The first thing that strikes you is how small these college dormitory rooms are. Maybe twelve feet across by sixteen long. Two desks, two dressers, two beds gobbling up the square footage. One long partitioned closet along the back wall, a window along the front wall. Concrete block walls that I remember, even now, stored up the heat of September and the cold of February and radiated it out at you through the long nights. How did we live in such close proximity to each other in such spare rooms?
We seem cartoonishly large in these narrow confines, conscious of using up too much oxygen. Scott cranks open one of the tall side windows that flank the broad center window. He sits back down and we grin at each other like fools. Mike is here, a Cellar Dwellar from before my time. We’re trespassing, of course, but Bob let us in. He has worked for the university since the day he graduated from it. Later, Bob’s son Bobby, who will graduate from Rutgers next year, will stop by. It’s the Saturday before Memorial Day 2010, a few months shy of thirty years since I first arrived here at Livingston College.
We’re sitting in Room 3701, Bob and Scott’s old basement room. This is the room where we hung out all the time, the communal hub of our Cellar Dwellar lives. (Yes, that’s how we spelled it, -ar not -er.) Indeed, we spent so much time here that it was not all that uncommon to enter the room and find three or four people there watching TV, none of whom had seen Bob or Scott, or knew where they were. The door to 3701 was always open; somebody was always there.
My room, in my first year at Rutgers, was down the hall, 3704. In my second year, I moved upstairs to the first floor. I had four roommates in those two years as a Cellar Dwellar. Looking back on it now, I think, It was all too much. We were kids who knew nothing about college that we hadn’t learned in the previous year’s hit movie Animal House. I never knew any highly motivated people with real career aspirations at Livingston. I don’t think I ever knew anyone with a coherent plan. Livingston College itself was only eleven years old in 1980, a formerly experimental school founded on vaguely progressive ideals that had already fallen into disrepute amid the rise of Reagan.
My first roommate in freshman year, Rich, lasted two months. We’d grown up together in Hopatcong, but proved a spectacularly bad fit at college. Dickie moved downstairs into my basement room when Rich left. I’d also known Dickie in Hopatcong, so the transition wasn’t difficult. Dickie’s Mom and Dad would pick up Dickie and his dirty laundry every Friday at 5pm and bring him back (with clean laundry) on Sunday evening. Dickie lasted for the rest of freshman year, but he liked his privacy and applied for a single-occupancy dorm room in sophomore year. I also suspected that Dickie never entirely forgave Werner (one of our Cellar Dwellar neighbors) for an incident in which Werner locked Dickie in his own closet, then doused him with bug spray and tossed a series of lit firecrackers into the closet. This was Werner’s idea of a good joke—and Dickie was an affable, easygoing guy, slow to anger—but there are limits.
I roomed with JD at the beginning of sophomore year and his tenure, like Rich’s, lasted only two months. JD and I forged a friendship based on our propensity for being the only two people still up at 4am, drinking beer and looking for something to do. Once, we got into JD’s car and drove, drunk as skunks, all the way into lower Manhattan where we waylayed early-morning pedestrians—immigrant workers in the West Side garment and meat-packing districts, mostly—asking them where the after-hours parties were. No one would tell us. JD worked a night job and had some trouble at home; his academic career was a short one. He packed up his stuff and left in November, before Rutgers could throw him out.
When Livingston College administration finally noticed that JD had disappeared, Conrad showed up at my door. Conrad was a Jamaican transfer student and state-champion-caliber track athlete. He was provided by the University with a series of student tutors, a different one each week, always women, who never failed to fall into bed with him before their week was out. Everything I said and did—everything anyone said or did—was a source of great merriment to Conrad. He had a great silent laugh that shook his entire enormous frame for minutes on end. On his rare visits to the Cellar, he would sit with Dickie and they would get stoned and laugh silent laughs together, then laugh at each other laughing, then laugh some more. When April rolled around, Conrad would pop cassettes of obscure dub reggae into my Soundesign shelf stereo, turn the treble knob to zero, the bass and volume knobs to ten, and point the speakers out the windows.
By that month of April 1982, we knew the end was at hand. Bob and Scott were fifth-year seniors, left with no option but to graduate. Werner and his roommate, Mitsuo, were graduating, too. The girls from the upper floors of House 37—Janet, Hanna, Diane, Julie, Joyce, others whose names are lost to me now—were moving off campus or transferring out of Rutgers. There were plenty of earlier Cellar Dwellars, like Mike, who were already gone before my time. And that doomed Class of 1984, all those freshmen of 1980? Well, we were a decimated bunch. By 1982, many of us had left or been thrown out. And I was next.
Looking back at it from this vantage point, perched on a bare mattress in Room 3701 thirty years later, it looks like a different world, one that is hard to imagine now. There were parties every weekend, usually on our floor, but sometimes elsewhere. We had a Tuesday Night Drinking Club that involved sitting around playing drinking games to all hours of the night. When we weren’t drinking in the dorms, we were out at the Livingston College Pub or the Busch Campus Pub or the bars in New Brunswick—Patti’s and the Corner Tavern, the Knight Club and the Ale & Wich. On any Friday night, you could walk through the Livingston College Quads and easily spot two or three loud, raucous parties going on. It was the way we lived. No one—at least no one we knew—regarded it as unusual or wanted it any other way.
The biggest party of the year was Cellar Dwellar Weekend, at the end of April. It started on Friday, sometime after lunch and ended on Sunday night/Monday morning. We’d stockpile countless cases of beer, point the speakers out the windows, blast the music, and hang out in the rooms of House 37’s basement and on the grounds outside the basement floor windows. People from other floors, other houses, other campuses visited and left, visited and left, over the course of the weekend. The doors were always open, the party was ongoing. We played touch football and threw frisbees. We fought like dogs, made up magnanimously, then fought again. We played outrageous pranks on each other. We tried—and failed—to have sex with the same girls who rejected us every other weekend of the year. We organized and carried out drunken road trips for more food, more beer, more ice. On Livingston campus, noise violations were virtually nonexistent. Kegs of beer were permitted in college dorms until 1982. (When they were finally prohibited, Bob, who preferred bottled beer to kegs, made a point of bringing kegs in, just to flout the new law.) We drank beer, we fell down, we rallied, we came back for more.
In April of 1982, I knew I was a goner. I had survived at Livingston College via an unusual means. Every class I finished, I got an A for the term, so I was carrying about a 3.80 GPA. But I was dropping classes left and right, mostly at the absolute last-moment deadline for drop eligibility, eight weeks or so into a semester. There were few or no computers in Records Hall in those days, so if you dropped a class, a professor signed your drop slip, a clerk took it in Records Hall and dropped it into an out basket. The wheels of administration ground very slowly, and it might be an additional three weeks or more before you got a letter in your campus mailbox telling you to vacate University housing because you weren’t carrying enough class credits. But then spring break would come up and then exams and no one would actually show up to evict you. My two years on campus looked like this, creditwise: 12 credits, then 5 ½, then 13 and 4 ½. My last 1 ½ credits were for some bogus Easy-A thing called Cowboys and Indians. It was a night class, so I never showed up and never took the exam. The professor gave me a B+. Why a B+? I have no idea. It seemed like an awfully specific grade for a complete no-show.
Anyway, I knew it was time to either take a leave of absence or get thrown out after one more semester. By then, I had started working four hours a night for UPS. Also, I was signed up for junior year with a fifth roommate, a guy named Dave who we all called Dave the Alcoholic. Earning a nickname like Dave the Alcoholic among a cohort of guys who did nothing but drink all day was no simple task. Dave earned it by showing up at his first Cellar party with a fifth of vodka, which he proceeded to drink from as if it were a cup of beer until he passed out in the hallway one hour into the party. His drinking habits had shown little sign of abating or evolving in the months that followed. We had come to the conclusion that we would room together, during one hours-long drunken discussion in March, despite our mutually certain conviction that, if we were to room together, one or both of us would surely die.
So it was time to go, though I wouldn’t tell anyone of my decision until July. If I took a leave of absence, I could simply check back in after a year. If was thrown out, I’d have to reapply to get back in. In the end, I took a year and a half off and returned in January of 1984. I never lived on campus again. I would take another semester off in 1986 and graduate in December of 1987. I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony in May. By then, I was working in the marketing department of Hahne & Company and still working nights at UPS.
I’d be lying if I said I remembered even a tenth of what happened in those years from September of 1980 to May of 1982. But I do remember they felt magical to me. I fell in with a good crowd at a perilous juncture in my life where I really needed to fall in with a good crowd. Some of those people—Bob and Scott, JD and Rich—are my friends to this day. And though I screwed up plenty, I was still young enough to pick up the pieces and finish the job.
On Memorial Day Weekend 2010, we sat on the bare mattresses of the beds in 3701 and raised our beers—because of course we had brought beer, and plenty of it—in a toast to all the absent Cellar Dwellars, most of whom we hadn’t seen in thirty years. We talked and talked some more as the afternoon wound down and the sun set and we had to turn the rooms lights on just to see each other. We laughed our way through all the old stories, remembered who said or did what when, disagreed about the details of events large and small. I was surprised at how much I had forgotten or remembered incorrectly.
But I remember this very clearly, a perfect snapshot in time, walking along the concrete path away from the dining hall and back to the dorms on the Sunday morning of Cellar Dwellar Weekend 1982. The only store of any sort on Livingston campus was a little hole-in-the-wall shop in Tillet Hall that sold candy and soda and newspapers. I was walking back to the dorm, drunk and tired and hungover and exhilarated, the Sunday paper under my arm, enjoying the April morning sunshine my face, going back to House 37 where the previous night’s party was already evolving gradually into Sunday’s party, and I was thinking to myself, Look around. Look around! See all this. Remember this. You were happy here.
(Blogger’s Note: Many thanks to Bob and Scott for the pictures herein.)