Poppa George used to tell the joke (over and over) that his parents were in the iron and steel business. His mother ironed and his father would steal.
I arrived at college in the fall of 1972 thirsty for knowledge.
My father had graduated from The University of Pennsylvania (Wharton School) in 1948 and it was not someplace I ever expected to attend. Although my grades in high school were pretty good, I didn’t have the kind of SAT scores that screamed TOP COLLEGE. I was on the waiting list for U of P which is like getting to a trendy restaurant with 32 people in front of you and the Maitre'd asks, “Do you still want your name on the waiting list”? I never expected to get in to this University.
|Dad wishing me good luck on my way to college - September 1972|
I had applied to several other schools that were small and fit my idea of a perfect college for my personality. Penn was huge. They have thousands of under graduate students plus many graduate schools from law to medicine. You needed a college diploma just to find your classes.
|Packing for Penn - Note my way cool Robert Crumb Mr. Natural T-Shirt|
I had applied to Wesleyan and Williams and other smaller New England schools that sounded like intimate places to make friends and have challenging conversations with progressive professors. The wonderful photographs on their brochures would lure you in and hook you. I could see myself hanging out on a brisk fall day in some fantasy college campus. I probably watched too many movies about a nirvana-like college existence. Keep in mind we had just left the 1960’s and Love Story had come out in 1970 followed by the movie and TV show called The Paper Chase. Since the Internet wouldn’t be ready for 30 more years, the only searching we could do for college information was in the guidance counselor’s dusty office files or at a place we used to call the library.
|Poppa George bought me a Hasselblad camera. It was my companion throughout college. |
Penn was THE IVY LEAGUE which meant little to me at the time but sounded elitist and stuffy. Upon arriving and seeing all the ivy smothering the buildings, the phrase Ivy League started to take root.
I knew I had to befriend people from strange new places that weren’t New Jersey like Ohio, Michigan or even South Carolina. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been thrown into this type of situation before having spent many summers at sleep away camp in the Berkshires. But everyone at Camp Winadu was Jewish, from New Jersey or Long Island and came from very similar backgrounds. (We either liked the Mets or the Yankees).
In hindsight what I was searching for was an extension of high school friendships where people like Jamie, Larry, Neil, Debbie, Rachel and the rest of our gang would appear in their new forms. I wanted to go back home to Kansas…I mean Springfield. It is all very Wizard of Oz like---since there is no place like home.
Not finding a yellow brick road, I marched myself up three very old flights of stairs to my single room in the freshman dorm called Coxe. My room was #323. This dorm was part of a huge quadrangle and served as the hub of all things freshman. I was lucky to have a single so I knew I would have some way to shut out the craziness of a freshman dorm including Frodo, a sweet little mutt who lived with a very tall human named Harold across the hall. (Frodo looked nothing like toto but his name almost rhymed).
|Harold and Frodo|
As soon as I unpacked my clothes, I started hanging a poster of a martial artist, perhaps Bruce Lee, jumping in the air throwing a side kick. Where in the world I got that poster is beyond me although I had been studying Karate for a few years thinking that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to be prepared so I don’t get my butt kicked.
|My freshman college dorm room 323 Coxe|
I taped a few more photos in my space- a picture of my high school girl friend Debbie and at least one Frank Zappa poster. But my decorating wasn’t finished yet. In subsequent weeks I would remove the label from dozens of large Hawaiian Punch cans I compulsively drank all day long and created a banner around the room. I must have been punchy or maybe this connects with my oldest daughter living in Hawaii? I guess somehow this space was my Facebook wall in September of 1972 long before Mark Zuckerberg was even born.
|Guys whose names I still remember - Jack Elias (Our resident director, , Dave Sussman and The Blatt)|
After settling in, I remember hearing a loud and syncopated knocking on the door – probably from someone on the floor looking to say hello.
My first visitor was the other Jeff.
Jeff Blattner was from Pittsburgh. He introduced himself and we sat down and chatted for half an hour talking about my love of photography, his love of sports and played a healthy round of Jewish geography. For those who haven’t played, this is a game we Jews like to engage in where we make the assumption that everyone who is Jewish knows everyone else who is Jewish….in the world. It was the precursor to professional networking for many of us. Interestingly, Jeff and I didn’t know anyone in common although his father had a well-known first cousin: Dr. Henry Kissinger or Uncle Henry as Jeff affectionately called him with his best German accent. The most well-known person in my life was my maternal grandfather Poppa George. (AKA The Penny Philanthropist).
After a few more hits and misses in our geography game in came about nine of Jeff’s closest friends – all from Pittsburgh – who had all come to Penn. (It may have been 3 or 4 guys but it felt like nine in my little room). If memory serves me, they all went to the same high school (Allderdice) and they all prayed at the altar of Franco Harris, Roberto Clemente and The Steelers.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Jeff seemed to be leading everyone to Emerald City or in this case, The City of Brotherly Love as Philadelphia is known. The Wizard, in this story, was either a metaphor for the search for knowledge or the man behind Gino’s Cheesesteaks.
Instead of a friendly lion there was Eddie Solomon (AKA Duzio) who was a gentle and kind person who could spend hours discussing the importance of the pile of a carpet. Before Eddie I didn’t know rugs had a pile.
|Duzio and Spook|
Almost 40 years later, I still remember the exact size of the room because Eddie, whose family was in the carpet business in Pittsburgh, was selling area rugs to all the students. He told me he had just the right size rug for the space (9X12) and he raced down the stairs to bring me my first piece of furnishing I ever bought in my life – an ugly beige carpet that went beautifully with my beige walls. What did I know about decorating?
The tin man was Spook (AKA Bill Grundfest) who went to LA and wrote the TV Show "Mad About You" with Helen Hunt and Paul Riser. Bill wasn't from Pittsburgh but like me, became a part of this circle of friends. Spook was a funny and witty guy and we were all mad about him.
Right after my lion and tin man came the scarecrow: Jim Hahn who was another Pittsburgher. Jim was lanky and lean and had a warm hello for everybody he would meet. There was probably a stream of munchkins and a few witches who all came into my tiny 9X12 foot room but my memory of them has melted away.
|A circle of friends |
The Blatt, as he was known, traveled with a posse although it was never spoken about. Everyone seemed to revolve around Jeff as if he were the steel magnet drawing people in and keeping them close. I quickly saw the charisma and warmth that came from him and I could see why he had so many friends who were pulled close by his gravitational force. I too got pulled into that circle of FOJ’s (Friends of Jeff) and suddenly I started to feel like Penn might not be too scary.
Then someone said lets go get a beer.
|Iron City|I don’t want to give the wrong impression since I have nothing against alcohol. In fact, I now work in the wine industry and love to drink and taste new varietals or savor Italian wines. I will drink whisky or vodka but I am just not a big drinker although I do recall a little too much Jamo (Jamison Irish Whisky) one St Patrick’s Day but that’s a story for another post about my Annenberg-Irish friend Ned.
For me, beer was different.
I never developed a taste for it and it made me sick to drink it. Suddenly I feared I would be excommunicated from these new friends. It was as if I stumbled upon a tribe that would have its ritual sacred ceremony where everyone would welcome the new person into the circle of friends. They would share a secret alcoholic potion brewed with hops and malt that would connect everyone in a shamanic ritual. Since this was a Pittsburgh thing, Heinz ketchup might even be mixed in.
I am exaggerating a bit but I didn’t want to be ridiculed in front of my new found friends. Will I get ostracized by these guys for not drinking the same swill that they loved? Do they know any non-beer drinking guys from New Jersey?
|I may have worn this jacket every day as a freshman|
Beer Drinking as a Sacred Ritual We went to one of the local haunts on campus and all the burgers (Pittsburghers) ordered beer. They were annoyed they couldn’t get an Iron City- or as they called it -an Iron. They were in Philly and it was either Keystone or Bud. They explained to me that Keystone was invented to make Bud feel like a luxury. And an Iron City was one step down from Keystone and it was brewed so Keystone didn’t get a swell head. Iron was cheap and that was one of its main virtues. The other was that it was locally brewed.
I explained to everyone my dilemma and to my surprise they were all cool- no pressure but I told them someday I would try an Iron with them just to see if it was the magic beer elixir that I have been searching for. (I hate to spoil the ending but when I did finally taste an Iron, it reminded me of rancid paint remover except I like the taste of rancid paint remover).
I vividly recall that since they had nothing else but beer at this joint, I ordered hot tea while my new college buds were knocking down a few Buds. Yes, in retrospect this is a bit embarrassing. I do take delight knowing that my twenty something daughters are laughing since they have no trouble drinking down a nice cold Natty Light on a warm evening. L’Chaim Sarah and Fanny.
So we sealed our friendship over Bud and Earl Grey at Longfellows Pub on 38th and Spruce Street in the muggy fall of 1972.
Room Mates – The Jeff & Jeff Club
Jeff and I became very good friends and went on to room together off campus for the rest of our time at Penn. We lived on a fourth story walk up on 4029 Spruce Street and later in a house on Locust Street. The apartment was so old and run down that it depresses me almost forty years later to think about it- except we had the best time in our lives. Our atrociously decorated apartment had little going for it. I still had the beige 9X12 rug from The Duzio collection and we had an odd assortment of things from our parent’s houses.
|My 20th Birthday - January 23, 1974 -|
Cake courtesy of Mom and Dad
Notice the Hawaiian Punch Can
But we did have one thing that made life in West Philly spectacular. We had access to a roof top which meant every weekend we had an urban barbecue.
|Jeff Pitches In|
Now, for those of you who haven’t ever lived in a city, an urban barbecue is when you bring a grill to the top of the roof and against all logic, laws and common sense you illegally cookout. You would think that two somewhat intelligent guys would realize what a bad idea this was but we didn’t let that stop us. It’s funny that in an earlier blog post I wrote about cooking inside the bunk at summer camp when Jamie and I grilled salami in a dustpan over a garbage can. (We were ten- read the post).
Well, continuing on this cooking theme, here we were four flights up and up on the roof grilling all sorts of cheap cuts of meat. And by cheap cuts of meat I mean hot dogs, the occasional burger or store-brand beef from the run-down Acme Supermarket.
|Urban Barbecue at 4029 Spruce Street #8|Our apartment became party central and we had plenty of interesting experiences and visitors. It is a surprise that the police never showed up on our doorstep (or rooftop). We used to kid that we had the biggest cockroaches in the neighborhood because they were always trying to get up to Chef Jeff’s BBQ on the roof and would work their muscles as they climb The Stairway to Heaven.
Life at Chez Jeffs was always amusing and our life had a soundtrack that included Crosby, Still & Nash, Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers. "Lord I was born a ramblin' man" must have played on a loop all of sophomore year. To this day, that song transports me like a time machine back to West Philadelphia. For The Blatt, Ramblin' Rose was the name of his car who probably had the best tuned carburetor at Penn.
Since cell phones wouldn’t be invented for 20 more years we had to put up with the standard land line phone. The phone would ring and someone would ask for Jeff and we would always laugh at the confusion. “Can I speak to Jeff? Yes. Oh, you mean the other Jeff”
Penn in the early 70’s was a special time.
There was also a lot of the intellectual and stimulating conversation that I was hoping to find in a small New England college. Underneath quite a bit of long hair, a unmanaged beard and a rebellious mustache, the other Jeff was an incredibly smart guy who could riff on Sophocles, Sociology or Steeler history without missing a beat. We would stay up late into the night discussing things like existentialism or whether it was a good idea to have Russian dressing on a hamburger. In the middle of our third year, The Blatt decided he would start taking a side class in auto repair mechanics because he felt like it would be a good life skill to have and he didn’t understand how a carburetor worked. Curious minds just can’t sit still.
One of my roommates’ greatest pleasures was waiting to see what food came home with me after I visited my Aunt Rita and Uncle Stanley every Friday night. Rita Laderman was my mother’s best friend from childhood and lived on Wynnfield Terrace about 10 minutes from college. She and her husband Stanley invited me every Friday night for a good home cooked meal.
As I would return home from Rita and Stanley's, I would come up our apartment steps and I would hear Jeff shouting…
“Did you bring any of that great chopped liver or left over brisket? Please tell me she made Mandelbrot!”
I can still hear Jeff as I came bouncing up the stairs…"hurry, I am hungry.”
Before I could make it through the door, he would grab the leftovers and have his dinner. It became a bit of a ritual.
The Planner and the Procrastinator
|An invitation from an infamous party given by me, Blatt, Tom Gisriel and Alan Jacobson on Dec 7, 1974|As for our studies, Jeff and I were opposites in that I would have to crank out the old Smith Corona weeks before a paper was due to make sure I had it all organized and written clearly. Jeff would start at 4AM on an assignment due at 9AM since he was writing it in head as we were grilling hamburgers on the rooftop BBQ lounge. He would ace the paper- and I’d be lucky to get a strong B. I don’t think I ever saw him do a homework assignment until a deadline was creeping up on him. He loved the pressure and I never saw him sweat.
After college we went our separate ways. Jeff was at my wedding and we were at his - but we soon lost touch. Ra El and I were busy with our brownie business and raising Sarah and Fanny. Jeff went on to Harvard Law School and the next time I saw him was when I saw him on TV. He was sitting behind Senator Ted Kennedy on his staff during a hearing whispering in the Senator’s ear about the next witness. (I think it was the Robert Bork’s ill-fated nomination to The Supreme Court). Jeff later went on to be the head council for XM radio when they merged with Sirius and now practices law in DC.
Through the wonders of social media like LinkedIn and now twitter we are reconnected again. Of course, it’s not the same as living in the same city and spending time together but some bonds are stronger than steel. In fact they are stronger than iron and steel.
I hope next time I am in Washington, we can get an Iron City together or a nice cup of tea.
Credit where credit is due:
All of these wonderful photographs were preserved in one of many albums Poppa George made for me. He used to kid me that these photographs were my inheritance. He was so right.
|My sixth edition from September 1, 1972 to May 18, 1976|
Labels: Jeff Blattner, Penn, The Blatt, U of P, University of Pennsylvania, Zen Moments