Lived with cross-country runners my first two years of college. Not sure I was the best person to land in their midst. Haven’t seen them since.
After high school, could have joined the Army and fought my way through Viet Nam — or gone to college. Not qualified for either. Went to college.
Should have left my hometown sooner. Skipped high school altogether.
My mom sold our house my junior year. She left town to live with her lover. She took my younger brother.
My older brother warned me. You ignorant fuck, he said, before shipping off to Nam on his last trip home. Leave.
My sister too. She saw it coming. In a dream. Mother’s crazy, overly-possessive, creton hates us all. Run, she said. Across the country.
My sister dropped out. Never told anyone. Hid with her boy friend in State College.
Instead. Mother left.
I stayed. Even after the house was given away.
Mother thanked me for understanding her situation. I understood all right.
To gain my freedom, I sacrificed my little brother. Wasn’t long before he was shipped out to a military academy in Virginia.
Rented a room in town. Lived on my own that spring, that summer.
My senior year.
Could have escaped while it mattered. Could have been in the anti-war movement.
By 71, it was over. Kent State a year earlier. Trapped in fucking high school while the campuses were on fire.
Didn’t even bother applying to college. Wouldn’t be accepted. Not now. Not after years of free-falling. Courses every summer. Graduating fifth from the bottom.
A ton of clueless kids in front stuck in the county forever.
That is, if they didn’t lose it. Drinking on the county roads. Dying in Viet Nam.
In my cap and gown, looking down, puking in the grass. Looking up, the sky bursting into a thousand colors.
Late May, the English teacher, just out of college, stopped me after class and asked me my plans. Why I could never fathom.
Told him, New York or San Francisco. Like Steinbeck and London, like the Beats in the Big Apple. Living the life of a writer. Or run across the country, crazy, like Kerouac, or even, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. What about Whitman and Twain a century earlier – wasn’t this how they started?
Heard my name. Listening to the Dead and Airplane. Reading the poets of Soho and the Village. Even here in nowhere, I too “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn.”
— Only, ours was a cow town. Here it would be stupid farm boys dragging themselves drunk out of their twisted suped-up cars, flopping dead into bed at dawn.
Ask my brother.
Mr. Witt listened. Seriously. Hands on his desk. He heard me.
Told him, I hadn’t decided in which direction to go. To become a poet or a writer. Still, I had all summer.
He suggested a compromise of sorts. College in some cool city, but only temporarily. Experience city life. Write but keep going until the situation felt right.
He suggested Pittsburgh.
Where I was born. Where my mother and father were born. Where my father had died two years earlier. Pittsburgh had schools for me.
I can’t get in. I said. Though never tried.
Witt went to Guidance. Called Pittsburgh. Got one to mail him an application.
A community college, he said, convincing me he was right.
When the application arrived, he filled it in. I signed it right there and he mailed it that night.
Witt and me, we made a great team.
He made me a college man.
With a knapsack full of pot, a sandwich bag of psychedelics, a serious addiction to cigarettes, and a love of alcohol. Joe College of the 1970s.
Packing along my prized possessions: an old typewriter, a notched dictionary, and a beat up copy of “Leaves of Grass.”
To Pittsburgh, a city I could celebrate. Like Whitman said, “Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same…”
It was meant to be.
Still, reality meant finding an apartment. By necessity, a roommate to share the rent. No dormitories in community college. Just kids living in the city, at home, or discharged from the military.
Checking into things that summer, traveling by bus three hours to meet my mother. She gave me a day to visit the city.
Two hours to Pittsburgh, a campus walk on the North Side, a block or two from the Allegheny River, and, minutes later, the visit was over.
Before leaving, a secretary in Admissions suggested seeing the coach about my living situation.
The cross-country team stayed in the North Hills, several miles from school. The team rented apartments in an old brick building. Two were available for “out-of-towners.”
Coach preferred kids who could handle noise and the team’s odd hours.
With my mother writing a check, signed up for a spot.
Mother was pleased: her final decision effortlessly resolved; shipped off, shipped out, shipped away. She could be back by dinner.
Never heard of a community college sponsoring cross-country. Coach recruited runners from everywhere. Kids ran to receive scholarships.
Coach’s team was ranked number one among junior colleges.
Until that fall semester. Typewriter in hand, knack sack over my shoulder…
I arrived fucked up. By October, we were fucked up together.