By Kevin Baker
How the places Barack Obama has lived might have helped mold the man who will be the next president of the United States.
I CAME to New York, and to Columbia University, just a few years before Barack Obama arrived in 1981. Like him I was a poor boy, eager to get to the city and start my life as an adult.
It was a dirtier city then, more violent, more interesting — more accessible to poor, eager young people. We lived four and five to a railroad apartment, the bathtub in the kitchen in some places, the floors lined with clumpy chalk lines of boric acid that were our useless defense against the cockroaches.
We feasted on $4 platters of Indian food in restaurants on Sixth Street where you could bring your own wine. We went everywhere by subway, riding in gray, graffiti-covered cars where half the doors didn't open and a single, sluggish fan shoved the air about on summer nights. We took a cab sometimes, when there were five of us and we could get a Checker, one person riding on the jump seat, staring out at the long avenues of the city.
We lived dangerously, I suppose. Everyone's apartment was broken into. We were told that if we got out of the subway at East 116th Street to never, ever try to walk through Morningside Park back to Columbia. Women would go out to lunch and come back to the office to find their wallets somehow missing from the pocketbooks they had held tightly between their knees throughout the meal.
Late one night, leaving a party on the Lower East Side, we saw a hulking, derelict figure emerge from under a stairwell, ready to do mayhem. When he saw how many we were he frowned and retreated beneath the stairs without saying a word, waiting for the next victim.
It was a gray city, a weary one, an older one. There were, in those days, pornographic theaters in good neighborhoods; Bowery-style wino bars with sawdust on the floor on Upper Broadway; prostitutes along West End Avenue slipping into cars with New Jersey license plates. It was a city, too, that seemed to open up into an infinite series of magic boxes, of novelty shops and diners, delicatessens and corner bakeries, used record stores and bookstores.
Like Barack Obama we read everything we could get our hands on. It was a movie-mad town then, and we lined up for hours in the cold on the East Side to see the latest Fassbinder or Fellini, the new Woody Allen. We nailed long, flapping schedules of all the revival houses to our walls, from the Thalia and the New Yorker, Theater 80 St. Marks and the Bleecker Street Cinemas. I saw my first Broadway show, "Equus," for $3, and sat on stage.
We danced all night at Danceteria, and ate breakfast served by the transvestite waiters. I fell in love with an artist who lived at the Salvation Army's Evangeline residence for women, and we walked the slate-blue paving stones around Gramercy Park for hours, talking about art. Everything seemed like a revelation, right from the first day at Columbia, when my art humanities professor took us to St. John the Divine and explained what a Gothic cathedral was.
I'd like to think that New York taught Barack Obama how indomitable people can be, even in a city that has been written off, consigned to a dozen cinematic apocalypses. It was a poorer town then, a harder one, but still a place of vaulting ambition, of indelible beauty. We thought we could do anything. We felt such pride to be there.