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We Were Only Freshmen

A feature-length remembrance of a classmate who passed away during college. Originally published June 6, 2002 in the Chicago Reader.

Part One

Each autumn, before a single class is held, all University of Chicago freshmen must spend an entire week in orientation. I passed much of the first day of orientation standing in line. At the end of one long line, a smiling upperclassman handed me a canvas bag. Inside the bag were pencils and coupons and class schedules and the like, and a silver whistle to blow in case you were attacked, and information on all the fabulous jobs we should expect upon graduation.

Also in the bag was a magnet with the number of a suicide hotline printed across the front. You were supposed to hang the magnet in your dorm room, somewhere close to the phone, and call the number whenever you got the itch to kill yourself. Apparently University of Chicago students were always itching to kill themselves. During my four years at the college, three classmates did just that.

The first to go was a boy named Axel. He killed himself with drugs. Just the other day I ran across his photo in an old University of Chicago portrait directory. The portrait directory was a small, black and white book that showed every freshmanís name, home address, and photograph. Axel was from La Jolla, California, a suburb outside of San Diego. In his photo he wears an open neck shirt and a happy, sun-soaked grin. He has bushy hair. I imagine his parents took the photo during his high school graduation.

The portrait directory, by the way, also came packed in the same canvas bag. Some students thought that like the magnet, it was included to prevent suicides. The theory was that a book of student faces would somehow improve our social lives, and then, with everybody busy on Friday nights, no one would have time to kill themselves. If the university administration did intend this, they were at least partly right. The portrait directory did improve the social lives of pretty girls. Older boys would steal the freshman directories and invite the best-looking girls to dance at their parties.

...

I noticed Axel the first day of orientation. He lived in my dorm. Axel didnít look like anyone from my high school, or, for that matter, anyone else at college. He wore a tattered, wool, three-piece suit and leather-soled shoes. He also carried a guitar. Later, in my sophomore German class, I saw a photo of a traveling carpenter who looked like Axel. Since he himself was German, I suspect his resemblance to a traditional Zimmermangeselle was not accidental. But I never had the chance to ask him. By sophomore year, he was long gone.

After the first day, I didn't see Axel much. Orientation week was full of activities, but he skipped most of them. He didn't join us on the dorm-sponsored trip to Nike Town, and he didn't attend house meetings. I don't even remember seeing him during the evening boat tour of the Chicago River. Sometime that week, though, I did manage my first words with him. We spoke at the freshman swim test.

The freshman swim test takes place in the basement of the university gymnasium. Any student failing the test had to complete a swimming class before graduating. Many kids looked nervous, but I doubt they were concerned with passing. Most, in fact, passed easily. The real worry was being seen half-naked in a swimsuit. One girl I knew later cried because she had worn a pink, two-piece bikini while other girls had chosen more modest swimwear. I actually enjoyed the swimming test. I sat in the corner and watched the girls. I flexed my muscles. And as I waited my turn, I spotted Axel in the pool.

Axel was beautiful in the water. He swam like a seal. The tester took one look at him, checked the “pass” box on his clipboard, and yanked him out of the pool. Afterwards I approached Axel. His baggy swim trunks clung against his skinny body, and his hair hung in wet ringlets around his neck. He was bent over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath.

“How did you do?” I asked.

He looked up at me.

“I hauled ass,” he said.

Part Two

In addition to swimming, the University of Chicago also tested every studentís physical fitness. During orientation week all freshmen gathered in the gymnasium for an afternoon of running, stretching, and sit-ups. Each of these exercises was graded, and the combined score supposedly revealed your total level of fitness. Then, depending upon you score, the gym coach assigned you between zero and three quarters of physical education. As it turns out, one quarter was the best deal. That quarter could be spent ballroom dancing, and the ballroom dance class was filled with girls. This made it the unathletic boyís best chance of finding a date.

On my way to the physical fitness test, I bumped into Axel. I introduced myself, and we shook hands. Then we chitchatted for a couple blocks. Mostly we talked bad about the upcoming test. Axel was carrying a bottle of grape soda, and when we reached the gym, he took a swig, screwed the cap back on, and hid the bottle behind a bush. Then we split up. I headed to the locker room and changed into a pair of mesh shorts. I did some stretching, walked upstairs, and found Axel leaning against a wall. He hadn't changed clothes.

The first test was running a mile. The gym coach instructed everyone to choose a partner and count each other's laps. I grabbed Axel, and we agreed that I should run first. For ten minutes I ran around the track, and each time I turned the corner, Axel smiled and waved. When I was done, he removed his vest, stripped down to his undershirt, and rolled up his pants. Then he shot off like a bolt.

When the gym coach saw Axel speed by in his leather-soled shoes, he just shook his head. Axel started strong, but by the sixth lap he was winded. On the seventh lap he started walking, and soon after, time ran out. You needed eight laps to pass. I could have lied, but I told the gym coach that Axel had only run seven. I don't know why I was such a jerk back then.

...

At the end of the day, Axel and I left the gym together. He retrieved his bottle of grape soda from behind the bush and took a long drink. Then he lit a cigarette, and together we walked back to the dorm. Again, we talked bad about the physical fitness test, but we also discussed books. Axel mumbled a lot, though, so I didnít catch everything he said.

When we neared the dorm, he asked if I wanted to keep walking to the lake. I did. Together we strolled a couple blocks farther and stopped at the edge of Lake Shore Drive. Axel took a quick look both ways and stepped into traffic. He dodged a few cars, jumped the median, and then sprinted across the remaining four lanes. He waved to me from across the road, but I was too scared to follow. He waved again, and I finally jumped into traffic and joined him.

When we reached Lake Michigan, Axel said, “Sometimes you need something you canít see the other side of.” I agreed. We sat down on the rocks and considered the lake. Axel smoked another cigarette. Then we stood up and headed back to the dorm. On the way back, he stopped along the sidewalk to kick a pigeon. He lost his balance, though, and the pigeon flew into the air. When it landed, the pigeon squawked and called Axel names. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. And though I hate to admit it now, I was still trying to impress people by kicking pigeons well into my junior year.

Part Three

While most colleges begin in late August, the University of Chicago holds off until early October. This means that every Chicago freshman must pass a last, lonely pre-college month in his or her hometown before starting school. So while high school friends are off meeting new people and drinking beer, Chicago freshmen spend September finding ways to kill time. Many hole up in their bedrooms and worry.

When the school year finally does begin, it's divided into three 11-week quarters. This gives freshmen only the briefest dose of college before they return home again for winter break. That first Christmas I told my high school friends about Axel. He went over big. They had all met some odd birds at college, but Axel ruled the roost. What I neglected to tell them, though, was that our friendship had lasted no longer than a soap bubble. By Thanksgiving he and I had become strangers.

...

Soon after our walk to the lake, I started to plagiarize Axel's look. I began by buying a felt fedora. He actually wore derbies, but the difference was lost on me. I took to wearing the fedora while shooting pool in our dorm lounge, and then, confusing romantic notions of poker and pocket billiards, I matched my new hat with a pair of sunglasses. This was so no one could see my eyes.

I was wearing the felt fedora and sunglasses and shooting pool the next time I saw Axel. I called over and invited him to join my friends and me for a game. Axel removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Then he took a cigarette from his pocket and started to smoke. Axel looked like a champion billiards player. He looked so good, in fact, that I paired up with him and placed a sizable bet on the gameís outcome. And he did not disappoint. He played a beautiful game of pool while drawing from his cigarette and chalking his cue. When it came to actually striking the ball, though, he stunk. On one missed shot, he even went so far as ripping the felt. We lost badly, and after the game I realized something. Axel was drunk.

A few weeks later, our dorm hosted a fundraising talent show. A girl sang, some guys dressed up in drag, and someone read poetry. Then, toward the end of the evening, Axel pulled his guitar and harmonica onstage. I hushed my friends and told them to watch. Onstage I hoped to see the real Axel. I expected his mumbling would give way to beautiful, evocative poetry. But he was drunk again. For fifteen, long, uncomfortable minutes he stammered and strummed and banged his feet. People left, and someone finally asked him down.

Things only went downhill from there. One day our resident heads called a house meeting because someone had emptied a fire extinguisher into the stairwell. To make matters worse, that same person had then scrawled dirty words on the wall with brown shoe polish. Everyone knew it was Axel, and not just because he was the only one who shined his shoes.

Soon after, a story spread through our house that Axel had almost been beaten up at a school concert. He had shown up drunk and pushed himself to the front of the crowd. Then he had started dancing. He did this by raising his arms in the air and throwing his skinny body against the other students. Some fraternity boys took offense at Axelís two-step and started to push him around. Luckily some dorm folks stepped in and ushered him home. When I heard this story I grinned. I was still too smitten with Axelís drunken adventures to worry, too busy forging his wardrobe to care. And though I suspected he drank too much, I wasnít going to say anything. I had no interest in stopping his drinking. If anything, I wanted to match it.

...

Axel had some close friends in the dorm, but most students didnít really like him. He didnít have much use for many people, and in the end, I suspect not a whole lot of use for me. As the semester moved on we spoke less and less, and finally, one night I gave up on him. It happened in the hallway outside my dorm room. I was sitting on the floor and talking to my neighbor when Axel got off the elevator and came down the hall. I said hello, but he was too drunk to notice. He stepped over my legs, shouted to himself, and ripped a message board off my neighborís door. Then, honest to god, he kicked his heels. As he walked away, my neighbor looked down and scratched her head. Axel had hurt her feelings, and to me, that was unforgivable.

The last time I remember seeing Axel was in the spring. That semester I had begun noticing him around the dorm less and less, and when I did see him, I avoided him. Finally late one night I found him sitting on a windowsill in the dorm lobby. He was shivering. His eyes were dark, and he looked terribly skinny. Worst of all, he wasnít even wearing his fabulous clothes. He had on an old T-shirt and a mesh baseball cap. I wanted to ask Axel if he was okay. I wanted to ask him if he needed help. In the end I did nothing. I was too scared heíd tell me to go away.

...

That first summer after freshman year, I returned home to California and worked at an electronics store. I sold televisions and car stereos, and each day I wore a tie to work. Axel also spent that summer in California, only a couple hundred miles south of me in San Diego. Iím not sure if he also worked a summer job, just that at some point during the summer, everything went wrong. One day while I was selling televisions or driving to work or, most likely, home in bed, Axel was busy dying.

I didnít learn about Axelís death until I returned to school that fall. On the first day back, a girl named Raisin told me. I was standing outside her room with a few friends when she asked if we had heard the news. Axel had died, she said. We asked for details, but she only knew it involved drugs. No one said very much. Mostly we looked down and shook our heads. And that was it. I donít remember an official response from the university, and if anyone from the dorm tried gathering us together for a talk, I missed it. The news simply spread from student to student. And after that first day, his death was rarely mentioned again.

Part Four

I spoke to one of my friends the other day, and he reminded me that when we first met in college, I always wanted to wrestle. This is embarrassing, but itís true. And I also should admit that I used to get a big kick out of putting people in the fireman's carry. Once I even carried my friend Henry all the way from the gymnasium back to the dorm. This was because Henry had twisted his ankle. Henry was always twisting his ankle.

It didnít occur to me back then, but I was probably doing something smart by terrorizing my friends. I was finding a way to touch people. This is not nearly as creepy as it sounds. Separated from an affectionate family for the first time, I was simply tiptoeing my way around a case of touch deprivation. Instead of sitting in my dorm room feeling unhappy and lonely, Iíd go into the lobby, sling a friend over my shoulder, and take him for a spin. Afterwards Iíd feel better, and I think my friends would too.

I never put Axel in the fireman's carry, and I certainly never tried to wrestle him. I don't think he would have appreciated either. Axel had come to the University of Chicago twice as smart as myself, and he had long before developed a more sophisticated approach to dealing with problems. He drank. And when that didn't work, he tried drugs.

Of course, Iím only guessing thatís what happened. I hardly knew Axel. And addiction is far too knotty a subject to simply say that he abused alcohol and drugs because he was unhappy. One of my first thoughts after learning of his death, though, was to blame the University of Chicago. Back in orientation week an upperclassman had warned me that I should expect at least one student death each year. He explained that the university literally drained the life from its students. It sounded ridiculous, but for each of my first three years, his warning proved true. And this raises a good question. Could the University of Chicago have had anything to do with Axelís death?

...

When Axel and I arrived at the University of Chicago in the autumn of 1994, two t-shirts competed in popularity. One showed the U of C placing dead last behind Oral Roberts University in a list of best party schools. The other simply read, “The University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die.” Perhaps not coincidentally, that same autumn the University President and Provost appointed the Task Force on the Quality of Student Experience. Made up of faculty, staff, students, and trustees, the task force examined “the full range of factors contributing to student life” and in 1996 published their findings in The University of Chicago Record. In typical U of C language, the resulting report admits that student interviews indicate “non-trivial shortcomings in the undergraduate experience.”

According to the task force, one of the most conspicuous of these shortcomings was the universityís intense academic pressure. In interview after interview, students deemed the workload too large and the time given to complete it too short. They also noted that the grade inflation enjoyed at other top universities had somehow skipped the University of Chicago. And if the academic pressure wasnít bad enough, the task force also noted that U of C students suffered a lousy social life characterized by a “sense of isolation.” Because housing is spread throughout the Hyde Park neighborhood, students struggled to meet kids from other dorms. And its my own observation that despite living in one of the worldís great cities, many students found that the weather, lack of transportation, and a fear of crime confined them to a small campus that offered few social outlets.

The task forceís report concludes with a list of recommendations to improve the student experience, and to its credit, the university has implemented many of them. In past years the administration has eased the core curriculum, renovated the student center, improved access to downtown and Northern Chicago, and built an Olympic size skating rink. And a walk on the University of Chicago campus today will show that the improvements continue. Current projects include more landscaping and the construction of a new athletic center. Iím not sure if todayís students are happier, but they certainly have more to do.

...

While the task force capably examined and offered solutions to the universityís most obvious shortcomings, they may have missed an important factor in evaluating the student experience. Not only was Axelís University of Chicago an academic pressure cooker with few valves for social relief, it was also filled with exactly the sort of strange, misfit students least equipped for that kind of stress. Moreover, I donít think this situation was entirely accidental. The University of Chicago actually seemed to recruit oddballs.

When I first requested information about the University of Chicago back in high school, the admissions department responded by returning a twenty-minute promotional video. Early in the video a student references a guitar and explains, “People at the University of Chicago... thereís one string thatís a little tighter than the other ones. Or a little looser.” This student was right. Kids in the video were definitely strange. Subsequent scenes show a solitary trombonist playing on a park bench and a girl who admits to sometimes spending Friday nights “in an intimate relationship” with her Karl Marx. And, more explicitly, there was this quote from film director and U of C alumni Mike Nichols in the Student Prospectus: “Everybody was strange at the University of Chicago! It was Paradise!”

While oddball students undeniably added to the universityís charm, educating and housing them in an environment that could unhinge even the most well adjusted kids was probably a bad idea. Perhaps the university administration now agrees. I recently took a look at current prospective student materials, and the recruitment focus has indeed shifted. For one thing, Mike Nicholsí quote is no longer featured in the Student Prospectus. In fact, the closest I could find to his sentiment was the rather bland, “Chicagoís students are distinct in every way possible.” Also missing are the loosely strung kids of the promotional video. Todayís web-based movie instead spotlights only the remarkably well adjusted. One featured student “started a community theater program, founded and published a student magazine, and directed videos.” Another graduated high school as a “basketball team captain, winner of a state-level arts competition, and published poet.”

...

Over the years, intense academic pressure and a lousy social life may have been a cruel combination to many University of Chicago students. For some misfits and oddballs, the combination may have even proven fatal. Iím pretty sure, however, Axel wasnít one of them. For one thing, he didnít seem to care much about grades. And I also donít think he suffered much socially. After all, if a pale, mumbling kid partial to wool, three-piece suits could fit in anywhere, it was in Hyde Park. After growing up in mild, sunny San Diego, Axel probably felt he had found heaven. And in the end, perhaps this was the problem.

At the University of Chicago, Axel surely enjoyed unprecedented big city freedom. Despite his sometimes adult mannerisms, he was still very much a teenager, and like most teenagers, he experimented. If the recklessness of dodging traffic thrilled him, so did the danger of excessive drinking and drug-taking. And, if anything, he probably experimented more than most. I guess it shouldnít be surprising then that Axel eventually pushed it too far, and that he died from what probably was just a stupid accident. If so, that only makes his death worse. That stupid accident cost Axel the chance to eventually pull his life together, and it cost everyone at the University of Chicago three more years of Axel. And between the intense academic pressure and our lousy social lives, sometimes someone like Axel was the best thing we had.

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Downtown

Short description of a trip to downtown Chicago. Originally published April 17, 1998 in the Chicago Reader.

Recently my belt buckle broke at work and my pants began to sag. My boss said, “Hey Sloppy Joe, get a new belt!” So the next day I took the bus downtown and went shopping.

I didn't have much luck finding a belt downtown. I saw one I liked at Marshall Field's, but it had someone else's initials on it. Thinking that Water Tower Place might have a better selection, I walked over there.

Water Tower Place is nice. People who shop there are very pretty. I took the elevator to a store named Abercrombie & Fitch. One time I saw an old newsreel of Theodore Roosevelt going on a safari, and he was carrying a lot of trunks with the names Abercrombie and Fitch printed on the outside. The store no longer outfits expeditions; it sells high-fashion clothes instead. I liked the store and the high fashions but was embarrassed by the female mannequins. They looked like 14-year-olds except with big breasts and button bottoms and no arms or legs. And even though it was cold, they were all wearing shorts. I started feeling pretty sexy just looking at them, but then I saw a regular 14-year-old without big breasts look at a mannequin and look at herself and frown. I did not buy a belt or anything else and am now boycotting the store.

Next I went to the Gap looking for a belt, but I didn't like how the guy looked at me when I walked, so I decided to boycott that store too.

I walked back to the department stores on State Street and this time looked harder and found a belt. I had wanted a belt with a silver buckle, but I settled for gold. When I got home I tried to make the buckle silver by scraping off the gold color with a knife, but that didn't work.

Once I went downtown for a haircut and had a hard time finding one of those too. At the time, I thought nothing would be finer than getting a haircut at a hotel or train station while smoking a cigarette. I don't smoke, but I had seen someone smoke and get a haircut in a movie, and it looked pretty. Anyway, I knew they wouldn't let you smoke a cigarette at a salon, but maybe they'd let you at a barbershop.

The same day I was looking for a barbershop, I accidentally found a book fair and bought a box of books. The box cost a dollar and had lots of good books in it. One fell out on Michigan Avenue. I bent to pick it up, and three girls smoking cigarettes giggled at me, and I smiled at them. I thought maybe they would know where a barbershop was, but when I asked them, they just giggled again and laughed.

I crossed the street and went into the Intercontinental Hotel. A security guard noticed the box on my shoulder and pointed his finger at me and asked if I had a delivery. I said no, I was looking for a barbershop. Then I asked the security guard if the hotel had a barbershop. He said no, and then thought a minute and asked, “You mean a plain, old barber barbershop?”

I said yes, I meant a plain, old barber barbershop, and smiled.

The security guard pointed at the bellboy. "Go ask Bobby," he said. “Bobby will know.”

I turned out that Bobby didn't know much about barbershops. I asked him where I could get a haircut and he pointed across the street. “Colette's,” he said. I crossed the street, but Colette's was a hair salon and nail parlor.

I finally found a barbershop at the Drake Hotel, but a haircut at the Drake Hotel cost $26 and they were rude to me on account of my box of books. I am now boycotting the Drake Hotel.

I ended up getting a haircut at Supercuts. I asked the girl who was cutting my hair whether I could smoke. She said no, that a city ordinance prohibited smoking in hair salons. She said I could go outside and smoke and that she would join me as soon as she finished cutting my hair. Then she asked for a cigarette. I told her I didn't smoke and tipped her an extra dollar.

In addition to the box of books and haircut, I bought a pair of tight, black pants that day. Normally, I do not wear tight pants, but everywhere I go, people seem to be wearing them. Once I went to a nightclub and a big, orange guy in tight, black pants and a vest kept hooting at all the girls and calling his friend “faggot.“ He saw me looking at his black pants and called me an asshole, and then he called me a faggot too. After that I decided no to go to nightclubs anymore. I decided that a nightclub was just a place where big orange guys could get dressed up in gay fashions and slap each other on the back and call each other faggot, dance homoerotically, and look for 14-year-olds with big breasts and button bottoms and no arms or legs.

Still, I like my new black pants. They really show my figure.

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Tales of the Jazzed Age

Three very short (and not surprisingly unpublished) stories about what drives men to drink.

Eleanor Hill

We had pinned our Rose Bowl hopes on Freddy McLaughlin, but like most of us, he had pinned his own considerable hopes on Eleanor Hill. When she again refused his offer of escort to the Winter Ball, Freddy dedicated the weekend before the big game to a historic bender.

Having consumed his month's ration of scotch, Freddy was already the worse for liquor when he began a search for anything resembling an intoxicant and located Howard Garrish's hair tonic and half a pint of sour milk. Later, he retired to his room and set his mattress on fire.

Luckily, Inspector Harrigan was an alumnus, and to avoid charges, we only had to remove the offending mattress the next morning. We did so with great ceremony, but the game had been lost.

Josephine Merkle

When Josephine Merkle abruptly stopped returning his love letters, Howard Garrish once again found himself in the unwholesome company of Salve Spitale. Following a pre-evening drink, the two embarked on a brief but therapeutic tour of the lakeshore public houses, after which Salve suggested a nightcap at Mme. Lucia's. Howard, however, had little interest in Mme. Lucia's perfumed "cure," and he and Salve parted ways.

Despite Salve's absence, Howard managed to continue the evening in good company, walking arm in arm with a fifth of double malt Scotch. After an hour, though, this friend too had departed, and Howard, finding himself blind drunk and misplaced on the university Midway, bedded down next to a shrub with the full intention of catching a draft and contracting a terminal case of consumption. When he woke the next morning and found that he'd inadvertently fallen asleep atop a university steam tunnel, and thus had succumbed neither to the elements nor his broken heart, and further discovered, in fact, that the fresh air had only aided his good health, Howard returned to his dormitory room and took up tobacco.

Isabelle Weatherby

When spring returned and Isabelle Weatherby conceded she could only love until loved back, Sidney Campbell discovered he'd suddenly lost the knack for falling asleep. After briefly considering a leap from the window to jog his memory, he instead poured out two drinks and began a search for Howard Garrish.

Sidney eventually located Howard in the dormitory lobby, slouching in an armchair and spitting at the ceiling. Upon hearing of Sidney's affliction, Howard recommended convening with Freddy McLaughin, the funniest man alive on two rum swizzles. While noting that he must have always caught Freddy on three, Sidney nonetheless agreed to a late dinner.

The two reached the University Club and found Freddy already addressing the waiter in Pig Latin, prompting Howard to confess that an evening spent with Freddy was better than watching a play. Two additional scenes were entertainment enough for Sidney, however, and after finishing half a plate of scrambled eggs, he excused himself, stepped outside, and punched the heads off a dozen tulips.

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