Chapter Three: Leaving The Nest-A Year of Firsts

Did you read Chapter 2: Growing Up yet?

I graduated from high school in June of 1982. I have no idea what my class rank is/was except that I was given a gold cord to wear over my gown. I don’t know whether that put me in the top 10, top 10% or if there were Olympic judges involved.

The summer following graduation was my third and last working at a drive-in theatre. The summers of 1980 and 1981 were spent at the Colonial Drive-In (it’s been a vacant lot for decades).  I got that job through a friend (Chris Leech). It was a great job because it had a lot of perks; I got to see a lot of my friends when I was working and could go for free on the nights I wasn’t.

There was a dark side to this job though: I learned how to skim tickets at the box office. That’s when the attendant (me) takes your money and before I can hand you a ticket stub, you drive away…so I resell the ticket stub to the next car and pocket the money. I didn’t start this, but I did do it and taught others how. This would come back to haunt me later.

The third summer, Chris reminded me to apply early, but I dragged my feet until it was too late. There were no more openings at the Colonial Drive-In, but there was an opening at the South Park Drive-In (it’s now a housing development). So, I worked there instead. I knew my job, but I didn’t know that theatre or anyone who worked there. They were all South Park students and they hated me on principle. From day one, it was abundantly obvious that I had no friends and no one was going to help me or give me any slack (I’m foreshadowing).

The manager of the drive-in was a former regional assistant manager and I’d met him the summer before. I also knew that he had started dating a cashier I had worked with that same summer who knew about us skimming tickets (and participated). What I didn’t know is that she’d told her boyfriend who was now my boss.

Now, the protocol for working the box office is that there are two employees selling tickets. Presumably, I was there for the protection of the cashier and she was responsible for the money. Once things slow down, she leaves to add up the receipts and make the nightly deposit at the bank. I stay in case there are any stragglers who want to see the second feature. The problem was, they didn’t leave me any money to make change.

Now the price of admission at the time was $3.00 per person. A van pulled in with a couple in it. He didn’t have any ones and I had no cash box to make change. In this situation, I’m supposed to use the intercom and have someone bring whatever change I needed. Since I knew I had no friends back in the office, I decided to just let them in for free. (He did give me a beer, though.)

About five minutes later, the manager called on the intercom and asked if there were any late sales. I said, ‘no’.

About 2 minutes later, he called again and said; “are you sure?” So I told him the truth. (I left out the part about the beer.)

Ten minutes later, he showed up at the box office and said he talked to the couple in the van and knew I was lying. They (as I understand it) told him they’d paid me, but that I never gave them a ticket stub.

Then, he told me to open my wallet. In my wallet were two bank notes: a five and a one. He fired me on the spot, but took the time to tell me that he knew what I was doing and what a bad person I was and that I’d never work for them again.

What HE didn’t know was that I was friendly with the manager of a third drive-in (Echo which is now the site of an assisted living facility). She offered me a job after I’d committed to the South Park Drive-In and she was my next stop that night.

I told her the story (again, I think I’d left out the part about the beer). She had enough clout to tell this guy and anyone who’d listen to him to do things that are undeniably anatomically impossible, but even she had to agree not to let me handle money. Ironically, two of my co-workers conspired to rob the box office later that summer.

And, that was the end of my career in the movie business.

My relationship with my high school girlfriend was never particularly stable and at this point, I was more interested in continuing it than she was. Anyway, I’d taken to pouring my heart out to a fellow drive-in employee who comforted me. Well, one thing led to another and we started dating that fall. But this relationship wasn’t what I wanted at the time and I took the opportunity to do something I’d never done before or since; reject someone. (More about that later.)

I was accepted into the engineering program at Carnegie Mellon University. It was approximately 20 miles from home; far enough to justify living on campus. I was on my own.

I got a dorm room on campus with a high school friend and eagerly embarked on this new adventure.

Man, was I in for a rude awakening.

First of all, I had no study skills. Secondly, I had no self-control. Lastly, I had never really had to work at or for anything before.

After my parents left, I went to the campus store for a few essentials. Toothpaste, soap, deodorant and a carton of cigarettes.

My dorm room was more-or-less party central and often hosted open jams, smoke outs and late night psychotropic experiments with my high school friends (who weren’t in college) and a few new friends (who were). Often, these impromptu adventures of excess spilled into the surrounding neighborhood and even into Schenley Park.

I still went to class, but I wasn’t really taking the process seriously. I rarely looked at my books or class notes and quickly fell behind. The combination of all the partying I was doing and having no clue how to actually study was taking its toll.

My roommate, who exercised far more self-control than I did, was also struggling academically. He determined before the end of the spring semester that his future lay elsewhere. I, on the other hand, soldiered on because that’s all I knew how to do.

As an entering freshman, I’d heard an off-color joke about Carnegie Mellon being like a sorority sister: Hard to get in and nine months later you wish you hadn’t come. By the middle of the spring semester, it wasn’t funny anymore.

It was during this period that I wrote “Brighter Day“. I was tired and feeling older than my years and wallowing in self-pity. I don’t mean to trivialize it; I was having a genuine crisis of faith and longed for the simpler days only a few months ago when I was secure in the company of my friends back in high school. If I washed out of college, I didn’t know what I’d do.

Part of the struggle was academic, of course, but there were other stressors too. My sister and I were both in college at the same time and the financial strain was taking its toll on my parents. In the spring of 1983, my father confided in me that he was considering leaving my mother, but assured me that he would continue to fund my education.

I don’t know whether I was so self-absorbed that their pain didn’t register, pre-occupied with figuring out how to tell him I wasn’t sure college was for me or if I instinctively knew the most important thing for me to do at that point was listen.

I didn’t write about my parents, but the revelation of domestic distress in my family was the inspiration of “Why Worlds Fall Apart“. The song is told from the perspective of a husband sitting alone in the marital home knowing his partner is not coming back. I was trying to evoke the feelings of emptiness and longing of a man who really didn’t have a clue how he ended up alone.

It was also that spring that I ended my relationship with my former drive-in co-worker. I was a cad, heel, jerk, etc. and, though I have few regrets in life, my behavior toward her is near the top of my list. I wrote about that experience, but not until the summer of 1986 after I’d had the benefit of experiencing three years of unintentional celibacy. 

Later that spring, my high school girlfriend graduated and was kind enough to invite me to her graduation party. At this point, I was the reluctant ex-boyfriend and probably should have begged off…but I didn’t. I went to the house, exchanged pleasantries with her family and otherwise busied myself brooding in the back yard.

She seemed to be having a great time and I was angry and hurt that she was so over me (‘we can still be friends’) and that’s when I wrote “Like You“.

The song takes place during her graduation party. She looked great. I felt like crap and didn’t want to be her friend, but wasn’t able to let her go either. So I shared her company in the only way I could.

Without putting too fine a point on things, I made it through the first term by passing all my classes, but it wasn’t pretty. I’d never had a grade below a “B” before and not many of them (except for gym which doesn’t count) so I had a lot to think about that summer.

Continued in Chapter 4: Deep in the Valley