Bildungsroman (1970-71)

My freshman year of college at St Joseph’s College in Philadelphia was easily the most transformative year of my life. What I learned and experienced outside the classroom was much more of an education than what I gained inside it. Before my yearlong residency at Fortier Hall (4th Floor), I was a skinny bookish introvert with limited social skills. After Fortier, I was still introverted but my social skills improved and I gained a sense of confidence in dealing with people and how I presented myself, maybe with a little bit more “Fortier” swagger. My sense of humor improved and I incorporated some of the best traits that I admired from my fellow Fortier residents.

Truth be told, I majored in basketball at St Joe’s (not Political Science or pre-Law). I squeezed classes and studies in between playing basketball with commuting students, intramural leagues and pick-up games. I spent as much time in the Fieldhouse as I did in the library. My knowledge of history and literature improved but not as much as my ball handling and outside shot. My roommate was on the freshman basketball team so that became my introduction to various social groups on campus and to some of the pretty young women in the cheerleading squad and women’s basketball club team. I even practiced with some of the young Lady Hawks and I enjoyed some social time with a few off the court. 

The fall of 1970 marked the first year that women entered St Joseph’s College. Some coeds lived on the third floor of my building and I was grateful when some helped me with the mechanics of doing laundry or sending up soup when I was not feeling well. I think their prescence largely made the building more civil. There were also parties and chances to meet women from other schools including Rosemont and Harcum. I still have fond memories of Becky from Rosemont who put up with my failed attempts at humor and seduction to woo her. I enjoyed her company and conversation.

Animal House had Bluto, Otter, Flounder, Boon and Pinto. Fortier Hall had “The Boy,” The Pope, Smilin’ Harv, Fish, Steak, The Great Eraser and Hooter, among others. Just about everyone received a nickname. I had one too but I will conveniently tell the story of my nickname possibly on a future blog post. Despite differences in personality and temperament, we mostly got along.

Fortier Hall was not exactly “Animal House” but it did have its moments. I remember a planned raid on Villanova to cut down one of their trees for Christmas. I fortunately did not attend the raid as I later had to help bail out some of my hall members who were caught and arrested by Villanova campus police. There was also a fire alarm set off at 3 a.m. on a very cold winter night. While the rest of the residents of our building dutifully evacuated and shivered outside in robes and pajamas, my fellow Fortier hall mates were “advised” to stay inside. The students freezing outside did not enjoy that practical joke.

One frigid night, the heat failed in the residents’ building. The Resident Manager of the building was housed on the first floor with his very attractive and young wife. Using the PA system, he advised us of the heating situation and to make plans accordingly to stay warm and comfortable. He closed his announcement with a request for any ideas or suggestions to stay warm. Someone yelled outside loudly, “Send your wife to the Fourth Floor.”

Fortier Hall did have a priest who lived with us. He largely (and wisely) stayed out of the way. My recollection of him was rather unique. One night, a group of my fellow residents were watching “smokers” (porno movies) in a darkened lounge.  I poked my head into the room and said, “Aren’t you worried about Father seeing this?” I should not have worried as he was sitting in the corner of the room watching the film. 

There was a protocol to put a tie on the door knob outside when you had a woman in your room. This was a “Do Not Disturb” sign alerting your roommate and others to stay away. On weekends this was not an uncommon occurrence and our good Father managed to disappear. I swear the seniors in our hall paid him off.

I experienced one food fight at St Joe’s. The cafeteria food was not good and tended to be very bland and predictable. So Food Services made an announcement that steak was going to be served. All of us looked forward to it. We shouldn’t have! The steak was tough as a pigskin. You could not cut it. You could not chew it. Soon steaks were flying around the cafeteria like footballs on the gridiron and a chant from angry students broke out, “The steak is shit, the steak is shit.” The Director of Food Services came out of his office to assess the clamor and had to dodge pieces of inedible steer aimed in his direction.

Big 5 basketball was the big social event on campus at least from December through March. Villanova was the big rival and the rollouts tended to be more brutal and caustic for that game than others. One of the most infamous rollouts was “ What’s the difference between Chris Ford and a dead baby? Answer: A dead baby doesn’t suck.” Big 5 games were generally sold out at the Palestra and raucous. A group of us also supported my roommate at freshman games and we were especially obnoxious at our home games towards the visiting team. I personally pissed off one All Star South Jersey player who looked like he was coming into the stands for a fight.

There were three influences on campus that I did not have any interest in. For some reason, guys on my floor liked to watch soap operas, especially General Hospital. I passed. I also did not share any interest in drinking beer so I often was the only sober member of our Hall during parties. I never smoked, inhaled or tried marijuana. I still recollect the Hall parties filled with the odor of Mary Jane, loud music by The Doors and the smell of spilled beer on the carpets. I did pick up one bad habit and that was cursing. Cursing was part of normal discourse among Fortier residents and I carried this bad habit home for a short while.

I don’t remember any classes or teachers at St Joe’s that made any impression on me. I learned much more from the residents of my Hall and those of another Hall (Ryder) that shared the fourth floor with us. I was in a mix with students of different countries, states, ages, economic status, talents, interests, political and cultural views. I also shared conversations with students who inspired me by their drive and ambitions for the future. My freshman year was during the Vietnam War and while there were no disruptions on campus, there was plenty of discussion and debate on our continued military involvement. (That’s why I feel bad for students who are now forced to online studies. The biggest benefits of college may be the social and intellectual connections you make not the dry textbooks and sterile lectures you muddle through.)

I finished up my education sophomore through senior year at Rutgers University in Camden. The teachers and classes were much better at Rutgers and I focused more on my studies and less on basketball and social events. I graduated with a Political Science degree with the intention to attend law school but wound up in the banking industry as a career. I owe my year at St Joe’s as the start of my life education and its influence is still a part of me.

“No” to Fall College and High School Sports

I miss watching sports. I miss watching the competition between teams and among individuals. I miss players displaying their talents, drive and athleticism. I miss the energy of a rabid crowd cheering for their team. With all that said, I don’t want to watch sports played under the current pandemic circumstances, especially high school and college sports. I think that athletic directors and university presidents are delusional to think that games could be played given the spread of infections, particularly in the southern and southwestern sections of this country where college football is fanatical.

I understand that the cancellation of fall sports at many colleges and universities could mean the termination of all sports at those schools. Again I appreciate the economic and psychological fallout of canceled sports. But subjecting the possible infection of the coronavirus to a college athlete is not unlike sending Christians to face lions and tigers in an ancient Roman arena. The outcomes are not likely to be favorable.

In this country, we are anxious for a return to normalcy—-a return to the routines and lifestyles we enjoyed before the spread of the pandemic. Some people practice this by refusing to wear masks thus prolonging the consequences of the pandemic. As a country, we are also experiencing political, economic and social agendas that may not reflect good judgment, good science and common sense. I err to the side of caution.

As an aside, I am not sure that re-opening the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball is a good idea either but those players are pros and are getting paid and have the ability to opt out.

The Kiss

“The best kiss is the one that has been exchanged a thousand times between the eyes before it reaches the lips.” Anonymous

She was a 4.0 in the classroom and a 9 outside it. Ginger was a pleasant shock to the eyes, a fashion model like figure on our college campus. Light curly red hair, big round blue eyes, lightly freckled face, the girl next door but with a bit of a flirty attitude. Her looks and personality reminded me of the actress Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Petite, always dressed smartly and perfectly coiffed, she was a classmate in a literature course during my sophomore year of college. She served as my visual and mental distractions to the monotone lectures about Beowulf and early European writers. She was the type of woman that I would hope to marry after I graduated college, worked my way up in a corporation and became CEO. 

Content to admire her from afar in class, our initial interactions involved some class discussion repartee but no social conversation. Maybe I could impress this young lady with my brain or knowledge of literature? But even though I was in a class with her, I never felt that I was in her class. She possessed a maturity, style and aura outside my area of expertise. I was simply content to see this vision of beauty in class twice a week for 90 minutes.

However much to my surprise, she made the first move for a more social introduction early in the semester. One morning as I studied alone at a long table in the bowels of the campus library, she dropped her books and coat on the chair next to where I was sitting. “Mind if I sit here?” she asked. I pushed a chair out so Ginger could sit, “Not at all, I quickly replied.” I would have pushed aside loaded bookshelves so she could sit next to me. Usually first conversations are a break in period with periods of silence. But we conversed easily, like old friends. She wasn’t stuffy or put on airs. She exhibited an interest in what I had to say and a wicked sense of humor. I do admit that I spent most of my time listening to her. It was a very comfortable beginning to what was a three year casual friendship and unusual relationship. 

Ginger had plenty of male admirers on campus and she regaled me with stories of her dates that were usually very lavish (theatre, concerts and expensive dinners.) She also had dreams of being in the theatre or singing professionally. Many of her suitors were from the law school who could afford her extravagant tastes. Every now and then, she would introduce me to another beau who would follow her around campus carrying her books. Her admirers came and went. 

I understood Ginger’s allure but I avoided the siren call of Scylla. The truth was that in terms of personality and social confidence that, in college,  I was much more like “Flounder” than “Otter.” (Animal House devotees will understand my reference).

During our friendship, she never called me by my first name. She would call me Poli Sci (my major), Clapton or some other nickname. I think she got the idea from watching Love Story where Ali McGraw called Ryan O’Neil’s character “Preppy.” During the summer, she sent me postcards and letters from vacation resorts where she had been staying that were addressed to Poli Sci with my home address.

There were times where she genuinely amused me with her concern. She once sat in the bleachers and watched me play a spirited pick-up basketball game in the college gym. I was the only white player among the 10 players. In one of the time-outs, one of the players asked me, “Is that your girlfriend?” Fearing he would approach her and not knowing what her reaction would be, I lied and responded “Yes.” He elbowed me and smiled, “Damn fine lady.” I wish! After the game, she came over and whispered to me, “Weren’t you afraid?”

Another time, I was playing volleyball outside the college center. It was a cold afternoon but I took my coat off in order to play more comfortably. She ran on to the volleyball court at the end of a point with my coat, shook her finger at me and yelled “Are you crazy, it’s 30 degrees. You’ll get sick. Put your coat on!”

I often wondered if she saw me as a challenge. I never expressed to her or displayed any interest about a date or upgrading our relationship to being more than friends. I never showed jealously from meeting any of the guys she dated on campus. Ginger liked to tease me. She found me too quiet and gently criticized my quiet social life. She would see me sitting with a coed in school and ask me later, “Is she your girlfriend? I’d answer, “No, she’s just a friend.” “Like me?”, she’d ask and I’d tell her, “No one is like you.” 

The truth of the matter is that I feared if I pursued her or answered the call of Scylla that I would lose her just like the other guys on campus who dated her. I was content to keep things the way they were.

Until one day a few weeks before our graduation…

Sometimes I would sit with a collection of her girlfriends and my friends in the College Center before class as she held court. I usually had my head in a book or newspaper and listened half heartedly to her conversation. Sometimes her voice would grow very soft and she’d smile in my direction. That’s when I knew she was saying something teasing about me. On this day, I heard her girlfriends giggle while looking in my direction. So I asked Ginger what was so funny. Her answer changed our friendship but ended a stalemate on how we may have truly felt for each other. 

Ginger replied, “I was just wondering, “what it would feel like to get a kiss from you?’

Ah, a shot across my bow! I know I was initially embarrassed. Normally she would say things to get some type of reaction from me and I would usually roll my eyes, shake my head and ignore her jibe. But this came across as a challenge I could not duck. Time was running out. Exams would start soon and so would our opportunities to see each other.

I tried to play it cool. I got up from my chair, went over to her and whispered, “Ginger, can I see you outside?” She slowly got up from her chair as her friends laughed and chortled “Uh-oh.” I held the doors open for her and found a quiet spot around the corner of the College Center. She stood with an amused smile and her hands by her pockets. “Your question deserves an answer,” I began…

I slowly moved in front of her and softly grabbed her hands. “School is almost over. We should satisfy our curiosities that we have left at school. Life is too short to have any regrets. I want you to have an answer to your question.” She listened quietly with a mischievous smirk on her face and a tilt of her head, almost daring me to act. So our three year dance led to this moment.

I pulled her closer to me. She showed no resistance, no hesitation. I half expected her to laugh and walk away. She didn’t. Time stopped. The world stopped. I was totally present. I felt the warm sun on my right cheek. I felt the softness of her hands, noticed the curve of her mouth, smelled her hair and a soft scent of perfume. Birds stopped chirping or I stopped hearing. The din of noise from the college center was white noise.

I moved my left hand behind her shoulder squeezing her closer. I leaned towards her, closed my eyes, and gently brushed her lips with mine and then kissed her. The actual kiss lasted maybe five seconds but I still feel the experience 45 years later. I released her lips and noticed her eyes were still closed as if she was evaluating her experience and her lips were a bit pursed as if she might be expecting an encore. When her eyes opened, a sly smile greeted me. She was silent but her smile seemed to express she won a small victory. I gave her hands a quick squeeze and then let them go. 

About a month later, I saw Ginger for the last time at the conclusion of our graduation ceremony. I did not have a chance to catch up with her before the ceremony as we had different class and exam schedules. We missed having our yearbook picture taken together. She quickly introduced me to her parents and I noticed that she seemed to have another prospective beau waiting for her. Our good-byes were brief. I had hoped that I could still see her but those hopes were dashed when she mentioned that she was relocating to the Midwest with her family. She hooked my arm, squeezed it and pulled me close to whisper “Good bye and Good luck.” She then turned to wind her way through the throng of graduates and their families to slowly walk away. I sadly watched her go about three steps when she stopped and turned around. She had one surprise left. She moved back slowly to me, grabbed my left hand, pulled me close and touched my cheek with her right hand.  She then ran her index and middle fingers gently over her lips, smiled, winked at me and whispered “I’ll miss you, Eric.”