Eject, Pilot, Eject--"If You're Listening" (mp3)
In 1979, when the Disco Era was really starting to peak, two friends and I decided to spend our senior year at Penn living in one of the high rise quad apartments on campus. You see the problem, but not the connection. Yet. The three of us--Kenny, Rich, and I--entered the lottery, leaving ourselves open for a mystery fourth guy to fill our quad. That person turned out to be Obie.
Obie was a refugee from the wealthiest frat on campus, and the circumstances concerning why he was living with us for his senior year, instead of in the frat, never became quite clear or else are lost to time. What was clear was that he was a very rich boy who had a closet full of highly-starched monogrammed shirts that he wore to class each day. And khakis and blazers and and a beautiful cashmere long coat and all of that. Of course, that was when his clothes were clean. When they were dirty, he had the largest mound of soiled expensive clothing piled on his floor that I have ever seen. Larger than those African ant hills you used to see in National Geographic. He sent his laundry out.
We, by contrast, wore jeans and flannel shirts to class, t-shirts when it finally got warm in Philadelphia. We listened to rock music. We went to concerts. We hung out. We did our homework casually, and then listened to more music. Obie didn't quite know what to make of us. Even though two of the three of us were Wharton men, we were just guys studying business, while he was pedigreed progeny of the Eastern financial world. His future was mapped out.
Most notably, I remember Obie for having a pair of Kelly green pants that he claimed "had never let him down." At the disco, he meant. For many nights of each week, he and his frat pals would head to The Second Story, Philly's hottest disco at the time. People tend to misremember disco as having a lower class appeal because of John Travola's character in Saturday Night Fever. In fact, disco, at least at the start, was a wealthy, exclusive, gin-and-tonic chugging endeavor where you had to have both luck and influence to get in the door. Though we never saw Obie with a girl, and though he certainly never brought one back to the apartment, we bought into the mystique of the green pants, being as intrigued by his world as he was, at times, by ours.
He was also "that guy."
In college, that guy was the guy who would smoke pot with you, but would never buy any. He would always come to the smoking of pot as an outsider, as if each time was a novel experience that he couldn't quite acknowledge that he was doing, and that he couldn't allow himself to be connected to. It also meant that he never bought any pot, which meant that he was always smoking ours.
Let's be candid: if you're going to smoke pot, if you're going to buy it, then you're going to have to get involved, at least a little bit, with the more sordid parts of life. In college, that meant ultimately that you'd have to enter the realm of one of the drug dealers on campus. Because even if you started out having a friend in the know buy pot for you, eventually, he or she would get tired of that and would put you directly in touch with the source. Why? Well, my theory is that they know that they've gotten their hands dirty and they want you to get your hands dirty, too. Marijuana is illegal, and if you get involved with it, you end up dealing with a criminal. Or yourself.
But, back to Obie. Under the influence of marijuana, which we tended to smoke later at night after our studying was finished, Obie would get very chummy and would question the nature of his existence, would ponder the Wall Street future that was expected of him, would get into the music that we were listening to, would admire our laid-back approach to things, might even admit that he had other interests beyond the network of his frat pals and their family connections. In the light of day, he was back to his old self, preppy and somewhat aloof, with a briefcase and a Wall Street Journal. During that year, he was a pretty active participant in our activities, he never sought to purchase any. You didn't get stoned to go disco-dancing or to hang out at "The Castle," as his fraternity house was called. Not that he ever invited us to join him.
These days, I still know that guy. If you go out to lunch with him, he doesn't order fries or onion rings because they don't fit his healthy outlook, but he's happy to munch on a few of yours. He doesn't bring beer to a gathering, because he doesn't want to get drunk. He only wants one or two. He'll gladly enjoy one of yours, if offered. He acts very differently if his wife or one of his Christian friends is around because he doesn't want to upset the careful demeanor he's established for other compartments of his life. He may come into your office to tell dirty jokes and be one of your best work pals, but you never see him on the weekends.
I'm sorry, my friend, that isn't how life works. You're either all in or you're out. You can't have it both ways. If you dip your toe in the pool, you're wet, and even when your foot dries, it was still once in that pool. My friend Rich, who lived with us in that college quad apartment, never once smoked pot, looked at Kenny and me like the idiots we probably were, but it didn't affect anything. He was him; we were us. There was nothing two-faced about any of it. But old Obie, he wanted it both ways. He knew that if he kept everything separate, no one would ever put the pieces together. It reminds me of that Stephen Crane poem:
I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
and carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, "Comrade! Brother!"
I don't care that much about it now, except that it reminds me how our attempts to be different selves to different social groups are among the greatest lies we tell ourselves. A person can get lost doing that. Maybe, my old chum Obie, you got away with it, and no one was ever the wiser. Or maybe those of us still living just remember you as a mooch.