Tom Barra was from Queens, Italian, early 20s, playing the part of a preteen in our show. His fraternity brothers called him Cuda and stitched that on his jacket. Squat-shaped with tattoos, hairy back, 5 o’clock shadow. It took a lot of time and makeup to make him look the part of a young boy growing up on a farm in overalls, the lead character, a boy “touched” with the ability to divine water. Cuda would go into a trance with the divining rod, and a light cue made it look dark and surreal like he was underwater, tapping into another world. But after the production we found out he was really tapping into the director’s bank account and writing bad checks, a thug.
We all got pretty close to each other in that college theater department at the Penn State campus outside Erie, Pennsylvania. So close, the director left his wife for one of the cast members and so did Don Hopwood for the stage manager, Jenny.
Phil Pierre showed up when we did Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio, a play about a talk show radio host who gets in trouble with a conservative wacko, played by Phil’s friend, Pat Driscoll: another thug, American Irish, a hulk of a man who did that Stanislavsky method-thing where he’d immerse himself in the character so deeply that no one could talk to him before or after the show because he wasn’t really ‘Pat’ anymore, he’d become the killer, making his pupils disappear so his eyes turned all white.
Phil had red, curly hair like the Muppets character Beaker, but Phil was not to be messed with; he was older than the rest of us and studied martial arts—thin, all muscle. He painted rasta symbols and band names on his leather jacket and chain smoked, wore spectacles. But one time we were at my place flipping through records, he admonished me over a Bob Seger album and I lost status with Phil, and things were never the same. Another time when the police were outside we were hiding in my room and he comforted me by saying, it’s like the song, listen: ‘don’t worry…about a thing…’cause every little thing…is gonna be alright.’
Phil wound up stealing our friend Ray Robinson’s girlfriend Amy though, and the two of them had been together since high school. They’d come to the same college, but both Ray and Amy were too good looking to stay together that long.
Ray looked like George Clooney and Amy, a Barbie doll. They both had perfect features but they both really liked drugs too, and neither one of them worked very hard at school.
One day I was going into the cafeteria and Ray came running out in tears, saying Amy had just slept with Phil, and I kind of hated her for it, but couldn’t blame Phil, I would have done the same.
Ray got himself in trouble growing a pot plant right on the window of the college dorm, but it must have been a repeat offense because they put him in jail for six months. I wrote him a couple times with reassuring words and brief accounts of what he was missing, snatches of Grateful Dead lyrics and drawings to cheer him up. Though he had a lot of friends, when Ray got out he said I was the only one who’d written him.
Ray got a job at the college record store and invited us after closing one night to take whatever we wanted. My friend Chris was visiting from Pittsburgh and took Ray’s invitation literally, wiping out the whole Frank Zappa section. The record store was onto Ray though, claiming they had it all on video and demanding Ray confess, outing his thief-friends (Chris and me). But Ray never did, and wound up going back on probation.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Ray was our link to the underground hippy scene at Penn State in the early ’90s. Somehow he was always in the middle of things and if you needed anything, you were likely to find it through Ray.
But then he took a girl I was after, Michelle Guidry, an actor I’d been stalking for a good year, tracking her patterns across campus from building to building, where she could be expected, and when. I’d take care to plan for those passing moments with a well-practiced “hi,” hoping for a signal in her eyes or body language.
After months I’d managed to wiggle myself into her social arena and began making small talk about music, the only thing I knew anything about. I let it be known I was a writer and started making her mix tapes; I got her number and asked her out but she declined, saying she’d started seeing Ray—and when I asked why she’d chosen him over me, she said I wasn’t down-to-earth enough.
Ray, on the other hand was down-to-earth, so much so he smelled it, and managed to grow his hair down to the middle of his back. I tried to do the same but didn’t have the patience, didn’t fully identify with hippies, still identified as punk. So I made the mistake of shaving the sides of my head and wearing my hair in a nub of a tail, which didn’t look so good in retrospect.
A big part of the hippy culture was the drugs, and during this time I started reading the Beats and researching psychoactive substances via Andrew Weil, Tom Wolfe, anything I could get my hands on. It was like discovering a new world previously hidden from me, like finding a new religion, but more satisfying.
Around Ray’s scene was a guy who went by the name of Peel, whom Ray had known from Pittsburgh. He shot pool and made that a part of his image, carrying his stick around campus in a case, mounting it to his bike. Peel and I wound up staying in the same dorm complex and one night he invited me down, asking if I wanted a shot, then opened a case with a bunch of surgical tools, including a hypodermic needle. With a lot of care and focus, he cooked it down and stuck himself and then offered me the same.
Afterwards I looked out the window at a scene down below, the same scene I knew from my window that had now become beautiful, and felt a switch inside me click on. I did it again a few times that summer, then made plans to go to New York to score for Peel at a laundromat in Alphabet City between Avenue A and B.
Peel drew a map on a napkin with an arrow specifying where, and it couldn’t have been more obvious when I got there: a line of people on the street, a guy dealing it right there on the other side of a gate, in a narrow alleyway. But when it was my turn and I said “I’ve come to score the D,” the drug dealer refused to serve me, saying look at the rest of them, do you want to end up like that? Put your money back in your pocket and go home, he said.
So I felt rejected and bad, and found a pay phone to call Peel. Peel insisted I go back though, and I sat on the doorstep of a Brownstone wondering what to do, was this some divine intervention, God talking to me?
I got back in line and someone else served me, and then I rode the Greyhound back to Penn State barefoot, having removed my shoes and left them on a different bus, and with the rain and me walking barefoot through the city streets my feet had turned black, and I thought there was something dark and poetic about that, but I was too young to realize I was wrong, there was no poetry in it, only dirt.
All the way up Cougar Mountain I thought about this, triggered by the Bob Seger song “Turn the Page.” My daughter says we get songs stuck in our heads because we don’t know the end, so the cure is to just listen to the whole thing and then you’ll shake it. But I can’t do that with these memories because I don’t remember how they play out, they keep skipping. If you believe we live a number of different lives, then the trick is to pinpoint when these turning points happen, when one part of you ends and another part begins.
Coming down the mountain I stopped at my favorite spot where it flattens out and the trees feel majestic, it’s quiet, and there’s large boulders covered in moss and ferns. I decided I want my ashes scattered there, and would give directions to that effect in my will, though somewhat imprecise, in hopes that whomever carried it out would divine their way to the same spot. And I’d still be here, in a sense.
This is my stamp collection and some of my favorites from college. Hard to tell if it will be worth much, based on how rare the pieces are, or the condition they’ll be in at the time of sale.
Bill Pearse writes short form memoir, prose, and more at pinklightsabre.com.
[Image by Loren Chasse, reproduced with permission.]