Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sitting on the Carnegie Building Steps

Back in college, I could often be found sitting on the Carnegie Building steps. The accompanying photo seems a lot more officious and imposing than I remember it. You walk through those front doors, veer right down the hall, and you’re in the main room for the campus newspaper, where I struck gold as a weekly columnist my junior and senior years. Well, if not gold, then some mildly precious metal.

As a columnist, I didn’t have a whole lot of need to be back in that news room, save to check my mail, banter with my editors and avoid the “business side” people who worked on advertising for the paper. (I later found that Valerie Plame was working over there in 1985! Makes me wonder if we ever had any exchanges.) That mercenary sort of ambition you’d associate with a future CIA operative was there in spades on the business side, so I didn’t associate much with those people as a rule (although I made great friends with Aileen, who should have been on the creative side but was bound by parental expectations to be more business-minded).

I’ve commented that my writing from those days embarrasses me now, as it’s out there cataloged on the web, albeit apparently not easily linked to, so I’m more than happy to let it sit, locked away save for those who really dig to find it. It’s shit, for the most part. Some very funny stuff – I started out writing straight humor and specializing in one-liners. But around those flashes of comic brilliance, a lot of clunky writing. No depth … and it pains me to look at my awkward attempts at depth back then, just the worst Readers Digest sort of crap which was totally out of character with how I was (or am now). You want depth? You can’t have it. Either you have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, life somehow goes on.

But I had the right idea sitting on the steps in my beat-up, knee-length khaki field jacket purchased from the downtown Army-Navy store. Carnegie Building was centrally located on campus, just across the way from the English Department in the Sparks Building, and a sort of crossroads for all of us in the creative majors. I loved sitting there in the fall and spring with time to kill before or after a class, because I knew the people I hung with at the paper would saunter around, and we’d engage in that tribal right of youth: hanging out.

It wouldn’t be the last time I hung out – this would go on well through my 20s, even into the 30s when you consider going to bars – but so much of college was the art of hanging out. There was that crew of guys down at headquarters, but there was also this more newspaper-related group at the Carnegie Building. And we all felt like we were in on a secret with that building, working on the paper in whatever capacity, getting to know who the pricks were, the saints, the cool people, the workaholics, the people who would leave footprints on your back to succeed, and the people like me who were sort of befuddled by the immediate success and found it just as enlightening to sit and chat with people who knew me as a guy who hung out on the steps.

There was a tree across the way that burned a flaming red then yellow every fall. I remember pointing it out to Aileen one day and saying, “Jesus, that tree looks like it’s plugged in.” That was the sort of banter, the loose association and non-sequitirs of people in their early 20s trying to be off the cuff. Just as often, I’d be sitting there with pal Justin, and he’d say, “You know what? I bet I can kick your ass in a game of pool.” And off we’d go to the pool hall on campus, for an hour or so of indulgence … it all just seems so free to me now, that sense of taking off in the middle of the day and doing something totally relaxing. That’s how college was. If it was noon and you didn’t have another class until 2:00 pm, shit like this would happen all the time. Why not? You could study later. It seemed much more important to feel that free … maybe sensing we wouldn’t be in the near future? Even with a part-time job on campus, I still had plenty of down time like this any given day.

I also recall a fellow columnist named Dion who a lot of my friends didn’t like, but I did. He wasn’t a bad boy or in any way obnoxious. As I recall, he had been in the navy a few years and had come back to school, explicitly to sew his creative oats and spread out a bit. We got along very well. Oddly enough, what I remember most about him was the one time when we were downstairs working on stories, finishing, leaving at the same time, both using the Men’s room, me taking a leak, him dropping a deuce … and I had assumed in doing so, I would have to leave him behind as that normally takes a lot longer. But he somehow did this in the amount of time it took me to use the urinal and was out in the hallway moments later, “Say, man, you can’t leave me hanging when we’re debating Hunter Thompson vs. Tom Wolfe.” All I wanted to know was how he did the deed so fast.

Sometimes the conversations would be along those lines, other times heavy philosophical discussions about the events of the day or where we were going in our lives. The one thing I always liked about creative people was their open sense of life – still do. Nothing written in stone. Roll with it. Throw away the outline. Just live it. That was in direct opposition to some of the people on the paper, and I gather you’d see that now in spades in terms of how we live our lives. It seemed important to me at the time, and now, to keep your radar up, to observe, to feel, to pick up a sense, to understand. That doesn’t happen when you’re guiding yourself like a torpedo through life. You could usually tell the difference in people, even at that age.

I had always pictured college as a sort of Mount Olympus. When I took philosophy classes, I enjoyed reading how the Greek philosophers would sit around all day bouncing concepts off each other. Granted, not on the “can’t believe you just took a shit in 15 seconds” level, but the idea of these enlightened beings gathered to make sense of their world. That was the guiding principle behind seemingly innocuous acts like hanging out on the steps, or late nights in somebody’s apartment, talking music, movies, the comparative worth of our majors, crazy shit we had done, crazy shit we wanted to do, just taking in each other’s beings and enjoying it. Too many kids were either geared to be fanatical zealots programmed into a “successful” way of life, or if not engaged at that level, just drunk all the time and making no sense. Which was great fun, but not all the time. You always knew around creative folks that their minds were not geared into this either/or campus existence. It was all fair game.

I have to believe people’s favorite college memories are those times they just hung out, with that full sense of freedom we had so fleetingly, our lives mostly blank slates (at least compared to two decades on), realizing there were other people in the world who “got” us in some sense, and vice-versa.

When I wrote for the paper, I was constantly getting thrown into situations like that, probably because of the minor fame associated with my column, and my column known for being “wild” in that cheesy college sense (but was not really wild at all). I remember hitting on an Indian girl at one of the newspaper Christmas parties, going back with her to her dorm room, I guess thinking “here we go” … but instead walking in on her roommates, all of whom were fans of my column, and us having a blast that night, singing “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd while one of the girls strummed the chords on her acoustic guitar and hanging out until about three in the morning.

But I also have some pretty pompous memories of that minor-league fame. It does strange things to your head. I can see being a celebrity on any level must wreak havoc on one’s self image, as you’re encouraged to think constantly only of yourself and how great you are. It’s a horrible trap, and I gather the best that you can do is just avoid that shit all together, not encourage people to see you as anything more than yourself, don’t seek out situations that make you seem more than human. But I guess that would negate the concept of celebrity all together, and a lot of people living that way clearly love and crave that level of attention from strangers. I did, for a short while. I recall showing up for a reading at a dorm, for which about 200 people showed up, and I sat there on a couch with no shoes or socks on, acting like a fucking guru while these kids laughed in delight at everything I had to say for the next hour. You get to feel “special” when you’re placed in roles like that.

And I didn’t know how to tell those guys, shit, you just show up at the Carnegie Building tomorrow at around 2:15, we can do this again, save you’ll be sitting next to me on those cement steps, we’ll be totally equal, and we’ll probably find you’re just as if not more interesting than I am. Those steps were important in the sense of talented people, not trying to impress each other, relaxing, being open, killing time because it was there to be killed. That’s the birth place of creativity, where it takes root. I think when we went inside, the roles took over, we all became whoever we were supposed to be in there, from foot soldier on the Classified page, to glorified columnist or editor.

It made more sense to take the side door and hide in the basement of Carnegie Building with the lowly Arts and Sports staffs to work on my stuff, as I always felt on display in that main news room, people pointing at me, that’s him, as if I was typing up that week’s column in a display window at Bloomingdales. Downstairs, they understood you were there to grind it out with no fanfare. Both staffs were given short shrift, although I think Sports was held in higher esteem simply because of Penn State’s legendary football program. To this day, my life is some strange mix of arts and sports, with little to no emphasis placed on politics and such. It just doesn’t interest me, never really has. Leave that to the “important” people.

So, in a sense, that’s where it all began. It all began, of course, when I picked up a pen and started jotting in that spiral-ring notebook back in high school, trying in vain to be Hunter Thompson or Jack Kerouac, slowly realizing who I was (neither of them), getting better at understanding who that was, learning how to transfer that knowledge to printed page. But it seems like the essence of wasting time on those steps at college, like a bum who snuck into a seat among the columns and concrete of Mount Olympus, was where the senses of wonder and belonging came into being. And you need those to pull this off.

Everything happened. Nothing happened. The janitor swept up the leaves, and then the snow, and then the pollen. We graduated. Life went on without us. I can feel those memories as a real part of me now, so there’s no need to go back or long for those days. That’s what I’ve learned over the years, pick it up and take it with you, because there's no going back. Go back and you'll find it's more than likely stayed the same, and you've changed.

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