The last week of summer finally arrived as it always did, and with some reluctance but also some excitement I left my hometown of Ann Arbor, the place where most of the developmental events of my life had occurred, the Tuesday after Labor Day in September of 1972 to head off to college. The Munich Olympics were underway and the initial killing of two members of the Israeli Olympic team and kidnapping of nine others by PLO gunmen, the beginning of the “Munich Massacre” had just occurred, though we were not aware of that yet!
I still was feeling a great deal of ambivalence about my choice to go off to school ninety miles west at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo rather than at my hometown University of Michigan, in whose university medical center I had been born, where my parents were both Alumni, and my little family had been part of the extended University academic community for as long as I could remember. My stated reason for choosing WMU was that I was planning on being a theater major and I had been told they had a better theater program than UofM. But at some deeper level that I don’t know if I could really articulate I had a strong sense that I had to leave my Ann Arbor nest to best proceed with my further development. The thought of leaving my hometown did give me a discomforting sense of aloneness, but also a more positive sense that I was somehow doing at least something (if not perhaps the best thing) to push forward developmentally with my life.
Toward either option I did not really have a very thought out course for my own development over the next three or four years. I did have a plan of sorts to accompany my friends Lane and Angie backpacking through Europe next fall of 1973, after the two of them graduated from high school. It was something the two of them had discussed doing together and I had asked to join them. But in terms of what I would do with a degree in theater, I really had no idea. If I had been honest with myself and others, I did not even want to think about it at this point, having only finally gotten some equilibrium in my life in the past two years after a debilitating experience in junior high prior to that.
Certainly going to college was the conventional expectation that a middle class community, particularly in my very academically oriented university hometown, had for their progeny immediately upon their completion of high school. Twelve straight years of mandatory schooling, that I had been subjected to, had been bureaucratically designed by the state of Michigan to prepare me, at least academically, for this moment. To the extent that it had diminished me in other key ways in its single minded goal, was beyond society’s current awareness. But the path of least resistance was to head off to college after graduating high school, and rather than buck that and draw attention to myself, I might as well head off to college and see what happened. I had gotten a financial need grant that paid for most of it, so I and my family had little at stake really.
My mom and brother accompanied me on the drive to Western. The trunk was packed with clothes, linens and personal items to see me through my first year. I recall it as one of those breezy early September days, where after a hot summer that first hint of chill in the air reminded you that the academic year was starting and as Rod Stewart sang in his song “Maggie May”, “I really should be back in school.” In the car, the two of them were excited and chatty, but with every mile we drove down I-94 a fuller sense of leaving the nest and being on my own enveloped me.
I was separating myself from my little family, and though I would miss what had become a close connection with my younger brother, I was happy at this point to put some distance between myself and my mom. Her life seemed to be a constant narrative of angst and drama, trying to find herself and a new life partner, since my dad had been such a disappointment in that area as she would remind me when she vented to me about stuff. Though I was accepting her finally as a fellow comrade in life’s struggles and not some parental authority I needed to rebel against, still her issues were annoying me and overshadowing thighs as I wrestled with my own.
I was also detaching from both the hive minds of my wargaming buddies and my JLO youth theater group that had been such a crucial part of my life and my development for the past two years. It was only six weeks ago when I had been singing on stage before an audience in the last of JLO’s four summer musicals as part of Michael Harrah’s last hurrah leading the company before he transitioned the group into the performing arts department of Ann Arbor’s new Community High School. It had been just two short days since I had had my last late night session playing one more game of Stalingrad III with Jerry, Avi and Max in Avi’s basement.
While still in range, I tuned the car radio to the Detroit rock station WABX. Soon after the freeway onramp plunged me into the first moments of my new life, the first guitar intro of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s song , “From the Beginning”, began to play. Greg Lake, doing his stint as my Greek chorus sang to me from the dashboard…
There might have been things I missed
But don’t be unkind
It don’t mean I’m blind
Perhaps there’s a thing or two
I think of lying in bed
I shouldn’t have said
But there it is
Maybe I might have changed
And not been so cruel
Not been such a fool
Whatever was done is done
I just can’t recall
It doesn’t matter at all
You see, it’s all clear
You were meant to be here
From the beginning
Despite my family in the car, my so total sense of aloneness at this moment had me in a very inner focused and self reflective place. It was a song presumably about lessons learned in the aftermath of a failed romantic relationship. I had certainly had potential romantic relationships with several great young women that had failed because I was never really willing to let them get started, and bailed out of fear at that crucial start juncture. The lyrics stung. There might have been things I missed. There were definitely things I wish I’d said and ways I might have changed. I pondered all that as I drove the car down the freeway into the morning sky.
But given there was no “you” in my life at this point, that last stanza became songwriter Greg Lake speaking to me that I was somehow meant to be here at this moment, on this freeway, detaching myself from my nest, my family, my friends, my larger community, and flinging myself into a future, an uncertain deep end in a little known (at least by me) new venue for my continuing development.
We arrived at our destination later that morning, with classes scheduled to start the next day. My assigned dorm, Harvey Hall, was on the very north extreme of campus in a shallow valley which was referred to in fact as “the Valley”. It was one of twelve six-story dorms arranged in three side by side four-dorm complexes, each complex sharing cafeteria, laundry and recreation facilities, and housing perhaps some 800 students each. In my complex, male students resided in Harvey and Garneau and female students in Eicher and Lefevre. These complexes were pretty state of the art for 1972 college dormitories, including bathrooms with two showers shared by two two-person dorm rooms and a cafeteria open continuously from 7am to 6pm, where we could eat as often during the day and as much as we wanted. Given all that, the dorm rooms themselves were pretty utilitarian, with institutional vinyl floors, a side of the room with built in closets, desk tops and drawers, large windows on the wall opposite the door, and two narrow beds that could be combined as bunk beds if the two roommates so decided.
After checking in and presenting my paperwork, we were escorted up to my room by Denny, an older student who was the RA (resident advisor) for my floor, who looked like a character from a Beach Boys song with his short curly blonde hair, tanned white freckled face with blue eyes, and preppy sweater and khaki slacks. I on the other hand had a mop of long brown curly hair over a somewhat swarthier white face with hazel eyes and wearing my usual tee-shirt and flared blue jeans. Denny took me down the hall and introduced me to any of my fellow “hall mates” who had already arrived. They were mostly waspy white kids like me, many seemed to be from the Detroit suburbs.
My mom did her usual gregarious chatty a little flirty sort of charismatic thing that she did with people she met, and I was a bit embarrassed, but Denny was gracious and actually seemed to enjoy the attention from my mom, who I knew from experience could charm just about anybody. My family stayed for lunch in the cafeteria, gave hugs, a kiss from my mom on the cheek followed by a thumb wiping off the lipstick, and then departed back to Ann Arbor, leaving me to my adventure.
My roommate, who arrived later that day, was a fellow new to school freshman named Ezell, who introduced himself as “Ease” and who happened to be black. For all the cosmopolitan nature of the university town I grew up in, my parents progressive political beliefs, my attendance at a high school that was maybe 15% black, and several high school comrades in my theater group who were black, this was the first time I had ever slept in the same room with a person of color.
If there was any ice to be broken, it was mostly done so that first evening. One of Ease’s hometown friends stopped by after dinner, also black, and produced a marijuana joint, and offered to share it. I had had comrades in my high school theater group who had smoked weed and done other pharmaceutical drugs like quaaludes and mescaline, but though several times offered to me I had to date always declined. But I had also always been intrigued by marijuana in particular as it had been bandied around in popular music and popular culture, and in this situation, where it felt kind of weird and rude to refuse, and an interesting adventure to accept.
My first response was to share that I never had had any before. Ease smiled and laughed and said that was cool, but did I mind if they smoked. Though Marijuana was illegal, it was also kind of part of the hippy culture which was in vogue at the time. Even adults who had never smoked joked about getting high like they would joke about getting drunk. I knew several of my peers in my theater group who would sneak off during a break in rehearsals and find some off the beaten path corner to smoke some.
I said I didn’t mind and about halfway through the two of them passing the joint back and forth taking tokes off of it, one of them offered it to me. I followed their example and sucked the hot smoke into my lungs as the dried leaves crackled. I did the typical round of coughing after inhaling and both of them laughed. They told me not to expect to get high the first time, that was the weird way it worked. Well I felt a little something, but the two of them got very stoned and quite silly.
I could see the close relationship between the two of them as they did every stereotypical stupid thing people do when they’re stoned, and then both laugh uproariously at themselves and each other. They were obviously overdoing it, hamming it up for each other or maybe for me. They were infectious and I started laughing with them as they put on their show of sorts. Ease had brought a black light with him, and now that it was evening he turned other lights off in the room and switched on the black light. It caused the white letters on my otherwise dark tee-shirt to glow, plus a couple black light posters he had put up on the wall earlier. This generated another round of “oh wows” and giggles. Ease’s friend noted that when Ease smiled the whites of his eyes and white teeth glowed like some demon. Ease then proceeded to stagger around the room like a zombie, grinning ghoulishly which evoked mock fear from his friend who kept saying “stop it, stop it” but seemed to love every minute of the silliness.
After several hours of this and a late night expedition to the candy machines downstairs, Ease’s friend headed out, Ease crawled into bed and passed out himself, and I lay in mine still awake and pondering this wild day where I had turned my life upside down and actually smoked marijuana for the first time, though with little result as Ease had predicted.
The next day classes started, and mine turned out to all be clear on the other side of campus, about a mile from my dorm, but an easy walk for a trained Ann Arbor pedestrian. They were three required general studies classes plus Russian and Introduction to Theater, which was my intended major. Other than Russian, my classes were pretty unmemorable. Large “cattle classes” in big lecture halls with the teacher up at the front lecturing. I do remember reading two provocative books, Walden II and The Catcher in the Rye for my Freshman Reading class.
Having read the big dystopian classics, 1984, Brave New World and Animal Farm, Walden II was my first encounter with positive utopian fiction. The author, B.F. Skinner, was a particularly big deal on campus because Western was noted for their behavioral psychology department, and the legendary “Psych 101” class where the students were supposedly taught psychology just like lab rats are taught by positive reinforcement. But Skinner’s utopian vision, including a society with a standard four-hour work day, stuck with me.
The Catcher in the Rye also stuck with me, and particularly its shy protagonist Holden Caulfield with whom I identified to a large degree. He seemed to be wrestling with the basic coming of age quandary of who am I and what am I doing here with a sensibility that I resonated with. He was a virgin like me. He had a kind of innocence that maybe I had too but did not like to admit. In the end he was ultimately successful in framing his life, something I guess I longed to do as well, but was nowhere close to accomplishing. But at least Salinger’s story gave me some hope that it was possible and my answers might be out there somewhere in my future if I could just keep pushing myself forward into it.
My Russian class was the exception, because it was small, maybe just ten students, and our teacher was an elderly Russian woman who got to know each of us and treated us like family, like she was our great aunt of something. Outside of her class and my dorm, where I was getting to know my floormates, the rest of my activities seemed pretty anonymous, walking to classes amongst thousands of other students, and even sitting in my classes amongst a couple hundred strangers. It all felt more like what I was supposed to be doing than what I really wanted to do, but as I noted in the previous paragraph, it was all about keeping pushing myself forward, with the hope of something profound still beyond the horizon.
The most compelling part of my fall curriculum continued to be what I did outside of my classes. I had the occasion to meet and interact with a number of my new peers, and aided by alcohol or marijuana, I got glimpses of the inner workings of their psyches. I also got involved in the fall musical theater production and found a new and vibrant thespian community like the JLO group I had left behind in Ann Arbor.
Maybe inspired by our gregarious RA plus most people leaving their room doors open (except when they were smoking marijuana), we had a fairly social dorm floor, giving me opportunities to interact with and get to know most of my floormates. Most were like me living away from home for the first time. Unlike me, few of them seemed to have experienced much liberty during their high school years, so dorm life felt like a jail break from controlling parents and uninteresting suburban communities. Since the drinking age in my home state of Michigan was 18 at the time, and marijuana was technically illegal but ubiquitous as well, my floor was awash with alcohol (mostly beer and cheap wine like Boones Farm) and weed.
The coveted conventional privilege of adulthood was the freedom to drink, and drink to excess if desired. What I had not witnessed before was how access to and use of these recreational intoxicants seemed to play the central role in breaking down barriers and building community. The generally accepted protocol was that if you had alcohol or marijuana you shared it, and once you’d had a couple drinks or shared a joint you were expected to get a bit silly or stupid and that was okay, even desirable. Drinking to excess and getting obviously drunk was even acceptable behaviour, and your fellow drinkers became responsible for looking after you and getting you back to your dorm room. It was actually like those “trust exercises” where you are supposed to fall backwards and everyone else is supposed to catch you. Then the next day some of your fellow drinkers would appear at your doorway to comment on how drunk you were last night and the community building would continue anew.
Among my high school circles community had been built around different sorts of shared activities, in my case either work on theater productions or playing big complicated board games together. For my mom and her circles it was either politics, social issues or the gossip and shop talk of the university academic world. But among my dorm floormates we did not talk about any of that stuff or even about what we were studying. The one social glue was alcohol. Not that alcohol was not served and imbibed in my mom’s social circles and did its function of encouraging people to engage each other and be more genuine, but it was a rare occasion when someone ever got visibly drunk.
Having plenty of access to both intoxicants, I gravitated more to marijuana than alcohol. After that first time, I found it was a more profound effect than that of alcohol, and was my first experience with a truly altered state of consciousness. The effect of it on me (and most of my fellow smokers) was to suppress the rational linear part of the brain and enhance the creative non-linear part. Generally involving sharing a joint or a pipe among a circle of participants, and its associations with the hippy counter-culture, there was a certain communal aspect of it that I really gravitated to. At a college party most everybody drank alcohol, but it was a self-select few who would adjourn to a secluded spot, maybe just outside the party venue, to pass a joint or a pipe around, and for the rest of the event there would be a kinship between that small circle. Even the non-weed smoking drinkers laughingly put up with us “stoners”.
Also being illegal (though not enforced by any of the dorm staff I was aware of), added to its luster in my way of thinking. Where alcohol was clearly the main recreational intoxicant of the established older generation, marijuana seemed like the emerging social lubricant of my own. Its general disapproval by that older generation, or at least their laws, made smoking it a sort of socio-political statement that my generation was going to chart its own course, a significantly if not profoundly different one than our parents and their peers.
After just a couple uncomfortable instances, I quickly learned that I did not want to get high before a class or a play rehearsal, or any other activity where I had to think and respond rationally and carefully track and process what others were saying to me. But before watching a movie or TV show, or listening to music, particularly live music, it heightened the experience to a level that I found transformative. It seemed to juice the creative part of my brain, though most of the great ideas I had while stoned, if I remembered them at all later when I got sober, seemed kind of silly, stupid or obvious.
The first concert I went to stoned was the J. Geils’ Band playing their Full House show at Western’s basketball arena, with Motown artist Junior Walker & the Allstars as the opening act. My roommate Ease had got the tickets, and it was a group of four or five of us. Ease also had plenty of weed which we smoked as clandestinely as we could outside the arena waiting to file into the concert, so by the time we took our seats we were “seriously fucked up” as Ease would say. Marijuana had a way of shutting down the parts of my mind that managed my experience of time and any distracting thoughts about the past or the future, allowing a hyper focus on the here and now without those usual filters. If I hadn’t been stoned I think I still would have enjoyed the concert, but “seriously fucked up” it was awesome, like nothing I had experienced before.
The four-hour concert was my “Rhythm & Blues 101”, beginning with Junior Walker’s tight buttoned-down band and his familiar Motown saxaphone sound. I had played the saxaphone myself in junior high, but this was the first time I had experienced a really skilled player live. Their set concluded with their biggest hit “Shotgun”.
J. Geils and company were way more over the top in their performance, a bunch of twenty-something white guys’ manic Detroit-inspired interpretation of the black R&B idiom, leaving every ounce of their sweat and vocal chords on the stage. Their nearly two-and-a-half hour set was gritty, at times raunchy and always high energy, laced with classic tropes of R&B music, including twelve-bar blues, vocal and instrumental call and response, gibberish lyrics, dueling guitar, keyboard and harmonica solos and pounding honky tonk piano. My psyche was ravished by the music, and if one can be said to have a musical “virginity”, then I lost mine that night.
We all yelled and screamed so much at all the right places that I was hoarse by the end of their show. Like in the middle of “Hard Driving Man” when lead singer Peter Wolf queried his audience and did his call out to the band’s Detroit musical roots…
You heard of the boogaloo?
You heard of the Boston monkey?
You heard of the Philly freeze?…
We got the Detroit demolition here for ya tonight
A lot of my fellow students were from the greater Detroit area, but even beyond that, everything hip or cool about Michigan came out of the Motor City.
Their lyrics to “Homework” also got a huge affirmative response from the crowd…
I might be a fool wastin my time bout goin ta school
The way you love me love me so
I can’t do my homework anymore
Oh baby you got me so blind
I’m walkin round in circles bout ta lose my mind
The way you love me, love me so
I can’t do my homework anymore
I could tell that my “docent” Ease was pleased that his white boy roommate had gotten so into the show. Unfortunately he did not make it through the first semester. At the drop deadline he let me know that he would be leaving Western and go back to live at home and take classes at community college. Not sure whether it was for financial or academic reasons.
It was about a month after the concert that I saw George McGovern speak at that same venue to a similarly big crowd of students. The 26th amendment had been ratified and had gone into effect on July 1 1971, so for the first time eighteen to twenty-year-olds were able to vote. The liberal McGovern told us he was counting on newly enfranchised college students around the country to get out and vote and help him overcome his disadvantage in the polls and help him challenge the incumbent President Nixon. I unfortunately was still 17 and would not be able to vote for President for another four years. I considered joining the campus effort for McGovern, but was too busy between the work for my classes and nearly daily rehearsals for the theater production I was in.
Soon after my arrival on campus I tried out for the fall musical, Western’s production of Frank Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella. I bravely walked into the huge theater for the tryouts not really knowing anybody, but trusting at some level that these would be people, like my JLO comrades, that I would quickly find a close connection with. I tried out for the chorus and to be one of the subset of dancing chorus members. I was not too uncomfortable when I ascended the stage when called and sang some musical standard that the piano player knew to demonstrate that I could carry and even belt out a tune. I stumbled through the dance tryout but was reasonably proficient at doing the steps we had to quickly learn. I even scraped up the chutzpah to read for one of the leads, Herman, and did well enough in that reading to be considered for the part. But when asked to sing his big number, “Standing on the Corner” (watching all the girls go by), I did so in my baritone voice. But the song was meant to be sung by a tenor an octave higher, which I tried but could not do. Later that day they posted the castings outside the theater and I was on the list for dancing chorus.
Rehearsals started the next evening. The dancing chorus involved pairing up the males and females that would be working pretty intimately together throughout rehearsals and performances of the show. It was generally I believe done by height and how the couple looked and danced together. It was like a group arranged marriage of sorts, you were assigned your partner who you would be collaborating with closely including close physical proximity throughout the play. This included dance numbers where you were hanging on to each other or even in some cases pressed against each other very intimately. Also the possibility in dress rehearsals and performances of some quick costume changes backstage together where modesty had to take a back seat to speed. Chorus partners tended to hang out with each other or at least be generally aware of where the other was should you be quickly called up to rehearse a particular musical number.
At six feet, I was one of the taller and more athletic of the male dancers so I was paired with Rita, who was just a couple inches shorter than I and broad shouldered and athletic as well. She was a sophomore, so probably two years older than I, and was smart, witty, and commanded a room with her charisma as gregarious as I was shy. Partnered in numerous dance and scene rehearsals, we quickly developed an easy chemistry between us as I managed to elevate my personality (like playing a role really) to be a good foil and straight man for her barbs and jokes. A successful musical production is all about pace, energy and enthusiasm, with the dancing chorus playing a critical role in establishing each of those qualities, and Rita and I both threw ourselves into our stage personas, partnership and performance. In the informal dynamic between the eight dancing couples in rehearsals, she and I became pretty much the alpha pair, basically because Rita would generally be the first in any situation to speak her mind or crack a joke at just the right moment to make everyone laugh and relax. Rita had star quality and I obviously loved getting to be her partner, at least for the course of the production.
I don’t know of any other experience in life quite the same as being in the chorus of a big musical, singing and dancing in unison, and projecting all that cohesive group energy out to a big appreciative audience. Not having an individual character to portray within the narrative of the show’s story, you can subsume your own ego and totally immerse yourself in the infectious “hive mind” of the ensemble, selling the show’s themes eagerly and unapologetically to that audience. I learned that a good choreographer, which we definitely had for this show, tailors the dance routines to the chorus members’ skill level, not quite so difficult to learn so that they can be executed in performance from muscle memory and not distract the ensemble in the least from their laser-like energetic focus selling each song and the entire show to the audience.
The big showstopper chorus number in the show was “Big D”, sung by leads Herman and Cleo in duet with the entire chorus and featuring our dancing chorus. Ironically, the number had nothing really to do with the plot of the show, which is about a classic American tale of a cross-cultural romance between an older man and a younger woman as white settlers move into the Napa Valley in California. But it gave the show’s second act a big jolt, where typically a lot of musicals bog down after intermission as they try to tie up all the loose ends of the plot.
I was pleased that my mom, my brother and several of my JLO theater buddies from Ann Arbor took the hour and a half drive their and back to see the show. It felt good to feel still connected to Ann Arbor and my hometown comrades. Though I was not a lead in this show like I had been in many of the JLO shows the previous year, I still felt like a featured player of significance in the dancing chorus, perhaps momentarily a smaller fish but in a bigger pond.
A lasting regret of the experience was that I never let a romantic relationship get going between myself and Rita, given all the good chemistry between the two of us. It was my damned timidness again, making me feel like I was not worthy somehow of my older and more worldly dance partner. Given the “guys make the first move” protocol of conventional romantic relationships, Rita tried whatever she could to set the scene for us to kiss. I remember during one dress rehearsal we were back stage together, having both just quickly
changed costumes and having seen each others bodies in just our underwear for the first time, that Rita sort of theatrically swooned to lie on a table looking up at me. Our eyes met and she cracked her signature grin as she stared into my eyes. In any romantic narrative the next cue was mine to lean over and kiss her on the lps, but I balked, thinking that maybe I would be ready the next time the stars were in alignment like they were in this moment. I think after that moment she got what she thought was the message that we would be only comrades and friends, and not something more.
The show ended and we did not have any other occasion for our paths to cross. It would be sometime later at the end of the year that we would have an encounter where I said jokingly to her, “Rita you turn me on!” and she replied with a flip quip something I recall akin to “Yeah right!” At that moment I felt the full realization and pain of a missed opportunity earlier that year to have what would have been perhaps a wild and joyful ride with a smart and vivacious partner and the loss of my virginity.
The first occasion I decided to come home was the weekend before Halloween. One of my classmates, whose family lived in the Detroit area (like many of my peers I had met at school), suggested that we hitchhike together. He said he had done it a couple times already and it had worked pretty well. I had never done it, and on my own might have had misgivings and second thoughts about it, worrying what strange person might pick me up. But my classmate seemed confident and I somehow was in a different place than I had been even several months ago before I drove off to a new city on my own and decided to venture into the world of smoking marijuana.
We met early Saturday morning outside his dorm and walked down to Oakland Drive on the east side of campus, stood by the side of the road and stuck our thumbs out to catch the attention of passing cars. I being the newbie in this mode of transport followed my comrades’ lead. Soon a car slowed down and pulled over just ahead of us. The back door on the passenger’s side swung open inviting us to enter. I followed my comrade as he piled into the back seat of big old beat up sedan. Last in and going with the flow at this point, I shut the door behind me before I even surveyed the car’s other passengers and it took off down the street. The guy driving the car and his three buddies looked to be my age, still in halloween costumes and face makeup from what must have been a party the previous night that they were just now coming home from, and were laughing and joking with each other. The driver turned to us briefly as he drove up the road and grinned with a look acknowledging that we were probably pretty surprised and asked where we were heading.
My comrade told him we were headed to the freeway to hitch home to Detroit and Ann Arbor. The driver said something to the effect of “that sounds like fun” like my comrade had just set their destination for the day as well, and the four of them laughed as he drove down the nearly empty road. As they continued to chatter about the party and we noticed our driver weaving a bit on the road it began to dawn on us that our four hosts were still at least somewhat drunk, and my comrade and I started with the furtive glances at each other. Luckily for us our driver pulled into a liquor store parking lot apparently to buy more alcohol for the day’s emerging adventure and they all exited the car eager to provision themselves. My classmate and I took the opportunity to get out ourselves and followed them into the store where they purchased quarts of malt liquor and a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine. When they had paid for their purchases my classmate talked to the driver and thanked him for the ride but convinced him that we’d continue on our own without them. Our driver shook his head and grinned again, tacitly acknowledging the situation, and the four of them piled back into his car and headed off down the road without us.
Now we were thumbing on the sidewalk outside the liquor store for about five minutes when a police car came by us going the other direction executed a sharp u turn in the road, tires screeching, and pulled up by the two of us with the two officers immediately exiting their car and approaching us. I felt at this point like I had left my own life and was witnessing someone elses and I suddenly wondered what I might not know about my classmate. The officers asked us for our IDs and we each gave them our drivers licenses, which they studied for several minutes before returning them to us. They apologized and said that my classmate was not but looked a lot like a kid they were looking for, and they quickly climbed back in their car and speeded off.
As we put our thumbs out again I was certainly tempted at that point to bail on this entire enterprise when another car pulled over. This time my classmate talked to the driver before we got in his opened passenger door. Our host seemed sober and normal and said he could take us down to the freeway onramp. We got in and had a thankfully uneventful ride and he let us out after crossing the freeway overpass by the onramp to the eastbound I-94.
We walked down the side of the onramp and stationed ourselves just beyond it on the shoulder so that both cars already on the freeway or coming down that onramp could see us and stop. In the crisp sunny morning air we stood for about ten minutes with thumbs extended gauging and commenting on each car as it approached for its likelihood to be the one that would pick us up. And it was a VW Bug coming down the freeway, a high likelihood we both agreed, that slowed and pulled over just beyond us. The driver was a young man maybe a year or two older than my comrade and I who was driving into Detroit but also was familiar with Ann Arbor and offered to take both of us to our final destinations. We gratefully agreed and I got in the front passenger seat and my classmate in the back.
After a few minutes of conversation established that we were college students and pretty open minded about stuff our driver opened his ashtray which revealed a very small hand rolled cigarette, presumably marijuana, and asked if I wanted to light it up. I took another quick furtive glance at my classmate in the back who indicated affirmatively with his eyes (he and I were practically telepathic by now). I took the joint and the driver’s lighter, and as Ease had taught me, lit the end on fire, blew it out then sucked on the other end allowing it to burn down evenly on the lit side. I passed the thing to my comrade in the back who took his toke and passed it to our host and driver who took a big hit as well, noting that it was “Acapulco Gold”, which I understood to be high quality stuff.
It took just maybe four go-rounds before the joint was burned down to almost nothing. I had learned the protocol on this situation from Ease as well, asking the driver if he had a roach clip. He pointed to the glove compartment which I opened revealing a little plastic sandwich bag with what I judged to be about a quarter of an ounce of loose marijuana in it, more yellowish brown I noticed than the greener “shit” (as Ease liked calling weed) that Ease had had, and the requested metal clip. I had witnessed my former roommate buy pot several times from his friend/supplier and now knew what the various amounts looked like: ounce, half ounce, quarter. I attached the small roach to the clip and held it within an eighth of an inch of my pursed lips and sucked in air gingerly to get the last bits to burn.
As he continued down the I-94 freeway east toward Ann Arbor and Detroit, and gratefully our driver continued to pilot the car successfully though buzzed, the three of us now high talked about all sorts of stuff, including things you might normally censor when you were sober. Music, movies, the best weed we had smoked, the color of the sky. There seemed to be no self-censoring plus no rebuke of what others might say. Just volunteering what moved you and then listening thoughtfully to what moved your comrade. Very much what decades later would be labeled “nonviolent communication”. It seemed forever before our host noticed the first Ann Arbor exit. With my directions our driver exited the Freeway at State Street and drove me to the door of my house. I thanked him for the ride and the great weed and wished my classmate well, we had certainly had an adventure together, which in retrospect could have gone very badly but somehow had not. The two of them drove off, leaving me out in front of my house.
Still pretty stoned, I looked around me at all the familiar sights of our street. Our front patio and the brick facade of our house with its multiple eaves and casement windows. The maple trees above now just bare branches reaching for the sky. Our various neighbors’ houses on down the street in one direction and the park spreading out in the other with young kids shouting and playing basketball at the court. Though all part of the familiar environ I had lived in for the past seven years, in my current altered state it all looked so foreign in a way, like I was seeing it for the first time, and perceiving it with an intense focus that had previously not been available to me.
I was gun shy to unlock the front door and enter the house, should I encounter my brother or my mom in my current state. But the car was not in the driveway and when I entered the front hallway and called hello there was no answer. Just our female cat Ra looking at me a bit quizzically but knowingly from her perch up on top of the pie cabinet. The anxiety of a human encounter lifted, I felt a rush of excitement in being in this very familiar place in such an unfamiliar state of awareness.
I focused in turn on each piece of furniture in our living room and sitting room, experiencing the color, the shape, topography, surface “patina” (my mom’s word), and the “negative space”, my mother’s term for the space around or between shapes in a painting or objects in three dimensions. In this context they were all beautiful pieces of work that held their little chunk of space well. Then her paintings on the wall read like windows into her consciousness. Not just the big abstract ones, but even the very realistic pastel of a pewter pitcher.
I walked up the stairs, my hand feeling the cold smooth wrought iron banister then around the corner to the upstairs hallway. I entered each of the three bedrooms, experiencing the spaces and each room’s array of familiar yet needing to be looked at again set of objects. In my own room I got the urge to open up my Avalon Hill military simulation games and look at the game board maps of Europe or the U.S. I felt completely outside of time, hyper focusing on each thing in turn. I finally ended up in the bathroom across from my bedroom staring at my own visage in the mirror, strange as it now seemed. Perhaps an hour passed as my state of awareness returned to a more normal perspective, and I heard my mom and brother entering the front door downstairs.
More prepared now to interact with other humans, I came down the stairs and we greeted each other and my mom gave me a big hug and a kiss. We sat at the round table in the living room and they both happily peppered me with questions about school, which I was equally happy to answer, enjoying being the center of their attention with none of my mom’s usual steal the spotlight drama. Though I shared with them a lot about my classes, my dorm, the campus and the play I’d sung and danced in, I ventured nothing about the details of hitchhiking, my profound encounters with and on marijuana, and nothing about Rita.
But at some deeper level I was pleased with myself that I had been willing to immerse myself in a new place, with new people, and new developmental challenges including new recreational intoxicants, and was back home in one piece and able to confidently talk about at least some of my experience. Having had this mostly positive adventure, this “throw myself in the deep end” metaphor would stick with me as an ongoing main way that I would continue to push myself forward into further rounds of new experience. Like how I had smoked my first joint, or how I had walked into that big theater full of strangers and showed them what I could do. I would continue to be shy, even timid at times as I was with Rita, but I now had a mechanism that might continue to work for me to broaden my horizons (or sink to the bottom of the pool).