4 Charlesgate East, Boston (Picture courtesy of backbayhomes.org)
My first long distance drive, mere weeks after I got my license, was to drive all my stuff to Boston. For most of the trip it’s relatively easy — Route 2 all the way in. The trick is navigating the weird roads: the double-lane rotary in Concord, four-lane highway down to two-lane surface road, the weird intersections in Cambridge, the lane-change to get on to Storrow Drive, and looping around multiple one-way streets of Back Bay to pull up next to my dormitory and unload with all the other students. At a building that had no parking. Somehow the insanity of that early September day ran smoothly, thanks to a number of fraternity brothers teaming up to help us newbies.
As you can see above, it wasn’t your typical box dorm…Charlesgate was once a hotel, turned into an SRO, became a Boston University dorm (BU is a few blocks on the other side of Kenmore Square…they still have a few frat houses on Beacon on this block), and eventually became the largest dorm for Emerson College.* Some of the rooms were huge and spacious (like mine, thankfully!), while others were little more than a closet space. It was old enough to have its own ghost stories! Some of the older SRO renters still lived there per a loophole, including an older lady that lived up the hall from me and smoked smelly cigars, despite the no-smoking rule in the buildling. It was quite the peculiar building, but it was a great place to live. Our cafeteria was right across the street, along with a bus stop for a school shuttle that would bring us to the dorm at the other end of Beacon.
Note: Yes, this is the exact same Fuzzbox I’d fallen in love with a few years previous…their second album was a complete 180 with shiny production and nary a thread of Oxfam in sight. It was one hell of a brave move and I love this album all the more for it.
My freshman dorm room was 306, facing Beacon (you can see it the picture — second floor up from the white stone facade, the farthest-left bay windows). I’d been placed with a kid from New Hampshire who I originally thought I’d get along with, as we both had the same tastes in music. In reality, though, we couldn’t have been more different and irritating to each other. He was a punk purist who actively disliked any college rock tainted by commercial radio and major labels, even if they’d started out on indie labels. I was someone who liked pop radio just as much as I liked obscurities. He thought I was an ignorant local yokel. I thought he was a poseur and an ass. I liked a bit of order and cleanliness; his side of the room was a total shithole. We didn’t hate each other…we just had absolutely nothing in common except for some music choices. We merely tolerated each other until our year was done. On the plus side, I will say that he did introduce me to a lot of excellent indie bands that I’d otherwise have ignored.**
One big problem I had? I was within walking distance of three record stores. There was the Tower Records at the corner of Mass Ave and Newbury Street, where I could get all the new releases. There was Nuggets in Kenmore Square, an excellent used record store where I could buy a lot of stuff cheap; and up the street from that there was Planet Records, which catered to my collectible whims. This basically meant that I was constantly broke, but at least I had a soundtrack for it!
Another big problem was of my own making: I’d been expecting to meet more people like the Misfit gang, and had completely failed to do so. A specialized college like mine tended to attract the artistes and the trust fund kids (or at least that’s how it seemed at the time), so I quickly found myself not fitting in anywhere at all. Even some of the students from towns smaller than mine were all about being the intellectual hipster with a dash of special snowflake for added flavor. But it was also my own damn fault, as I was looking for my own imagined version of an ‘alternative crowd’ that wasn’t there, at least not at this college. It took me most of the first semester to figure that out and get my shit together. By second semester I’d shifted focus and met a different crowd that I got along famously with. [In fact, I’m still in touch with two or three of them to this day.]
Of course, I was also missing Tracey something fierce, and that had its own problems, mostly in the form of a high phone bill, but also frustration that we were so rarely able to talk to each other. We’d write letters and call each other now and again, and nearly every time I came home on the weekends, I’d make sure we spent at least part of the day together. But it became obvious that I was torn; I wanted to loosen the ties I had with my home town, but I couldn’t exactly do that, at least not completely, without ending the relationship. And I just couldn’t accept taking that step at that time. Would it have made any difference if we had split up? Who knows…I’ve long gotten past mulling that question. Either way, I felt a bit stuck: not quite released from my old bonds, and not quite connected to the new ones.
I’d even stopped writing for the most part. Sure, I was focusing on my school work (once more a B- student with deadline issues) and my occasional extracurricular activities (getting a midnight shift at WECB, our then-AM station!), but I’d started to find myself falling into that dark spiral again, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep that up again. I toyed around with reviving the IWN again, but creatively I was running dry. I did write some of my best Flying Bohemian songs in 1990-91, but a lot of the poetry and lyrics had gotten quite…angry.
On the plus side, I’d started drawing a hell of a lot more. During one of my history classes I was doodling in the margin of my notebook, drawing a caricature of Daniel Ash from Love and Rockets, when I came up with an idea: an alter-ego character. I’d drawn similar characters my senior year in high school (two characters from my Belief in Fate project in comic strip form), but Simon ‘Murph’ Murphy was to be one of my favorite creative outlets of my college years; he was full of non-sequiturs, weird life observances, smart-ass remarks, and had no filter whatsoever when it came to saying what was on his mind. He was the right outlet I needed right then.
The weekend trips back home were also what saved my sanity. I’d hop on the commuter train at North Station on Friday night, bogged down with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and a backpack of homework and music to listen to. I’d take the Fitchburg train out to its terminus, where my Dad would pick me up and drive me the last few dozen miles home. Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine got some seriously heavy play on those trips…it was my ‘Fuck you, Boston’ album on the ride out to western MA. Alternately, Bob Mould’s Workbook was the ‘fuck it, let’s just start over correctly this time’ album for the same trips. I got a lot of my shit together on the rides back. By Sunday afternoon when my Mom or Dad would drop me off at the station, I’d be in a much better mood (and bogged down with clean laundry and a bag of fresh groceries to keep me fed) by the time I got off at the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and walked back to the dorm.
I had to grow up a hell of a lot in a short amount of time, and freshman year was a blur of anger, frustration, depression, and everything in between. But it was also a blur of excitement, unexpected creativity, and self-realization. It took me quite a long time to get used to this new reality, but I wasn’t going to overwhelm me. I’d find a way to figure it all out. One way or another.
* – Emerson sold off Charlesgate and its neighboring building Fensgate in the mid-90s when they moved the entire school over to the Common…they’re both upscale condos now. In fact, at this point, the campus I knew as a student no longer exists as part of the school.
** – In a very bizarre twist of fate, he’s now a lawyer. I don’t even remember what he went to Emerson for…writing, perhaps?