(what follows is an excerpt from a work-in-progress; find more here)
Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together…
Come September 1969, off I went off to college — for reasons that were a mystery then and remain a mystery now.
To paraphrase one of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs from the era… I walked off … to look for somebody else’s America.
Upon arrival at the George Washington University, I was assigned a room on the third floor of Mitchell Hall, the men’s dormitory on 19th street that I’d selected because the rooms were all singles — no roommates.
I opted for the single room because a need for solitude was a big part of my self-perception: I might have been lonely, but that didn’t mean that I wanted to spend my private time in the presence of other men.
Apart from the absence of roommates, I was also drawn to the monastic quality of the space— a narrow, rectangular concrete box that could have easily spilled from the pen of an architect who wasn’t sure whether he’d been asked to design a convent or a prison. When I arrived, the space was furnished with only a wire-spring bed, a desk and chair, a sink and a mirror. The actual bathroom was a shared facility across the hall. A window looked out onto the traffic on 19th Street.
To these simple confines I added my small stereo — a small, elegant wooden box with a black plastic face, black and silver knobs and the word “SONY” in clean black characters on a silver nameplate on the front — that was a high school graduation gift from my parents. The brand was still pretty new at the time, one of the first deep-penetrations of post-war Japanese electronics into the American marketplace.
For the stereo, I brought along few dozen LPs — what were simply called “records” in the days before “vinyl” became a fashionable alternative to all the digital delivery modes in use today. My collection was mostly acoustic-oriented “folk rock” like Crosby Still & Nash, the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel, the “two Tims” (Buckley and Hardin), some Bob Dylan. The pop/rockier side of the collection included several Beatles records — and Abbey Road when it released a few weeks later ––Jefferson Airplane’s newest post Woodstock anthem “Volunteers,” and several Moody Blues albums, like “Days of Future Past” and “On The Threshold of A Dream.”
Despite the need for solitude as reflected in my choice for a for a dormitory, reading the journals now I can see that what else I longed for was… connection.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the social life on the scattered urban campus revolved around a women’s dormitory around the corner from Mitchell Hall on F Street. Thurston Hall — named for Mabel Thurston, the first woman to graduate from GWU — was an 8-story Art-Deco-wannabe built in 1930. Since Thurston was the campus home for almost a thousand young women, its lobby was a festering hive of post-adolescent lust. In fact, Thurston was rumored to be “the most sexually active dormitory” in the entire United States, a reputation that I knew nothing of until I Googled it 45 years later. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that at a time; Despite several years of furtive necking, fondling and groping, at the age of 19 I was still a virgin.
The first night of the first week of the new semester, I ventured around the corner with my guitar in hand and found a spot on a small grassy rise in front of Thurston Hall near a pretty redhead.
There was another guy playing some blues on a guitar — rather poorly, in my own not-so-humble estimation. His fingering was sloppy, his strumming was choppy and uneven.
And he was playing “the blues.” I had an attitude about the blues. It started with something a friend had said a couple of years earlier. When we were all just starting to pick up instruments and learning how to play, my friend Brian — yes, ‘Delaware Water Gap Brian — said, “The blues is boring. It’s just the same three chords and twelve bars over and over again…” I guess that was true for white boys in the suburbs who were just learning how to play guitar. 45 years later the still-frustrated guitarist in me kinda wishes I’d paid more attention to what is now widely heralded as one of the foundations of rock-n-roll.
Given that dubious predisposition, I posed just the sort of obnoxious question that a white boy from the suburbs would ask: “So what’s this fascination with the blues?”
The pretty redhead heard me. Turning to me with half a smile, she said “Maybe there’s just nothing else to sing about, there is so much sadness in the world…”
Looking straight at her for the first time, my first thought was that she must have been a sophomore. She looked like she’d been there a while. She was pretty, but not model-out-of-a-magazine pretty. More like the-girl-you-sat-next-to-in-English-class pretty. More like “in my league” pretty.
All I really saw was her smile — and her curious, responsive eyes, despite the fact that they were looking at me through a pair of large, ‘lady-goonmeyer’ glasses I hadn’t really noticed until I was looking directly through them.
There was gentleness in her face: rounded but distinctive cheeks, an air of innocence, a care-free nature, a desire for freedom. Yeah, I got all that just looking at her face. And made it all up 45 years later…
And her lips, small, sensuous, intense. I already wanted to kiss her.
Eventually Mr. Sloppy Blues took a break and I had a chance to start playing something from my own flashy-but-meaningless repertoire. It was probably a Simon & Garfunkel song. I used to know a lot of Simon and Garfunkel songs. It might have been The Dangling Conversation. Or maybe it was Fakin’ It (Spotify links). I pretty much knew the entire Bookends album by heart.
When I was done, the pretty girl who still had no name turned to me and said, “You play very well...”
I was never very comfortable when people told me that. I struggled to make an exception in this case.
Totally at a loss for words, I managed to ask her, “what’s your name?”
“Where are you from, Jennifer?”
I don’t think I’d ever met a girl from Iowa. The girls I’d known were mostly Jewish girls from New York and New Jersey, with the occasional shicksa sprinkled in just frequently enough to teach me that there really wasn’t a whole lot of actual difference between the gentiles and the nice Jewish girls. Girls were girls, each one was different from the last and each displayed their own unique qualities — and, umm… idiosyncrasies.
Now here I was trying to chat up a pretty shicksa from Iowa.
“Hicksville, USA,” the notes in my journal say. “Naive. Iowa is so far away from anything. It’s the middle of fucking nowhere. Nothing ever happens in Iowa. They’re all bigots, and no bigot is intelligent. Intelligent people don’t come from Iowa because intelligent people don’t move to Iowa.”
No preconceptions or prejudices there. Nope. None at all.
Coming as I had from the morally superior Northeast, clearly I had an attitude about Iowa and corn-fed, white-bread middle America. But this girl was pretty enough that I was entirely willing to reconsider those preconceptions.
Then she went and lit a cigarette.
I don’t know why I thought such a thing, but according to my journal, “People from Iowa don’t smoke cigarettes.”
What was I thinking there? That Iowa was the epitome of heartland conformity, and smoking cigarettes was an act of Bohemian rebellion? Hell, this was five years after the Surgeon General’s report on smoking, it should have been pretty obvious that most of the country was smoking, Iowa being no exception.
Still, it was endlessly confusing when she fired up a Salem. I concluded that “country folk smoke Salems.” As opposed to what? City folk who smoke Marlboros?
So there she was, the small-town beauty from Iowa in the middle of the big city, dragging on a Salem menthol, while I was picking out the chords and lyrics of a Simon & Garfunkel song.
“You play very well,” she said.
Much as I enjoyed playing the guitar, and gravitated naturally to it, I never had much faith in my own musical ability. I liked the way I played, but I never thought it was particularly special or terrific. It had yet to occur to me that even the greatest guitar players in the world can find somebody who is “better” than they are. So whenever somebody would say they liked my playing, I’d think “ah, whadda they know?”
Or maybe I just had reservations about playing guitar because I’d had it drummed into me that the ability was meaningless because it was not the way to get in to college. But here I was, at college, and playing the goddammed guitar.
It was different this time. Something she said with her eyes, the way she tilted her head ever so slightly, leaning in over her arms wrapped around her legs tucked under her chin.
She said, “You play well.”
And finally managed to muster a sincere, “Thank you.”
If that was the beginnings of a mutual attraction, it would have to wait. Because right about then whatever conversation we were starting to have was interrupted by a guy I sorta recognized.
Marty was something of a fixture at GW, a senior who had a way of being in all the right places — particularly if there were impressionable freshman females about. I’d met him a few weeks earlier when I’d come down to Washington for early registration. He was the kind of guy who made it his business to know as much of the incoming class as possible. A quasi-hippie with a scraggly beard, stringy hair, well-faded blue jeans and a beat up army jacket. Friendly, yes. But suspiciously so.
So I recognized his guy when he sauntered up to Jennifer, sat down next to her on the grass and… whatthefuck? He’s kissing her? She’s kissing him back?
This I could not fathom: Her eyes, soft and inquisitive; his, stoney and bloodshot. She an immaculate midwest schoolgirl, he a scraggly fugitive from an Alan Ginsberg poem. Into what Bohemian hell had I just descended?
And before I could get to the chorus of Fakin’ It she had turned to Marty and continued our conversation — without me. After not too much longer, they got up and walked off together.
At which point I returned to my monastery/prison/dormitory room and wrote a very bad poem about about a king, his queen, and their jester. Mercifully, that poem is long lost now; all that remains is a reference to it in the journals. I called it “Jennifer’s Song” and later that evening, I returned to Thurston hall, thinking I would give it to her.
I arrived in front of the big women’s dorm just in time to see Marty and Jennifer coming up the sidewalk. She kissed him good night — a “Beauty and The Beast” moment if there ever was one.
The jester slipped away.
I watched from the wings for a few days while whatever was going on with Jennifer and Marty kept going on.
Like I said, I kinda knew Marty from early registration, and since we had a mutual interest in smoking dope we became friendly with each other.
One Saturday I went to Georgetown with him. He walked me all over. We talked about all kinds of bullshit — real, first class bullshit. All I really remember was getting awful tired, walking around Georgetown.
Finally, we ducked into what was known then as a “head shop” — a not particularly well disguised emporium for the procuring of dope-smoking supplies. Art bought a water pipe, which we went back to his apartment to test with some hash I had.
Marty lived in the basement of “The Gritty” — a rundown Queen Anne townhouse that he shared with several other GW upperclassmen. The Gritty was a dowager, well past her prime, minimally maintained by an absentee landlord who spent as little as possible on her upkeep while milking the student tenants for as much rent as the market would bear.
Marty’s basement was a musty space filled with tattered furniture. Printed Indian tapestries hung on the walls and stretched across the ceiling, hiding the joists above. What bricks of the foundation remained exposed were painted dark red; the mortar between them was painted black. The exposed plumbing was wrapped in black and red crepe paper. Art’s unmade double bed filled the alcove under the hexagonal tower in one corner of the old house.
Record jackets were scattered about, the desk was a clutter of oddities and endities. The lighting was deliberately dim. In one corner, a strobe light slowly rotated, projecting first red, then blue, then orange, then green, giving the space a different appearance with each passing hue.
Marty’s basement was, to put it simply, the consummate hippie crash pad — the perfect place to smoke some dope.
Marty set up the water pipe we’d found in Georgetown, I crumbled up a gram of hash (writing that now, I suddenly recall it’s special fragrance…), and lit a match to it. Marty took huge hits. He put the tube in his mouth and large bubbles formed at the bottom of the bottle, and they just kept forming, twice as long as they did when I sucked on it. I was still relatively knew to dope smoking. You could say I was still a freshman and Marty… well, Marty was a definitely my senior.
Once the active ingredients had kicked in, Marty put a Grateful Dead record on his stereo, and the creaking harmonies and Jerry Garcia’s screaming, fluid guitar reverberated around the room and in our ears.
And then there was a knock at the door.
And who should be standing there when Marty answered it but… Jennifer, of course.
In my freshly altered state, I felt like some kind of scheme was unfolding. I was back on my medieval ramparts, playing the role of a sentry, staying close to Marty in order to stay close to Jennifer. If that was the plan, suddenly it was working.
Jennifer was wearing a plaid skirt, a white blouse, a brown vest, a delicate gold necklace. She had a tidiness about her, the antithesis of the sort of “hippie chick” you’d expect would appeal to a stoner like Marty.
Jennifer kissed Marty hello, and bizareness proceeded to unfold.
Marty was entirely too stoned to fully comprehend what was going on — who Jennifer was, or why she was even there. And it was starting to look like she didn’t know why she was there, either. Which was fine by me.
They sat together on the threadbare sofa. Marty stretched his arm out behind her on the back of the sofa, but never actually embraced her. She looked at Marty, searching for some kind of contact or response that never quite came. The strobe light kept rotating: red Jennifer, blue Marty, orange Jennifer, green Marty. The color didn’t matter.
Jennifer didn’t stay long. She said something about needing to study and excused herself. Marty managed to get out of his stupor long enough to shuffle to the door. She brushed her soft cheek against his scraggly face, and without another word was gone.
“She seems like a nice girl,” I said.
About the only expression left on Marty’s face was its total lack of expression.
“Yeah,” Marty mumbled. “Nice girl.”
©2016 Paul Schatzkin / Cohesionarts.com