Your Memory May Vary
Fair Disclosure: Photo illustration of LM, Kaz, Mari and Steve has been cropped because a wardrobe malfunction caused sweater to ride up and reveal an unattractive sliver of stomach. Had it been someone else in the photo, I wouldn't have bothered.
I am warned and blew off as exaggeration, that it might take three hours on a Friday afternoon to reach Redlands from L.A. for the Johnston College 40th Anniversary reunion. It takes three and a half. The rain pounds and then there are clear stretches and the snow clad San Bernardinos explode the vista, the CALIFORNIA that inspired vintage citrus crate labels. West Covina. Fontana. Colton. Center of Industry. Hub of Progress. A double rainbow against the densely gray sky, a halo to drive-thrus and mini-malls and abandoned factories seems a good omen.
The campus looks more prosperous and new construction is a bit less hideous than the charmless seventies buildings it’s designed to obscure. My friend Steve, now of Asbury Park, blanches to be compared to Truman Capote, but Tru was a genius at bon mot and I try to assure him that the comparison is based on wit, emphasis on rapier, not countenance. I cling to him like a terrified kindergartner to Mother’s thigh on the first day of school.
Steve and I stay on the edge of things noting how well or poorly people have aged and taxing our memories to remember who fucked who. We marvel that most of our professors look far less old than we’d expected and realize that even though we thought they were ancient when they taught us, they were far younger than we are now. There is a really charming new firepit on the campus but the drum circle is held inside due to rain. I have no desire to drum in a circle, my drum fantasies confined to being Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo. It is difficult to admit, but once I get over being there, it sounds pretty cool.
My Thomas Merton class was taught by Doug Bowman. He does a professor character, donning in antique cap and gown and pleasing the crowd. There was probably an extensive reading list for the class but I only remember reading Merton’s autobiographical stuff. We were to keep a journal during the class. I probably wrote a few pages but I remember presenting a notebook during my final evaluation which had added gravitas, fattened with pages of work from other classes, and then blushing demurely and asking that it not be read. I did not confess this to Bowman thirty three years after the crime but I wish I’d told him that I can still see the print of the words on the page of Seven Storey Mountain and myself curled up on an Indian bedspread in West Hall reading them.
There was a cataclysmic occurrence at Johnston after my time and as a result the word "buffalo" is constantly evoked to much delight, the Johnston College secret handshake for alums not yet eligible for AARP. There are two buffalo head broomsticks and suddenly two young people start screaming "buffalo" and begin a frenzied dance through the circle, buffalo held high and then handed off to someone else to dance and chant with even greater fervor. This sends Steve and me to the no host bar and we return just in time to see the final dancer rip off his clothes (not wearing underpants). Harry, you are right that I am a total asshole, crying because my Volvo needs a transmission job until I met a man who drives a Hyundai. However after drum circle I will take none of your guff for my treatise on the flaccid dick. (See "The Other Stimulus Package, 2 posts previous)
There is much mythology about the origin of the buffalo thang and the same pertains to the lore of my own era. The coffee house at Johnston was called Coz McMuffin’s. This is my memory of how that came to be. I came to Johnston with my toy poodle, Gladys. John MacRonald took to calling her "Coz McMuffin. She was sort of a white cotton ball because I never clipped or bathed her. Once in a while when I was home on break my mother would snatch her up and take her to the Poodle Parlor. Gladys, with full poodle coiffure, including shaved snout and pompom tail was humiliated to return to Johnston and face the other mangy mutts.
I moved downstairs in West Hall to the Woman’s Lobby to room with Kaz, having little in the way of feminist proclivities but being wildly uncomfortable using the coed bathrooms in every other lobby. Ironically, my destiny now is to live in a house full of men, who just like the college boys who drove me off the coed lobby, pee wantonly. The dorm rooms were small and hideous and Kaz and I paid some boys to build us a sleeping loft. She returned early from class and entered the room to find one of our construction crew lying on my bed masturbating. Little Gladys lay at the foot. Alas, before the loft itself could be fully erected, a borrowed power saw was liberated. Responsibility for its replacement fell on me and Kaz. We decided to earn the money to replace it by cooking in the small dorm kitchen and delivering food orders to dorm residents. We called the service Coz McMuffin’s and John MacRonald drew a sketch of Gladys riding a skateboard to illustrate the printed menu. The saw was replaced and we were offered a room off the commons and began table service. The alumni newsletter, last I read, is called the CozMc News but perhaps it’s been changed to Buffalo Blather.
Day two begins with a big Johnston community meeting. We bemoan the absence of coffee service. When the large body is divided into groups to share feelings, Steve and I high tail it. When we return, caffeinated, the groups are sharing earnestly. We creep stealthily along the periphery of the auditorium and methodically circle group by group attempting to identify former classmates. While our fellow alums engage in sincere Johnstonian discourse, Steve and I observe them, like zoo monkeys and whisper and muffle our giggles discreetly.
Lunch is served out on the lawn. Bill McDonald, the prof who taught the D.H. Lawrence/Virginia Woolf seminar, recognizes me, sans nametag. I didn’t get through To the Lighthouse although I remember Mrs. Dalloway vividly, due to Bill's interpretation. Bill made me wither by suggesting at the only other reunion, a very small local one, I'd attended twenty five years ago that the only way I could possibly be of use to the alma mater would be to endow a chair. Emboldened by his recognition of me, I am able to initiate semi cogent conversation about the novel Disgrace, which I have actually read, as we move through the long line to the buffet table. A collection of essays exploring Disgrace written by Johnston faculty and alums and edited by Bill was published recently. (Note to my editor: You know my password and if you want to insert a link to your review of said novel, you may insert it here: I am too lazy to seek it out.) When we get to the head of the line we discover that lunch tickets have been omitted from our packets and are told we must go fetch them from the office. I express my exasperation that a professor emeritus be subjected to this indignity, particularly for a repast of processed turkey and American cheese sandwiches wrapped in Saran Wrap and Fritos. Bill notes that the rules should apply to everyone and chides me for my lack of empathy for the organizers of the event. Just like when he put me in my place by suggesting I endow a chair, he is correct again.
Different mini courses are held and predictably the Grateful Dead one is the most popular. To clean up my karma for making a mockery of groupthink I attend the session on Judaism. It begins with something I hate and suck at, going around the room, introducing yourself and summarizing how Johnston College impacted your Judaism. There are always a few lonely souls who clamor for a captive audience and yammer on, determined to make a short story long. I get self conscious and needy and like Miss America on the interview question and inevitably stammer, mispronounce words and in the thirty seconds I have to pitch myself to a group of strangers I inevitably come off a witless twit.
After the introduce yourself to the circle ickiness is over, the moderators lead a short discussion about how the precept of welcoming the stranger is central to the core of Jewish teaching, a totally appropriate topic for a Johnston soiree and something I struggle with still. I complain about feeling alienated thirty years ago at Johnston but even now I don't play well with others, snarking and gossiping and eschewing the transpersonal tradition, one of the foundations of my alma mater. My aspiration for the reunion is to confirm that I look at least as good as my former classmates, smoke a single cigarette and avoid anyone I had slept with. I am still padding Doug Bowman's friggin' journal.
The Buffalo (gawd I resent all this buffalo shit) Blues Band is actually pretty good. I even dance, after paying a couple of visits to the no host bar. Most of the current Johnston students attend the reunion. There is plenty of tie dye and vintage duds and oodles of hair. Many of the former students still sport that look too. It is sweet and charming to see today’s youth in flamboyant hippie attire. Call me an ageist but on folks my age it provokes assumptions of diminished capacity.
I bum a smoke, a Camel even, and rip the filter off. My college affectation was to smoke the manly filterless cig in the classically beautiful Camel pack. I grew to love them and don’t really enjoy any other cigarette. I hang and savor it with a few young students. They are fresh and beautiful and smart and full of shit in the way that most nineteen year olds are. They tell me about their classes and their mothers and their towns. I love them. And I bless them for reminding me that while I did graduate from Johnston a dilettante poser, I was as open faced as these lovely creatures and Bill McDonald remembered my name.