I thought that majoring in alcohol and minoring in psychedelics would enable me to create and sustain an identity. My misfortune was to confuse an identity with a personality. In addition, drinking gallons of beer, smoking bales of marijuana, and ingesting dazzling quantities of LSD reinforced the rationalization that if I ignored anything long enough, it would go away. As far as my academic and social efforts were concerned, I had chosen a path of no resistance. Over time, the strategy resolved into a state of being. I would try to stay as fucked up as I could for as long as I could.
The source of my restless discontent lay in adhesive family history. Accidents of fate, old grievances, and the gravitational pull of isolation were generating more and more self-destructive steam as time went on. The paradox of alcohol is that it both soothes and perpetuates this. So, when Dad was appointed to the college’s Board of Trustees in the fall of my sophomore year, it transformed the administration from mere agents of the patriarchy into goons for the old man. It wasn’t the kind of thing I would ever talk about. My friends didn’t give a shit or probably even know. I imagined every member of the faculty was aware of exactly who I was. I’d be goddamned if I’d show up in one of their classrooms.
The school calendar was organized around three spectacular Houseparty Weekends. Every couple months, the student body slowly turned away from the grind and focused on the business of getting epically bombed. If you had the wherewithal to remain ambulatory after thirty-six hours of steady drinking and made it to Deke’s Sunday morning gin-and-juice, you possessed super-human stamina; what was referred to as ‘hair.’ If not, if the Saturday parties laid you low, you were considered ‘hurt.’
The carpet had been rolled up and stowed in a corner of the dining room along with a pile of mismatched furniture. Meanwhile, with all deliberate glee, a toxic brew of orange juice, grapefruit juice and grain alcohol was being blended in a garbage pail. Morning bright and painfully astringent, it tasted transcendent at the first sip. After a cup of the stuff, you were drunk and after two, you were sopping and beside yourself with pleasure.
The hired band huddled in front of the fireplace: their amps were huge. In no time, everyone was dancing with everyone else or no one in particular. Before you knew it, it devolved into a form of mud wrestling. Sunshine streamed through the casement windows.
My balance abandoned me all of a sudden. I skidded in the sludge, landed on my ass, bounced up, spun around, and belly-flopped. A strange knee came up to meet my forehead. Laughing, I touched my eyebrow and came away with bloody fingers. The infirmary stitched me up and back I went to the party.
Late sophomore year, I set my sights on securing a place in the campus drinking society. It consisted of eleven junior and seniors from all the cool fraternities. Called Nous Onze, it was pronounced ‘New Zones’, which accurately described its purpose. This would be my finest achievement: at last, common acknowledgement of the one thing I knew in my heart I was good at. But the fools blackballed me. Geddo told me later that some of the seniors believed I was just too fucked up. Too fucked up? Despite the lack of endorsement, I showed up at their parties the following year anyway. The skeptics had graduated, along with their misgivings.
Nous Onze presumed to be an outfit with class. We wore sport coats and ties. We drank cocktails made with top shelf liquor. We invited faculty members and paid attention to our dates. A regular was an associate professor from the Religion Department. He fancied himself a smooth operator and he very much enjoyed the company of football players and hockey players. They played along, as religion was the favorite major among scholar/athletes, for its requirements were hilariously easy. The good professor invariably got sloshed, came on to one of the guys, was rejected, and toddled off into the night.
One Nous Onze party, the party adjourned to a room upstairs to sample someone’s new pot, something ‘gold.’ This tipped the prof into a stupor immediately. One toke over the line. He stretched out on the bed, while photos were snapped of him surrounded by smiling young women, his head in one girl’s lap and feet in another’s. The party would end up at the Shoe and ultimately the Deke basement.
As a practical matter, a person had to wake up in the daylight in order to go to classes. Why I was never asked to “take a leave of absence to reassess your priorities, Bob” remains a mystery. Reading, I loved unconditionally, but setting pen to paper proved hopeless. When some course required me to write an essay, the effort usually resulted in painfully constipated bullshit. Turned in late. Or never.
My standards skittered downward, forming a base from which to plummet. Most young drunks flame out pretty quickly, noisily, and with more than a little hostility, but it was my dumb luck that the 1969/70 school year ended in chaos. The student strike following the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State threw finals and thus year-end grades into the hopper. Everybody who needed to – skated.
All the while, I participated in an emotionally convoluted, not very original, long-distance dynamic with my father. He was impossible and righteous, so I would be impossible and pathetic. He pursued; I retreated. Yet there was no confrontation, at least no confrontation with consequences. I had him wrapped around my middle finger. If my luck held, I might get away without anything ever being resolved.
I dared not jeopardize my rationale, my identity as ‘V.’ – omnipresent drunk, academic fuck-up, bridge player, and … pizza maker.
In a strip mall on the way out of town, a new restaurant/bar called The Clinton House appeared in the fall of my senior year. The Shoe now had some serious competition. The place had a pair of owners, Bobby and Richie, from Utica ten miles away. They served up heavy Italian-American hospitality. Their jukebox favored Sinatra, Nat Cole, and Jimmy McGriff. “Here Comes the Sun” was one of the few nods to current taste. The Harvey Wallbanger was the latest drink, a Screwdriver garnished with a splash of that heinous yellow liqueur from that towering bottle. The kitchen stayed open late, serving sandwiches and pizza. They developed a robust late night college business – me.
Richie needed a break after ten hours in the kitchen and, sensing I guess my willing distractibility, put my untried culinary skills to work on the late shift, ten o’clock to 1am. I assembled meatball heroes and pepperoni pizzas, cultivating a reckless tendency to add a fourth meatball to the sandwiches. Still, I was dependable – the way someone who really ought to be studying for midterms could be dependable; dependable the way someone drinking for free could be dependable. Some Saturdays, Richie asked me to pitch in as sous-chef, so I’d show up in the afternoon to prep, then work the crazy dinner as well as my late night shift. After a night like that, I slept for twelve hours straight. I intuitively understood the usefulness of diversion in the face of responsibility. I could justify fucking off because I had a job.
I had a job so I could drink.
I woke up whenever I woke up. I shuffle off to the Campus Center, where I sipped black coffee, smoked one Winston after another, and completed The New York Times crossword puzzle. With that accomplished, I adjourned to the Deke basement to watch Star Trek reruns and drink flat beer. Then it would be dinnertime, which was followed by two or three hours of semi-serious bridge. When the game broke up, I would wander back to the dorm to read Balzac or Twain until the Pub opened or I was due at The Clinton House.
There were moments of breathless exhilaration, too: flashes of glory. Joy, even. In the spring, when the glaciers finally retreated, we took to lounging on the grassy slope in front of the Deke House, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The slope faced the building, which resembled an enormous, half-timbered stage set. Between the grass and the House, the brothers parked their automobiles.
On sunny afternoons, braver Dekes worked on their tans on the flat dormer above a third floor bathroom. It was an acrobatic vantage point. Getting to this perch meant backing your ass out the bathroom window, inching your way across the face of the building to the dormer’s juncture with the roof itself, and then hauling yourself up onto its surface. There you could bask to your heart’s content.
Not content to simply bake on the little tarpaper rectangle, I ventured off over the roof, exploring. I scampered up and down the roof’s pitches with simian agility. Over the ridgeline the hazy panorama of the Mohawk Valley stretched to infinity. I disappeared behind a gable and popped back into view yards away. I exaggerated the instability of my footing. From down on the grass, ‘oohs’ and ‘whoas’ and ‘Jesus, Vs’ wafted skyward. I was close to heaven, released from earthly bonds. Thirty feet below – asphalt.
Another warm and serene afternoon in late May, I sat on the grassy slope with some underclassmen, drinking tap beer from a two-gallon Almaden bottle, while my classmates graduated in the hockey rink. For the first time ever, I couldn’t get drunk. Usually, I drank with measured gusto so as not to be rendered protoplasmic before the bulk of the ‘fun’ was over, but that day I was drinking was if my life depended on it. I remember the weariness and bitterness and I can still feel the panic. My parents were angry and worried: my friends, pitying or oblivious. For me, it was an out-of-body experience.
What happened was like one of those transitions in the movies where the new scene bumps the old one off the screen with a horizontal left-to-right wipe. College was college was college, then I blinked and college was gone.