North Country Girl: Chapter 34 — The University of Drugs and Boys
Editor’s note: After much pleading by the Post, Gay Haubner has graciously agreed to continue her weekly series into her college years.
For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
In the fall of 1971, I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the big city of Minneapolis, having finally emerged from the cocoon of the corn-fed Midwest middle-class. My parents deposited me into my fancy dorm (a bathroom that was shared with just three other girls! A comfy TV lounge on every floor! A soft serve dispenser in the cafeteria!), at the coed Middlebrook Hall. I had shed my high school boyfriend and had adopted a new persona, intellectual hippie chick. I was ready to put on my headband and purple fringed leather jacket and dive into this new world of college, a place filled with my favorite things: books, boys, and drugs.
I reveled in this Brave New World: curling up and trying to look adorable on a boy’s narrow dorm bed, buying sugar cube acid, five dollars a hit, from a pharmacy major, crossing the resplendently treed Minneapolis campus in still balmy September, heading to a fascinating class on Human Geography (“Today we’ll look at the consequences of the Irish Potato Famine.”)
I loved living in a place dedicated to learning, no matter how obscure the subject (I was also taking “Poets of the Russian Revolution”) and to rampant drug use, random sexual partners, and parties that featured garbage pails filled with a deadly mixture of Welch’s Grape Drink and Everclear, an overproof liquor with zero redeeming qualities. If the scales of my college life began to tip too far on the fun side, I had before me the cautionary example of Jean the Machine, who I shared a bathroom with, and who, after passing out face down in her dorm room, had to be ambulanced to the University Medical Center for alcohol poisoning, and who dropped out after two weeks without attending a single class.
My dad, who had exited from my life after his quickie second wedding and the birth of his son the following day, had been ordered by Judge Erman in the divorce settlement to pony up for my college tuition and dorm. Everything else—drugs, tampax, long underwear, emergency baked rigatoni dinners at Mama Rosa’s when I just couldn’t face another night of cafeteria cuisine—came out of my savings from my summer waitressing job. Since I had worked at a roadside café that catered to cheap ass tourists who figured they’d never be back so why tip more than a quarter, my stash of spending money vanished into pot smoke and red sauce.
By November I was standing behind the counter at my dorm cafeteria, wearing an ill-fitting yellowy-beige uniform with a dingy white collar and cuffs and a hair net. I had become a lunch lady, doling out helpings of pale haddock squares, runny lasagna, and grey Salisbury steaks that, three months into the school year, all of us Middlebrook residents were thoroughly sick of. I was paid $2.00 an hour but I had access to all the soft-serve ice cream I could eat between shifts, which turned out to be quite a lot.
I didn’t care. I was out of stuffy and stifling small town Duluth, and in a place where the boys were smart and funny and the wild weekend parties welcomed cute girls with open bottles. Since I cannot live without girlfriends, the universe gave me some new ones: my roommate Nancy and our remaining bathroom-mate, Liz, who after the departure of Jean the Machine, luxuriated in a dorm room all to herself. And every day I sat spellbound in my classes, enthralled by my brilliant professors. All the knowledge and culture and history of Western Civ was laid out for me like a smorgasbord. When I wasn’t in class or working in the dorm cafeteria, I was reading or taking drugs or meeting new guys. I was in heaven.
After a few weeks of flirting with every freshman, I landed a boyfriend of sorts. I have a talent for sniffing out the dangerous boys. When I inhale that mix of cigarette smoke, bit of unwashed skin, fairly recent sexual encounter, and a pheromone that tells me this boy would first fight and then take flight one step ahead of the law, that smell that lurks in a bad boy’s neck where it dips into his shoulder, I am head over heels in trouble.
My unfailingly stupid nose led me to the one juvenile delinquent in Middlebrook dorm, which was otherwise filled with the white-toothed, clear-skinned, shiny-haired sons of doctors and lawyers and Babbits of Minnesota. Steve Jones (could there be a more anodyne name?) was the first person I had ever met who affected an urban black swagger and patois lifted straight from Shaft, behavior as mystifying to me as it must have been to the residents of his hometown of Austin, famous mostly for acres and acres of Hormel Meats stockyards and slaughterhouses. The boys on his floor gave Steve the mocking nickname Jive Time. Steve took this as a compliment and adopted it himself, shortening it to JT.
In looks Steve was as unremarkable as his name: dirty blonde hair not quite long enough to be cool; a snub nose and a mouth that curved naturally into a sneer; medium height but with a taut, strongly muscled body that seemed ready to throw a punch.
Steve found me late one night while I was hanging out in the lounge on the freshman boys’ floor, kibitzing around a table of bridge players; a bunch of us had caught the bridge bug, so twenty-four hours a day there was a foursome shuffling and dealing cards, fueled on coffee or Coca-Cola. The other boys ignored Steve, as he jive walked up to me and leaned in so our arms touched. Every little hair on my body stood on end and gravitated toward him.
Steve said, “If you sissies played a real card game like poker, I’d beat all your asses.”
“Get lost, Jive Time,” chorused the bridge players, as if they had practiced this line for weeks. Steve cocked his eyes at me and I followed, a lamb to the slaughter, down the hall to his dorm room. His roommate looked at us as if we were slime, shook his head, and left. Steve kissed me and the top of my head went shooting off and my clothes dropped to the floor.
Steve had dabbled in a variety of crimes: joy riding, shoplifting, breaking and entering, arson, and drug dealing, which is what finally caused him to be hauled into Austin’s juvie court, next stop the infamous Red Wing Reform School for Boys. (When I was a teenager, Red Wing seemed a mythic place of punishment, like Hades or Limbo. The few boys I knew who got into serious trouble were shipped off to the Judson Ranch, a boarding school in the Arizona desert a million miles from nowhere.)
Steve was miraculously rescued from what would surely have been a life of petty, ill-fated criminality. The judge gave him a choice: he could do three months at Red Wing or spend the summer learning outdoor survival skills with Outward Bound’s program for wayward youth. The judge was swayed by the argument that if you can teach a boy to find his way out of the woods with three matches and a compass, that boy can learn to find his way in the world. Steve, who fancied himself more of an urban survivor, was ready to take on anything that wasn’t the boys’ reformatory.
Steve surprised himself by flourishing in Outward Bound. He learned rock climbing, rappelling, navigating by the stars, and how to catch, skin, and cook a squirrel. His instructors loved him, the juvenile delinquent they had transformed into Daniel Boone. Steve was the success story, trotted out by the head of Outward Bound at every speech, pitch, and fundraiser, the proof that learning to kill your own food can redeem a boy headed in the wrong direction, teaching him responsibility, self-reliance, and not to sell drugs or steal. Steve went along with the Outward Bound poster boy act; he knew which side his squirrel was buttered on.
Outward Bound made Steve an offer. Spend his summers as a counselor, teaching other kids to make lean-tos and start a fire from two sticks and, if he could keep his grades up and his nose clean, he would get a full ride to college, including a room in the fancy new dorm, that luckily for me, was just a few floors above mine.
Steve did not make friends with the privileged children of surgeons and bankers; even his roommate didn’t like him. He was all rough edges. Surviving in the woods did not teach him social graces or skills. He did, however, despite his promise to Outward Bound, supply our entire dorm with drugs. He was looking for customers, not friends.
One night, the two of us speedy and restless on Black Beauties, we drove to Steve’s hometown of Austin. It was after midnight when we pulled up in front of a ramshackle shotgun shack, that in my unpleasant altered state I barely recognized as a house. The entire structure could have fit into my family’s kitchen and dining room.
Steve’s mom was still awake, wearing what my subconscious identified as a “housecoat,” smoking Kools and drinking Schell’s beer in front of a flickering TV that sat upon a larger, dark TV. The floor was littered with empty beer cans. Steve kissed his mom, who ignored me as she launched into a slurred speech on the shortcomings of Jim, whom I assumed was her boyfriend. Steve watched the TV and nodded while I looked for a place to sit down where I wouldn’t have to move anything. Mom finally passed out while lighting a cigarette, and Steve gently transferred the cigarette from her lips to his, then led me into his old bedroom. We lay down, still ripped on the uppers, gritting our teeth, miserably awake and uncomfortable on that rack of a bed, which consisted of a bare, torn up blue ticking mattress, no sheet, no pillows, set on a metal frame. We both lay flat on our backs, staring at the ceiling, too amped to even blink. Every time we moved, the bed squeaked and the springs found new places to poke us. One spring must have hit a weird nerve in Steve.
“You know that money I get from Outward Bound?”
“There’s another reason they give it to me. The guy in charge, the chairman, he wanted me to do some things…he said if I did, Outward Bound would pay for college.”
It was like being back in the claustrophobic dark confessional at Holy Rosary Cathedral, except I was the confessor. A real Catholic priest would have demanded all the sordid details: as Steve rambled on more and more incoherently I couldn’t tell whether he had turned the guy down, actually done something sexual with him, or was still doing it. Waves of hot shame radiated off of Steve, pushing me into an ever more uncomfortable place. I hated this guilt-ridden version of my bad boyfriend, I hated the amphetamine buzz, the tortuous squeaky bed, the squalid house in the stinky town. Steve suddenly sat up, swallowed another Black Beauty dry, and said “Let’s go.” We drove back to Minneapolis in the silent dawn and never spoke of Steve’s mysterious pact with Outward Bound again.
Black Beauties and other amphetamines were among Steve’s top sellers, especially during the weeks before midterms and final exams. Any kind of pill was popular at Middlebrook. We were constantly threatened that if we were caught using drugs we would be kicked out of the dorm, and probably out of college as well. But the only drug you could really be caught with was pot, with its pervasive, lingering aroma no cone of incense could mask. There were Resident Advisers on every floor, seniors who lived in the corner single dorm rooms rent-free, whose main responsibility was to be on the look-out, or smell-out, for marijuana. It didn’t take us druggies long to realize if you’re caught smoking pot, you’re screwed. But you could ingest a wide variety of interesting drugs right under the noses of the RAs with no problem, as long as you didn’t strip off your clothes and run around naked or toss yourself out of an upper story window.
The one exception to the no pot rule was Middlebrook’s dorm rooms for handicapped students, the only ones on campus. These rooms were in a wing on the ground floor; if someone forgot to put a towel under the door, marijuana smoke would stream into the dorm’s lobby, causing raised eyebrows but never any repercussions from whoever was in charge. I guess nobody wanted to bust the handicapped kids for smoking pot.
Steve’s best customer was a wheelchair-bound student who lived in one of those ground floor dorm rooms. Number One Customer was mostly torso and had an oversized head with a six-inch high forehead topped with stringy white blonde hair, which he wore to his shoulders. His arms were stunted, like tyrannosaurus rex arms, and his legs were small, shriveled appendages.
My cotton wool upbringing meant that I had rarely been exposed to death, poverty, or seriously damaged bodies. Once, at the Norshsor theatre watching 101 Dalmatians, a girl sat down next to me and propped her arm, which ended at the elbow, on the rest between us. I had no idea anything that awful could happen to a kid my age and spent the entire movie trying not to stare at her stump while leaning as far away from it as possible. The same scary, sick feeling sat like a stone in my stomach every minute I spent in that smoky, weirdly equipped dorm room. I was emotionally stunted, unable to dredge up a twinge of empathy or sympathy.
Number One Customer had two things I had never seen before: a bong and an electric wheelchair. He was supposed to be brilliant, a proto-Stephen Hawking. He also had a huge pot and psychedelics habit. At least once a week Steve and I would be sitting on his couch, Steve in full salesman mode, pitching whatever he had that day, while I tried to look at anything other than the guy in the motorized wheelchair cradling a two-foot bong between his tiny palms. Number One Customer gobbled LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin, in alarming doses and was always trying to get us to trip with him. But Steve didn’t like psychedelics and I was completely freaked out by the whole scene; for me it was already a bad trip. Making it even weirder was the fact that Number One Customer had a full-time student aide, Kit, who lived with him and who I had slept with during freshman orientation week. Kit did not partake in this feast of drugs: he just smiled at me through the clouds of pot smoke, as I outwardly beamed and looked friendly and inwardly squirmed, sending out a desperate telepathic message: “Let’s go, Steve let’s go, Steve, let’s go…”
Illegal substances popped, snorted, and smoked, fueled my romance with Steve, a romance that was fiery, melodramatic, and slightly stupid, but as addictive as a bad drug. Steve and I would cheat on each other as if it were an Olympic competition, and since neither of us bothered to hide our tracks, these infidelities spurred raging, nasty fights. Sexual jealousy ran hot in our veins, made pits in our guts. It stopped short of violence; we used words to batter each other.
“You’re a stuck up bitch. Go on back to those card-playing chumps. Get your s**t and your ass out of my room.”
“And you go ahead and screw any other girl who’ll have you, we’re done. You think you’re all cool and black but you’re just an ignorant, dirty greaser.” On the tip of my tongue was “You wouldn’t even be in college if some old man hadn’t wanted to…” but I always bit it back.
We would break up for weeks, looking away when we ran into each other in the dorm cafeteria or lobby. I made regular trips to the floor Steve lived on, for bridge or TV or just to hang out, to make sure that Steve would see me flirting or kissing or vanishing into a dorm room with other guys.
Making up was inevitable; our hormones demanded it, and it was as intense and exhausting as our fights. We would declare a truce, tumble into bed, and then spend every day and night together, transforming his dorm room into a fuggy, musky nest, interrupted occasionally when his disgruntled, disgusted roommate knocked to retrieve his clothes or books. I only left Steve’s bed to serve cafeteria haddock or to go to class. And then we would break up again.