To my niece, who I love dearly:
Yesterday, I tried to help you with an essay you were writing for psychology class. It brought back many memories of my own college days. After reading an article on the effects of alcohol and various types of illegal drugs on the brain and nervous system, you were supposed to write a short theme expanding upon how the information presented applies to your own life. I suggested that you must have a wealth of anecdotes to draw upon from the experiences of your high school classmates. (I sincerely hope you have no personal experiences to relate, and if you do, I’m not sure I want to know. But let’s talk about it anyway. I know your two brothers use marijuana and I am concerned that your love for them might influence you in the wrong direction.)
“I don’t know what things are like in high school these days,” I told you, “but when I was in school a long, long time ago in the ‘70s, drugs were a really, really big thing.”
Without skipping a beat, you responded “it’s just like the 70s again.”
Well, then. I guess drugs are everywhere. Umm…
I have lots of stories I could tell you, dear niece, but I have a very distinct feeling that they wouldn’t even come close to the ones you could tell me.
Despite having graduated from a suburban high school in a wealthy school district and then having attended the local “drug central” state university campus, I never used drugs. Not once. Never experimented, never even was curious. Bill Clinton may not have inhaled, but in my case, I just said no. To do this, I had to be an island in the midst of a swirling sea of pot smoke, pills and worse. And I had some close calls.
Drugs scared the crap out of me, and I ran away as fast as I could. I spent four years of my young life doing the bob and weave.
Alcohol was different. It didn’t scare me, it just disgusted me. Dorm mates would get drunk and pull the fire alarm at two in the morning, causing those of us living at the top of the residence hall tower to roust out of bed and run down 21 flights of stairs to gather out in the below zero temperatures of the quad in our PJs. Keg parties would be held on Saturday night; on Sunday morning, the dorm carpets would be sopping and sticky so that sloshing my way to the elevator (squish, squish) caused my socks to get wet. The pervasive smell of beer and vomit was just another day in paradise. The Who’s classic tune “Teenage Wasteland” comes to mind. (I’m sure you can find it on You Tube, my dear.)
I remember celebrating a friend’s birthday with a bunch of students in a bar down on Quail Street and ordering an amaretto sour. I didn’t even know what it was, but I had heard that it was pretty sweet and figured I had a chance of being able to sip at it without gagging.
I found beer as revolting as it was ubiquitous. To this day, I do not know how my father (or anyone) drinks it. “It’s an acquired taste,” Dad tells me. Ugh, bully for you, Dad.
Then there was the wine. The student choice appeared to be a cheap rosé called Lancer’s, often consumed with local favorite Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies.
Let us not forget the many variations of Cuba Libre that were passed around. One type involved buying cans of Coke out of the soda machine, drinking half the can and filling the rest with rum. Then there was “rum and cherries,” served in a Dixie cup, that contained just a smidge of Coke for coloring. I’m probably too old to use the word “yucky,” but there you have it.
Although I tried to fake it for a while by taking a sip of whatever was being served, about midway through college I had an epiphany that made me decide I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore. Funny thing is, nothing dramatic happened to push me in that direction. I was at a party at a dorm across campus, someone put a plastic cup of beer in my hand, and I proceeded to sip at it, trying very hard not to make faces at the horrible taste. I walked around with it as a prop, as I always did, and finally braved a few more sips. I realized it wasn’t as terrible as I had heretofore imagined and I drank about half the cup. It was at that point that I woke up. “This is not me,” I thought, “this is not who I want to be.” I set down my beer, walked out of the building and never touched a brew again. I had finally had enough of playing games for the sake of fitting in. After that, I would just tell people that I didn’t drink. If that made me a wussy, tough cookies.
The article that you were assigned to read, dear niece, mentioned something called a “keg stand.” This is a phrase I had never heard of before. I had the distinct impression that it did not refer to a platform on which to set the keg. So, of course, I had to look it up. Your assignment descriubed it as a dangerous form of binge drinking. Turns out it’s an acrobatic drinking game (thanks, Wikihow). What’ll they come up with next? Sheesh.
In my first year of college, I quickly learned that a bong was not the sound that the carillon made to strike the hour. I also learned that “hits” did not refer to music and that a “tab” did not refer to a bar bill or a typewriter key. But then there were lots of strange terms I had to learn in college. Many of my dorm mates hailed from Long Island and had a vernacular of their own. A “pisser” was not a urinal; it meant that you were quite a character. A “piece of work” was not an assignment to be turned in for credit; it meant that you were a hopeless nerd. Furthermore, “taking a dump” did not mean that you were going out to empty the trash and “tossing your cookies” did not have anything at all to do with Freihofer’s. And “worshipping the porcelain god” was decidedly not something that one did in church. I’m sure all this stuff carries totally different monikers today, dear niece, which is far out, man.
Living in the college dormitories was intolerable for me; I made a go of it for two years before settling for a cubbyhole in a single room occupancy firetrap of a hotel downtown. Being straitlaced resulted in merciless teasing that got old after a while. And I found myself in a no-win situation involving eight students in a suite trying to make do with one bathroom. I won’t go into details here, but it wasn’t pretty.
The swirl of pot smoke never seemed to end. If I walked into the suite and they were at it again, I would turn around and walk out. I’d take a bus downtown or wander around the campus. The big question should have been: Why isn’t anyone calling the cops? The answer, of course, was that the city police stayed out of the campus and the Kampus Kops turned a blind eye. The administration didn’t give a flip.
As a freshman (first time away from home and all that), I was terribly naïve and very nearly stumbled into disaster one day. I should preface this story by explaining that I was caught up in a nightmarish game of Musical Roommates. My first roommate, a very friendly guy, left me after three days to go bunk with his homie down the hall. My next roommate got homesick and let after a couple of weeks. At this point, I was paired with an older student, a druggie who did not appreciate wimps like me who told the residence staff just what was going on (which I finally did after walking in on him and his girlfriend doing the nasty). My lovely roommate found the perfect way to get back at me. He knew my Achilles’ heel: Food. In this case, homemade brownies. His sex partner had made an entire pan, cut into nice little squares, and wouldn’t I like to have one? I wanted so badly to take one, and it took all my willpower to say no. I had read something once about druggies consuming marijuana that way. Only later did I learn that the brownies were laced with hashish.
Pills of all kinds were for sale in our dorm. The local drug dealer lived two doors down and across the hall from me; he kept his wares stashed in one of his dresser drawers, beneath his bulky sweaters. He warned me that I would get hurt if I told anyone. I have no doubt that he was telling the truth.
I suppose the ultimate in my college experience of dodging the ever-present barrage of drugs occurred at a party I attended in my senior year. I was one of the editors of our student newspaper and an end-of-semester bash was held by the staff at another editor’s home downtown. It was a three-story Victorian and they took advantage of the party possibilities that this arrangement afforded. I walked in the front door to find people milling around with cups of beer. Nothing unusual there. Then I saw the sign. “Liquor, first floor. Pot, second floor. Hard stuff, upstairs.” I turned around, tore open the door and walked as fast as I could to the nearest bus stop.
And so, dear niece, if indeed it is the 1970s again in your high school and now your college, I feel for you. I truly sympathize with what you are going through and I hope, for your sake and that of your little daughter, that you will emulate your uncle by turning and running the other way as fast as you can.
I know I’m over fifty years old and that I can’t possibly understand the challenges that your generation is facing today. But I like to think I know a thing or two about peer pressure and how it is possible to respect yourself enough to say no.
And one other thing. I love you and I kind of want you to be around for a while.