Sunday, July 26, 2009

Roommate Retardation

Recently I was listening to an All Things Considered bit about kids who were about to move away from home and start college, and about the roommates they were to soon encounter at their choice of higher-learning institutions. One kid was nervous about moving in with his gay roommate, and had his mom call the school to try to make different arrangements. Long story short: a lot of people wrote and called in to tell stories of their own experiences rooming with scary, culturally different people, and how ultimately, the experience of living with and getting to know these people who were so outside their realm of comfort ended up being a blessing, as they learned a lot and got to know someone who they continued being friends with long after college had ended.

As I was listening, I felt that the program had not addressed the situation in which I had found myself on my first day in college. What does one do when they are arbitrarily matched to room with a moron?

Those were different times, back then. One couldn't look up a new roommate on Facebook or Myspace. Maybe the two would exchange a letter, or a phone call. I opted for the latter, and I knew very soon: This guy and I are not going to get along.

A little background on the living situation: The art school I had chosen to attend had recently completed five floors of a state of the art dormitory, complete with suites with shared bathrooms, media rooms and a communal studio on each floor. 24-hour security stood sentry over the comings-and-goings of residents, and copious socializing space ensured that residents had ample opportunity to network and get to know one another.

This was not the dormitory in which I lived.

Baker Hall was to be my home for my first year of adulthood. Baker was owned by a nearby Technological Institute, and the Art College rented a floor for its overflow population, those who were too poor to afford the new digs, or were late to come to the party. I was a bit of both. Baker was five stories of dorm rooms that could favorably be called Spartan: Square rooms with ersatz cinder block walls, painted white to reflect the sickly fluorescent lights. Two bathrooms serviced the entire floor, one for boys, one for girls. Heavy steel doors with enormous deadbolts protected that 14 by 14 cell, consisting of one window, two beds, two wardrobes, and a low, rickety "work table" and a pair of stiff work chairs. Security was a rarity in this building, and it was a treat to have a security guard that would bother to spend the entire night sitting on a hard plastic chair behind a small metal desk. Homeless people would find their way in, break into the rooms on the abandoned fifth floor and squat until the smell of crack smoke or excessive b.o. would alert someone to their presence, in which case they would be ejected, only to start the whole process over again the next day.

I was the first to arrive to our dorm room. The date was September 6th, 1992. It was a warm and sunny day in Boston, a very exciting day for me, moving from the desolate woods of Maine to the Big City. I quickly set up my stereo and blasted Ministry's "Psalm 69", positive that musical taste was the surest way to broadcast one's personality and interests. For comparison, the room to my right was cranking hip-hop, while the room to my left was offering Kiss. I figured, as a former metal head, completely sold on the grunge revolution, I was sure to make friends quickly.

Then Derek showed up. He was dressed head to toe in Chess King. His hair was shellacked with gel and a "gold" chain hung around his neck. He smiled out the side of his mouth and offered his hand to shake. I took it, sizing him up. No good can come of this, I thought.

Fortunately I had a couple friends from high school who had moved in nearby just a few weeks earlier. I bid Derek a hasty farewell and went over to their apartment to reunite and indulge in some rooftop chemicals with them.

"How's the room?" Jared asked me.

"Is Cell-like a word?" I replied.

"Meet your roommate yet?" He asked.

"I dunno, man," as I hoisted the pipe to my lips.

Looking back on it now, I think there was a kind of Survivalist Mentality that settled in to everyone who lived on the floor. We all knew well that the other dorm was a sparkling hotel, littered with high thread-count sheets and mints on pillows compared to our shanty town. We were alone, left to cling to and support one another through our hardships. Needless to say, many very strong friendships grew out of this shared experience, some of which continue to this day, 17 years later. For a while, with no formal agreement or preparation, someone would wander from room to room, gathering people for dinner at the dining hall. We would all walk in en masse, like a biker gang. Everyone would turn to look warily at these wild and unruly savages, boisterously kicking open the doors and hooting like madmen.

Yet, despite this sinking-ship togetherness, there were some pariahs. As I mentioned in this post, a poor lad earned the unfortunate nickname Stinky Fat Elvis due to his reluctance to shower and his striking resemblance to the Rhinestone Jumpsuit-era Elvis. Many nicknames came out of that building: Wicked Smaht, The Yeti, Kurtlet, Pretentious-H Jhenn.

And then there was Derek. He earned the unfortunate name Corky due to his seemingly lower-than-average intelligence. That poor bastard. It was no secret he wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. It probably didn't help that I was his roommate. I certainly did nothing to help his cause.

Some stories to illustrate the point:

Derek had a tattoo of Jessica Rabbit on his ankle. This was well before tattoos were commonplace and widely accepted. But even then, I know that this was the work of a douchebag. The thing was, Jessica was depicted only from the waist up, and Derek would spend a LOT of time making sure that his sock covered up the fact that she had no pelvis or legs. I was never able to ascertain what the reason for this was. Was it designed this way? Did the tattoo artist not know how to do bottoms? Was Derek too much of a puss to endure the bottom half of the tattoo? Or too cheap to pay for the whole thing?

Freshman year means that there are a lot of required courses for the young scholars to take. Unfortunately, Derek and I were placed into a writing course together. At one point, we were having an in-class exam. Derek happened to be sitting ahead of and to the right of me. 10 minutes into the exam, he turned around, and with no attempt at subtlety went:

"Hey roomie" I tried to ignore him. He tried again. Then again.

"What?!" I nearly hissed at him.

"Is #1 like the thing that we talked about last night, when..."

"Derek. Shut the fuck up and turn around," I glared at him. He took on a slightly confused look and slowly turned back to his paper. I looked to the front of the class, where the professor was glaring at us.

A big part of dorm life is just hanging out. It's kind of like summer camp. Spontaneous events would spring up in a room, in the hallway. Sing-alongs, movie screenings, spirited debates. Often these were participated in while wearing casual, at-home garb. After all, this was our home. I remember many a conversation where the theme seemed to not only be Gardner's Art Through The Ages, but sweatpants. But not for Derek. Oh no. Please try to understand, gentle reader. I could not make this stuff up if I tried. Derek would routinely walk around the halls dressed in black socks (positioned to display Jessica, natch), a Dallas Cowboys half-shirt tee, and blue bikini briefs. Again. Not Kidding. He would then go on to complain about "How cold it is," while my fellow dorm-dwellers would look on, mouths agape, and incredulous.

Eventually Derek moved out. He lasted maybe a semester. I don't know the reason for his departure, and I don't know if he continued his studies at the school. I did help him move out, however. Loaded his crap into his father's station wagon, stood on the curb waving goodbye as they pulled away, went upstairs and jumped on his bed, joyously yelling "Mine! Mine! Mine!".

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