basementsongs

“What are you doin’?” Bob asked as he entered my dorm room. It was December 1989. I had just returned from acing the final exam of an incredibly difficult English course devoted to the works of Hawthorne and Melville, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. My sole commitment for the rest of the semester was a paper on The Great Gatsby for a film class due the next morning that I planned to put off for a couple more hours. Bob was feeling good, too. He had completed the last of his exams and for all intents and purposes, his student life at Bowling Green State University.   His final semester would be spent in Philadelphia on a spring internship; after that, graduation. Full of nervous energy, I accepted Bob’s offer to join him on an errand to the Toledo mall.

Following the 30-minute drive in Bob’s Plymouth Horizon, we wandered aimlessly discussing what lay ahead for him when he went to Philly and what he imagined life would be like in the real world. These were the things two brothers could talk about in private and not in the company of a large group of obnoxious friends. At least, these were the things Bob and I could always talk about. About an hour into our excursion, we grew tired of walking and found ourselves standing outside a Chi Chi’s Mexican restaurant.

“Margarita?” Bob asked.

I shrugged, thinking “If you can pull it off, sure.” At 22, Bob possessed an air of confidence the likes of which I had never seen, a ability to convince people that what he spoke was the truth, even if the recipient of Bob’s bullshit knew it was bullshit. The guy was (and still is) a real charmer. The moment we entered Chi Chi’s, I headed straight for the jukebox to serve as DJ while Bob ordered drinks. When I joined him at the table, there sat two margaritas. How had he convinced the cashier that I was legal? “I told her you were as old as me. She looked at my ID and said, ‘okay.’” I was 20 at the time and looked about 18. See what I mean about Bob?

Our friendship began during my freshman year when he was my pledge trainer. As the year progressed, the dorm room he shared with his roommate, Scott, became a safe haven for a bunch of us dumb freshmen who just needed a place to hang out, watch TV, and feel like we belonged. I spent many a night in front of Bob’s TV laughing my ass off to Monty Python, or mellowing out to music while scarfing down bread sticks from Pollyeyes or wings from Spots. When my roommate, Dan, and I applied for campus housing our sophomore year, our first choice was the Offenhauer Towers, two tall black buildings that were the “elite” dorms on campus. That we wound up living right next door to Bob and Scott was pure coincidence. Still, I’m ever grateful that this lucky accident occurred because Bob and I bonded over the course of the fall semester. Dan became busy with school and mascot activities, in addition to dating the girl who would eventually become his wife. Thus, Bob and I began hanging out a lot and building our friendship. Eventually we could talk about anything in life and not look at each other like we were crazy. He became one of my best friends.

After several drinks, it was time to return to Bowling Green.  On the way home we decided to carry on our impromptu celebration a little longer.  I figured I still had time to write the paper.  It was only 4:00 PM.  At one of the local liquor stores, we purchased a case of beer and some cheap swill to do shots with.  Entering the dorm, we ascended the stairs to Offenhauer East, the tower where we lived.  The two of us were loud and boisterous. We must have been talking about the pot stashed in Bob’s dorm room because the moment we opened the stairwell door and saw the police officer standing outside Bob’s room, we both nearly shit. What the hell was law enforcement doing on our floor, staring at Bob’s door as if confused by the number? Could it be the pot? Could someone have reported the five or six other violations Bob had going on in his room, including a phone hoisted from the study room and a cable box that just happened to show up on his television one afternoon (not to mention the wires going from said box, through the wall and into my room where we split the cable). The two of us casually walked into my room and closed the door. Bob collected himself and headed back out into the hallway. I listened through the closed door as he spoke in an easygoing manner to the police officer. A minute later, there was a knock. I slowly opened, my heart beating faster and there facing me was… Bob, wearing a devilish grin.

“He was in the wrong dorm. He wanted Offenhauer West. I kindly directed him where to go.”

The angels were on our side.

Emergency diverted, we adjourned to his room and quickly opened beers. The night progressed and I contemplated going back to my room to write that paper, yet people began showing up in Bob’s room to congratulate him on finishing college classes. In hindsight, I realize that writing that paper was less important than one last great college memory with my compadre. The paper could wait a little longer. A couple hours passed and Bob’s room turned into a small party. It was after accepting the challenge of drinking a flaming shot of grain alcohol that I realized that Bob wasn’t around. I left his room and found him alone in my room speaking privately on the phone.

“The hell, dude? Where ya been?” I couldn’t believe he was missing out on the festivities next door. But I could tell he didn’t care about a bunch of drunk kids using his room as a bar; he had something else on his mind. Love, or at least lust. The person on the other end of the line was a girl who attended Kent State University, a school approximately 2 ½ hours away from Bowling Green. She had asked him to come see her. I could see it in his eyes; he really wanted to go. It was a crazy proposition. Visions of John Cusack on his mission to get laid in The Sure Thing danced around in my head.

“Let’s go. Let’s go see her.”

He looked at me, “Seriously?” Why the hell not? We were in college. Dropping everything on a moments notice was what youth was supposed to be about. And who knows, maybe she had a friend, right? I offered to drive, but that was utter nonsense. I wasn’t getting behind the wheel and we both knew it. Bob, on the other hand, had cut himself off a long time ago when food arrived. The man was sober (or so he told me; I was convinced). Thus, despite the angry finger-pointing from Dan and a few others, Bob and I found ourselves back in his Horizon, taking a long drive from Bowling Green to Kent State.

In the car, I tackled that paper, writing it out in a notebook as the radio played and the tires sloshed on the wet roads beneath us. At the same time, the two of us laughed and picked up our conversation that had begun that afternoon in the mall. What would life be like outside of college? At the time, Bob was a little nervous. He loved school, he loved the college life. I imagine a lot of seniors feel that apprehension. But, he knew he had to take the next step for fear of ending up like some of those seven-year students we knew. During our drive, we must have heard Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” two or three times and “Love Shack” by the B-52’S a couple of times. Great songs, both of them, but it was the song of the moment, Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin,’” that cemented that moment in time in our hearts. Each time the radio changed stations, we seemed to catch the song just as it started. And each time Petty began singing, we joined in, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Cause I’m freeee! Free Fawlin’!” in our best Petty drawl.

We arrived in Kent sometime around 12:30 AM. Letterman’s musical guest that night was The Kinks. Their music lulled me to sleep in a recliner while Bob and the girl of his dreams wrapped themselves in each others arms on the hardwood floors of her apartment. The long day had come to end.

The next morning we woke up early and immediately drove back to Bowling Green. After all, I still had a paper to type, let alone decipher what I’d written the night before. On the turnpike, passing by my hometown, I muttered, “My parents live there.” The statement has always stuck with me. It was one of the earliest instances I can remember separating my life from my parents. Whether “Free Fallin’” played again on our way home, I can’t say. The return trip home was mostly in silence with the occasional giggle or smile thinking about the night before. When we got back to Offenhauer, there wasn’t time to get sentimental. I ran to the typewriter and began furiously banging on the keys. Once my five-page essay on The Great Gatsby was in my professors’ hands, I finally had time to reflect on the previous day.

It truly was the last time Bob and I would be able to hang like that, to drop anything and just run off somewhere together. The real world had its grips around him; eventually it would get me, too. After the winter break, when I returned to school, the new occupants in the room next door would be strangers (Bob’s roommate, Scott, was leaving, as well). These neighbors wouldn’t appreciate the history of Bob’s room and all of the young minds that had been warped and educated within those four walls. More importantly, they would not appreciate the friendships that had been formed; friendships that have endured 20 years.

To this day, whenever “Free Fallin’” comes on the radio, whether it’s in Cleveland, where Bob lives, or in Los Angeles where I reside, we invariably call each other and sing at the top of our lungs, “Cause I’m freeeee! Free fawlin’!”

Oh yeah, I got an ‘A’ on that paper. Angels, I tell ya.