In September 1985 my dad parked his car on the lawn of the San Nicolas dormitory at the University of California — Santa Barbara, then loaded in my stuff, and drove back up to San Jose. I was a mere three days away from starting my first year of college, and essentially had a three-day weekend to get my bearings and meet the people I’d be living in close proximity to for the next nine months. I was excitedly anxious, as one might imagine.
Several months before this, I’d filled out a form indicating my preferences for a roommate. I don’t remember precisely what I said, but having been an absurdly music- and record-obsessed high school student, it was probably something about alternative music, post-punk, punk, new wave — whatever. As long as my roommate could tolerate my music, and I his, I truly didn’t care about much else. I waited in the microscopic 15’x15’ dorm room for a couple of hours, carefully arranging my side of the room, in anticipation of who’d be showing up that afternoon. As it turned out, it was Mark — and he ended up being a human being more than “interesting” enough to merit his own story some 30+ years later. He was also a certified nutball. Allow me to continue.
UCSB ended up matching us up pretty well on the surface — two 18-year-olds, both with blonde hair & blue eyes, and both totally into “alternative/indie” music. After some initial awkwardness, Mark and I hoofed it in his car to the McDonald’s in Goleta for dinner, which I remember vividly as my “first meal on my own”. A big deal!
I liked him instantly. Totally funny, charismatic and cool, with an impish smile and a great transgressive sense of humor. More myopically importantly for me in 1985, his favorite bands were The Dream Syndicate, Black Flag, The Minutemen and the Velvet Underground. He was quite a bit more clued-in than I was. (Mine were, at the time, The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Cramps, Simple Minds and Siouxsie and the Banshees). He played guitar, he skateboarded, & he was a clean-cut, all-American kid with a hefty dose of strange that I very much gravitated toward.
That night, during our baptism into college partying, Mark ended up sleeping with the only female on the floor that had her own room. This totally discombobulated me, and not simply with jealousy; was I going to have to spend nights sleeping in the dorm’s hallway all year because he had a girl over? Turned out, he didn’t even care about her, actively disliked her even, and the two of them barely spoke again the whole year. Turned out as well that everyone on our floor was starting to hate Mark by mid-October, about six weeks after we all got there.
The second floor of the San Nicolas dorm from 1985–86 was an incredibly close-knit group — except for Mark. He showed his true colors that very first week, when we all learned that there was an open and proud homosexual male on our wing of the floor. Such openness was unusual for an 18-year-old; in fact, two of our closeted brethren on the floor, one of whom I did a radio show with that year, only came out as gay later on during the 80s. Mark crudely wrote up a “No fags use this stall — I don’t want AIDS” sign, and taped it to one of the communal bathroom doors. That would be a hanging offense now, but regrettably in 1985 it just made a few people temporarily mad. A harbinger, however.
Mark was funny, after all, and more than a little weird. He’d play the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” at lethal volume, so you could even hear it on the girls’ wing of the dorm, and during the chair dragging/feedback portion of the song, he’d screech an ear-deafening “Whooooo!!!!” at the top of his lungs, deliberately out the door so everyone could hear. He’d repeatedly do the same with “The Black Angel’s Death Song” during the day when people were studying. Whatever would get a negative reaction from the neighbors, he’d do it.
Mark had an irony-laden obsession with Richard Nixon, and, trying to curry favor with this guy whom I thought I probably should be friends with, I ripped out a full-page Nixon headshot from a priceless two-volume “Presidents of the United States” encyclopedia set my parents had bought me when I was 9 and gave it to him. My folks still have this set, and I’m going to give it my own son in the next couple of years — and I’m totally pissed at myself that the Nixon page is gone. Mark used to ask that we call him “Milhouse”, and this was long before The Simpsons had aired an episode.
He also had a set of slang that he claimed he & his buddies used back in Ridgewood, CA — a tiny mountain town out near San Bernardino. A hot girl was called “scrut”, as in That girl is total scrut. An unattractive girl was “shul”. Dude, what are you thinking, she’s totally shuuuul. This and other language mystified most of us, and he upped the usage of it during those first months to be deliberately oppositional. It worked.
Those early weeks of everyone eating together at communal tables in the dining hall quickly morphed into everyone still eating together — and Mark eating by himself. Yet he was still my roommate, and I had to be with the guy every day. I asked him to join us, but he told me that everyone on our floor was lame, that all the girls were lame, and that he had started to go to parties near Santa Barbara High School because he “felt more comfortable” with high school girls.
One time I had a cold, with a runny nose and all, and he absolutely flipped out. I couldn’t play my records on his stereo, the only music playback device we had — which was tantamount to torture for me. He actually threatened to fistfight me because I wouldn’t agree to open and close our door by putting my hand inside the bottom of my shirt, and twisting the knob that way (to keep germs off the doorknob, you see). Had I been a slob or a nose-dribbling pig, I’d admit it to you & the world — but then, and now, I was/am the sort of neat & tidy weirdo whom you’d almost certainly give the benefit of the doubt to.
By January, Mark and his Ridgewood high school pal Ron were spending Friday & Saturday nights getting wasted on whatever they could find, and as far away from us in the dorm as possible. One night, after bragging about it all day, they poured multiple bottles of liquid paper into a paper bag to huff it. (You suck the chemical-laden air out of the bag, in and out, really fast until you fall over — or so I learned from them). Over a beer, I and some others tried to talk them out of their plan to no avail. I distinctly remember Ron, his eyes watering as his upper torso weaved, grabbing me on the shoulders after a big huff & sincerely telling me, “Thank you man, wow, thank you — you’re so cool — wow, I really appreciate how much you care, thank you”. Later that night, around 4am, Mark burst into our room and told me his Dad was outside with the car: “Don’t come down, there’s one angry asshole down there”. Campus police had stopped Mark as he was doing something stupid — tipping garbage cans or something — and called his parents back in Ridgewood, who then had to come get him & take him home for a talking-to that weekend.
The rest of 1986, I barely remember interacting with the guy and did whatever I could to not have to talk to him. I did most of my studying — such that it was! — in the library, and spent the rest of my time at the radio station or in other people’s dorm rooms. The rest of my time at school, up through 1989, I only remember two interactions — one, bumping into him on campus, to tell him he might like the rock bands Soul Asylum and Squirrel Bait (he did — we both did), and another awkward time in an Upland, CA parking lot, when we were both there to see Soul Asylum live. We never spoke again. I don’t even know if he graduated. The only thing that endured from my brief time with him was the word “scrut”, which my radio station pals & I would use in jest from time to time.
The thing about college that’s striking is, for all the talk about it being “the best years of your life”, it’s only true for some people. I had a great time in college, but some of my friends and acquaintances were absolutely miserable. The jarring adjustment away from the protective home/womb of mom & dad and the forced transition to adulthood is too much for many kids to take in that first year, and there’s no doubt that many of them just aren’t ready for the oppositional forces of “You’re a responsible adult now, here to learn” and “Let’s party — there are no adults around!”.
Mark had a much worse time than most. I hope for his sake, and for the sake of the teenage girls of Santa Barbara High, that he figured it out shortly after our nine acrimonious months together.
(this piece was originally published on my blog The Hedonist Jive in 2012. I’ve made a few edits here and there in order to publish it again)