands in print during my years at Hunter, and dealing with the public consequences thereof, to making a decision to spend the past year digging through legal documents and old news stories to unearth nuggets of pertinent information, contacting sources and extracting quotes, writing and publishing regular updates, and feeding information and leads to other reporters at other publications, all at my own expense, because I think the cause is just and someone needs to speak up for it.
What I’m proposing, in short, is that working on and writing for the Hunter Arrow didn’t just develop in me the ability to write rapidly and well, an awareness of solid journalistic practice, rudimentary editorial savvy, and the sometimes unwelcome skill of immediately identifying typos in any printed material that passes before my eyes. It made a full citizen of me, in the deepest sense in which I understand that word, by teaching me the price you have to be prepared to pay when you embrace that role.
It’s a lesson that’s stood me in good stead for half a century. For that I’m grateful, without qualification, to everyone with whom I shared those long days in that grungy third-floor office and those late nights in the East 4th St. print shop, drinking coffee gone cold from the diner on Avenue A and correcting inky proofs while the linotype machine chattered away under Gene Tasone’s fingers in the next room.
Postscript: There’s a curious link between the end of my involvement with the Arrow and the start of my career as a freelance cultural journalist. While the staff and I put together the final issue of the spring semester, way past midnight at Citywide Printers, I struck up a conversation with a man who introduced himself as Jerome Agel. Jerry had come to oversee the printing of another publication, a small newspaper (we’d probably call it a newsletter now) about the workings of the publishing industry. He gave me his card and, upon learning that I planned to leave shortly for the west coast, told me to look him up if and when I returned to New York.
I kept that card. Two and a half years later, when I headed east again after grad school, I gave Jerry a call. He still published that little paper, and I wrote a few articles for him. More importantly, he’d started working with Marshall McLuhan as the packager of mass-market paperbacks with experimental image-text layouts. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, which appeared in early 1967, became a bestseller for Bantam Books and a cult classic.
The team had just produced an LP version thereof, on the Columbia label. One day Jerry handed me an advance review copy of the record, suggesting that I write about it and see if I could get that published. Soon thereafter the Village Voice ran it, on its front page — initiating a six-year relationship with that paper, and kicking off my life as a permanent freelance writer.