Fear and Loathing in the American University
Scattered thoughts about another lifetime, long ago in a galaxy far away.
Jesus Creeping God! Is there a priest in this tavern? I want to confess! I'm a fucking sinner! Venal, mortal, carnal, major, minor - however you want to call it, Lord... I'm guilty.
~Hunter S. Thompson, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
In May of 1999, nearly a quarter of a century ago, I graduated high school with just over a 4.0 GPA, very near the top of my class, got into college on a full-ride scholarship and then, within the first semester, flunked all of my classes and dropped out of school.
One of my most vivid memories of the one and only semester I spent in the dorms is of the DXM we bought in raw powder form. We took way too much. It’s a dissociative, and as it kicked in I began to lose control over basic motor functions. My mind was still sharp, not boozy addled. But my body refused to acknowledge even the most basic commands.
I remember walking down the hall to get a drink of water and I could barely manage a straight line, rubbernecking the fountain as I careened by. Stop, I told my legs. No, my legs replied.
Then came the sick.
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I have never thrown up so much or so violently in all my life before or since. Projectile-vomiting all over the dormitory bathroom stalls, doubled up in our twisted misery. We filled up every toilet, splattered the walls.
Once the bile was spent, I dry-heaved so hard it felt like someone—some massive angry brute—was gut-punching me. Strong hard fists to the stomach. Heave-ho heave-ho.
Thankfully, this was a holiday weekend and almost everyone was gone, but there was some random guy leaving the bathroom at one point and he warned me as I was going in to be careful, someone had thrown up in there a lot.
I nodded. Played it cool. Surely, he suspected nothing.
I remember walking into the bathroom, and my roommate was in there in all his clothes with the shower on saying “I want my brain back, I want my brain back” over and over again like some pathetic overdose mantra.
Later that night, some friends showed up and took me driving. We smoked weed and sat out in the crisp night air and watched the clouds drift by and I came down slowly and in good company. The next morning we laughed about it. We were happy to be alive.
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. ~William Shakespeare, Hamlet
I remember, in my first semester I was taking Honors classes and I had English with a really great professor whose name I’ve completely forgotten. Over the summer, before school started, we were given a reading assignment. This is before classes began, and I remember bristling at the thought of having summer homework. I was done! I’d graduated! Filled out all the applications and written all the essays and put in the time. I wanted to hang out with friends and make a little money and just be free.
The book assigned was Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible which had come out the year before and was very trendy and much ballyhooed. I’m thinking about all of this, weirdly enough, because Kingsolver just won the Pulitzer Prize for her new novel, Demon Coppperhead, an American retelling of Dickens’s David Copperfield set in the Appalachians, which I considered reading briefly before I remembered my deep antipathy toward Kingsolver’s other book.
24 years ago, but old passions run deep and so do old hatreds.
It was one of those Literary Novels™ that stirred up a lot of buzz in the book club circuit. Middle-aged women gushed over it, including my high school English teacher, who I adored but whose tastes didn’t always align with mine. You could picture the lines at Kingsolver’s book signings, the stench of perfume. I remember reading a chapter and then shelving it. Not for me. I wanted to read Allen Ginsberg howl. I was into Jack Kerouac and Michael Moorcock. I read The Doors Of Perception and other non-fiction about drugs and homosexuality. Buddhism and the history of psychedelics. Deviance and debauchery. Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey. I thought maybe I’d study Islam or convert to Judaism and become a mystic.
All I knew at the time is that I didn’t want to read some trendy Barbara Kingsolver novel featured on Oprah’s Book Club—and so I didn’t. On the first day of English class, after pleasantries, the professor asked the class who had read the assigned novel and every last of one of my classmates’ hands shot up in the air like good little soldiers. Mine did not.
The professor noticed, of course, and asked me why. “I had better things to read,” I said, which in retrospect I realize is just incredibly arrogant and rude, but at the time it felt honest and real.
Maybe I’ve buried the lede: I was kind of an asshole when I was 18. I’m probably still kind of an asshole. I don’t like taking orders. It’s why I do this for a living instead of getting a square job. It’s why I came very close, in those years, to joining the marines but backed out when I thought long and hard—not about the dangers of war—but about the curfews.
I never did read The Poisonwood Bible.
I read many other books in college, of course. A great deal of Native American literature, actually. But I was, back then, impatient with school and with structure and with tests and all the associated bullshit. I didn’t care about a degree. I didn’t want a career. I wanted to read novels and poetry and then write novels and poetry. I wanted to sleep on rooftops and wander around in the forest on LSD. I wanted to write songs and sing them to pretty girls and get laid and I wanted, perhaps more than anything, to get high. I did all that.
Then I crashed and burned.
"Every woman that I've slept with
Every friendship I've neglected
Didn't call when grandma died
I spend my money getting drunk and high
I've done things unprotected
Proceeded to drive home wasted
Bought things to win over siblings
I've said awful things, such awful things
Now it's out"
~Father John Misty, Ideal Husband
In Shakespeare Lit I came up with an idea so crazy it just might work. It occurred to me that the song Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen fit almost perfectly with Hamlet It was one of those rarest of stoner revelations—the kind you act on.
I decided to recruit the rest of my class. We’d abridge the play to fit the song. When Hamlet kills Polonius, Freddie Mercury’s angelic crooning kicks in: Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead. We’d read some key scenes, lip-synced the song where it fit, the whole shebang. These were Lit kids, not thespians, but I was a theater kid in high school and I missed it, so I made it happen.
Life had just begun…now I’d gone and thrown it all away….
On the day of the final, I told the professor that we were going to perform Hamlet instead of taking the test. It was the old guy’s last year. He was retiring, ready to hang his hat. I banked on him not caring enough to stop us. I got every single kid in that class onboard. And the old guy went along with it, too. We put on a good show.
I got out of that class with a B. But nobody had to take the final.
"If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?"
~ George Carlin
On 9/11 I was too spun out on meth for the tragedy to really register. When I went to class that day, everyone was in a state of shock, all grey-faced and ashy-hollow with disbelief, and I remember all I could think was what a bunch of fucking frauds, they’ll be out partying later, they’ll forget the whole thing by the weekend. Not that I was any better, I just didn’t want to pretend. I couldn’t bring myself to watch the footage, though. Everything smelled like war back then.
A deep, stony cynicism crept in during those years, like some bloodless coup, and where once I felt a wild and reckless idealism, I began to inch closer toward despair and self-destruction. The first time I did meth I couldn’t sleep for days and I started having panic attacks and had to go to the university clinic and get Xanax just to come down. Later I got valium prescribed for anxiety and started doing benzos in earnest.
I got into two car accidents. One on the freeway driving home from Mexico trying to stay awake vis-à-vis cocaine—don’t try this at home, kids. While speeding down a long bend in the road, I fell asleep and crashed into the cement median instead of dumping off the side of a pretty steep cliff, like some underpaid guardian angel was tilting at steering wheels on my behalf. The second time was late one night, outside a local elementary school high on benzos and painkillers and boxed wine (that I buried near the crash site).
My car got stuck on a boulder and I hit my head on the glass, and then stumbled over to a friend’s house, threw rocks at his window. We trudged back to the old smashed up Oldsmobile but couldn’t make it budge. I was living at home with my parents at this point so I went home and passed out. The next morning, reality came crashing down in the form of my father, angry and rigid and justifiably upset, looming in the doorway.
One time, I remember my dad stopped by my apartment downtown. He was working at the university and he came over looking for a ride home. Maybe he was actually just stopping by to check up on me. Probably he was worried. I don’t know.
We were all there in a circle, my friends and I, middle of the day, drinking beer and smoking pot and cigarettes and having a fine old time when he showed up unexpected. I was embarrassed on both ends.
“I can’t,” I told him.
He walked away.
I shut the door.
algebra angered me
opera sickened me
charlie chaplin was a
and flowers were for
~Charles Bukowski, ‘Let It Enfold You.’
After a couple bad years, I calmed down a bit. I started taking my writing more seriously. I’d written some pretty good poetry, and I wanted to get better, to hone my craft. I had big, vague dreams about an MFA program. Maybe Iowa, or Missoula—back to my Montana roots. But school was still a weird place. I never really felt like I belonged.
We were reading short stories out loud in a circle one day in a creative writing class, and one of my classmates was reading his story pretty dramatically. Like so much of the writing you encounter in college, it was painful.
It read like a parody. The writer was effeminate, but he was writing a tough guy, or trying to. It didn’t work. I feel bad even saying this. Hell, I felt bad at the time. But what’s the point of a writer’s workshop if you’re not telling the truth? Nobody in these classes is a reliable critic. Everyone’s too afraid to speak their mind because it might hurt someone else’s feelings.
“I dunno man,” I said when it was my turn. “He’s just such a pussy.”
This was a summer school class. I was working full time at this point at a local pizza place and taking classes to make up for lost time. I’d already dropped out of college twice so I was taking 12 credits over the summer and pulling down 30-40 hours honing my pizza craft each week. I spent all day in class and then I’d bike over to work where I was flipping pies. Once the rush was over I’d bust out a six pack and do my homework. Smoke pot in the back and cigarettes out front. Bike home at 2am. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
“Such a pussy,” I said, and then hell froze over. Shocked disbelief on all the faces of all these college kids, but oh man I wish they could have been there the night before, at my buddy’s brother’s house when they gave the redneck acid and he lost his mind. They were listening to Insane Clown Posse as loud as the volume knob could go (and changing it back to ICP every time I tried to sneakily switch it to scar tissue that I wish you saw, sarcastic mister know-it-all) and they were trying to kick the ceiling like it was some machismo competition of manliness, which was a weird vibe for an acid trip, and then he went off driving, this redneck motherfucker, blasted out of his mind. Up and down that road. I kept thinking he’d crash or kill someone.
I learned, years later, how his wife came home and found him hanging.
Such a pussy.
“We don’t use that word,” my professor said after a few stony seconds of silence, and I felt like a child being talked down to by a parent whose patience was on the verge of crumbling. I felt like punching something. Like swinging for the fences.
“He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.”
― Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son
My favorite grown-up adult person at university was one of my other creative writing professors, a published poet who was smarter than just about anyone else I encountered those years, and certainly a better writer. I respected him as a teacher more than as a poet, which isn’t a dig by any means. It’s no simple thing to teach poetry.
If we’re being honest, it sounds crazy to even try.
He was also kind of an asshole, which I found endearing. Never flinched from telling us when our work was shit, which it was more often than not. But that kind of rebuke made the eventual praise all the sweeter. I didn’t care about grades much, but I cared about the notes he’d scrawl on my poems. You’re nothing at all, no kind of artist, if you can’t take criticism. You’re lucky if anyone even bothers.
He dated my high school English teacher at one point, actually, and before we ever met—my senior year—she invited him to come give a talk. I drew a goofy cartoon on the dry erase board that morning and when she came in her jaw dropped. “Who drew this!?” she demanded, stifling a what the fuck, utterly aghast, erasing my scribbles with gusto.
When he showed up, I understood: I’d drawn, inadvertently, a perfect caricature. Even down to the glasses. The spitting goddamn image. The hair, the jawline, the eyes.
I remember seeing him one day walking downtown. It was the middle of the afternoon, sunny out. Maybe I was walking home after lunch. It was just outside of the billiards place and he was staggering down the street, drunk as a skunk, didn’t even notice me. I didn’t say “Hi.” Just kept walking.
He blew his brains out a year or two later.
I was working some shitty job. I ran into an old friend and she told me what happened. We’d taken his class together, a master’s level writing workshop as undergrads, a nice ego boost.
We’d sit outside during break and smoke cigarettes and gossip. One time she told me she didn’t like men with beards. Scratchy cunnilingus wasn’t her thing. I almost told her I didn’t like chicks with unshaved armpits but I didn’t want to be petty.
I can’t remember where we were when she broke it to me. The suicide news.
She was pretty shook up about the whole thing and I guess I was, too, because later I bawled my eyes out, ugly cried snot tears, heave-ho, heave-ho. I just kept picturing him staggering down the street, drunk and brilliant and broken and filled with some deep, fucked up sadness I couldn’t possibly understand, even though I could. I can.