Now that I’ve told you about being young and cool, here’s the exact opposite. I was eighteen and had just started at Emerson College in Boston, a school I chose mainly because it was both entertainment-related and not in the Midwest. Turned out to be a pretty nasty culture shock: my longest visit to the East coast before moving there had been my three-day school tour.
I knew the place had a rep for being a real fruitbowl, so I figured how bad can this be? At least it’s not the mix of ironed-polo family company heirs and majorless state school/community college fuckups I’d been stuck with the past four years. Sure, there’ll be auteurs and drama queens, but at least they’re genteel enough to do coke like adults instead of sucking down cans of Milwaukee’s Best so hard you’d think Brian Urlacher’s cock’s inside them. Right?
WRONG. Never had I seen such a collision of self-seriousness, entitlement, and willful ignorance. If NYU’s students are the embodiment of masturbating to a Terrence Malick movie for its deep cultural criticisms, Emerson’s are masturbating to Glee for the same reason. Think I’m exaggerating? Okay.
Orientation week. All the freshmen on my dorm floor sit around, drinking beers. Everyone says where they’re from—New Englanders, Atlantic staters who couldn’t get into any New York school, Californians who picked the place as some kind of statement. I’m the only Midwesterner. I tell them I’m from Chicago, to which they respond (as I would find out, how every Emerson student does) either, “I super want to visit there!” or, “I went there once and it was sooo cool!”
A few minutes later, someone makes a light-hearted jab at the Midwest. I do what I do when among people I haven’t yet figured out I don’t need to pretend to give a shit about, which is make a broad, inclusive, “funny” comment like “Hey, watch what you say about the Midwest! I might have to politely disagree!” Then, some girl from Orange County, completely serious, asks why. I pause.
“You know, because I’m from Chicago, and it’s in the Midwest.” She twists her face up, like I’ve just told her about some calorie-cutting tip. “Really?” I pause again. “Yeah, uh, it’s in Illinois, which is a Midwestern state.” She laughs. “Oh! I thought Chicago was in New York!” And then everybody laughs with her. Implied: at me. Because she is confident and breezy and fun in her disregard for something people who have ever worked have known since preschool.
Anyway, none of that is the actual story. It’s all character and setting development (something I was taught to do at a very expensive writing school I’ll have you know). Things turned around for me at the orientation sketch comedy showcase. Finally, people who didn’t activate my gag reflex, live and in person! I knew if I didn’t get into a troupe I’d hang myself with a keffiyeh, so I auditioned and blah blah blah I wound up with Emerson Comedy Workshop, the oldest and most cynical troupe on campus.
A big part of getting into ECW is getting life-threateningly drunk at the orientation party. Not really. The older members insist on getting everyone plastered, but then it doesn’t happen. Pretty common practice in urban schools, where parties happen in off-campus apartments rather than frat houses a five-minute walk away from dorms.
I did not know this.
Here’s how I remembered it: I drank five or six PBRs in about half an hour, and then went out on the fire escape to smoke some weed. I took a hit, passed it, and… that’s it. I woke up the next morning in a strange apartment, on a futon, in nothing but underwear and socks. Mystery time! Nearby, also in underwear and socks, was this man:
So I panicked. I thought I’d hang onto my ass cherry until Hollywood; looks like that plan’s as fucked as I am. After some wide-eyed ceiling-staring panic, my new friend woke up and explained it all. Seems my biggest culture shock was that I drank like a Midwestern state school freshman instead of a Boston art school freshman. Back home, it’s acceptable, nay, encouraged for 18-20 year olds to drink until they black out and commit felonies. Here, you drink with people who keep a good buzz on all night and then get themselves home, because getting trashed lost its allure at 16.
Oh, also, I puked all over myself and the hosts’ furniture, floor, and bathroom.
He dragged me to his place because I was too incoherent to tell anyone where I lived. Since my clothes were ruined, he loaned me his biggest shirt (which still cut off circulation to my hand-fat). None of his shorts fit over my muffin top, though, so he suggested I just go out in my boxers. Would’ve done it, too, but it was a windy day and that pair didn’t have a dick-flap button. Our solution? Fold up a bedsheet and wrap it around me like a toga. Neither of us knew how to tie a toga, though, so around the waist it went.
I thought I had nothing to lose at this point. WRONG AGAIN. Still drunk, I asked him for directions to the subway, then immediately forgot them and wandered around the neighborhood. In one hand, I clenched the sheet to keep it from falling; in the other, horrible-smelling black bags full of my belongings. I got directions from a bewildered-looking stranger and made it to the train station.
Seeing me fumble with the ticket machine, along came a kind ol’ BPD officer. “Do it like this, kid. Press the button heah and the ticket comes out, yagotit?” Making great strides in my attempt to appear homeless and schizophrenic! Does it get better? It does! Once I’m on the train itself, I tried to focus as hard as possible on the ground, but couldn’t, because of the giggling and mass of camera phones.
Finally, I got to my stop and walked into my dorm. It was just before nine a.m., so the young night security guy was still there. Avoid eye contact oh shit he’s clapping. He stands up. Big smile. And announces: “We have a winner!”
At that moment I knew that I was the most pathetic person on earth. I curtsied, because at this point fuck it, and climbed to my room.
I had spent the past fourteen years trying to capture the elusive coolness I’d felt at four, living in petrifying fear of a public meltdown. When I tell this story now, it’s not to come off as cool, but to explain why I’m not cool at all. Just three years ago I was at this level of social development. More than that, though, this moment was pivotal for me because ECW didn’t mind.
I had tried so hard to make a positive impression on the only people I had so far tolerated, and did the exact opposite. Several of the people who saw me puke on that couch, including its owner, turned into my closest friends in Boston. It took until then for me to learn that fear of fucking up was what made me fuck up in the first place, and that making mistakes wouldn’t wreck me forever. Being myself, whatever that meant, wasn’t anything to be afraid of.
I feel like most self-assured people are taught that at an early age. I wasn’t. (Making you feel like a worthless sinner is what keeps hardline Christianity in business, folks!) Every story on this blog takes place between this one and the last, and is about the shit a kid can get himself into when he hasn’t figured any of that out yet. So, trust me, the rest are going to be shorter, funnier, and won’t have these bullshit preachy sections at the end.
I guess I should go out on a joke.