Writer’s Workshop: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here (Registering For Classes)

Ah, this prompt again:

Share a college memory.

I’ve talked about my years at Northwestern University before (here and here). I think I’ll dip into that well again.

At the end of Freshman Orientation Week comes the day that all us newly-minted students find out, after a week of being told that we’re special and that the university really cares about us, just what a bitch college life can be. Of course, I’m talking about registering for classes.

In my case, I knew I was cursed from the start, because the sheet the university gave us with the schedule for registration told me that I would be among the last group of freshmen that would be registering. My faculty advisor, Brother Juniper, told me when I was setting up my schedule that I should plan on at least three alternatives for each of the classes I was to take, because I could count on not getting many of the classes I had selected. Accordingly, I chose four classes I wanted to take and a dozen alternates that I could live with. Thus prepared, I toddled off to get them.

Everything started out smoothly, and soon I had two of the four classes I wanted. Psychology was full, but they still had plenty of seats in Sociology, so I was down one alternate class. I was thinking, hey, this shit’s easy and walked over to the table for Intro Studies, a set of classes of which every freshman was required to take two. Needless to say, I didn’t get the class I wanted, or any of the Intro Studies classes, all of which had been snapped up by my fellow classmates. No problem, I thought; I still had eleven alternatives I hadn’t used yet.

Fifteen minutes later, I had exhausted all of those alternatives and was reduced to stopping at tables to see if they had anything at all. If they had a class, it conflicted with my schedule, but in most cases, the answer was “sorry.” Finally, I found an Art Appreciation class, the last opening in that class, added that card to my stack, and handed my cards in.

I went home and read the description of the class, and recoiled in horror when I saw that the only requirement for the class was “sophomore status.” I had inadvertently signed up for a class I shouldn’t have. What was I going to do? This was in the days when I thought registration was final, carved in stone, and once everything was set, it would take an act of Congress, or at least the intervention of the Board of Trustees, to change. I was stuck with it. I just knew the Prerequisite Police were going to find me and drag me off to the gas chamber.

I learned later that about ten percent of the people taking the class were freshmen (I knew this because they had registered with me), and there was no such thing as the Prerequisite Police. The class ended up being unintentionally funny: the professor who taught it was a magnificent painter, but had been breathing turpentine fumes a little too long, and her teaching technique was to turn on a slide projector and spend fifty minutes talking to the screen, blissfully unaware of anything else going on in the lecture hall. One day a large collie with approximately 650 tags on her collar wandered in and spent most of the period walking around the room, collar jingling loudly, until her owner came and got her. The professor droned on through all of it. I got a C in the class, not the best grade, but it was enough to pass.

Mint For Juleps (A Family Story)


Time for another family story. The Kentucky Derby ran last Saturday, as you might know, and it reminded Mary to ask me to write this story that I got from Grandma Holton years ago.

I never knew Grandpa Holton; he died in 1939, when my dad was seven. He died of a heart attack while playing bridge one evening. The story goes that Grandma bid two no-trump… Just kidding. I don’t know what Grandma bid, but it’s true that he died while playing bridge with Grandma and a couple of friends. So, I never met him. One day I was curious to know something about him, so I asked Grandma. She told me this story.

Grandpa was based in Cincinnati, and his territory covered a good portion of Kentucky, including Louisville. It happened that he was in Louisville the week before the Kentucky Derby, and as all my drinking friends know, the race is associated with the mint julep, a drink made with bourbon (what else?), simple syrup, and mint. They sell a lot of mint juleps on Derby Day, so you need plenty of mint.

Anyway, Grandpa and a client were in a tavern having lunch one day, and a Black gentleman walks in with a huge bushel basket of mint leaves. He and the tavern owner, who was also the bartender, started haggling over the price of the mint. The guy wanted five dollars (let’s say) for the mint, the bartender wouldn’t go any higher than three. This goes on for some time, all within earshot of my grandfather and his client. Finally negotiations break off, and the guy is leaving. Grandpa called him over.

“How much do you want for the mint?” he asked.

“Five dollars,” the Black gentleman said.

My grandfather took out his wallet and handed the guy five dollars, and was now the proud owner of a big bushel of mint leaves.

He and his friend proceeded to have a great time with the mint, putting it in their hair, throwing it at each other, all while the bartender watched, fuming that these two guys had bought a huge bushel of mint that he needed. They paid their bill and walked out of the restaurant, carrying the mint with them.

I wish I had had the chance to meet Grandpa Holton. I think we have a lot in common.

Writer’s Workshop: Fancy Meeting You Here!

The prompt today is to share a 10th grade memory. In other parts of the country, tenth grade is sophomore year of high school, at least that’s how I remember it.

In the summer between freshman and sophomore year of high school, Mom bought a house in the suburbs and we moved there. For the first time in my life, I would be going to a public school. Not that it made that much difference: high school is high school, and high school sucks, whether yours is an all-boys Catholic school (as was Loyola Academy, which was literally just around the corner from my school) or a co-ed public school, as was New Trier West.

Anyway, I was basically the new kid that knew no one, or at least until I went to my geometry class and saw a guy who looked familiar. I started thinking, where do I know him from? It wasn’t coming to me. The teacher was calling roll and I found out his name was Raul. I knew a guy named Raul in grammar school who left after sixth grade, but that guy had a Spanish last name and the guy in my class didn’t. Well, everyone has a double, I figured.

The more I heard the guy talk, though, the more I realized that they were the same guy. Finally, one day I asked him, “Didn’t your name used to be xxxxx?”

He said, “Yeah, I was wondering if you were the same John Holton.” Turns out the reason he left my grammar school was because his mom remarried and they moved to the suburbs, too. His mother’s husband adopted him, and he changed his name.

I only had the one class with him, and didn’t run into him again after that year. That happens sometimes when there are 623 other students in your class.

Speaking of “everyone has a double,” Mark (who comments here as lecycliste) and I also met in sophomore year, and when people would see us together they’d always ask if we were brothers. Guess you could say so, in a way, but really, we looked a lot alike. Even fooled his dad once…

I wasn’t an especially good student, but thanks to the weighting system they used, I ended up being at the very bottom of the top 20%. Seriously, I was the 20% line, tied with another guy, who I also met in that Geometry class.

Writer’s Workshop: Remembering a Friend

Interesting this prompt should come up today…

Share a memory about your elementary school!

I’ve shared lots of memories of grammar school, which for me covered kindergarten and grades 1 through 8. Things were like that back in the day, and are probably still like that in some places. But something — more like someone — has been on my mind for the last couple of days.

One of my classmates (let’s call him M) was a real character. He was always a little theatrical and dramatic, and sometimes that would bleed over to the classroom. One day in sixth grade, he was talking and carrying on during class, and the nun got fed up and told him to stand in the corner. Well, he was there for about five minutes, and suddenly he starts moaning and wavering in the corner. When the nun asked him what was wrong, he said, “Sister, I feel faint…” and he collapsed on his desk (which was conveniently in the back of the room).

She rushed to the back of the room and helped him up (no mean feat, because he was a pretty big guy) and out into the hall. We had no idea what was wrong with him, but five minutes later, he came bouncing back into the room, perfectly all right, a big grin on his face. We gave him a standing ovation, for which we were all punished. We didn’t care. It was worth it.

He and I were good friends through our later years in grammar school. He was a big fan of Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass, as I was, and he used to lend me his records. We hung out together most days after school. I’d go to his house some days, other days he’d come to mine. We just liked each other’s company. He was always up and happy, and could get me out of a bad mood, which he never seemed to get into. His nicknames for me were “Maniac” and “Flirt.” I never quite understood why, but with M, you just sort of went along, because he was a good guy and fun to hang out with.

In eighth grade, we decided to do a show for the rest of the school, one that would show off our talents, such as they were. He was the star of one act: about a dozen of us boys and girls lined up and put a hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. M was the last person in the line. It would start with the first person turning their head and saying “Is it time?” to the person behind them. It would continue, with each person asking the one behind, until they got to M. He would put his hands on his hips and say “NO!” and it would go forward from there. This went on a couple more times, and M would get increasingly more indignant each time, finally putting his hands on his hips, stomping his foot, and saying “NO!!!!” The last time, he said “Yes!”, and when that message got to the front of the line, everyone turned around and faced the other direction.

Okay, it was stupid (we were what, fourteen?), but the best part of the routine was seeing him “lose his temper” each time. That was what he did best: theatrics and drama.

We lost touch after eighth grade, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I learned he had died from AIDS-related complications. I wish I had kept in touch. The world was better with him in it.

Just wanted to share that.

Writer’s Workshop: The Lock

Today’s prompt: Write a blog post inspired by your childhood neighborhood.

Source: MasterLock.com

When I was about twelve, I found a combination lock in the alley behind our house. It was the kind they issue in school, that had a keyhole on the back, so that the dean can go in someone’s locker and see what contraband is in there. It was locked, but I thought that I could figure out what the combination was by trial and error. This is not the easiest way to figure out a combination, and pretty soon I got frustrated. Just as I was about to throw the lock away, I realized I could write to the manufacturer and ask them for the combination. I wrote to them in my best penmanship, gave them the serial number to the lock, and asked them to please send me the combination. A couple of weeks later, they wrote back and said that they would be happy to provide me with the combination if I sent them the lock.

Simple enough, right? I just put it in a box, wrap the box, bring it to the post office, and send it off. Easier said than done. For one thing, we never kept the materials needed to wrap a package for mailing at home. This was in the days before Express Mail, so there were no supplies at the post office (or so I thought). I scrounged up a box, put the lock in it along with a note of explanation, cut up a paper bag, and, with all the manual dexterity of a gorilla peeling a grape, wrapped the box and taped it shut with half a roll of Scotch Magic Tape.

I looked up the address of the nearest post office, and realized I would have to cross both Devon Avenue and Clark Street to get there. I had never done this, and was sure that, if I told my mother I was off to the post office at Devon and Hermitage, she would flat out tell me, “no way, Jose.” I would have to wait for a day when she had school and we didn’t and go after she left for work.

Finally the day came to put my plan into action. It was overcast and drizzling, and Ray Rayner (who had a kids’ show in the morning) said the high temperature for the day would be forty-seven and five-twelfths (the Weather Bureau, as we called it then, said that the high temperature would be in the upper forties, but Ray liked to put an actual number on it). I put all of my money (one dollar and seventy-three cents in loose change, whatever I could gather from chair and couch cushions) into the pocket of my jeans, put on my winter jacket, took my package, and set off for the post office.

This would be an adventure for me. I had never been on the south side of Devon Avenue or the west side of Clark Street by myself. It was like Field of Dreams, where the players stayed between the base lines because, if they didn’t, they would transform into an older version of themselves, or like the maps they drew in the fifteenth century, with dragons and other terrifying sea creatures waiting for unsuspecting sailors to cross into uncharted waters. As I walked down Devon, I looked across at the familiar storefronts as though I was on a ship watching familiar territory fade from view. At Clark, I waited for the light and crossed the street, realizing that what I was doing was actually no big deal. I got to the post office and left the lock and seventy-five cents (the price of sending it parcel post) with them and walked home, stopping at the drug store for a Zagnut and a Coke on the way.

A few weeks later, at the beginning of summer vacation, what should arrive in the mail but my lock, with a tag through the shackle with the combination on it. I tried the combination, and the lock opened successfully. And I was happy. Of course, I had nothing to lock with it, so I relocked it and put it and the combination into my desk drawer, where it stayed until a couple of years later. With nothing else to do one afternoon, I fastened it around the valve of the radiator in my room. I put the combination back in my desk drawer, certain if, should the opportunity to use the lock present itself, I could take it off of the radiator.

Before we moved from our apartment to the suburbs I realized that the lock was still there, and I should probably take it off of the radiator and take it with me. So I opened the drawer, and looked for the combination. It wasn’t there. At some point during a pre-move cleaning frenzy, I must have either misplaced or, more likely, thrown out the combination, and I couldn’t remember what it was. Thus, the lock stayed behind when we left for our new home.

Sometimes I wonder if someone else was able to remove the lock and put it to good use, or if it’s still attached to the radiator almost fifty years later. Thinking about it, if you removed the knob from the valve, you could lift it off without incident. Not that it matters now.