City University student body is filled with recent immigrants
contendingheroically, but naturally sometimes with trepidation
with an unfamiliar society and a difficult new language. Any
one of these students who reads the first sentences of Joseph
Bergers new book Displaced Persons (Simon & Schuster)
will know exactly what the author is talking about: I.
. .felt these alien streets would be a trial, filled with
unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar tongues. How could I make
a friend when I didnt even speak English? How could
I understand a teacher or classmate? And how could I rely
on my perplexed, frightened parents to help me cope?
Berger, now deputy education editor at the New York Times,
arrived from a displaced persons camp near Berlin with his
family of Polish Jews at the close of World War II, and his
memoir (its subtitle is Growing Up American After the Holocaust)
describes the experience, one phase of which was attending
the City College of New York. He appears at the Graduate Center
on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m. to read from and discuss the book. Excerpted
here is a passage that describes how Berger found his journalistic
careerand several future colleagues (including the reporter
and columnist Clyde Haberman)on the already 40-year-old
student newspaper, the Campus.
was Room 328, a long narrow room in the colleges social
center, Finley Hall. Here we came between classes, after classes,
and too often during classes, to schmooze, gossip, rib one
another, and work on the two issues we turned out each week.
The room was dominated by a long table with several grimy
Remingtons. Two tall arched windows overlooked a deep and
spacious lawn. ... Any stab at being clever or provocative
was sure to get a retort from the rotating audience on the
couches and window alcoves. A good deal of it was sophomoric,
like one editors quipping that Clyde Habermana
freshman friendwas so skinny he had to dart around a
shower in order to get wet.
Wisecracking and cheeky we were, but we seldom became sour
with discontent. Almost no one was a true believer out to
transform the world. We saw the clumsiness and silliness in
every cause. With that detached stance, we were perfectly
suited to be journalists, and that is what most of us became.
The campus gates closed at 10 p.m., which on many nights didnt
give us enough time to finish editing. Se we adjourned to
a bar on Convent Avenue, the Moulin Rouge, and continued reworking
stories in the smoky, honey light of the vinyl booths. In
those days before heartfelt stirrings of the civil rights
movement congealed into racial distrust, we were never made
to feel unwelcome by the neighborhoods drinkers, whatever
they may have thought of our gang of cocky white kids. . .
As a result of the newspaper schedule, we spent much of our
days walking around in a twilight of exhaustion, deepened
by a sense of guilt at missing classes and term papers and
sinking into academic bankruptcy. ... So absorbed was I in
our crusade to get the paper out that, one morning on the
way to school, I paced the 167th Street subway platform while
reading a newspaper and walked right off the edge, tumbling
onto the tracks below. . .
We spun our own mythology, a pantheon made up of legendary
Campus editors of the past. These included not just journalists
like Abe Rosenthal and Ed Kosner, but people closer to my
generation who showed up at some of our parties. In our oral
tradition, working newspapermen like Vic Ziegel, Jack Schwartz,
Bob Mayer, and Mike Katz became giants who strode across the
plains of my impressionable mind.
Even without meeting them, they seemed in my imaginings to
be wittier, sharper, savvier, more literate, and more level-headed
than the rest of humanity. When I finally got to know them,
I came to realize they were young men and women who grew up
in the same lumpen Bronx and Brooklyn precincts that I did,
rode the same straw-seated subway cars, suffered from the
same workaday insecurities and hungers that plagued me. .
and with practice, I learned how to write catchy leads, to
shape a story so that the significant points were made at
the top, rather than in chronological order, to let all sides
have their due. Reporting turned out to be no different from
what I had been doing all my lifeexploring, unearthing,
inquiring, trying to figure out the boundaries and the rules
and work within them.
I didnt realize it at the time, but the detached attitude
of my newly adopted vocation particularly suited me. I could
be a comfortable part of this newspaper circle, yet elsewhere
keep my habitual distancefrom the college mainstream,
even its organized fringesand feel justified doing so.
We had to be outsiders to retain the impartiality we needed
as reporters, even if we were green ones. We were a club of
outsiders, of self-proclaimed exiles, and as a refugee I more
than fit in. . .
B the end of sophomore year, it was the rookies turn
to take the helm. Clyde was chosen as editor in chief, I as
news editor, and George Kaplan, the third of our freshman
triumvirate, as sports editor. We covered speeches by President
Gallagher and antiwar rallies and the consolidation of the
municipal colleges into the City University and resignations
of deans, doing it in what we believed was a thoroughly professional
We were impudent in our way and figured we were putting out
the best newspaper in the country. Clyde, angular, intense,
quick-witted, was particularly fastidious and exacting. He
labored over copy until he felt it was immaculate, not worrying
as much as I did about the time it consumed or about the bruises
to a reporters feelings. . .
When terms end came along, we ran out of money to put
out the last two spring issues. Clyde felt it was incumbent
on us to find a way to print them. There was a tradition to
sustain, going back to 1907. He was going to help pay for
the extra issues with his state Regents scholarship moneyabout
$150. He asked me and the business manager whether we might
do the same, and we agreed. Although we did not need the money
for tuition, this annual scholarship was a considerable help
to our working-class families and did pay for books, subway
fare, and the rest. We fortified ourselves in our rash gesture
with the flimsy belief that the student government would recognize
our sacrifice to the cause of the First Amendment and reimburse
us later on.
When I told my mother of our plan, she did not wait a second
to scoff. No one will every pay you back, she
said. ... I did as I had promised Clyde, but my mother turned
out to be right. We had the glory of knowing we fulfilled
the newspapers quota for that year, and maintained the
Campus tradition. But the student government, whose officers
we had regularly tweaked, turned down our request for supplemental
When I became editor in chief, we made a concerted effort
to live within our budget. I was not going to squander my
scholarship money again.