The Old Gang

Author: Steve Myers '97

One of my college buddies has a photo documenting a top-secret mission during my freshman year at Notre Dame. Three of us, all residents of Alumni Hall, are kneeling in front of Dillon Hall next to a 3-foot-tall pyramid of industrial-sized toilet rolls —the bounty of a late-night operation in Dillon, Alumni’s rival.

We hit every bathroom in the dorm. I entered the stalls first and used a pocketknife to pop the locks on the roll holders. My friends pulled out the rolls and heaved them into a large duffel bag. We filled the bag several times and piled the rolls on the front porch, much like the Marines posted that flag on Iwo Jima.

It was a juvenile stunt, but I still think it was clever. I imagine some poor Dillonite trudging to the bathroom that morning, with not so much as a square of toilet paper to back him up.

We were all 18 years old in that photo, so now I’ve known those guys for 10 years. I guess this is how it starts—how someone comes to look over at his balding friend in the stadium parking lot and remark that he’s known that clown for 30 years. Been with him for the 2 a.m. post-parietals debriefing, for plates of sausage gravy at Fat Shirley’s, a rendezvous in Vegas and entire conversations transmitted only by voice mail.

Everyone has old friends from college. Occasionally you get together, behave like you did when you were undergrads, talk about old times. I don’t want old friends from college. I want friends now, whom I befriended in college. When I see my friends from that unique time in my life walk down the aisle, I don’t want my best memory to be 10 years old, a hazy scene involving a borrowed golf cart.

Part of aging is acquiring and passing on wisdom, so I’ll impart this nugget: First, all golf carts made by the same manufacturer have the same key. The same $2 key, available at golf cart dealerships everywhere. Second, even if the steering wheel is chained so the wheels only point left, you can still drive from Alumni to LaFortune Student Center. You have to drive in a lot of circles of varying sizes, but the snow helps.

I took that key off my ring some time ago. Now, six years after graduating, I feel the distance between me and some of my friends. Occasionally I get an e-mail from someone whom I haven’t heard from in awhile. Usually I read the message and put it aside in favor of some immediate task. Every time I open my in-box, I think about all the explaining it would take to reply. So newer messages are answered and deleted while those messages from old friends are pushed farther down the list.

It’s easy to put off catching up. Maybe I should put a sticky note on my computer screen: “Don’t let these people become strangers again, only to try to get reacquainted with them at the 30-year reunion and recall what good people they are.”

The difference, of course, is that my life doesn’t much resemble my college days. That’s a good thing, too—I’d be sick of grilled cheese sandwiches. We all know that jobs, families, social schedules, errands fill up each day. All those happenings change you. College roommates, presented with nothing in particular to do, eagerly accompany each other on mundane errands. If you’re a recent grad and still live with your college roommates, test them. Ask them if they’d like to come along as you run to the hardware store and the mall. Even if they’re bored, the cable’s out or they’re unemployed, you’re going to Wal-Mart alone.

Of course I don’t have time. No one does. I’m told I will have even less in the future. A co-worker, married with two young children, once told me: “You have no idea how much time you have.” I started to protest, thinking of the stack of New Yorker magazines next to the couch, the oil puddle below my motorcycle, the barbells that I lift only when I move. But that was just for me—he has three others and scheduling logistics to think about.

I’m sure all of us had that post-graduation shock when we realized the reality of our adulthood. For months, mine came every day shortly before 7 a.m., which was when I was due for work at an afternoon newspaper in West Virginia. Late was 7:05. First deadline was 8:15. Tough for someone who worked on Scholastic magazine until the building closed, who ran to his first class at 11 a.m. clutching a Mountain Dew, Pop-Tart and maybe the paper due that day.

In the first weeks in West Virginia, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at night. I bummed beers left over from a party my roommate had months before, drinking a single beer every night to get drowsy. The beer ran out, so I started drinking leftover wine. (First-time newspaper jobs don’t pay well.) I even finished the fruity wine. One night, I looked at the tree-covered mountain from the back porch, glad that none of my college buddies saw me polishing off a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler just before bedtime.

When I was a kid, my uncle told me, “You know, you never forget your childhood friends. But you never look them up.” It’s sad, but he’s right. Why don’t we? Well, what do we have in common with them anymore? A lot has changed since the day my best friend and I, 8 years old, discovered a circular stone in his backyard and thought we’d discovered the first wheel.

Our college companions, I think, are childhood friends of a different sort. They knew us before we were complete. It was at Notre Dame, living on my own and making my own decisions, that I started to develop into the person I am now. (Maturity, as the Dillon residents learned the morning of the toilet paper raid, was a long-term process.) Students bond with each other partly because they don’t want to be alone and partly because they share the same intense, invigorating experience. It’s group survival.

There is a short, narrow hallway on each floor of Alumni that spurs off the main corridor. Two groups of 16 freshmen are packed into those hallways on the first and second floors. All my roommates at school started off there. You become pretty close when you share rooms the size of walk-in closets.

In that hallway I talked with Pierre MacGillis, an earnest, curious, odd kid from Wisconsin, about whether he should quit ROTC. It was a mammoth decision because he would have to come up with tuition some other way.

Pierre quit ROTC, borrowed the money and graduated from ND in 1997. He teaches high school now and is able to tell those students what kind of sacrifices they should or shouldn’t make to get to school. If they question him, he can tell show them a photo of him in the ROTC beret.

Down the stairs on the back porch, I shared many cigarettes with Rishi Shahdadpuri, an Indian guy from Hong Kong who lived next door. He didn’t fit in with the rest of us Midwestern Catholics, and he knew it as well as we did. He didn’t return after freshman year.

Those experiences are special to me, but they’re part of the common experience of being a student. Everyone goes to parties in dorm room number X, they get season tickets, they think about selling them when a hot game rolls around, they flee campus during Junior Parents Weekend, then they’re juniors and stay for JPW, they hang out during Senior Week and try to pack the whole year into another seven days. Even when we do something that we know everyone else has done, we still want to claim our experience as unique. And it is, because it happened to us.

The commonality was obvious to me when I met up with several friends for the first football game after graduation. In some ways, we approached it like we were all meeting up after another summer break. But in the bar that Friday night, we were surrounded by unfamiliar faces who had taken our place. They crowded the bar, ran between tables and looked at the strangers who came hoping to find a Friday night from a year earlier.

I am not convinced that those were the best years of my life. I’ve met some great people since leaving school. But Notre Dame friends are in a different category. It’s nice to see people develop and change, as a way of seeing how you change.

This fall I’m going to another wedding, this time of my college roommate Mark Girzadas ‘97. We were lab partners in freshman chemistry. I didn’t learn much science in that class, but I did learn this: I didn’t want to be a doctor.

Mark did want it, badly, and now he’s finishing medical school in Chicago. I work at a newspaper in Mobile, Alabama. Our lives have little in common these days, but we do have a history together. I wonder, for instance, if his fiancee knows about his lactose intolerance.

A couple years after we graduated, several of my classmates ended up getting jobs connected to the Internet boom. In the spring of 2000, I met a friend at a bar in Los Angeles and listened to him and a buddy banter about some golden stock and another blessed IPO. They displayed the confidence freshmen have that this will be the year the Irish win the national championship.

That month the dot-com bubble burst. Our version of the Gold Rush was over.

A few weeks after 9/11, I went to New York. I wanted to be near the destruction that would become the new point of reference, get a feel for the city, maybe help out. I flew up from Alabama, and my classmate Patrick Coolican ’97 took the train down from Connecticut. We spent a few days volunteering at Ground Zero and the rest of the time looking around and talking.

One night we ended up at a bar and started talking to two soldiers over many Budweisers. We had nothing in common except that we all had come to New York because of one event. They sure felt like friends, if just for awhile.

Patrick and I spent most of another day sorting through food and rescue items left by well-wishers at a church near the towers. That night, we pulled off our face masks, walked past the police barricades and, like New Yorkers do every day, caught the subway.

I don’t think I’ll forget that subway ride, exhausted but wired, trying to sort out all I had seen. I’m glad I had a close friend to ride with, someone who knew me when I wasn’t quite the person I am now. Patrick and I didn’t talk about it much that night, but I hope we will sometime in the next 10 years.

Steve Myers is a reporter for the Mobile Register_ in Mobile, Alabama_.