College days, roommates, and what I learned

In the fall of 1981, I left a miserable lumber town to attend college in Seattle, which was not yet the capital of grunge and coffee. I was only seventeen (due to long ago getting promoted out of kindergarten in mid-year) and came from a very repressive family environment. For example, in our house, to question my father’s interpretation of the Bible was equated with doing Satan’s work. Free at last to seek out pre-marital sex and alcohol, I worked harder at either than my studies. I was also overwhelmed academically due to the rudimentary education of a small-town school with low standards, and was particularly deficient in critical thinking because neither my home nor my school offered much intellectual challenge to dumb ideas. College tends to fix that.

Lesson: if your new roommate is from a repressed environment, look out. They will probably go completely hog wild.

My first roommate was Math, a brilliant mathematician from a conservative suburb (West Seattle) with a clutch of intelligent, pleasant high school friends. He was the only roommate I’d never met before I moved in with him, and the best one I ever had. He was in honors math–at UW, an intimidating program–and after putting up with me for two quarters, moved out to a single room in a quiet dorm. He promptly tried to kill himself. I may have been a flaming pain in the butt, but it turns out that my antics helped him deal with the pressure.

Lesson: don’t be too quick to judge a roommate. He or she may seem swinish, and may even be a swine, but may also fill a need that you don’t realize. Get to know the person.

For my second year I stayed on the same floor, rooming with Markdove, a senior from Tukwila (a suburb of Seattle). We had planned this because we were both a) hardcore political conservatives (this was a long time ago, folks) and serious drunkards. I used to pour Everclear in Markdove’s beer when he went to the can. One time he puked.

Lesson: if you keep Everclear around your dorm room, it will ultimately be misused somehow.

While in that living arrangement, I came to realize that I needed to control my drinking before it got full control of me. As luck would have it, the night after I chose to hit the wagon for a month, our cluster living area decided to pitch a massive wingding. I stuck to my guns. In so doing, I gained the psychological upper hand over alcohol. I still drank, but never as heavily or as out of control.

Lesson: in the college dorm environment, you are in a sea of behaviors, attitudes and parties. There will come a time at which you will have to choose to steer rather than drift. Know that the day will come. A lot is riding on it.

Markdove and I had an arrangement: lights and noise were allowed at all hours. We would use blindfolds and earplugs as necessary, and often did.

Lesson: at some point the issue of room usage, noise, study and sleep will confront all roommates. If you want consideration, you have to give consideration. Gentle hints tend to work better than open confrontation, especially with Young College Students who are Now Big Adults and who Can Now Totally Manage Their Own Lives Quite Nicely, Thank You.

I soon moved to a different dorm. My roommate was Kenpeck, and it was a good thing that I spent most of my nights (ok, all of them) in my girlfriend’s room because Kenpeck and I politely hated each other. He was a community college transfer from Aberdeen (a depressed coastal fishing and former lumber town), and was actually there for the purposes of studying and learning. My rowdiness somewhat cramped his style. In retrospect, we both judged each other quickly and unfairly, but he was the adult in the room.

Lesson: rooming with someone is a total-immersion living experience. If you don’t like each other, move. However, if you never bother to get to know each other, your roomie relations will disappoint.

I spent the next two years as an RA (Resident Advisor) in McMahon Hall, the most freshmany dorm in the UW system, and the place where I’d begun with Math as my roommate. For me, it was a little like the old show Welcome Back, Kotter. In those days, it wasn’t rare for Residential Life to hire RAs from among the rowdiest souses in the dorm system, on the grounds that it was harder to put stuff over on us. I wasn’t a very good RA, especially in my second year, and I was fortunate not to be fired by supervisors who showed me unearned compassion. But I did witness and umpire a lot of roommate conflicts.

Lesson: most of the conflicts I saw were involved one person being totally inconsiderate or anal. If you run to either extreme, you are going to have roommate conflicts. If you can compromise, you will tend not to.

Lesson: roommate relationships tend to become exaggerated. “I love her.” “I hate his guts.” “She’s such a snot.” “He and I have become best friends.” It’s better to shoot for an even keel no matter how good or bad it seems at first, try not to peak or valley, expect strengths and weaknesses. They’re there.

Lesson: most high school friends who signed up as roommates ended up no longer friends. You’re often better off with someone you’ve never met.

Lesson: being a roommate is good training for someday living with a partner, so it is a good time to learn to do small acts of consideration. Pay for your share of the pizza, or don’t eat any; try and pick up a little; bring a Coke back from the cafeteria.

After two tours of duty in VietMcNam, I retired (read: I was rejected for a third year of RAing employment for generally being an immature idiot; they had spent my entire second year kicking themselves for rehiring me) to the UW dorms’ equivalent of a country gentleman’s life: Hansee Hall.

Hansee was the quiet dorm, and you had to have a lot of quarters of priority to get in. It was all single rooms, very tiny, and very quiet and mature. Not that you couldn’t get drunk in Hansee; I proved often enough that one could. If you got raucous drunk, though, the math wonks would narc on you yesterday and you’d be exiled to the Lower Planes of McMahon or Haggett (another fairly wild place), right now. I had a weird adjoining room arrangement; there were only three like it in Hansee. Two rooms shared one bath. You had to go through my roommate’s room to get to the throne room. You had to go through mine to get out. Thus, it wasn’t really private, but you didn’t have to tramp around in eight or fifty other people’s foot fungi in a communal shower.

At first I was in with Raybird, a sourdough Alaskan and general screwoff. (By this time I was actually deigning to study and get decent grades, though obviously I still found time to act immaturely.) He was unmotivated and could dish it out but not take it. He soon quit school. I tried to encourage him not to fold the tent, but if anything I probably made it worse. If I’d had Raybird as my first roommate, though, it probably would have had an adverse effect.

Lesson: the first thing people have to learn at college is that it’s up to them. Also, you need enough distance to insulate yourself from soaking up your roommate’s moods (or letting yours soak them).

Then I had Frédéric, a Frenchman in the MBA program. We had a few cultural differences here and there, but for the short time we roomed together, we got along fine. He taught me a lot, especially bad words in French for which his girlfriend (also French) punished him roughly.

Lesson: if your roommate is from a different country, you have some adjustments ahead, but you also have a great opportunity. Not only can you learn to be an idiot in another language, but you can learn a lot about other cultures–including how to respect differences. If you were ever thinking of traveling abroad, having a foreign roommate is a good learning/warmup experience.

Finally I had Harcourt, my final college roommate. This gives me the opportunity to tell the story of the funniest thing I ever did in college.

Harcourt was a big guy from Spokane. He bore a powerful likeness to the Abominable Snowman in that old Bugs Bunny cartoon, remember that? Who would “hug him and pet him and squeeze him?” He was blond, about 6’5″ and 270, and hated football. He was a French major.

Harcourt’s pals were Connie and Pam. Connie, a petite blonde, liked to be called ‘Commie’ and was into left-wing politics. Pam was African American, not petite, and was comparatively sedate and easygoing; I had been her RA the previous year. Pam and Commie had attended Holy Names Academy and were definitely in Young Catholic Women’s School Alumnae Busting The Chains mode. I was fond of both.

After about a week or so, I couldn’t say the same of Harcourt. He was difficult to deal with, and offended by everything–and by now, I’d done some growing up and tended to be a considerate fellow. He was also a lazy slob whose natural habitat was bed and who rarely attended morning classes at all.

Harcourt most certainly didn’t drink, though it might have done him some good. Despite his size, he wasn’t the athletic type, so I never worried about him decking me in a rage. Knowing what I know now, I suspect that he was gay and closeted/questioning/conflicted, but one couldn’t have a discussion about such things with Harcourt, not even in a supportive way. Normal conversation offended him enough. An actual personal question was beyond the pale, however tactful and well-meant.

Anyhow, it was 3 AM on a Saturday night. From this simple statement, a knowing reader could ascertain precisely the situation in L112 Hansee. Harcourt had been snoring away for about four hours in his room, bothering no one. I was dinking around with a massive board wargame and well into my cups, having depleted a quart of rum just enough to be crocked but not sloppy. All was right with the world. In that state, I do not tend toward confrontationalism, which probably explains why I’ve never had a bar fight. On the contrary: I become more accepting and adventuresome.

Therefore, when the telephone rang, far from being grumpy, I was delighted. Ah! Just what I need to make my happiness complete: the milk of human companionship! Someone wants to talk with me! I cheerfully answered the telephone: “Hello?”

Three things were immediately apparent:
a) it was Pam.
b) Pam, too, had taken a drink.
c) Pam sounded lonely.

To spell it out, Pam seemed to be in an advanced state of erotic need. She was very specific about the regions of her body requiring stimulation, the type of contact she anticipated and desired in those regions, and the sentiments she expected to experience as a result. It was also clear that Pam had an adventuresome soul in ways I hadn’t ever anticipated, touching on such topics as rope use, feathers, and mild flagellation. Pam’s language was anything but clinical.

Being somewhat of a pervert, I listened to Pam’s porno for a couple of minutes. It was entertaining, and I was in my most accepting of moods. However, the male physiology is such that alcohol can cause a tragic effect: even if the libido is active, the flesh may be monastic, if you know what I mean. As sorry as I felt for Pam, and as willing as I might be to expend the considerable effort needed to improve her condition, I knew I couldn’t help her.

Now, while I make no claim to be a gentleman, I don’t believe in being callous without good reason. If I couldn’t satisfy Pam, clearly the decent act was to offer her a referral. For once in my life, as she stopped for air, I thought quickly on my feet. I positively beamed into the phone. “Well, in that case, the person you need to speak with is right here. Please hold for a moment.”

I opened Harcourt’s door. This was before the days of cordless phones. He was snoring quietly in a large puddle on the bed. I shook him. “Harcourt!”

“Hwrmwhvn.” When sleepy, Harcourt lost enough vowels that he could be speaking Serbo-Croatian.

Shook him harder. “Hey, Harcourt. Telephone.”

“Whaa.”

Spoke up a bit. “Get up, Harcourt. Someone’s on the phone.”

“Wthhllzcallngathream?” Harcourt shambled to the phone in his undies. I sat down and took a drink to enjoy the spectacle. “Hllo,” he said, eyes still half shut. I took a belt of rum and smirked the drunkard’s idiotic smirk.

Harcourt’s eyes went from sleep to awake to about this big in fifteen seconds. Remember, Harcourt had a cow about everything. Finally he bellowed into the phone, recovering his vowels: “I have never been so offended in my entire life!!”

It pains me to report that Harcourt then ended the conversation without taking the time to lay the phone down gently, nor to offer the lady a courteous parting salutation. Lamentable.

He fixed me with a gaze of the purest loathing. Were Harcourt a violent man, that would have sent him over the edge. As it was, though I was smaller, I was far and away the more physical. I replied by toasting him, upraised cup, foolish smile.

He stalked back to bed. Didn’t speak to me for two weeks.

Harcourt simply had no sense of humor.

Lesson: in a roommate situation, never walk around as though you had a steel rod rammed far up your rear. It’ll just get you mocked.

Postscript: many years later, I caught back up with Pam through the original publication of this story. She enjoyed it, and filled me in on her half of the tale. As she related to me, she and her friends had been drinking wine coolers and decided to have some fun with the guys.

[This article was originally published by me at Epinions. They can’t have it anymore. Not theirs. I have adapted it for format, context and writing skills improvements, and assert intellectual property rights.]

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2 thoughts on “College days, roommates, and what I learned”

  1. Aside from the dorms (I went Greek) I do believe we had basically the same trajectory at UW. I stayed a week in McMahon, and 4 days in “Haggett Hell” over my college career. Had a lab partner with some colorful description of Hansee. As an only child, learning to live with others has been a challenge. I praise Travis for his forbearance daily. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

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    1. Isn’t it interesting, Jennifer, that in those days the divide between Greeks and dormies (or GDIs, heh) was a big deal. Now, it barely registers and matters not at all. You were probably in McM during Panhellenic’s rush, I’d guess…I worked a summer for Conference Housing, and Panhell was one of our ‘conferences.’ Always glad to have you stop by!

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