A Hundred Eighty Dollars

a story

by J. Orlin Grabbe

I was leaving the ranch in Texas to spend the summer in Columbus, Ohio, and the bus ride took two to three days. Don't be pulling out your billfold and flashing a wad of bills, my father said. Put some ones in your front pocket, and when you need some change, just reach in and fish out one of those ones. That way nobody'll see you're carrying a lot of money.

I was taking a hundred eighty dollars to pay the stipend for the summer program, the one on mathematics, and had about twenty dollars besides. When the bus laid over in St. Louis for seven hours I decided it had been good advice. I had never seen bums and sharpies just hanging about the place and sleeping on benches before.

It was eleven p.m. when the bus pulled into Columbus, and I had nothing to do until the next morning, when I would go up to the university where the program was for kids like myself. I wasn't sure there would be much to do at Ohio State and had brought a trunk of books I wanted to read. The trunk weighed about a hundred sixty pounds, so I moved it a few feet at a time to a large coin-operated locker like they still had in those days. Then I went into the coffee shop for some pie and coffee, and after that went out and leaned against the side of the building to watch the street.

Hi, pal. The black man was wearing a beret and peered closely at my face as he walked by.

Hi, I responded, and then ignored him and he walked on. There was traffic on the street, and a number of people on the block hovered like moths under the street lights or just walked around. After a while he came back and asked if my name was Bill. I said it wasn't and we started talking. Leo was from New York and in the army at a nearby base, and spent his free weekends cruising the streets of Columbus. I had never had a conversation with a black man before, but didn't tell him that. Then Leo saw Bill, whom he had first mistaken me for, and pointed him out. Bill was shorter than me, and hatchet-faced, and I didn't think we resembled at all.

I guess all us white boys look alike, I said to Leo. He looked at me in surprise, then he laughed long and hard. It was the only time I saw him laugh. He had an earnest, sad set to his face and didn't smile much, even though he was friendly.

We had read some of the same books, and we walked the streets and along the river and talked the rest of the night and much of the following morning. I told him about growing up in Texas, and he told me about New York and how he planned to go to City College and become a writer when he got out of the army. His favorite book was Morris West's The Shoes of the Fisherman. Then he said his current girlfriend was the top woman tennis player in Columbus, and she was white, or rather mulatta--her mother was white and her father black--and he had had another girlfriend before, but before then he had only gone out with guys. That's what he had been doing at the bus station, a lot of homosexuals hung out there, even young kids, and he was trying to see if he still had any of those tendencies.

I told him I had never met a homosexual and asked him how he got to be one. He said he used to dance in nightclubs starting when he was seven, and one night he had gotten drunk with two men who took him back to their apartment. When he woke in the morning his anus was raw and bleeding. After that he had gone out with a lot of men, but as a teenager he started getting interested in girls, too, but he didn't know how to talk to them. He hadn't told his current girlfriend about his past.

When daylight came we went to a drugstore Leo knew of that opened early, and sat at the counter for coffee and a roll. What do you think of this song, Leo asked, and I listened closely. It was entitled "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" and was by a group called The Rolling Stones. I hadn't heard it before and thought it was a damned fine song because I hadn't been able to get much myself, but saw at that moment how satisfied I was, having spent the entire night in a strange city talking about books with a black man who used to be queer.

Leo said his girlfriend Moira had a car, and they could give me and the trunk a ride up to OSU. I went back to the bus station and slept for an hour on one of the benches. Then Leo and Moira came by and we went over to her parent's house for a Sunday afternoon dinner in the back yard. They talked about Vietnam, Leo defending America being there, and Moira and her father ganging up against him. How do we what government is best for those people? her father asked. I felt sorry for Leo, he seemed so isolated, and I wondered when he was going to tell his girlfriend about his past. I knew he would, because there was confession in his soul.

When night came they drove me and my trunk to the university, to Drackett Tower where the math kids had taken over the tenth floor. I was in room 1035 with three other students, one, Ollie, who had arrived before me. Ollie, smoking, watched us move the trunk inside the room. He wasn't sure what to make of his Texas roommate, with the black guy from New York and the white girl from Columbus who looked, talked, and moved like the tennis star she was. When they had gone, Ollie identified himself as a Catholic conservative who wanted to go into politics. He had applied for the math program because he wanted to be around intellectuals he could debate current events with.

There was a study room with four desks, a bedroom with four bunk beds, two upper and two lower, and a bathroom. Terry arrived the next day accompanied by his girlfriend Stacy, and his girlfriend's parents. Stacy was about the most attractive and well-developed teenager I had ever seen, and I saw Ollie staring at her also, and he looked at me and raised his eyebrows. Within the first hour or so, we learned that Terry did not believe in premarital sex, but did believe in mate- swapping after marriage, and he had written a long paper for English class explaining his theory. In the event Stacy finds your beliefs too confining, Ollie told Terry, send her to me.

Even so, we were in awe of Terry because of his girlfriend, and when we found out his parents allowed him to have his own subscription to Playboy we were even more mystified. Finally Ollie said to me, it's a strategy, see. Because he doesn't believe in premarital sex, he gets to take her any place he wants. But I knew better: I could tell Terry was serious.

The fourth member of the group was a Jewish kid, Jeff, from Brooklyn who immediately attached himself to me. He was a year younger than most others in the program, and seemed to feel that his age averaged out with my being from Texas and put the two of us on an equal footing. The first thing Jeff said was, do you play chess, and I beat him a couple of games that same day, then I played Ollie, but Terry would only play blindfold chess, which none of us were any good at except him. While we played, Jeff and Terry kept up a running debate about the real words to "Louie, Louie," and Ollie finally said you guys are crazy and sat down to read The Sorrows of Young Werther, which I had pulled out of the trunk.

The main classes were in number theory and abstract algebra, and the first week some of the other kids kept coming up to ask me what room I was in. It turned out they just wanted to hear me say "room 1035" with a Texas accent. It was the drawn out "5" that clinched it, of course, so I started saying "11 cubed minus 14 squared minus 10 squared," which was the same thing but took some of the fun out of it the way they saw it.

The program was an experiment to see what would happen if you taught kids who were smart mathematically subjects they normally wouldn't encounter until the final years of college. To accomplish this, they assigned us various instructors, including an Indian who, the first day I heard him, pointed to something on the blackboard and said, Eat ease a nail ee mint of diggity tree. I asked him if he could please repeat that, and so he said somewhat louder, EAT EASE A NAIL EE MINT OF DIGGITY TREE. I was sitting by Terry and looked at him for help, but he just shrugged. On the other side of Terry was Suzanne, the only really sexy girl in the program. The legend of Terry's girlfriend had spread quickly and given him territorial rights on certain sexual issues, like who got to sit beside Suzanne. Suzanne was wearing a short skirt, and the kid in the row directly below her in the amphitheater kept looking over his shoulder and between her legs, and I saw her see him looking, and she opened her legs just a touch wider. After class I asked Ollie, but he hadn't understood anything the instructor had said either, and while we hacked away at the diggity tree, Jeff came up and translated: It is an an element of degree three. And it turned out Jeff had learned to speak Indian in Brooklyn, and so he continued to go to the Indian's lectures, but not the other three of us who had never been to Brooklyn and preferred an extra hour of sleep after the late night chess and poker games and bull sessions.

There was a curfew to insure everyone got enough sleep, but our room avoided it by tucking towels around the door so the counselors could not see light coming around the door sill. Despite this, they said our room was a den of trouble-makers. But the other kids thought we were cool, and would come down to our place to talk and to look at Terry's Playboy foldouts which we had hung all over the study area. There was one Irish kid who knew about three hundred nun and priest jokes, about the lock to the gate of heaven, and the key, and Gabriel's horn, and other jokes like that. People would argue or discuss Vietnam or symbolic logic or evolution or rock music or the latest books. We had to spend hours working the math problem sets, but I always joined in when a bull session was on, because I saw I had really come here to hear kids talk about things that kids back home didn't know how to talk about.

The reputation of our room was such that one of the counselors came in the study area one day to ask if we knew where there was a whorehouse, and said there ought to be one around since this was a college town. This was news to us, and no one wanted to tell him we were still having premarital sex debates, although it eventually turned out that almost everyone who had no possible opportunity to have any was in favor of it. We also enjoyed bedtime stories, and took turns reading Candy, by Terry Southern, out loud to each other before turning out the lights to fall asleep.

It was important not to miss any of the scheduled meals, since no one had any money, and as the summer progressed and it became harder and harder to make it to the cafeteria before the breakfast line closed, we began to transport all manner of mobile food, like small boxes of cereal, along with bowls, cutlery, salt and pepper shakers and other items, back to the dorm. But occasionally we would go for a limeade or a coke at one place where I always played "Mr. Tambourine Man," and once we walked five miles to buy twenty-five cent hamburgers at White Castle.

One day I realized I only had a hundred seventy dollars left, of which I supposed to pay OSU a hundred eighty, and I kept hoping they would forget I hadn't paid, but then a notice was posted on the bulletin board with my name and one other kid's, saying we hadn't paid. Jeff told me some researchers at the psychology department were paying five dollars for participation in a two-hour experiment. You had to draw a circle on an etch-a- sketch between two other circles very close together, without touching the borders of the other circles, and while you were doing it the other participants in other rooms would write you notes with suggestions and comments how it was going, and you would write them notes. The researchers said it was an experiment in communication to see if the notes would help people perform better, but we had already found out the real purpose was about group behavior, to see if on average people would claim more successes when the notes--most of which the researchers had made up--seemed to indicate other particpants were having more successes. Since I knew it didn't make any difference what I wrote, I amused myself by writing the funniest notes I could think of, and collected my money when it was over. But then I promptly spent it, and was no better off than before.

Finally I wrote my father for the ten dollars, and he amazingly sent me thirty-five, so after paying OSU the hundred eighty dollar stipend I went to the bookstore and bought some math books in case I might want to study them back in Texas, but I never did.

Once I called Leo at the number he had given me at the army base, and he said he had confessed to his girlfriend, and they had had a fight and broken up. And he was going to hitch-hike into town and meet me at a place, but when I went there he never showed up because he wasn't able to get a ride. So I never saw him again, but sometimes think of him when I hear "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," and wonder if he ever found something that made him happy.

On the last day of lectures the instructor kept talking on and on, way past the bell, and I was feeling sick so I got up from the front row, and walked all the way up the steps to the exit door, and then I ran down the hallway and threw up in the men's room. And I returned to the dorm and went to sleep. When I opened my eyes I saw almost every kid in the program had crowded into the bedroom, and they were talking about what a cool thing it had been that I had walked out on that long-winded instructor, till finally Ollie said can't you see the man's sick, and ran them out.

Then I said goodbye to Ollie and Terry and Jeff, and on the bus home I read an article in Esquire about the new slang they were using at colleges, but mostly I just looked out the window. My family was there waiting for me, they said later, when the bus stopped outside the drugstore of a nearby town. But I guess I didn't recognize them, nor them me, and so I set out to walk the remaining twenty-six miles through a strange countryside I had known all my life, to the house rising abruptedly out of the wind-swept grassland that was no longer home.


from The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 2, No 36, Nov. 2, 1998

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