A Portrait of the Former President as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Former President as a Young Man

Exploring the spaces Obama passed through in his two years at Columbia College

Published on January 31, 2017

Apartment #3E

“LIVE WHERE PRESIDENT OBAMA LIVED! Yes president OBAMA lived in this unit while he attended Columbia University so be part of history. This unit features two bedrooms, marble bath, hardwood floors, exposed brick, high ceilings, great closet space. Please call to see this great deal and, who knows, you might end up at the WHITE HOUSE one day!”

This is the Streeteasy listing for former President Barack Obama’s old apartment at 142 West 109th St. It is an egg-colored five-story apartment building between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue with a black fire escape that laces up its brick façade and blue trash bags beside the front entrance.

The buzzer for his apartment—apartment #3E—is broken, and the dark maroon door is covered with dents and scuffs. The hallway that leads up to apartment #3E echoes with the faint buzzing of the thin fluorescent light above.

I visit, hoping to get to peek inside and see where our 44th president once lived, but no one answers the door. I wait for about 10 minutes before heading back down the echoing stairwell.

Trying to learn more about Obama’s time at Columbia means running into many closed doors. It’s an enigmatic thing: We know he was a junior transfer from Occidental College and that he studied at Columbia for two years before graduating in 1983. But, infamously, few people seem to have known him during his time as a Columbia student.  

Obama himself seldom speaks about his Columbia experience. On the rare occasions he has mentioned it, he has said things like: “I didn’t socialize that much. I was like a monk” (from a 2005 Columbia College Today feature on his rise in the U.S. Senate, which devotes only one measly paragraph to his Columbia experience). And, “For about two years there, I was just painfully alone and really not focused on anything, except maybe thinking a lot,” or, again, on The Axe Files, “I [lived] like a monk for three or four years, [took] myself way too seriously …”

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama recalls running three miles a day and fasting on Sundays during his time at Columbia. He stopped getting high. For the first time in years, he began taking his studies seriously and started keeping a journal of “very bad poetry.” “Whenever Sadik [his roommate] tried to talk me into hitting a bar, I’d beg off with some tepid excuse, too much work or not enough cash,” Obama wrote.

Sadik is the pseudonym for a college roommate, Sohale Siddiqi, who graduated from Columbia College in 1983. He has gone underground since Obama’s presidency and emails to him received no responses. But Siddiqi once told The Wall Street Journal in a 2008 article called Obama’s Lost Years,” “We were both very lost. We were both alienated, although he might not put it that way. He arrived disheveled and without a place to stay.” Obama’s memoir recounts his solitary arrival in New York with luggage in tow and sleeping in an alleyway during his first night in the city.

This image of a deeply reclusive, almost ascetic life is at odds with the grinning, fist-bumping, and popular former president of today. It is hard to reconcile his current celebrity with his apparent anonymity as a student here.

Obama’s old apartment, where he lived his private life, away from the eyes of fellow Columbians, is a railroad-layout apartment, which means that upon coming through the scuffed, maroon-colored door, a long hallway stretches out before you. The first door leads into the kitchen, the second into Obama’s room, the third into Phil Boerner’s room, the fourth into the living room.

In the 2010 biography The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick, Boerner—Obama’s other former roommate—said the students paid $360 every month for rent. Even at today’s inflation value of $895 per month, that was a steal. In exchange, they received the occasional heat, weak hot water, and a broken doorbell. “To be let in when I first arrived, I had to yell up to Barack from the street,” Boerner wrote in a 2009 article in Columbia College Today describing his time with Obama.

Most, if not all, of the information about Obama’s private life in his apartments comes from these two men, his former roommates. The varied set of narratives means that constructing an image of Obama’s Columbia life is like pinning all those snapshot stories onto a corkboard, connecting them with yarn, and using imagination and Columbian intuition to fill in the gaps.

I can imagine a New York City solitude. This past summer while working in the city, I lived in 235 West 109th St.—right across the street from Obama’s old apartment. Mine was a railroad apartment too, and I lived in the converted living room at the end of the hall. I knew few people in the city and spent several nights just lying in front of the fan in the hot, un-air-conditioned room, listening to the police sirens outside and thumbing through social media. But New York is a good city in which to be lonely. Obama, like so many Columbians, may have understood that firsthand.  

We can also imagine that in the winter, Obama made that familiar walk up Broadway to the library with his coat gathered about him and his head bent down like any other unnoticed student on the street. Perhaps he sat on Low Steps in the spring at nighttime, looked at Butler all lit up, and felt that swooping feeling in his chest.

It makes you think: Who are our Phil Boerners and Sohale Siddiqis? Each of us pass through Columbia’s gates hoping to make lasting memories, but whose? Our life at Columbia will be remembered by the one or two people closest to us, and vice versa: To whom are you a Phil Boerner or a Sohale Siddiqi?

Tom’s Restaurant

Two eggs over easy and toast. Obama and his roommate would often go to Tom’s Restaurant and order that breakfast special. “It was, like, $1.99, and we lived on a lot of bagels. They were, like, a quarter then, but they expanded in your stomach,’’ Boerner recalled in the 2009 New York Times article titled Recollections of Obama’s Ex-Roommate.”

At this point, Tom’s had not yet achieved Seinfeld fame, but it was still a fixture of life in Morningside Heights, as it has been since it was first opened by a Greek-American family in the 1940s. Boerner and Obama were regulars at the diner.

Tom’s seems to be an anchor in many Columbians’ stories. In the comments under the New York Times article featuring Boerner, readers claiming to be Columbia alumni all reminisced about Tom’s and how everybody seemed to go there.

Pete Papaharalambous has worked at Tom’s since June 1974. He sports a heavy accent and the same white uniform as all of Tom’s kitchen staff. He remembers seeing a young Obama at Tom’s every now and then with a group of four or five friends. They would come in at night and cram into a booth by the window facing 112th Street, and sometimes Papaharalambous had to bring a chair over to fit everyone.  “I think he would remember me if he saw me again,” he says. Unsurprisingly, he remembers Obama as nice, respectful, and “political, even back then.” However, he doesn’t mention whether they ordered the breakfast special.

This persona of a sociable young man chatting politics with his big group of friends is a departure from that other bookish, hermetical persona cultivated by Obama. So who was that undergrad in a Tom’s booth overflowing with friends? It’s difficult to reconcile these two personas. Or maybe they’re just two sides of the same coin, as Obama, like any other 20-year-old, tried out various selves and relationships.

Tom’s remains an institution in Morningside Heights today, but its relationship with Columbians has evidently changed over the years. I can hardly call the soggy omelettes I order “the best breakfast anywhere on Earth,” although that may be on me since I’m always ordering them between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. But going to Tom’s at those special hours is one of today’s many Columbia rituals.

We establish so many routines during our short lives in Morningside Heights: getting free soup samples at Westside, lining up outside of Bernheim and Schwartz in negative-degree weather, mobbing the second floor of Book Culture during textbook season … My most treasured ritual is my post-6 p.m. class Hamilton Deli run, when I order a Betsy sandwich with Lewinsky sauce and say hi to Amy and Chris and Max. I don’t know how many of that deli’s little gold punch cards I’ve gone through.

Years from now, those locations and names may no longer even be around, replaced by new shops and people. So it’s notable that Tom’s is one of the few remaining Morningside Heights fixtures that links our time with Obama’s.

Papaharalambous, after describing what he remembers of Obama, also says, “Neighborhood places stick around and remain good because we are here to serve students.”

“Not like downtown,” he adds.

Butler Library

On the lawns in front of Butler, Obama used to play pickup soccer. Cathie Currie, an alumna who did her Ph.D. at Columbia, wrote to FactCheck.org, “I was usually the only woman playing, and he treated me as equally as the others: If I was open, he sent the ball into the space in front of me.” After a game, he’d often be on his way to a library. It’s strange to imagine that the next president of the United States could be holding Butler’s heavy black doors open for you and swiping their card at the security gate before heading up the massive staircase in the atrium.

Obama occasionally slept overnight in Butler when his apartment’s heating broke down (when the hot water stopped running, he showered at Dodge). The sixth floor, up in the stacks where the University Archives record Columbia’s history, is where I go next to learn more about Obama’s college years. I first send an inquiring email to the library staff.

“The only item we have is a copy of an article Obama wrote for a student publication called THE SUNDIAL regarding nuclear disarmament,” University Archivist Jocelyn Wilk writes me. “You can find a copy of this article within the ‘Obama’ file within our Historical Biographical Files. Otherwise we don’t really have much information.”

No transcripts, no senior essays, no academic documents.

That article, titled “Breaking the War Mentality,” has been made available to the public by The New York Times, which names the University Archives as its source. Published on March 10 in 1983, just a couple months before Obama’s graduation, it summarizes anti-war sentiment on campus—ironic for someone (supposedly?) otherwise disinterested with campus life.

The student magazine The Sundial is now defunct, so Obama’s article is like a rare fossil that offers us not only a glimpse of the buried sedimentary layers of his college life, but also of a buried, forgotten layer of Columbia life at large.

Boerner, in his 2009 article in Columbia College Today, wrote that Obama wasn’t planning on going into politics, let alone thinking about becoming president, when he was in college. “He wanted to be a writer,” the roommate claimed.

“Breaking the War Mentality” reveals a solemn, politically-inclined student journalist who already exhibits the oratory eloquence of his future self, as shown by its kicker: “It is at once a warning to us that the old solutions of more weapons and again more weapons will no longer be accepted … and it is an invitation to work towards a peace that is genuine, lasting, and non-nuclear.”

Obama interviews a couple classmates in the article. The first is Mark Bigelow, an alumnus of Union Theological Seminary and then-member of the student group Arms Race Alternatives. It’s been nearly impossible to contact alumni who personally knew Obama while at Columbia, but I still have high hopes when Bigelow, now a pastor, replies to my request for an interview.

Those hopes are quickly dashed when he writes, simply, “I had forgotten about the piece in The Sundial until a reporter from the NY Times called me early in the Obama administration to discuss my memories of this. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about it. I didn’t know the president when he was at Columbia.”

But I get lucky when Robert Kahn, another student quoted in the article who graduated from Columbia College in 1984, says he remembers that Obama interviewed him in Ferris Booth Hall (Lerner Hall’s predecessor) while another student recorded the conversation. At the time, he’d been surprised anyone wanted to speak with him about Students Against Militarism, the tiny student group of which he was a member.

“He seemed serious, very journalist-like, took everything incredibly seriously,” Kahn recalls. But ultimately, the former president was not very memorable. “Even when the article came out, I don’t think I noticed it.”

I ask him whether Obama’s presidency made him view that memory with a new perspective. “I’m happy he became president, but more happy as a citizen than as a Columbia alum,” he says. “The Columbia connection is there but not at the top of things.”

He is proud of Obama for being the first African-American president and creating the Affordable Care Act. Kahn also adds, “I guess it’s nice to have someone from the school as president.” Obama is, after all, the only American president to date to have attended Columbia as an undergraduate.

Columbia may be almost absent from Obama’s biography, but Obama seems almost absent from Columbia’s narrative, too, as well as that of its alumni. From the thin “Obama” file in the University Archives to the watery memories of a tiny handful of roommates, classmates, and neighbors, his tie to Columbia can seem invisible. Tracing his presence on campus feels like tracing that of a ghost, which is notable given the way so many of us arrive here hoping to make a traceable mark on campus.

The 44th president wouldn’t have made any feature. There is no mention of him anywhere in Spectator’s digital archives from the early ’80s.

In the early summer of 1983, Obama received a political science degree without honors and quietly graduated from Columbia College.

The West End Bar

Before Bernheim and Schwartz, there was Havana Central, and before Havana Central, there was The West End Bar, which, from 1911 until 2006, served as Columbia’s watering hole for everyone from art majors to football players.

A Spectator article from Aug. 31, 2004 calls it “an essential element of the undergraduate experience.” It continues, “Resorting to the ’Stend when your ID won’t work anywhere else is an age-old first-year tradition, just like not reading Herodotus or lying about working out. Indeed, many a great Columbians have made their rounds at the dimly lit 114th mainstay, from Ginsberg and Gehrig to that coy Barack Obama.”

Obama may have met and mingled with fellow classmates at The West End, but it would have been minimal. “Occasionally we went to The West End for beers,” Boerner wrote in his 2009 CCT article.

It was on a night at a different bar all the way across the city on Lexington Avenue that the future president met up with his first college girlfriend, Alex McNear.

“We sat and talked and ate and drank wine. Or at least I drank wine. I think he drank something stronger. It was one of those dark, old Italian restaurants that don’t exist in New York anymore,” McNear told David Maraniss, who wrote the biography Barack Obama: The Story

According to Maraniss, they spent a bright summer in the city eating at restaurants, visiting art museums, and lying around in their apartments before McNear moved to California and they maintained a long-distance relationship that slowly faded out. Remarkable in its mundanity, their relationship mirrors the college romances of scores of Columbians before and after Obama’s time.

Out of all the details I learn about Obama, the letters he sent McNear during their long-distance relationship are what finally convince me of his Columbian identity. They read more like highbrow essays written for Core Curriculum classes than they do love letters. In one, he analyzes T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, slinging about phrases usually spoken in Contemporary Civilization: 

“I haven’t read The Waste Land for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. … Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. … A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?”

Obama’s second girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, whom he began dating after meeting at a Lower East Side party six months after graduation, once wrote in her diary on Jan. 26, 1984, “How is he so old already, at the age of 22?”

So, “In retrospect, wildly pretentious,” Obama admitted on “The Axe Files” in December. He laughed and continued, “I should’ve tried like, you know, ‘Wanna go to a movie?’”

It’s easy to frame Obama’s fumbling pursuit of women as the comic relief in a grander, more sweeping narrative. But his relationships are more valuable than that. They offer, in the same way a tour of his apartment offers, a more intimate understanding of his private self. They reflect the way he chose to present himself to the people with whom he was closest, rather than the person he appeared to be to a classmate interviewed once in Ferris or the staff of Tom’s Restaurant.

And more relatably, they reflect the pure, wholesale, consummate awkwardness of being a college student who has no idea what he’s doing, or thinks he does, but really, really doesn’t. Regrettable 1020 encounters and long texts of logorrhea that you cringe thinking about months or years later.

Barnard College

The sun shone high when President Obama arrived on Barnard’s South Lawn to speak at the Class of 2012’s commencement ceremony. He was greeted with jubilant applause. He wore a light blue Columbia gown and addressed the crowd for half an hour, during which he discussed women’s rights and the women in his life who shaped him, such as his wife Michelle Obama. “I met a woman who was assigned to advise me on my first summer job at a law firm.  And she gave me such good advice that I married her!”

This was Obama’s first appearance at Columbia since becoming president, but he spoke only briefly about his alma mater during his address. “I’m a Columbia College graduate. I know there can be a little bit of a sibling rivalry here,” he chuckled. He added that women were first admitted to Columbia College in 1983, the year he graduated.

According to Spectator coverage of his address, some Columbia students were dismayed that he chose to speak at Barnard rather than Columbia College. Emilio Fajardo, who graduated from Columbia College in 2015, told Spectator that it seemed “like a slap in the face” to the college. Other students speculated that Obama must have had a poor experience as a student here.

But I suspect that whatever cool attitude Obama may have had towards Columbia on that day reveals less about him and more about Columbia itself and its relationship with its students and alumni. After all, Obama himself said during his speech, “For all the differences, the Class of 1983 actually had a lot in common with all of you.”

The paradox of Columbia, and of college in general, is that our time here is both determining and fleeting. Four years—let alone just two—can fly by. Each of us are shaped by those handful of years to varying degrees and in infinite ways.

Columbia may fade from Obama’s memory, but traces of his student life linger in Columbia’s memory. Yes, he may disappear from the physical memory of the spaces he lived in and the individual memory of people he met. Or, those memories may become fragmented, with various spaces defining him by the various parts of himself he left there: Obama the roommate, Obama the student, Obama the boyfriend. But he wholly remains in institutional memory.

We may not realize what we’ve left behind at Columbia, or what we take with us. Despite Obama’s reticence today toward Columbia, it’s clear that he underwent a seismic transformation after he moved to New York. The man he’s known as today, an eloquent orator and passionate leader deeply concerned about people, had his genesis in our city.

As a Columbia senior with graduation on the horizon, I’ve often thought about how I’ll see this place after I leave it. It’s a sort of preemptive nostalgia, if you will. But Obama reminds us of another question: How will this place see us after we leave it? How will the vacant halls of Lerner echo with our voices and the bare wooden surfaces of Butler tables twinge with our pen scratches and the empty asphalt on Broadway throb with our running footsteps? No matter how far we may end up from Morningside Heights or how many years may stretch between us and our brief time on campus, Columbia will always be close with us. Perhaps not in the ways or spaces we’d expect, but close. Thirty years later, we may even find ourselves so close that we’re looking at it from across the street.

Dan Singer contributed reporting.

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