“He went east with every intention of confronting the world,” David Maraniss wrote, in a biography of Barack Obama published this summer, “yet ended up more disengaged than engaged.” It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who came of age in New York, fresh out of college and alone in a crowd, a half-formed identity in a city with identities to spare. It was “the most existentialist stretch of his life.”
At Columbia, Obama was too busy racing through course requirements to be a true flaneur. But he got around. He made his tour of grubby off-campus flats in Morningside Heights, where the vermin were a more reliable presence than the heat. He took long walks through Harlem, but found it surprisingly unwelcoming. On campus, he spent enough time in the Malcolm X Lounge and in Edward Said’s literature class to pick out what he liked and didn’t like about identity politics. He sounded downright earnest in writing about “that sneaky spirit of communion and understanding” that prevails on the subway.
Obama may not have found himself here, but it’s where he learned how to look. After graduating he took a job crunching data for a consulting firm. He hated it and crossed another path off the list. But he was no slacker. Anyone who saw him testing himself on his daily runs could tell you that. Describing one in a letter, Obama captured perfectly the New Yorker’s sense of a lonely journey abetted by millions of strangers: “Sometimes someone will shadow your pace, step for step, and you can hear the person puffing, a different puff than yours, and on a good day they’ll come up alongside and thank you for the good run, for keeping a good pace, and you nod and keep going on your way, but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past.”