My 7 year old son has always been oddly interested in college, specifically about where he is going to live when he attends. “I can still live with you, right?”, he asks, with a hint of panic in his voice. I try to explain to him that by the time he turns 18, he will be absolutely dying to move out on his own but he’s not buying it. “Who will make me waffles?”
His questions always make me think back to the summer of 1987 as I prepared to leave for college at a Big Ten university, and with hindsight I have to say that my son is right to be concerned. If I had a magical remote, I’d live that summer over and over on endless repeat. It was magical, and golden, and lasted forever, and it was over way too soon.
Not that I had a terrible time when I got to college. I was, like any other 18 year old, very much looking forward to being out on my own, and learned a couple of days before I got there that I had finally been assigned a roommate, someone named Tyrone. I don’t know what mental image you have in your head when you hear the name Tyrone, but I imagined him as some big, badass motherfucker who would announce his arrival by kicking in the dorm room door, dropping a case of beer and a weathered rucksack on the floor, and loudly inquiring as to where all the motherfuckin’ poon-tang was. Exciting!
When I finally arrived at the dorm, I quickly settled into my room (Tyrone had obviously not arrived yet, as there were no buck knives, spent ammo casings, or condom wrappers to be seen) and met some of my neighbors. The first ones I met were a couple of Naval ROTC cadets across the hall, Shack and Kos.
Shack and Kos quickly taught me an important lesson about college-life: Just because it was before noon didn’t mean that you couldn’t get into the tequila. They introduced me to what they called a matador party. This involved a Spanish dictionary, a matador hat, a fifth of tequila, and a certain amount of tolerance for liver destruction.
One player would start by selecting a Spanish word from the dictionary. He’d then announce it and explain what the word meant. “The Spanish word for flea is pulga.” But, since pulga doesn’t really sound like it would be the word for flea, you could lie if you wanted to. “The Spanish word for polka is pulga.” The other players then got to decide if you were lying or not.
Anyone who was wrong was eligible to receive the matador hat, which the person with the dictionary would jam onto their head. That person then had to slam a shot of tequila, knocking his head back with enough force to dislodge the hat. If the hat didn’t come off, you’d have to do more shots until it did.
Needless to say, after a while disputes and grudges began to build up to the point where metric tons of force were applied to put the undersized matador hat on, and people were giving themselves whiplash trying to get the hat off. It was great fun, and after each round the room would explode with a chorus of “TYROOOOOOONE!” (Shack and Kos were as eager to meet my mysterious, badass mofo roommate as I was.)
Late in the day, after we’d snuck down into the cafeteria to steal more limes, we ended a round with another loud “TYROOOOONE!” chant, and there was a quiet knock on the door. “Hi! I’m Tyrone. Were you calling my name just now?” Tyrone was a short and skinny Chinese kid, as meek as you could possibly imagine. He was, in our opinion, the anti-Tyrone.
Still, he was the nicest person you could ever hope to meet. Too nice, in fact. I’d come barging into my room at 1:30 AM in the morning with a drunken girl in tow, and Tyrone would be half-naked, trying to put his PJ’s on. “I’m sorry,” he’d say. “Would you like me to get dressed somewhere else?”
The only regret I have about living with Tyrone was that I wish he had a better roommate. He was very studious, quiet, well mannered, and I was… well… none of those things at the time. I remember his dad came to visit once and he asked me what the large chemical symbol I’d put on the door stood for. “Are you very interested in chemistry?”
“Ummm… It’s the chemical structure for… uhhh… mescaline.”
“I see,” his dad replied, eyeing the lava lamp and package of rolling papers on my desk
I met a lot of people in a short amount of time, some of whom I still consider friends today. (Such as frequent Hall of Fame commenter B’Homey with whom I’d once gotten high and, using a synthesizer and an amp, tricked an entire apartment building into thinking that the emergency tornado siren had just gone off. At 2:30 in the morning.)
Staying out until all hours of the night became common, as did epic wake and bake sessions, beer fights, and something very new to us at the time: drinking in bars. (There was a long since defunct bar named Nature’s Table whose drinking policy was: Drink! As long as you tipped the band they would serve you, even if you were a zygote. Although I wouldn’t really call it a bar. It was more of a bohemian shit-hole.)
I was freer than I had ever been in my life, I made a lot of good friends, I had fun, did what I wanted to… And I could not wait to go home.
Looking back on it, I’m not sure I could put my finger on what, exactly, I missed. I was just homesick in general, and although I was living the exact lifestyle I had eagerly anticipated just a few short months before, I discovered to my surprise that I was not only willing to trade it in, but was anxious to do so.
A lot of this had to do with a rather frightening run-in that I had with the University police department.
One night, after having hit a typically drunken and rowdy keg party, a friend and I walked home to the dorm. As we got there, we saw a pizza delivery car idling in the parking lot, keys in the ignition, the passenger seat full of piping hot pizza. I hopped behind the wheel and said, “Let’s steal this motherfucker!” but before my friend could hop in, I got back out and said, “Just kidding!”
My friend was not so easily deterred. “I’m not kidding,” he replied as he opened the passenger door and took three pizzas. Giggling, we hauled ass into the dorm via a back door and spent the next half an hour pigging out on stolen pizza.
The next day I received a phone call at 10:00 AM in the morning. “Good morning, Greg, this is Sgt. Fitzsimmons with the University Police Department. I was wondering if you could come down to the station this afternoon to answer a few questions.” Shit, shit, shit! I was sure that someone had ratted me out for stealing those pizzas and my mind raced as I tried to figure out what to do.
After arranging to meet Sgt. Fitzsimmons, I stopped and gave the matter some thought. It didn’t make sense that the police department would go through the trouble to track down a few stolen pizzas, and if we didn’t have people pounding on my door that very night demanding their pizza back, we’d probably gotten away with it unnoticed.
The only other thing I knew of that might interest the police was a particularly vicious prank phone call that I’d heard about a couple of weeks earlier. I had gone to high school with a girl named Cindy. Cindy, in that glorious summer of 1987, had begun to smoke pot with me and my friends. One evening, my friend Keith sold her a small bag of weed for her personal enjoyment, which she promptly got caught with by her parents and then turned around and ratted on Keith for selling it to her.
Keith was understandably upset, but since Cindy’s parents didn’t tell the police or (more importantly) his parents, it wasn’t exactly the end of the world.
But one night, somewhere around 2:00 AM in the morning, Cindy’s parents received a phone call from someone pretending to be with the University police department (Cindy and I both attended the same college). This person informed Cindy’s parents that Cindy had been arrested for possession of marijuana and was currently in a detox facility. She would call her parents with bail information once she was judged to be no longer under the influence of drugs.
Coming, as it did, on the heels of their daughter being caught at home with pot, Cindy’s parents absolutely believed this person when he called. And so when the same person called back an hour later to solemnly inform her parents that Cindy had committed suicide in her detox cell, they were devastated.
Yeah, that really happened. The person (who turned out to be someone I’d known since 5th grade, and who isn’t a bad person, just got really drunk and made a horrendous decision to continue an unfunny prank that had gotten out of hand), spent 5 full minutes on the phone with these poor people consoling them over their terrible loss.
So of course, when the grieving parents called Cindy’s dorm room to see if her roommate could shed any light on the situation, they were extremely surprised when Cindy herself answered the phone. The surprise gave way to relief, which then gave way to explosive anger. What kind of asshole would pull an elaborate prank like that? The real police got involved.
Cindy was interviewed the next day and asked if anyone was very mad at her. “Well, my friend Keith wasn’t very happy with me a few weeks ago because… Well, he got caught selling me marijuana.”
For some reason the police didn’t immediately focus on Keith, but instead asked her if Keith had any friends attending the University. “Yeah, his best friend Greg.”
Now, as I walked to the police station, all I knew about was that the police were (maybe) investigating this prank phone call. I had no idea that they thought I might have something to do with it. I figured that they wanted to ask me if I knew who had done it, which I absolutely didn’t. Instead, I was grilled by Sgt. Fitzsimmons the instant I sat down in her office.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: Where were you on the night of September 12th?
Me: I have no idea.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: Why not?
Me: It was several weeks ago, and my friends and I go to a lot of different places on the weekends.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: Why don’t you take a guess?
Me: I couldn’t say. A house party, probably?
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: Where?
Me: The East side of campus. I can’t be more sure than that.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: I heard you were at an apartment party just off of Lincoln Avenue.
Me: Oh, you know, that does ring a bell. Ok, so I was there.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: So now you’re changing your story. Why didn’t you tell me to begin with? Why wouldn’t you want me to know that piece of information, Greg?
This was pretty much how the entire interview went. She’d try to get me to remember things I didn’t remember, ask me to guess, then confront me with what really happened and accuse me of lying.
As it turns out, I was at that party. With Cindy. We met a couple of friends we knew from high school, and I walked all of them home, stopping to get high with them in a park along the way. Within minutes, Sgt. Fitzsimmons had taken my timeline and determined that there was a 15 to 30 minute gap in it, because I didn’t want to tell her that we’d been getting high so I left that part out.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: So what were you doing during that time, Greg?
Me: I don’t know. I don’t have a watch, and I didn’t go looking for a clock once that entire evening. I gave you rough estimates of times, and you created this… gap. That gap probably doesn’t exist.
Sgt. Fitzsimmons: The gap doesn’t exist? I’m confused. First you don’t remember where you were that night, but now you know what you did down to the minute? Are you sure you didn’t use that time to make a phone call? To Cindy’s parents?
It went on and on like this. I never thought to get a lawyer because I hadn’t done anything wrong (well, except for all the pot smoking and underage drinking). She asked if I’d be willing to take a lie detector test.
“Yes, but you and I both know that it won’t tell you anything useful. They’re not admissible in court for a reason.”
I was then allowed to go home. I felt fucking awful, although I didn’t really know why. Shack and Kos, seeing me open my door, asked me where I had been and I filled them in. “Why are you upset, dude? You didn’t do anything! I’d be fucking furious! I’d light that bitch up if she tried some of that shit on me!”
My phone rang just then, and I ran across the hall to answer it.
“Hi Greg, it’s Sgt. Fitzsimmons again. I thought that since you’ve had some time to think about our discussion, and some time to deal with… I don’t know… let’s call it guilt that you might have over the whole thing, that you might want to amend your statement.”
“Look, what’s important is that you get in front of this thing. If you come clean and help us with our investigation, we can go to bat for you. We all make mistakes, you and I both know that. I’d very much like to help you correct the mistake that you made.”
“I DIDN’T DO IT, AND IF YOU WANT TO TALK TO ME YOU HAD BETTER ARREST ME, BECAUSE I WILL NOT TALK TO YOU AGAIN.”
“We can arrest you, Greg. We can do that.”
“NOT WITHOUT PROOF, AND I KNOW YOU HAVE NONE BECAUSE I DIDN’T DO IT. I WILL SUE YOUR ASS FOR WRONGFUL ARREST!”
“I’m sorry you feel that way…”
“I WILL EXPECT YOUR CALL TO APOLOGIZE TO ME WHEN YOU FIND THE ASSHOLE THAT REALLY DID THIS,” I screamed into the phone, and then I hung up.
Shack and Kos exploded.”FUCK YEAH!” A matador party was had.
Months later, a cop (not Sgt. Fitzsimmons) called to inform me that I had been cleared of all charges.
“I was never charged with a crime.”
“Oh, well, you’ve been ruled out as a suspect.”
“You can imagine my relief. Anything else?”
“No. Have a nice day, sir.”
Something about that experience freaked me out. I’d been in worse jams before, situations where I was extremely guilty and on the verge of being tossed in the pokey, but somehow this was different. I felt, for the first time in my life, exposed. Being on your own is a lot scarier than you think when you’re a teenager.
All of this flashes through my mind in an instant when my son talks with uncertainly about college. “Who will make me waffles, daddy?”
“Buddy, I will always be there to make you waffles.”