When I finally awoke after my first day as an official freshman at Tulane, my head hurt in a way which defies description only with monochromatic words. The colors of pain and nausea were only diminished by my inability to form words or to respond to verbal cues. As a result of my successful enrollment as a freshman, my assigned roommate insisted we go out on the town to celebrate my apparent talent of reading, standing in line and responding to simple questions. Unfortunately, as I awoke, I realize I was incapable of replicating the feat again and thanked whatever existing higher being that school was not starting for two more days.
"Jerome," said my roommate Zak Nooten, "you must have yourself one wicked headache."
I looked over at my roommate and pointed out to him, for at least the fiftieth time, that my first name was not Jerome and I, in fact, was suffering from a headache of ecumenical proportions. I was from South Boston and had used the idiom "wicked" several times early during our adventure and I was somewhat pleased to see my new roommate had embraced it as one of his new catch phrases. College was a time to learn and experience new things and so far, I had experienced New Orleans nightlife and my roommate had begun to overuse an idiom with all the panache of a kid who had just moved to Southy.
My roommate was from Baton Rogue, Louisiana and was a far as I could see a full-blooded Cajun with a love of life and liquor which had to date, defied measurement. He took pity on me, or at least that is what he said, and used my first night in New Orleans as an excuse to go out and get completely and without qualification, inebriated. He insisted on establishing the agenda, picking the food and drinks and setting the tone for the evening. We visited many taverns with a vengeance and every saloon we visited, it appeared that my roommate, Zak Nooten, was considered one of the locals. By the time we came back to our dorm room, I was incapable of all actions that would constitute maturity and wisdom and this morning, I was paying for it. The opportunity for soul-cleansing nausea was far outside my abilities as I was far too drunk to even imagine my traditional reactions to being overserved. The bed didn't spin nor did I act in some immature and liberating manner; I was simply too drunk to do anything but unceremoniously pass out.
My initial calculations made Zak approximately five foot six, weighing in at about one hundred and twenty pounds. Wiry and fast, Zak also appeared to have a metabolism of a raging fire with an intellectual curiosity to match. Incapable of leaving anything alone, Zak would hypothesize in a rapid-fire manner and force you into conversations with no boundary or any indication of a start or end point. When I woke up, he was sitting next to my bed, observing my fitful sleep and monitoring my breathing. I assumed he was a pre-med student reviewing the telltale signs of alcohol poisoning but later I realized that he just liked looking at the whole image in front of him and he appeared fascinated. I don't think he had met anyone east of Pascagoula and he likely viewed me as an interesting but woefully inadequate imbiber.
I wanted to rise up and engage in some type of conversation but the waves of nausea forced me to stay horizontal and closer to my God. "Jerome, Mon ami, I would suggest you staying just were you are," said Zak. "There is nothing to gain by jumping up right now. You will lose as much as you gain."
His comment brought me full circle to when this whole adventure began: I was truly minding my own business, in my dorm room, resting after putting away all my belongings. All of a sudden, the room was filled with a personality force which had me grabbing my keys as we headed out for a congenial welcoming drink. Eight hours later, I was shirtless and busily leading my new best friends in a litany of filthy French drinking songs in one of the oldest establishments in the French Quarter. My memories were very clouded but the random pattern of stains and bruises made me think we certainly had some big, big fun with or without a pirogue.
I appreciated his insight and remained quietly horizontal while listening to Francisco Raul Gutierrez Grillo, who was better known as Machito per Zak (I had never heard of him until yesterday) and I had a feeling the music would be omnipresent for the entire academic year. Everytime I had attempted to change the background music, Zak would shake his head and insist on listening to Machito. Either way, class was not going to start for two more days and I realized that I would need all the available time to recover. The thoughts of doing anything other than drinking milkshakes in the dark would make my head begin to pound rhythmically and the alcohol-saturated sweat would begin to seep out of me with a noticeable and powerful stench of fear and toxins. I was literally numb with alcohol while I watched my new roommate keep himself busy setting up his belongings. He would not stop talking as long as I was conscious and he when saw my eyes begin to shut down, he would cordially refrain in any more of his rapid-fire ideas. One of the last thoughts I had on the first day of recovery is that Zak was approximately two-thirds my size and I know he consumed at least fifty percent more alcohol than I did last evening. The calculations were enormous but no matter how I analyzed it between periods of fitful and frantic sleep sessions, this kid could drink.
I thought I had a reasonable grasp on alcohol consumption and subsequent merriment but my first twenty-four hours as an undergraduate at Tulane showed my complete and troubling naiveté when it came to the adventures of the night. Zak Nooten was a sophomore, who was born and definitely raised in New Orleans and knew all the nooks and crannies in NOLA, which there were many. Meeting him brought a quotation from Sinclair Lewis immediately to mind, "He felt that he was an author yet he was rather amusing; he helped plodding classmates with their assignments, and he was an active participant in all worthy movements to raise hell." I wasn't yet sure about his charity but I had every confidence that it was going to be an interesting academic year. Zak had not yet declared a major nor showed a specific academic interest to any discipline but he did love to learn. He took classes that interested him and jumped into courses which appealed to his with no regard to inflated GPA's or paths of least resistance. He had excellent grades and earned them all with a combination of freakish intelligence and a true love of learning.
The first day of classes was another culture shock; the quiet Tulane campus was filled to the gills with an ocean of undergraduates looking as cool as possible in ensembles which were picked out specifically to blend into an individual's unfounded perceptions of a busy and crowded campus. I had still had a slight case of delirium tremors and an odor that was continued to seep out of my pores that smelled like overcooked. By the time I was wandering by Gibson Hall, my bearings became in focus as I finally stopped burping up the catfish courtbouillion from the night before. Zak's Tante Lorraine had sent him a big ass vat of it and since dormitory dining was not officially open until the morning, we dove into the Courtbouillion with a vengeance. I was still picking gratin out of my teeth and burping up violent hurricanes of cayenne and catfish when I came upon Zak with a beautiful Arcadian girl. They were laughing it up and when I arrived, Zak grabbed me by the shoulder and introduced me again to the dark-haired beauty.
"Dianemarie (one word)", this is my new Yankee roommate, Jerome"
I had given up trying to correct him about my name after the first hour and smiled. "Nice to meet you, Dianemarie (one word)." However, there was a momentary pause of silence near Zak so I quickly added, "And my name is not Jerome. "
"I have met you a few nights ago when that asshole Zak hauled you around the bars," she smiled. "And I still think that was a mean thing to do to Jerome," said Dianemarie, "but it seems to me that you survived just fine."
She grabbed my hand and gave it a nice encouraging squeeze. A squeeze implying only reassurance that I indeed was alive and apparently in control of my facilities. I apologized for not remembering her and she just waved her hand and laughed.
"There is no way that you two would have remembered me that night," said Dianemarie, "I am just glad you are okay. I was afraid someone one was going to suffer from alcohol poisoning. Zak was making you drink all the house specialties and those can make you a bit sketchy the next morning."
I wanted to tell her about my anguish but decided to just smile a knowing smile and be polite. She walked away with another laugh and a shake of her thick, dark hair. Good lord, she was pretty and I was already thinking about following her and striking up a conversation. And she smelled real nice.
Zak looked at me and smiled, "I don't think you should go after her just yet."
"Why?" I asked. I was looking around him to see her departure direction.
"It isn't time, school has just started and don't start pushing little bitty things early. She might be a brick wall or she might be on wheels, you just don't know."
"I would like to meet her again," I said with a voice bordering on pity and lust.
"My, my, Tulane isn't that big and I have a real good thought you will be seeing her all the time," encouraged Zak. "But pushing on something you know nothing about isn't smart. You arent ready for surprises, even good ones."
"What should I do?" I asked.
"I would go to school now and learn a few things," said Zak. "One thing you will eventually learn what is the right amount with Dianemarie. Right now, you would be bipping around looking foolish because the only thing you can control is the force of your intentions. You think you like her but you don't know. She may like you,
but you dont know that either. So, one step at a time, Jerome."
I had never heard the word "bipping" before but I knew exactly what Zak was getting at with this advice. I hoisted my book bag and gave my roommate the high sign and headed off to my first class. I felt pretty satisfied with my first real college discussion and strolled into class with a sense of accomplishment and a general curiosity. I was pleased to see that sitting directly in front of me was the dark-haired Dianemarie and I made a conscious effort of not jumping up and down like a fool, calling attention to myself. I remembered what Zak had been teaching me and decided not to change anything at this time. Until something upsets the balance, things should be
calm and hopefully manageable.
Dianemarie gave me a second look, like we were official acquaintances but she didn't turn around and chat. I feel she had several reasons to manage her emotions towards me, but the most obvious one was that she didn't have clue one who I was except for having the attribute of being the roommate of one of the craziest guys in five states. That should not be the reason people fall in love and thanks to Zak, I remained engaged in the class and only rarely became fixated with the back of Dianemarie's head. The class, an Introduction of Composition was filled with freshman and sophomores and was required for all major studies so there wasn't a lot of chitchat going on. I decided to pay attention and bide my time with the lovely Dianemarie and failing Intro to Comp was not going to be an option.
After class, we made polite eye contact again but I decided to be different and disappear out a side door. Luckily, the door dropped me nicely in the courtyard and I wandered off to my second class. Any fawning over Dianemarie was going to happen when there was a reason to do so and with our relationship ninety minutes old, I didn't have much to go on.
The rest of my classes went well and in the middle of the last one, the last vestiges of the three-day hangover had lifted. The Tulane campus became noticeably greener when I was walking back to the dormitory. The warm, fresh air was filling my lungs and I was feeling somewhat normal and much more focused on the surroundings of academia and student life. I wasn't thinking that Zak would be entertaining a second hijacking of my morals when I arrived back at the room but he was talking intently to someone on the phone when I walked in the door.
"Absolutement," said Zak, "Jerome and I will be there."
I looked at him like he had antlers and began to wave my arms in the universal sign of mutiny but was also intrigued about the adventure. Zak was fascinating and he was always introducing me to some cousin and at last count, there must be at least two hundred blood relatives of Zak in southern Louisiana. Each bar we wandered into, Zak's cousin was behind the bar or in the kitchen. And when I asked him if the cousin title was an honorary one, he would be very specific that through this marriage and that marriage, the person was a bone fide relative. Zak didn't pay attention to my theatrics and kept talking in a broken French Creole dialect that he probably heard growing up in the streets of the French Quarter or some prison whorehouse. I was getting a kick out of wiry friend but I had just recovered from self-imposed debauchery and the thought of eating garfish cochon with a few swamp felons while we drive airboats blindfolded and shirtless into the delta was just something that had to wait. We were officially opposites in all areas of comparison and my education was brimming with real-life applications but I had to put my foot down and tell Zak that I was not accompanying him on the next adventure.
The rest of the week went well: I was understanding all my classes and actually enjoying the learning process. I was making steady progress with the lovely Dianemarie and I was avoiding all the anguish and dramatics of transitioning into college life. Zak had not broached the subject of whatever commitment he had made on the phone and I felt the issue was closed. He seemed to understand how to pace himself and he prided himself for working within the system. He had never missed a class which for the human equivalent of a freshly uncrated container of Gibbons, he was remarkable with his obligations as well as the portions of his life that were less important. He was a living example in being both a force in the universe occur in equal but oppositely directed pairs. There are no isolated forces; for every external force that acts on an object there is a force of equal magnitude but opposite direction which acts back.
Friday afternoon was finally here and Zak asked me if I wanted to go out for a few drinks after dinner and I thought it was a good idea to cap off the week. I had no homework and had called my parents so I was footloose and fancy-free. Zak smiled and out the door we went.
Saturday evening, around dinnertime, I awoke in my bed to the sound of Machito playing in the background. Zak was studying and getting up every fifteen minutes to check my pulse and breathing rhythms. When I finally had stirred, he smiled down at me and said, "You were again the crazy man, Jerome." My head was pounding and it took me a few minutes to realize just exactly who and where I was. It had happened again and I was in the throws of the second worst hangover ever recorded by a human being. The weekend appeared to be another complete loss and I couldn't remember much of the detail that placed in my current situation but I was positive that Zak had almost nothing to do with it. I got out of bed and noticed that I was still holding a badge from the Necaise Police Department and looked at Zak for an explanation.
"I may have been a mixer," said Zak, "but you are a hero."
I looked up at my roommate with a barely functioning bloodshot eye and asked him to elaborate because I didnt feel like a hero and a few pieces of the weekend were still foggy. He smiled and began our story:
"We were sitting in a bar of our friends drinking rum when the gentleman came in and we began to discuss politics," said Zak, pulling up a chair.
"I kind of remember that," I muttered, "Wasn't he from Happy Jack?"
"That is correct, Jerome," smiled Zak, "He was Happy Jack from Happy Jack. I am glad you haven't suffered from rum-induced brain damage. He was a tall, funny fellow and I had met him a few times before."
"Then what happened?" I asked as I got up and quickly inventoried my belongings and noticed I had my wallet, eyeglasses, identification, keys and my money. I was surprised that from such a lost weekend, I was in pretty good shape.
"Well, we kept drinking with a few of my cousins, and the talk went from capitalism to the role of a benevolent dictator," said Zak. "You both were in a heated discussion about state's rights and the role of the federalist papers when he called you a ..",
"A communist?" I interrupted.
"Where did he come up with that?"
"I might have planted a tiny seed, for which I am ashamed of, even know but the conversation was lagging a bit and I thought introducing a new concept might speed up the discourse."
"Didn't I hit him?" I asked.
"Well," consoled Zak, "You tried to hit him but you missed badly. It was lucky for you that he was a good sport and true American."
The haze was lifting pretty well now and I remember the scene of events very clearly. The conversation was going fast and furious and Happy Jack and I agreed on
most issues and seemed pretty much on the same page. All of a sudden, Happy Jack seemed not so happy when he looked at me and called me a commie. I remember getting up, swinging at him and going back down quickly. I would have likely passed out a few minutes later so at least my reputation as a colorful individual was bolstered.
"Why do I have this?" I asked and showed Zak the badge of a police officer from Necaise Township.
This is Happy Jack's badge. He pinned it on you when you were laying down," said Zak. "I think he wanted to apologize for overreacting to your attempt at punching him."
"He shouldn't apologize," I countered, "I took the first swing."
"Technically, it was your only swing, and he knew you weren't serious," said Zak, "and you kind of swing like a girl but he hit you basically to calm you down. That's what friends are for around here."
The memory of me swinging wildly, with a piece of andouille in one hand and a blood alcohol count way past the limits of most civilized planets, was happening in slow motion in my mind. I saw my little girly swing easily blocked by Happy Jack and a sledgehammer counter punch right on my jaw, sending me back into my seat. It was no wonder my head hurt; whether it was from countless liquor salutes to Napoleon Bonaparte with platoons of Zak's cousins or from the right fist of a policeman, it didn't matter.
Zak and I went to the dormitory lunchroom and were the last two people served. The food was warm enough but all I wanted it to do was to absorb some of the alcohol still in my stomach and once that was achieved, I could go back to bed. If successful, the weekend would be salvaged if I could study all Sunday with the goal of being ready for class on Monday like all my sensible and chaste classmates. Zak was picking at his food, obviously disappointed in the quality and looked at me with a now-familiar look of adventure and was ready to say something but I waved my hand at him.
"No" I said.
"What, no? I didn't say a word about anything."
"You had a plan forming and I am beginning to see them coming."
"I am just hungry and this food sucks. However, I am a bit insulted by your potential inferences."
"It isn't that bad and besides, we have had plenty of big fun in the last couple days."
"No argument here, it is just that I have an urge for a little of my cousin's crawfish étouffée."
"So, go and see your cousin. I am going back to bed and begin to dry out."
"It's no fun to go alone and you'll love my cousin. She's a lot of fun and she would love to meet you."
"So far," I responded, "I have loved all of your cousins, all hundred and ninety-five of them and they seemed to like me as well. Your étouffée cousin can wait, but please send her my love."
"Okay, I will bring you back some étouffée," said Zak as he scooted out the door.
For the first time since I can remember, I sat quietly in my room, on my bed, running through the first week or so of my college career. I had fallen in love, took a swing at an alleged cop, actually learned a few things in class and had enjoyed foods which up until a few days ago, didn't know existed. I tried to take the time to get some sleep but it was odd being alone. Although I was glad I stayed behind, I couldn't help wonder what holy hell Zak was into at that moment. Since I couldn't sleep, I began to jump
into some assigned readings and complete other assignments in case Zak and I were summoned mysteriously Monday morning to judge a bourbon contest in Kyoto or to pick up one of his cousins who was flying in from Ifni. The time went by slow and it was about ten-thirty in the evening when Zak strolled in with a stone pot full of étouffée.
"My cousin was déçu that you couldn't attend," said Zak, "then I told her about Happy Jack and our adventures and she became disappointed in me and my hospitality."
I responded, "She was disappointed?" I asked sincerely which was strange since I didn't even speak French until I met Zak. Now, the words and his idioms were saturating all my conversations.
"Finally, one of your cousins that seems normal," I said, "I will be looking forward to meeting her soon and I will apologize profusely for missing out on her hospitality."
"She is a close friend of Dianemarie so she also heard about the first night, she knows you and Dianemarie are in the same class and she thinks I am a bad influence on you," said Zak quickly. He looked sober, behaved and as clean as he went out. It appeared that Zak had behaved himself, like a new choirboy, and this was the time I decided not to go. I was already wondering what kind of rocketship to hell adventure was in store for me next time when I heard myself say I would take another chance with his social plans.
"She knows Dianemarie?"
"Absolutement. Are you hungry?"
I nodded and we settled in with some bowls and took care of the still-warm stewy seafood and spicy dish. Coming from an area that prided itself on seafood, the cuisine in New Orleans was mind-blowing. Under the tutelage of Zak, I was experiencing the pride of the city served up by genuine characters that looked like the bastard child of Eudora Welty. The étouffée was sandblasting my nausea away and I could feel my blood cells ridding themselves of their pesky toxins brought on by my own poor judgment and Zak's propensity to be overserved. The initial warmth of the stew was politely surpassed a few moments later as the spices and other ingredients became to emit their own inherent warmth. The substantial body of the dish itself was literally sticking to my ribs, almost completely healing me and the restorative heat was cleansing my soul as well. The food and the lack of dangerous circumstances provided me with almost everything I needed to recover from my first, and hopefully last, fistfight with a policeman, nom de plume notwithstanding.
During the meal in our room, Zak began to share his theories on life and to encourage me to allow life to bring me on all the necessary adventures. He felt you needed drama to really appreciate comedy; failure to truly understand and respect success and these opposites provided balance and an opportunity to become easy with the world around you.
"So, I am supposed to run down every path life that to offer me with no regard to anything?" I asked.
"That is not what I said," said Zak as he was wiping his bowl with surviving cornbread crusts.
"So, what did you say?"
"It was nothing that ominous. I suggested 'one doesn't go against realities,' even ones which were likely not pleasant, was to only postpone them "
"That sounds a lot like what I said."
"No it isn't," said my little Cajun friend, "I said if you realize something is going to happen, a test or a heart break, don't run from it: confront it. You caught avoid reality and avoid wasting precious time. You would spend the time fretting about the challenge ahead of you and doing yourself a disservice. Time may be time but don't waste it: learn to work with the time instead of running from it. "
I paused on that last phrase but I have been viewing life as a series of unrelated events that just come one at a time. I began to realize these independent and occasionally random events as all part of a persistent adventure and all I can do is maintain a good balance of self-esteem and preparation and jump in. The time passed and in was early Sunday morning when we finally hit the sack. My stomach was full of crawfish étouffée and I was marveling at how I felt. My head was clean, my stomach settled and after a vain attempt at brushing my teeth to neutralize the power of the crawfish, I fell asleep.
Sunday came easily and I awoke refreshed for the first time since I arrived at Tulane. There were no new bruises or mystery stains on my clothes and I was ready to meet the day. Zak was sleeping in his clothes, buried in his textbooks and a few pornographic magazines, and I decided to grab my required reading and get out and enjoy the coolness of the morning. I quickly ate and wandered on campus to find my first college reading spot which provided some solitude and an ability to watch the co-eds walk by on their way to the library or church or both. A few hours passed and my homework completed so I decided to go back to the dorm and roust Zak for lunch and more philosophical insights. Zak was just waking up and it was obvious that he was feeling restored as well. We spent the afternoon on our beds, talking about our lives and upbringings and decided we would go out for a few drinks since I had accomplished all my homework goals for the weekend. Zak studied for a bit as I cleaned up my half of the room. Zak was finishing up his reading when I decided it was time to set some agenda items from my perspective.
"Why don't you call your étouffée cousin," I asked with a non-committal tone as I didn't want to appear too Machiavellian.
"I was wondering when you were going to bring up étouffée again," smiled Zak.
"I thought I would be polite and try to extend an invitation to her to meet us for a drink."
"That would be trés gallant," teased Zak, "she probably has been crying her eyes out since you failed to show up for a simple meal."
"If I knew that it would be a simple meal, with no gunplay or fistfights, I would have likely had come."
"I am just teasing you, Jerome. Let me give her a call," said Zak.
Zak grabbed my cell phone and dialed quickly. He didn't get his cousin but left a polite message detailing our plan of a few drinks but she was welcome to meet us at a mutual cousin's tavern. He didn't address Dianemarie directly but implied she could bring anyone with her and it was going to be a simple, benign adventure. We grabbed
our coats and wandered into the tavern and grabbed a table for four, near the door.
About ten seconds after we sat, a large bald man with a food stained apron came out of the kitchen and gave both Zak and I, a big hug. I didn't know if had met him but I acted like a long-lost relative and was sincerely appreciative of his greeting. There was a quick but interrupted introduction from Zak but myself and the cook acted like we were long lost friends and didn't need Zak to re-make our acquaintance. It was fun to be recognized as a knowing insider by the cook and as I sat there in the loud and frenetic atmosphere of a genuine tavern in New Orleans: I knew I couldn't be happier anywhere else in the world. Tourists with their cameras and souvenirs were wandering all over the place but I was safely tucked in a preferred pocket area in the restaurant. The cook kept coming over with samples, the bartender was dropping off free drinks and we continued to watch the parade of humanity shuffle by our vantage point as if we were the audience. We were real live denizens of the Big Easy and I was taking in all the sights and smells like I was a regular.
The need to apply just the right amount of force and effort into a situation was playing out in front of my eyes and once again, Zak Nooten had explained it all. Well, at least so far as I could see from where I was sitting.