Hey all you lonely hearts out there. Does the isolation of quarantine have you feeling blue? Well sit back and let me tell you the tale of the loneliest year of my life: my freshman year of college, the year that I saw my very first ska show with Spring Heeled Jack.
In my previous blog entry I discussed the challenges of making new friends in middle age (read about it here) and made the comment that “it’s tough making friends in your forties like the ones you made in your teens and twenties”. I was thinking about this more after I posted it and it occurred to me that making friends has never been easy, especially in my teens and twenties. In fact, in some ways it was even tougher back then. This brings me back to the loneliest year of my life, my Freshman year of college...
The year was 1993 and I had just wrapped up a great senior year of high school where my most musically talented friends, once the band geeks, had now turned the system on its head and became the cool kids (you can read about it here). I had overcome my shyness and stage fright in my small high school and was now very passionately writing, directing, and performing in comedy skits for talent shows and spirit week and making low budget VHS horror movies with my friends just for fun. My passion for theater and film was so high that I briefly considered attending film school at one point. While I was somewhat confident in my directorial abilities, I also had a natural talent for math and physics and was getting straight As in those courses without breaking a sweat, not to mention that my middle class upbringing made me doubt whether or not I could really make a living supporting myself in the film industry. At the time, my cousin who I looked up to was making a career shift into Engineering. He seemed very passionate about it and didn’t fit the stereotype of engineers being boring antisocial nerds so I was inspired to make a similar switch in majors as well. I was at the top of my tiny class (#4 out of only 84 kids) and was given the opportunity to take a pre-Calculus course next door at Wesleyan University my senior year. I remember I was barely able to stay awake during the lectures from our professor who had poor command of the English language and who spoke in a very monotone voice. He had the entire class confused to the point where we were all staring at each other trying to figure out what he was saying.
My best memory of taking this course though happened on Halloween. My friend Corey challenged me and said, “Hey Jeff, you should find out if there are any cool Wesleyan parties happening this weekend”. He was the rebellious influence in our group who looked like a cross between Morrissey and Johnny Depp, but equally as awkward as the rest of us. He was always up for adventure and looking to get into trouble, and by “trouble” I mean pushing us to let loose and have a little bit of fun since our parents were so strict. I was always up for adventure, something that rubbed off on me from my older brother, so I accepted Corey’s challenge. I was friendly with one kid in the class who sat next to me and would occasionally ask me for notes. I thought he was pretty funny because he kept a glossary of what came out of the professor’s mouth phonetically, with translations of what the phrases actually meant. I played it really smooth and tried to continue a conversation with him after class all the way out to the parking lot. At the tail end before departing I said, “Cool, cool….okay man I’ll let you go. Oh quick question, do you know of any cool Halloween parties happening this weekend?”
“Yeah I think there’s one happening at The Eclectic House”
“Oh nice. What type of party is it going to be?”.
“It’s a fraternity where all of the artists on campus hang out. Should be pretty wild from what I hear”
“Sweet. And um…where is that located again?”
“200 High Street”
That’s the actual address, by the way. As mentioned in my previous blog entries, Wesleyan University was a highly influential presence in our lives growing up. Their radio station WESU played the best cutting-edge music in our neck of the woods and the student body was very left-leaning, forward thinking, and progressive, much to the irritation of the older more conservative residents in my hometown. It represented everything that was cool to my older brother’s group of friends and mine. While the Eclectic House was technically a fraternity, the experience was very different from what you might imagine from films like Animal House or Old School.
My friends and I got there at 9PM, the time that my classmate told me the party was starting, and of course no one was there yet. We were all dressed like clowns which was inspired by the straight-to-video cult comedy Shakes the Clown starring Bobcat Goldthwait and Adam Sandler. To kill some time we went to a diner for an hour or two and came back later. To set the atmosphere for this next scene, please play this song:
We stepped inside the house….
It’s actually a pretty nice building on the inside. It was built in the early 1800s and has the look of an old school fraternal organization, the kind where I imagine people once wore robes and participated in more cult-like ceremonies back in the day. We went to the keg to get a beer and held our breaths just waiting for someone to say, “Hey, who let these high school kids in here!” but no one said anything. I’m sure it helped that we were wearing clown makeup to disguise how young we were. We explored the building and went down to the basement where people were being given electric shocks. I’m not making this part up. Someone had one of those old school transformers from a Lionel train set and attached the wires to tin foil pads on a card table. It turned into this contest to see how much voltage people could take. I remember getting pretty far until I could feel the electricity in my chest making my heart beat faster and freaked out a little. People were also holding hands and making giant chains of electricity.
We explored further and went to the back porch. There was a guy standing guard in a giant papier-mâché costume that looked like a cartoonish troll painted in neon colors that glowed under the blacklight. A giant floodlight on the back of the porch illuminated the backyard where two people were rolling around in a pile of leaves making out. They were clearly on something. The music was very bizarre electronic stuff that made everything feel even more disorienting.
I felt pretty satisfied that I got us in the door and got a look of approval from Corey. Right then my friend Aaron wanted to leave. We hadn’t even finished our beers yet but he was so uncomfortable that he couldn’t stay any longer. “You guys can stay, I’m leaving” he said and walked out the door. Unfortunately he was our ride and Uber didn’t exist yet. I told him recently that I will never forgive him for taking away what could have been my Superbad experience that year. I asked him recently to elaborate more on his memories of this night:
“As with everything, I think it’s about attitude and mood. I approached it as if I was going to find people of my ilk, and of course that would not happen to kids our age at a college party. I was on the lookout for a certain expectation, and the box wasn’t checked for me. I can see now that the merit would have been to stay for the adventure. That was strike one. And then there’s the simple, ‘I’m not in the mood for this tonight’ which doesn’t need overanalyzing. Maybe on a different night, things would have been different. Maybe it comes down to fear of the unknown. I’m not as brave as you, Jeff”.
In retrospect, the funniest part of that story is that WE were probably the weirdest ones at that Wesleyan party. I mean, just look at us! What’s extra hilarious is that Aaron was dressed in drag yet was the most uncomfortable person at that party for some reason. I’m the clown on the right and was coincidentally voted class clown that year. What, am I funny? Do I amuse you?
I relate this story because Wesleyan University was the gold standard for what I wanted out of a college. A place that celebrated creativity, originality, and people just being plain weird. My brother went to Connecticut College in New London, a sister school to Wesleyan, and had a similar experience there. I remember going to visit him there when I was in high school and being so excited to go to college after meeting his classmates who seemed cool as shit to me. I think Aaron hit the nail on the head regarding expectations which applied big time to my experience Freshman year.
So on to Fairfield... It was one of the schools recommended by my Dad to check out during our college visits. He was a high school guidance counsellor in Glastonbury, CT who knew how to work the system, what colleges were looking for, what extra-curricular activities checked off the right boxes with admissions, how to write recommendations, and how to paint the right picture of a unique student on my applications. He had me looking at several Catholic schools, the main reason being the “big bang for your buck” factor. At that point in time, college tuitions were increasing at a rate that my parents couldn’t quite afford to keep up with, in fact I remember my mom being in tears saying, “We can’t afford to send you to a school as expensive as Conn College”. I hated seeing my parents stress out about money, I think it bothered her more than it did me and felt very privileged just being able to go to college the first place. Catholic universities had a good reputation academically and in theory seemed to offer similar advantages to private colleges, like smaller more intimate classrooms and a more close-knit community feel without the price tag of more prestigious institutions. I also get the feeling that these schools were attempting to improve diversity in the early 1990s by giving scholarships to individuals that didn’t fit the typical catholic school mold. My Dad knew I was that was an “out of the box” type like Max Fisher in Rushmore and helped to present me as such on my applications. One school he was very excited to take me to was Siena College in the Albany area where apparently I was offered a free ride at the time. When I got to the campus I saw a bunch of Franciscan monks walking around, robes and all, and freaked out saying, “I’m not going to school at a monastery!”. My Dad still doesn’t forgive me for this and on occasion I sometimes don’t either as I would have had zero student loans.
Fairfield was run by the Jesuit order of catholic priests, but the religious element seemed a little less in-your-face, at least when I went to visit. The Jesuits had a reputation of being more modern and progressive which made me think of Father Karris in The Exorcist who believes in science over superstition. Most of the professors were not priests and I didn’t see anyone there wearing a robe or a collar, so that was a plus since I’ve always been a firm believer in the separation of church and school. Upon my visit it just seemed like your average normal run-of-the-mill college. In retrospect though I can’t think of a school with a more opposite personality than my own. A lot of this had to do with the friend group that I was leaving behind in Cromwell. I have to say that I was very fortunate to have the awesome friends in high school that I did, many of whom I still keep in touch with to this day. They were smart guys who were intellectual, creative, and philosophical. Some of us were budding hipsters who were seeking out the most cutting-edge films, books, and music. Others were performers who were polishing our craft of music, comedy, and writing. We weren’t just book smart, we had very complicated minds that were always curious and working overtime. I wrote, directed, and filmed a zombie movie with my friends over the course of a February vacation and an April vacation just because we were bored. My friend Matt Zimmitti became obsessed with the electronic side of music after making his own guitar pickup for shop class and started wiring his own guitar components. He made a silent black and white stop motion 16 mm film inspired by Call of Cthulhu once because he was bored. We loved playing roleplaying games with very elaborate game mechanics and led by a game master who to this date has read more books and consumed more films than anyone I know. He was like George RR Martin the way he plotted out entire cities, states, continents, plot lines and character arcs in his mind with fully developed casts of thousands of non-player characters. We would sit at the diner for hours having very interesting philosophical conversations or brainstorming ideas for concepts that would go nowhere, like a chain of pacific northwest logger themed breakfast restaurants named Chester Griddlejacks. We talked about that idea for 5 hours one night and thought of the whole axe throwing trend decades ahead of our time. We were always trying to outdo and impress each other creatively and intellectually. Most importantly though we were hilarious guys. Quick-witted, good at improvisation, and always using our imaginations. We were a bunch of Goddamn nerds and proud of it! I had a very hard time finding similar folks at Farifield and as a result I felt like a total misfit there.
I got a taste of this the summer before my Freshman year where we had an orientation and I got to meet my roommate. I remember feeling a little bit intimidated when I met him, he reminded me of the popular kids in my high school, or rather the popular kids from one of the other towns in Connecticut that had more money. He was way more confident, outgoing, and somewhat bro-ish. He already seemed to have friends at Fairfield, in fact he stopped himself mid-sentence to say hi to someone he knew who was walking by. I remember thinking to myself, “Sweet, this guy knows everyone! He might be able to introduce me to other people on campus”. By the end of the summer though I was assigned a new roommate. Clearly I didn’t check off his boxes for what he was looking for in a wing man. You have to remember that this was 1993 and nerds weren’t cool yet. I now realized exactly where I was going to school. I was amidst the popular kids from high schools all over the tri-state area: the good-looking people, the jocks, and the affluent preppy types, not the artists, film geeks, musicians, or philosophers. They all went to more competitive schools, art schools, or bigger state schools with programs and activities to suit their esoteric interests.
My replacement roommate was a kid from Westchester county. I’ll start off with the positive: he was an extremely upbeat, positive, happy kid, and I think for that reason alone I kind of hated him. It was the exact opposite of my high school friends who were more sarcastic and deadpan and enjoyed edgy dark humor. His musical tastes were…. well they weren’t bad per se, but just kind of mainstream and not on the cutting edge. He played a lot of Billy Joel, Bon Jovi, and Rod Stewart and had posters of Poison, Cinderella, Motley Crue etc. plastering his walls. Now, I know these bands have their merit and are considered classic at this point but at that exact time and place they were very much passe, at least in my mind. He should have been listening to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, and Cypress Hill. His sense of humor wasn’t quite on the same level as mine either. Whereas I was into Monty Python and Saturday Night Live, he kept a stack of Garfield comic books which he would frequently chuckle to himself while reading and taped his favorite pages all over his bunk bed. He had a 6 hour VHS tape of Growing Pains episodes that he would continuously watch for some reason as well. He was a communications major.
I also discovered how conservative and staunchly Republican Fairfield was my Freshman year, something that wasn’t inherently obvious when I went to visit. I’m sure part of this comes from the catholic influence which prohibited contraceptives from being distributed at the student infirmary. While browsing the booths at the activities fair I saw a table for the Young Republicans Society, which immediately made me think of Michael J. Fox’s character on Family Ties. I thought, “That’s interesting, isn’t college supposed to be the place where everyone rebels, dies their hair, and tries to piss off their parents?”. I remember asking another student if there was a Young Democrats Society and he chuckled saying, “You’re at the wrong school for that!”. That’s when the feeling of dread set in. Hipsters simply did not exist at Fairfield. It seemed exactly like high school only worse because everyone was paying to be here and perpetuating the same conformity. Everyone, I mean everyone dressed exactly the same at Fairfield. All the guys wore faded blue baggy jeans, white sneakers, a shirt or sweatshirt with a sports logo on it, and a white baseball cap embroidered with either the lacrosse team that they played on in high school or the sports team of their favorite Big 10 school that they didn’t have the smarts to get into. We called them “whitehats” back then. Whitehats lived a similar lifestyle and enjoyed the same aesthetics as fratboys but didn’t necessarily have fraternal affiliations. They enjoyed mainstream bands like Dave Matthews Band, Pearl Jam, and Hootie and the Blowfish, wore J Crew, were mostly into watching sports and playing beer pong, then called “Beirut” for some reason, with cheap Natural Light beer filling their cups. Not that there is anything wrong with the bands that I just mentioned, but if someone says that Dave Matthews is their favorite band in 1993, you know you’re not going to be compiling any High Fidelity-esque playlists together anytime soon. Fraternities weren’t allowed at Fairfield. That’s because the whole school was one big frat. Everyone was afraid to be different in any way or to “step out of line” as one student once put it to me. It was very bizarre to me and totally against the counterculture that my brother had laid down for me (read more here). I didn’t meet anyone there who reminded me of my friends from high school. It made me miss them very dearly that semester and I felt like I was always counting the days before I would see them again at Columbus Day weekend, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
What made things worse is that I chose to live in an upper classmen dorm. I did this intentionally to be with the cool kids and even remember my mom saying, “You’re not going to get any sleep with all those parties going on”. To which I replied, “Exactly, that’s what I want! I want to be in the middle of the action!”. Unfortunately what I got was the exact opposite. Fairfield was a dry campus so most kids went off campus to party, either at the run down bungalow apartments on the beach, a dive bar called The Sea Grape, or the townhouses: a cluster of condos that the upper classmen lived in on the outskirts of campus. Apparently catholic school kids have a reputation for partying so hard that it must be a liability to let them drink in their dorms. It was also a “suitcase school” where the majority of students were local and many would go home for the weekend to hang out with their high school friends. They weren’t looking to meet new people or have new experiences like I was. Fortunately for me, my roommate also went home most weekends which on the one hand was cool because I had the place to myself but on the other it added to the feeling of isolation. That whole summer I had been dreaming about my first college floor party, a dream that was heavily inspired by The Sure Thing starring John Cusack. There’s a scene where a guy screams “It’s Friday night!” out his window, puts a speaker on his windowsill, and in ‘80s movie fashion the whole dorm instantly turns into a party. My first weekend was nothing like that. I found myself alone in a dead quiet dormitory where you could hear a pin drop. As a result of this I seemed to have missed out on finding my clique, something that happens usually within the first couple weeks of Freshman year. For the rest of the semester I would look out my window at dinnertime to see random herds of whitehats clustered together shuffling across campus to go to the dining hall. I suppose this helped me to get over the insecurity of dining alone. I would just take a book with me, go in, eat, get out. Nice and quick. I remember one girl feeling sorry for me that I was eating by myself (this place really was as cliquey as high school) and invited me to join her and her friend. The sentiment was sweet but she didn’t realize how free I was. For everyone else it was an ordeal, they had to call people up, knock on doors, get frustrated because people weren’t ready yet, and probably hung out with some real assholes just because they were afraid of being alone. Dining alone rules.
There was something a bit more to Fairfield that bothered me though. It wasn’t just the isolation and the generic whitehats, it was the toxic “bro culture”. Lots of Irish and Italian catholic school kids from New Jersey, Long Island, and the outer boroughs went to Fairfield who came from very old school Archie Bunker type households. They came from money but not class. It was an aggressive NYC vibe that I was not yet familiar with and even the townies in my hometown of central Connecticut weren’t like this. They brought the Jersey Shore to the Connecticut shore. I have one memory of going to a dance party at “The Black Box” which was the experimental theater wing of the Quick Center for the Performing Arts center, named as such because it was literally a cube shaped room that was painted black. The music and scene reminded me a lot of a show called, “The Grind” on MTV:
On the way to the dance I saw a guy following a couple of girls who were dressed up for the occasion and was cat calling them to the point where it was making them uncomfortable. One of the girls was from the Bronx and had no problem telling him to fuck off, a scene that all New Yorkers are familiar with on a typical Friday or Saturday night in the meatpacking district, but not really in line with what one might expect from a quiet liberal arts college in sleepy Connecticut. There was also the time that my next door neighbor and his girlfriend got into a huge screaming match in his room to the point that a bunch of people from my hall were outside wondering what to do and if we should intervene or not. I ended up becoming friends with said girlfriend the following year when that neighbor went to study abroad and she confided in me that he used to hit her. I heard other stories about domestic violence on campus, one of which was printed anonymously in a disturbing story that was printed in the student newspaper. I got the feeling that many of these students came from abusive households.
Fairfield also killed my passion for theater and performing that I had in high school. I auditioned for an avant garde play my first semester staged at The Black Box which was about the rise and fall of neighboring Bridgeport, Connecticut. It was pretty terrible and not unlike this SNL high school theater skit:
Unfortunately I didn’t make the audition and was ushered instead into AV duties, probably for being the quiet engineering major who gave a more restrained, subdued, Phil Hartman-esque performance during my audition and not an over-the-top, front-and-center, “look at me!” vaudevillian one like the other cast members. Already I was fitting a certain stereotype of “Engineer”, one that would haunt me for many years to come in the toy industry. My contempt of Theater Fairfield can be described best in this entry from a journal that I kept that semester:
I finally made it through one of the more hellish weeks in my educational career (of three months). We had rehearsals for City Scape every single day from Sunday to Saturday and I wasn’t getting back to my dorm to do homework until 10:30 PM. On top of it all I was getting over a bad chest cold and was extremely tired. Tony the lighting designer was really pissing me off. He isn’t the type of guy who yells or puts people down directly, but he has certain qualities that I find very annoying. Earlier in the week I had a Calculus exam in the evening and had to miss a play rehearsal for it. I admit that I was wrong for not mentioning it earlier, but I did tell him about it several hours before rehearsal started. Tony, in a seemingly diplomatic fashion, spoke to me later on telling me how angry he was for not being able to show up. I’m not really that mad about this (um, yes you were, Jeff) but this is one of the things that has made me decide not to do any more plays. I get along with everyone who is involved with Theater Fairfield, including Tony, it’s just that the work involved with each play takes too much out of my time. The people who are involved with the plays are not as interesting as I expected. Most of the people are very pretentious and act as if they are in some sort of a popularity contest…. the winner of which gets to be the director’s favorite. Most of the humor involved in the play is insincere. The actors act more like clowns than comedians in order to get a laugh. From my experience here, anyone who is a veteran director, producer, or organizer of plays must have nervous laughter… the kind which must be belted out as loud as possible in order for the other person to understand that they were wrong. Perhaps I will look into working with the radio station or literary magazine. I will wait until next semester though.
I kept this journal during an English course that I took that semester called Composition and Prose. Our professor encouraged us to write in our journals as much as possible and not to worry about punctuation, grammar, structure, or coherence, and to just keep a free flow of writing and ideas. I was so lonely that semester that by the end I had filled the entire 160 pages of the journal. There was no Skype or Zoom back then, so it was the perfect outlet. This ended up stoking my passion for writing and journaling which I have steadily continued ever since, and here I am writing a blog almost 30 years later. I decided to unearth this journal recently and read the whole thing cover-to-cover. I expected it to be cringeworthy, which it was at times, but I couldn’t stop laughing. The sarcasm is unapologetic and I have nothing nice to say about anyone, myself included. My 18 year old snark sounds like it's coming directly from the mascot of The New Yorker magazine, a tone and style that would blossom into Tri-State Conspiracy lyrics many years later.
Everything is true and on point though which in that respect I would say makes it one of the darkest pieces of literature I’ve read since Bret Easton Ellis. I think part of that comes from being an adolescent growing up the tri-state area in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s. Life was all about sarcasm, zooming in on the negative, and ripping things apart, kind of like Catcher in the Rye. While reading it I thought, “Whew! I’m so happy not to be that 18 year old college bound student with his whole life ahead of him. Thank goodness I am where I am now living in the middle of a pandemic with people dying everywhere!”. It’s like this scene from Top Secret:
Despite the negativity, I couldn’t put it down and it weirdly gave me more confidence to write this blog. It’s almost like this 18-year-old punk version of me was inspiring me saying, “Check it out, I’m 18 and I just wrote 160 pages! Now it’s your turn!”. I have to say, there was actually a lot of wisdom in that journal from my 18-year-old self. One of my favorite lines was, “It’s not that I am unable to make friends, it’s that I haven’t found anyone yet that I want to be friends with yet” a mantra that I think will shift anyone’s perspective who is currently feeling lonely out there. I feel like I could publish this journal as is, grammatical errors and all, and pass it off as a young adult novel, one that should be narrated by comedian Richard Lewis as a podcast. Here are few more memorable entries:
“Yesterday my roommate did an interview for the afternoon show that he hosts on the campus radio station with a lame student who likes to dress up like The Phantom of the Opera and runs around the quad on our campus at odd hours of the night. This student and his ‘advisor’, an annoying freshman who lives in our dorm, came into our room to wait for my roommate to do the interview who hadn’t returned yet. They were looking around my room and The Phantom looked at a poster of mine which shows a painting by Salvador Dali: ‘The Creation of the Monsters’. He said, “What the hell is this?”. I gave a brief description of surrealism to this uncultured bastard to kill some time before my roommate came back.
Note to reader that I bought this at a vendor fair on campus and it was hanging up next to my Blue Velvet poster.
My roommate set up the tape recorder and interviewed The Phantom. He was going on and on saying stuff like, “I do this to prove that ‘Gonzaga Hall rules the quad!’ and other such nonsense. Like anyone cares. I couldn’t believe how badly I was surrounded by losers. Sometimes I feel that perhaps fate, or some unseen force, is trying to ruin my life. It’s almost comical how the personality traits that I find most irritating in life seem to be found in all of the students here”
Oh what venom I had at age 18! Hang in there, Freshman Jeff, don’t let The Phantom of the Quad ruin your life! Around this time I became a bit fixated at how unfunny some people were at Fairfield, almost to a scientific level, and made the following chart in my journal which compares what I thought was funny versus what not funny in 1993. I felt like I belonged in column A and everyone else belonged in column B. I cracked up recently at the fact that Bea Arthur and Estelle Getty are on the left and Rue McClanahan and Betty White are on the right. Also note that Garfield is on the right as well.
The personality of this school is getting harder and harder to deal with. To put it bluntly, this college is boring. I’m not referring to the activities or the town of Fairfield itself, I mean that the people are boring. I was hoping to find at least a small group of people who were funny, interesting, or unique but I am sadly disappointed so far. On Halloween night (Sunday) I dressed up to go see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at the student union. I was in the bathroom putting on makeup when this kid in my dorm wearing the standard issue baseball cap, NIKE sneakers, and a shirt from J Crew comes in and says, “Dude, isn't it a little late to be dressing up?”. True it was 11:30 PM but it was Halloween night and we're in college and midnight is when the fun is supposed to begin. I was hoping to be at a college where people would appreciate it if another person did something unusual or out of the ordinary, again I am saddened. It turned out that they weren’t playing the movie at 12 midnight like I had thought but had already shown it at 9:30 PM and in a different location. Apparently the flyer I saw was for the night before. Very few times have I felt such humility, disappointment, and anger at the same time. I can honestly say that I had more fun in high school than I am right now (flashback to that Wesleyan party).
That entry was particularly painful for me to read and the perfect illustration of how much our happiness in life is tied to whether or not our expectations are met, especially at that age. I had never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show before but heard it was this fun cult movie that college kids went to see at midnight where they would throw rice and shout catch phrases at the screen. I knew there was sort of a glam feel to the movie so the makeup I was putting on was emulating Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer: one of my favorite non-horn centric rock albums in high school. I do vividly remember the feeling of discomfort from that bro in the bathroom and it made me flash forward to the time I dressed up like Ozzy Osbourne for at work Halloween party in the 00s. My boss walked into the storage room to see me putting on eyeliner and he just slowly backed away without saying anything. What can I say, I love Halloween. To this day though I still have never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I smoked my corn cob pipe a bit on Friday. I recently bought some cherry flavored tobacco for it. For some reason the cold wintery air puts me in the mood for it. I was standing on the steps behind my dorm by myself, the usual hangout for smokers, wearing my grandfather’s old trenchcoat and watching the occasional people walk by. One kid walked out of the dormitory and says, “Dude, you’re getting a bit old for your time, aren’t you?”. He was walking with two other girls. When he thought he was out of range said, “Did you see that kid? He’s fucking toking on a pipe!”. I kept thinking about how this guy and pretty much everyone here are assholes
As you can see, I was in the early stages of becoming a sarcastic New Yorker. Seriously though, what was that guy’s problem? I can understand the reaction I got on Halloween with my weirdo makeup but why was this guy so irritated by me smoking pipe tobacco? Talk about strict! People at Fairfield U. will forever be a mystery to me. Fortunately some people on campus did appreciate my more unique aesthetics.
About ten minutes later I saw two girls walking towards the dorm. One of them I know from my history class. I recognized her friend too. She’s a cute blonde hippie who I often see loitering on the side staircase to our dormitory. She immediately complemented me on the pipe. She sincerely thought it was cool and said it made me look distinguished. She also asked if she could try it which I let her. She responded, “I never met anyone who smoked a pipe before….well not tobacco anyways. We all started chuckling”.
Did you get her number, Freshman Jeff? Go get her number! I do have some positive memories from that semester. It was the very first time in my life that I ever had MTV which I was quite psyched about. This was the very tail end of the era when the network was still kind of cool, too. I always took time out every week to watch three shows:
120 Minutes: Featured all of the latest alternative rock bands. Two of my favorites from this time were The Breeders who had the hit song, “Cannonball” and The Crash Test Dummies. Yes, I know that second one is a random choice. There was something melancholy and introspective about them though which seemed to fit the exact mood that I was feeling at the time.
The funny thing is that I was revisiting this album recently and realized that instrumentally they’re not that much different than Dave Matthews Band, a band I hated at the time for their association with whitehats. I will still take Brad Roberts’s distinctly ‘90s era baritone any day though over Dave Matthews’s vocals which still sound to me like a high-pitched toddler learning how to articulate words for the first time. Aesthetically speaking, Crash Test Dummies are sort of like the Canadian missing link between ‘80s college rock bands like XTC and ‘90s college rock bands like Hootie and the Blowfish.
Liquid Television: A showcase of off-the-wall animated shorts where Beavis and Butthead got its start. The crown jewel was the Japanese animation-inspired Aeon Flux. Oh yes, when was the last time you thought about Aeon Flux? Watch it now!
The State: Very few people are familiar with this cult sketch comedy show which was sort of like the American version of Kids in the Hall at the time. If you weren’t going to college in the tri-state area in the early 1990s and didn’t have MTV, then you’ve probably never heard of this show and probably won’t find it very funny either. It was perfectly stupid, absurd, and oftentimes hilarious if you were a gen X teenager. The cast members went on to have bit parts and writing credits in all of your favorite comedies including Reno 911, Superbad, Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, and others. Sharing this skit because it has that Breeders song that I loved:
I did make one friend that semester:
I have met one person who I think is fairly cool at the University. Her name is Alicia and she’s a transfer student from John’s Hopkins University. I met her randomly at a townhouse party. She asked me about a T-shirt I was wearing from Newbury Comics in Boston and I kept the conversation going. We have many things in common including a strange taste in humor, a passion for old TV shows, and a dislike for the people at this school”.
This is a common trend that I’ve noticed with friendship, how a shared hatred of a situation can bring people together.
Friday night I went out with Alicia and her roommate and saw Tears for Fears in concert. It was great watching a band from the early eighties playing such tunes as “Shout” or “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. I always feel a bit of nostalgia when I hear the great bands from 1980-1985 like Men at Work, The Talking Heads, or Duran Duran. It’s strange because I’m only 18 and already I feel like I’m from an older generation (especially with that trench coat and corn cob pipe). I think Alicia is getting to like me a bit more. She is the only person in this school who genuinely laughs at my jokes and observations and who is a funny person herself.
Note to reader that this was after the popularity of Tears for Fears had waned and they played to approximately 50 people in our gymnasium. I was there with someone who I was feeling a connection with and standing approximately 15 feet away from Curt Smith during the entire performance. It felt like they were performing a private show just for us and to date this is one of the top concerts of my life. Our friendship continued throughout the semester and I have fond memories of us playing Streetfighter II at the student center, going to see a performance of the Nutcracker at the performing arts center where we made fun of the fact that there was no orchestra, just a recording, and overall just being a couple of goofballs joking around about sitcoms and other obscure pop culture references. She was with me on Halloween for the Rocky Horror Picture Show incident even though she had crew practice early the next morning. I remember afterwards she even found the flyer that incorrectly said that it was playing at midnight on Halloween. Did it get cancelled?
The strange thing is that the absolute weirdest side of my humor, the humor that only my closest friends understand, she finds funny”
Unfortunately, Alicia went back to Johns Hopkins after that semester leaving me back to my lonesome self. I reconnected with her recently and she told me that she left because she was partying too much and missed the nerd culture at Johns Hopkins which didn’t exist at Fairfield. I got in touch with another Cromwell High school friend Tammy recently, who also attended Fairfield at the same time as me, and gave me some insight about how the Freshman year experience at Fairfield was a bit different if you were a girl, “it was easier for the freshmen girls to get into the parties and even The Grape than it was for the freshmen guys. Upperclassmen guys were always receptive to allowing females in over the males. That of course played into the whole social scene dynamic for me and my suite mates. We met several of our closest friends at some of these parties we went to”.
Who needs parties and a social life anyways? Us Freshmen dudes were afforded more time to work on our writing. After Alicia left I was at square one again trying to find someone who I felt a real connection with. I felt like I had made a bad choice with Fairfield and wanted to transfer out. I felt awful telling my parents this and had a very depressing conversation with them about it during one of their visits earlier that second semester in which I uttered the phrase, “I hate this place more than high school!”. I really meant it, too. For the record I had no issue whatsoever with the academics and I actually thought a lot of the professors were great and much more engaging than the one who taught pre-calculus at Wesleyan. It was the students that I had a problem with. My parents weren’t having it though, especially after I threw away that free ride at Siena College, and talked me into staying. To my overdramatic 18 year old mind, I felt I had hit rock bottom in my life. But as they say, the darkest hour happens before dawn and two big things happened later that semester:
The first was discovering the Metro North commuter rail line. I was completely unaware of how easy it was to go into New York City from Fairfield until I took an art history class that year. One of our assignments was to critique a painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our professor said, “there will be a bus trip, but if you can’t make it then you can always take Metro North. It leaves every hour and it’s only 15 bucks round trip”. My eyes widened when I heard that. I was still a central CT suburban bumpkin at this point and wasn’t aware that I was currently connected to the big city by rail and didn’t need a car to get there. Total game changer for me. I was no longer trapped on this isolated campus and suddenly part of a bigger world that I was free to explore. I remember telling my high school friends this and they were suddenly more excited to visit me at school so that they could do a trip to New York with me. I planned a day trip for us which was the first time I ever went into the big city unchaperoned. I don’t remember exactly what we did, the only thing that sticks out in my mind was going to Village Cigars and going CD shopping on Bleecker Street.
The next big moment was the time that I was walking across campus and saw a flyer for another dance party at The Black Box. While I wasn’t into the club music scene, they often had pretty cool bands playing out in the lobby and I was always up for hearing some good live music, in fact earlier in the year I very much enjoyed a hip hop band from NYC at a Black Box party who played along with a live jazz band and had a vibe similar to Digable Planets. The supporting act on this flyer said, “Spring Heeled Jack (Boston ska band)”. I had heard about Spring Heeled Jack from my hipster friend Matt who went to Trinity College in Hartford. “Jeff, you should check these guys out, they play this type of music called 'ska', it's sort of like punk rock with horns”.
“Punk rock with horns? Now this I have to hear!”.
So to quickly clarify a couple of points, Spring Heeled Jack is from Connecticut, not Boston. It was a common misunderstanding at the time that ska came from Boston (not Jamaica) because The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were an up-and-coming ska band in the northeast and a lot of younger people who didn’t know any better incorrectly thought they invented the ska genre. Anyways, I digress…
I went to the Quick Center for the Performing Arts and waited for Spring Heeled Jack to take the stage. It wasn’t even a stage, they were just playing off to the side of the lobby and I think I was one of 5 people in the audience which was mostly the girlfriends of the band members. I saw a bunch of dudes walk on stage with wallet chains, funky hair, and horns and was immediately interested. Now keep in mind that this was the early 1990s which was a hornless era of music with grungy, apathetic, wall-of-sound type bands being the norm: Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam. Not that there’s anything wrong with these bands, but just setting the stage for what I was feeling emotionally and aurally at this point. Mostly dreariness. They took the stage and suddenly started playing this up-tempo high energy music with horns. It felt a little bit like this:
The horns were just blasting away in my face and it made my head explode with joy. The music took over my whole body and I uncontrollably started dancing my ass off. I never danced like that in my life, or at least didn’t actually enjoy it before that moment. Dancing in general is a very awkward self-conscious thing for most men. To express ourselves physically in song and dance immediately sets us up for being made fun of and when I was growing up, dancing was limited to weddings and chaperoned school dances, which meant listening to music that everyone else wanted to hear but not necessarily me. It wasn’t really my scene. This ska music was different though. It was upbeat, the horns reminded me of oldies that my parents were into, but the energy was more punk like what my brother dug. There was something about the groove. I couldn’t stop dancing even if I tried! At that moment I didn’t give a shit that I was one of 5 people dancing in that lobby and danced for an hour straight. I was like John Belushi in that church scene in the Blues Brothers.
And this folks was the most religious experience that I had at catholic Fairfield U. I had seen the light! I remember going to the Black Box afterwards to meet up with some kids from my floor. One of them said, “Dude what the hell happened, you’re drenched in sweat!”. I told them about the show and that I had finally found my tribe.
The seeds of ska and NYC had been planted. That’s life folks. Just when you think it’s over, it only just begins.