Late for class again, late and permanently disorganized, wearing my jeans jacket despite the chill. I could cut class and what difference would it make, but for a brief feeling of regret? Who was I letting down? The lush grasses between academic buildings? The professors who seemed there and not there? The low and somewhat jumbled Allegheny Mountains to the west framed my 1989. I was a senior at Virginia Tech, living in an all-male dorm, one semester away from drift. It felt as though I was living in a diorama where everything was multiple choice, colored in with a number two pencil, or left blank. Fog was flowing in from the ridges and hollers. It was a fogbank that told you a cemetery was nearby, that battles took place near here. It was tattered and worn on the edges, like the comforter I had rolled myself in for the last four years. Of course I cut my Human Development course and went back to the dorm to boil some ramen. Who wouldn’t? I was rolled so tightly in that fog I could hardly hear the students coming and going to classes, the refitted elevators ascending and descending, a door closing, the hallways hushing. My books were in there, rolled in the cocoon with me: Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison, and Sherwood. I guess this is where it all started, my resistance to 1989.
I was the head resident advisor in Pritchard Hall, a towering, Cabrini-Greene-like building completed in 1967 with questionable ventilation, but otherwise solid construction. Intimidating on the outside, Pritchard was steel and Hokie Stone, common granite that the university hung on all its buildings. Pritchard contained nearly 1,600 college males between eighteen and thirty years old. We RAs had to show up a week before the students. The scent of fresh paint hung in the air near the lobby. The painters knocked off at noon to attend the annual staff barbeque. I lay awake all night listening to workmen putting the final touches on the breaker boxes, testing the fire alarms, water pressure. The elevators were sliding nicely on new oil.
We sought degrees from every known discipline including religious studies, thermal dynamics, forestry, and pre-veterinarian. I was in General Studies. There were military-type showers on each floor, no restroom facilities for women. Within hours of arriving, our nakedness and our privacy were sacrificed in the name of efficiency. Nobody owned a car. We were dropped off in August, picked up in December, dropped off again in January. We didn’t have a gym in the basement of Pritchard. Instead there were golf clubs, skeet shooting shotguns, bibles, grotesque dust bunnies, lewd magazines, a mishmash of mix tapes, empty aspirin bottles, boom boxes, hundreds of unmolested copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, barbells, tiny microwave ovens and hotpots, koofers, twists of hair, scratched KISS vinyl, and oh-so-many posters of a nearly nude Kathy Ireland, scribbles of poetry, a well-used pair of boxing gloves to settle roommate disputes, and grammatically perfect suicide letters. Scores of guitars and damaged amps occupied so many of Pritchard’s rooms that they were thought of as furniture. Most leaned silently, collecting dust along the frets, like the dreams that were dying there every day.
In the whorl of the compound was a dreary, permanently damp courtyard called “the Pit” where no one studied. The Pit was garnished with an abandoned sugar maple tree and a laughable cement bench dedicated to a biology professor who taught during the 30s. There were the remnants of old, vending machines that had been ritualized from the seventh floor. The women’s dorm—Slusher—squatted across the green from Pritchard. I spent a lot of time with my underachieving binoculars trying to see shapes in the windows of Slusher, but it seemed magically veiled in highland mist. The binoculars, castoffs from a previous resident advisor, would not focus. Our college motto was Ut Prosim: that I may serve. But how do you serve in a world this broken down, and with winter coming?
Pritchard was nearly all-white. Foolishly, I imagined that there was a dorm full of black students somewhere else on the immense campus. I hadn’t yet understood where we were living, what we were doing. Black students with whom I had gone to high school were, more or less left out, dream-deferred. They had gone to work at the Newport News shipyard, or the Army, or into religion. They went to Norfolk State, or Virginia State. We only had a handful of blacks in the dorms. Our janitor, Anthony, was black. And there were a few black ladies in the lunchroom who swiped our magnetic dinning cards. However, within many rooms was the telltale bumping thrum of rap music. There was Public Enemy and NWA in nearly every clot of rooms, where we jammed, best we could, to “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and “Fuck the Police.” Interspersed in the music were sounds of gun shots and police sirens. RUN-DMC was already passé. We wanted something harder. Few of us were waxing booties like they say in songs—in fact, most of us knew no women whomsoever. None came to our lame Hotdog Socials; none cheered us on at flag football. The administration had banned intramural tackle, thereby eliminating heroics. Females had to be out of the dorm by ten p.m. I now blame my adult dysfunction, my chronic inability to sleep with my partner, on Pritchard’s inflexible co-habitation policy.
What’s a guy to do in such hostile environs? I’d climb the towers of the old, auxiliary gym, the gym no one used, scheduled for demolition the following year to make room for a state-of-the-art student center with pool tables and boutique coffee shops. There faux-parapets opened to the marbled sky over Blacksburg. My pastime became watching the flow of students coming and going from classes. I read half-heartedly my English texts—“The Lady with the Pet Dog” and The Cherry Orchard—with a creamy feeling of nostalgia. This feeling accompanied me wherever I went, especially when I’d skip class and creep along the stone halls of the engineering building where I could find the portrait of the class of ’59, and there, among the white faces, was my father’s dark visage. He was an Arab amongst white boys, there was no way around it.
My brother Ken was still in Blacksburg, not taking classes, not believing the hype. He was managing the local Pizza Hut until his band got back together. Once in a while, he hit up me and Jason Keel, or Dean Andrews to do dishes. We prepped the large black pans used for the deep-dish pizzas, four unhealthy blasts of vegetable oil in each. He paid cash. The restaurant was closed, so we were free to blast Niggers with Attitude as we worked and did the occasional break dance on the prep-room tiles. Keel, a lanky dude from Hampton, Virginia, wore a high fade and freestyled once in a while. He spoke in convincing street vulgates, a talent he picked up from being the only white kid on the Hampton High School varsity basketball team, circa 1986. He talked about “dissing people,” “representing,” “calling people out for tripping and fronting.” He introduced us to the shout-out. It went something like this:
“Yo, I want to shout out to Professor Ibrahim for bumping my seventy-something to an eighty in Calculus. I love you, dawg.”
I had no black classmates. None swilled keg beer with me in the dystopic basements of frat houses. My professors were all white people who might have been related. They were awful and well-dressed, clannish in their pursuit of career, scroungers for extra pay. But how we loved our football players, those young black men whom we never knew, or could know. We urged them to win honor for us, but they rarely did, Clemson and Syracuse kicking our asses unapologetically each year. You’d spy the star tailback hobbled on crutches during the week, and what you felt wasn’t exactly reverence. Nor was it pity. A twang of hypocrisy hit me on those cool November days as the season was winding down. I attributed this to the chill in the air. Or the underperformance of denim when the mountain frost sets in.
To say it was only hip hop we were interested in would simplify the situation. There was an alarming amount of British music that touched our darkness and allowed us to break from the aggressive, confident lyrics of rap. We liked, in particular, sexuality-ambiguous musicians. We loved Depeche Mode, The Smiths, The Cure, Melissa Etheridge, The Pixies, Dave Bowie de jur and others. The Smiths, 1982-1987, had particular appeal in Pritchard, so much so that there evolved a prototypical quiff haircut, part pompadour, part-Mohawk, worn by the band’s lead singer, Morrissey. His lyrics flirted with doomed relationships, pro-anarchy preoccupations, loneliness, despair. The Queen is Dead could be heard almost continuously in Pritchard. I blew my copy out and had to have Keel pirate another one for me. When Keel’s girlfriend dumped him one fall break, he sat in his room with photos of her dealt out before him like playing cards. He blasted “Girlfriend in a Coma.” And then there was the thrash music—Black Flag, Bad Brains, the Dead Kennedys—the stuff we listened to in the wee hours, in semi-wet basements of Blacksburg, in brief moments of rebellion, after the women had fled, and we threw our bodies into each other in clashes which would later be called “mosh pits.”
This is how I was moving through life in 1989, me dressed in a jeans jacket too light for the weather, me flirting with a counterculture, stealing street signs and license plates. The worst thing you could be called was a “poser.” The word ended friendships, with a twist of gravel, a lone figure stalking off alone through the darkened streets. Sure, there were beautiful minds to access in Blacksburg. All it took was a little effort. I saw my English professor leading a poetry workshop in a coffee shop. She saw me and waved me in, but I kept walking, staying true to my version of 1989. And there were clots of foreign students smoking out by Burruss Hall who laughed and joked around in islands of sunshine. Notice how they always fell silent when I came by? A dusting of snow across the pasture was all I required to cancel my classes for the day and, listen instead to rap tapes or play racquetball in the enormous, echoing gym with Dean Andrews.
On our way back from the gym one day, we noticed a small gathering of black students near the student center. I recognized Allan Wicks, a tall black man who served in the university ROTC program and lived on my dorm floor, standing with the only other black student on our wing, James Hogg. People were upset and they were talking about going over to President Butcher’s office. Allan saw me for a moment, but didn’t return my wave.
At the dining hall, I ate with Dean and Keel. Dutch Dunbar showed up. He was studying and just made it in time. The huge, industrial dishwashers fired up and it was difficult to hear each other. Dutch had just passed the student newspaper offices and said the scene was unnerving. Voices were raised. People were swarming. A handful of black students had descended on the paper and demanded the journalists cover an emerging story involving a Virginia Tech fraternity and a black fraternity in Ohio. Dutch was fuzzy on the details, but it seemed as though our chapter of Dekes had gone on a scavenger hunt at Bowling Green. In addition to local license plates, women’s underwear, and other obvious mementoes of adolescence, the brothers also required a photograph of themselves kissing a black woman. One of the Dekes had successfully wooed a black woman and while he was kissing her, the other Dekes took a Polaroid as proof. The girl found out what was going on, and, ashamed, she ran to find her brother. They called the cops.
Allan Wicks came to my room the next night to tell me that someone had squirted a blast of lighter fuel in the form of a cross on his door and lit it. He assured me that he was in no danger. He simply smudged the flames out with a towel. We called campus security, Allan standing by while I gave the report. He had only been in my room once before to talk politics. He grew bored with me and left early. This time, though, he flipped my chair around and looked at me through his horn rims. While we were waiting for the police to arrive I heard myself telling Allan that the incident had nothing to do with his recent involvement with the Bowling Green case.
“Virginia Tech is not that kind of place,” I heard myself saying. I remembered our motto, that I may serve, and suddenly blushed. Allan took off his glass and glared at me.
“You need to wake the fuck up, Zoby,” he said.
A pair of campus policemen, both white (was there ever any doubt?), both dreadfully out of shape, seemed marginally interested in the burning cross and the lighter fluid. It didn’t mean much to them. The most dangerous thing they carried were cans of pepper spray and metallic flashlights meant to stun or resurrect the dreadfully drunk. Their toothy handcuffs were out-of-love with being handcuffs, a life-sentence of chrome. We all met in my room, my posters of Bob Marley smoking a huge blunt suddenly ridiculous, possibly incriminating. I noticed a sort of preordained annoyance between the officers and Allan. They sighed while he told his story. They were surely posers. They didn’t take notes, but held childish pencils slightly above their tiny, unused notebooks. They asked Allan to bring James down to my room. James seemed even less interested in talking to the police. He yawned, and said “yes sir” and “no sir” so many times that I became perplexed. Usually, James was quick with a joke, animated even. He studied almost always, and though he was once the starting point guard on his high school team, he turned us down when we tried to recruit him for intramurals. The policemen, yawning too, asked me if I could think of anyone who could have done this.
After the cops had left, I did an investigation up and down the hall. People didn’t want to be bothered. They were busy studying statistics and thermal dynamics. I called a meeting and only four kids showed: Allan, James, and two white boys who thought it had something to do with spring softball. No one cared. And how do I explain this? Everyone was interested in pleasing their professors, gathering letters of recommendation, going off to the chilly philosophy of career and upward mobility. I guess. In 1989, the idea that we’d all quit what we were doing, even for a few hours, and become interested in what had happened to Allan and James was outrageous.
The local papers picked up the story of the girl at Bowling Green. President Butcher was slow to act. I saw him trolling across campus, a factory character, his dark administrator overcoat lightly brushing the dead grasses and a few of his staff strolling by his side, caught and elevated by his orbit. He stopped into the campus newspaper office and made a few remarks. He said something about sitting down with the president of Dekes and having a serious man-to-man. He said a few things about the values of our student population and that a few bad apples cannot spoil the whole barrel. He repeated our university motto more than once.
“Boo-boo, I want thank you for the dope weekend, girl,” said the baritone voice on the all-night college radio station. “I want to shout out to my crew in the 7-5-7,” said another. I lay awake in the wee hours of the night, four in the morning, Blacksburg dripping with winter rain, the downspouts of Pritchard purling with rainwater, the shout outs that mentioned lovemaking, weed, and warnings against tripping easing me asleep. It seemed all the heroes in the books we read were outsiders with losing propositions. Only by being an outsider could you know anything at all.
My girlfriend Paige attended school in Radford and so I caught a ride for the seventy winding miles through drawings of trees, past the ammunition plant, past the frozen river, to stay at her place and escape Pritchard. I tried to talk to her about the situation, but her roommate had grown tired of me dropping in. She said, “Oh, those blacks are always whining about something.” I told her about James Hogg and Allan Wicks, two of the best students on my hall. “People need to learn to shut the fuck up and move on,” she said. She was a history major from Richmond. She couldn’t shout out to save her life. And no one would shout out to her.
I rode back to Blacksburg, back over the frozen New River, the threadbare trees, the coal terminus cloaked in steam, ammunition boys crawling to work in their pop-eyed sedans. I had this feeling that I was stuck being myself—no way to avoid being David Zoby, no way to become anything else, as much as I longed for it. Freshman Josh Lemonwin was in his room practicing guitar. He was attempting “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground. He had been learning the chord progressions since October, and only now was he attempting to sing. I couldn’t take Lemonwin’s wandering lyrics, his repetitive mistakes, and his inability to call it quits. I burst in with my passkey to find Josh and another kid I had never seen before sitting in his lap and drinking beer, a small twist of smoke threading upwards from a tiny joint: “Dumbshit!” I said, “It’s … `the poets, they studied rules of verse’, not rows of skirts!’”
Blacksburg was in turmoil. Though small in number, students in the NAACP demanded that our president do more. He had left town for a few days. They scheduled a protest at Butcher’s empty mansion but a snow storm blew it out. The black students had homemade signs which they toted around between classes. They were trying to help Dr. Butcher understand that the Dekes had to go, if Virginia Tech was to move forward. Finally, in the true style of an administrator, seizing the opportunity provided by a Friday afternoon, the President let fly a devastating edict which banned the Dekes from campus and dissolved their organization. Butcher quoted Martin Luther King Jr., and then flew to a conference in San Angelo. With finals so near, most students ignored the whole fiasco. Some outright resented the scandal because it brought a negative forbearance on their institution, especially those soon to graduate and throw themselves upon the job market. Somewhere in here, Keel told me that he wanted to become a pharmaceutical rep.
The holidays were on us like a dog in the trash, the dorms shut down. In the glasses-faced cafeterias that had recently begun offering made-to-order omelets for breakfast and dinner, designer teas and coffees, the noisy industrial dishwashers finished the final rinse cycle. The nice ladies at the serving lines went back to their tiny houses in the foothills to spend Christmas with their crazy, deer-obsessed brothers and their two cats, their lightly tinseled Christmas trees. And we went back to our towns, driving across the churned countryside of Virginia, this battlefield and that, past various other colleges named after Southern Generals. Hampton for Keel. Newport News for me. Smithfield for Allan Wicks. I was one semester away from graduating and putting all this behind me. I had filled in all the bubble-tests required, I had passed vocab, and the lowest rung in math. And Allan Wicks had told me to wake up. Had it all been an illusion, this gorgeous dream that we were all in this together because we ate in the same cafeteria, because we wore the same beloved jean jackets? Ut Prosim, y’all?
I returned to Virginia Tech in January to find the ground frozen and the Hokie stone as impenetrable as ever. Some rooms on my hall were empty, the dwellers deciding not to return. University officials call this attrition, and they plan on it each year. With Anthony, I cleaned out their belongings from their closets, coiled the power cords around their cheap alarm clock radios/tape players, tossed out their clothes. Anthony found a pair of high-tops that fit him perfectly. Perhaps these guys were the bravest of all by saying fuck-it and traveling west. As luck would have it, I could not flee to Radford. Paige had decided she had had enough of my morose and unpredictable behavior. She had to let me go. I had known her since high school. I had to borrow Keel’s copy of The Queen is Dead. I hummed along with Morrissey. I took twenty-one hours that last semester, mostly literature, from the Greeks to the freaks. I ascended to the forgotten grottoes of a soon-to-be-gone building and read Ragtime in one painful session. And for what? To yank myself out of childhood?
Nights, I assembled all my photos of Paige and flipped them out before me for hours. Allan Wicks had locked himself out of his room and needed me to open his door with my passkey. He saw all these photos of the same white girl and snorted. I told him about my break-up, how I had hit rock bottom.
“That’s the best thing for ya, motherfucka,” he said.
Allan had his room to himself now. He came in late, left early. No one sat with him at lunch, except a skinny white guy who knew him from ROTC. Allan had published several articles about racism at Virginia Tech. He had made claims that the university was in denial and that black students, as a whole, were unhappy. The institution was years behind in hiring and retaining black faculty, he had said.
Keel and I went out to parties, but I wasn’t feeling festive. I couldn’t bring myself to join the mosh pits which sprung up in the dreary, April afternoon parties. “Terminal Preppie” by the Dead Kennedys became the favorite song. The girls didn’t dig it. The music was discordant, and something about soon-to-be corporate types throwing themselves into each other in broad daylight, drawing blood occasionally, no longer appealed to me. Keel and some friends asked me to come with them to see GWAR, a shock-rock band from Richmond. I couldn’t see myself there in the spirts of fake blood, the loudness, the theatrics. Instead, late in my dorm room, I read Anderson and Faulkner and Ellison. When I could read no more, I flipped up the collar of my jacket and walked around campus and beyond, a not-so-tough tough, a poser. What had we learned but obedience and flattery? I was set to go off into the world and tell people what they wanted to hear, to be nice, to dress nicely, and to say nice things to their wives. I was one semester away from a degree in Affability with a minor in Kissing Ass. I drowned myself in words, waking occasionally with a book on my chest.
The last duty for the Resident Advisory was to close the dorms. I had to stay a few more days after the students left and collect the keys, leave the dorms in good order for the next group of students. The lemony smell of floor polish ravished the air as Anthony disked the floors with loud, rotating pads. I coiled the power cords around the jettisoned boom boxes that had been chucked by their former owners. Each resident left a sad collection of mix tapes, a few VHS videos, socks, hairbrushes. I pocketed a myriad of half-spent colognes and shampoos. I opened the windows to blow out the bad air left by a semester I’d try my whole life to forget. Lemonwin had scrawled on his mirror, in pink lipstick, “Kiss my ass—Zoby! I’m off to Georgetown!” I didn’t wipe it away. I went back to my room and read some Anderson, even though grades were in, and my formal education was complete. I took a shower in the huge tiled room with something like twelve separate shower heads all going at once, just for me. I sampled widely from my new collection of soaps and shampoos. But luxury seemed false as I realized the hour. My lathered body resembled granite.
Allan Wicks had to stay a few extra days too. ROTC kept him marching on the drill field, and he had duties to do before he left. I saw him in his grey uniform at the nearly empty cafeteria with his mother, a tiny woman dressed in a purple suit—too formal—quietly having dinner. We regarded each other. The sun was sinking over the cold mountains. Rain was coming. Later, I was in my room listening to The Smiths. It was dark outside. I saw that his door was open. He had left for the year. His room was militarily clean, the sink and mirror just recently scrubbed. A hairbrush on the bureau, the flowery scent of cleaner, a suggestion of bleach. He left Marvin Gay looping in his tape player: “Let’s get it on.”
In the traditions of 1989, I’d like to try a shout out to the South, the little roadside stands that sell produce in the summer, cider and pumpkins in the fall, the shipyards and fly-over highways outside sparkling, reimagined cities, the unshakable foundation of a culture that survives on not knowing itself. I can’t do nothing for ya, man. Shout out to Dr. Edmunds who taught English 4030 that spring. You had an accent that suggested Richmond money but wore pajama bottoms to class. Dr. Edmunds, my main man, my motherfucker, met us on Tuesdays in a chilly room that seemed bombed, scheduled to become something else. We read Winesburg and he sprung for coffee and a spread of dry cookies. Show some love to the ammunition boys who on their days off step shyly into the New River with their Styrofoam coolers and their cut-offs. They risk everything with their sinew and bird-wire bodies to sit in a quiet pool and talk to college girls. And I want to shout out to James Hogg who spent the rest of his time off campus at his cousin’s. If you encountered him he had his headphones on and his hoodie pulled up tight as if he were a monk. He left the college altogether at Spring Break. Much love to you too Paige—you did what you had to do and I don’t blame you. Same for the University Registrar who sent me my final grades: 2.3 GPA.
And I did what I had to as well—hurling my beanbag chair into a dumpster, hurling my books too, even Invisible Man. What up drill field? I can’t forget your shallow face, the way you held the footfalls of students as they walked back and forth to class in the snow, the flurries filling in the empty spaces.
 Koofers were relics of old tests that helped students pass classes they should not have passed.