I have been thinking a good deal of late about first days of school. Maybe it’s because our day students are at last with us on campus, our classes are in person on the lawns and patios of the Mesa and our community is finally whole. Maybe, too, it’s because I can see in the eyes of those newest to Cate even amidst the relief of learning in proximity to classmates (no closer than six feet, though) the wonder and the worry about finding their people.
Phil Walsh, my roommate, was the first guy I met in college. I arrived straight from a backpacking trip, sweaty and dirty with a bandanna wrapped around my head. Phil told me later he had real questions about my ability to do college work.
He had no question about his own ability, though. Within the first few minutes I learned he had perfect scores on his SAT, a confession that I seriously doubted. Phil was from New York, wore nothing but white-washed jeans and Converse high tops, wore his dark, wavy hair long like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. But Phil was no disco fan. All he played was Bruce Springsteen. “The Boss,” he would say, as if nothing else needed to be said. He only broke pattern once our freshman year, around the holidays, when he played the Phil Spector Christmas Album. We were all shocked, but he just shrugged. “I like this album,” he admitted.
As it turned out, Phil was brilliant. No fact or piece of trivia or bit of arcane music history that entered his head ever left it. Every year there was a trivia contest at the college. There would be a question and then a song was played on WCFM, the college radio station. Contestants had to answer the question and name the song, the artist, and the year it was produced. There was a large team competition and a small team competition, all pre-internet. The contest went for 24 straight hours and folks got way into it. Phil usually played with one or two other guys, snubbing his nose at teams of a dozen or more people, and won the whole darn thing nearly every year. I’ve never seen anything like it. If only all of our synapses could fire like Phil’s.
I wonder how many Cate students like me are on the Mesa today, or like Phil, looking to make that first meaningful contact, wondering how to begin a friendship or simply start a conversation? Phil and I could not have been more different, and yet he became my friend. We played basketball together and he always wanted the ball in the corner so he could launch the ugliest, least accurate jump shot I have ever seen. To this day I remember the only time I ever saw one of his shots drop, and I can’t figure out why Phil wasn’t as surprised as the rest of us.
He moved to Hollywood to write screenplays after graduation, but he came back East when Ginger and I were married and was the first to greet us when we arrived on the West Coast. Self-assured as he always tried to seem, it was clear from the start that Phil wanted most of all to love somebody and to be loved in return. That was the truth that rested beneath his well-cultivated bravado. He would never admit such a thing for fear it would ruin his image. But we all knew it. It’s why we loved him.
Perhaps in the coming days and weeks as I walk the campus, I’ll keep my ear out for the bass tones of “Born to Run” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I’ll think of meeting Phil. And I’ll know just how many wonderful, surprising, memorable friendships are beginning in these early days of the year.
It’s a heartening thought in the age of coronavirus. To borrow from “The Boss,” perhaps the light that blinds us is that which we find in each other.