vor fünfzehn Jahren


Exactly Fifteen Years Ago: February 1991

I guess true poverty, like winter, is always glossed over when you’re young, but those days in Chapel Hill, when the septentrional blasts were blanketing the town with freezing rain and news of war, are particularly easy to recall. I was living in the Purple House on McCauley Street with Salem, Bud, Eric G. (all wonderful commenters below) plus a few others, and the long-suffering boarding house was one rotting floorboard away from collapsing entirely.


The Purple House was the last stop for every receptacle. If you had a nasty plate that you gave to Goodwill, somehow it would end up in my cabinet. Did your VCR only fast-forward? It wound up at our house. Iron belch orange water? We used it anyway. If we threw it away, you knew that object was truly done.

The most infamous story from exactly fifteen years ago was Salem’s rottweiler dog Bear, who crept into my room while I was away and peed into the back of the heater fan, sending piping hot urine spraying over the entirety of my bedroom. Posters were welded to the wall, my entire LP stuck together in a fetid mass, and I had to throw away most of my blankets. I called Salem (who was managing Spanky’s at the time) in a furious rage, but after a few seconds, we were both laughing so hard we started to cry.

My car, a 1968 Volvo that had to be started with a locker key and had windows held in place with screwdrivers shoved into the upholstery, made it as a finalist in USA Today’s “Worst Car Contest.” We routinely used it for pranks and indie movie shoots, you know, like this:


In short, I was not on the grid. Not living an actual real life. The high ecstasy of being a campus celebrity translated very poorly to sticking around Chapel Hill after graduation, and I went from having a bright future to being a punchline, usually uttered by myself.

This was brought into sharp relief by my financial situation; in order to make our $180/month rent, some shenanigan must be performed. Mostly Bud and I “appropriated” cookie dough from his job at the pizza joint and used it as cash – you’d be surprised how far you can get amongst 21-year-olds with a bucket full of Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chip cookie dough.

Finally, I began to sell myself out to medical experiments. Why not, right? The EPA had mobile sheds set up behind the hospital, and there were always five or six big drug tests going on at any given time. All you had to do was take the MMPI and prove you weren’t crazy (and didn’t have AIDS) and you could make A THOUSAND BUCKS just by giving yourself over to science.

I signed up for a doozy. Basically, I was to breathe ozone – O3 – for a half-hour while jogging, then perform some tests, followed by a bronchoscopy a week later. I had already lived in LA for the summer, so I figured it wasn’t much different, and hell, I’d always wanted a camera shoved down my lung so I could see my brachioles, so it was a win-win. Besides, this one paid $1200 for a week’s work!

I did the test – it seemed fine – then I went in for the bronchoscopy. They sprayed my throat with a novocaine solution, then slid the camera in… and despite my attempts at cavalier nonchalance, I began to shake. Then I began pounding my fists in fear. And then I nearly passed out with abject gagging, gargling terror. Quickly, they whisked the camera out and sent for a pulmonologist and a heart specialist.

A routine procedure became a conundrum for the esteemed heart department at UNC Memorial Hospital, because apparently my heartbeat “reversed polarities” or something for a split second. Grad students were poking their heads in, having heard the gossip, and I was still dressed in a butt-less paper gown.

Finally, they gave me some Valium and had me lie down on a bed by myself for an hour. And during those minutes, I had a conversion experience. I couldn’t keep living like I was living. My life needed meaning, I had to get better, I had to resurrect my confidence. I had to escape the trap of what AA calls “the halo of early promise.”

A few months earlier, the New York Times had done a story featuring me, and literary agents had called – I was now going to do something about it. On that bed, I decided to write a book proposal about “my generation,” get it sold, and write for a living. On the way out the door of the science lab, the manager handed me a $2000 check for my troubles. I was rich, full of purpose, and the snow was melting.

0 thoughts on “vor fünfzehn Jahren

  1. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    Good grief! I am sending you a big cyber-hug after hearing that story! If I did not know your story’s happy ending, I would be fretting for you right now. Did your poor mom know that you were subsidizing yourself by acting as a human guinea pig? Go Ian! We are rooting for you!
    P.S.: that Bear was a crafty one! Hee hee!
    P.P.S.: I am not familiar with the “halo of early promise” concept, but I am going to look that one up. . . sounds interesting.

  2. the other Lee

    I had a similar UNC memorial hospital experience with Med students (Thankfully no experiments or reverse polarity of the heart). I had to go to memorial hospital for a checkup on a severe leg injury and of course had a couple of med student in there. It turns out I was semi-famous because they had used the X-ray of my injury in class and no one could figure out how it happened. Everyone guessed something like car-wreck, a long fall or some other severe trauma. No one could figure out I had destroyed my knee and kneecap by just playing basketball at one of the dorms.

  3. kent

    That ‘vo was on it’s last legs when I sold it to you; that you continued driving it for so long is a testament to both the magical quality of Volvo cast-iron blocks, Chapel Hill’s temparate climate, and your masochism.
    Before you got it, I’d had it for 3 years. 3 years of having random stuff fall off it, which I then threw away as non-essential. At one point, most of the ducting from under the dash went away. I hope you never tried to use the defroster!

  4. Bill

    Ah, the post-graduation lure of Chapel Hill — I myself succumbed to it later that fateful year of 1991.
    McCauley Street — check. I was down the street in an apartment, where we hung up a dartboard, played lots of Tecmo Bowl and endured the fleas.
    Poverty — check. I was a freelance sportswriter for UPI, getting $25 a game to drive to Charlotte and cover Hornets games. Thank god for the free meals in the press room and my Gulf gas card, which bought me Smartfood and Mountain Dew as my other sustenance. And I waited tables/bartended at Fishmongers in Durham — serving rich Dook law students oysters at $3 a dozen during Friday happy hour.
    Horrible excuse for a car — check. My VW Jetta filled with water below the dashboard every time it rained. I think my lungs are still spotted with mildew.
    Thanks for the walk down memory lane! At the safe remove of 15 years, it seems fun and carefree — the afternoon hoops games at the Lodge, Tuesday nights at He’s Not, the usual circuit of binge drinking fueled by late night trips to Time Out or Hardees or Hector’s. But it has a sad tinge, and I knew that I had to get out after a year or I’d never leave. And not in a good way.

  5. eric g.

    I’m cracking up at my computer here at work remembering the moment you discovered Bear’s handiwork. That may have been the single loudest utterance I’ve heard: “BEAR! CUT ME A FUCKING BREAK!!!” I felt so bad for you. But I was laughing my head off into my pillow so you wouldn’t hear me. I didn’t know exactly what had happened, but I knew it involved Rottweiler waste (Bear could pee approximately 65 gallons in one pee, as you know) and it wasn’t good.
    As for the floorboards, I’ll never forget the night Annis was washing the dishes and one of her feet fell through the kitchen floor. What a rat’s nest that place was. I take it back: the rats considered it too grungy.
    I was also selling my body to science at that time. The scariest was volunteering for a brain scan at Duke hospital (paid something like $375). This involved shooting some dye into my body which would illuminate certain parts of my brain while I sat in a contraption not unlike an MRI machine. When I inquired about the amount of radiation, the doctor said “nothing to worry about, it’s roughly equivalent to several transatlantic airplane flights.” For my own mental health, I didn’t inquire as to how many “several” was. Every once in a while I think about what I must have done to my body during that time period. But hey, it paid the rent.

  6. Salem

    It’s simply not fair to upstage Bear’s comic masterpiece with a damn reversed polarity heart story. I can only imagine the gleam in his eyes as sticky webs of carmalized Rottweiler urnine spackled your bed and CD collection. I cry a happy tear every time I have to pull apart a stack of photos from that era. Knowing that he would never have a cancer research center or library named after him, Bear did the only thing he could to leave his mark for generations. Do you have a Bear and Keejay (sp?) picture to post?

  7. xuxE

    medical experiments? you crazy.
    i’ll sell myself to the loan sharks, i mean, credit cards, over that type of shit any day. just the thought of that lung-scope thing is like, eww.

  8. LFMD

    Isn’t it amazing the living conditions post-grads and college students will tolerate? Tell me. . . is the Purple House still standing, or has it been condemned?
    I rented a room during the summer of 1990 at the TEP house and worked at the Carolina Inn. I did not have a car, and my housing and job choices were all determined by walking distance. God, that frat house was disgusting. I remember my parents and brother helping me move my stuff into the TEP house room right after graduation, and my mother was absolutely horrified. The kitchen was full of bugs and assorted vermin and was thus unusable, the electrical wiring was a fire hazard, the bathrooms were disgusting, and every time I turned the lights on in my room, cockroaches the size of Matchbox cars would scatter across the floor. The doors of the house did not lock correctly. Ugh. I can’t believe I lived there for a summer. And I really can’t believe that I (and the others who spent the summer there) thought that it was a suitable living arrangement!

  9. emma

    And people gave me a hard time for just selling plasma to Sera-Tec on Franklin Street. I was just trying to raise beer money, not rent money!
    On the bright side of things, imagine how bad it would have been if you had been asleep in the room when the Bear incident occurred. Could have been much worse.

  10. SMS

    Yes it is incredible the living conditions you will put up with in your youth. I also lived on McCauley St. the summer of ’90 I think it was. Can’t remember the address but it was a white house with a red light bulb in the light fixture on the front porch. The cockroaches were huge and of course there was no AC. Anyone ever spend a summer in Chapel Hill without AC? My parents were horrified with the house of course but we thought it was great for $100 a month for our room.

  11. Neva

    Oh Emma, I thought of that too.. selling plasma at Sera-Tec! I still have the scars on my arm .. people must think I have a heroin history. And.. it not only gave you beer money but made you drunk a lot faster that night too. I did however manage to avoid the medical experiments. That was a common thing for my fellow med students to do when I was there. I knew some people who did that bronchoscopy thing for the EPA and I actually heard someone died from it (or maybe that was just an urban legend started by some of those students who saw you in the butt baring gown Ian??).
    As someone who has lived continuously (with a few summers elsewhere only) in Chapel Hill since 1987 I can say that it’s still a fabulous place to live. Where else can you live in a town of less than 50,000 people and have such an amazing choice of movies, restaurants, and people. The public schools are excellent and the new town motto (I kid you not, it was discussed at a recent town council meeting) might be “Chapel Hill.. Left of Center, Right at Home”. Gotta love that!!

  12. Chuck3

    Greetings. Ian, you probably don’t remember me, however I remember the night you came to visit my dorm room 15 years ago. My then room-mate (can’t remember his name) apparently was in your same fraternity and was soon to leave Granville South – Third Floor for some fraternity house that offered something GT couldn’t offer. While you were there briefly, I somehow finagled a copy of your most awesome 80’s mix tape. That tape was years ahead of anyone else’s attempt at an 80’s tribute album. (And yes, the German version was the best of 99 Luftballoons.) But I digress. Your DTH articles were some of the best I ever read while at UNC and I’m glad to have recently found you on the web keeping up the entertaining and enlightening writings. Somehow I was looking up my old STV (and Selected Hilarity) friends, and found Andy on here. (Hi Andy — How ya been? Email me…)
    Any way, I too got into the free money for next to nothing scheme too. Mine was a little easier though, I just had to brush my teeth with formula X toothpaste for a month or so for $300 (come to find out I was part of the Crest control group). I believe they were studying some new tartar control concoction; who knew that would take off like it did, eh? I was quite unimpressed when they offered me a free cleaning too, however. The student trainee test expert whatever put her gloves on, washed up, made everything as sterile as can be, and right before she stuck her hands in my mouth, well of course she adjusted her uncovered hair. Ack! (But what can you do when they have you set up in the chair like they do?) Funny how you remember little things like that, huh? $300 was fair money back then… & maybe her hair was out of place?
    Well, haven’t really read any Blogs before yours, and certainly I haven’t returned to any others’ ‘cept yours. Keep up the good work. Lotsa luck and all that stuff. Regards, Chuck3 (UNC class of ’92) Burlington, NC

  13. AmyG

    Maybe those of us who grew up during the 80’s were on the cusp of a new way to release ourselves from the comfort and predictability of college. Before being thrust into the grim realities of “real jobs” we wasted a year or two of our lives doing weird, destructive, and/or pointless things. Between Spring 89 and Fall 91 were beyond doubt the lowest of my life, where my binge drinking, neo-feminist attitude (means screwing like a guy means you’re powerful and healthy, a la Naomi Wolf) caught up with me. I was living with this horrible guy in Camelot Village across from the mall. He was such a jerk he had exactly one friend besides me. I put up with him because I was so insecure, had made a very bad judgment of his character when I moved in (after knowing him 3 months) and girls, once you move in with a guy it is very hard to get out. Don’t do it. I was working at the medical school, using my swift if not accurate typing skills which were the best product of my high school education (IBM Selectric III was the best typewriter!). The only good thing about those years is that through knowing this guy, who was in law school, I learned that law students aren’t the brilliant demi-gods I had supposed, but actually not very smart, lucky sons-a-bitches who had obviously bluffed the system. I managed to accomplish the same feat, which leads me to the life of glamour and ease enjoyed today. Har har. Anyway, now I am old enough to know people with children in the post-college years (one a Fededral judge), and their stomachs are in knots because trey has taken his expensive private school diploma to Aspen to work and ski, and will he ever straighten out? Of course he does, graduating in the top of his class from U. Chicago school of law. So when our children decide to take their beautiful diploma to the freezer, we can honestly say, hey kid! you think you know post-college stress disorder (which will surely be in the DSM)! I invented the post-college stress disorder!


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