Sunday, August 29, 2010

August 1984, State College, PA

I realized after writing my last piece that a nice bookend would be describing the act of leaving for college two years earlier. My first two years of college were spent a local Penn State branch campus, where I kicked ass academically for the first time in my life (having been a solid B+ type student in the past). But I couldn’t go on doing that forever as the campus did not offer four-year degrees. It was time to hit the big show.

I had been to State College before – obviously to find an apartment the previous spring, which was difficult as I had no idea how crazy that process was. Basically, if you didn’t have a place for the upcoming fall semester lined up by March or April, you were shit out of luck. I went up in late May and must have been through dozens of places that were too expensive or strange. I had never lived away from home before, save for extended vacations to relatives. Eventually, I found a place about a mile north of campus, the lower half of a ranch house owned by a strange but friendly middle-aged guy named Mike. I would be sharing the apartment, although I had no idea who my roommate would be, as I had no one to provide on my end. Mike told me he’d find someone over the summer. The rent was great – I think $160/month if I recall, There was a cornfield on the edge of the yard, which immediately put me at ease with my rural upbringing.

That was one of those factory summers, the second and last. God, I had such a good time there – not being facetious at all. Again, finite amount of time working there, being exposed to a bunch of guys who weren’t out to screw each other over, a very healthy way to be introduced to the concept of adult employment. And that was the summer of P, the Born-Again girl as noted in the previous post. I don’t have her picture handy, but believe it or not, she looked a lot like Jessica Alba circa the movie noted in this week's picture on the upper right.

Just a gorgeous, out-going, manically-depressed Catholic girl with a Christ complex. That summer we were hanging out regularly, a few nights a week, driving out for ice cream or going to the mall, listening to Springsteen on my cassette deck in the station wagon – very innocent stuff, as even holding hands was a stretch for her, easing away from the concept of becoming a nun. That night she wore a white dress and sandals. We went up to sit in the graveyard on the edge of town after dark. The weather was like now: hot, sunny days followed by cool nights where you could feel fall inching closer.

I was feeling horrible, knowing I’d be gone in a few days, and she’d still be there. Of course, not yet realizing I could drive the two-hour trip home any weekend I wanted … and did most weekends that first year away. “Edge of the earth approaching” type vibe that night. And she sensed it and was so kind. We should have went for it that night. Granted, not getting laid on my grandparents’ grave – that would have been totally inappropriate – but pushing it forward to the next level. But as also noted, I had my first hemorrhoid, no doubt due to the stress I was feeling over leaving, that burning little nut just above my asshole, which I did not know was a hemorrhoid at the time but would later realize when I got this thing once every three years. I was way too out of sorts to think like a horny teenager, but looking back now, man, I should have gone for it.

Work wrapped up later that week, and that weekend I packed my meager belongings (most importantly, stereo, records and Radio Shack Nova 40 headphones). Packing up, I quickly realized Mom was in worse shape than I was. She looked like the Grim Reaper was coming to take me away to hell, as opposed to me making the next logical step in my life and going away to college. Dad was fine – he laid a $20 on me when he caught me outside loading up the station wagon. Mom made the mistake of trying to show me a map of how to get to State College, when I had already been there at least half a dozen times and knew the way, as she knew, but Mom, to this day, has a habit of getting hyper-active and strange upon departures. She opened up the map in front of me, and I snapped, “Mom, stop it. I know the way. You don’t have to show me anything.” She slammed the map shut and stormed into the cellar.

But I had to go. Dad shook my hand and gave me advice on what to do in case the car broke down. I remember it was overcast, but not raining. And it was that moment I felt about as empty and afraid as a kid can get. I was leaving. Right fucking now. Leaving home, possibly for good. I knew it had to happen, but I didn’t want to go. But I had to. Where’s Mom? I’d had it. I was a bundle of nerves, wound up, and didn’t feel like waiting around. I got in the car, turned the key and started driving.

The last thing I saw, looking in the rear view mirror, was Mom, standing in the middle of our street, waving. She had run up from the basement when she heard me pulling out but was too late. That moment sticks with me now, as I can see it will happen one day in the foreseeable future with Mom, and me on the other end, save she won’t be coming back. I thought about driving back to say goodbye, but let it go. (I should note here: I already had plans to drive back the following weekend!)

I didn’t weep as I left my hometown – that came a few towns later, when it sunk in that I was leaving home, alone in the world for the first time, which I’ve since come to realize is a liberating feeling, but had no clue at the time. That feeling, as I recall, was amazing. Feeling horrible, just beat to shit, but knowing full well there was no turning back, and it had to be done.

Any way you drive to State College, PA, you are spending hours on heavily-wooded interstates, in my case, blasting straight across the state on Route 80. It’s a ride I’d make a few dozen times over the next two years, and I think getting out on the road like that put me at ease, playing my music and letting the hum of the road miles relax me. I got to State College a few hours later, pulled the station wagon into Mike’s driveway, and this big guy came out to greet me, white guy who appeared to be somewhere in his 20s, wire-frame glasses, sideburns. This was new roommate, M.

That half of the house we’d be sharing was a two bedroom with a bathroom, kitchen, living room and garage. Man, if I could have rented that place for myself, it would have been heaven, and I probably could have with the money I’d saved up, but wasn’t thinking that far ahead as I was still a kid.

M was friendly enough, from a rural area south of Pittsburgh. He had spent a few years in the armed forces and was now going to college in his late 20s. This guy was considerably older than I was, which felt strange. I could have done a lot worse – as it was, we simply had very little in common. Most nights after classes, I’d come back there, make small talk with M, then go back to my room and work on my writing. He must have thought I was a sequestered lunatic, but I did need to write, and that was the only time I could do it. As it was, I had a nice quiet room to do it and felt fine with that. M made the living room his domain, as I recall it, watching a lot of M*A*S*H reruns on TV or listening to his albums, Four Way Street by Crosby Stills Nash & Young being the main one I recall.

This was probably all for the best, as Mike had made it clear he didn’t want any wild parties or tons of kids coming by to hang out and cause trouble. And I had work to do. Most nights, Mike sat up there alone, practicing his steel guitar. Mike was an odd duck to begin with – a nebbish sort of bachelor who put out vague Norman Bates vibes. But the steel guitar thing was just too weird. At the time, I had zero comprehension of country music and thought the steel guitar was a pure hick instrument. (I’ve since come to realize it’s an incredibly delicate piece of equipment … and love hearing it on any piece of music.) I’d picture Mike up there, naked, wearing a hockey mask, and playing Hawaiian songs on his steel guitar in his living room.

It was a strange time. But good. As noted, applied for a columnist position on the school newspaper, landed one, and that served as a doorway into a cool little world of fellow English and Journalism majors, all of whom got to know me through my writing and being in the same classes.

There was one Journalism class in particular, my first one, that had a strong effect. I did poorly in that class, a C, which was basically because I still didn’t know how to write. I was great at writing tight little humor pieces and such, but reporting? I’m still not very good at that. I can interview people – actually, very well – but that sort of backseat-taking a writer does to become a good reporter was beyond me at the time. My ego was too big to do it well. And the instructor was a real stickler. Not a bad guy, but the sort of exercises he gave us, those who/what/where/when/why exercises of taking a jumble of facts and arranging them properly, was just a huge pain in the ass. I should have learned this stuff at the time, but it didn’t sink in until much later.

But in that class were some interesting people. The guy who sat next to me was the late Damon Chappie, who I later learned went on to have a pretty interesting career as an investigative reporter in Washington, D.C. He was doing much the same at Penn State, getting into hard-edge stories on the paper along the same lines. It’s not fair to say I didn’t like the guy, but I was put off upon first meeting him as he was sporting that lame fashion trend of mid-80s yuppies: a polo shirt with an upturned collar that he wore to every class, and Vuarnet sunglasses on a rope. The sort of thorniness that surely served him well as a reporter was present then in his personality. He put some people off, but we got along in a strange way. He was a very good reporter, which was clear from the get-go in that class.

(And I’d meet him again later. This story about Dewey Beach, Delaware, that lawn party … I saw Damon at that party. We sort of ignored each other instead of greeting each other as long-lost classmates. It was strange. We should have said hello, but didn’t. That was a very bad weekend!)

And there was old friend Justin. Meeting him, and then the group of guys he was hanging with down at headquarters on College Avenue, was another important door opening, as he and roommate Colin have gone on to be lifelong friends (as I knew they would). As I recall, Justin was a gangly, good-looking kid who wanted to be a poet and worshipped T.S. Eliot and Bob Dylan, so once he caught wind of my columns, we clicked immediately and felt that spark of friendship from the first hello. It was a very cool experience to meet people on the exact same creative wavelength, and they weren’t assholes. (In New York, I’d meet plenty of people who were, despite their artistic leanings, and veered away from these sort of folks as time went on.)

There were two women in that class who were great. One of them, I can’t even recall her name: a hippy chick from Pittsburgh who must have smoked 2-3 packs a day and was a real free spirit. Good-looking, too, but apparently had some sort of hippy 30-year-old boyfriend who was never around. Again, it was cool to be able to discuss Beat writers and music with someone like this, who was a real open spirit, not the kind of person I was meeting back home, sort of the doppelganger of P.

And there was Stacey, a Jewish girl from Philly. Pretty, too, and she always took shit for being too jappy (Jewish American Princessy, not Asian). She was jappy, which was a gauche thing to be around college English majors. She was just being herself and apparently felt comfortable enough with herself to stay that way – good for her. We goofed on her at the time, but she knew who she was. She flirted around with Justin quite a bit, and me, too, the following year. I still recall grinding her ass a bit when we all went to see a show at a jam-packed local bar by Backstreets, a hugely popular Springsteen tribute band. I also recall a strange night just before graduating, in her living room in one of those apartment towers, Justin out on the balcony, periodically waking up to puke over the edge, two of her roommates passed out on the living-room floor, and she and I sort of drunkenly spooning but not doing anything more. This was college!

As scheduled, that first weekend I came back, hung out with P, and for the first of many times, ate like a horse when I got home as I wasn’t eating that much during the week. I didn’t know how to cook (and wouldn’t truly learn until about five years ago) and lived on ramen and Chef Boyardee. That was also our salad bar days back home, which started when I was at the branch campus, and all the guys back there were in their late teens and early 20s. Some time during the week, we’d all converge on the Bonanza Steakhouse salad bar and kick ass with the endless salad bowl. We must have consumed 2,000 calories of salad, dessert and soda at each sitting … and neighbor JB would invariably end up puking in the parking lot, which was always hilarious in that rough-and-tumble young guy way.

It was a heady time. Having had a bad few weeks at work lately, doing things I don’t want to do for money, just like Dad did, I can look back at those days and miss that sense of feeling perfectly in stride with life, that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and taking a lot of joy and good will from the experience. But that’s how a kid should feel about life: hopeful and uncertain at the same time. It’s an adult’s lot in life to put up with a fair amount of shit and endure the grind, especially in times like this.

I leave Pennsylvania all the time now, about once every six weeks or so when I go back to see Mom and decompress the city for a few days. It’s a routine, that never feels fully routine. I can tell it still bothers Mom to say goodbye, whereas I’m much easier now with it, can say goodbye at the drop of a hat, as I’ve done it dozens of times over the years. But it seems like she never gets used to it … which must be a parent’s lot in life whenever one of her kids goes out the door for any reason.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

August 1986, State College, PA

I’ve noted before the ragged time I’ve seen friends having with kids in their late teens/early 20s as they try to find their way in the world. And I surely noted that any romantic notions an aging person has about that time in their lives ought to pay attention to situations like that, because they bring back the rampant insecurity, lack of direction and awkwardness that we tend to gloss over or forget with passing time.

Of course, their parenthood issues aren’t isolated to those years. That last blast of tension they feel before their kids go off on their own seems fairly lightweight as compared to some of the wild shit they went through with the kids in their teen years. And the nonstop time and attention of their early years. If they were lucky, it seemed like they had a small window of child-raising comfort from about the kids’ ages of 8 through 12 or so. (That's the age I think of when I think of "lost youth." Not teenage years. Which tend to be car wrecks of varying degrees for most people.) I don’t envy them or sit around pining for children. It seems like whatever joy is passed along, there’s a ton of “other shit” that goes along with the process … and I’m talking about basically good kids with relatively few problems. Troubled kids seem like prolonged grief and worry.

But I’m trying to recall that last summer at Penn State, when I finally took time off for myself to just do nothing for awhile before adulthood kicked in. I kick myself now because I didn’t do something like the youth hostel thing and bum around Europe for a few months. That would have been the time. I know a few people who did that, and they all have good memories of that trip.

As it was, I had maneuvered through college like a shark. Was the first to graduate in my family, although I was the youngest. Had good grades (a step down from excellent, which I had my first two years when living at home and studying my ass off). Made a bunch of new friends, a core group of which I still know today. Wrote a weekly humor column for the college newspaper that got my feet wet in the writing world. In short, had a fantastic college experience that worked on so many levels. About all I did wrong was fall for a girl who swayed into the shady world of Born Again Christianity, wasted far too much time trying to make that work and then mourned the loss afterward. I should have been screwing like a billy goat in heat, as so many guys were back then, instead of emulating a forlorn 33-year-old divorcee.

But I knew it was time to go in the summer of ’86. I can see why so many people hang onto college long after they should have left, as college towns present a microcosm world of high ideals and permanent youth which one can play along with well into his 20s, but it must get a bit silly after that. I knew I had to go, but wasn’t quite ready, as I had no plans or direction whatsoever. I knew I wanted to write, but had no idea how that was going to happen on any real level. The college paper let me get away with murder, gave me carte blanche to write anything I wanted. How many newspapers have you read this sort of stuff in? Magazines? It’s self indulgent, for sure, but I also hope it gets across someone stretching out a bit. I knew straightaway that if I landed an entry level editorial gig, I’d have to spend a lot of time writing in styles I didn’t want to write, and writing stories I didn’t want to write. Possibly for years. (And I just never wrapped my mind around that, all these years later. So be it. God bless entities like the NYPress in the 90s and my old pals at for letting me loose.)

My landlord, Olgie, suggested I take a few months off, if I could afford it, and just enjoy the town for the summer, as I had never spent a summer there. (My first two college summers I worked in Dad’s factory, which was a great experience. Third summer, I spent literally a few hours fumbling through two shit jobs I wanted no part of then reverted to a teenage “do nothing until school starts” mentality for a month, which felt deeply awkward and ill-fitting at that point in my life.) I could afford it, the German Department, where I had been working, was glad to have me stay a little longer, so I decided to treat myself and spend three months working 20 hours a week with no other responsibilities.

It was a good summer. Got up late every morning. Ran 6-8 miles. Worked four hours a day. Spent my afternoons lazing in the sun on the main lawn. Hit the local record stores late afternoon. Had just enough to buy all those cool mid-80s indie albums. Hung out with the few friends who were there for the summer, too.

I’ve never been as relaxed since. There have been times in my adult life when I wasn’t working, especially between freelance and temp gigs, but those were always fraught with money worries. That summer at Penn State, I knew I was gone come September, didn’t have much money, but figured I’d be going home, at least temporarily.

All summer I’d also been sending out cover letters and articles to dozens of publications. First wave was ones I wanted to work for (music magazines like Rolling Stone, big-city papers, etc.) Next was any publication I could find the address for. I must have sent out 200 letters, with no immediate response. Eventually, one of my favorite music magazines would write back, and I’d write a story for them that fall. And I got two huge thumbs up from associate editors at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Detroit Free Press, although their editors wouldn’t hire me (sensing rightly that I’d make a pretty bad “serious” editorialist, which has always seemed like a bad racket to me, especially the political junk).

It was sobering. All summer long, not even rejection letters, just silence. Even my home county newspaper didn’t respond … which I’ve never forgotten. To get the freeze out from such a bland, vanilla publication felt like the worst rejection … getting ignored by people I didn’t even want to write for!

So while I had that gray cloud of no future hanging over me, I still managed to feel relaxed and casual about life in general. Evenings I’d come back to Olgie’s house. Right at the end of my tenure in her place, she moved from a nice little house on the outskirts of town to one just off fraternity row right off campus, so I helped her move and lived there for a month or two. A great change – walking to bars and the downtown area as opposed to worrying about being too drunk to drive. And her new place was beautiful, huge backyard, and a back deck that we’d hang around at sundown and chat, this time of year, enjoying the cool of the evening before I’d head out for whatever that night.

And that would usually be music-related. Seeing local bands, like the fondly remembered Screaming Ducks, who were your basic bar band playing 60s and 70s hits, long in the tooth by the time I got there, but they had a great repertoire of Van Morrison, Stones, Beatles, CCR, etc. … the kind of shit that still went down well in a crowded college bar circa the mid-80s. In the summer, there’d be just as many townies as college kids going to their shows, and it was a nice atmosphere, not the mob scene of the school year.

What I remember most was a few of us, almost always Doug from the record store, heading back to our friend Pat’s place in one of those huge apartment developments a mile or two from town, hanging out into the wee hours, getting drunk and listening to all kinds of shit Pat had in her record collection. Pat was a good 10-15 years older than us at the time, working on the Arts staff at the paper and doing graduate work in Psychology, and she had a record collection that was mind-blowingly good. I've surely caught up and gone way past since then, but her collection was deeply impressive at the time, and filled with many things I'd never heard.

When I got into Soul music, she was way ahead of me, as that was the music of her childhood. I can still recall one night her putting on a Ray Charles album. Not the stuff I knew like “Georgia on My Mind” or “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” His earlier, more raw stuff, like “It Should’ve Been Me,” “Night Time is the Right Time” and “Mess Around.” That sound was a revelation to me, and another door kicking open to even more music I’d never heard before. There’s still a rawness to early Ray Charles, and that time in R&B music, the 50s before rock exploded, that I love to hear.

Pat would blow our minds routinely like this. James Brown. Ray Charles. Solomon Burke. And of course all the great indie stuff floating around. MTV’s 120 Minutes would usually come on as we were lounging on her cheap sofas and easy chairs, and we’d take in the latest offerings, dozing off a cheap red wine drunk to Camper Van Beethoven. That was such a sweet time in life, to have that sort of time, hours every night, to sit and talk with friends, listen to great music, stumble onto old and new stuff we hadn’t heard before, never realizing a lot of this stuff served as a musical foundation we’d spend the rest of our days building on.

That’s what I miss the most about college, and that summer in particular: that sense of spare time. I knew it wasn’t endless – I could see the end and knew it was coming. But there’s something about your mind at that point in your life, some weightless, worry-free spirit unencumbered by memory, experience, decades of passing time … it was just easier to hang loose and relax back then. Everything about our lives encouraged it. Very few responsibilities. No big-money jobs. No careers. No kids. No marriages. No divorces. Relatively blank slates, writing good things on those slates, and having brains enough to know they were good, lasting things that were changing us and pushing us in directions we hadn’t gone before.

At our graduation in May, a bacchanalia I wrote about here, we had that party to end all parties that went on for the better part of a week with all sorts of depravity and wild emotions. My two good friends from that time and former roommates, Colin and Justin, both came back and made appearances later that summer. First was Colin, who was off to Los Angeles with his then-fiancĂ© to start life on the west coast. They came by to visit in July and encouraged me to come with them … as none of us quite knew what were doing and figured any option is as good as another. I held off for awhile, actually for months, and then went out there, to Venice, CA that winter. And had a fucking terrible time, as they were fighting like cats and dogs, in a one-bedroom apartment, and I was often stuck in the middle. That hang-loose sense of college freedom was replaced by a claustrophobic “relationship starting to come apart” vibe that I had to be part of … and got the fuck out of there in a hurry! I could have stayed in L.A., but felt out of place there and came back home a few weeks later feeling totally defeated and lost.

But that was in the future as compared to the sunny afternoon they showed up and bid farewell as they took off for the coast. Ironically, Colin now lives in a house in Venice only a block or two from the ratty apartment building we were living in at the time (that's still ratty). Married, but not to that then-fiancé. Doing well for himself and moving along with whatever well-trained dogs he has in his life at any given moment.

Justin came by that August, feeling just as lost as I was, too. He was thumbing it from his town up around Erie, PA down to see his Mom in the Philly suburbs and stopped by. Actually, I gave him a ride back home one weekend, which got him a lot closer to Philly. He was in his Woody Guthrie phase, which would last awhile, roaming around. I was shocked that he was still thumbing it, which seemed like a 70s thing, but he seemed to be doing all right with it. He’d later try to shoehorn himself into an advertising position in northern New Jersey, where I visited him once, and he seemed just as miserable as I was over our prospects. Save he eventually freaked out and did do the Europe thing. Caught him again on the tail end of that, this time while living in the Bronx, which surely blew his (and his hippie girlfriend’s) mind when they visited briefly. He’d eventually find his way to California, too, farther north, and is also doing pretty well, running a graphic arts business while his wife does office work, and I think they have 50 kids now.

But I do remember us that summer: “I don’t know” should have been our motto, because none of us had a clue how we were going to get from Point A to Point B, or even what Point B was, as that time immediately after college, unless you’re going to grad school or really busting ass to race down a career path, is just a huge question mark. I will note one glaring difference between us then and what I see with my friends’ kids now: we knew how to support ourselves. For one thing, we didn’t have credit cards, or expensive gadgets like cellphones, therefore could only spend what we had, and learned to budget our money, too, what little of it there was. We didn’t have parents supporting us either – for a few years there, I was learning to be self sufficient when I could see a lot of fellow students were cruising on parental donations. I think that’s the core difference – we drilled it into our heads that we were going to make it on our own.

Of course, after that summer, I immediately went home as I had no other options. Immediately got work at the local branch campus as an English tutor, which I could have parlayed into a teaching gig down the road (but didn’t when I ran off to Venice that winter). Right choice? I don’t know. I can see my going off to California like that struck some kind of spark in me that would eventually lead to me taking the big plunge and moving to New York a year later with about $300 in my pocket and a cardboard suitcase filled with two or three days worth of clothes. If I stayed back there and put in the years to become a professor? I often fantasize about summers off and a more relaxed daily schedule. But I also think about the red tape and stale rigidity of colleges … and the teenage pussy, I can guarantee you, would have driven me crazy. It was driving me nuts the short time I was there as a tutor, girls only 2-3 years younger than I was, and I was forbidden to go there. I’ve seen how flirty college girls get with older men, and lord only knows how reasonably attractive male professors keep it together.

None of this was on my mind that August. The future was a blank slate, and I was saying a slow goodbye to a way of life I knew could not last. August always feels like a “goodbye” month to me. Goodbye to summer. Which feels good, as I love the fall. But as you get older, you tie this in with your own life, and there’s that bitter sweet feeling of youth fading away with the last days of August. So it goes. I surely hated this song in the summer of 1986 – I was way too cool for school – but Rod Stewart, after his fall from grace, got it right every now and then. This was one of those times, and this is how August feels to me now.