Approaching my half-century mark (am I admitting to that? I guess I am) in a couple of days, I, like so many before me, preoccupy myself by looking backwards as I hurtle forwards. I'm especially fascinated by those remote college years (can "Rock Lobster" be really that old?). It's not that I regard those days with any particularly burnished glow, nor do I have any remote desire to revisit that time. But still, I look back.
The following is an excerpt from a project I've been working on called "Midterms." I conducted a series of interviews with a group of college friends who ran together as a sort of tribe Freshman year. I interwove those interviews together to explore who were were then and how we relate to each other now. It was quite revealing, and more than a little nostalgic. I had hoped to get it formatted and sent off to my cohorts before my birthday, but, alas, life intruded. So, until I can get it completed (soon! soon!) I offer the introduction:
In the fall of 1980, just shy of my eighteenth birthday, I arrived on the blustery shores of Evanston, Illinois, leaving behind my moped, my job at Daisy's Chinese Kitchen, my Dungeons & Dragons friends and my New Jersey family to embark on a new life as a freshman at Northwestern University. I had little idea of what I would find there, and no real expectations; all I knew was that it was "away," and that was a good thing. In truth, I felt half-formed, opaque. Searching, but not knowing what for. I was passionately Christian (thought not in an institutional way— I preferred to communicate directly with God); ostensibly straight; devout to sci-fi and fantasy; and in love with wandering Times Square (in its previous seedier incarnation), letting its streetlights guide me where they would. I had secrets, but they were hidden, even from me.
What I got from my four years of Northwestern, more than a desultory education and the degree, was an identity. I fell in with a group of diverse, gay, and, I must say, fascinating people who were unlike anyone I had ever known. Denis O’Hare. Frank DeCaro. Harry Althaus. Timothy Engle. Darren Perkins. This cluster of friends formed the nucleus of what was known variously as "The Army," "The Group" or “That Loud Group Over There.” Through them, little by little, the shell that was me was filled. They shepherded my coming out with wit and understanding, and under their tutelage I learned much— about music, about film, about the Art of Being Gay. So many discoveries: with Denis I made the switch from Jesus to Sartre, finding that existentialism suited me much better. Frank informed my music library, and showed me the joys of dancing alone in one's room. Harry, well Harry introduced me to so many things: my first gay bar, my first sushi... Tim taught me about the power of tenacity and the genius that was Sondheim. Darren was the only one I could not even approach; he flitted in like a rarified species, dazzling and inexplicable, and flitted out almost as quickly. But really, all of them had that effect on me. I would mostly sit and listen, not daring to compete; I always remember feeling like Armistead Maupin’s Mary Ann in a room of Anna Madrigals.
Since graduating, we have of course all moved away and moved on. We’ve weaved in and out of each others’ lives, lost touch, and found each other again. The connection, though, is always there. Recently, rooting through the jumbled and faded photos from that time in college, I reencountered many other friends, important to me at the time, who are long lost now. So many people drift out of our lives, or are jettisoned. So why have these particular friends remained? I have a theory, of course, personal to me: I think that during these college years I was shaped into who I am today, and that these friends, so vital in that shaping, has left bits of their DNA ingrained in me forever. They can never be strange, or truly absent; they are, in the best sense of the word, Family.
Happy Birthday to all of us! Have a wonderful, and safe, end of the year!