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.

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