At the start of my freshman year at a Catholic college in suburban White Plains, I felt like joy buzzers had been applied all over my body, all of the time. There was a sink right there in my room! My roommate, Patricia, was a perky education major and binge drinker from Boston who talked about how she missed her tennis lessons. Everything seemed so exotic and exciting. And, thanks to scholarships, I was on the way to move beyond my working-class Italian American circumstances and step onto the up escalator to the American Dream.

Or so I thought.

The demise started innocently, with an invitation to simple hospitality. I was planning my first visit back home, to Manhattan, in late September of freshman year and mentioned it during lunch in the cafeteria. A few classmates heard this and said, “Oh, you're from New York? I know someone in New...

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