Friday, September 13, 2013

All That and a Bag of Apples

When I went to college I had this strange idea that it would be like something out of novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I wore a tie and a jacket every day to class, because I thought it gave me class. When I wasn’t wearing that I had a tan Izod cardigan that my high school friend, Ross, gave me as a going away gift.  I did not engender myself well to the guys in the dorm who were normal people that did not take themselves as stupidly serious as I did. I was a bit of a stuck up, preppy, snob.  My roommate didn’t get me.  He spent a lot of time playing chess by mail and staring at posters of the Who trying to have out-of-body experiences.  I’m sure it was fulfilling for him, but, because he rarely talked to me, I spent a lot of time alone. I went to the library, to classic and foreign movies by myself, and I met my sister, Melissa, for meatloaf on Wednesday afternoons.  I asked her once what I was doing wrong.  She very honestly told me, “Tom, I think you need to lighten up.” 

The guys on my floor liked to play pranks.  They once stole my bed.  Another time they hung my stuffed Kermit the Frog that was also a gift from high school friends on a noose in the tree outside of my window.  I took it on the nose.  There was one day though that I lost it.  I was working on a story on my typewriter.  I went down to the big bathroom we all shared.  When I came back someone had vandalized my work. They had typed and scribbled all over it.  It had taken me hours to get where I was on it and now it was completely ruined.  I screamed, took the typewriter and heaved it at the cinder block wall of my room. I left then to take a walk.  When I came back everything was cleaned up and no one was around.  A guy named Dave George came by my room and he said, “T.S., do you want to come play soccer tomorrow?  It’s just intramural but it’s fun.”  I was staring out the window.  I replied, “Yeah, that might be good. “ He left me but as he closed the door he said, “You don’t have to go to the movies alone.  Any of us would go with you.”  I said, “Thank you, Dave.”  You know what?  They did. Our group went to a lot of movies that fall, everything from Fellini to James Dean flicks to really bad seventies porn. I stopped wearing ties and became friends with some of the greatest guys in the world.  Guys named Mike, Pat, Vince, who we called Vern, Tim, Pete, and Bruno.  We met some girls too from the dorm across the way.   Paula I knew from a leadership retreat in high school. Sharon and Mary Jane used to walk into the bathroom to talk to me while I was shaving and egg me on to go out to the bars with them.

The guy who lived in the room next door to me was something of a character. His name was Lenny and he was from Peoria.  Lenny’s room was an intentional mess.  He had the seat of a pick-up truck as a couch and a gutted TV as a wall hanging.  Lenny had no inhibition.  He didn’t care what people thought of him.  It was not uncommon for him to place q-tips in his black Lebanese hair when we went out.   He’d bite the edge off of beer glasses. Sometimes he would say things and get slapped, but he never seemed to care. He liked that I often wore steel-tipped construction shoes.  One night at a party he stomped on my feet and declared, “Aren’t these great?! He can’t feel anything!”  I pulled Lenny aside and whispered in his ear, “Usually very cool, Len, but I just bought myself some new topsiders.”  He looked down at my feet and started laughing. He said, “Oh, this is so much better.”

I used to always sit in front of the room in class because that is who I am.  In a political science course I was taking there was someone who always sat in the back of the room and constantly tortured the teaching assistant, with really intelligent questions that made you think, but that the young teacher could not address.  I turned around to see who this joker was.  It was Lenny dressed in shorts and a yellow dress shirt sitting in the farthest row on the back of a theater seat with his hand up. 

One afternoon I was sitting on a chair under an overhang beside the entrance to our dorm, reading and watching the rain.  Lenny came walking up with a big paper sack full of apples.  He asked me, “Do you like apples?”  I said “Yes, I do.” He handed me one and then went inside.  He grabbed a chair from the common lobby and came back out.  For the next three hours we sat talking and eating apples.  That day he taught me a lesson, the first of many.   He told me how he succeeded in political science.  “It’s all about understanding the game, Tom,” he said. He went on. “Mark, the TA, does not read through our two-page papers.   He throws them down the stairs and whichever go the farthest get good grades.  Invest in some heavier paper and do what I do. Keep a page of the Pledge of Allegiance or the poem of your choice to attach to back of whatever you wrote in a paragraph or two.” Lenny always got a good grade in that class and I never sat in the front row again.   

The girl named Karen, that I now fondly call the lovely Mrs. Sharpe, shared her apartment senior year with a girl named Robin who she grew to love very much.  Ironically that Robin, who helped me to finally convince Karen that we needed to be together, was deeply in love with a man, who was my friend, named Lenny.   Lenny had left Illinois and moved back to Peoria to finish up school at Bradley.  Whenever he came back to Champaign, we would double date. One night after a party the girls were complaining about how me and Lenny didn’t do enough romantic things.  Lenny was driving my wife’s convertible.  He drove up on a curb and said to me, “Come on.”  He and I went into someone’s yard and pulled as many flowers as we could handle from their garden. We threw them all over the back seat on the girls.  They thought we were crazy but they smiled and we never heard a complaint like that again.

The day the Challenger shuttle went down was when I was still at school and Karen was back in Chicago working. Lenny was in Champaign for a job interview. He was wearing a suit and a long car coat.  He came by my place and asked me to go to lunch. We went to Murphy’s where we used to hang out.   As we sat eating hamburgers, drinking beer, and silently watching the explosion over and over again on the TV, Lenny could sense that I was stressed because I knew I had to write a story for the campus paper about what happened.  He said to me, “Tom, even if you build a really great wagon, there is a chance one of the wheels might fall off at some time.  A wheel fell off today.”  That became the basis of my story.

 Robin stood up in our wedding.  Karen stood up in Robin’s wedding when she married my friend named Lenny. Double dates were replaced by weekend visits by us to Peoria or visits from them to Chicago and then Naperville.  Children were born to all of us and started to grow.  We lost Robin too soon to cancer.  Karen got a call from Lenny one morning and then she and Ann, Robin’s best friend and neighbor from childhood, got in a car and went to say good-bye.   When Karen called that night I asked her how Lenny was doing.  She said, “He is fine.  He is Lenny after all.”

Lenny is a great man.  The children are beautiful, doing well for themselves and he has a lot to be proud about.  He sent me a message the other day and he reminded me that we both didn’t screw up one thing.  We both married very good and strong women.   Lenny is a good friend to have.  On certain days in the fall I think about him and how he is doing.  On days when it rains I sometimes sit, just think about a bag of apples, and it makes me smile.