A February winter's night in Ann Arbor, I'm walking headlong into a slanting snow down North University -- the city lights of bustling State Street diminishing rapidly behind me in great whipped gusts of white wind. I'm carrying Jack London's Tales of the North in a Border's bookstore bag and a Starbucks hot chocolate in my bare hands, which are red and chapped from the cold. This is part of my court-mandated attempt at living the sober lifestyle for thirty days; as part of my probation for my second Minor in Possession of Alcohol arrest in four months, I have to wake up at 7:30 each morning and walk two miles to the Ann Arbor Police Department to take a breathalyzer test with a cast of characters that looked like they had come straight from the halfway house, sign my name on a sign in sheet, and then walk a mile back to campus and wait for my first class.
I figure this is what people who don't drink do in the evenings -- go to coffee shops and bookstores and go for walks -- but I can't shake the feeling that I just don't seem to fit in with that scene. Walking home, I can only wonder why it is that my classmates in the bookstores and coffee shops of campus seem so inaccessible to me. The long-haired bohemians in loose fisherman's sweaters; the hipsters in tight pants smoking cigarettes outside the coffee shops; the Rastafarians with their Bob Marley dreads and their Mexian pancho hoodies; the grad school intellectuals in tweed sport coats and thick-rimmed glasses discussing Dostoevksy in the bookstore cafe; the bookish sophomore girls hiding behind Macbooks in the coffee shop windows; even the student activists who are passing out pink flyers for some cause or another: how I longed to sit down and have coffee with all of them, initiate a conversation about books or life or the weekend social scene outside of fraternity row or anything at all because I want to know all kinds of people on campus, but, having pledged that Fall, I am technically a "frat boy," and everyone seems to think that Greeks and non-Greeks don't get along (no matter how progressive Ann Arbor is) -- or maybe I'm just shy -- so I settled for thinking that maybe we would be friends in a different life, and I walked out again into the blustery mid-winter night. I made my way past the Red Hawk Bar & Grill and Ashley's, where rosy faces talked merrily at high top tables in the frosted barroom windows, casually sipping big mugs of craft beers, and crossed State Street at the cross light onto North University towards the freshman dorms.
Ann Arbor doesn't need any more snow. Across North University, central campus is already covered in several inches of it, every artery and crevace clogged with it, every walkway and every staircase sprinkled with salt, the big frozen branches in the diag courtyards layered with frosting, the brick towers and pillared lecture halls drooping with long icicles like glacial stalagmites. I hang a left at the CC Little bus stop, but not before a blue campus bus streaked with yellow rumbles forth down the street, motoring through icebergs of slush, splashing the sidewalks and spitting clouds of smoke from its exhaust pipes, the few lonely faces in the bus windows all tragically attached to their phones and iPods.
I stop at the walkway bridge over Washtenaw Avenue to look over the railing. It is one of my very favorite spots on campus. From there, you can see the four dorms on the Hill lit up by the golden lights of individual dorm rooms in the hazy, frozen sky, like candlelit windows in British castle towers -- Alice Lloyd, Couzens, Mosher-Jordan and Stockwell glittering over Palmer Field, where in the Fall semester underclassmen play frisbee and tennis and jog laps around the track, but in the winter months it is desolate, barren tundra, lurking like a moat beneath the brick dormitory towers. I wonder what the people in those windows are doing in those tiny golden specks on the skyline, and I forget where I am for a moment as I daydream of coeds scrambling off to the dining hall with their perky hallmates, of lonely Asian students studying Math and Chemistry books under a desk lamp, and of party kids taking shots of Smirnoff vodka and Jose Cuervo tequila in crowded dorm rooms. Standing there on the bridge, there's something dream-like about the hazy golden silhouettes of the dormitory windows in the snow-laced skyline, something magical about your first winter away from home in a college town when the snow is falling in February, when the white orbs of the street lamps along the campus walkways seem to be floating in the falling snow, when the campus has grown somber in the evening hours and the big iron lion statues outside the exhibits museum seem to be watching you. Eventually I make my way across the bridge towards Alice Lloyd, Couzens, MoJo and Stockwell on the Hill, shivering, imagining I'm walking home to the four houses of Hogwarts.
On the tree-lined path I hear the synchronized patter of two dozen boot prints fast-approaching around the bend, and in a matter of seconds the ROTC corp rushes past me in a cold gust, running in the opposite direction towards campus in their army boots and parkas, their heavy breathing visible in the frigid air. At the back of the two single file lines I spot my old buddy from high school Steve Lewis. Steve smiles and points at me as he passes me before disappearing into the snowy horizon, and I can't help but think about how different Steve and I are now. At one time, our paths were almost identical. We were the only football players in our Honors English courses throughout high school, so we always did group projects and presentations together. We had even both wound up at Michigan. But while Steve ran off in one direction with the ROTC cadets, I was walking home to the dorm in the opposite direction, trying to calculate in my head how soon two beers would be out of my system if I had my last sip at 9:30 p.m. And I couldn't figure out where our roads had diverged.
I cross the street at Observatory Street and make my way along the sidewalk that is lined by pointed black fence posts, the spears which guard the Forest Hill Cemetery, where I went for a long walk that November afternoon on the eve of the Michigan -- Ohio State game when Bo Schembechler died. True to its name, the cemetery hills are forested over with oaks and huge evergreens and white birch trees, and up in the jagged black tree branches there are hundreds of heckling crows barking like paranormal sentinels, casting an eerie pall over that stretch of road every time I walked home alone at night; I'm happy to turn the corner onto Washington Heights, away from crows and head stones and onto my home street, down which I walk under the big arching wind tunnel, and there she is, Mary Markley Dormitory -- the place that after sixteen years in Millwood had so quickly become home to me.
When I finally make it up to 2nd Elliot Hall, it is almost 8:00 p.m., and my hallmates are already well into the festivities of a Thursday night in a college town. The door to our R.A.'s room is closed; he's probably gone as usual, but it didn't really matter to him anyways -- a black student from Detroit, CJ would drink with us if he we saw him out at tailgates or parties and even came to our end of the year party when we snuck a keg into one of the rooms for our last hurrah. The East and West coast kids -- in perpetual outfit of flatbrimmed LA/NY hat and sweatpants -- who all rushed Sammy and AEPi, the Jewish fraternities on campus, are all huddled around a big screen TV in one of the rooms, passing around Grey Goose -- and only Grey Goose -- screaming at the Knicks-Lakers game on TV. Further down, in another room, my buddy Nick and the other stoners and hippies are haplessly fumbling through dresser drawers for a lighter or missing keys, anxious to go out on some psychedelic hike through the Arboretum or to some basement rave. Nick's roommate Will and another Beta pledge from another floor are dressed in khakis and Ralph Lauren dress shirts and tying their ties, not drinking yet because they don't know what's in store for them at tonight's pledge event at the frat house -- a couple weeks ago, we all rolled on the floor laughing when Will came home so drunk that he crawled through the hall neighing like a horse, which we later found out was a result of having been locked in a room with his pledge brothers and being told they couldn't leave the room until the keg was empty. The Engineering and Science kids are all playing Halo in another dorm room, from which there are explosions and flamethrower blasts echoing into the hallway. Some of my hallmates are going into and coming out of the community showers, their towels draped around their waists and shower caddies in their hands, and I wonder why they're not drinking yet if they don't have to take a breathlyzer in the morning. In the room next door to mine, my friends Zac and Max, two of the student managers on the football team, are doing a power hour with a couple other guys from the hall; Zac yells my name excitedly, but he remembers that I can't drink, and we settle for a head nod and a wave. Though we are an eclectic group, we all managed to get along pretty well. You always knew you were welcome in any room if people were drinking, where you'd promptly be offered a shot or a beer.
I scan my student ID and open my dorm room door, and I find my roommate Andy and my best friends Al, Brett, and Tyler from across the hall playing beer pong with a group of cute girls I've never seen before, and when they see me, they mob me, smelling like beer and whiskey, but I'm not in the mood -- I don't want to be reminded on what I'm missing out on tonight.
"Are you sure you don't want to come out with us?" they ask me, insisting that it will be fun even if I'm not drinking, but I tell them no thanks, and because they empathize at least with the shittiness of my predicament, they leave it alone and go their own way, drunkenly careening into the Ann Arbor night. I'm left alone with a room full of empties and Red solo cups.
I turn on the Red Wings game, which is just about to start, and decide to clean up the dorm room a bit. I grab my first of two beers -- and two only -- set aside for the game, crack it, and sit down with my little folding recliner chair in front of the box television in the corner of our room, ever envisioning those February nights in the mid-nineties when I would watch the game with my Dad while he drank his Labatt's out of a coozie. "Ahhhh, that's good stuff," I am amused to find myself saying out loud, just like he used to say.
I don't blame my friends -- not even Al or Andy -- but I have no problem wallowing in my solitude. We were all accutely aware of our fleeting time left together, only six or seven weeks left in our magical year in Markley together -- making the timing of my probationary terms the ultimate punishment -- and partying was all that mattered to us; we were merely freshmen.
"But the thing is. . . I think your mind is too much on the writing so that you really don't have time to really sit down and go into whatever this is that's flailing you, all these people flailing you, and so that you're not really hungup on that, it's just a feeling that you don't deal with, and so you, you know 'cause you've got too much other things on your mind. . . Yes, it's just because you're writing, see, you're really only concerned about the writing."