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Senior moments

The Observer recently took his daughter to college for the last time. Ah, senior year, when a father's fancy finally turns to thoughts of Tuscany.

I look for the profundity in the experience and settle instead on the guy sprawled on a stoop two doors down from said daughter's apartment in Brooklyn, directly in front of our parked cars, who, my former wife and I conclude, has the comforting look of a moray eel.

He rakes the street with a practiced eye, digesting everything that moves and evaluating its resale value. I watch him watch my daughter. He's on his cellphone a lot. I'll be careful here: His behavior is consistent with that of a drug dealer.

After unpacking daughter's belongings, the three of us head for lunch. With the moray eel in mind, former wife stops in midstride and, voicing my own thoughts, asks, "Why don't we take the cars?" Nifty idea. (Our Brooklyn foray prompts my friend Peter to observe: "Let me get this straight. You take the cars but leave your kid.")

So it goes in our final game of College Bowl. We endure the last episode of "Survivor" driving down Interstate 95. I consider for the last time that a fresh roster of roommates might comprise the New York University connection of the Cali drug cartel. I enter the final year of my financiallyinduced Alpo diet.

The car conversation is different this time. Somewhere in the Empty Quarter on Interstate 84 between Sturbridge and Hartford, my daughter offers, "It's kind of scary to think about where I'm going to be a year from now."

Indeed. I don't want to terrify the child, so I choose not to inform her that it will remain scary for the rest of her natural-born days. Instead, I promise to bring her peanut butter and banana sandwiches should she end up in a homeless shelter. (Not that I'm worried, but what is she going to do?)

I keep the specter of health insurance after graduation to myself because continued coverage is on the parental nickel absent a job with benefits. And that could be a while. She is, after all, a theater major. She works at her craft with a passion and intensity that bears no resemblance to any previous Allis undergraduate experience. I'm so proud. That's all you can ask for your $42,000.

But, as I've noted in the past, theater is her passport to poverty. Experimental repertory troupes that perform in front of 17 people in church basements rarely cover MRIs for their people. If she stays in theater, my daughter could be serving mimosas at a Holiday Inn when she's 50. That's not my problem. Sort of.

The final road show this month resembled the first one three years ago, when former spouses in separate cars communicated telephonically, as my drill instructor used to say. This year, it's: "Please slow down. You're losing me." And, "Use your blinker when you're going to change lanes." Pit stop, as usual, at the estimable Shell station off Exit 24 past Hartford.

We gain an unexpected view of the Manhattan skyline from the Throgs Neck Bridge, traversed by mistake because father and daughter in the lead car are absorbed in a discussion about Neil Young. Then it's a Lewis and Clark experience somewhere near the Brooklyn Navy Yard until we arrive at what our daughter had billed as "a leafy neighborhood of brownstones."

There are trees on some of its sidewalks, and there are some presentable buildings farther down her street. But, not to put too fine a point on it, she lives in a slum. The front door of her edifice, a brownstone in its dreams, is wide open for a Predator's Ball. The hallway is dark, the stairs steep and narrow, the walls gross. The apartment -- I'm simply not going there except to note that two bedrooms have no windows and the number of columns in one radiator totals three. Have a nice winter.

But then I come to my senses. She's living in squalor because she's supposed to live in squalor. She's 21. Squalor, like acne, can last into your 30s. NYU parents are lulled into a false sense of comfort when their offspring live on campus because dorms have security in the lobbies. No longer.

So we fret about night owl subway rides from Manhattan to Brooklyn and ponder with dread the ensuing walks from subway station to apartment. But then scads of kids from Greenwich Village have decamped for cheaper rents in Brooklyn and live to sing its praises. Besides, maintains my daughter, "The Village is so bourgeois."

The good news is student swarms are resurrecting gamy parts of the borough. They take their chances and become true New Yorkers. The bad news is they're driving up the price of housing for working families. The Williamsburg section, home for ages to many Hasidic Jews, is experiencing culture shock. Kids who gained early footholds there have already left for neighborhoods farther out with cheaper rents and better edge. Edge is everything in the new millennium.

My former wife tears up when we say goodbye to our daughter on a street corner. (Where's a laundromat for God's sake?) "We don't know if she's coming back," former wife explains about this separation of potential permanence. True. Gulp.

I pull away in my new car for the drive back to Boston. I finally got a sedan after years of station wagons. I'm tired of station wagons. I no longer haul children around. I have no animals. I'm not rehabbing a house. What I like about my sedan is it's not useful.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com.

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