“Western Year” means Freshman Year. The province of Ontario had a different system of education. Students did four years of high school, except for those who were going on to university. Those students did an additional year of college preparatory study called Grade 13. Then they attended the University in a three-year degree program. American students who wanted to attend university in Ontario had to do a makeup year, or the equivalent of Grade 13. St. Michael’s College was the only institution that offered this program, which was, oddly enough called the “Western” program because the University of Western Ontario had formerly offered it. Upon finishing the Western program, the American students entered First Year at the University of Toronto -- what Americans would call Sophomore Year.
The Western Class consisted of 110 American students, eighty-five men and only twenty-five women. Dormitory space was scarce for women, and hence acceptance for women into the college was more competitive. For that reason they tended to be smarter than the men.
St. Michael’s College was a Catholic school and part of the University of Toronto. The government of Canada does not enforce such a rigorous separation of church and state as we do in America. The University also had Victoria College which was Presbyterian, and Trinity College, which was Episcopalian.
The school year was unitary. There were no semesters or quarters. You signed up for courses in the fall, got your schedule and your teachers and stayed with it until May when there were finals. This was good because you had the whole year to develop or postpone your studies. It was bad because more than half of your entire grade for the whole year depended on the finals in May.
October, 1988, the 20th reunion of the class of 1968,
St. Michael’s College, the University of Toronto
To recall without irony youthful feelings that were felt without irony
-- Graham Greene
It was October, the weather was warm and sunny. We were gathered together to eat hot dogs and play touch football. The bees were buzzing in the courtyard in front of the Coop. They kept bothering Nora and her baby. I told her, “Just ignore them and they’ll go away.” She gave me a look like, “Thanks for the advice, but if you don’t mind, bees bother me.” I continued, to be reassuring, “Hey, bees don’t bother me, flying in airplanes bothers me. I get sweaty palms when I fly.”
“You do?” she replied. Gosh, we were being so grown up. Were we acting or did it just come naturally?
On Sunday I took a long, slow walk in Queens Park with Jim and Pat Gardella. The maples trees were in great color. The lawn was strewn with leaves. The pathways were wide, grey asphalt. We had the idea to look for the university bookstore, which we thought might be on Spadina Avenue. We were bewildered because we couldn’t remember where it was, but mostly we enjoyed the fresh air and quiet, as we strolled across the campus.
We stopped in front of an old house with a big front porch. I remembered this house and said to Jim, “That’s where we had the sit-in against Dow Chemical.” Dow Chemical was recruiting engineering students for jobs. We didn’t like the war or Dow Chemical’s role in manufacturing napalm. I remembered how jolly it was, to sit on the floor, knee to knee and back to back with 50 other students, and the engineering students would wade through us one at a time. It was like a rugby match.
We walked by the provincial parliament building after going through the underpass, coming out by the pond. I noted with ill-favor the equestrian statue of King George in bronze, located in the center of the park. I remember when they installed it -- the government of India had gotten rid of this colonial residue and given it to the city of Toronto, which foisted it upon the hapless students. The park looked better before, when there was only a mound of tulips on that spot.
Jim Gardella grew up in White Plains, New York, in Westchester County. His father had been a gung-ho veteran of the Second World War. Jim’s views on the military were at odds with his father’s.
His ambition was to live in New York City and be in politics, which he achieved. He married Pat and they moved to Brooklyn Heights, where they still live. Back then, in the late sixties, it was a decaying neighborhood. Now it is tony and upscale. The Gardellas’ townhouse is worth a small fortune -- they bought in before everyone else. Jim has a political job -- assistant to the President of Brooklyn. He is skilled in the art of talking to journalists like me without actually revealing anything about what he does. He has developed a conspiratorial whisper. This is difficult to describe, but it is a masterly political skill. The whisperer focuses his voice so that the intended recipient of the message hears exactly what is said, and the trained eavesdropper, such as me, only a few feet away, hears the whole conversation but does not understand a word. I always think of Roy Cohn cupping his hand over the microphone and whispering into Joe McCarthy’s ear. Well, Jim is at least as good as these guys ever were.
Pat wore green. She’s pretty. She’s smarter than Jim, and a regular New Yorker now, although born and raised in Ontario .
I came back to the park on Monday morning after my classmates had gone to their homes. The weather was still warm and sunny. I sat on a bench at about 11 a.m. and watched the students striding across the park to classes. I noticed the women more than the men. The women wore black leather and short skirts and had long, full, dark hair with very stylish jewelry. The men wore leather, dark tweeds, and short jackets cut way oversize. So handsome the men, so beautiful the women. I searched in vain for the almost extinct, frumpy old Toronto look, which began to disappear during our years at school. Toronto began to change during our time. Today Toronto is much bigger. The neighborhood between Bay Street and Yonge Street and over towards Church Street is altered almost beyond recognition.
Such landmarks, famous to me, as 22 Gloucester Street, the home of the Mission Impossible Choir, and 55 St. Nicholas Street, and several addresses on Irwin, St. Joseph and Isabella Streets, have been torn down and replaced by very tall buildings.
The BayBloor tavern is gone. I imagined that it had been simply crushed and flattened by the 40-story building now in its place, and that the bones of old winos, working men, and Greek waiters still lay underneath the foundation.
Many houses remain, restored to new splendor, and look much better than they used to. But I was pleased to note that my old apartment at 600 Church Street, which I shared in First Year with Tom Orent, was still standing, and still just as shabby and disgusting as it was 22 years ago, when we lived there.
I threw the jar of grape jelly out the window.
Tom cooked pork chops and made the best mashed potatoes. We ate off of aluminum plates, which we had bought figuring to keep them until they wore out. Heck, they lasted all year. The handle was off the refrigerator, so you had to pry it open with a knife. And when you got the door open, a jar would inevitably roll off the shelf and bounce on the floor, because the floor underneath the refrigerator was tilted. Boy, that was annoying.
One late night I came weaving home, and opened the frig door for a snack. The grape jelly jar came rolling on to the floor, and I was pissed. I picked it up and heaved it with all my might out an open window and on to Church Street. Unfortunately, it splattered and broke on the windshield of a car. I had the presence of mind to quickly turn off the lights and watch, as the driver got out of his car. I noticed his stunned and perplexed expression as he turned and looked up at my darkened window. Then he drove off, and twenty minutes later one of Metro’s finest, all starched and ironed, very large but also very polite, came knocking on my door.
“Did you throw a jar of jelly out the window?” he asked, or words to that effect. I, a master of undergraduate insouciance, had begun to see the humor of the situation -- Toronto cops were such pussycats. I mustered up my most serious intellectual expression and said with feigned amazement, “What! That’s the craziest thing I ever heard of. Why do you wake me in the middle of the night? This is really ridiculous.”
The cop quickly realized he had more important matters to attend to, as I rather abruptly closed the door in his face and laughed myself silly.
The Church Street apartment was across the street from the 24-hour store, about the only one in Toronto at that time. Ah, the people we met while shopping at 4 a.m.
The fringe element is still there after 20 years. It’s the same crowd, but they must have a lot more money now. All except the students. No student can afford to live in this neighborhood. They must commute. Sad, because a fellow can learn a lot living on Church Street.
I was carrying an enormous suitcase.
I arrived in Toronto Thursday night, unannounced. I had been awe-struck by the view of downtown Toronto as I journeyed in from the airport on the bus. I love Lake Ontario, it looked so beautiful to me. The bus had left me off at a downtown hotel, and I began to walk uptown to the campus. I was carrying an enormous suitcase that was very heavy. I usually travel with an under-the-seat suitcase or a shoulder duffel bag, but I decided to take this suitcase because it was so big and I could bring so many clothes. The suitcase was a fortress of security for a man traveling back through time. I thought of myself as Holden Caufield running away to New York with a pimply face and a sarcastic sneer and a hopelessly sentimental heart.
I set out into the night, up Yonge Street, up to the intersection with College Street, which was swarming with teenagers who were going to a rock concert. They were boisterous and noisy, but so unintimidating -- Ah, Canada! It’s safe to be back here. An old man I was to them, they took no notice of me. I stopped to rest for a minute at the intersection. I sat on the suitcase to catch my breath -- the city was so big, the lights were so bright. I live in a very small town 60 miles north of Seattle. I must get my bearings.
Yonge Street is the same as ever. Money can’t change it. It looks like a five-mile long bowling alley.
Barry Byrne still lives in his second floor apartment on Yonge Street, where I had seen him on my last trip to Toronto in 1972. Barry played the electric guitar. When he found out that I was back in Chicago from the West Coast and in possession of a tenor saxophone, he encouraged me to visit him. More than that, he bought me a first-class round-trip plane ticket, an act of stunning generosity. We spent a week together, just the two of us in his apartment, wailing away for hours, playing jazz and blues. Then we would go out to eat with Helen, Barry’s girlfriend who had recently emigrated from Czechoslovakia. We spent a lot of time at the Brass Rail, because Barry was in love with one of the go-go girls -- not seriously, he just liked to watch her dance -- what legs!
Barry Byrne, actually, Patrick Barry Byrne, was from Evanston, Illinois. His father was a famous architect in Chicago. Barry attended the same Jesuit high school that I did. He was four years ahead of me and was a classmate of my older brother.
During our student years, Barry and I could pass the hours discussing the thorough cruelty of the Jesuit tradition, and the salvation of the Basilian (the order of priests who taught at St. Michael’s) free spirit. Barry was a perpetual student during the sixties. He spent at least five years in graduate school without a degree; and he was famous for the Friday Afternoon Club, when the students would gather at his apartment to drink the beer he sold to pay the rent.
An enterprising fellow, Barry was also a dealer of marijuana, $10 for a baggy. Later we found out he was ripping us off because the lid was pretty short, but that’s a dope dealer for you.
Barry had a soft voice and a sweet smile. I left a message on his answering machine -- he was out of town.
I rounded the corner from Yonge Street to St. Mary Street and found the campus. It was so dark and unshiny compared to Yonge Street. The foliage and the lawn soaked up the light and the noise. The campus was completely familiar to me. I walked past the brick wall that runs down St. Mary Street. It is still yellow-brown.
I felt strange -- I mean I felt immediately at home, at rest, in an atmosphere of great support, but bewildered beyond words. My heart melted -- I had been gone away, far away for too many years from people and places I dearly loved. I was sad for the time that had passed, and filled with joy as well -- simply stunned.
I decided to come one day ahead of time for the reunion, because I knew I would be almost speechless for 24 hours, just soaking it in.
The Coop and the student lounge were empty. The chairs were still the same. They smelled much better now. I have always been offended by the smell of new carpets and synthetic upholstery, which gives off poisonous gases. I especially hate new hotel rooms. The student lounge had that odor when it was brand new in 1968. Now it smells much better -- the smell of coats and jackets, books, newspapers, coffee cups, hair, and people breathing.
I walked down the steps of Brennan Hall, which I cannot think about without seeing Kathi Acton playing her guitar. The trees have grown, and so, I hope, have we. Velut arbor aevo means “I’m growing like a tree” (the University of Toronto motto). I’m one of the tree people now, out here on the West Coast. I’m in with the Earth First! crowd. I’ve worked for the forest service and fought fires and planted trees, and blockaded loggers and taken them to court.
I’m old enough now to see trees growing, and I know we can’t live without them. The trees in the quadrangle have gotten much bigger. You can’t play Frisbee on the lawn anymore.
I left Carr Hall and strolled down St. Joseph Street to the Kelly Library. I enjoyed the way the streetlights were muffled by the leafy trees.
I walked into the library with my suitcase and introduced myself to the young woman behind the counter. She looked so familiar, although I couldn’t possibly have known her. She welcomed me and told me there was no place on campus to get coffee at this hour. I made some phone calls about hotel rooms. Father Madden had assured me earlier that I had a room waiting for me at Clover Hill, but I didn’t want to call him that evening.
I checked into the Wellesley for $65, which was a lot for me. The hotel has gotten kind of seedy over the years, and I didn’t like the room. I tried to get some sleep, but I was three hours off-schedule, coming from the West Coast.
So at midnight I set out to walk, resuming, after a long interruption, my habit of nocturnal wanderings in this city. A favorite late night walk in undergraduate days was to go down to City Hall to view Henry Moore’s statue, “The Archer”, and touch the bronze, alone in the vast plaza. Archer was a real friend. Then I would return, walking up University Avenue, past the silent and stately embassies and hospitals and government buildings.
I had this huge overcoat I picked up at a secondhand store, or maybe I borrowed it from Paul Schulte, I forget. But it was so big and heavy that it had a name, “Sherman”. When you wore it, you rolled along like a tank. I couldn’t wear Sherman unless it was extremely cold, and then it was just great. We owned the street at 3 a.m. in January, me and Sherman.
Sometimes I would stroll by apartments to see if someone was still up.
But the original late night walk, starting in Western year, was to Harvey’s on Bloor Street, for hamburgers and fries. Jim Gardella asked me at the reunion, “Why did you guys always go to Harvey’s? The food wasn’t very good.” I had to scratch my head, but now I know why -- it was the only place that was open. Besides that, we were taking our meals in upper Brennan; by comparison the burgers at Harvey’s tasted pretty good.
I walked down Bloor Street to find Harvey’s closed. I didn’t really want to eat there anyway. A few more blocks and I reached Rochedale College, the 20-story student co-op which opened in 1969, the year I lived there. Now it is converted to expensive, private use. It is amazing to think that the provincial government was so terrified or impressed with the student body of our day that they gave them $3,000,000 to erect and manage this high rise, student-run cooperative dormitory.
The building has an all-night coffee shop now, where people read and talk quietly. Unfortunately there were two video games going, with a couple of pimply engineering students hunched over them. Otherwise the place suited me.
That was the end of that day.
Listening to Leonard Cohen
I am sitting here in my office, in the evening, composing this remembrance. I have a Leonard Cohen tape playing -- playing a song I am just learning to sing myself, because I have taken up the guitar again. I was not musical in college, but have become so since then. I talked to Nora about this. She said, “Doesn’t it take you back?” I said, “No, it takes me up and away.”
I think about Leonard Cohen living near the river and about Suzanne. I knew her, we all knew her, and we all loved her. I lived in the pages of her book. I was a beautiful loser, she had an army jacket, we were in the park together and she laughed a lot. She said, “You think too much,” and she seduced me.
She took me down to her place by the river, and I lived there for years. I’ve known rivers, the Rio Grande, the Mississippi, and now the Skagit River, which is just outside my door. I see it in the moonlight, and it always gives me dreams. I’m like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.
I had met Suzanne in Montreal, really just caught a glimpse of her, but she wouldn’t talk to me yet, not until I got over being stupid. It was the McGill weekend. I was drunk, the ground was frozen. I passed out under the bushes of the city hall. My friends were throwing up in the hotel room. It was an old-style football weekend. We tore down the goal posts. We swarmed on the field five minutes before the game ended. It didn’t matter who won. The referees didn’t seem concerned because the posts were solid steel and set in concrete -- we bashed our brains on them to no avail. But, spirits undiminished, we paraded out of the stadium and over to the soccer field and tore down those goal posts, so ha, ha, ha. We knew we had them there, all McGill and Toronto men together, brothers, drunk, we crashed up and down the streets. The curbs were padded, all the women were our mothers, all the cops our fathers, they loved us, we were boys.
Hell of a time. I think that weekend in 1965 or ‘66 about cured me of drinking. Later I got into drugs.
I can’t hear Leonard Cohen songs without thinking of Kathi Acton. I don’t even think I can write about her.
Getting a woman in bed. Did we call them women then? We wanted to get them in bed. I made sure I had a bed to get them in, moved out of the dorm and rented an apartment, bought a double bed, plumped up the extra pillow. Patience, determination and a bit of luck. I was relating to the Catholic virgin at a particular time in history -- times were changing. Skirts were getting very short. Can you imagine today, walking down the street and seeing so much leg? No wonder I was inflamed. The advent of Birth Control. The women wanted to be seduced. It was like a problem we could solve cooperatively. There was a unique time slot between 1965 and 1970. Before that there was pregnancy and promises of marriage. There were virgins, married women and bad girls.
But all of a sudden it was up for grabs; and there I was, 20 years old with raging hormones. It was like getting the keys to the candy store. It was almost too easy, and I wasn’t a bit surprised when I noticed in 1969 the first stirring of the women’s liberation movement. Because during those few years men were getting all the sex they wanted without the commitment of marriage. Women weren’t stupid, they realized that birth control had really altered the power equation between the sexes. They devised new means of demanding respect; and after 1970 you could still go to bed with them, but they wouldn’t fix breakfast in the morning, metaphorically speaking.
Eileen used a kind of boyish perfume. It smelled just like the powder they used at the barbershop. She had short blonde hair, square shoulders, a wonderful firm figure, and a saucy smile --half shy and half wild. She was two years younger than me. It took months. I was a little too slick for my own good, but I was no cad. Her virginity was simply a burden to her progress as a human being. I swear it was really her idea.
It was the night of the At Home, with champagne. She wore the formal gown, which really didn’t look right on her tomboy figure. But it was a good dance and we went back to our apartment on St. Nicholas Street, the one I shared with George Massey, Richard Smith and Tom Orent. It was fun. I didn’t love her, but I did care for her a lot. We laughed a lot afterwards.
I don’t want to claim that either now or then I have acted with any great experience or wisdom in these matters. I think that when it comes to affairs of the heart, the passing of years does not improve our ability. What passes for maturity is only the fact that our sexual and romantic drives are not so strong anymore. They have been surpassed by late-life urges of greed, ego, power, and the accumulation of wealth -- dependable instincts that can carry us into old age. I have learned a few things since college, but if I knew nothing of love then, it is as much as I know now.
Me and Barry McGee
Barry McGee used to smoke Rothmann’s with filters. Not me. I smoked Players Plain. I picked up a pack a day habit as soon as I hit the campus and got away from my parents. And you can believe me or not, but during all those years of partying and late night prowling, I read an awful lot of books and wrote some good essays too. It’s funny how things stick with you -- Father Madden gave me a C in English in Western year. I read Richard II, but couldn’t get the hang of it. I read it again two years ago and understood every word. But by then I was free of academic surveillance.
What you do is get a Shakespeare edition without any footnotes, and when you come to a word you don’t understand, just let it pass. Whenever you slow down Shakespeare to look up a word, the play goes on without you. And if you start reading footnotes, your head begins to bob up and down on the page, your eyes get cramped, and your head aches. That’s how to read Shakespeare, but Father Madden buried me in the footnotes
Sister Mary Arthur had me and Barry McGee (“Me and Barry McGee” sounds like a song) in her tutorial Western year. I got a D on my first paper and Barry got an A. Then she wrote on the margin of his paper “dynamic and compelling”. Well, I think that was just a little bit overblown. I mean, “dynamic and compelling”? Was Barry doing some kind of snow job on her? Maybe she liked his taste in neck ties or something. I didn’t get it. Of course he’s a lawyer now and I’m a writer.
Barry and I were good friends the first two years, and then we started drifting apart. I had my own “group” and Barry was going steady with Pat Kelly. I went to their wedding the year after we graduated. It was in that sweet little town on the Ottawa River, L’Orignal. We had a swell time, first class and formal. And they are still married. I had a kind of meeting of hearts and minds with Barry at the reunion which was unexpected and very pleasing. I don’t normally socialize with attorneys -- they are so dull and most of them can’t speak English, much less write it.
Barry is a good writer and that training and ability makes him a better lawyer than most; and while he tends to hold forth with a courtroom demeanor in social situations, summarizing his argument and refuting others, he does it well. He speaks in well-formed sentences with dependent clauses that support the thrust of the verb.
I can understand him. He is an authority. Somebody’s got to be the boss.
But I remember Father Madden’s class. It was Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. It was a real sleeper.
The Academic Method, as Devised by Fred Owens
The Jesuits had me trained pretty good by the time I arrived at St. Mike’s. I knew all the rules of grammar and composition, a fair amount of math and science, and I had a pretty good understanding of what a “liberal education” meant.
My parents had enough money, which meant I could look forward to learning as much as I could about whatever I wanted for four years, without any thought of what good it would do me later.
Now, this last concept was one I was actually born with. I was always perplexed when an aunt or uncle asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I can honestly say that I never gave it a moment’s thought until age thirty, when I determined to be a writer.
I found it quite annoying that people would ask me such a pointless question to which I, always a thorough smart aleck, had no ready answer.
I didn’t decide to attend St. Mike’s; it was just good luck. I had applied to Dartmouth College and Pomona College in California. Both institutions turned me down, thank God. So late in April of my senior year I rushed off an application to St. Mike’s, because I had read that article about the school in Time magazine, because it was Catholic (to please my parents), because it was part of a non-Catholic university (to please myself), and because it was almost 400 miles from home (also to please myself).
That was the extent of my foresight. I arrived on campus, fully expecting to make no friends and to be an unpopular nerd. This had been my high school experience. High school and college have become metaphors for me. High school was hell, and college was redemption. One survives hell -- four years of heavy re-enforcement that one is a jerk -- by keeping a small and dim light burning inside. One abandons all expectations of happiness and maintains only a small glimmer of hope. One is guilty and deserves this punishment, as the Jesuits and grade school nuns so carefully explained -- something to do with original sin, or stealing candy bars or masturbating.
Which explains why I was so amazed that Hunter George became my friend. Hunter is now the managing editor of the Raleigh Observer in North Carolina and married to his college sweetheart, Pat Biggins, an earthy, humorous woman.
At the reunion Hunter won the award for “most youthful.” At the alumni touch football game, he showed up in sweat pants with the actual intention of playing with the younger alumni. The rest of guys were standing around in loafers, saying things like, “We’re successful, we’re in management now. Let’s hire somebody to play for us,” and watching Hunter sprint around the field snagging passes.
He only attended St. Mike’s for Western Year and finished school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. But he was a popular guy and was elected Western class representative to the student council. I didn’t talk to him because I figured I’m a nerd, he’s a class leader, so why bother. Well, he would get right in my face with a big friendly hello. He had that curly black hair on the top of his long, skinny face, and his head would kind of bob and weave, and I’d think, jeez, another politician pretending he likes me. It took a couple of weeks of this before I finally realized that he did like me and wanted to be my friend, and I wasn’t an ugly duckling after all. A couple more weeks of this treatment and I was making friends all over campus. I began to realize that those kids I went to high school with were the real jerks, but I was cool. I turned into a popular guy. That really made me happy.
But I want to get back to academics. The fact is, except for English where Father Madden and Sister Mary Arthur ruined my interest in literature for ten years, I found all the Western courses to be quite easy. I liked Mr. Rainsborough’s chemistry class because he was so entertaining, and I got a lot out of Mr. DiAnni’s philosophy class, especially when he said that he had read the Critique of Pure Reason seven times -- that inspired me. And I attended Father Kelly’s Religious Knowledge class because he would flunk me if I didn’t show up. I slept a lot in his class. Once I woke up after a particularly good nap to hear Father Kelly say, “...and that’s why I voted for Adlai Stevenson in 1952.”
Another time I amused myself by counting the number of times Father Kelly would remove his glasses and put them back on in the course of a lecture -- about thirty times. Attendance was required because he was giving the wisdom of his rich life, but I didn’t know that then. I wish now I could hear him talk.
Other than that I skipped class and acquired a mastery of the academic process. In my last years I developed the all-purpose essay. Basically it was the same essay re-written for different courses. It was a clever idea and here’s how it worked.
The professor would give a list of topics. I would come to his office and request a special assignment because I was doing some independent research in a particular area. They always found this impressive and let me go ahead. So I would drag out the essay, alter the introduction and the conclusion so it had at least a passing reference to the course material, and hand it in. Got an “A” every time. It was a good paper too, with quotes from Alexander Pope and Chuang Tzu. You can visit the attic of my mother’s house in Illinois and read it yourself. I ought to sell it to college freshman.
This freed up my time quite a bit, so I could pursue independent study (and recreation) from September until about mid-March, when I had to curtail my activities and begin studying for the finals.
I majored in psychology, and I wish I hadn’t. This took me away from St. Mike’s and across campus where it was impossible to have any social contact with the professors or other students.
I have changed my mind a lot and developed as a human being with fresh insights; however I have maintained an unwavering conviction for the past twenty years that social science is awful. It is a bastard. There is nothing there. I can prove it to you, but then we would have to examine the creature. Trust me.
Five years ago I found myself saying I wish I had studied history like George Massey did. I didn’t like to utter regrets, and a helpful friend suggested, “Why don’t you study history now?”
So I have. I read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He’s a hero to me. I understand history. I have many happy years ahead of me reading the narrative of ancient days. I thank the habit of independent study which I acquired at St. Mike’s.
I have acquired a small library of classic texts in Latin and Greek. Sometimes they are just an impressive weight on my bookshelf, but in the winter we have meetings of the Skagit Valley Classics Club (there’s two of us) and read Homer and tell Latin jokes.
Four years of Latin punishment from the Jesuits, one year of Cicero as a Western, and then my life was graced by attending Father Owen Lee’s class in Horace and Catullus. It was wonderful. I visited Father Lee in his office during the reunion. I asked him if he remembered me. He said yes. Did he remember any of the other fellows in my class? “Yes, that Gardella, was that his name? He was such a troublemaker.” Lasting impressions.
St. Michael’s is a Catholic school.
I stopped going to Mass when I was 18, as soon as there was no one to make me go. In the past few years I have attended Mass, sometimes one or two months in a row, but there is no lasting connection. I married a non-Catholic divorced woman, and my two children have not been baptized. I had thought for many years that I had quit the Church, but then I had a realization that, actually, they kicked me out. This kind of hurt my feelings, because Mother Church doesn’t really want me back, and hardly noticed that I left. I get the feeling that the Church has never been too interested in my particular situation. I think the Church, as large as it is, should still respond to my personal needs and appreciate what I have to give it. This has not happened. Why, if they have a special branch of the church for dingbat charismatics, don’t they have a special branch for the disobedient ones?
Certainly the particular type of Catholic atmosphere at St. Mike’s was a blessing for me. The Basilian priests, who ran the college, were as unlike the Jesuits in temperament, as it was possible to be. It was like the difference between training and behavioral conditioning on the one hand, and true education on the other hand.
St. Michael’s was like home, and the Basilians tolerated my shenanigans quite well and gave me something I can keep.
There were sweeping changes in theological thinking and the liturgy in the late sixties. Fomenters of revolution like Gregory Baum and less famous ones like Father Queeley were giving Father Kelly and the hierarchy fits. Father Queeley dared to do things with the liturgy (now, of course, accepted practice) that were scandalous. I learned what price a prophet pays. I’ve paid it myself a few times.
I especially remember a weekend at Hart House Farm that may have been the beginning of my longing to live in the country. Father Queeley led twenty-five of us in a supper Mass. We set up tables in a three-sided square and ate spaghetti, preceded by real bread and real wine that was consecrated and then consumed by us all. We then drank quite a bit more wine and sang songs. We nagged him and harassed him, and Kathi Acton bellowed at him. Finally Father Queeley stood up and gave his rendition of “Old Man River.” It was riotously funny.
Then we drifted out of the house in two’s and three’s, into the stubble field with stone walls, on a soft starlit autumn night and....It was bliss.
They had a sauna at Hart House Farm, which was a miracle of its own kind, and if I have a religion today, it is the sweat lodge. The sauna was a small log cabin built by Finnish students in the early fifties, situated next to a deep quarry pond filled with sparkling cold, cold water. The men went first. It was the first sauna for everyone -- about twelve naked men beating each other with cedar branches, sweating in the dark, and howling like banshees. Then quick out the door, and a run out the dock, and a dive down deep into the cold water. I was converted on the spot.
The women came after us. Later we debated whether to go again in the evening all together. The sauna is much too wholesome to be sexual, but we decided that Father Queeley was hanging out pretty far as it was, and a co-ed sauna would be the end of him. I can’t recall making too many mature decisions then, but that was one. Maybe that’s why I trust the sweat lodge, because it helps me to grow and be good.
We came to the Hart House Farm sauna a few times afterwards in smaller groups. I still do it regularly out here, but that first time was special.
I drank a lot when I was in college, especially during the first two years before I started smoking pot. Once I got into drugs, I skipped booze altogether. Mark Mikolas and I got some LSD in the fall of 1966, and we held on to it for three weeks hoping to find someone who could tell us how to take it, and what to expect. But one night we just took it, and it was wonderful, and there was no looking back -- we quit school and hitchhiked to Mexico, inhabiting that other World.
Before that I drank, and got drunk, passed-out-puking drunk, quite a few times, with monstrous hangovers. I remember getting up at 6 a.m. with a raging thirst, staggering to the pop machine in the basement, and drinking two cans of orange soda.
Pints of scotch, going out with girls to weekend parties, going back to the bedroom and fumbling around together underneath the coats. We would jam into those apartments on Saturday night. I wasn’t really happy unless the music was very loud, and there was an absolute crush of sweaty bodies. I don’t think I would care for that sort of thing today. The furniture was so ratty.
We went to the bars, especially the BayBloor, so named because it was near the intersection of Bay Street and Bloor Street. The tavern was divided into two sections. One section was for “Ladies and Escorts”, the other section was the “Men’s Room.” The women were locked up in their dorms on weeknights anyway, so it was us guys, after studying or trying to, going out for a few cold ones.
We got into ridiculous arguments over politics. The table tops were black, the chairs were chrome. The walls were mustard yellow. There was a hockey game on the TV. It was so stupid that they didn’t have a juke box. How come it wasn’t like America? But the beer was much better, and only 15 or 20 cents a glass. Nick, the Greek waiter, always surly, carried a tray with 12 glasses of beer. The colors of the beer, and the walls, and the faces of the men all mixed together. It seemed like a guy could just lay on the floor and sleep like a baby at home -- all men.
I never really got drunk there like I did if I went to the government liquor store and bought some Scotch. One night I had some Scotch, I think it was a fifth, and I went over to St. Joseph’s to see Nora. She was overweight and neurotic except for her ankles. Her ankles showed you what she could have looked like if she wasn’t such a mess.
I saw her again at the reunion. She had become thin and beautiful, with the same dazzling green eyes and breathy voice. She told me she reads Anna Karenina every few years, just like I do. I still love her. I tried to love her back then, but it was hard to think about anything but sex.
We did some wonderful groping that night with the fifth. First we checked into one of the private rooms off the dorm lobby and locked the door and started drinking. Then, to get really sacrilegious, we went down the hall and wandered into the Mother Superior’s office which was unlocked. We looked at the books and wrestled like monkeys on the rug. I think she passed out first.
Nora cried a lot. She wanted to go to bed with me, but the Pope and her father wouldn’t allow it. I got too frustrated and lost patience and left her. She always had the best boyfriends after that, which made me happy.
Ever go out with someone, and the next guy she goes out with is a jerk? It doesn’t make you feel good. Former girlfriends and lovers ought to exercise good taste and judgment.
I went to college to learn. I did four years of philosophy. I asked all the questions. My mind grew. I challenged all the doctrines. I argued with authority. I read a lot of books. I learned how to write. I sat up late into the night and talked with very interesting, very intelligent people. I read the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which was too flowery to be on the curriculum, and the Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler (too speculative, too non-linear). I didn’t actually read Spengler, but I bought a two-volume set and used it to weigh down the corners of my bedspread on windy nights. I read Love’s Body by Norman O. Brown -- the man was crazy. It was apocalyptic. It wasn’t really that good, looking back, but I kissed his books and sweated out his meaning. I read Herbert Marcuse and I wished I hadn’t.
I stayed up all night, night after night, reading Lord of the Rings. I never went to class. I still don’t go to class or meetings or church and whatever. I still don’t see the point of sitting in a hard chair listening to some blowhard talk for an hour. What am I supposed to do, maintain a respectful silence? They were making fun of me last month because I dozed off at the town council meeting, but it was better than staying awake, at least I could dream.
Whenever I went to class I fell asleep. Mostly I didn’t go. I went to the Coop instead, then to the library, then to someone’s apartment, then to the bar. I didn’t realize it then, but it was like living in a small town, which is how I live today. In 1989 I get up much earlier than I did when I was a student, but otherwise my routine is similar -- I walk around, I go to the coffee shop, the bookstore, the post office, and the grocery store. I visit a lot of people’s house, I read, I cause trouble, but I do it in a professional way because I run a small newspaper.
At the 20th reunion, there was a palpable sense of relief when they found out I had something that was an awful lot like a regular job. I had finally acquired an answer to the question, “What do you do?”
In the early winter of 1967 Mark Mikolas and I dropped out of school and made a hitchhiking trip to New Orleans, then to Mexico City and on to the Yucatan. From there we turned around and head up the west coast to the Haight-Ashbury, then Vancouver, B.C., and finally Alaska. Basically we covered the continent. We took a lot of drugs and met a lot of interesting people. We didn’t take that many drugs, but it sounds really casual to say it like that. We took a lot more drugs than you did, bubba. We took LSD in Toronto, we took mescaline in Houston with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and we took psychedelic mushrooms in the misty mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico. We smoked pot, we spaced out -- and then we came back.
That summer of 1967, I washed dishes in Montauk, Long Island.
That summer of 1967, after I came back to the world and realized, with great disappointment, that everybody had not had the same cosmic Realization that I had been through, I found myself at Montauk in Long Island working at a resort, killing lobsters and chopping parsley for the rich people. I went to work there because Kathi Acton was working, along with some other St. Mike’s girls, at a resort nearby. She was waiting on tables and only making about four times as much money as I did. What ever possessed me to want to be her boyfriend? Believe me, it didn’t last long.
I had gone to visit Mark Mikolas in New York City. He was staying with a psychiatrist by the name of Mark Stern, who lived in a luxurious and historic townhouse in Greenwich Village. It had walls full of wonderful books and fine art, deep pile rugs and a great stereo. Mark was going to his cottage for the summer, and he invited me to look after his place while he was gone for two months. No rent. All of New York City at my feet.
But noooooo, I had to turn it down. I had to go to Montauk and wash dishes for $85 a week with high school dropouts from Georgia just on the chance, only the chance, that Kathi and I might get along in a romantic way. We were both working so hard that we hardly had a chance to see one another, an hour a day at the most -- which was good because our relationship lasted about fourteen days of high intensity hi-jinks. It was, as they say, not meant to be.
She was so strong and she had no chin. I see one of those square-jawed announcers on television and I think, “He stole Kathi’s chin.” She had a small head and close-set eyes, and hips about a yard wide. You didn’t notice how full her bosom was because she was a bit round-shouldered. She wasn’t pretty. She wore a pale-pink lipstick once, but it didn’t work. She walked like a man with a heavy heal that hit the ground.
She was a great cusser. I can’t cuss that well myself. She didn’t so much inspire as lecture. Someone pointed out to me, many years later, that she didn’t live up to the high standards that she urged on everyone else. Well, I never noticed it at the time, and I don’t fault her for it now.
She was smart, but all the women at St. Mike’s were smart, and generally smarter than the men. She was a go-between between the women and the men because she could make herself at home with either group -- that’s why she had the goods on all of us. It was easy for a man to be friends with her. I was always pawing at the other women, or drooling, or putting on a show. With her I could talk.
She was an instigator and impossible to please. If she knew I was writing this class history, she would be nagging me to finish it and make it a lot better than it is. She died about four years ago from a brain tumor. I believe, and this is very interpretive, that she got so angry and completely frustrated with the impossible circumstance of her adult life, that her head just busted. I mean no disrespect -- she had power and no place to put it.
Two years after that, Brian Fredericks, her main boyfriend at college, also died. Kathi and Brian both died so young, and it seemed so eerie, as if Kathi was in some other Heaven and with all her power, she brought Brian back home with her. I believe they’re both happy now.
A Day in the Life...
I used to get up about ten or eleven and head for the Coop. I never ate breakfast. I never read the newspaper and I never watched television. Nora Glass and Michael Crawford used to go the movies all the time. I think they saw Bonnie and Clyde seven times. I never went to the movies.
I had my own fashion sense which was four days the slob, and on the fifth day, a gentleman, then two more days the slob. I had accumulated enough underwear so that I could go for long periods without doing the wash. I had one of the best wardrobes on campus -- no lie -- the best sweaters, choicest ties, and the most tasteful sport coats and suits. Every once in a while I would dress up and look good, and then people would ask me, “Why are you all dressed up today?” That always bugged me, but the answer was, “just to let you guys know that I know how.”
To tell the truth I was a snob about my clothes. I looked way down my nose at the Canadians. I couldn’t say that today. I’ve been out in the woods so long, I’m the one who is dowdy now.
Jim Gardella used to take the most care in getting dressed. He had an elaborate shave and shower routine; he diligently combed his thinning hair and carefully selected his clothes. The results were not very impressive.
But a discussion of campus fashion could not be complete without mention of, indeed must culminate with, the great trendsetter himself, Paul Schulte. Talk about taste!
Who pioneered the “retro” look? Walk the streets of town today and see the youngsters in their over-sized coats. Who started that? See a hipster wearing three shirts and two belts? I know where that came from. In New York City, the fashion-conscious prowl the aisles of secondhand stores looking for wide-flowered ties and bowling shirts. Who was the first? Who brought back double-breasted blazers with lapels big enough to impale a goat? It was our man Schulte.
Schulte was ahead of his time. He had a potbelly when he was nineteen. Schulte didn’t have a chin either, but he had a pretty good forehead and a distinguished round nose to hold up his glasses. His father was an employee of the Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh and made impossible demands on him. Of course it was even worse for Bill Rocket whose father was an FBI agent, but Schulte had a pretty hard life at home. He was rarely there if he could help it. Schulte was a character. I suppose it takes one to know one.
Back at the Coop we were hanging out, filling up ashtrays, books piled up on the table, coats draped over the backs of chairs. It would be ten minutes to two in the afternoon and someone would say, “If I get going right now, I can make that class over at Syd Smith....I’m so far behind now it doesn’t matter....There’s Ann, is she still going with Richard?...I’m not going to party this weekend, I’m going to hit the books real hard and catch up.” Of course we skipped class -- we had a lot of important things to talk about. We used to talk about what an asshole John Lemanzo was for selling fake Connecticut birth certificates for $10 when he could have given them away.
No cars. Nobody had cars. We walked everywhere. It’s a better way. Today I will not live anyplace where I can’t walk to the grocery store, the post office, the bar, and the bookstore. I hate cars. They take up too much room and destroy the sense of community.
There was a sense of community at St. Mike’s. I felt like I was in love with 500 people. I felt like I was very good friends with people I hardly knew. I have never quite felt the same about any other place or group of people, and it wasn’t just because we were young. I have tried to describe this experience to people who weren’t there, and all I get is a blank stare or an amused smile.
At the dinner on Saturday night of the reunion, Father Madden looked at me and I looked at him and I asked, “What’s going on, what is this?”
He said, “It’s a miracle.”
I remember standing in the middle of St. Nicholas Street in May, 1968 -- everybody was leaving, graduated and going away. I couldn’t believe it, I was furious. I had lived that year with Tom Orent and George Massey and Richard Smith. Paul Schulte and Brian Fredricks and Jim Gardella lived upstairs.
I can tell you a lot of stories about 55 St. Nicholas Street, but when it was all over, after four years, everybody was leaving. I stood apart from the group. Kathi Acton was there. There were hugs and farewells -- I didn’t want anything to do with it. I didn’t see the point of all of us being such good friends, having so much love -- and now we were all going our separate ways.
How could I ever meet people as good as that? And I didn’t understand why we didn’t just keep on living in the same big house, or at least on the same block. I think it still makes me mad. There’s still a lot of things I don’t understand.
Except I forgot to tell you about the refrigerator, which was painted with black and white swirls. This was my psychedelic period, so the entire apartment was painted in swirls of rainbow colors. I took the black paint and made these shapes that dripped over the walls and onto the floor, and up on to the table, sort of erasing all the formal four-walled dimensions of the room.
In the long hallway, I made a wall of amoeba trophies. I think there was about thirty of them. Then came the day-glow swirls that I made with spray paint. The bathroom was all blue and green, in a pattern of letters that read “Are you experienced?” which was inspired by the music of Jimi Hendrix. A trip into our apartment was like a trip into Jimi Hendrix’s brain.
The left half of the toilet was blue and the right half was green. The inside of the bath tub was blue and green which made soaking more fun.
The living room had white walls and visitors were invited to write their comments with pen or magic marker. Soon the wall was covered with interesting words. It was our custom to stay up all night, generally until four or five a.m., playing records and smoking pot, if we had it, which was about half the time.
But I’m telling you about the refrigerator. It needed defrosting -- that was my job. You may not believe this, but I did all the housekeeping and cleaning in that apartment for the whole year, even though I had three roommates. Yes, I washed all the dishes and took out the trash, cleaned the bathroom and swept the floor, because those other bums would simply not do it. They would just sit there and ignore the squalor. I became the housemother, and that’s where I learned to do domestic chores.
To hurry up the defrosting, I borrowed Tom Orent’s bayonet and began to hack away at the frost. I punctured the tubing, and the gas hissed out, which concerned me, because I wasn’t sure if it was poisonous or not. I asked around the apartment, but no one thought it was a bother. I called the fire department anyway, thinking they would know if freon gas is dangerous. They asked my address and I gave it to them. They said they would be coming right over. I said no need to come over, I just want to know if freon gas is poisonous. They said sorry, but if you call we have to send someone over. I argued with them, but in ten minutes three firemen showed up at the door wanting to look at the frig. I showed it to them and asked them if freon gas was dangerous. They said they didn’t think it was, but since I had made a call they had to do something. So they picked it up and started to carry it down the fire escape.
This got me really mad -- I yelled at them that they couldn’t take my frig, but they said they could. I threatened to call the police because they were stealing the frig. George and Richard calmed me down. They said I really shouldn’t call the police to complain about the firemen -- it would look odd.
The three firemen took the frig out to the alley and left it there. Then I turned my fury on George and Richard and told them they would have to bring it back upstairs. The frig sat out in the alley for a week before they got around to hoisting it back up the fire escape.
Long disheveled black hair tumbling down her back
I remember being in the second floor lobby of Carr Hall, in September, 1964, just starting school, waiting there to get into Father Waldron’s office. He was the assistant registrar, a grey-haired bespectacled priest who assigned the Western students their courses.
Waiting in the line in front of me -- on the second or third day since my parents had delivered me, now emancipated, 18, a baby-man, to St Mike’s -- was Curley Dowling. Boy, was I ready for her. She was a vision in beatnik black. She had a black trench coat and high heels. She had looo-ong disheveled black hair tumbling thickly down her back. She was tall. She was not pretty, with a blotchy complexion and round nose. She chewed her fingernails and smoked Pall Malls.
We struck up a conversation. I had just spent four miserable years with 1,600 snotty, spoiled suburban punks at Loyola Academy in Chicago -- all boys. Here was a woman. I immediately began to see the possibilities. She recognized something in me that I had never dreamed of. We were kindred spirits. Things happened fast. It became too boring to wait in line to register -- all this administration nonsense. We decided to go to Yonge Street for a cup of coffee. I didn’t even drink coffee, but I was game. The conversation became -- what’s a good student word? -- intense. In those years I had a lot of intense conversations, and this was the first one.
Oh, the world was new, and I was just born, the structure fell away and I was free. Curley, it turned out, unlike all the other Western women, did not live in the dormitory. She shared an apartment with her older sister Gretchen, a senior. Heaven.
We went to the apartment and someone brought over the beer that night. Curley and I walked around town and made love in the elevator late at night. Or maybe it was just drunken groping, we didn’t know better. It was very passionate.
Curley didn’t stay with me long. She hooked up with David, a “hippie” who lived in Yorkville. This was 1964, so I put the word in quotes, it being the first time I ever heard it.
But I loved her still and we became friends. During our school years it seemed that she was available for me when I was going with someone else, and then I would break up with that someone, but she had a new boyfriend.
Once, several years afterwards we met at a bar across from Grand Central Station in New York. We drank the place dry and had our last intense conversation. She caught the milk train back to Greenwich, and I never saw her again.
Five years after that she sent me a postcard: she had married an attorney and was living in Portland, Maine.