Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Baccalaureate Banshee Blues

When I started up with this blog, one of my intentions was to recall that hazy period of college life and shortly thereafter. In a lot of senses, that time period, from about the age of 18 to 25, seems very distant to me now. I think the main reason is because I don't physically have a lot of those people and places in my life. All of my old college friends have spread out over the years, and the last time I made it back to Penn State was for a summer arts festival in the early 90s. Which felt weird.

Life works like that -- if you don't have constant physical reminders of people and places, they fade out. I knew dozens of people in college – hesitate to call them friends – but these days, I’m in touch with maybe eight of them. Why? For most, it’s simply because they moved elsewhere, as did I in terms of coming to New York. Moving is one thing, but when you move and stay apart for years, unless you had a real strong bond with that person, it’s just simple physics that you’ll drift further apart. No great crime in this, although it’s interesting to note I still know more people I grew up with back home. And part of that is because that’s a physical place I visit often.

Penn State is like a vague dream to me now. I think it was a good dream – I know it wasn’t a nightmare. But for the most part, those days are distant past, not so much buried as faded. I can look back and see that was a good experience in terms of establishing my adult identity, which has surely changed much since then. I’d say our natures stay roughly the same, but everything else gets constantly rehauled, tested, burned out, reborn, discarded, etc. We often think we stay the same, but there are constant flutters in the under-current that we’re not fully aware of.

Some of those people from college didn't fade out – they either jumped or were pushed. Not in some outraged, violent way. More in a way of “we’re not the same people anymore, no need to stay in contact” – which has happened with people I went on knowing after college, but somewhere in the mid-20s to early 40s, zoned out on. Strangely enough, all women, albeit none with any sort of romantic attachment. And all worked for the same college paper with me. I think it’s interesting to look at just what happened with each.

AV was a damn good writer, when she wasn’t so mildly self loathing that she refused to indulge in anything creative. Came from a small town just outside of Pittsburgh, working class, brother became a state cop, etc. Really like a lot of kids at Penn State, including me. Deeply into the Alternative music scene of the 80s, which is how I got to know a lot of cool people at college.

There’s a difference I’ve noticed in people in their teens/early 20s and older people that some might call cynicism, but I’d just call common sense. And that’s younger people will have mentally troubled people in their lives and either not sense this in any way, or sense it and downplay it. Ergo, most of the similarly-aged mentally troubled kids they know are still on that upward arc of their problems and haven’t come down the other side, when things like lifelong prescriptions of mood enhancing drugs become part of their lives.

I don’t think AV was ever that far gone, but I think she had issues. I still recall the one time a few of us went to Pittsburgh to see a show, and she knew the town well. I was driving, and we came to a busy intersection near the Pitt University campus where I had to go straight to get where we were going. I asked her, what do I do here. She just looked at me. Then she blurted out don’t turn left. By this time, I was in the intersection, coasting, and waiting to be in an accident. Since I was in the right lane, I jerked the car right, to which she blurted out, you went the wrong way. I asked, why didn’t you just say, “Go straight”? She answered, “Because I’m no longer using the word ‘straight’ in any form since it’s derogatory to homosexuals.”

Back then, I just stared at her and shook my head. These days, I’d have thrown her out of the fucking car. Granted, I’ve met a lot of left-leaning people in NYC who I believe are nuts, but this was taking it a step further – we nearly got t-boned over her sense of political correctness. (And guess how I’ve felt about that concept ever since!)

Like all of us, she meandered for a bit after graduation before heading south, ending up in New Orleans. It didn't matter to me what her job there was, which was something like being a porter in a funky hotel – good for her. It’s just that she kept veering farther left (not "straight"), to the point where there was no talking to her anymore if you disagreed with her. It started with her becoming a soldier in the pro-choice army, attending many abortion clinic protests all over the south to the point where she and her friends knew all the pro-life nuts they were forever counter-protesting. I still don’t know how she’d manage to be at a clinic rally in Birmingham one day and back at work the next.

As we moved into our 30s, it became clear that most of her friends were kids fresh out of colleges like Tulane and LSU, bumming around New Orleans, barstool anarchists and such. I knew plenty of people like this in New York, and at that point in my life, all that stuff started fading out. You get tired of beat-down looking white boys reading Bukowski and Chomsky in shitty bars and wonder how these people survive with no visible means of support. It gets old. Sooner or later, you recognize the whole routine is an act of denial over their moneyed backgrounds, because you actually came from one these guys envied, for some stupid reason, and there’s no way you could afford to do nothing all day and somehow get by.

I think the last straw for me was when she put up a few MOVE members at her place while they were in town. If you don’t remember MOVE, they were the black “back to nature” armed separatist movement that set-up shop in Philadelphia and ended up getting bombed out of their fortress by Philadelphia's new black mayor, Wilson Goode. You may not also remember this was a cause celeb in the early 90s after a few books came out on the subject. Never quite understood why these folks didn’t join forces with the Waco/Koresh camp, because they’d have gotten along like gangbusters, despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

But hearing AV go on about how wonderful these people were, and then start in with their rhetoric, that was pretty much it for me. We had some weeks-long email blow-out, and I left it at that. I guess it was her point of view that I was selling out by not agreeing with all these far-left points of view. The reality was I was just trying to survive in a major city, and frankly wasn’t that heavily into politics, never really had been, nor had she for most of the time I knew her at college (or at least she kept this hidden from me). Still, even through all the crap, I could see she was a good-hearted person, but you reach a point where if people make it difficult for you to be in their lives, you just get the fuck out.

Both AV and I were good friends with PK, an editor at the paper, and a damn good one at that. She was about 10 years older than all of us, going to grad school for a Masters in Psychology, which I don’t think she ever got. PK had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, which meant we got along like gangbusters. Our first contact was me dropping a note in her mailbox chastising her for picking Reckoning over Born in the USA as album of the year for 1984.

I will forever be in PK’s debt for turning me on to so much cool music in the mid-80s, whether it was newer alternative stuff, or older blues and soul which was completely fresh to me. Her apartment was packed with records – literally thousands. (I never got near a thousand with records, as my collecting years have straddled records, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s. I do have thousands of CDs. Threw all my records out.) PK always had a good, matronly way about her, which served her well as an editor. She was a good friend, too. A lot of us into the local music scene would spend hours in her apartment listening to advance copies of albums we knew were incredible. For some reason, I distinctly recall drunkenly dozing off one night in her La-Z-Boy while Camper Van Beethoven’s “Good Guys and Bad Guys” played on MTV’s new-wave show.

After college, I moved to NYC, and she went back home to Connecticut, where she immediately got an editing job at a magazine, which I assume she’s still at all these years later. It became a habit for me to take the Metro North train up there for regular visits, which was a cool weekend getaway. I got along fine with her parents, flinty, hard-as-nail Yankee types from New England. PK stayed at home at first because she couldn’t afford to move out on her lousy editing pay, on top of which real estate in most of Connecticut is obscenely over-priced. (She eventually got her own place near-by when her pay improved.) Our visits were usually us getting caught up on new music and movies, on top of sampling local restaurants and such. Good, relaxing visits for the most part.

What happened? I don’t know. All I know is that right after 9/11, it became obvious that she was blowing off not just me, but a handful of people she knew from college – simply staying out of contact, not returning calls or emails. In my case, that was real bad timing, as I was feeling emotionally devastated for a few months after 9/11, as most New Yorkers were. Nearly everyone I knew that night or the following day checked in to see if I was still alive – not PK. That silence stretched into months. A mutual friend from college checked in to see if anything was wrong with her. Nope. Nothing wrong. Sorry to be out of touch. Will be better about this in the future. That was the last he heard from her.

Did this come out of left field? For me it did. For our mutual friend, who was a bit closer to PK than I was, he was on the receiving end of some strange tirades that hinted at lunacy. I only saw this once, when both he and I visited PK. No one was there to pick us up at the train station at 9:00 on a Friday night, so our friend called PK’s mom and asked what was going on. Apparently, PK’s mom freaked, didn’t appreciate the way he was speaking to her. (I have no idea if he was in any way belligerent … both of us were kind of peeved to come all that way and find no one there waiting for us). Passed it on to PK, who should have been there to pick us up but apparently was out running an errand. (She got her times mixed up.) PK blew up at our friend in the car, really lighting into him, bringing up all kinds of other weird stuff that I wasn’t privy to, and all I could think was, “Man, this is some real left-field bullshit she’s laying on him.”

But that was the only hint I had through all those years. Again, I don’t know why people do or don’t do the things they do. Why did PK choose to cut-off a handful of people from her college days? I have no idea. None of us had done anything to merit this. If it was her idea to start over with a new bunch of friends, got news for you, that’s something you don’t do in your late 40s (the age she was at when she made this choice). One thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that if you have people in your life you can count on, it’s a good idea to keep them around, you don’t throw people out unless they give you a damn good reason to do so. None of us gave her any reason.

The last one is AR, who worked on the “business” side of the newspaper. Not sure why she did this – she, too, was another very good writer, but had always been raised with a strong sense of business acumen. She minored in one of those “business” areas along with her English degree. I should have done the same, but guess what, I’ve probably learned as much shit, and more, as any business minor has, just by working in NYC offices and keeping my eyes open. AR was also a slutty sorority girl (pardon the redundancy), drunk a lot, very much into that scene, which was filled with drunk/stoned girls from the suburbs, chunky and depressed, looking to get back at their fathers. Which is no crime – I think it was at that time with all of us stuffed-shirt English majors, but I’ll bet those frat boys and sorority girls had a ball for the most part. I could still do without the stereotypical mentality, but I’ve met plenty of now-sane people who went this route in college.

She and I constantly flirted around at college, but nothing ever really came of it. Ditto a weekend when I visited her in Harrisburg, where she took her first job with a phone company – it just didn’t feel right to go in that direction. This all happened in that strange area of post-college life before I moved to New York, so I was probably doing jack shit back in Pennsylvania, waiting for the next move. When I moved to New York, that encouraged her to do so a year later, and we became fast friends again.

So I got to see her do her “That Girl” thing – every chick who moves here from somewhere else thinks she’s Marlo Thomas. Which usually ends the first time she catches some old pervert jerking off in a raincoat as he leers at her on a bus, which was clearly not part of the That Girl opening montage. I got to see her go through all those 20s dating scenarios: drunken, uni-browed firemen, a shady Puerto Rican guy she met in the gym who only operated in cash, a Puerto-Rican Irish guy who was trying to franchise a Domino’s pizza place, an Irish guy who was just a typical Irish bum but won over hearts with his accent, a weird carpenter from Westchester County who always reminded me of Corky, the retarded kid from the 80s TV series, Life Goes On.

Through it all, we stayed friends, although I found myself getting annoyed by two things. One, even though I’d been there longer than she had, and never played this up, she tried to position herself as “The New Yorker.” Which struck me as the kind of annoying thing people who come here do when they have no real personality of their own. You see this shit all the time. People acting like really rude pigs, trying to get over on you, when you know this poseur grew up in some Midwestern suburb. Everyone who moves here goes through that phase, but most of us grow out of it fast and eventually identify ourselves more with where we’re from. Some people latch on to that ersatz personality – like women who identify a little too heavily with Sex in the City – and it becomes who they are, which means you can never reach them again.

Two, she got a little too far into that “business minor” mindset, making a good bit of coin in her time here while turning into the consummate business woman. But even then, in her early 30s, she hit some kind of road bump, must have realized she wasn’t too happy, sold her apartment in Hell’s Kitchen (bad move) and moved to Colorado. I don’t know – guess she thought she was going to fuck some John Denver type guy and see God in a wheat field or something. But it didn’t happen. She came back to New York about two years later, got a marketing job at a paper company that was a major step down from the high-tension/long-hour path she’d been on. I recall in her 20s she had constantly carried on about wanting to start a big family, four or five kids, and I think she realized that would never happen with the kind of life she had been living here. It seemed she came back here with her head on straight.

But not really. All that time in her 20s, she was prone to losing touch with me, and other people in her life, for no obvious reason. I’m not a stickler with keeping in touch; I don’t see it as a game of ping pong where I hit the ball over the net, and you hit it back. Sometimes people lose touch for weeks, or even months. I understand that. But some people … if you don’t contact them, then you never hear from them again. And when it gets to that point, that’s where you decide how important that person is, and by simple attrition, the answer becomes “not very” after a few years. This gave me much more trouble in my 20s. I recall writing her impassioned letters, that we were fading out of each other’s lives, and this was a very bad thing, a dangerous precedent to set.

I’d laugh at those letters if I read them now over their heightened sense of drama. Some people just fade out – I’ve learned this. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. And AR chose to fade herself out – not just with me, but I knew this happened with other key people in her life, too. I tried to keep her in the loop when she came back. The impetus for her to come back was 9/11. She called me a few days afterwards during that highly emotional game the Mets played at Shea – the first game in New York since that day – and she was in tears. Oh, I have to get back there, and be closer to people like you again, why did I ever leave, etc., sniff, Tito, get me some tissues.

Well, she came back all right, and immediately started in with the same distancing bullshit she had always been famous for. You tell me! Last time I saw her was a year after that at a CD release party for one of her friends down at CBGB’s Gallery – a nice, quiet little spot just off the main club. I wasn’t that crazy over her friend’s singer/songwriter leanings, which I was up front about, but I strongly doubt that was any huge issue with her, or at least I had never sensed as much. Besides which, I ended up emailing her a day later that the CD had sounded a lot better than the patchy cassettes and demos I had heard before this. And her friend did seem like a pretty good guy. Fuck, all the guys in her life were pretty good guys, me included.

But being a pretty good guy doesn’t mean shit in the long run. Again, she faded out after that. Never heard from her after a few email exchanges, all funny and friendly, as usual. Not quite sure how to put a finger on that situation. I can see now the same thing happened a handful of times in our 20s, and the only reason it kept happening was that I kept at her to hang around.

So you can see, on top of all those college friends who simply faded into the mist of the past, some of them went there awkwardly, strangely, in ways that I’m never going to fully grasp. Does it bother me now? In some ways, sure, but on the other hand, I wonder what in the hell goes through a person’s mind to get that careless with other people. The college friends I still have check in and out every now and then – most far away, or so wrapped up in their own lives that checking in is like coming up for a breather for them. I appreciate their sanity and hope they get the same sense of comfort from mine. Because, for the life of me, if you find yourself on the outside of my life, I’ll find some way to make that crystal clear to you and not leave any doubts as to why this happened – and it will have to be over some very bad shit. Not on a god-damned whim. I think that’s what bothers me more than anything.

1 comment:

Jordan Hoffman said...

Don't Go Left!
Not only is that story hilarious, but your friend there inadvertantly issued a warning to herself and, apparantly, the other female FOB of this era!