Frank lives in the basement of the Phi Mu sorority house in a small apartment that they provide in exchange for housekeeping duties. Frank is also the drummer in a college band I play with. We are pledge brothers, seeking to become initiate members of the infamous Xi Iota chapter of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Illinois.
Each year, this white brotherhood and its pledges paint themselves brown, don loincloths, place chicken bones in their noses, carry wooden spears and raid the campus sorority houses to gather up grass-skirted hula maidens, throw them aboard a festive straw wagon and proceed to an imaginary Fiji Island for a drunken night of debauchery. We are yet known nationwide as Fijis by anyone who still cares. It is the Midwest in the Sixties and we are asleep between the sheets of white privilege.
I pledged to this, my second fraternity after leading a pledge class revolt at my first fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau; save that for another chapter. While spending my second semester living as an “indie” in dorms, I chose to become a Fiji because they were building a brand-new chapter house, having burned their last abode to the ground and because this fraternity has a lot of art major members; painters, graphic designers, architects and industrial design students. It seems like a much safer bet than living in the colorless, industrial dormitory housing units. I will eventually learn the errors of my ways; but save that too for another chapter.
Ty Crawford is one of the many misfit brothers who comprise my second pledge class. He typically wears a black leather trench coat, has creamy white-blond hair and blue eyes. He doesn’t live at the frat house and only appears on seemingly mystical occasions for dinners, meetings and special events. He is always a lone wolf who prefers to hang out among Champaign-Urbana’s black subculture. There are special benefits.
Tonight, Frank has arranged for brother Ty to acquire a “dime bag” which he can easily obtain from his circle of Black friends. It consists of a postage stamp-sized envelope which contains enough fine marijuana to roll a few thin joints; cost ten dollars, aka a “dime.”
We look inside the envelope peering at the green dust it contains. We have never seen marijuana. Frank takes out some Zig-Zag rolling papers and attempts to roll a joint. After several failures, he wraps the paper around a wooden pencil, licks the gum seal and slides out the pencil, twisting one end shut and pouring the pot into the other end of the empty cylinder. Frank is an industrial design major. He knows how to assemble things.
Eventually, I light it and we smoke it. Then, we wait, and wait while nothing seems to happen. Frank pulls out a 45, not a gun, a little black plastic disk with music somehow etched into the surface. It is 1966 and he is excited at having discovered Little Milton’s latest record. He carefully places it on the turntable and sets the needle in the groove.
Feel so bad
Feel like a ballgame on a rainy day
I tell you I feel so bad
Feel like a ballgame on a rainy day
Since I lost my baby
I shake my head and walk away.
We both marvel at the bass line as we listen to it over and over. Curiously, our thoughts soon turn to food. It is nearing 10 pm. Typically, campus-wide, it is study break time. We hop into Frank’s relic of a VW bug and head for a nearby deli on Green Street.
I walk to the back of the store, looking for just the right edible treat, waiting for inspiration. Among the variety of convenience foods displayed behind the wall of glass-doored coolers, I spot a row of small containers of potato salad. Perfect! But then I start thinking about the realm of possibilities and variations in potato salad recipes and realize there is only one type that I really appreciate and it does not contain bacon. It must be made with Hellman’s mayonnaise. It must not contain too much mustard. I inspect a small container that seems to possess all the right visual ques. The color looks just right, not too yellow, mostly white.
Then, a shadow of doubt slithers into my mind. I am at the back of the store. There is no one around. Why not just sample it to be certain? I pop open the clear plastic lid and dip my finger in for a quick lick, a taste test. As I press my finger into the surface of the potato salad, a different portion of the contents rocks upward, just a few centimeters away, responding like a reflexive item on the opposite end of a teeter-totter. I press down again and it rocks up. I peer very carefully into the potato salad trying to locate the cause, the source point. Carefully, I grasp an object that is not vegetable matter removing a long, thin, curved shard of paper-thin glass, perhaps from a broken light bulb.
Thoughts begin to explode like firecrackers in my mind. Reels of Hitchcock horror film footage enter my thought stream coupling with an infinite sense of gratitude to some unseen guardian. I believe I have been led to an intuitive rescue, kept safe from an alternative ending in which I bite down and crush slivers of fine glass into my gums, swallowing shards of razor sharp, irreversibly deadly venom, spitting up blood. I imagine a kitchen fiend, a chef hat, a sociopath with a butcher’s knife that hates students and seeks revenge.
My mouth drops open, my jaw hangs limp. I begin to zombie-walk, a silent, frozen mute cast into an Edvard Munch painting, waiting for The Scream. I hold the glass shard in my right hand between my thumb and forefinger and grasp the container in my left. Slack-jawed, I stumble to the front of the store and step past the line of students, their arms laden with snack purchases.
Frank is standing there, just past the checkout, staring as I drop the glass shard on the black rubber conveyor mat. I start painting, trance-like, rolling my fingers, drawing circles of mayo on the mat as I drop the small tub of potato salad down next to it and my mouth attempts to shape words.
“This… was in… the potato salad,” I mutter to the clerk.
I don’t expect a reply. I lurch toward Frank and then out of the deli. We jump back in the bug and tool off, wondering why the pot doesn’t seem to be affecting us as we share a gigantic bag of Dorito’s that Frank finds to be irresistible.
There will be more pot smoking but never a virgin night quite like this.