Life at City College and the Beginning of Romance

Benjamin B. Ferencz

The College of the City of New York was another unique institution. It charged no tuition. Only academically qualified males who met strict standards could be enrolled. There was no such thing as “open admissions.” Fortunately for me, graduates of Townsend Harris High were automatically accepted—even without a diploma. Many CCNY students came from immigrant homes. They were rough and tough and anything but genteel. For them, college was an opportunity to share the American dream; it was not a place for fun and games. “City” had no football team. Many of its Professors were world renowned. Professor Morris Raphael Cohen was a very distinguished philosopher who challenged conventional wisdom in a Yiddish accent. With the diversity and poverty of its students, City College was known as “the poor man’s Harvard.”

To accommodate my enrollment, of course, our family had to move again. City College, past Harlem Heights, was practically inaccessible from East 64th Street. I was glad to be gone from that so-called fashionable neighborhood. Too many of our tenants in the converted townhouse struck me as pretenders. There was the man who bought twelve pairs of handmade shoes and skipped without paying the bill of the tearful shoemaker who came looking for him. Wouldn’t one pair have been enough? Of course, he didn’t pay his rent either. Another charlatan proudly displayed medals he had in fact ordered for himself. A “lady,” for whom I had built a bookcase, paid me with a two-cent coin she claimed was a valuable family heirloom. My family never feigned to be upper crust and would never have tried to deceive or mistreat others as did some of the “elegant people” who lived near Park Avenue. I was happy when we moved back to the Bronx where there were fewer pretentious people. I could board a streetcar from our new apartment that would take me close to City College. If I missed the trolley, I could run all the way, lugging my books on my back, and still reach my first class almost on time.

After school, I was required to do chores at home under the glaring eye of my older sister Pearl, the manager. I have forgotten the details, but on one occasion she commanded me to do something that I thought was unreasonable and not in my job description. I refused. Venting her ire by slapping or scratching me was getting to be hazardous to her health so she refrained from her usual response and simply complained vociferously to higher authority. She phoned my mother, who was working as a seamstress nearby, and screamed about my transgressions. My mother got me on the phone and said that since my sister was older, I had to obey her and apologize. If I refused, I had to leave the house. I was never one to be intimidated. I packed a small bag, deposited my house key on the kitchen table and departed.

It is always a good rule not to jump off the diving board unless you know there is water in the pool. I knew that my father was legally responsible for the maintenance of his minor children, so I moved in on Pop. I also knew that financial maintenance was beyond his means. It was summertime, there was no school and I had no difficulty in finding gainful employment. I was accustomed to odd jobs, but some were odder than others. One of the neighbors was a paper-hanger with an ugly daughter my age. Her father promptly hired me as his assistant. While at work, he introduced me to his vaunted lovely girl. I preferred to look at the wallpaper in the bathroom. I began to look for other sources of employment.

On the very day that I had left home, my mother appeared at the door as we were finishing dinner in my father’s apartment. She wanted words with me. “Uncle Dave” had been shocked to discover, when he returned from work, that I had departed and turned in my key. It called for an explanation. I always treated my mother with respect and we discussed the situation in quiet detail. I refused to apologize to my sister for not obeying her unreasonable demands. We were at an impasse. I said I would have to think about it. I also began to think about other things. Gertie—referred to theretofore as the “Greener Cousina”—was visiting her aunt, my stepmother, and could not help overhearing the conversation. She was apparently touched by my gentle and persuasive reasoning. I may thereby have won my most important case. It was not too long thereafter that I was impressed by her language skills and knowledge and her determination to go to night school to complete her education. The “Green” began to take on a rosy glow. In fact, I began to notice that she was very pretty. I was in no rush to return to my sister’s domination. I stayed with Pop until school started. Meanwhile Gertie and I began to take long walks, hand in hand. We became close friends. Being a proper Jewish girl, she saw to it that it was not too close.

Gertrude and I started dating. Since neither of us had any money, our favorite recreation was to go to Cooper Union to listen to lectures that were very enlightening—and free. We could afford the subway fare which was only five cents, and we might even “go Dutch” and share the costs. Sometimes I could be a sport and invite her to a hot chocolate at Stubies Ice Cram Parlor on Tremont Avenue. We could also go to the nearby Bronx zoo where we could look at the monkeys for nothing. If we stayed till it was dark we could sit on a park bench until driven away by hungry mosquitoes. There wasn’t too much time for that sort of thing, since Gert worked all day sewing in a clothing factory and then went to night school to continue her interrupted education. She was a very bright student and soon could even speak English without a Hungarian accent. She was eager to pursue a career in social work, and left her job with the Ladies Garment Workers Union to take a lesser-paying post as a social worker at the Bronx Hospital. We found we had much in common and saw each other whenever we could.

For reasons I have never fathomed, I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. I never aspired to become a cowboy or a policeman or anything like that. Being distressed by what I saw in Hell’s Kitchen, I looked forward to a career that would enable me to prevent juvenile delinquency. Accordingly, I selected sociology as my major field of study. It was mandatory to also take other courses deemed essential for every well-educated gentleman. One of my choices was between biology, which would compel me to cut open a live frog, or botany, which I assumed would allow me to smell the roses rather than the formaldehyde. The fact that I couldn’t afford the textbook didn’t bother me since I could see that it was mostly written in Latin, a language I couldn’t understand anyway. I shouldn’t have been shocked when the kindly botany Professor whispered in my ear that I was going to flunk. I hastened to borrow a text and, much to everyone’s surprise, I somehow passed the course. The only thing I vaguely remember from my botany class is that a dicotyledonous leaf has two branches whereas a monocotyledonous leaf has only one. There’s nothing quite like a good college education.

During my college years, from 1937 to 1940, the world seemed to be in constant turmoil and on the brink of war. At seventeen, I didn’t realize that the world had always been that way and probably would always remain that way. Japan had recently invaded China; the Russian revolution after World War I had provoked there civil strife as Red Russians were killing White Russians, and the Marxists fighting with the Leninists. Germany was preparing for aggression. Many considered CCNY to be a hotbed of radicalism. One of the courses offered was “Dialectical Materialism.” Since I had not the slightest idea what that meant, and it did not interfere with my lunch schedule, I enrolled. The assigned readings dealt with debates between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and correspondence between Bukharin, Zinoviev, and other revolutionaries whose names also meant nothing to me. I dropped the course. Revolutions and revolutionaries was not my thing.

All social problems were being solved, or at least debated, in one of the City College alcoves known as “The Kremlin.” There, “Young Communists” argued fiercely and exchanged fisticuffs with “Young Socialists” about the best way to maintain peace. Since peace was a subject that appealed to me, I joined the debates. As far as I could make out, the primary goal of the communists was to kill the socialists and vice versa. Whatever I said, both sides called me a Trotskyite. I didn’t know that Leon Trotsky was a leading counterrevolutionary whose career ended abruptly when he was murdered with an ice pick by one of Stalin’s agents. Undaunted, I marched with a mob of City College activists who paraded about two miles to Columbia University holding high our banners calling for world peace. When we arrived at the high-brow college, hoping to be joined by hundreds of other intellectuals, we were assaulted with a barrage of chalk and blackboard erasers tossed from windows by Columbia students who declared war on us. I learned that there are differing views about how to run the world, and that trying to maintain peace can be a thankless, and even hazardous, endeavor.

Professor Bonaro Overstreet’s course in philosophy was very safe. All we had to do was read a novel by the noted English essayist Aldous Huxley. His book, Ends and Means, provided the basis for endless philosophical discussions in which I excelled. I believe there I came to the conclusion that lawful ends can only be sought by lawful means, a conclusion which earned me an “A” in the class.

For recreation, I frequently went to the gym. I even tried my hand as a 115 pound bantamweight boxer. I discovered that my tall and skinny opponents had arms that seemed to reach their ankles while mine did not exceed 29 inches. The coach suggested that maybe I might want to slim down to a flyweight. I mentioned this to my mother, but no Jewish mother could ever be persuaded that her child should lose weight. My Mom threatened to give me some boxing lessons I would never forget. That was a risk I wasn’t prepared to take. Maybe, as Marlon Brando said in his great film “On the Waterfront,” “I could have been a contender.” My boxing career was over.

Not everything I did in college was a waste of time. One of my more useful experiences came from my courses in Criminology. We tried to find a solution to the problem of juvenile truancy by kids who simply refused to go to school. Intuitively, I knew the answer. The teachers and the courses bored them. We devised a program of evening activities to attract the young truants. Those with a record of absences were invited to come voluntarily to participate in popular games and workshop activities. We provided lots of building materials but had a shortage of tools. The idea was to teach the little dears the joys of peaceful cooperation. A job of any size, such as building a rowboat, could only be completed by working together. Occasionally, one kid would try to hit another in the head with a hammer, but that was unusual.

To get to know some full fledged and certified juvenile delinquents, I was recommended for an unpaid summer job, as a counselor at a reform school in Dobbs Ferry, New York. The place of detention was felicitously called “The Children’s Village.” It offered small homes with “cottage parents” to calm the little darlings who had been persistent truants, runaways, thieves, or even murderers. One favorite sport of the misunderstood youngsters was to drop sugar cubes into the gas tanks of visiting guests. The unsuspecting visitors could ride away for a few miles before the entire engine had to be reassembled. I was only a few years older than some of those entrusted to my care. My boxing skills came in handy.

On my day off, I would hitchhike home to the Bronx and return carrying a bag of sweets for the poor dears. Invariably, the sweets were promptly stolen. After a few futile warnings, I set my trap. I returned with a sack of pungent peppermints. The bait was immediately taken. I lined up half a dozen of my suspects and asked them each to exhale forcefully. When the scent of mint could clearly be detected by all, we knew the identity of the thief. I then left it to his bunk buddies to decide on the appropriate response. When I returned half an hour later, the culprit had been tried by a jury of his peers and justice had obviously been done. He might have had trouble sitting, or even standing, for a while, but the crime was never repeated. Experience is often the best teacher. I learned that peace and justice go hand in hand.

My pre-law education included work as a volunteer “intern” in the criminal court system of New York City. My assignment was to arrange the court records of interviews by psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers who gave written opinions about the felons. I was surprised, and even shocked, to discover that some citizens who appeared quite respectable were capable of the most atrocious crimes. It became clear that some sex offenders were habitual criminals where imprisonment seemed to have no deterrent effect; on the contrary, incarceration only increased their aberrant behavior. No one knew what to do about political criminals, such as bomb-tossing terrorists trying to achieve a particular political or nationalistic goal. The professional habitual criminals were well known to the police and were frequently subjected to coercive techniques deigned to discourage further criminal behavior. It seldom worked, but sometimes it did. It was clear to me that progress toward a more humane and peaceful world would be a slow and difficult process. For many intransigent problems, there are no easy answers.

To earn some money, I became an anonymous “ghostwriter.” Some enterprising and impoverished senior in City College had devised a service to help his fellow man. If a student at another school, such as Brooklyn College or New York University, was in need of a term paper or a dissertation, the CCNY entrepreneur tried to be helpful. He had a stable of needy City students available as subcontractors for any subject. I would accept an assignment in any of the social sciences. (But I wouldn’t touch botany.) By collecting a pile of relevant books from the library, and spreading them out on my bedroom floor over the weekend, I could type out a requested paper for an unknown recipient on any acceptable subject for the sum of one hundred dollars—no questions asked. Not only did it provide me with a means of sustenance, I developed a skill at speed reading and writing, and learned more than I ever absorbed in school. It is not necessary to sit in a classroom to become a learned person, just as not all of those who flaunt academic degrees are well educated.

My grades in college were excellent in subjects in which I was interested. I was in the top of the class in every course given in the sociology department. I had very little interest, or success, in unrelated matters. In 1940, at the age of 20, I received my degree from CCNY as a Bachelor of Social Sciences. I even attended the boring graduation ceremonies. What next? I didn’t know any lawyer and had no idea about law schools. My parents were in no position to help me. I felt that to lift myself out of my humble milieu and be qualified to achieve my goals, I would have to try to become the best student in the best law school in the world. I sent my application only to the Harvard Law School. I never found out how or why I was accepted at the elitist institution, but was admitted as a member of the class of 1943. Harvard here I come!