NOVEL IN PROGRESS: from CAMPUSES

Each time I went to the campus on the hill to be in the orbit of those students I let my imagination wander into their lives. The more I did the more I couldn’t wait to be one of them, to be as free, to no longer feel I was being observed as if I was in a prison I wouldn’t ever be released from, not even for good behavior.

Soon enough I was on my own campus, and once I was there it didn’t take long to figure out college life wasn’t all partying and protesting and hitting on the girls I couldn’t keep my eyes off of. And while it might have been freedom, more freedom than I’d ever had, it was a different sort than I’d anticipated. I’d been released from the jail cells on Eddy Street and Felton High to become a captive of those courses I’d registered for with that humored Teaching Assistant. My days became great efforts to divvy up the time to give to each of them.

How many hours to spend on the first two Books of the Iliad? How long would it take to reread the chapter on Hegelian idealism until I was confident enough to be tested on it? Just what did I think about social structures and stratifications and normative behavior patterns? Where should I start the essay about going to McGovern’s speech on that clear, crisp afternoon when I heard the rapid-fire clicks of that photographer’s camera and wondered if I’d end up on the front page of The Globe?

The whole experience overwhelmed. The orderly way I went about my studies at Felton, the ease I got A’s on tests and papers with, became a labor with no end point, a profusion of words and ideas and themes I organized as best I could in notebooks and 4×6 index cards I filed in a gray metal box that flipped open at the top. I kept checklists of things done and things to do and some of the things that were done would become items on those lists again. I reviewed notes in bathroom stalls. I highlighted important paragraphs I went back to to keep them fresh in my head. It was so consuming it was impossible to find time to break away from those stacks of hardbound texts and trade paperbacks and clips of loose-leaf pages and manila file folders that cluttered the three drawers of my desk and the shelves above it without the feeling I was ignoring something important, or I hadn’t got to something at all. Or the moment I thought I was in control an assignment would crop up that I’d struggle with two or three nights in a row to the detriment of everything else.

In the library, that charmless, U-shaped building smack in the center of campus, I worked like a drone at my favorite desk on a remote aisle on the lower level. Half below the street and half above it, a faint, grayish light seeped in the small windows. But it was the atmosphere I preferred to do my heavy duty booking in, an environment suited for the fierce undertaking required to process all of that knowledge. That featureless space was as comforting to me as the carrel deep in the belly of the learning beast I went to in Felton, and I was aware how I’d transferred the image of that to my own campus.

I settled in there four or five hours at a time, my squinting eyes rolling across and down the lines of text, a pen jotting notes in a loose leaf binder. I moved from The Inferno to The Canterbury Tales to a chapter on medieval social thought and back in time from there to Hellenistic Greece and around to each of them again the next night until another book or topic or the introduction of some new material replaced them and the juggling of texts and notebooks started over. It was rare for me to take a break for fear I might never get back to my work. There were plenty of distractions to run into on the upper levels. Plenty of friends to chat with and chicks with big smiles to sit near and sneak looks at and do nothing else. But most of the time I was able to avoid that until I crossed the avenue and got back to the dorm where the hallways would be abuzz, the doors to the rooms open, the laughter exploding off the cinderblock walls. More often than not I’d catch a whiff of marijuana, and if it were the weekend my nose would tweak in expectation of scoring a bone or two for the night. That was another way to relax.

That Thursday it took a few minutes to get through the gauntlet of “hey man, what’s happening” and “there he is, ready to rock” to get to the far end of the hall where I keyed the lock to room 324. When I opened the door I was surprised to find Willie sprawled on his bed with his head propped up by two bolsters; I had expected he would be out with his girlfriend Gail, an amiable red head studying biology. But there he was, reading a book titled Political Philosophy he used both hands to hold open. Sophomore year, we shared that boxy space with the view over the walkways and the grassy knoll known as “The Beach,” which we occupied by the hundreds when the weather was warm enough to sit out and chat and flirt and fling a Frisbee around. To do anything for a while but study.

Willie was tall and athletic, with a head of light, bushy hair. He was from a big Irish family on Long Island, New York, a family that, except for its larger size, was a lot like my own in that there wasn’t a lot of money and they didn’t want him to go to the war. I suppose those were good enough reasons to dump our freshman year roommates to share that space together. An obsession with basketball and our budding radicalism were two others.

Willie wore denim shirts and thick-soled construction boots and heavy hooded sweatshirts, though he was in a t-shirt and barefoot that night in our room.

“It’s a circus out there.” I kept my hand on the door knob.

“Leave it open. Time to put this down and let it come to us.”

“Or to let you out to join it is more like it.”

“How’d it go over there?”

“Went as usual. Kicked serious ass. Got everything I needed to done.”

“You mean everything except for that.” The quick flip of his head brought attention to my desk, where half a page of writing was scrolled in my portable Olivetti. I scanned the first few lines of that work-in-progress about hearing McGovern’s speech on the Boston Common. The speech when he made the claim to be tired of gray-haired men sending young people to a war they wouldn’t let their own children go to.

“Tell me, huh, what do you think of that shit?” The Captain had looked at me after he’d said it.

I was impressed, deeply impressed, I’d neglected to tell him and had just smiled instead. Yet, he must have seen I was moved by it from the look of amazement I felt glowing on my face.

The essay would have to be done by Tuesday, and while I had a couple of paragraphs on paper and thousands of words more about it bouncing around my head, I had to fit them all onto two white sheets in a shape that would impress my teacher. I was hoping the rest would come without too much brain strain, or retyping, a painstaking labor I might have to use half a bottle of white-out and lot of manipulation of the paper and release lever to get the revised words aligned in the right places. I was hoping, but typing wasn’t easy for me.

Willie went to his desk and fussed with a pouch of Drum tobacco and a folder of E-Z Wider papers and his cheap pocket-sized Zig Zag cigarette roller. At last he had the tobacco packed just right and he tamped an end down on the desk and used his other hand to dig into his pocket. A thumb struck the silver lighter that made a crisp, satisfying click when he snapped it closed. Thursday night, 9:30, I was antsy to get out, and with the instinct of a homing pigeon Willie knew where I wanted that to be.

“I know you’re thinking you should be drinking at Dixon’s,” he said. A few puffs of residual smoke leaked from his nostrils.

“Picking up Gail on the way?”

“Gonna book. No distractions, she told me. No sugar tonight in my coffee.”

“Well, let us gather the proper documents in case this is the night Mr. D. decides to card us,” I said.

“Never happened. Only paperwork Mr. D. wants to see from us are green on both sides.”

“Still got to have the appropriate identification should The Man come a calling.”

“And the Man’s not calling on Dixon’s unless a white person’s stabbed in there, and more than one.”

“Right-o there, dude. I’m sure it’s happened once or twice. But let’s just go way out in deep space and say The Man does make a visit, he ain’t believing a word on this anyway.” I flashed the fake, though professionally produced, laminated I.D. card me and half of the campus had scored at Beta House for twenty bucks a pop. It was in my back pocket as Willie and I headed for the elevators and went out into the darkening night.

The weather was warm, one of the last mellow nights before the chilly weather kicked in and the wind that whipped off Lake Michigan stung our flesh and the heavy snows fell for hours at a time and put the city’s streets to sleep. Do I know for certain the weather was warm that night or if it was the last temperate day of the year? Or was there a rich, cool autumn breeze in the air? I’m not sure, so I went with the former. And why not? Except for a few surface effects and an embellishment here and there, none of this is made up. What happened is all true, so why not say it was warm outside as we started across the walkways and kept up a quick pace, past the lit windows of the big rectangular-shaped dorm across from ours, where a female shadow passing by a closed window caught my eye, and through an open crack in one next to it my ears filtered out all other sounds as the ding ding ding of a telephone rang out. Soon the Administration Building was behind us and we were on the sidewalks of the North Side with their squalid addresses and dark, grim alleys. It was a neighborhood where all the other lives lived out of public attention. Each walk through it prompted Willie and I to talk about doing anything we could to undermine capitalism, an ideology that accepted the crushing of a thousand for each one it rewarded.

“It ain’t no friend of mine or anyone’s around here,” Willie said.

“Ain’t no friend to any of us at all,” I said to keep the drift going.

“And if it ain’t a friend then it must be an enemy.”

“Right on. If it don’t like us why should we like it?”

“Don’t mean a flying fuck to me.”

“Free enterprise is free for some. Ain’t for just anyone.”

“You’re a poet and you know it.”

“That I am, but I’m no Uncle Sam.”

(2013)

NOVEL IN PROGRESS: from CAMPUSES

It was only that we hadn’t been to anything like it yet ourselves that after school we rushed up to the campus to join the rally. I supposed the students sitting all around us knew that was why we were there even if we didn’t dress like them or didn’t raise our fists and only Michael shouted out while the speaker at the microphone waited for the approving voices to go silent.

The weather was warm that day, it was spring, finally, and the birds sang and shot in and out of the trees and the sleeves of my cheap department store shirt were rolled up to my elbows. We were late getting there and had to find a spot at the back, just a few feet from the frog pond where the grass was damp so we had to sit on our book bags to keep the backs of our pants dry. Out ahead, the students filled the big, wide field, their eyes attentive to the small platform stage with the speakers and microphone, more denim and long hair and beads than we’d ever seen in one place. And there we were in our stiff school clothes and buzz cuts that met Felton High’s strict appearance code. The campus security and police were there too, of course, many of them, and we recognized a few. Sergeant Ryan, whose son Rick was the tight end on the football team and Danny Cardillo, who’d graduated from the high school five years earlier. Overall, it was the kind of event I’d seen plenty of on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. The anti-war protests and police barriers and the entertaining posters with slogans and peace signs and doves drawn out in big bold lines.

The speaker wore faded blue jeans and a purplish jersey. At first I didn’t pay much attention to her, my eyes more interested in the coeds in cut-off shorts and halter tops or loose cotton dresses. But her voice was forceful and I saw she’d captivated everyone else and eventually I listened up too. She was black, and the college was the only place we could go to see them in Felton, as if it was a trip to an exotic land we were making. Which it might just as well have been for us in those days. In one hand she held a sheet of paper she glanced at before jerking her head out at the microphone. Her other hand was tightened into a fist she used to hammer at the air. This war was an illegal war, she said. It had no clear goals nor end to it, she said. The Vietnamese people should be left to settle their own affairs, she said.

Imagine that, I thought, tightening my arms around my legs, a female, one not so much older than us saying stuff like that in public. That wasn’t the way I’d been brought up. Women, especially young women, my sister Susan I’m thinking of who was nineteen at the time, weren’t supposed to raise their voices. They weren’t supposed to have opinions or make demands.  And if they did they were called problems or some other names I shouldn’t mention but that were much worse.

Behind me came a tiny plopping sound in the pond, and after a pause the speaker raised her voice and said: “We insist the President tell us the truth about this war. We insist he stop bombing Vietnam’s citizens. We insist he bring our boys home and start bringing them home today…”

We were sixteen that year, from the neighborhood of square blocks with pot-holed streets you got to by going down the hill to the rows of triple-deckers and small, single family homes, with the variety stores and markets and pizza palaces and greasy spoons our families and the students went to for supplies and food.

“Oh, these kids here, they‘re all right, they’re just townies,” one of the students had referred to us as at a party in the Usen Castle we’d crashed one Friday night earlier that year.

She’d said it with a smile, and it didn’t offend us. We knew who we were and there was no making believe it was otherwise. We, I say, referring to me and my friends, Michael and Bobby most notably, who were as fascinated with what went on up on the hill as I was and couldn’t keep away from it just as I couldn’t. Michael with that strange inflection and those far out sentence structures that started people wondering about him “We’s been here over an hours long, no actions a-curred ba‘tween the long-hairs and blue men that those newsies might hunt and gather ta tell to the pop-u-lace,” I recall him saying later that afternoon. And Bobby, red-haired Bobby, with his violent family life and brother Billy on his second tour of duty in that far-off land that was the reason for the event we were attending. In another year he would be the next in his family to suit up and go over there, but unlike Billy he’d make it back standing on his own two feet even if not completely in one whole piece. And there I was sitting between them, nothing so quirky about me and nothing so tragic, a little of both maybe, quirky and tragic, the most normal of us you might say, or at least I was content to give off the appearance of being that way and so for now I’ll just leave it at that.

After more speeches and rallying cries (“Not a son or a gun for Vietnam” “Hell no there’s no way we’re going to go”) the rally broke up without incident and the students went off to their dorms or the library or wherever they went to do whatever they had to, have sex maybe; our interested ears had heard there was plenty of that going on up there.

We took the path through the woods and down the hill and an hour later I was back on Eddy Street, late for the pork chops and side dishes my mother had cooked and that left a fatty, pungent odor in the back stairway I went up. There were four apartments in the building, two on either side, and we lived on the second floor, on the left-hand side as you faced the front with the five cement steps and screened-in porches. I sat on the top step and took off my shoes so I didn’t track any dirt in and save my mother from having a fit with me. “Don’t you ever listen to anything I say,” I could hear her telling me in declarative form. She didn’t tolerate dirt or dust or bugs or anything else that wasn’t supposed to be living with us, anything that might leave a poor impression on neighbors and visiting relatives. She was at the table with my father and sister, finishing dinner. There was a plate and silverware and a paper napkin set up for me at the chair I always sat in, the one with its back to the windows that framed the houses behind us.

“You forget your own phone number?” my mother said. “You know you might have called to tell us where you were and you’re going to be late.”

She was on her feet with my plate in her hand and brought it over to the stove where she used the carving fork to stab at a chop in the frying pan

“He didn’t have a dime, Mom,” Susan said. She sat across from my father with a big grin on her face.

“I was hanging out with Michael and Bobby, that’s all,” I said and started off to my room to change. “We weren’t sure what time it was.”

“Well, why don’t you just wind your wristwatch and you could find that out real easy,” my father joked. But his attempt to lighten the mood failed once again.

(2012)