"Drink beer and have sex with girls." Sage advice, and coming from an MD--Alaska's top retina specialist, no less--I'd have been a fool to ignore it. Dr. Harrison didn't even advise the use of high dosages of Vitamin A, as some experts do, based on associated risks to the liver. It was odd he prescribed beer, although he never specified the dosage. I assumed he meant lots, and endeavored to comply as closely as possible with doctor's orders.
And now that I knew my retinas had a death wish, obtaining an education and its concomitant opportunities seemed the sensible next step. To this end I enrolled in the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Ironically, my parents had urged me to move onto campus so I could walk to class and not have to worry about leases, buses, finding roommates and so on. The irony lies in the assumption that I’d be less distracted if I moved into the dorms. Initially I resisted because I wanted to live in an apartment in town, like a grown-up. Ultimately they prevailed, and it wasn’t long before I realized I was living in an apartment complex where the average resident’s age was 21.
This might not be so bad after all.
I decided to make the best of it.
My apartment number was 211, and it quickly gained campus-wide fame as the essential party spot. As luck should have it, the beer company Steel Reserve brews malt liquor forties at 8.1% per volume ("per volume"...what else would it be, per surface area?) with a bold, red “211” on the label, so we had our unofficial beer sponsor.
The units themselves were more like apartments than traditional university dormitories, each with four individual bedrooms and a common bathroom, living room, dining room, kitchen and storage room. The apartments were drab, as festively decorated as a dentist's office, but we succeed at colorizing the place.
Other than a crabby Russian named Andre who never liked any of the partying but never bothered to move out, I was assigned two new roommates every semester—the most notable and notorious of whom were Matt, Jim, Heath, RJ, Kyle and Shep. Shep is actually a human being, not a big dog, though he was prone to slobbering when drunk. One set of roommates had a three-foot bong named “Dr. Hackupachuck,” who was later smashed to smithereens by a policeman’s flashlight. Everyone had his quirks, and one and all seemed more than willing to assist in my destruction of the place and to host as many parties as we could—at least one a day, but sometimes more.
Many such parties occupy the hazy recesses of my collegiate memories, such as Jim's twenty-first birthday, an affair Jim himself wasn't at. A group of us was awaiting the gentle hippie from Pennsylvania who was, of course, at the bars. We weren’t all twenty-one yet, so many of us stayed behind with Jim in absentia. Someone had bought a cake with a “21!” frosted on it. As the night got later and the kids got drunk, we started flinging bits of cake at each other.
“Hey you idiots,” as I returned from the bathroom. “I hope you’re not wrecking Jim’s—uh oh—“
As I rounded the corner, Brian, the oldest of us—ancient at almost 30—rushed down the hallway brandishing the cake high above his head.
This isn’t going to end well.
As the cake crashed upon me, the war was on. It’s hard to imagine why we would waste beer by squiring our friends with it, but we’d probably had enough anyway, so actually it was the right thing to do. Laughing like drunken hyenas (which are funny in themselves, but untrustworthy), we wadded cake baseballs and flung them at eat other with gusto and glee. Doughy missiles and frosting bombs whizzed and squished against walls and young scholars, as The Clash’s first album declared “I’m So Bored of the USA.” Glass and furniture shattered, and Brian’s copy of Rancid’s Let’s Go! exploded into a dozen pieces. Years later, he told me he'd saved one of the fragments, and that he still had a tiny piece of cake lodged in his wristwatch which he hoped would never fall out.
The cake fight was interrupted by the doorbell.
"Oh god. It's cops."
Doorbells were bad sounds since 211 maintained a strict open-door policy. A knock or a bell-ringing indicated a non-211-approved other was requesting entrance. Outsiders were usually resident advisors or the campus constabulary.
With cake caked in my mohawk and beer trickling down my nose, I staggered to the door, behind which, to my great relief, was merely the RA.
“Having a bit of a party tonight, Dave?” She examined me head to toe.
“What? No, no,” sweetly, "Just doing homework."
Oddly, she didn’t believe me, and I was issued another of scores of warnings.
Upon Jim's arrival home, he couldn’t have been more pleased with the usage of his birthday cake.
“You crazy kids. Well, it’s the thought that counts. As long as you boys had fun. I just wish I could have been here for the cake fight.”
"Yeah, you missed out, dumbass! How was the bar?"
"Fun, except Jules kept yelling at the band to play 'Sweet Home Chicago' after every song. When they finally did, he was pissed because apparently he meant 'Sweet Home Alabama'. Then we got kicked out."
"Ha! Stupid Jules. Well, both those songs suck, anyway."
Cake fighting is hard work, so plum-tuckered, we passed out in cake, beer and fragmented glass and furniture, lulled to sleep by Another Side of Bob Dylan.
Jim's birthday party was more the rule than the exception. Mind you, none of this tomfoolery is commendable, gentle reader, but in retrospect it exists as an odd mix of pathetic and magnificent. I was a ticking time bomb and a relative rookie to the world of hedonism. Growing up, my parents were strict when it came to personal deportment, and I was mostly a pretty good kid. I attended church youth group, was an acolyte, and for a time in high school I wore a massive brass cross around my neck. My parents were longtime church activists, my mother the beloved iconographer and my father a longtime pillar of the church community. They were converts to Orthodox Christianity, and take their faith very seriously.
Not that being a religious kid equates to be a good kid, but I was sheltered and naïve to the ways of the world, and I wanted nothing more than to liberate myself from that shelter. If I had dipped my toes into the water of life with Jens and Craig, I cannonballed in at 211.
Oh, if 211’s walls could talk! They'd complain about all the abuse we heaped upon them. Doubtless, they could have stood for a good sandblasting. We thumb-tacked myriad beer boxes to the walls like pieces of fine art on display for drunken idiots. Girls would leave their bras hanging on the walls. We discovered we could make bottle caps stick to walls by rubbing them against the plaster. We then discovered, with the proper technique, the same feat can be accomplished with an entire beer bottle. And above the back door, constantly beckoning, hung our mighty beer bong, the college student’s most essential school supply.
And there was butter on the walls because Kyle threw some while Heath was passed out on a couch, with his head next to our TV which had a cinder block through the screen (the result of a late-night art project, a sort of “Kill Your Television” display). Heath looked so precious passed out on the couch that Kyle asked me if it was okay to throw sticks of butter at him.
“I don’t see why not. But you’d better ask him first.”
“Heath, may I throw butter at you.”
“Knock yourself out,” Heath mumbled, and the butter barrage began. Heath was just like a bucket of movie theatre popcorn, but not as crunchy. Some of the butter missed Heath and splattered against the walls, leaving yellow smears for fruit flies to enjoy through the duration of the semester.
We threw trash out the window. Beer cans, cigarette butts, milk cartons, pizza boxes: finish a beer, toss it out the window onto the back yard. If it was too cold to keep the window open, you just tossed your trash on the floor where you stood. It was just that simple.
To say we were like livestock would do a grave disservice to livestock.
Drama abounded. Like a quad or a commons, 211 was a student hub. Its open door policy welcomed people at all hours. Couples would argue, drunks would fight, roommates would bicker, and some people, like one friend, Damon, were allergic to alcohol and would lose all control when inebriated.
One night around midterms, Shep, John and I endeavored to study for our exams soberly for a change. Around the kitchen table we sat, trying in vain to concentrate. Damon was having a particularly bad reaction and had been tormenting his girlfriend, Gabi, and anyone else who tried to reason with him. Shep, John and I strained to maintain our focus, while Damon stormed about 211 like a cyclone on meth.
At once, we heard a crash from the storage room.
“What the hell! What’s the crazy fuck doing now?”
We dashed into the storage room to see Damon kicking boxes and throwing our belongings at Gabi.
I jumped on Damon, who was a bodybuilder and considerable stronger than me. I managed to get behind him and bring him to his knees, but he lunged back and slammed me against a metal shelving unit. John and Shep pounced on Damon and shoved him out the front door and locked it. As Damon banged on the door, I realized my elbow was gushing blood. Washing it off, all agreed I needed to go to the hospital right away.
“Naw, it’s fine…just a scratch. Merely a flesh wound --” I interrupted myself when I saw bone, and decided it'd be a good idea after all.
Conveniently, the hospital sits next door to the dorms, separated by a long chain-link fence. We wrapped my elbow in a towel, and headed out to walk around the fence to the emergency room.
“This is absurd. We can’t not have drama at 211, even when we need a night off to study.” I was annoyed and beginning to think 211 had morphed into a monster too big to control. After all, I was in college, and despite the shenanigans, I took my studies somewhat seriously and wanted to do kind of well.
Shep and John agreed as we trudged through the snow alongside the chain-link fence.
“Man, Damon just gets out of hand sometimes. Nice guy when he’s sober, but whenever he drinks—“
Shep was interrupted when a bull moose charged us. He and John tripped over each other scrambling to get behind a tree. I was having none of it, and bolted for the hospital parking lot, bouncing off the chain-link fence like a tennis ball off a racket.
I'm going to die.
I covered my head with my bloody arm.
I did not die because the moose lost interest and trotted off in another direction. We hopped the fence, which was tough to do with only one good arm.
“What the goddamn hell is going on! I just want to study for my midterms!”
A dozen stitches later we left the ER, got into a cab, went to a bar and drank Long Island iced teas until closing time.
“We can study for midterms next semester.”
Dorm mates were periodically ousted, as I would've been had I not been so well-liked by the RA’s and campus brass. On one instance, after umpteen warnings and write-ups, and after the University Police had been summoned for the umpteenth time to our umpteenth party, I was summoned to the director of Residence Life’s office. Heath and Shep had already been evicted, and I assumed their fate awaited me.
As you may have noticed by now, gentle reader, I have a knack for dodging bullets. Had I good eyesight been born in the 1880’s or 90's, I might have made the luckiest dogfighter in the skies of the Great War, darting over the embattled European landscape, un-phased by anything Fritz could throw at me.
I would need such fortune now, and as I strode into the administrator’s office, I was greeted by the face of luck itself.
I think I can make this work.
As I entered the director’s office, I noticed a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging on his wall. As a history major, I was fairly versed on the life and times of the sixteenth president, and my grandfather was--and my father is--a student of Lincolnian history, and the man holds a place of honor in my family. In fact, a distant relative, Duff Armstrong, was a client in a famous trial during Lincoln's lawyer days. Duff had stood accused of first degree murder, and the primary eyewitness had vouched that though it was nighttime, he could see Armstrong commit the murder in the moonlight. The testimony seemed solid and the prosecution was confident. Lucky for Duff, he had good council. The next day, young Lincoln presented a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac to the court, proving there was, in point of fact, no moon on the night of the murder, discrediting the star witness and exonerating Duff Armstrong.
The administrator was well-aware of the trial, as all serious Lincoln scholars are, and was impressed by my relation to and knowledge of the defendant. We had a lively discussion and remarked upon our mutual admiration for the Great Emancipator.
“Just try to behave yourself, Dave,” sighing and patting me on the back. “You’ve only got one more semester after this one and I want you to leave the university in good standing.” I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but I was more than happy to be amenable.
I stumbled over his coffee table as I scuttled out.
That could've been bad.
I was relieved to have eluded Shep and Heath’s fate, so I threw a party to celebrate.
After the first couple weeks of my last semester at 211, I noticed I didn’t have any roommates. Shep and Heath's former rooms were vacant, and Andre the Russian had finally moved out.
This is odd. Four bedrooms, but I’m the only one in 211.
I wasn’t crazy about having the place to myself. I craved buddies to share in the madness. I still threw parties, but it just wasn’t the same. I’m a very social creature and I like compatriots.
Well, I guess all three of my new roommates are just really late in arriving this semester.
But as the semester moved past midterms, 211 was still just me, all alone, no fellow ne’er-do-wells with whom to share my joy. Finally, with five or six weeks to go in the semester, I marched into Residence Life office for answers.
“Why have you made me live alone?” with umbrage. “I have no roommates! This is unjust.”
“What are you talking about? You have three roommates.” She rattled off three names I didn’t know.
“Never heard of them. Shep and Heath got kicked out last semester, but no one has moved into 211 this semester. I’ve been—“
“You—you’re not still living in 211?” gasped the amazed administrator, looking over her glasses in astonishment.
“Yes, of course.”
“Dave, we condemned 211 and you were moved into 602."
"Didn’t you get a letter in your mailbox?”
“I don't know. I never check my mailbox.”
“Dave, 211 is condemned. It is unfit for human existence. No one is supposed to be in the apartment, let alone living there. We sent you a new key and a letter notifying you’d been switched to a different apartment.”
“Be that as it may, I’ve been living there this whole semester, by myself. And I‘m annoyed I don’t have roommates.”
“Well, you’d have roommates if you’d moved into 602 like we wanted you to do. Oh my gosh, Dave. You’re not supposed to be there. And now there are only a few weeks left in the semester. You need to move to 602.” She rustled some papers and sipped on her coffee.
“Absolutely not. I’ve been living in 211 for three years and I’m way too busy with my senior seminar and other classes and trying to finish up my degree to worry about moving at this stage in the game.”
I was, in fact, quite busy with my senior seminar: an ambitious overview of the history of alcohol as a civil rights issue as it pertained to the Executive Branch of the US Government from the Whiskey Rebellion to the Twenty-First Amendment.
The administrator groaned, then sighed, “Fine” and allowed the budding historian to finish out the residue of his distinguished career in his familiar habitat.
One of my final sociopathic acts occured at the end of my tenure as campus resident when three drunks, Kyle, John and myself kicked in the three locked doors to the three unfilled rooms. When the campus maintenance department became aware during an inspection, they repaired the damages and presented me with a bill for $1,500. I grieved the amount, and $400 was knocked off. Still, $1100, and I didn't have that much.
A lump formed in my throat, and I felt I would vomit.
Oh no...how am I going to pay for this? I don't have any money!
Neither did John nor Kyle.
I'm gonna have to talk to my parents. This so bad. I’m fucked. I don’t know what else to do.
Though I didn't know it at the time, my parents had set aside some money as a graduation gift intended to help finance a trip to Europe, so the money was diverted to pay for my vandalism. Dear reader, allow me to admit that much of my past, ridiculous as it’s been, makes me laugh and scratch me head and wonder why I’m still alive. The breaking of the doors, however, is an event upon which I have never looked back and laughed. It was an irredeemable act. Nothing good came of it, and I feel sick writing about it even now. Why did we do it? We’ve never concluded why, other than the catchall “blame it on the bottle” approach. There are few incidents I truly rue, few I would undo given the chance. Breaking down those doors is one such an episode.
Kyle and John eventually paid my parents for their portion of the carnage, and instead of going to Europe, I mowed lawns at sub-minimum wage with Heath for the summer.
“Son, how could you do something like this?” My father was amazed I could destroy property with such unprovoked hostility.
"I feel like I don't know you," my mother whispered in an icily hushed tone. "I feel like I've thought you were someone else all this time, someone you're actually not."
David, you are twenty-three years old, and way too old for me to keep bailing you out like this." He had, in fact, picked up the bill from the ER after Damon's shit fit, and was understandably none to pleased about it.
"We really wanted you to get to see Europe," my mother added.
My father huffed, as if to say "I don't really give a good goddamn if he does or doesn't." He rubbed his eyes, set his glasses on the table and glared at me.
“I need to know. I need to know how a person can act like such an animal. Care to explain to us what the hell that was all about? Destoying your own dorm room?”
I could only hang my head in shame.
When I finished school and moved out, I peeled the “211” marker off the front door. I have it still.
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a satanic, anarchist crack squat in the bowels of some city slum. It was a college dormitory. Just privileged middle-class kids blowing off pent up steam. Good, clean fun.
Well, good fun, anyway.
Was it even good? I may have overshot Dr. Harrison's orders a bit.
Years later, while speaking with a friend who was working as an RA, I learned that new and stricter rules had been implemented into the Residence Life code of conduct, and that these rules were informally referred to as the “211 Rules.” In RA trainings, she told me, 211 was cited as the singular example of how campus life was not supposed to be. The "211 Rules" were designed to prevent anything like the chaos of 211 from ever occuring on campus again.
And for that, I apologize.