A 50,000-mile Tune-Up

"Twenty years isn't that long," and other old-person things I never thought I'd say.

This week I’ve felt like a car getting its 50,000-mile tune-up (100,000?). After mostly recovering from last week’s tooth-yanking (yikes), I got my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine (yay!), which landed me in bed for most of a day.

And then on Friday I got promoted.

<hold for applause>

Now, I’m at the highest rank available in my institution’s non-tenure track line. It comes with a little more security and a little more money. That’s all to the good.1 It also means that twenty years after I was supposed to graduate from college and 11 years after I actually did, I’m a Teaching Professor.2

I looked it up: April 30, 2001 was a Monday, the first of three pre-finals Reading Days at Penn, which almost certainly means we were at the bar. That first reading day was always an occasion to let off steam, and most of my classmates would have been fairly unconcerned with their last round of finals anyway, having already secured a job or a spot in grad school or what have you.

I’d been letting off steam all year.

Twenty years ago, I was on some level having the time of my life in the middle of telling the lie of my life. I’d ended junior year with my head buried in the sand as my transcript filled up with Fs — six! — and the university “invited” me to take a year off. (This was not an invitation that could be refused). Embarrassed, I told everyone that I’d had financial-aid trouble, and proceeded to move into the off-campus house on which we’d already signed the lease.

This is all to say that I don’t know what exactly I was doing 20 years ago at the end of a senior year sans classes, but I know exactly where I was doing it.

Our rowhouse was on 42nd Street in West Philadelphia, just off of Spruce. The landlord’s maintenance on this transient student housing was minimal — enough to keep within shouting distance of whatever City codes applied.

There were eight of us. The place was gross and we made it grosser3. Each of the three second-floor rooms was set up as a studio, which meant that my middle room had its own full bath and kitchenette. The bathroom was handy, but the kitchenette was useless — to reach it I would’ve had to excavate a path through the dirty laundry, empty takeout containers, and the unpacked boxes of my stalled college career. I never turned the stove on.

Needless to say, I didn’t do a lot of entertaining in my first “grown-up” apartment. When we hung out it was in the third-floor’s common area or up on the roof until the landlord shut that down or in Daniel’s room. Daniel had a couch and a stereo system and a coffee table with a chess set and nothing on his floor (he did laundry multiple times a week?!?), as though an adult lived there.

We had parties; the cops came; we watched movies in Brent’s room4; we drank 40s and smoked cigarettes on the stoop; we stopped noticing the persistent odor of old Yuengling. When the others had to go to class or study I went (sometimes) to my internship downtown or to the student newspaper office or to the bar.

I proceeded via denial and not thinking too hard about my predicament in the hope it would work out somewhere down the line, eventually.

If I could talk to that 22-year-old idiot living in his own filth, I would tell him that he was being dumb but also that it would, incredibly, work out. It would work out in ways that he couldn’t imagine. I would also have to tell him that “eventually” meant the better part of a decade, and at that point my younger self would tune me out because what 22-year-old thinks in such unfathomable units of time? (Thirty-two? Might as well be dead!).

The denial persisted well past May of 2001, that month I did Senior Week with all my friends: the pub crawls and the formal and getting invited as the plus-one to all the fancy parent dinners. I ate as well that week as I ever will. At a rainy commencement,5 I sat in the Franklin Field stands with Jack’s parents. The late Mr. and Mrs. Guinn had treated me to six chandeliered courses at Le Bec-Fin. Jack and I had been freshman roommates; they’d known me as long as anyone. His mother said “next year, you’ll be down there.” (I was, but not quite the way she meant, and that’s a whole other story).

The image that sticks with me from that rowhouse on 42nd street is also a fairly heavy-handed metaphor. At a party late in the year, a high school friend of Jack’s put his fist through the wall, making a sizable hole. Through it, any passersby could see into my hovel.

A few days later, in an attempt to keep our security deposit, Jack pasted up a piece of posterboard and painted over it. Except for the way that part of the wall billowed as you walked past it, it worked pretty well6 — at least you could no longer see from the hallway into my own private chaos and decay.

A few days after that, Daniel stuck a Post-it on the wall next to the square of white-painted posterboard: “Untitled #1, Mark Rothko.”

We thought we were clever, and sometimes we were.

1

There’s a lot to be said about the academic labor market, and the predicaments many less fortunate than I find themselves in, but this is not that post.

2

“Teaching Professor” might sound redundant, but that’s the title!

3

At least seven people are asking “WHAT’S THIS “WE” SHIT, SUB?”

4

As long as we remained absolutely silent.

5

John McCain was the speaker.

6

We did not get the security deposit back.