Why you should care
Even smart people do very, very stupid things sometimes.
The year was 1979. I was 16. I say that like it might protect me from what I know is coming, but the reality is no amount of this kind of stupid can be excused by age or epoch. But I’m getting ahead of things.
That summer I had a job as a lifeguard at a camp in Beacon, New York. It was 60 miles north of the city I called home and I was hired thanks to a stepfather who “knew some people.” Not saying I wasn’t qualified, but it was no accident I ended up working at a settlement camp. That is, designed to get kids of limited means out of the city and into nature for the summer. It was largely felt this would be good for me, a kid not of limited means, and having worked there one summer before, I didn’t disagree.
But you put a bunch of teenagers anywhere away from aggressive adult supervision and things will happen. Eight days in, what happened to me is I started dating a counselor, a college girl who wanted to spend the summer close to home, semi-gainfully employed.
And with that, and without pants, I sprinted to the front door that was opened by none other than the warden.
My days involved swim classes, meals with campers and supervising any day trips that involved water. After dinner and after those with kids had put them to bed, the specialists, of which I was one, would return to their bunks to get ready for evening activities that involved disco, drinking, disco rollerskating and whatever else wouldn’t interfere overly much with work early the next day.
On our days off, we’d do whatever suited us, and in my case this usually meant lolling around the room I shared with the wood shop counselor. Reading, bullshitting, listening to “new wave” radio — typically in my posing trunks. I was an amateur teenage competitive bodybuilder, so hanging around in posing trunks (think modified Speedos) was not as strange as it sounds. OK, maybe it was.
My new girlfriend was insistent we spend our next day off together. Not just together, but at dinner. At her parents’ house. Nothing I had agreed to, so I was surprised when she showed up in the middle of the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster.”
“Let’s go.” I objected, an argument ensued and finally I hit on an escape clause when asked, for the umpteenth time, why I didn’t want to go.
“I don’t feel like getting dressed. So I’ll go if I can go the way I am dressed now.” Red posing trunks, no shirt, no shoes. “And I don’t want to have to talk to anybody. Just like now.”
She stormed out and I fell back in bed, victorious, my roommate running after her. They returned together.
“OK. You can go the way you are.”
Grousing and resisting still, just with less brio, I stormed out to the car, jumped in. Silent. Did I mention her father was the head warden at Sing Sing prison? Did I also mention this meant they lived on prison grounds?
As we drove through a succession of gates guarded by muscular, angry-looking men with rifles, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was rethinking things. Pulling up in front of a nice Hudson Valley house now, even more.
And then this: “Here, man. Why don’t you put these on?” My roommate, who’d been invited to dinner too, handed me some pants.
“HO-HO! YOU DON’T THINK I’LL GO THROUGH WITH IT, EH?” And with that, and without pants, I sprinted to the front door that was opened by none other than the warden. And for me, a rare moment of contrition. “I suppose you’re wondering why I’m dressed like this …”
“No.” He didn’t smile. He didn’t frown. He just looked at me. As the father of three daughters now, I’m dying a little bit inside just writing that.
And, so, in the house I go. The mother, after the initial shock, adjusted quite well. So well that the second part of my ill-formed plan didn’t seem that out of place. Which was plopping down on the living room couch and promptly falling asleep. Remember: “I don’t want to have to talk to anybody.”
By the time dinner rolled around, I woke up to discover that none of what had happened was a dream. It was painfully, uncomfortably real. No matter how hard, now, I tried to be charming during dinner. Which concluded without event, leaving us to our own devices.
The car ride back was silent, and after my roommate got out, my girlfriend turned to me and asked the most heartbreaking question ever: “Are you still angry with me?”
And because I wasn’t finished being a dick I said, “Being angry is NOT the issue.” With that, I left her car and for reasons unknown to me jumped on the hood, walked over the car and headed into the wooded night to find my way back to my room.
“That was fucked up, man.” He couldn’t look at me, my roommate. And he hasn’t really to this day.
The girlfriend? Found through the miracle of the internet some 30 years later. She’s a supersuccessful academic. I’m an apologizing ex.
“What? I don’t remember any of that,” she emailed.
No idea if she was laughing when she wrote it or if she was even telling the truth. But I had done what I could by way of making amends, and if there was one good thing to come of it, it was this: Having established a baseline for dickishness, I would never sink so low again. So, thank heaven for small favors.
Have an embarrassing story? That you can share? We’re all ears. Send it: Eugene@ozy.com