Savannah was fucking hot, and I was even fucking-ier poor. Unless I could bum a meal off another SCADdy, I was down to eating peanut butter because it was all I had, aside from a jar of mustard. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had something to cook, anyway — I couldn’t afford to use my stove.
And I sure as hell couldn’t afford to turn on my air conditioner, so I started hanging out at Oglethorpe Mall when I had nowhere else to go. Luxuriating in the stolen cool air with my black book wasn’t so bad. I eavesdropped on conversations, transcribing as much as I could just for dialogue practice. Sometimes I’d loiter around the arcade, waiting for someone to walk away from a free game on one of the pinball machines.
Here’s one of those old fart asides that I’ve always hated and now bore people with. By the spring of 1986 the arcade industry was in free fall. I’m not a video game historian (though I am looking forward to Ken Burns’s 16 hour Q*bert documentary), but I think that the Nintendo console slew the mighty arcade dragon. With that first generation of Nintendo, kids could play real Donkey Kong at home. Come on!
So the arcade at Oglethorpe Mall was selling off a bunch of their games — and here is the boring old fart part — for as little as 25 bucks each. Can you imagine picking up a Pac-Man or an Asteroids machine for 25 bones? The worst part would’ve been pushing it the three miles home uphill through the snow.
Those machines may as well have been 25,000 dollars, though, for a guy who couldn’t afford to turn on his stove. Waiting for an abandoned replay on the Black Knight or Pin-Bot machine was as good as it was going to get.
Poverty didn’t stop me from occasionally doing stupid shit, though. Being a broke music hound in Record Bar was like being a walking mosquito bite: must not scratch itch. Usually I got out safely, but once I walked out with a “Bela Legosi Is Dead” 12-inch under my arm when I didn’t have the five bucks to spare. I just had to hang on. The quarter was almost over, final projects due any day. I don’t remember why that mattered — financial aid checks, maybe — but if I could just make it to the next quarter everything would be okay.
After class one afternoon Russ, my English teacher, said, “Let’s walk over to the bookstore.” We made small talk while we waited in the coffee line. “You’re not getting anything?” he asked me.
“No, I’m good,” I said.
Russ heard what I didn’t say and grabbed another cup. “Let me get this one,” he said. “You can buy next time.” We grabbed a seat. The previous occupant left the Savannah paper on the table. Russ slouched in his chair, thumbed the paper and sighed heavily. “Do you read the newspaper?” he asked.
“When I can. Most of it.”
“What don’t you read?”
“I don’t read the sports section unless there’s bicycling or boxing.”
“I don’t know, nothing really.”
“Don’t read the op-ed page,” he said. “Don’t let other people tell you what your opinion is.”
“That’s good advice.”
“So what are you going to do with your degree in — what’s your major?”
“What are you going to do with your degree in illustration?”
“I don’t know, work for an ad agency, I guess. Freelance, maybe.”
“Is that what you want to do?” Russ asked.
“Not really. I wanted to be a painting major.”
“Then why aren’t you doing that?”
“Everybody says illustration is more practical, easier to find work.”
Russ leaned forward and chuckled. “Work is important, but there’s a lot of it out there. You’re too young to settle. Now’s the time to set your own career path, not someone else’s. Do what you like.”
“Thanks, Russ. That’s good advice.”
“Have you considered writing?”
“Not as a job, no.”
“You should. You seem to enjoy it. Any of the pieces you wrote for me could be published.”
“Nah, come on,” I said.
“I’m serious. Go to a newsstand and pick up any magazine. You’re writing is as good as anything you’ll see. Think about it.”
That was my conversation with Russ. Now, here is how I translated that: You really need to rethink art school, kid. You don’t belong here. He delivered the news with such kindness and generosity, though, that I couldn’t be upset with him.
I didn’t realize that what was really talking to me was the nasty self-destructive son of a bitch who lurked inside my skull. That evil little bastard voice inside of me found more cannon fodder from my other instructors. On the last day of Three Dimensional Design, Pete pulled me aside to discuss my grade. “I’m giving you an A, but only because you solved the design problems effectively.” I’d never been scolded for earning an A. The statement was confusing, but I decoded it: Your engineering is fine, but you have the artistic ability of a blindfolded flipper boy. Still, it was nice of him to throw me a bone.
Professor That’s What She Said gave me an A in Intro To Illustration, too, and he also held me after class on our last day. “All those little characters you draw, the floating toast, all that stuff is outrageous.”
“Thanks, Professor That’s What She Said.”
He considered me, his mouth curled into a smile that tried to be assuring but looked more uncomfortable, as if it stood between the horrible truth and me. “You have a good mind, use it,” he said. It hurt him to say it, like a surgeon notifying the family that he couldn’t save the patient.
I did not know what to think. At the end of my first quarter in art school I was a straight A failure with a good, unused mind that solved problems effectively but probably was better suited for writing.
And I was genuinely broke now. Moth in the wallet broke. Mickey Mouse cutting a bean into translucent slices broke. Nothing left, literally not a penny: The week prior I’d sold the twenty or so wheat pennies I’d gathered from my change to a coin shop for one and a half cents each. I dug through the Quincymobile’s interior, rounded up enough change for a short S.O.S. call to my mother. The pay phone took my coins and didn’t reciprocate with a dial tone.
I wandered into a bank, sat down at one of the desks where grown-ups arranged a loan or bought one of those boxes I saw in movies where jewels and secrets were vaulted. I unloaded my tale of pay phone woe on the nice lady with the big hair and the bigger shoulder pads as if she were some sort of fiscal priest who could save me.
“I’m not supposed to do this, honey, but I’m going to let you call your mama long distance so that she can transfer you some money. What’s you account number?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have an account here?”
“I don’t have an account anywhere.”
“You have to have an account, honey.”
“Why? I don’t have any money.”
“You have to have an account for your mama to transfer money to.”
“Okay, I’ll open an account.”
“You need at least ten dollars to start an account.” We stared at each other for a beat, and then she reached beneath her desk and retrieved her purse. “Here,” she whispered. She handed me a ten-dollar bill and snapped her wallet shut. “You get that back to me whenever you can, honey.”
She put her purse away and sat straight in her chair, hands folded on her desk blotter like she was conducting business with an industrial titan. “Now, what type of account will you be opening today, Mr. Stafford, and would you like for me to arrange that wire transfer for you?
Life was confusing: failure and success, poverty and wealth, helplessness and helpfulness. I didn’t know what to make of any of it, but goddamnit people were kind and generous.