Prompted

Spring 2018

Prompt: Write a memoir in six words, no more, no less.

birth, eventual death, with stuff between

Winter 2017

Prompt: Tell us a story about a roommate

I spent an off-campus semester in Chicago with a thrust-upon-me roommate: [Maurizio] Nick Barbatano ’81. We had nothing in common: My grandparents were born here, he was an Italian who emigrated from Ethiopia at 7; I am Jewish, he was exploring eastern meditation; I have a huge family, he had his mother; he was a computer geek, I clearly wasn’t; and our circles of Grinnell friends had no intersection. Borne by chance, in our one-room apartment we formed a deep and lasting friendship.

By college I (like, perhaps, all of us) had learned that everyone has something to offer, that people from other backgrounds could add value to my life. That was clearly an intrinsic value in Grinnell’s ethos. And, yes, I knew it intellectually. But fate and Nick taught me that, at a deep, core level. In addition to a lifelong friendship, I got a lesson that continues to benefit me in my work with the homeless in Chicago.

Throughout his life, we shared joys and challenges. Among my cadre of close friends, Nick stood out, as we were so different. The diversity that was our beginning was also the quality that allowed each of us to bring valued perspectives to each other’s lives. He brought many, including the quiet grace during his fierce battle with cancer that he lost four years ago.

During my sophomore year I roomed in Smith Hall Annex with Don Young ’52, who put a huge sign on our door, NOSMO KING. Those who wondered who Nosmo was, found out if they entered our room with a cigarette. Don would open the windows wide, even in the dead of winter, and swing the door back and forth until they got it. If they still didn’t snuff it out, well, Don was on the football team.

After Grinnell, Don was the idea man behind the Mrs. America contest. Luckily for him, it was before the word “Ms.” became standard. 

In grad school I roomed with two students. One, Peter Falk, would become the world’s most famous detective — “Columbo.” We remained friends until he died a few years ago. Our second roommate, Dave Forden, was recruited by the CIA, trained as a paratrooper, and eventually became the CIA’s chief of Russian operations. He never discussed his work (not even with his wife) but we learned about his intrepid career in A Secret Life, a book by a New York Times reporter, and a movie, Jack Strong, which was his CIA code name. 

My present roommate, Arlene [Stoller Goldfarb ’53], was my Grinnell College sweetheart. 

My first-year roommate was a fellow Grinnell Science Project participant named Adele Crane ’14. We got along exceptionally well and had so many great moments together throughout the year. We became great friends. 

One of the funniest moments we had together was during Grinnell’s Family Weekend. Adele has an identical twin, Susan, who attended a different college at the time. I walked into our room after soccer practice that weekend, and immediately began to chat with Adele about the day. I noticed her hair looked slightly different, but I dismissed the thought and attributed it to my exhaustion from practice. As I was listening to her day plans, in came Adele’s family. Behind them was Adele, who was laughing hysterically. I had been talking to Susan, who had been pretending to be Adele, the whole time. Epic twin prank.

Fall 2017

Prompt: Tell us about a job you’ve had, either while at Grinnell or afterward.

One of the worst jobs I had was a temp job over Grinnell’s winter break. I had to file for eight hours a day in a room solely filled with files. What made it the worst job was if there was no established place for a file, I couldn’t create one but had to put it back in the to-file box. By the end of the day I was just walking around the room with files that I knew had no place to go. I learned about the absurdity of real life.

At Quad during lunchtime in the early ’90s, you could often find me unloading the dishwasher. Sure the work wasn’t all that stimulating, but I made a game of it. In order to avoid a Lucille Ball-style catastrophe, the dishwasher would shut down its conveyor belt if the dishes weren’t unloaded before the end of the belt. The goal of the game was to make sure that I unloaded dishes and trays fast enough so that the conveyor belt never stopped during my shift. I typically won. It helped that the person loading the dishwasher didn’t know that he or she was playing the game.

In my second or third year at Grinnell, 1950 or 1951, I worked in the Carnegie Library as a stacker, putting returned books on their proper shelves. There was roof repair in process, the work site covered every night with large tarps. One night a storm, with fierce winds and much rain, blew away the tarps and drenched the second floor stacks and reading room. For several weeks I had much extra work, at 55 cents an hour, helping lay out damaged books to dry, among blowing fans, on the reading tables. My love of reading was thus enlarged to loving care for printed books.

My first job after college, I worked for The Grinnell Magazine as an editorial assistant and researcher, and my first assignment was covering Reunion. Within about 5 minutes of arriving at the bagel brunch, Rebecca Quirk ’86 had made me an honorary member of their class and brought me under their tent physically and metaphorically. That class gave me such good advice, I started adding my own question to each interview — if you could give one piece of advice to someone like me (young college grad), what would you say, and why? Being adopted into that class year gave me the courage (and advice) to survive early grad-hood and kick-start my first career after my time at Grinnell.

I wanted to try something different, so one December I worked in the order-packing department for Signals magazine orders. We stood at a station and got orders in bins, chose the right size box, packed the items as efficiently as possible, affixed a label, and sent them in a bin to someone else. I enjoyed being busy, having time to think, and the constant challenge of packing each box just right. I hated the way all those people moved together like sheep when the bell rang for break time, their souls draining away with each shuffling trip to the dreary break room. Office work seemed pretty sweet after that.

Like many Grinnellians, I worked in the dining hall, which had some high highs and low lows. Getting busted in the walk-in cooler, giggling hysterically, with a co-worker sitting on my shoulders to grab mushrooms off a top shelf was a real high point. Meanwhile, the time a supervisor told me not to pick up the big box of onions because I “have to have babies” was a definite low. Another time, during a particularly tough week, I hid in the freezer and ate a whole unbaked big cookie. Still not sure if that one’s a high or a low.