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Documents the author's experiences at a progressive Massachusetts college at the height of the Reaganomics era, describing how he shed his conservative California upbringing in favor of a hippie culture shaped by Grateful Dead music, insomniac filmmaking and political correctness.
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Journalist Richard Rushfield is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of On Spec: A Novel of Young Hollywood. His writing has also appeared in many other publications, including The New York Times, Variety, and LA Weekly.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Orientation, September ’86
“I swear, man, it’s not a hippie school.”
“Dude.” Nino looked me deep in the eyes. “It’s like the biggest hippie school in the world. Hampshire is the Harvard of hippie schools.”
“You can keep saying that”—
I sighed— "but I’ve been there. I went to parties there and I’m telling you I didn’t see a single hippie.”
“Whatever, man. But if you come home wearing a poncho, don’t expect me to talk to you.”
I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t drag myself four thousand miles to be locked away in the woods with a bunch of hippies.” Six months later, I stood on line at freshman orientation. In front of me a pale- faced boy in a sagging knit sweater passed a joint to his parents, who carried his canvas duffel bags for him. Behind me, a young man in a rainbow bandana smiled when I turned his way, tossed a tiny leather bag into the air, and then kicked it into my stomach. It bounced off and plopped onto the ground.
“What’s up, bra?” he asked. “You don’t hack?”
I remembered the conversation with Nino, eating chili fries in his car parked outside the Westwood Village video arcade. We chewed over the specter of my living among hippies like it was the plotline of a postapocalypse zombie movie, a story in which the living dead would drain my life force with a suffocating web of Buddha beads, leaving me to stumble across the earth, more rainbow- colored corpse than human, until the end of time.
Not that we actually knew what hippies were. Between us, my friends and I owned a handful of Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd albums, which weren’t bad background music, but they seemed as close to our lives as records by the Four Freshmen or, for that matter, Johann Sebastian Bach.
In mid- eighties Los Angeles hippies were, like the bobby- soxers and zoot- suiters of yore, an extinct tribe who had roamed our land in prehistoric times. Legends were passed down of how in their age they had panhandled on the Sunset Strip while Jim Morrison had invented the “rock poet” genre, of their large concerts where they smoked marijuana in protest of war. Our only direct contact with the historic peoples was in the person of our headmaster, who called frequent assemblies to remind us that at our age he and his consciousness- raised buddies had changed the world, while spoiled brats like us couldn’t even be bothered to show up for last Saturday’s Nuclear Freeze Forum Day. In his agonized
soliloquies, it was impossible to make out what exactly he had done to change the world (the story involved backpacking in South America, growing his own vegetables, and reading Robert Frost), but our parents assured us constantly that our headmaster was a great man, a visionary. They were the longest assemblies of our lives.
So when I visited Hampshire on my prospective student tour, it was with a fair level of trepidation that I stepped in to the famed collegiate Hippie Haven. My friend Drake, a surfer with beatnik tendencies, who had graduated from my high school and come to Hampshire two years before, hosted me for the weekend. He showed me around the campus with its dilapidated ski- lodge buildings set into clearings amid the snow- dappled forest, from the giant Art Barn where he was sculpting a papier- mâché wave, to the little apartments where he lived with three others in admirable squalor. Friday night, Drake had his friends over to watch Miami Vice. While I tried to disguise how quickly I had gotten drunk on Drake’s gin fizzes, I listened to their speculation about Crockett’s new car, which was to be revealed on the episode, and their groans of displeasure when the white Testarossa was unveiled.
“That is the most clichéd choice they could’ve made,” one friend fumed.
“This show might be losing it.” Drake shook his head.
“I told you guys, we should stick with Magnum,” said another.
“I dunno,” Drake mourned. “I just thought Vice was above this kind of chicanery.”
After the show, we walked over to a party in a little village on the other side of campus called Prescott House that looked like a giant tin ski chalet. The crowd seemed a bit like the drama scene from my high school, but more intimidating, more severe, wearing even more black, with even more dramatic eyeliner. “It’s the New York kids,” Drake told me.
A girl in a black miniskirt and red stockings, who looked like she’d been crying, asked me if I knew who was holding Ecstasy on campus. I told her that I was just visiting for the weekend, which made her laugh and ask, “Is that why you’ve been staring at me all semester in Gogol?” She grabbed my arm and made me dance with her to a Bauhaus song. We sat on the couch, where she told me her name was Malaria, and said, “Let’s pretend everyone here is dead.” While the music blared we stared at them and tried to picture them deceased. “You’re good at this,” she whispered. She said that Lewis in Enfield might be holding something and we should go check, but first she had to go to the bathroom. She stumbled off and never returned. Half an hour later, I glanced out the windows and saw her stumbling down the stairs with a guy in bondage pants and dreadlocks. I stood to follow her but Drake stopped me. “Play hard to get, Rich. That’ll teach her.” Two months later, when I received my acceptance letter from Hampshire, her red stockings were the first image that flashed in my mind.
On the walk back to his house, stumbling through the slush and mud, I held on to Drake’s shoulder for support. I asked him, “Why do peoplecall this a hippie school? All day here I haven’t seen a single hippie yet!”
Drake sighed. “Well, it’s like I told you. There’s a Grateful Dead show in Hartford tonight.” He had indeed mentioned that earlier and I hadn’t seen the relevance then, and didn’t really now. The Grateful Dead, so far as I knew, were some mildly successful 1960s group who had backed up the Turtles or something, probably played at Woodstock, I supposed. I failed to see what a concert of theirs over a hundred miles from the campus, in another state, had to do with anything.
“Well, okay,” I said. “But they can’t all be there.”
“Yeah, actually they can. It’s kind of a big deal.” I shook my head again. You might as well have told me that the school canceled class every time Scritti Politti stepped foot in the state. And so a couple weeks later I assured Nino he was mistaken and six months after that I stood on line while a boy in a rainbow- colored bandana kicked a Hacky Sack into my stomach.
At the front of the line, a pink- faced woman in her late thirties wearing a denim dress over a gray T- shirt tapped a pencil against the top of a folding table. She glanced up and, in a tone of grave skepticism, asked my name. She responded to my answer with a deep nod indicating
that she wasn’t a bit surprised, and passed me a sheet of paper and a pen, like a cop ordering me to sign my confession.
“You’ve read the house rules?”
The house madam, whose name, I learned, was Deb, sighed deeply. “The house rules were sent to your home.”
I had, in fact, received many large envelopes from Hampshire since I had been accepted. The course catalog I set aside for bathroom reading, but the rest, filled with long lists appended with subsections and graphs, had never grabbed me. I recalled glancing at it and thinking that it was impossible to believe that anyone else going to a liberal arts college of progressive inclinations could read this stuff either. Deb glared, and not knowing what to say, I murmured, “I took a look but it didn’t leap off the page.”
She set down her pencil as though letting it rest before it should be called up to do the hard labor of penetrating my eye socket. “What are you trying to say?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Not a thing.”
She sighed, shook her head, and pushed the keys to my new home across the table to me.
The Dakin House freshman dorm was a Ushaped, three-story red brick building that leaned grimly over at a beaten- up square of grass it shared with the neighboring dorm. Jamaican flags waved from the windows; on the roof, girls in tie- dyes danced by themselves to an Allman Brothers album. I lugged my duffel bag up the staircase of the J- wing, my feet sticking to dried beer puddles on the tiled floor. Strains of drum solos echoed from the halls that ran out from either side of the stairwell. Down one dark hall, I saw a guy lying asleep on the floor, a dog licking his stomach. The soon- to- be familiar smell of moss, stale beer, and laundry detergent introduced itself.
I got to J- 3 and paused. Affixed to the door with four thumbtacks was a sign that read students at work. please take your conversation outside. Inside the hall, the pungent smell from the stairwell vanished, replaced immediately by the overpowering aroma of lemon- scented Lysol. The room doors were all closed. A board showed where every resident was, with round magnets marking each person’s location. On the hall. In class. Eating. At the library. Offcampus. I noticed that my own name had not been written on the board.
As I fumbled for my keys in front of J- 309, suddenly, the hall’s quiet was disturbed by a door opening at the far end, followed by a head emerging at an angle, topped by a sweep of long blond hair, tied back into a ponytail, washing up over an incongruously steeped forehead beneath which a pair of narrowed eyes peered at me.
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