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-fiancé 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.

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