Monday, March 22, 2010

Sophomore Year

When finally, at the beginning of my sophomore year, I actually Went Away to College (that is, moved into an on-campus dormitory around nine miles from my parents’ front door), it was with the utmost trepidation. My parents hadn’t been big on vacations, and I might have spent half a dozen nights in my 19-1/2 years not in my own bed.

One of the first things I heard out of the mouth of one of my fellow residents of Sproul Hall’s fifth floor was that if I didn’t cut my hair — which I’d encouraged to grow (marginally) long over the summer — I could be assured that my new neighbors would cut it for me. Just what the nervous new boy needed to hear!

At first sight of my roommate, my heart sank. He was so very not-groovy, so hopelessly square, so…ancient. I think he was 24, a folk dance enthusiast (he’d probably have said “buff”), studying engineering or something comparably unsexy — and one of the nicest people I’d ever met. He invited me to join him and his friends at dinner, but fat chance of my allowing myself to be seen with folk dance buffs with plastic pocket protectors — I who’d smoked marijuana, and lost my virginity, and thus had my reputation as the living embodiment of cool to think of!

I made it my custom to go down to dinner at a few minutes before five every afternoon so I could be first in line. I’d eat really quickly (something at which I’ve always been terrific, mind you) and get back up to my room before anyone could see me eating alone. Lonely, lonely, lonely, and back to the ancestral home like a shot every Friday afternoon.

It all changed when I was able to persuade the dorm president to hire my little combo, The 1930 Four (earlier the winners of the Battle of the Bands sponsored by the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, and semifinalists in an ongoing similar competition on KHJ-TV’s Boss City), to provide the entertainment at a Friday night dance. Between sets, a leggy, Cher-haired freshman dance major who’d apparently glimpsed me dashing ashamedly from the dining room came over to ask if I’d teach her to play the drums. I’d have figured out a way to teach her Urdu if she’d asked.

The film stock of my life changed, going from black and white to Technicolor; there were twice as many girls in the world who liked me as previously imagined! I was high as a kite on the fourth of July. And then flat on the back in the hospital with strep throat. By the time I recovered, I’d missed literally half the quarter. This was particularly disastrous in Music 101, in which they’d spent the weeks of my hospitalization working on ear training. In Italian, the artist futurely known as Russell Mael and I exchanged cool appraising stares at each other's long hair, but never spoke.

There were maybe a dozen boys on campus that year with long-for-the-time hair; the moral watchdogs of the fifth floor hadn’t followed through on their threat. At the sight of my former future Air Force officers in their stupid fucking uniforms saluting each other, I’d snicker with relief at having escaped. I bought a Mr. Zigzag pin at the local head shop to wear on the blue denim jacket there was no getting me out of, and exchanged knowing nods with others newly arrived at enlightenment.

In the free speech area in the shadow of the Student Union, black militant students who idolized the Black Panthers grew ever more strident. It became impossible to eat lunch without hearing a bellowed list of nonnegotiable demands. As the school year progressed, the per capita usage of hallucinogenic drugs in my dormitory must have been the highest anywhere south of the Haight Ashbury. There wasn’t a time of day or night when fewer than half a dozen kids could be observed marveling slack-jawed at the ceiling of the main lounge. I didn't try it for fear of discovering myself queer, as the manager of my band had supposedly done just before they flung me out for gross incompetence.

Subscribe, all ye faithful, joyful 'n' triumphant!

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