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.