Coming of Age

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    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    You said at one time you sort of referred to yourselves as the odd couple. What did you mean?

    Well, I mean, look at it. Here is a guy who is idealistic. There is a guy who is idealistic and compassionate and worried about the downtrodden, and I was wanting to, well, get laid and get drunk and make money. I mean, you couldn't get much odder or incompatible than that.

    I mean, what happened to that Barry Obama who was the basketball player on the high school team and smoking dope and drinking and hanging out with his friends and having a good time? This is a very different Barry Obama than that. I mean, what do you think happened? And you saw some of the change from the Occidental years.

    Now, what I think happened, I came to the conclusion in hindsight many years later after reading Dreams From My Father -- well, this should just give you an idea, Jim, of how little we kind of communicated each other's troubles or feelings or emotions to each other. We didn't. I mean, if I was upset about something, the last thing I wanted to do was burden my housemate with it, and I hoped that they felt the same way. I didn't want to know about their troubles. That was the kind of guy I was.

    But his father passed while we were sharing that apartment in East 94th Street, and not a word from him. He might have mentioned that he passed, but not in any way as if it affected him, and just like, "It happened," something like that. I had no clue of what he was going through or his thoughts or emotions at the time, or even that his father represented such a serious figure to him.

    You got the phone call.

    I think I did. yes.

    And you passed the phone to him.

    I did. It was a German-sounding lady.

    And afterward?

    I probably went out somewhere and I didn't realize what a profound call it was. And actually if I did, I probably would even more deliberately leave the place to give him some privacy. That's kind of how we weren't into each other's business. I mean, guys don't do that.

    Sometimes.

    At least not back in their 20s. Yes, now men are more sensitive, but back in the '80s, it was like --

     ... Had he already discounted his father, do you think? ...

    I would have thought so, yes, that he had discounted his father. I never heard about his father from him. I would hear about his -- was Stanley the mom or the granddad? Anyway, I'd hear about his mom and his granddad and his grandmom, but never any anecdotes or mentions of his father, no, except when he got that phone call. Yes, he brought up his grandparents plenty, things that his grandmom would say, things his granddad would say, but not his father.

    What was your take from that? What was his relationship with the grandparents?

    It sounded like a very good one and that he really loved them. As I mentioned earlier, he used to, in terms of getting rich, he used to give me advice that his grandmother had given him. I remember one holiday season, one Christmas he received a care package from the grandparents, and he showed me. It was a wristband for joggers, to put your change in with a kind of sweatband underneath it and a zipper to put your money. And he said: "Look at this note from my granddad: 'If it doesn't fit your wrist, you know where to put it' or 'where to wear it'" or something like that.

    So yeah, I would hear about his grandparents.

    Did you think it odd? I mean, they were white. Did he ever sort of bring up the fact that this was an unusual situation to some extent?

    No.

    And in his head do you think he was? Or was it just that's what it was?

    I mean, I met him when he was in his early 20s, I think, and by his mid-20s there was a big transformation, and that's probably -- I mean, who cares about what race they belong to in their teens and early 20s?

    I don't think it was until a few years later that that troubled -- I mean, obviously, from his book it seems, I mean, we're talking about early 1980s, like 40, 50 years ago, and I didn't keep no diaries or journals.

    If you had known.

    Exactly. If only I had known, I would have treated him with a lot more respect.

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Let's talk about Occidental as a school. What's it like? What's it look like? What's it known for? What's its reputation?

    Occi is a beautiful private liberal arts school nestled in the hills of Los Angeles. It's a very alluring campus. I came because of the attractiveness of the school and sort of the typical California setting that it was in. It's a great academic school, very diverse student population, very stimulating environment, great people, great professors. Really enjoyed it. …

    What was the sort of the mix of the community?

    Occidental was a very small school. I think the student population was about 1,600 students at that time, a small portion of which were African American, maybe 5 or 7 percent. So I think there were 50 of us, 70 of us. And I met Barack, Barry Obama, on campus early on. I was a year ahead of him. But, you know, we became instant friends.

    We seemed to have certain life parallels to that point. And I had lived international; so had he. I was raised by a strong single mother at the time; so was he. And I had just come from an experience working in Kenya, coincidentally, in the Luo region of Kenya, which was the area of his father's birth and his own heritage. …

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    When did Barry really become Barack?

    I think when he left Occidental, after two years. One day he told me he was transferring to Columbia. I think it was an established program that Columbia and Occi had, an ability to transfer. But he was going to Columbia after two years.

    And I tried to talk him out of it. I said: "You know, Occi is a great place. Why don't we finish out here?" But he had, I think, a need for more expansive environment, more stimulating urban environment to grow intellectually. So that was his choice. And he went.

    Why? Why do you think he needed that? I mean, some people said he felt kind of trapped in a small pond.

    Well, I equate it to my own experience at Occi. And Occi was a very small pond. And you can be a big fish in a small pond, you know. We were both athletes. I played football and rugby. He played basketball. You can meet everyone in a few months on campus, literally, and you can do the things that you do there. And, you know, the horizon, I think, is very achievable at Occi. And so I had a similar experience, and a lot of people considered transferring from the school, just simply because it's a smaller environment in a much broader world.

    But I think he had a notion that he wanted to move. I spent a lot of time in Hawaii myself, so I understand the concept of island fever. So I think he first of all wanted to get off of the island for that reason, come to L.A. The experience in L.A. was great. You know, we did a lot of things that were very stimulating.

    We had a lot of similar interests, you know -- sports, arts, festivals, cultural events. And we'd go out around town and experience those things together.

    We had a very interesting, diverse group of friends. It was a multicultural -- you know, kind of our own private U.N. I mean, we had friends that were Latino, black, Asian, South Asian, Israeli, French. And it all kind of fed into this cultural experience in a microcosm at Occi. It really enlivened my interest in the world and broadened my horizon and my understanding of people. And certainly that was the case for Barack. …

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    Obama worked at the Cooler. The Cooler was a little snack bar on campus. And, I mean, he spent so much time there, I think I have an image of him, you know, carrying coffee cups at the Cooler.

    And it was a place that late night, you know, the only place on campus we could go and get a cup of coffee. And it was an intellectual hangout, sort of like I envision the beat era, where you had people just there to talk and converse and question their ideas and interact with students and professors. It was a great environment, and he spent a lot of time there.

    Why was he drawn to that? …

    I asked him. I said: "Yeah, why are you doing this? Why don't you get a white-collar part-time job?" … And he said: "I like this. I love it here. I love interacting with people." And he was an excellent conversationalist.

    But, you know, he had a very philosophical outlook on life. He was one of the few students you'd see that, along with the books under their arm that were in the syllabus, he always had another book, a novel or some other book that was off the required reading list.

    I just think he was a genius type. He was a true intellectual and just had a real curiosity about the world and people. And he just loved interacting with the diversity that was offered there on campus.

    What kind of conversation would take place at the Cooler? … Was it political discussions or discussions on poetry?

    No, often political. And it was a very charged era. Keep in mind, you know, we were 17,18 years old together, so we were just discovering ourselves, discovering the world. But it was a fairly turbulent time in America, where it was the early '80s. I think Reagan had just been elected. The draft was being reinstated. And it was a highly charged political environment. … And because you had a diverse milieu of people and academic ideas, I think a lot of those came to the fore in the Cooler. You know, that was the crucible of academic and intellectual discussion.

    But he was very progressive, very worldly. I think he had had a broad experience in life, so he was able to bring those ideas. And so did a lot of our friends. So, you know, that interaction was always lively.

    In a discussion, what was the role he played? Was he forceful in his arguments? Was he the moderator?

    Obama was very sensible, always very, I think, measured and able to see both sides of a discussion, which was great. I mean, if you've had a diverse experience in life and interacting with people, I think it gives you the ability to discern other ideas and to accept other ideas and accept a variety of ideas and make your own conclusions. But I recall him always to be a devil's advocate, you know, considering the other side of any question and presenting that to the fore, and, you know, maybe feeding into the discussion further. And he was excellent at that.

    Did he ever talk about his life, for instance, in Indonesia when he was a kid?

    Not much, no. No. I think, you know, our focus was that period in time, in the vacuum of our teenage or late teenage years. But no, we didn't talk so much about Indonesia or his life there. I really didn't know about it until I read his book later on. …

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    Related topics:
    Obama and RaceObama's Search for Identity

    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    When I met him, President Obama, he was more Hawaiian and Asian and international of his acculturation than certainly he was African American, because he hadn't had an urban African American experience at all. He was very open to, you know, the international cultural influences that were on campus at that time, as was I. And I think it was a very enriching experience.

    On the other side of it, did he have some problems dealing with the African Americans from urban America? … Were there problems, in some way, in connecting with that group on campus?

    Probably to an extent, because Occi was sort of stratified in terms of culture. You did have the cultural cliques, if you will. And there was that African American clique that would sit at a certain table in the cafeteria.

    I was able to straddle both worlds, because I think I had been on campus. I knew most of the people. I played sports. I had close friends in that core African American community as well as outside, and a lot of different circles.

    So it's hard to break into that world. Many local Los Angeles African Americans were not as receptive to the cultural diversity, perhaps. And so I was a link for Barack to that world.

    And we had the same friends. I introduced him to my friends that were sitting at that table, so to speak. So he was able to bridge that cultural gap, you know, the division in the cafeteria, by coming and sitting and meeting that group of friends as well.

    Was there some pushback? I mean, there have been some discussions by some people that … he wasn't black enough or whatever. Was that something that he was dealing with? …

    Well, and I think legitimately so. You are who you are, what you experience. You're a composite of the influences on you. And so it was a new experience for him. And, you know, he was probably a little isolated from that group until he made the attempt to bridge the gap. And yes, there was some pushback from certain individuals that weren't, again, as open-minded to the world who, no matter who you were.

    And so people were trying to figure out who Barack was, at the same time he was trying to figure out who he was. And, you know, once you were able to break down those barriers, he was completely embraced by that group of friends. And, I mean, he had no problem moving effortlessly through the various groups on campus.

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    Eric Moore   Obama's college friend

    (Text only) He met "Barry" Obama as a fellow student at Occidental College and the two men bonded over their similar backgrounds. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 29, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    He didn't seem to take on leadership roles over at the school at that point. Was he a guy who sort of seemed to stand up for political beliefs? Was that an important thing to him? Or was he just sort of finding out about himself at that point?

    He was very political, and we were all politically charged at that time, because there were some events going on around the country, on campus. …

    Was he political in the sense of running for office? I don't think he sought any sort of campus political office at all. He wasn't overtly political, trying to win votes or win favor with anyone. He was engaged; he was interested; he was informed. He knew what was going on in the broader world. …

    He took the mic and just had a tremendous presence and an impact in speaking out over the crowd. And I think he sensed from that that he had something to say. So maybe that was one of his first political gestalt moments. He just knew that there was a moment there where he could reach people, and they would listen. And they did. …

    How did that go? So you had talked just before him?

    Yeah, yeah. I spoke prior to him, as did several people. It was a big group, you know. You're public speaking across the campus. It was amplified. And then you had the president of the college and the trustees next to you in the boardroom. So it was a heady moment.

    So he walks up to the microphone. What does he do?

    He has a very compelling, booming voice, as he does today. I don't recall the text of what he said. …

    I'm kind of behind him, looking out, and saying, wow, people were really listening to what he was saying. But I think there was a bit of performance drama, performance play at that moment. And he said a few things. And then some guys in costume, as if they were apartheid policemen, came and drug him off the mic. And that sort of ended the rally then. …

    Did he talk about it beforehand? Did he practice to do this thing?

    No, no, it was all fully spontaneous. No, he didn't have a prepared speech, nor did I or anyone, you know. He just kind of spoke from the heart. And that's what he did.

    Afterward, did you guys talk about the effect at all? It's been written that he sort of felt, you know, in the end, he didn't think he'd accomplished much. It was kind of like childish antics, and he discounted it. Do you remember him talking about it afterward, or what effect he thought something like that had?

    I think it was one of those things that we did, and it was over. And I think we went on to our classes or what have you. And there wasn't a lot of feedback, I recall. You know, people milled around for a while, and then the crowd dispersed. So there was nothing beyond that.

    We thought it was an important thing to do. We had to make that statement. And it was one of several anti-apartheid shows of force by the students. I mean, it led to the divestiture of the college, so I think it worked in the end. They decided to divest. And it was a great thing. It was a great thing.

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    Related topics:
    Obama's Core Nature

    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    Let's start with the first time you met this young, I guess he was still Barry Obama at that point. Or had he switched over to Barack Obama?

    I was introduced to him as Barry.

    Tell us about the first time you met him, what he was like.

    He seemed very lighthearted, fun-loving. I was introduced to him in San Francisco at a New Year's Eve party, and he greeted me with "Kya haal hai set," which through his friends at Occidental he had picked up some Pakistani words, knew the words. It meant, "How are you, boss?" It was kind of like slang that you would say to each other.

    Yeah, so that was at a party in San Francisco. I was visiting his roommate in Los Angeles, Hasan Chandoo, who was also going to Occidental College with him. And after New Year's Eve we drove back from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and I spent a couple of weeks there. It was all party fun, and there seemed to be some political awareness. I remember being taken to a meeting, a kind of a speech, an event with Dick Gregory, which Hasan Chandoo and Barry -- yes, Barry at that time -- who were my hosts. I was living with them at that place.

    And other than that, a slightly serious occasion, it was just fun partying, and he seemed completely your stereotypical college kid. I never imagined him in the White House. ...

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    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    So tell us about New York. I mean, the story as it's told is the first time, before you're roommates and everything else, the first night he shows up in New York he's going to be moving into an apartment with Phil, but he can't get into the apartment, so he spends the night on the street?

    I believe it wasn't the apartment that he eventually ended up sharing with Phil. This was an apartment that he had made arrangements for from Los Angeles and sent his money up front. And he sent it to the tenant who was going to leave anyway is how I think I gathered it. He didn't talk about it too much, and I wasn't going to be asking him how he got ripped off. It wasn't polite. But I gathered that he sent his money to the wrong person who left, and when he arrived there he was knocking on locked doors, and nobody knew him or gave him the right to stay there.

    And yeah, he phoned me I think from fairly early, 7:00 or 8:00 or something, by our standards of that age. It might have been earlier than that. And I just said, "How are you doing?" "I'm in New York." I was expecting him, because after spending a couple of weeks there in Los Angeles and when we said farewells, he asked for my number and said, "I might be showing up in New York," and I gave him my number. So I wasn't surprised to hear from him. And he arrived with his luggage and looking totally disheveled and didn't have a place to stay. And he crashed on my couch.

    And then we started a series of kind of trying to find an apartment together. I was sharing a studio with another person. And so that was his arrival, yeah. We had breakfast. He described that very accurately in Dreams From My Father, just going to the coffee shop and the conversation we had and my asking him what he was going to do with the big education he sought.

    What did he say?

    Well, I'll tell you the truth. I think I was lecturing him, because I don't remember what he said, and I don't think he even responded, but I was telling him the fastest line means to find a business and make money.

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    Related topics:
    Obama's Motivation

    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    I was always on this team of, "You've got to make money; you've got to find a way to hit the big time," legally, of course. And he would say things which -- he would repeat things to me, crediting his grandmother. I think it was either "Find a better rat trap and build it," or "Find a niche and fill it," probably both. But he wasn't too interested in what I wanted to talk about, which is potential money-making schemes or the other interests of 20-year-olds.

    Why not? I mean, what was he interested in?

    I didn't probe. I didn't probe. It seemed to me he just -- I saw a transformation in the Barry I had met in Occidental. He got very serious and less lighthearted, and our conversations were more about serious things, and at that time and probably still, so I was not as deep as him. It seemed to me that he wanted to benefit the downtrodden. I would hear things like -- now we were living on East 94th Street, which at that time was like the borderline -- Harlem started at 96th. It's very different from the neighborhood looks like today.

    And [then there were] filthy streets, and [during the] school day with kids, Latinos and blacks mainly, hanging on the corners, you would see little exchanges and probably transactions, and that would set him off. He would start lecturing, like, "There is no reason that --" I can't remember his exact words, but it amounted to something like, "The most powerful, the wealthiest nation in the world, and this is what kids are doing on a school day," something to that effect, that there is no reason that should be happening. And he seemed very troubled by it. And I was bored by the conversation.

    So he would be lecturing you as you were walking down the street?

    This conversation, I think, was on our fire escape, which was our balcony outside his bedroom window. We would get some sunshine there. But yeah, this was something that troubled him; I knew that. And other than wanting to study and be serious, I didn't probe further or ask him for any more reasons. I mean, he stopped going out more and more. I was always trying to get him down to the corner bar, etc., and after some point I gave up, and I didn't ask him, "Why not?" anymore. It's the same thing.

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    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    So at some point you do become roommates. How does that come about?

    He was couch-hopping. I wasn't too pleased with the setup I had, which was a tiny studio with someone whom I knew from the same school in Pakistan I wasn't really friends with. So we were both on the market for an apartment in Manhattan, and we were both completely priced out. I mean, we could raise maybe 500 bucks a month between the two of us, and there wasn't much there. But we did finally score this apartment on East 94th Street.

    That's how it came about. We just happened to be two guys who knew each other in the same situation and looking for an apartment.

    Describe the apartment.

    Yes, it was a hovel. Scary street. He describes very well in Dreams From My Father. There used to be a gas station at the top -- I'm starting with the street and the approach to it. You would be intimidated right away as you entered the street, because on First Avenue and East 94th Street was a gas station. It was patrolled by this Doberman pinscher with a beer bottle in his mouth, and he would just -- and we would have to pass him daily.

    And we would pass this dog to get to our apartment. The hallways were dingy. Everything was beat up and gray and dimly lit. The front door didn't quite lock completely. I mean, we were always looking around our shoulders approaching the building and even going up the stairs, six flights.

    Once you got to the apartment, I'll describe it for you, you would enter through a kitchen, which would lead into a living room on one side and a bathroom on the other side. And you would squeeze through the cooking range, the stove, to make it through the living room. If you had any luggage you had to kind of drop it there and then squeeze it in. The floors were all warped. They were wooden floors with big gaps between the planks. I mean, people would think they were more drunk than they were at first, walking across the living room.

    There was one tiny bedroom. It was really a closet with a window. And then there was a decent bedroom. Yes, I think we ran a race for that. I didn't know he could run like a deer, so he got the big room. What else? The heat. OK, there was never hot water when you wanted it. Weekday mornings, the entire -- we were on the sixth floor. Each floor had about four or five apartments, so the entire building was taking a shower, and we wouldn't get hot water.

    Heat used to blast through the radiators. There was steam pipes, and the valves, the controls never worked. We told the management company, etc., but nothing happened. So it was such a waste of energy in those days. I guess we weren't that green or aware of carbon footprints, so we used to have our windows wide open, just to cool down from the heat. ...

    And this is the apartment you had to lie on the lease to get?

    Oh, yeah.

    So tell us the story and him refusing to lie.

    All right. So we arrived there. I think we were answering an ad. And me and Barry at the time, we get up there, and first of all, we're the only non-white applicants, and the apartment is flooded with applicants, and they all have a clipboard in their hand, and they're all filling out the application. And I said to Barry, I said, "We ain't got a chance in hell of getting this apartment if you put the truth down, a student income, me looking for a job. So let's fudge it."

    And he was like -- he just dismissed it, like ignored me. I fudged it, invented a catering company and gave my friends' phone numbers as references and co-workers and all that. And they didn't check, and they didn't call any of my references. I put down inflated income and got the call, "Yeah, you can have the apartment." But we had wanted to cosign the lease, Barry and me. They said: "You can have the apartment, but Obama cannot cosign it. We'll give the lease to you only." ...

    I mean, I shouldn't gloat. I wasn't entirely honest. ...

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    Sohale Siddiqi   His New York City roommate

    He met Obama at a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco, while Obama was attending Occidental College, and the two men later became roommates in New York. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on June 30, 2012.

    At this point, his life, as he sort of defined it or other people define it, was running and writing. That seemed to be the whole of his life. Is that sort of true?

    That's the picture of what I got. I mean, I stopped asking after a couple of years, asking, "Hey, what did you do today?" It was always the same answer. So he used to ask me, "What's the scoop?" in the beginning when we lived in every day, and the same boring -- yeah, I figured he is running or writing or taking long walks from East 94th Street down to probably Battery Park and back up. That's how I envisioned it. Or in the library studying. That's really what I thought he was up to all the time. …

    Does he ever sort of define where he's going after Columbia? When does the idea of going to Chicago and working in the streets and organizing and stuff like that come about? Was that a surprise to you, or was that sort of a natural direction he was headed?

    Actually, yeah. After he became the editor of the Harvard Law Review, I met him once or twice. He came back to New York in the early '90s or late '80s or something, and he did mention that. I think he mentioned that he was going to go to Chicago. We really didn't discuss into the whys or what his motivation was. And I'm not sure I even knew at that time that he was going to get involved in the grassroots organizing, to tell you the truth.

    Were you surprised that that's a direction that he would have taken?

    No, that didn't surprise me at all. I mean, here is somebody who wants to do good, so no, that didn't surprise me at all. ...

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