—Tomas Tranströmer, from “Preludes”
Just as I found it fruitless to make my mother understand my desire to study physics, I knew that there was no point in trying to explain M.I.T.—the only college I wanted to attend, the only college I imagined would understand me, and I, it.
Pouring over technical treatises written by M.I.T. faculty in the confines of my room, I dreamed of the conversations I would have, the future discoveries I would make there. I had even exchanged letters with Dr. Charles Townes, inventor of the maser, precursor to the laser, for which he received the Nobel Prize. He had offered me encouragement and guidance for my science fair project, building a halogen gas laser.
But rather than mention these connections to my mother, I said, “M.I.T. is the top school for the study of science and engineering, and besides, they gave me a full scholarship. I’m going there, and that’s that.” Dad opted not to take sides. Instead, he shook his head. But I knew, even then, he was secretly proud of me and wouldn’t stand in my way.
During the long drive to Boston, I fidgeted with giddy anticipation: Dad behind the wheel, Mom in the front passenger seat, brother Chuck and me in back, and my gear stuffed in the trunk of our family car. Greg, the youngest, had been left behind, my aunt watching over him.
Neither of my parents had gone to college, so they were unprepared for what it would be like. More than this, no one among our acquaintances had ever been east of the Hudson River. So, traveling to New England—land of Pilgrims, Paul Revere, Longfellow, Hawthorne and Emerson, codfish and lobsters, et cetera—felt like a journey to a foreign country, with all the excitement and trepidation that comes with venturing into the unknown.
Back in the 1960s, M.I.T. freshman were required to arrive on campus a week before classes. After a brief orientation, we were assigned temporary dorm rooms, then fraternity “rush week” began. But at that time, the Institute could accommodate fewer than half its student body in dorms, so those who could afford to, rented apartments in Cambridge or Boston. The rest—as I would do when rush week concluded—lived in fraternities.
Rush week consisted of five days of meet-and-greet, when M.I.T. fraternities on both side of the Charles River threw open their doors to the freshman, offering sporting activities, cookouts, soirées, keg and dance parties, with live bands and coeds. It was a chance for us to check out the “Greeks,” and for them to evaluate, choose, or reject us.
By the end of the week, any freshman with a modicum of social skills (primary) and athletic ability (secondary), was invited to join one of the fraternities. Those who didn’t, ended up in a drab, campus dorm. During that week, I had pledged Kappa Sigma, located across the Charles from M.I.T. in Boston’s swanky, Back Bay. I felt I could easily fit in with the brothers, plus I like the location–the brownstone frat house had “old Boston” appeal.
Our initial plan was that, while I was attending campus activities, Mom, Dad and Chuck, would enjoy a “real vacation;” then, once I was settled, they would head back home. They stayed in a Boston motel, a rare extravagance, and took in the sights—the Freedom Trail, Faneuil Hall, a Red Sox game, dining out each night at Durgin Park, the Union Oyster House, and other landmark restaurants. Considering that back home, the only time my family ate out was for the “Friday-night fish-fry” at the Broadway Grill, this was a real “fling.”
What none of us had anticipated, having had no experience of such things as college or fraternities, was that from the moment I set foot on campus, amidst the whirlwind of activities surrounding rush week, my family would not see me again until the day they dropped me off at the Kappa Sigma house—my new “home away from home” for the next four years—and bid me goodbye.
“You abandoned us,” is how Mom recalls it, three decades later, still with a hint of bitterness choking her voice. All those years ago, my parents had expected I would meet them for dinner each evening and report on my doings. Dad no doubt concurred with her at the time, but he just shook his head.
From her perspective, Mom was right. But from my angle, I saw things differently. What I experienced during that first week and for the months thereafter, was a sense of unbridled freedom and happiness. For the first time in my life, I felt I was among my own kind, beginning the life I was meant to live.
In high school, although I wasn’t ostracized for being an academic achiever, I was looked upon as “different,” a science geek. But at M.I.T., my classmates were all science and engineering geeks. And at M.I.T., there were other reasons for my giddiness—Boston held out the promise of new experiences that would expand my horizons, whereas industrial, blue-collar Buffalo, simply felt confining, ordinary.
In addition, taking up residence five hundred miles from home, meant I had slipped my familial bonds, and my mother’s nagging questions: Why are you in a book all the time? You should get out more. Or: Physicist, what’s that? Why don’t you study to be a doctor or a pharmacist. At least, they make good money.
At M.I.T., I was on my own, among my peers, pursuing my dream to become a scientist, and about to test myself against the world. Although I gradually learned that Boston, too, had ethnic, working-class neighborhoods, at first flush, “The Shining City on a Hill,” seemed unlike provincial Buffalo in every imaginable way. It was a city steeped in history, a city filled with esteemed, cultural institutions. For me it was the “Athens” of America.
Attending college in Boston afforded me both a literal and a figurative distance from which to reflect upon where I had come from, my Heimat. And, returning home for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, for winter and spring breaks, and then for whole summers, highlighted the contrast between home-life and my college life.
Back in Boston, after long summer breaks working as part of a grounds crew, alongside “lifers,” to earn money for school, my views of “The Shining City Upon a Hill” became more nuanced. During my sophomore year, my rosy first impression began to fade. I saw my initial takes were based on many misconceptions about Boston, M.I.T., and my peers. It was during my remaining undergraduate years that I began to reflect upon where I had come from. This led me to several realizations, the primary one being that not everyone at M.I.T. was “just like me.”
What occurred then, was a slow-dawning awareness of myself as someone who had grown up differently from many, if not most, of my peers. The writer W.S. Di Piero, who hailed from a dense, South Philadelphia Italian neighborhood, wrote, “I didn’t know I was a member of the working class until I no longer was… where I grew up, there were no class distinctions because we were all one socioeconomic group.” This mirrored my experience as a working class kid from Buffalo’s Polish East Side. At M.I.T., I began to learn about social class as much as I did about quantum physics.
The initial excitement I’d felt upon my arrival in Boston, was replaced with what felt like an unanticipated attack of vertigo. Suddenly, I just felt disoriented, out of place—out of my place—among my classmates. External reality had not changed, but I had. In those later college years, I experienced an interior, conscious, tectonic shift.
One upperclassman from Rochester, kept his “boat” of a Buick parked in the narrow access alley, bordering Storrow Drive. I bummed rides home with him on Thanksgiving holidays and winter breaks. He never took me all the way, but dropped me at the last rest-stop before exiting the Thruway, an hour shy of Buffalo. From there, I’d call from the pay phone and Dad would drive out to get me.
The rest stop served me much the way telephone booths or storage rooms did comic book super-heroes. There, I slipped out of one identity and back into another. When our family Ford pulled up, I’d open the door, throw my bags in the back, and take my place in the passenger seat. After exchanging hugs, Dad and I would slip into our old pattern of conversation.
“How are you doing?” Dad would ask.
“Okay,” I’d answer tersely.
“Is everything good at school?”
“Yep, things are just fine.”
“Okay then, that’s good to hear.” And off we’d speed toward home, happy to be in each other’s company.
Of course, there had to be other scholarship students at M.I.T. from backgrounds like mine, but they didn’t stand out. There was nothing about their speech or physical features to indicate they’d hailed from blue-collar backgrounds. And, I have to believe, they must have felt as isolated as I did, keeping their intimate feelings of being an outsider to themselves.
In late August, at the start of each new academic year, Dad and I drove the eight hours from Buffalo to Boston, my books and clothes packed in the trunk of our family car. It never occurred to either of us that I might instead take the train or fly. Besides, the long drive allowed me to transition slowly from Buffalo neighborhood kid back to Boston college student. Dad would overnight in Boston before embarking on the long, return drive, but he didn’t book a hotel room—an extravagance. Instead, he slept on a couch, or in an empty bunk in my frat house.
No one else’s father ever did that. In fact, it was only on rare occasions that I ever met another dad, and usually it was only because he’d stopped in to see where his son lived after dining out—and you could bet they hadn’t gone to a neighborhood bar & grill for a fish-fry.
Their fathers were professionals—engineers, doctors, dentists, lawyers—or they were businessmen. A big difference from my father, who started out as a grease monkey and welder. And then, after a series of unskilled jobs—and years of correspondence classes—he achieved his “career” goal, landing a municipal service job as a radio technician for the City of Buffalo Police Department.
To their credit, not one of my frat brothers ever teased me, or made fun of the fact that Dad slept over, ate his meals, and hung out as if he were one of us. In fact, several brothers looked forward to his visits. These were the electrical engineering majors. And while Dad lacked their theoretical knowledge, he had lots of practical, hands-on experience from his years as a TV repairman, and now, a radio technician.
Those night he’d spend with us, he’d huddle over the electrical circuits they were building for EE lab projects, while I stood looking on with pride. Invariably, Dad would diagnose why their circuit design wasn’t working, then come up with a fix. Afterward, we would all toast him over a six-pack of Narragansett.
Each month, an LP arrived, and tucked inside plain, brown sleeves, were recordings such as Offenbach’s “Can Can,” Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and Ravel’s “Boléro.” In the waning light of late afternoons, I’d lay on the living room rug, under the speakers, listening, and I loved what I heard.
One early winter, a frat brother, who had season tickets to the Opera Company of Boston, invited me to accompany him. We went to a performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the Shubert Theater. I was grateful for the opportunity to experience something so novel. Although I struggled to follow much of the story line, the glittery splendor of the theater hall, and the larger-than-life performances, made a lasting impression.
On the advice of this same frat brother, I also took advantage of the cheap, “rush tickets” to Boston Symphony Orchestra performances available to students. Growing up, I had once attended a live Buffalo Philharmonic concert—a school field trip meant to introduce us to “high culture.”
However, when I learned that the legendary Polish pianist, Arthur Rubenstein, was giving a recital at Boston’s Symphony Hall, I splurged and bought two, full-price tickets, then invited a Boston University coed, who was also Polish, to accompany me. I felt very sophisticated that evening, dressed in my Sunday best, escorting an attractive woman through the milling crowd inside the hall’s foyer. And, as I had hoped, my date was impressed.
Looking back now, my transit, at the age of eighteen from the industrial, blue-collar Buffalo and the “Polonia” of my youth, to the more intellectual, white-collar Boston, was a kind of emigration. And while I had crossed lines of culture and status, the dislocation and emotional adjustment it entailed, felt no less real. Much of it was thrilling and mind-expanding, but I could never quite shake the feeling of having a hidden identity, of being an outsider let in to sample things that didn’t belong to me.
Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.
The German language has one of those wonderful compound word phrases for this sense of dislocation: die fremdgewordene Heimat, “the homeland grown strange.”
The paired experiences of “far from home,” and “the homeland grown strange,” are what leaving Buffalo to attend M.I.T. felt like.
Whenever I haven’t been back to Buffalo for a several years, the elastic tether that binds me to my Heimat feels stretched thin, and I get the urge to visit again. Each time, I hope to experience once more, the things I remember with fondness. But I’m always brought up short. The comforts I’d associated with “home” are drained of the satisfactions I’d once known.
It was more than the reverse-telescope effect that occurs when I visit childhood haunts and discover, for example, that the muddy yard in which I’d once made a “brilliant” end run during a pickup football game, had shrunk to what felt like, a postage-stamp. It was this: I was distressed to find the city’s once-thriving, Polish East Side, now a desperately poor neighborhood. Its main avenues were desolate, overgrown lots squatted between boarded-up or burnt-out houses, and the distinguishing features of its once lush side streets, were deneuded, barren.
And while Buffalo’s seventeen-story, art deco New York Central train terminal, still stands, it has long been vacant. The surrounding out-buildings and boarding ramps, where my grandfather and uncles once worked, and instilled in me a love for trains and train-travel, are crumbling ruins, the leavings of a war zone.
But though I hide it well, I continue to have moments of vertigo, feeling that I am an outsider to the community in which I reside, an interloper. On these occasions, I’m surprised to still feel, though muted by the passing years, as if my feet are planted in two different worlds, and belong not wholly to one place or the other, but rather, in a kind of limbo between: “far from home,” and “the homeland grown strange.”
Did my mother intuit there would be this price to pay when she asked me all those years ago, “Why do you want to go so far away to college?” I do know what she’d say if I were to confide in her now: “That’s what you get for not listening to your mother in the first place.”