I showed up drunk for my first day of college. I showed up barely coherent, waving like a buoy, reeking like a bad sock that had been bathed in turpentine.
After 18 years spent sweating it out in Delaware County, just waiting for the moment when I could break out, bust out, explode across the cosmos, there I sat, half-baked on a set of bleachers, hunkered deep inside a low-budget gym, watching some dude named Bird lead a “WE ARE …” chant as he charged across mid-court, unfurling an industrial-sized banner.
I was there to be acclimated, indoctrinated, to pledge allegiance to the drag. Only I had no interest in being acclimated, or indoctrinated, or even cheering on some dude named Bird. In fact, the only thing I did have interest in at that particular moment was sleep … sleep, and the fleeting hope that when I awoke, all of this would somehow vanish, clearing a path for me to continue along my way.
Delaware County, by and large, is not a place where fertile dreams are given to seed.
All of which explains why I’d spent the bulk of that past summer running …running as fast as I could, praying that something – anything, really – might come along and lift me out of said funk. I was young, and I was poor, and I was devoid of any means or transportation, which meant the furthest I could go was a close friend’s beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey, where there was enough free liquor to see me through until September.
The night before orientation I wound up at a friend’s house well past 2 AM, drunkenly begging his older sister to give me a ride out to the turnpike, where I planned on hitchhiking directly across the Pennsylvania line. Was I a bit over the moon with drama? Yes, I was a bit over the moon with drama. But I was also deadly serious. In fact, I’d go say I was about as serious as any 17-year old with a belly full of Johnnie Walker is capable of being.
In the end, my midnight ride to freedom would never come to pass. Instead, I simply drank my way till morning, at which point I wandered over to my parent’s house, where my mother stood in wait to drop me off at the local campus. I hadn’t slept, or shaved, or showered in two days. I had an orange film smeared all over my jeans. I was the walking embodiment of every emotion that I felt.
I was vile, and I was me.
Within weeks of orientation, I fell in with a small group of burnouts whose lack of interest was on par with mine. Every morning, the lot of us would make our way out to campus, ditch class, wander over to the Commons Building, and bounce between the cafeteria and the gym, panhandling loose change until we’d accumulated enough to afford a case of beer.
The defining moment of my freshman year occurred during the height of February. Driving cold had forced the student body indoors, and a small group of us spent our afternoons watching movies in the library.
One morning, I arrived on campus earlier than usual, hungover and unkempt. I headed to the library and commandeered the audio-visual room, where I laid down to take a nap. Penn State’s audio-visual rooms ran uncharacteristically warm back in those days, warm and quiet to the extent one could drift into a sleep with little regard for the surroundings.
When I came to – face down in a pile of denim – I could hear voices, rhetorical voices, the kind of voices that are generally associated with long speeches. My eyes were shut, but my bearings were intact, which is how I knew I was still lying in the center of the AV room. I rolled over, interrupting a class lecture. A dozen or more students sat huddled around me in a horseshoe curve. A lone moderator stood at the fore. I sat up. I gathered my belongings. I made a beeline for the door.
A week after the spring semester ended, the long-standing battle between my father and I reached a crescendo. We were fighting almost daily – loud and vile, tooth and bone. It was during one of these arguments, at a point when the two of us very nearly came to blows, that my father opened the front door and invited me to leave. And so I did … just not until the following morning.
I left a long, rambling letter in my bedroom, placing the brunt of the ordeal on me. This was my father’s roof, I reasoned. And so long as I was living under it, I had no jurisdiction to dispute what he was saying. Only I did dispute it, almost all of it, actually, even those few, spare points on which I knew he was correct. I disputed those points on principle, you see, because – at the time – it felt like my parents were robbing me of any opportunity to make decisions.
So I struck out, skipped town, decided to make a go of it on my own. This was a good move, the right move, a move I should have made after I graduated high school. The only thing that held me back was fear – fear of failure, fear of my father, fear of ignorance, fear of working papers, fear of being out there, on the road, alone, without proper means or understanding, fear of all the cautionary tales I’d been fed over the years, fear of how cold and cruel and stark-raving mad the world at large was. It was a fear that had been instilled in me since birth, reinforced by my parents and peers and teachers and priests, all of whom assumed it was their duty to protect me.
Protect me by projecting all their bullshit down the line.
One night in May of 1992, I wound up sleeping alongside a set of railroad tracks, using an Acme bag as my bedroll. I remember lying there in the brush, stubborn weeds poking my side. I remember thinking if I could just lay low until the break of day, I might be able to keep walking without substantial risk of being arrested, molested or robbed. I also remember looking up into the stars, thinking I was about to enter yet another weird life stage – the first in which I might be able to dictate my own choices. I remember thinking that the most liberating thing about entering any new stage in life, whether it be a new relationship, a new job, a change of address, or even school transfer, is that one has the opportunity to start over; wipe the board clean, erase all of the tags people have forced down over the years.
The goal, so far as I could tell, was to gather momentum, not moss.
For 18 years I had been doing things the opposite way around.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)