No. 16: Epiphany, Early Morning, Collegetown

Not that Harold Rothman didn’t do anything useful or creative the term he spent living — if it could be called that — at 405 College Avenue.

For example, there was The Chart, the index Harold devised one smoky afternoon in November shortly after his father’s visit, for the building’s dozen occupants, friends and hangers-on to record how stoned they were, by way of keeping tabs on the general level of consciousness (or lack of same). There were six levels of stonedness or non-stonedness to check off: Straight, Sort of Straight, Stoned, Definitely Stoned, Unsure and Steve Freak — Steve Freak being the moniker of the perpetually blotto, winsome non-student based in Harold’s closet (and a wondrous high state indeed). Of course, if you were that stoned, you wouldn’t be able to read the thing, and someone else would have to check it off for you — but the residents of 405 College Avenue, of course, were usually only too happy to oblige on a semi-comatose participant’s behalf.

Bt the end of the first week of the Great Experiment, the results were: Straight: 5; Sort of Straight: 12; Stoned: 36; Definitely Stoned: 86; Unsure: 25; and Steve Freak: 8, with write-in votes for Harold Stassen and Pat Paulsen.

Call it bent sociology. Call it C-Town blues.

Then there was Thanks For the Head!, Harold’s idea for a weekly TV program in which a roving, freaky Dave Susskind-like moderator with a big Afro and a mike would “check in” with various hip scenes around Freak Nation, each visit concluding with the grateful (if seriously disturbed) anchor sharing a joint with his interviewees, pausing just before the clouded screen faded to say, “Thanks for the head!”

Anyway, it was certainly original.

In this way, Harold Rothman ’72 passed the time of day, or the time of night — he had begun to lost track — during what was supposed to be his third term as a matriculant at Plymouth University.

Call it seriously fucked up. Call it C-Town blues.

***

In point of fact, Harold did do one useful thing that term: he saved someone’s life, said life being owned, however reluctantly, by one Dennis Mackesey, a non-student from Boston and would-be conscientious objector to the war whose application for CO status had been rejected. Harold found himself rapping with Dennis one evening in the apartment’s blitzed-out dining room, the Jackson Five’s insipid, if-catchy, new number one “ABC” wafting incongruously from the battered table radio. By way of conversation, Harold asked Macksey — one of the seemingly endless parade of more-or-less strangers drifting through 405 College Avenue — what those bandages on his wrist were for, whereupon the latter confided that he had slit his wrists the previous night. Harold nodded.

Like taking candy from a baby!

Say what?

Harold got up to turn off the radio.

Indeed, it emerged, the previous night his guest, in a fit of despair over the rejection of his application, all-but-inevitable induction into the Army and reasonably odds of being killed or maimed in ‘Nam — hadn’t Walter Cronkite announced that, despite the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops, 186 G.I.s had died in action just this past week? — had walked into the Plantations and slit his wrists.

“Then I woke up,” Macksey, a mild-mannered, bespectacled man in his early 20s, said calmly, “and I was disappointed. I had failed.”

Harold snapped out of his usual daze. To hear someone recount a suicide attempt, particularly one that took place the previous night, is an extraordinary sharpener of the faculties.

“And,” Macksey continued matter-of-factly, “in the morning I’m going to do it again.”

Whereupon Harold did the only thing he could do, the right thing, namely, spend the rest of the night and most of next morning trying to persuade this hitherto stranger not to do it again, that life was worth living, and maybe he wouldn’t be drafted after all, and maybe he could re-apply for CO status, and maybe this time it would go through, and what about all the people he’d be hurting with this selfish act, and is that the way you’d want to be remembered, and like, and like, MAN, DON’T YOU WANT TO SEE THE SUNRISE AGAIN? (At this, Harold — who didn’t so much as take a piss that whole night — secretly prayed that the leaden skies would part and, against all odds, the next day the sun would rise and help him out.)

It was a close thing, but around 5 a.m., Macksey murmured, “Okay, I won’t do it again.”

And then, just to help Harold out, the sun indeed rose.

That was good.

And then, more or less, Harold went back to sleep.

***

“HOLY SHIT! ZERO-POINT-ZERO!”

It was January now, and somehow, Harold had managed to extricate himself from his room, go home for the holiday, persuade his parents that everything was fine, pretend nothing had happened — or, rather, that the long nothing of a term he’d just sleepwalked through had not happened — that everything would be fine now, and the administration somehow would miss the fact that he had done zilch the entire last semester, or at least let it go, write it off as a fluke (especially in light of the 3.8 he’d gotten the prior term) and allow him to continue his college education.

Now, after trudging through the snow to Binton Hall in the time-honored fashion, Harold was staring at his grades (or lack of same): four Fs and an incomplete in gym, for a grand total of…

“ZERO-POINT-ZERO! That is SO COOL!” The voice behind him belonged to a tall freak with a gigantic Afro by the name of Joe Tuck, who repeated this as if Harold had actually achieved something.

It was the talk of Collegetown. “Hey, did you hear about the guy who got 0.0?” people asked each other. You had to admit, it was impressive in its own way.

Of course, Harold didn’t tell his parents.

Instead, he went back to class and hoped that nothing would happen. And, for a few weeks, nothing did.

Then one day in early February, just when he was beginning to think he had actually gotten away with it, Harold received a formal letter from the Committee of Academic Records of the College of Arts and Sciences stating that, upon review of his record, he “appeared to have made unsatisfactory progress toward the degree,” and that the Committee would soon be deliberating what action to take; did he “have any information or extenuating circumstances to bring to the Committee’s attention before it deliberated?”

Whereupon Harold, belatedly cognizant of the gravity of his predicament, began asking around for ideas, namely what he could tell the Committee that would make them, like, go easy on him, maybe just give him a Warning, or at worst, a Final Warning — just, like, not Kick Him Out?

Someone said that he’d heard from someone else that if a student had a history of psychological problems and Ginnett Clinic had a record of the same, the Committee would take it into account. So, one snowbound morning, Rothman mussed his hair, dropped two tabs of speed and betook himself over to the clinic in order to create such a record. Alas, it didn’t work; the examining psychiatrist saw right through Harold’s hyperactive ruse.

He trudged back to Collegetown feeling like Kafka’s K. One day, he knew, two me from the Committe would appear at his door, and it would all be over. He stopped going to class. He knew it: he was a goner. Nothing he could do about it now.

***

As it happened, Harold’s 19th birthday fell during this period. And, as it happened, one of his housemates gave him a tab of acid laced with cocaine as a birthday present. (Nice of him, eh?) That night, while everyone else in the apartment was asleep, Harold shrugged and dropped it.

At first he didn’t feel a thing. No hallucinations. The Beatles were on the radio, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” Harold remembered there had been a rumor that Paul had died. And so he began thinking about death. And then, louder and louder…

Bang bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer came down upon his head…

Rothman walked into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. And then slowly, inexorably, it dawned on him that yes, he too was dead. That this desolate, Godforsaken moment in this desolate, Godforsaken apartment was, indeed, the afterlife. This was the way it was going to be, stuck in a crummy Collegetown apartment at 3 a.m., forever.

It sort of made sense.

“Hey, I’m dead. I’M DEAD!”

Bang bang, Maxwell’s silver hammer made sure that he was dead.

Call it a death trip. Call it C-Town blues.

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