Sunday, August 16, 2015

193. Networking among the Sagehens

     The invitation, by e-mail:

Thursday, July 30, 2015 – 6:30-8:30 pm
The Princeton Club
Nassau Room – 4th Floor
15 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

So it read, the announcement beckoning all Sagehens in the New York area to an evening of networking, hosted by a ’77 alumnus, Managing Director of Group Risk Management for a well-known bank.  “Register now!” it directed.

     Sagehens?  Yes, I confess I’m not a lion or tiger or wildcat or cougar or eagle, but a Sagehen, this being the time-honored designation for all those who attend, or have attended, Pomona College in Claremont in distant sunny southern California.  But hardly a loyal and devoted Sagehen, since I have never attended an alumni gathering or class reunion in all these many years, and am now in touch with not a single other Sagehen, barring a distant friend in Florida.  About to hit my keyboard’s DELETE, I held off, beset by doubts and temptations.  Should I go or not?  After getting more info – bring your business cards, dress “business casual” -- I amassed thirteen arguments against and thirteen for.


1.    I’ve never consciously networked, hardly know what networking is.
2.    I’m long since retired, don’t need professional contacts, if that’s what it’s all about.
3.    I have no business card.
4.    I’m of the class of ’50, will be the oldest one there, the ancient of days.
5.    What can I say to a horde of eager young graduates stuffed to the gills with energy, hopes, and ambitions?
6.    The Princeton Club sounds posh and exclusive.
7.    The host, a managing director of Group Risk Management (whatever that is), sounds intimidating, must reek of prestige and success.
8.    They probably want money from me.
9.    I can’t wear shorts, since “business casual” excludes them.
10.  Getting there involves braving the rush hour.
11.  Rain is predicted.
12.  I harbor memories of two horrendous events – one in my freshman year and one in my junior year – that at the time left me in shock.
13.  I’m eighty-six; be prudent.


1.    Out of sheer curiosity, I should learn what networking is.
2.    I’m a writer, can’t retire.  I can tell them – ever so discreetly – about my blog, my novel, and the forthcoming book.
3.    I can show them – ever so discreetly – the postcard with my novel’s title and sexy cover illustration.
4.    As the ancient of days I can fake an aura of wisdom.
5.    All is grist to my mill.  I’ll do a post for my blog about them.
6.    The Princeton Club sounds posh and exclusive.
7.    Maybe I’ll find out what Group Risk Management is.
8.    Free eats, free drinks.
9.    I’ll wear a blue polo shirt, get compliments because blue is one of Pomona’s colors.
10.  I’m a veteran New Yorker, can handle anything.
11.  I have an umbrella.
12.  Time heals; focus on today.
13.  I’m eighty-six; dare!

File:Bapon Group.png
This is what I got, when I googled
"Networking."  Not much help.


And this was no help either.

     As the time to depart approached, I was inclined to go, but vowed not to join in any rah-rah stuff, as for instance:

Push on, Pomona, to a victory,
Push, Pomona, push!

(Admittedly, I don’t have the words quite right.)  Or, worse still:

Sagehens, sagehens,
Quack!  Quack!  Quack!

All right, that last is probably my invention.  Ducks quack; I don’t know what sagehens do, if anything.  In fact, I don’t know what they look like, except for Cecil Sagehen, an outsized replica that was a symbol and mascot of the college, until nefariously spirited away by those wicked Occidentals, our perennial football rivals.  (I assume that Cecil was finally recovered.)

Stuffed Cecil Sagehen
Cecil Sagehen, as marketed on campus today.
     A half hour before my scheduled departure, it was pouring rain; I was definitely not going.  Then the sun came out … briefly.  So I grabbed my umbrella and went.

     Getting there was not half the fun.  At 6 p.m. I exited the subway at Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street and was assailed by the glaring lights of Times Square, mobs of commuting New Yorkers, and hordes of tourists taking photos right and left.  Wherever I headed, the crowd was against me, and here and there I spotted a depraved-looking individual – always male, always solitary – who looked pathetically or menacingly out of it.  (Ah, the diversity of New York!)  I finally made it up to less crowded 43rd Street and marched confidently ahead – in the wrong direction.  Seeking Sixth Avenue, I arrived instead at Eighth, had to turn around and go the other way.  (Veteran New Yorker, indeed!)  Finally arriving at 15 West 43rd Street, I found it fenced off for renovation, went in by an improvised entrance, threaded my way through a labyrinth of narrow corridors, found an elevator, and got to the fourth floor.

File:Crowded TIMES SQUARE at night time.jpg
Tourists plus commuting New yorkers: it couldn't get worse.

     Greeted by welcomers, I was given an I.D. tag with my name and the telltale “’50,” went in.  The Nassau Room was a long room adjoining a terrace, with a big table heaped with appetizing dishes, waiters moving efficiently about, and a bar lined with bottles.  No sooner in, I was greeted by the host, he of Group Risk Management expertise, who proved to be cordial and suave – a delightful gentleman who even laughed at my jokes.  He and the viands assured me that the horrendous trip there was worth it.

     More alumni entered -- young and old, but most of them buoyantly, vibrantly young – and the networking began.  The murmur of conversation grew to a babble, and the babble to a roar.  To warm myself up for the adventure, I helped myself to some rolls or dumplings or whatever – the food was on the Chinese side and tasty – and a glass of cool white wine that was sure to relax me into the hubbub of networking.  And my contacts began.

     A young woman of the class of ’09 approached me and introduced herself as a Brooklyn-based editor and writer, obviously eager to connect with another writer.  We found lots of things to share:

·      Writers can’t make a living writing, have to have a regular job and write in their spare time.
·      She’s on her first novel, is doing just that – writing in her spare time.
·      She’s nervous because she’s not sure how the novel will end; my advice: not to worry since the characters, if fully realized, will take over and dictate the ending.
·      The importance of the cover illustration, once a book is published; I showed her a postcard with the title and sexy cover illustration of my gay-themed novel, told how it hooked readers at a book fair.
·      Writers are lousy at self-promotion, don’t network enough, would rather be home at their desk or computer, doing their thing.
·      Was she nervous here?  “Of course!  I’m a writer!”  No further explanation needed.
·      My out-of-print biography of Madame Restell, the abortionist, would probably find readers today, but I lack the time and patience needed to type it into my computer; she gave me the name of an outfit where I could hire someone for the job.

The Pleasuring of Men
That sexy cover.

Networking?  You bet!  So there we were, two writers most at home writing at their desk or computer, sharing the hopes and miseries of the trade, and giving each other useful tips.  And the age difference?  Irrelevant!

     A hush fell over the babbling throng as the host, the Group Risk Manager, formally welcomed us and announced the presence of that rarest of rarities, an alumnus of the class of ’50, namely me.  Applause, all eyes on the vanishing species.  I flashed what I hoped was a benign patriarchal smile, seasoned with wit and wisdom.  He then introduced the Assistant Director of Alumni Learning and Career Programs, with whom I had already corresponded by e-mail, thus learning that collared polo shirts were “in,” shorts “out.”  She directed us to the relevant tables – Arts & Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences -- so we could connect with alumni of similar interests, but urged that the networking be cross-generational: don’t just talk to your classmates, make new acquaintances both older and younger.  That said, she turned us loose.

File:Damian. The Ancient of Days.jpg
The Ancient of Days, per a 14th-century fresco.
I'm afraid I can't measure up.

     I at once made a beeline for Arts & Humanities, presided over by a gracious lady of the class of ’72 with whom I promptly shook hands and exchanged few words.  A bunch of us of all ages clustered around the table, and lively conversations ensued.  A young Pakistani woman (’08) and I shared a host of comments and insights:

·      Did she like New York? --  Adored it!  Wouldn’t live anywhere else.  Had traveled, knew other cities, but on coming here knew at once that this was where she had to live.
·      Did New York’s size put her off? --  Hardly.  She came from a city of twenty million.
·      Her work? – Coordinator for Educational Research and Marketing at the New York Historical Society Museum & Library, where I had once done tons of research for a historical novel.
·      A Pomona reminiscence of hers: too much student drinking, really out of hand. – My recollection from long ago: yes, some drinking, but usually within limits and generally not out of hand.
·      A unique Pomona reminiscence of mine: stuck in Claremont without a car one spring vacation while everyone else headed for the beach, I learned all the exotic trees in town, especially loved the Mexican pepper tree, whose crushed leaves gave off an aroma of pepper, and even more, the leaves of the eucalyptus, emitting a heady fragrance that I found intoxicating, even voluptuous. – Her response: I grew up among eucalyptus trees, which amazed me, since I thought the eucalyptus came from Australia.  (True enough, but it has been transplanted throughout the world.)
·      A view shared by all in the group: New York is not for everyone.  No ill will toward those who, having visited, are glad to go back home to a more tranquil setting.

File:Eucalyptus luehmanniana 1.jpg
Eucalyptus leaves, giving off the most voluptuous
aroma I have ever known.

John Tann
     Right next to the Pakistani alumna, wedged in between her and me at the table, was another alumna who introduced herself as Leslie Britt, class of ’98, the executive director of Voices UnBroken, a small Bronx-based nonprofit dedicated to providing young people from minority communities with the means for creative self-expression.  To further explain, she distributed to several of us a glossy mag with pictures of staff and young people in workshops in group homes, juvenile detention centers, and prisons, with samples of their poetry.  Her mention of “nonprofit” immediately triggered memories of my volunteer work years before with another small nonprofit, the Whole Foods Project (see vignette #8, May 20, 2012).  More shared insights followed:

·      The dreary and unending task of having to raise money for a nonprofit, when what you really want to do is fulfill your mission.
·      The sad, grim truth: no money, no nonprofit.
·      How she was carefully eased into her position, but even so has had to learn by doing.
·      Did she ever go to Riker’s Island? – “Of course!  Lots of times.”
·      Riker’s Island: the very mention of it evoked in me images of the city’s biggest prison complex on an island in the East River, an overcrowded facility notorious for strip searches, beatings, rape, suicides, and mentally ill inmates found dead in their cells after days of neglect. – “All true,” she said.  “And there are sixteen-year-olds at Riker’s,” she added: a fact that chilled me to the bone.
·      What does she do at Riker’s? – Writing workshops, to get these kids to express themselves, to write poetry, to improve their reading, to work with others, to think about long-term goals.
·      My take on it: “You’re creating hope.”  She agreed.

     I talked briefly to others as well and had great success with my two well-practiced witticisms:

·      “I’m class of ’50.  1950, not 1850.”
·      A “sales handle” (marketing tool) for my forthcoming book: British novelist Angela Carter’s observation: “London is a man, Paris a woman, and New York a well-adjusted transsexual.”

     And I even talked to a waiter, an older man serving as bartender.

     “Is this job boring or doable?”

     “It’s a great job,” he answered.  “I love it.  It puts me in touch with nice people.”

     I then confessed that I’d never been to a networking event before and was the oldest one there.

     “You’re good for another twenty years,” he said with a grin.

     I left him with a look of complicity between us; a delightful momentary bond.

     When I left at about 8:20, things were still going at a roar.  Had I been able to stay longer, I’m sure I’d have had more lively conversations, but I wanted to get home to my partner Bob, whose home-care aide left at 8.  On the way home I found myself walking west along West 14th Street past the Salvation Army’s regional headquarters, a masterpiece of Art Deco architecture that most people stride right past without giving it even a glance.  I lingered there for a few minutes, peering through a grilled gate into the grotto-like entrance, savoring another pleasant surprise on this evening of surprises.

     So what are my final impressions of this networking event, unique in my experience?  It was delightful and well worth attending, a festival of success.  The attendees were young professionals on their way up, and older alumni who had some sort of achievement under their belt and could relate easily to the young.  Ah, but who wasn’t there?  The elderly and sick, the defeated and desperate, the addicts and alcoholics, the failures, the lost.  Given the nature of Pomona alumni – well-scrubbed middle-class achievers – the numbers of the lost are probably minimal, but I know too much about human nature to assume they are nonexistent.  More power to the achievers; I wish them well.  But I am sad for those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t or wouldn’t join us.  There are dark stories out there that will never be known. 

File:College Avenue Gateway, Pomona College.jpg
The gateway to the college, with the inspired thoughts of the college's third president,
a minister and theologian.  But some of us snuck in anyway.

Waifer X
     One disappointment, just one: nobody noticed my blue polo shirt. 

     I once told an alumna of my suburban high school that, being the pen pal of a gay inmate serving a twenty-year sentence for sex with a minor, I hoped to be the class bad boy.  Her answer: “You haven’t a chance.  We’ve got murderers and international drug dealers!”  With that kind of competition – never explained in detail -- I knew I was outclassed.  Hopefully, Pomona has never harbored any of those persuasions, though you can never be sure.  I’m not in touch with my classmates, but for the most part I’m certain that the dwindling number of survivors are reasonably well off and not steeped in turpitude and crime.  One, I know, inherited great wealth and owned a castle in Ireland, and another amassed a fortune as an expert in arranging corporate mergers.  I’m not in their league financially, but then, neither are a lot of my classmates.  But I’m glad that I now know of an alumna who is committed to helping young people trapped in the criminal justice system here in New York.  Since that event I’ve read samples of poetry by the kids in her programs:

Incarceration is a journey
Being stuck here
I didn’t know it would hurt me
Optimistic words, spoken by an attorney
Silence to my ear…
   (J.R., age 13)

Paint me like I am
Paint me proudly
With bright colors
And a fresh paintbrush…
   (N.C., age 15)

It’s not fun being bullied
Or harassed by the way you look,
Smell or act, or your age group
I think people shouldn’t judge me
I am my own person
It’s not about being popular
Or the best at everything…
   (S.F., age 12)

I wish I could live forever
running in a field of pink roses
surrounded by nothing but
a red rose tree
Why have things turned terrible?
When it just started getting better
I don’t understand
I forget…
   (A.J., age 17)

     We all have to follow our dream, whatever it may be, but Leslie Britt and Voices UnBroken are on the front line, doing something truly significant.  Castles in Ireland and corporate mergers are all very fine, but this is what really counts.  Without networking, I’d never have known. 

     My forthcoming book:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, a collection of posts from this blog, will probably be available both in a print version and as an e-book in September.  The final proofs have been sent to the printer, and the copyright application has been sent off.  

     Coming soon:  Wild New York.  Central Park at night: skulkers, prowlers, ravagers, doing things you wouldn't believe.  Only for the hardy of heart.  Also, West Harlem terrorized, and an aging stud, his fans and many mates.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder