By the third day we were all sick. Although ailing might be a better word. Universal symptoms were a raspy cough and stuffy sinuses but a few among us also complained of sore, or sore-ish, throats. My assumption was a cold, maybe a mild flu, advancing quickly through our close-packed ranks. But the theory put forward by one roommate and soon adopted by all 15 others was this: The dry air of the air conditioning in our sealed, climate-controlled dorm got increasingly drier as it rose from ground level to our suite on the 24th floor and it was this super-arid air that was at the root of our cold-like symptoms. I clearly remember that theory being challenged when first articulated, but the theoretician, being an 18-year-old college freshman eager to assert his authority and acquire status, was able to confidently dismiss the doubt with some incontrovertible personal proof, along the lines of: “My dad owns an HVAC company and he told me...” Or: “The same thing happened when I was on vacation in Myrtle Beach and stayed on the top floor of the Hilton....”
This substantiation was dubious, at best; far more likely, it was a lie he couldn’t be called on. At any rate, it didn’t matter if it was dry air or consumption that was causing the hacking and horking and snorting; it only mattered that 16 unsupervised teenage boys, fundamentally strangers to each other, were in a tightly confined living space hacking and horking and snorting at each other all day and all night. This was college. Day Three. And I was learning far too much far too quickly.
The dorm in question was Morrill Tower, one of a pair of twin 26-story atrocities on the campus of OSU, a.k.a. (to prigs and sticklers) The Ohio State University. The building’s layout, the way students were stacked and packed into it, can best be described as a high-rise tin for profane, poorly groomed sardines. Each floor was divided into six pie-shaped wedges with each wedge—the “suite”—entered at the point and subdivided into a common room, a three-seater/two shower bathroom, and four study pods, each pod the antechamber for a slender, curved bedroom along the far edge of the pie crust that held two sets of bunk beds to accommodate four students, making a total of 16 bodies per suite. For me, a suburban boy who’d had his own bedroom since age 9 and complained it was too small since age 9-and-a-half, this felt more Mumbai youth hostel than Big Ten housing. That Amnesty International wasn’t picketing the dean’s office to get the whole place shuttered was a disgraceful oversight in the fight for human rights.
Wait. I forgot. There’s a pre-dorm fact that really should be mentioned here: I had no business going to college. None. Ze. Ro. I was an undistinguished high school graduate with an indifference to learning, a paucity of motivation, contempt for authority, disregard for structure, a gift for poor judgment, ACID (acute cannabis infatuation disorder), and no discernible or relevant life skills. At the time, I somehow saw these as positives.
But college had been dreamed of, been eagerly anticipated, since age 13...by my father—a high school dropout who was blind (to my character), deaf (to my true aspirations), and bald (to my chuckling, uncharitable delight). He was also loud and inflexible. Thus, I was going to college. Until one of us woke from his dream.
Not that Dad didn’t have to make adjustments along the way. His original plan called for me to get a free, four-year ride on a football scholarship. That idea had to be retired when, fed up with being beaten into the unyielding turf by players who had a talent for the game and enduring the fury of coaches who had no use for a turf-dweller with an ennui for the game, I quit the team before college scouts had a chance to see me in action and ask, “Who’s the clumsy fat kid on the sidelines killing ants?”
Another letdown was my declared major. Dad had hoped I’d go for something like Engineering or Gazillionaire Studies. Instead, I opted for Journalism, a field I had no interest in but that appeared to be the only degree program focused on writing. (I was so oblivious and uninformed about what I was getting into I didn’t even know aspiring fiction writers, such as myself, usually majored in English.) Dad could only see my pursuit of such a “soft,” “creative” degree as a path to unemployment, poverty, and leading his work buddies to believe I was dead.
The only benefit I saw in going away to college was the “away” part. This was my opportunity to escape parental oversight, to live free of the rules and restrictions, the disapproval and disappointment. And while OSU was not as distant or exotic or cool as my top 27 picks had been, it was the best I could do working with the mandatories of: 1) affordably in-state; 2) an acceptance rate liberal enough to include gifted lower primates. Besides, Columbus was 100 miles from home and as they say, out of sight, out of control.
Day Four is when college began in earnest. Up until then, it had been about peripherals—moving in, freshman orientation, and last-minute registration for certain class sections. (For a one credit hour Phys Ed requirement, there were more than 25 single-sport “courses” to enroll in, from Volleyball to Judo, Badminton to Fencing. That a major university had the nerve to classify Bowling as a “sport,” not to mention actually offer it for academic credit, was a shock; that I signed up for it was not.)
The day started at 6 a.m. with an ear-shattering blast of unfathomable jazz (redundant?) from a clock radio. The alarm had been set by Rick, a Buckeye hockey player who informed his three groaning bunkmates that he needed top musical volume to wake from his coma-like sleep.
On his way out, skates slung over his shoulder, stick in hand, Rick added, “I have practice every morning. Might as well get used to it.”
To recap: I was going to be spending every night for the indefinite future in a glorified tiger cage with a deep-sleeping, pre-dawn-rising, selfish hockey goon.
Under the heading Vital Information Left Out of the College Brochure, put that item right between Hazing Can Be Fatal and The Bursar’s Office: Academia’s DMV.
Even at the more civilized, more sun-brightened hour of 9 a.m., negotiating the OSU campus and locating my classes for the first time proved challenging1. Though I did eventually find my way, the pinballish paths I’d witlessly blazed were now the only way I knew to return to them.
Feeling lost out among the buildings, however, was nothing compared to what I felt inside the classrooms. In English 101, the syllabus we were given was long enough to be a reading assignment on the syllabus. Skimming the shelf’s worth of books we’d be expected to read (and, one could only assume, comprehend), the long papers to be written, the quizzes and tests to be studied for, it became clear that even doing the minimum would be a struggle on the order of Joan Baez singing a song that doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge.
History of Western Civilization (required), presented a more nuanced but no less formidable challenge: I hated history. Or at least the tedious chunk of it that ran from the Big Bang to the Summer of Love, when, at last, world events started getting interesting. But I got the distinct impression from the first lecture (and another punishing syllabus) that we weren’t going to be studying Jimi’s triumph at Monterey or the Crusade of the Chicago 7.
Wandering back to the dorm, a dark dread bubbled: I had three more classes—Political Science, Survey of Philosophy, and Bowling—the next day. Despite my youthful, cocksure atheism, I said a prayer that Bowling would not have a syllabus.
(1Proof: (1,700 acres + 400 buildings) ÷ anxiety x (being stoned during orientation’s campus tour + being too introverted to ask other students for help) x insecurity3 = where am I?)
After a week, I was beat. And beaten. My angst about falling behind in my coursework was only slightly less draining than if I’d actually made an effort to do the work. Plus, I’d already failed two quizzes, upping the pressure to do well on midterms, which to a greenhorn from a primitive school district that only had finals seemed a needless doubling of malice, like executing someone twice for the same crime.
Much as the classes and the droning professors with their la-di-da “knowledge” and “expertise” and “ability to talk to female students without sweating” irked me, my classmates irked me more. They were nothing like me. They, damn them, came prepared. Some were intellectually prepared, flaunting their brains with insightful remarks or by asking informed questions; others were attitudinally prepared, all self-possessed gazes above dense, earnest facial hair, radiating a quiet, condescending intensity that said they didn’t give a damn about the facts, they knew the truth; then there were the luckiest of all, the socially prepared, who had support, sitting in class next to a roommate they’d already become close to or someone they knew from high school or a fellow Greek pledge or a smiling companion their wealthy, considerate parents had rented for them. My readiness was limited to false bravado and an ounce of dynamite Lebanese hash.
Back at Morrill Tower, my life force was hemorrhaging badly. Books, food, hygiene items, anything one owned that couldn’t be carried in one’s pockets was subject to use and/or abuse by a standing in-house suspect pool. Personal space wasn’t minimal, wasn’t fleeting, it was a delusion, a false premise, like cold fusion or jonesing for haggis. In this new world, this skyscraping Phlegmplex, the definition of the word alone had devolved to mean “in the company of fewer than three people.” Such excessive exposure to The Gang of 15—to be constantly social, observed, “on” while “at home”—was exhausting, as if Sisyphus were rolling his boulder through an infinite Elks Club.
I lay in my top bunk each night, unable to fall asleep, three others close enough for me to hear them breathing, coughing, snoring, and turning on creaking springs. They weren’t awake listening, and didn’t know or care that I was. In retrospect, that was probably for the best. Empathy would only have been confusing.
As it was, I eventually fell asleep, my mind quieted by a comforting realization: I had the courage to act on my cowardice.
“Home for the weekend?”
“So how’d’ya like it up there?”
“Actually, um, I’m home for more than the weekend. I’m back.”
“Whattaya mean you’re back?”
“I dropped out. Quit. My stuff’s out in the car.”
“Dropped...? You’ve only given it eight days.”
“It’s not for me, Dad. I wanna write, not go to college.”
“But the tuition, the room and board...?”
“I got a refund, 75 percent. If I’d have waited longer, I wouldn’t have got anything.”
“Bob, it’s been eight days.”
The conversation went on from there. Though, after the first few minutes, nothing new was said, just the same positions reworded and repeated and delivered in different tones and volumes. In its way, it made me immediately feel at home.
There’s no doubt I caused Dad great sorrow that day. Watching me carry my bags and boxes back up the stairs to my room, he knew his plans were finished, the future thrown away by a boy too smart for his own, or anyone else’s, good. The life he’d planned for me would now be replaced by the one he’d already lived, one of shitty jobs with shitty bosses and shitty pay. Only time would tell if I also wound up with a shitty son.
It’s a lazy, overused plot device in movies and TV shows. Some mope’s doing a 20-year bit in the joint and his whole stretch he’s runnin’ his mouth to any con who’ll listen about the high times he’s gonna have, the wild stuff he’s gonna do when he’s back on the street. Only once he’s sprung, things are nothing like he expected. It feels different. He feels different. Like he doesn’t fit. Will never fit. So he pulls another job, something deliberately sloppy where he’s sure to be pinched, and—bingo—next thing you know he’s back in the pen. Home.
To my chagrin, I lived that tired storyline (minus the orange jump suit and guest star Ed Asner as my murderous-but-wise cellmate). I was so focused on the getting out, the wanting out, I’d given no thought to being out. Nor did I reckon on the pain and discomfort involved in giving up the perks of dependence, like connection, attention, security, sanctuary, and someone handy to blame when life sucks.
I returned in summer. Not fall. I’d been advised that in summer there are fewer students on campus, and therefore smaller class sizes. This would provide, the advicemongers added, a more conducive, more personal learning experience; further, it would allow me to get acclimated to the rhythm and flow, the workings of the campus (this time at the College-Conservatory of Music at UC) before the influx of the teenage hordes in September. This all made sense. And I was now a sense seeker. Though a relatively recent convert to the cause.
Mostly, I was scared and desperate and 31 years old and married and a bartender with no prospects or skills beyond bartending. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, I suppose, had I not been at the job for five years, burned out on it for three, and looking down the bore of another 35, shackled to a beer cooler, inhaling the unBreathalyzed exhalations of hard drinking, under-tipping regulars until retirement. What else to do but go back to school. To college. In summer. Seeking sense and a whole new kind of escape.
I worked hard and did well. Very well. So well that if I got specific you’d think I wrote this piece just to be able to tell you how well I did. (Actually, I did, but, curse the Gods, I’ve run out of room here to include sufficient strings of laudatory adjectives.)
Not that my success impressed Dad; he died five years before I started back. This inconvenience obliged Mom to be his advocate, to cluckingly remind me at regular intervals, “See, Bob. Your father was right. He always told you you could do this.” Yes, I’d think, if only he’d known when.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue.
Illustration by Adam McCauley
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