On July 4th, 2011, at around 9 o'clock, a crowd gathered on the balcony of Professor Steve Cerf's penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The sun had already set over the Hudson River, and the buzzing flock of old and new friends, neighbors and relatives, teachers and professors, spry young Bowdoin students and wiser ex-Polar Bears were eagerly anticipating the imminent fireworks display, scheduled to blow, well, any minute now.
Steve Cerf, professor of German for 30 years, current department chair, last year's Common Hour speaker, opera enthusiast, social butterfly, and culture guru, is a veritable institution at Bowdoin. He has hosted the Independence Day party every year from his apartment in New York and always invites a colorful range of characters from inside the Bowdoin bubble and out. At the party, he busied himself between the kitchen and twittering with the guests on the balcony while his spouse, Ben Folkman, co-creator of Switched-on Bach, the immensely popular, first-ever synthesized version of the Baroque composer's better known pieces, was on hamburger-grilling duty, chatting with the crowd of Bowdoinites and other distinguished personalities. Cerf, a legendary charmer and matchless mingler breezily played the crowd, acting the perfect counterpoint to his tall, pony-tailed, musically-inclined partner Ben, who, though slightly less visible, played an equally important role in keeping the mood fresh.
Cerf and Folkman have been married since their ceremony in Santa Cruz, California in 2008—"we are legal-schmiegal now," said Cerf—but they've been partners for over 30 years. Folkman comes up every fall to lecture in Professor Cerf's popular course "Literary Imagination and the Holocaust" on relevant composers, including Shostakovich, Hindemith, and Wagner, but for most of the year, he lives in the couple's New York apartment, which is filled with more thick rugs, cushiony furniture, slapdash bookshelves and stacked records than they have room for.
On the July 4th bash, Cerf said, "If you're talking about an older couple like us, it's really á la recherche du temps perdu, a walk down memory lane. Or like a superannuated Bar Mitzvah." He paused. "And of course, it's Bowdoin on the Upper West Side."
By sunset, the guests were still lounging inside the apartment, beginning to claim the hotly contested spots at the balcony's edge overlooking the river, where the fireworks would be set off of barges a few miles downtown. The company Cerf and Folkman invited was an impressive group, counting among their numbers 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner John Corigliano, New Yorker book critic Joan Acocella, and coloratura soprano opera singer Harolyn Blackwell. There was the old neighbor and intimate friend of legendary author Paul Bowles from his years in Tangier, Morocco, and even an ex-Radio City Hall Rockette, now in her seventies, with elaborately done-up makeup who sat composedly by the door in an extravagantly flowing dress, covering, undoubtedly, magnificent legs. Bowdoin's finest were also reppin' strong: classics professor Barbara Boyd and her husband, and former Bowdoin professors Helen Cafferty and Richard Korb all attended, along with a smattering of current students and alumni for whom Cerf has been a teacher, an advisor, and a friend. They included, among others, New Yorkers Bob Paplow '81, Sally Hudson '10, Gabe Faithfull '13, Emma Stanislawski '13, Leah Weiss '11, as well as Evelyn Miller '73, who also happens to be the mother of Adam Mortimer '12. (Let it be noted that Adam's mom said nothing at the party to embarrass him.)
The crowd hummed in the darkening evening, and the last red light streaking the wisps of cloud deepened into black over New Jersey's mock skyscrapers across the river. Bottles of craft beers clinked against wine glasses and a warm breeze wafted the smell of charcoal off the balcony into the endless free air beneath the perch high above the New York cityscape. And then—just before the city went absolutely dark—there they were! The fireworks exploded overhead like psychedelic umbrellas, funky geodesic domes, popping 3D spirographs, brilliantly colored. You could hear snippets of conversation: "Fantastic." "Marvelous." "Better than last year." "Worse than last year." "I want dessert." "Can't you pay attention to anything for more than five minutes?"
Afterwards, the guests lined up for peach cobbler, cheesecake, and a dozen other assorted sweets. Everyone gathered inside as Ben sat at the piano and sang a humorous Gilbert and Sullivan tune, and the guests all joined in for a raucous "America the Beautiful." The schmoozing continued as the evening lengthened, the hour approached eleven, and finally, satiated with good food, wine, company, and the best, or worst, fireworks show since last year, the guests drifted home one by one, each leaving Manhattan's little Bowdoin a little smaller.