When I was in outpatient rehab they told me I was addicted to "mood-altering" - anything that might transport my mind from the status-quo, be it alcohol, pills, caffeine, tobacco, or even sleep. I guess I should have realized as much long ago but it made a lot of sense when I had heard it. I despised the "mood" of status quo, and I had spent years fleeing from it. Still do quite frequently. Yet these days I pretty much limit myself to the tamer mood-altering substances, the ones that won't get me into too much trouble: namely tobacco and caffeine. I think this insight might help explain, too, why I like books so much. Books can take your mind away to a different place for a little while.
This past Thursday found me on Westbound I-94, driving through a thick night rain, en route to Chicago's city lights. Stocked up next to me in the passenger seat were my go-to mood-altering supplies: a couple cans of Grizzly wintergreen, a 20 oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi, and a good book. Though I still love the taste, tobacco has long ceased to provide me any sort of buzz. And caffeine is just something that gets me through the day. The book I had next to me, though, wouldn't fail me on this night.
Earlier in the week I had ventured to the local library in search of my second audio book. I had just recently discovered a Jack the Ripper audiobook in my parent's basement and, though I didn't particularly enjoy that book, I found the diversion of the audiobook's words far more intriguing - soothing, even - than the utter spam of morning radio during the commute. Wandering through the bookshelf aisles, I had a couple audiobooks in mind: Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (a lesser known Americana travelogue a la Kerouac's On the Road), Stoker's Dracula (I've been halfway-finished with the paper text for over a year, but put it down sometime only to never pick it back up), maybe Mark Twain's biography if I could find it.
When I saw Eric Clapton's self-titled autobiography Clapton, I felt like I had found something I shouldn't have. Like a mischievous kid who had found Christmas presents hidden in his mom's closet. Because Clapton and I had a history together, and I knew the kinds of places his book would take me back to - maybe places better left in the past. But things I shouldn't do have been a specialty of mine throughout my life, so I knew from the moment I saw that audiobook poking out ever so slightly from the shelf, that Clapton would be coming home with me.
So with two hundred miles in front of me last Thursday night, I popped in the Disc 1 of Clapton and began the slow descent back to the late Fall of 2008, my Junior year in Ann Arbor.
I remember vividly a secret basement room at the fraternity I hung out at in those days. I had become close enough friends with two guys from Northern Michigan that I got regular invites to those parties with sororities, but never before had I been trusted enough with access to one of the secret chambers of fraternity lore. It was the type of room just dripping with history: black and white photos of fraternity members from the 1900's, pieces of athletic memorabilia that had been pilfered from the university athletic facilities on a pledge mission, Michiganian yearbooks from the 40's, 50's, and 60's, dusty bottles of scotch that hadn't been touched in over thirty years, a mahogany table in the middle of it all. It felt like a walk through history. The heavy smell of leather and oak: you couldn't help but breathe in the magic down there.
Above us on the main floor of the fraternity you could hear hundreds of footsteps dancing. It was the fraternity's annual blowout weekend, Tahitian-style, and the place was packed with a line out the door leading to the sidewalk. The three of us had snuck down to the basement for a little something extra than the jungle juice being served from the coolers upstairs, and maybe for a little bit better of a drink too.
Lines on the mirror, we each took our turns. Doug pulled some glass tumblers from a drawer in the mahogany desk, and we each poured ourselves a glass of Jack Daniels. Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" and "Layla" blaring from the speakers on loop - the definitive soundtrack to those nights, cliched as it was.
We talked about which sorority girls we had our eyes on upstairs, anxious to get back to the party, but not too anxious. We wanted to soak it all in for a while. For a moment, the moment was all that mattered. We felt like Kings.
"It's funny to think," Doug said, swallowing a mouthful of Jack Daniels. "Guys were sitting in this very room, doing the same thing we are doing right now, back in the seventies." The way he said it sounded pretty profound, and in my elevated state of mind I thought I could see Doug's words slipping away into the annals of fraternity lore, to be stowed away with the yearbooks and the photographs and the dusty bottles of scotch, preserved into history in that secret room: "I wonder where those guys are now."
And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.
I arrived in Chicago, the placed I used to call home, at about 10 p.m. But for a while there I had a nice pitstop in Ann Arbor circa 2008.