Today's Reading

"What are you doing here?" I remembered understanding exactly what he meant. It was a question I'd been asking myself for weeks. In response I mumbled something about my father dying and being left with no choice but to run the family business. I did not remember more until the editing of this memoir: Then I recalled that a week earlier I had turned in an essay comparing a novel by the British writer Somerset Maugham with a contemporary American work, perhaps an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and Kogan returned the paper to me marked A with a lot of kind comments scribbled on it. Kogan stunned me by asking if I would meet him at the University of Chicago admissions office as soon as possible. I did, took the entrance test given to all candidates that day, or soon after, was accepted, and immediately transferred, as the fall semester had just begun.

I was at home there, with its focus on critical thinking and its core curriculum that relied not on textbooks but on original works of scholars and theoreticians. Most important, the final grade for many of the courses was based solely on a four-to six-hour written test. I could always write—say exactly what I wanted to say in one take—and that ability got me through college with better grades than I perhaps deserved.

As for the wonderful Dr. Kogan, within a few weeks or so of receiving his letter, I flew to Chicago to meet with him and give a talk, at his request, before the Chicago chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honors society, which he had founded in the late 1970s. I also made it a point from then on to be as available as possible for lectures or classroom discussions for those teachers in the Washington area who had questions about America's foreign policy, whether in college or high school. Bernard Kogan and I had our last exchange of letters in 1998, when he told me he was ill. In late 1997, he had written, with an obvious sense of satisfaction, "One thing is crystal clear, Seymour, that you're not now the fairly quiet young man whom I took aside and counseled outside the classroom one afternoon in the '50s." Thank you, Dr. Kogan.

My college days at the University of Chicago were exciting and fun. The university had more than its share of oddballs, many of them brilliant and iconoclastic, to be sure. I was not a Maoist, or a Platonist, or a Socratic, but I obviously was a fellow oddball, because I mixed education with continuing to run the family cleaning store and still sharing the townhouse with my mother. Nonetheless, I found time to study, play a year or two of varsity baseball, join a fraternity, try to figure out girls, and grow up. My mother, to her credit, had become more involved in the day-to-day running of the store, which was on a glide path steadily going down but still producing enough income to keep us afloat. I had nothing to do with journalism, other than learning to do the daily New York Times crossword, looking at headlines, and worrying about Ike and Nikita and the bomb. By 1958, with graduation for me and Alan approaching, freedom beckoned. Al, faithfully living up to the commitment he had made, took an engineering job in San Diego, moved there with his wife, and arranged a nearby apartment for our mother. The cleaning store was sold, for little money, to an employee. I moved into a twelve-dollar-a-week basement room in Hyde Park, the South Side neighborhood of the university, with a bathroom down the hall. It was glorious.

With my degree in English, but with no honors, for the next few months I couldn't find a decent job. I was most interested in the Xerox Corporation, which was then a year away from marketing the first commercial copying machine. I don't remember who gave me the heads-up about the company, but by the end of summer it was clear the company was not interested. One of my good friends in college was David Currie, a fellow baseball player whose father, Brainerd, was a leading legal scholar and professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He also loved baseball and spent hours hitting fly balls to his son and me. David had gone off to Harvard Law School the year before; he clerked for Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and went on to spend more than four decades teaching at the Chicago Law School. When I went to see his father and explained that, late in the summer as it was, I wanted to be admitted to the U of C Law School, Professor Currie got it done within a few days. He, like Bernard Kogan, saw more in me at that time than I saw in myself.

I got through a few quarters with reasonable grades, but found the law boring, and felt the same way about law school, with its emphasis on reading cases and memorizing them. I had pretty much disappeared by the end of the year and was kicked out of school by the dean, Edward Levi (who would reenter my life a decade later). I was far from troubled, because I knew the dean had done the right thing. My only regret was that Brainerd died in 1965 and did not live to see me make my mark in another field.

The next few months remain a blur. I thought about business school and went to a few classes. Nope. I had worked part-time while in law school selling beer and whiskey at a Walgreens drugstore in suburban Evergreen Park, in the far reaches of southeast Chicago, and began doing the same full-time at a Walgreens in Hyde Park. One evening two Chicago writers I admired greatly, Saul Bellow and Richard Stern, came in to buy some booze. Stern, whose seminar on writing fiction I had taken while in college—he personally picked the students—shamed me by essentially asking, as had Kogan, what are you doing here?
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