Prologue

I did seven years in Ohio from the late ‘60s to the mid-‘70s.

I wound up in Cincinnati (aka the Queen City of the Midwest) largely because my senior year in high school turned into Six Flags Over Fordham Prep.

The backstory:

In the summer of 1966, my family moved from our longtime home on East 89th Street in New York to Brookview Road in Windsor, Connecticut.

Having clawed my way to the middle of the pack at Fordham Prep, there was no way I was going to spend my senior year as the new kid at Hick High in the Nutmeg State. So the folks arranged for me to stay with some family friends in the Bronx to finish up at the Prep.

Which is when it all broke bad.

The trouble began when I rebuffed the advances of the despotic Rev. Eugene J. O’Brien. S.J., widely known as the Kissing Headmaster of Fordham Prep, who was finally nailed as a sexual predator 30 years later.

Unfortunately, in my senior year I was dealing with the industrial-strength O’Brien, who more than once lamented that I was the fifth most popular boy and the first most cynical (neither likely true).

Regardless, it went even more sideways because of the 1967 Ford Foundation Fiasco, during which Joe Comitto and I had a water fight on the third floor of the Prep building while O’Brien was pitching his innovative Three-Three initiative (three years of high school, three years of college) one floor below to various Ford Foundation bigwigs.

O’Brien stormed up the stairs and said, “Get out of my school!” which, it turned out, meant that we were suspended – indefinitely.

Three days later, Prefect of Discipline Rev. John King, S.J., told me to show up the next morning with a note from my parents acknowledging my miscreant behavior. The folks being 100 miles away in Connecticut, of course, I just forged the letter.

Bottom line: Student Advisor Rev. Mallick J. Fitzpatrick, S.J., subsequently informed me that there was no way I would be getting any Fordham Prep recommendations attached to my college applications.

Undaunted, I took a trip to New Haven to plead my case in person for admission to Yale University, and the kindly admissions officer said, yeah, we’d like to have you here.

So I applied, but the $15 application check that Mom wrote inconveniently bounced, because the old man had lately been on the West Coast writing checks that he didn’t bother to tell Mom about.

Let it be known that Mom was meticulous in her monthly bill payment system, which – less than often but more than rarely – involved leaving one check unsigned. The subsequent back-and-forth with whatever creditor had been shortchanged bought her enough time to sufficiently refresh the checking account to cover the payment.

But not that time.

So there went Yale, leaving me in college limbo.

The guys I hung out with at the Prep (collectively known as The Boys, individually acknowledged as the highest ranked Prepsters on the coveted Popular/Cynical Matrix) were mostly enrolling at Fordham University, but given O’Brien’s juice on campus that was the least likely college I would get into.

Enter Chuck DePalma, my sophomore Latin teacher, who famously had a lung collapse during a class session but nonetheless finished his lecture.

Chuck DePalma was a legend at Fordham Prep.

He told me that a Jesuit priest from Cincinnati, Rev. William P. Hetherington, S.J., was in town recruiting students – and handing out scholarships – for Xavier University’s Honors Bachelor of Arts (HAB) program, which Hetherington called “a starry-eyed, idealistic course of studies for youths who are to face the unknown world of tomorrow.”

Right – as if a double major in Greek and Latin along with a minor in Philosophy were the perfect tools for succeeding in the second half of the 20th century.

Then again, why get technical about it when scholarships are involved.

Fr. Hetherington had been trolling for prospects at local Jesuit schools from Regis High to Seton Hall to St. Xavier – but, oddly, not at Fordham Prep, on whose campus he was actually staying during his recruitment tour.

So I tracked him down in order to pitch myself for Xavier’s HAB class of 1971.

Our conversation went something like this.

“So you want admission to Xavier’s honors program.”

“Yes I do.”

“What’s your GPA?”

“3.7.”

“SATs?”

“727 English, 707 Math.”

“Okay.”

“Okay a scholarship?”

“Yes.”

“And room and board?”

“Yes.”

“What about books?”

“Get a job.”

And that was that – or so it seemed.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

There’s a famous New Yorker magazine cover that the artist Saul Steinberg drew in 1976. It’s a map of the United States through the eyes of a Manhattanite: Two-thirds of it extends from 9th Ave. to the Hudson River, then come in quick succession Jersey, Chicago, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean.

That’s what I thought too.

If you asked me in 1967 how far Cincinnati was from New York, I’d have said, “I dunno – 1500 miles?”

It’s 634.

Fifteen hundred miles gets you to the outskirts of Dodge City – not that I wanted to be in Kansas, either.

But Cincinnati was the town I was dealt, so I headed there in September. Xavier’s HAB students mainly stayed in Marion Hall, a rundown Beaux-Arts mansion built in 1897 and turned into a rabbit warren of dorm rooms when it was donated to the university in 1943.

When I walked into the lobby there was a guy sitting on one of the couches and he looked up and said. “Hey – you’re John Carroll.”

Totally confused, I said “And  you are . . . “

“Bob Collins, from Sandlass Beach.”

The East Side Carrolls spent multiple summers on the Jersey shore from the mid-‘50s to the early ‘60s.

The Collins family of Leonardo, N.J. – Jack, Bob, Ed, and the rest – were also there for most of that time. And they were always fun to be around.

Funny thing, though: Bob Collins was the only person at Xavier University who actually recognized me.

No one at Marion Hall was expecting me, and there was no record of my admission at the Admissions Office. Apparently Fr. Hetherington failed to “father-up” with the requisite paperwork regarding my promised scholarship.

So that was problematic, especially since I was already there.

Eventually, I managed to secure an audience with Fr. John N. Felten, S.J., the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Xavier University.

Totally confused, he said “And you are . . . ”

“I’m the guy from Fordham Prep that Fr. Hetherington gave an HAB scholarship to.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Plus room and board while we’re at it.”

“Okay – go get yourself a place at Marion Hall.”

Not exactly a warm, welcoming “we’ll get you all sorted out here at Xavier University.” Just a wave of the hand . . . go get yourself sorted.

So I went back to Marion Hall and asked the Hall monitors, where you gonna put me? Turned out they put me in a four-man room – with two bunk beds – that they unilaterally turned into a five-man room.

But rather than take up precious floor space for a fifth bed, they just reconfigured one bunk bed – and this was not popular among the Four Amigos already residing there – into a trip-bed, with me occupying the third level.

That was literally the high point of my first year at Xavier University.

Down by the River

Things I noticed right off when I arrived in Cincinnati.

• There were countless numbers of “Honk If You Love Jesus’ bumper stickers.

• There were almost as many “Don’t Like My Driving? Call 1-800-Eat-Shit’ bumper stickers.

• There was one “Honk If You ARE Jesus’ bumper sticker.

• Everyone seemed to want to know my name.

Of course anybody who grows up in New York knows that anonymity – as opposed to the kid up the block – is your best friend. If people don’t know who you are, they can’t call your parents, right?

But walk into any drug store or restaurant or record shop in Cincinnati for a second time without someone there knowing your name and somebody else was likely to say, “You’re from New York, aren’t you, boy?”

Yes I was.  Stranger in a strange land.

There was, however, one blessedly familiar sight in the Queen City: The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge that spanned the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati to Covington, Kentucky.

It’s known as the Singing Bridge because of the hum you hear as you drive across its metal grid roadbed. More important, it was John Roebling’s starter bridge before he (and his son Washington and – especially – his brilliant daughter-in-law Emily) built its much larger lookalike in Brooklyn.

Pathetic as it might sound, I spent an inordinate amount of time during my first two years in Cincinnati 1) sitting on the banks of the Ohio River,  2) staring at the Singing Bridge, and 3) wishing I was back in New York.

But I was at Xavier University, taking eight courses a semester my freshman year (21 course credits vs. the normal 15), including MS 1 First Year Basic Course, which was the university’s mandatory Reserve Officer Training Corps (or ROTC) course.

It was mandatory, we were told, because Xavier was a land-grant university and ROTC was part of the cover charge. ROTC was a four-semester commitment during which, I’m proud to say, I got straight B’s while learning to march in formation and field-strip/reassemble an M-1 rifle in 90 seconds – two skills I thankfully never had to actually employ.

All the while my hair grew to shoulder – definitely not soldier – length. When I made Dean’s List my first two semesters, regulations said the brass had to make me a sergeant. Instead, they made me an offer: If I would stop participating in ROTC, they would give me B’s throughout my sophomore year.

Done and done.

The other negotiation I had to manage during freshman year was my second semester Latin course.

I had been granted Advanced Placement credit for LT 51 Virgil: Aeneid. So I needed to register for a different Latin course.

I chose LT 142 Juvenal, which explored the writings of “the last great Roman satirist, Juvenal (c.55 – 127 AD),  [who] became famous for his savage wit and biting descriptions of life in Rome.”

Juvenal is also the toughest Roman author to translate. Various faculty greybeards told me, “this is a senior-level course and you’re a freshman, so maybe look elsewhere.”

I took the course anyway and got an A, which kind of pissed off my elder classmates – not to mention the faculty greybeards – which was just fine with me.

(Several years later I wrote an English course paper titled Dashiell Hammett Was the Homer of Hardboiled Detective Fiction; Raymond Chandler Was Its Virgil. Amazingly, that also got an A, which didn’t piss anybody off because they didn’t know about it.)

Regardless, I was not, from the start, the HABitual Xavier University honors student.

I Like Eick

FR 31 Intermediate French was a total gas.

Prof. John L. Eick would come flapping into the classroom – textbooks under one arm, the other waving in the air – and sing out his daily refrain: Comme d’habitude! Comme d’ordinaire!

In other words, time for la dictée.

That was the signal for all of us to take out a half-sheet and transcribe whatever Prof. Eick dictated that day – a passage from Camus, a poem by Baudelaire, a news report from the Paris daily Le Monde.

John Eick, born in Chicago but conceived by proxy in France, sported a Julius Caesar haircut, chain-smoked Gauloises, smelled vaguely like a cat, and swooped around campus in a kelly-green wool cape.

He could’ve passed for Parisian just about anywhere  – except Paris, he once told me, where the crowd was just too tough.

But he was a rock star at XU.

And for some reason he took a liking to me. Six weeks into my freshman year, he recruited me to grade all those dictées.

I earned, as I remember, $1.25 an hour for marking up those half-sheets. But the real payoff for me was the many dinners I enjoyed over the years at his apartment in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, where the food and the guests and the conversations all had a decidedly international flavor.

(Let’s get this out of the way right off: Not once was there an inappropriate gesture or advance in all the time I spent with John Eick. I think he just liked having a kid from New York around to offset all those corn-fed Midwestern students.)

Start with the food: I know it featured lots of sweetbreads (thymus, pancreas, that sort of thing), although I never asked what they were. There was also steak bleu ( black on the outside, pretty much raw on the inside), and -thankfully – salad, which it often fell to me to toss.

Then there were the guests: Jeanne Avérouse, one of the regulars at those soirées, told me about the French tradition that when you toss a salad, however many lettuce leafs fall outside the bowl indicate the number of children you’ll have.

As it turned out, that didn’t actually apply to Irish-Americans.

Jeanne also told me that her name meant God Is Gracious, although – all due respect – she herself was somewhat less so, as she was always banging on about ze yung in America, who were invariably idiots and who not at all rarely included me.

Dinner began with a French martini: Three parts Martini & Rossi dry vermouth, zero parts gin.

(At which point, my old man – who fancied himself Manhattan’s Master Martini Mixologist – would have vociferously protested, except I never told him.)

After that, it was 1) entrée before salad, 2) coffee after dessert, 3) dishes before digestion, and 4) a healthy dose of brandy to cap it all off.

C’est tout, c’est ça, c’est bon bon bon!

Finally, there were the conversations: Over all, I likely learned more at John Eick’s dinner table than in many of the classrooms I inhabited at Xavier University. But the best lesson was this particular French maxim: Je m’excuse, je m’accuse.

When I excuse myself, I accuse myself. In other words, live your life and live with the consequences.

Eventually, in addition to those Eickian dictées, I started grading all his papers, including the advanced level French classes – which was unusual, since I wasn’t actually taking any advanced level French classes.

Whatever.

I soon added a second gig – supervising the university’s Language Lab, which featured a lineup of bulky reel-to-reel tape recorders that helped students understand how inept they were at foreign languages.

As it turned out, the students were also inept at what passed for technology back then, so my job mainly involved unmucking whatever they inevitably mucked up.

Smart guy that I was, I started grading papers at the same time I did the unmucking. But I wasn’t smart enough to cook my timesheets, which led to my second tête-à-tête with Fr. Felten.

Our conversation went something like this.

“You know you’re double-dipping, right?”

“All due respect, Father Felten, I see it as working doubly hard.”

“That’s a distinction without a difference.”

 “All due respect, Father Felten, I haven’t gotten that far in my Logic course.”

“Just cut it out.”

So, of course, I started cooking my timesheets.

Goings On About Town

By the dawn of 1970, I’d made my peace with Cincinnati – although that didn’t mean life in the Queen City was entirely free of ups ‘n’ downs.

Bob Cousy’s Big Turnover

I grew up a New York Knicks fan, so it was mandatory that I hate the Boston Celtics (although I also had to admire – grudgingly, of course – any team that could win 11 of 13 NBA championships between 1957 and 1969, while the Knicks won exactly zero).

It was in the fall of 1969 that legendary Celtics point guard Bob Cousy arrived in the Queen City to coach the extremely mediocre Cincinnati Royals, whose star player was the equally legendary Oscar Robertson, who Cousy immediately wanted to get rid of, which was Leading Indicator #1 that the Cousy thing would not end well.

(After that season, Robertson was indeed traded to the Milwaukee Bucks where, over the next four years, he averaged a highly respectable 16.3 points and 7.5 assists per game.)

But back to Cousy, who decided he could goose attendance for the Royals by coming out of retirement at age 41.

It turned out to be a less-than-triumphant return.

The Cooz played 34 minutes over seven games (four home, two away, one neutral). He scored a grand total of five points. He recorded zero assists (after practically inventing the point guard position and averaging 7.5 assists per game during his 13-year Celtics career), but managed to commit 11 personal fouls.

Ouch.

Then again . . . ticket sales for those games did jump 77%, according to published reports.

Which translated into 3749 extra fans (times four) above the team’s average home attendance of 4869 that year.

That was real money, even then.

And some of it was mine. I just couldn’t resist the sideshow of it all, so I ventured down to Cincinnati Gardens for the last of the Cousyramas, which turned out to be a surpassingly sad swan song for the erstwhile Houdini of the Hardwood.

The Royals beat the woeful Phoenix Suns 128-124, a victory to which Cousy contributed absolutely nothing in his one minute of playing time.

Afterwards, I sort of wished I hadn’t gone.

Off-Key at the Allman Brothers Gig

Then there was the local event I wish I had made it to: The Allman Brothers’ mid-April gig at Cincinnati’s legendary Ludlow Garage.

Our party of four – me, Jim, Rae, Margaret – stood outside during the band’s first set, which in true Allman Brothers fashion ran ridiculously long, so the wait seemed endless.

Margaret kept saying how cold she was, although according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it barely dipped below 40 degrees that night.

Regardless, at some point Margaret announced, “This is insufferable,” and because she herself in a snit was significantly less than sufferable, we trundled off to, I dunno, Skyline Chili.

Eighteen months later Duane Allman was dead.

Damn.

‘All the Advantages of Woodstock Without the Hassles’

The poster for the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival promised 16 acts, 14 hours. It also said, “Bring blankets, pillows, watermelon, incense, ozone rice, your old lady, babies, and other assorted goodies and do your own thing.”

I actually brought none of those on June 13 to Crosley Field, the longtime and exceedingly funky home of the Cincinnati Reds that would be abandoned for the soulless Riverfront Stadium two weeks later.

But I did catch the amazing lineup of (as it turned out) 14 acts – including Grand Funk Railroad, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger, Mountain, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Mott the Hoople, Ten Years After, and Traffic featuring Steve Winwood – over the course of (as it turned out) 12 hours.

Most vivid memory: During Mountain’s set, some oversmoked dude jumped on stage and started flinging his hair around, which got tangled in Leslie West’s guitar. West proceeded to jerk him around for the rest of the song like a puppet timed to the music. It was painful and artful at the same time.

Fifty years after, though, a lot of the rest is pretty blurry (as I assume I myself was for most of that day).  But this 90-minute syndicated television special called Midsummer Rock, which aired months later on local affiliate WLWT, fills in the blanks nicely.

17 Years Old at Birth!

In the summer of 1970 Bob Dylan traveled to Princeton University to receive an honorary Doctorate of Music. Once there, he encountered both a) very loud protests, and b) an even louder swarm of 17-year cicadas that drowned out his introduction by a university official.

Subsequently Dylan wrote a song about that experience called Day of the Locusts.

And the locusts sang, well, it give me a chill,

Yeah, the locusts sang such a sweet melody.

And the locusts sang with a high whinin’ trill,

Yeah, the locusts sang and they was singing for me . . .

(Actually, cicadas aren’t locusts, but why get technical about it when Bob Dylan is involved.)

In Cincinnati, which was another 1970 cicada hot spot, a local historian noted that “you can’t wear sandals outside because they crawl right onto your feet.”

The high whine, the crunching of cicadas underfoot, the constant cries of “God, they’re everywhere!” – that was the soundtrack of my summer of 1970.

Each morning I would sweep the overnight cicada blanket off my car with a broom. Well, it wasn’t exactly my car – it was John Eick’s gunmetal grey 1966 Austin-Healey Sprite (which he would generously sell me several years later for the bargain-basement price of $300).

He was off to Paris for the summer and asked if I’d housesit his apartment – an equally benevolent gesture since the last place I wanted to go was back to Connecticut with the folks.

Even though I wasn’t paying rent, I still needed some kind of gainful employment. Unfortunately, summer job prospects for a hippie-looking New Yorker hovered somewhere between slim and none. So I decided a little subterfuge was in order.

I took a City of Cincinnati exam in March (without revealing that I was a current college student) and learned in May that I had been awarded a full-time job in the city’s Public Services Department, Traffic and Road Operations.

And so, the next week, I reported to The Yard.

Tarred and Featherbed

I lasted exactly one day on the Public Services Department’s roadside landscaping crew.

First day on the job I was dropped off – along with an industrial-strength mower that weighed at least four times what I did – on a steep grassy incline alongside a four-lane roadway in the Western Hills section of Cincinnati.

Needless to say, growing up in Manhattan didn’t afford me a heck of a lot of experience with heavy-duty machinery (outside of the subway system, of course, but I didn’t have to operate that).

So it would have surprised no one that, as I struggled across the top of the incline and turned to reverse direction, the mower weighing way more than I did got away from me and plummeted straight down toward the roadway.

It was one of those cinematic moments when everything goes slo-mo and you can see your future and you want to turn away but you can’t and then – as if the God of Crappy Jobs looked down and said, “I’m not done with you yet” – the mower swerved and stalled and stopped maybe three yards away from colliding with a car filled with totally oblivious Western Hills residents.

The next day I was transferred to the street-paving crew, where it was assumed that, surrounded by wizened veterans of The Yard, I’d have less opportunity to wreak havoc.

That, as it happened, remained to be seen.

But before we go there, a word about those wizened veterans.

In advance of punching in at The Yard each morning, the majority of the street-paving crew piled into Harold’s, the bar next door, for their version of the Breakfast of Champions – most notably multiple boilermakers (a shot and a beer, for those of you keeping score at home).

After early morning libations (which surprisingly never seemed to impede the wizened veterans), the actual street paving process worked like this:

You had a tar truck with jets in the back to lay tar on the road; you had a truck that laid gravel from the front so it had a roadbed to pass over; and finally, you had a dump truck with guys standing atop piles of gravel and shoveling it onto the road to cover any bare spots.

And then, off to the side, was the lowly flagman, who stopped local residents from being crushed by any of the aforementioned vehicles, and then let them go on their merry way.

So the brass decided that flagman was the best place to stash me, not to mention the least perilous.

Then again, it was also the most boring place to stash me. I stood at whatever cross street was down the block from the tar and gravel trucks and kept an eye out for oncoming traffic. The flagman’s enduring responsibility was to ensure that no vehicular collisions would interfere with the orderly progression of the workday.

Eventually I started bringing some reading material along to help pass the time, given that we were working residential neighborhoods with very little traffic.

Except that one time.

I was reading – I dunno, Animal Farm? – when the wood-paneled station wagon approached the intersection and I didn’t stop it and the tar truck was hurtling down the street and the two passed in sight of each other – although a good five seconds from colliding – but regardless all hell broke loose.

When it finally got sorted out, I was re-reassigned to ride atop the dump truck filled with gravel – yes, on top of the load of gravel not inside the cab, and helmetless to boot – which I’m not sure was even vaguely kOSHA by Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards back then.

Sitting atop the gravel track, though, was where the second alcohol-related scorekeeping came into play.

Since I was the only one not drinking boilermakers to start off the workday, it fell to me to track the package stores we passed on the way to that day’s job site. All those wizened veterans counted on me to tell them the nearest place they could obtain a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor during their collectively bargained lunch hour.

Which I gladly did because I was just happy to a) still have a job, and b) have a purpose in life. Working the gravel truck was one of my all-time favorite gigs: All I had to do was throw a shovelful of gravel onto the street every 20 seconds or so. Simple as that.

Except it really wasn’t. Because the actual satisfaction in the throwing was to keep the shovelful of gravel together as long as possible – ideally until it hit the ground. Virtually every job has at least some small artistic element to it, right? Gravel sailing through the air, retaining the shape of the shovel it just left – that was ours.

The English (Mental) Patient

Toward the end of the summer it dawned on me that my current academic trajectory – Latin major, Greek major, Philosophy minor, no teaching certificate – made my professional future look more and more likely to be some variation of slinging gravel and keeping track of package stores.

I needed to take drastic action.

So I decided to add an English major my senior year.

Unfortunately I still had six required courses to take, so I only squeezed two English courses into my first semester schedule.

That left me with five English courses during second semester (although, to be accurate, I dropped Modern Drama somewhere along the way). I also had one last Latin and one final Philosophy course.

As you might imagine, those course loads involved a prodigious amount of reading, which in turn required a steady flow of the finest pharmaceuticals money could illegally buy (of which the less said the better), resulting in roughly three all-nighters per week for the following eight months.

An even bigger obstacle to overcome was my living arrangement. By senior year I’d had my fill of on-campus living, so I forfeited my free room and board and split an off-campus apartment with three other Marion Hall expatriates.

Problem was, the apartment happened to be a half-hour drive from campus and I didn’t have a car. (Don’t ask – it was pretty much the best of a bad bunch of options at the time.)

Then again, since I was working through the night two or three times a week, I didn’t so much need a place to stay as a place to stay up. So early in the fall semester I sort of claimed squatters rights to a small room off the lobby of Marion Hall, where I commandeered a table, a chair, and a lamp while adding a small radio of my own to keep me company.

(Funny how things work out: I moved off-campus because I didn’t want to spend my senior year at Marion Hall, then wound up living there anyway.)

I also had some clothes stashed there and could take a shower upstairs or catnap on the lobby sofa.

It was, to put it mildly, a nomadic existence.

And, like a nomad, I learned to live off the land, which in that case meant scrounging meal passes to eat in what was laughingly called the Campus Dining Hall.

Within weeks I knew the class schedules of dozens of sympathetic fellow students, in particular when they would have to skip lunch or dinner. I knew where to meet them to pick up their meal passes, and where to meet them to give them back.

Two meals a day, five days a week. And that was three years before the Rubik’s Cube was invented.

(A shoutout here to all those sweet cashier ladies who knew that the meal passes weren’t mine but swiped them through anyway because a) I was down to 140 pounds while remaining six-foot-one, and b) they were genuinely good persons.)

That’s how it went until the spring of 1971, when HAB Judgment Day arrived in the form of oral exams – four consecutive 15-minute grillings on Latin, Greek, Philosophy, and a roll-your-own subject – which would determine whether I’d get an Honors degree or just a run-of-the-mill B.A.

I could fail, pass, or pass with distinction. All the other HAB seniors had passed; I was last man up.

Around 11 the night before my spotlight dance, I gathered up a bunch of notebooks and textbooks, took 15 milligrams of dexedrine, and promptly fell asleep for six hours.

Not an auspicious beginning.

Upon waking up, I took a quick shower, headed over to campus, and knew I needed to eat something but wasn’t sure what would stay down in my current condition. So I settled on an ice cream cone and headed to the designated seminar room.

Given my reputation among the HAB set as a sort of vagabond, I drew a pretty big crowd to my orals, many of them believing – and some of them hoping – I’d go down like the Hindenburg. My entering the room as I finished an ice cream cone was exactly the image I wanted to project.

After eight years of Latin and seven of Greek, all that material was pretty much baked in, so the Q&A for each of those subjects went off without incident.

But the third inquisition was conducted by the chair of the English department, the Rev. Thomas J. Savage, S.J., who was widely known to dutifully – nay, religiously – live up to his surname. (Actual quote: “I don’t grade for sweat.”)

We took a tour of English Lit in reverse chronology, starting with some T.S. Eliot headscratching, then spending some quality time with the Bard of Avon, followed by a cup of coffee with Geoffrey Chaucer, and winding up with the enduring message of the Old English poem Beowulf: lif bith lene – life is short.

That 15 minutes with Tom Savage, though, was exceedingly long.

Last – and certainly least in terms of my actual knowledge – was the Philosophy interrogation conducted by Prof. Bernard A. Gendreau, a nice enough guy but also a gasbag of Citgo-esque proportions.

Given that, I figured my best bet was to get him to do most of the talking.

Prof. Gendreau started with a question about the Greek philosopher Zeno’s paradox of motion, which posited that “A runner can never finish a race because he always has to travel halfway to the finish line before he reaches it.”

Me: Don’t we really need to consider Plato’s Cave before we tackle Zeno?

Bernie: Excellent point – let’s talk about that.

Which he proceeded to do for the next several minutes. Then I simply repackaged what he said as my answer.

I employed the same gambit when Bernie moved on to Jean-Paul Sartre.

Me: As Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Isn’t that where we should start with Sartre?

Bernie: Excellent point – let’s talk about that.

Which he proceeded to do for the next several minutes. Once again I repackaged what he said, and then we were done.

Much to my surprise – and the slack-jawed amazement of many of those in attendance – I passed with distinction.

Hey – life can only be understood backwards, right?

• • • • • • •

After that, there was just one more obstacle I had to overcome before I could beat feet out of Ohio.

Problem #1: The night before Xavier University’s 133rd Commencement Exercises, I was not actually in line to commence, having failed to submit my final paper for EN 306 Old English Literature (lif bith lene, indeed).

Problem #2: The night before Xavier University’s 133rd Commencement Exercises, the entire 89th Street Carroll clan had arrived in Cincinnati after having a) driven 15 hours to get there, and b) survived a tire blowing out in a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

So there was a lot of pressure on me to make that diploma walk the next afternoon.

Solution: After we all had dinner and such, I pulled one last all-nighter and  wrote a ten-page paper titled, I dunno, Beowulf As the Prototype of the Modern Super Hero Screenplay or some such nonsense.

Around eight o’clock Saturday morning I trundled over to Fr. Savage’s residence and waited outside while he read the paper and graded it and gave me a note to bring to the Registrar.

Which I did, and waited outside until my transcript was amended thusly.

Which I then trundled over to the Dean of Student Affairs Office, where I waited outside until they gave me my ticket to walk the stage and collect my diploma.

Subsequently, I got two shoutouts during the brutally hot (91˚, no shade, lots of fainting) and crushingly dull ceremony (commencement speaker: Democratic Party hack Lawrence O’Brien, whose office in the Watergate complex would be burglarized 51 weeks later by a team of Richard Nixon’s henchmen known as The Plumbers).

First shoutout.

(The asterisk meant I was a member of Alpha Sigma Nu, the National Jesuit Honor Society, which involved – as far as I was aware – absolutely nothing.)

Then there was this.

So that was all good. The Carroll clan then navigated one more dinner without major incident (except the old man didn’t think the restaurant I picked was posh enough) and it was blessedly time for everyone to go.

In light of the tire blowout on the way to Cincy, the folks decided it would be tempting fate to put the whole mishpocheh back in the same vehicle for the return trip.

So the next morning the gals boarded a plane to Connecticut while the guys piled into the car for the drive home.

That small figure in the background waving goodbye was me.

Then I went off and slept for three months.

 Cincinnati’s Biggest Whine Warehouse

Upon emerging from hibernation in late August, I realized I couldn’t beat feet out of Cincinnati because I was three months behind on my rent. So I took my “starry-eyed” HAB degree out to “face the unknown world of tomorrow” – just like Fr. Hetherington promised.

I interviewed for positions at major local corporations, none of which had any use for m, and – memorably – at the Cincinnati Enquirer, where the editor said no, he wouldn’t hire me but really wished I was his daughter’s high school Latin teacher.

So I finally resigned myself to taking a job at the Stetter Wine Company (the owner’s son Billy was one of my campus meal tickets during the previous school year and I tapped him one more time) to try to chip away at my back rent.

But I didn’t have anything else on my dance card until I stopped by the XU library one day and ran into Fr. Savage, who offered a proposition that was pure coals-to-Newcastle (or grease-to-White Castle, depending on your taste in phrase-making).

He invited me into the English Lit graduate program, tuition-free.

As it happened, though, the Xavier graduate program in English was about as mindless as tossing gravel off a dump truck.

Not long after I registered for fall courses, I had this exchange with one of my professors.

Prof: And so, as we learn in Melville’s Moby Dick: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres“[we need to] consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understand the perspective of other characters.”

Me: Uh, could we just go to Melville’s text here, because I’m not sure that’s what he actually did. Maybe Ismael made a narrative shift to reflect the content involving other characters.

No, we cannot go to the text – graduate school is for secondary sources, not primary sources.

So, wait – we can’t talk about what the author wrote, we can only talk about what somebody else wrote about what the author wrote?

That’s correct.

Uh – that’s crazy.

No, that’s graduate school.

Given that I’d spent the past eight years of my academic life totally immersed in Latin/Greek/English texts, I kept on banging the text-is-context drum in my courses. Halfway through the semester, not surprisingly, Fr. Savage invited me out of the English Lit graduate program.

That left me free to focus on my job at the Stetter Wine warehouse, a workplace that was, to put it bluntly, a dark, dingy, dilapidated dump that sat on the outskirts of the city’s rundown Over the Rhine district.

In keeping with my employment history, I resided at the very bottom of the Stetter pecking order.

There were the big bosses, of course, and then the sales guys, followed by the drivers who delivered the wine, followed by the forklift guys who stacked  pallets of wine cases about the premises. Bringing up the rear were the pickers like me, who waited patiently every afternoon for the sales guys to return with their orders.

Then we would pick ’em and pack ’em and stack ’em in the trucks for delivery the next day.

So it was weird that the drivers would come to me and ask if I’d help them form a union at the warehouse. But I thought – hey, I have a college degree and I have consistently demonstrated on my lunch hour that I can actually read, so maybe that qualifies me to contact Teamsters Local 100 and get them to organize a union at Stetter Wine Company.

Consequently, I went down to their offices and introduced myself to a stocky, square-jawed guy with close-cropped brown hair who reminded me of two-thirds of the guys I’d known on the street-paving crew.

“Hi – my name’s John and I work at the Stetter Wine warehouse and – “

“Aw, Christ – those frickin’ bed wetters again? No way.”

“Uh, not sure what you mean there.”

“Those assholes have done this twice before, and both times they got bought out by management right before the vote. You know that saying, ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’? People forget the third part: ‘Fool me three times, that’s when I get really pissed off.’ So tell them to piss off.”

When I got back to the warehouse a bunch of workers gathered around and asked me how it went.

“About as well as could be expected,” I said, “given that you assholes never told me you folded like origami not once but twice before with the Teamsters.”

Whereupon there was a lot of hemming and hawing and promising that it would definitely no way happen again.

So, idiot that I was, I went back and pleaded their case and, remarkably, the Teamsters organized another union vote. Must’ve been all those Ciceronian orations I studied the past eight years.

Meanwhile, back at the warehouse, old man Stetter was saying we’re all a family and the union will only tear us apart and wouldn’t that be just so sad.

And the Teamsters responded that old man Stetter is an asshole who’s just using you and isn’t that just totally sad.

Which it was.

Because – once again – the whole staff caved over a last-minute 25¢ an hour raise.

The final union vote, I later found out, was everybody-else-to-one.

But many thanks to the Teamsters at Local 100, who chose not to subsequently break my legs.

• • • • • • •


Coincidentally or not, a couple of months after the regrettable Third Teamster Meltdown, Stetter Wine Company moved to a new warehouse that was bright, airy, and most of all, pristine. Which cut way down on the daily cleaning chores.

That led to the pickers doing a lot of sitting around, waiting for the orders to arrive every afternoon. Most of the pickers spent that time counting their thumbs, but I tended to sit on some half-full pallet and read the newspaper or some paperback. Then the orders would come in and we’d pick ’em and pack ’em and stack ’em in the trucks for next-day delivery.

But – after what they call in Human Resources “a decent interval” – I got fired.

Cause of termination: Reading on the Job.

The next day I trundled down to the local unemployment office to apply for benefits. Here’s how it went.

Me: Hi – I’d like to apply for unemployment benefits.

Nice bureaucratic lady: Were you laid off from your job?

Um, no . . .

Did your employer go out of business?

Um, no . . . 

So why are you no longer employed?

I was fired.

For what reason?

For reading on the job.

Aaaah . . . 

At which point everything went seriously sideways.

But that’s a story for another time.

2 Replies to “”

  1. This is one of the most enjoyable things I have read in a long time. I went to Miami 15 years later and spent a lot of time in Cinci.

    Like

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