Fraternal Combustion

College Humor Magazine

I met my best friend while urinating.

I was a freshman at DePaul University in Chicago and nature was calling. There were just two urinals at Players Bar, a popular watering hole located on the outskirts of the urban campus that catered to the under-age crowd. I was occupying one of them when a bespectacled, angular-faced guy whose curly blonde hair was already beginning to thin sidled up to the other.

“Hi Brian,” he said. I turned to the right and vaguely recognized him from the dorms. But I couldn’t place his name, if I’d ever known it. Seeing as how we were practically standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the moment was shaping up as highly awkward.

That’s when I felt the warm spray on my hand. My piss mate, trying to steady himself while delivering opening salutations, misfired to the left for a second or two after releasing the dam of Old Style Beer his bladder had recently processed.

Glancing downward would normally have been a major violation of urinal protocol. But the rules, in this case, were clearly suspended. As I recoiled to survey the damage, the Luck of the Irish —which is often accompanied by getting pissed upon—strolled into the room. My bathroom mate was wearing a black jacket from his job at a furniture rental store. Emblazoned in bold white lettering on his left breast was his name.

“Oh, hey … Scott,” I replied. “Your aim’s a little off.”

Thus began a relationship that has endured for well over three decades.

It very well could have ended before it started, because that very night Scott and I found ourselves vying for the same bleached blonde.  She wound up walking home with me, but Scott was the real winner, because she turned out to be multi-layered, from her pancake makeup to her girdle, the only woman of my generation I’ve ever known to wear one. It proved to be a chastity belt. So it was that Scott and I instantly established the ties that bind heterosexual males: competitiveness and sexual frustration.

Our friendship has been cemented by the usual guy stuff, including athletic competition, road trips, a night in jail, hiking Death Valley in July and not getting laid by the same women.

But it also survived an acid test far beyond any conflict of interest with a co-ed.

It all began with a sophomoric stunt at the end of my freshman year, when I lit a bottle rocket under the door of an uptight resident advisor who patrolled my dormitory hallway with a decidedly anti-marijuana prejudice. My conspirator was senior named Vic whose brother had presented with a small arsenal of fireworks to celebrate Vic’s graduation. There were no witnesses to our prank and there would have been no consequences, but for my partner in crime bragging openly to our fellow dorm residents, many of whom had been dissuaded from bong-a-thons under the R.A.’s regime.

Justice was swift. On Monday morning, less than 48 hours after we lit the wick, Vic and I received our dormitory eviction notices, simple notes tacked to the dorm bulletin board and signed by the Rev. Thomas Croak, one of DePaul’s deans. Vic read his notice, laughed and wished me luck as he headed out the door, degree and luggage in hand, to begin the drive back to his native Florida with his parents.

For me, however, this was problematic. I had a job unloading trucks at UPS that paid over $10 an hour, three times the minimum wage in 1981, and had planned to spend the summer (not to mention my sophomore year) in the dorms. I suddenly found myself homeless.

It got more humbling in a hurry. Having won re-election to a lowly position in DePaul’s student government shortly before my pyrotechnic stunt, I was obliged to spend several days at a student leadership conference in Shelbyville, 200 miles from campus. Shelbyville is located on the Axis of Boredom that runs between Chicago and St. Louis in a cornfield known as “Illinois.” Joining me and my fellow politicos on the bus trip was the newly appointed faculty advisor to the student government—the Rev. Thomas Croak.

In Chicago, I was a microscopic bug in the world of political scandal. But in Shelbyville, I wore my shame like a scarlet letter (“A” for Attempted Arson). At one point, each of us was obliged to draw a piece of paper from a hat filled with all sorts of leadership qualities that Father Croak imagined we would possess. We then had to address the group with an impromptu three-minute speech on the subject. When my turn came, I stepped forward with trepidation. I was, understandably, wary of pieces of paper filled out by Father Croak. In the awkward moment that may have soured me on politics for life, I found myself lecturing on the importance of … envelope please … moral integrity.

Back in Chicago, I found temporary residence in what seemed like an ideal abode: the apartment above Players Bar. But it came with an ultra-creepy 32-year-old undergrad roommate. In retrospect, I have no excuse for failing to foresee “ultra-creepy” and “32-year-old undergrad” merging at some point. 

When that arrangement abruptly ended in a gentleman’s disagreement (fistfight) at the outset of my sophomore year, I found myself back in the market for housing when housing was most competitive. During the month it took me to find another apartment, I transformed my cavernous, metallic black 1973 Ford Galaxy into a part-time bed and full-time storage locker for my furniture, appliances, bedding and VCR porn tapes. That didn’t squelch anyone’s enthusiasm for riding in the car, however, because the big attraction was up front: an over-zealous pump that ejaculated windshield fluid up to two lanes to the right. It provided endless enjoyment at red lights. But it was the only thing on the car that was mechanically sound.

The vehicle burned oil so relentlessly that I had to keep a case of Quaker State in the trunk, where it competed for space with the brake fluid that I bought in bulk. Stopping was hazardous enough when there was plenty of room to spare, but in city traffic my friends learned to master a maneuver that we called “The Flintstone,” whereby we would slide our feet out of our respective doors to halt the car once it had slowed to below 7 m.p.h. or so. I once chose to steer the car gently into a tree rather than rear-end a Mercedes at a traffic light.

It was Scott who gave this smoldering box of liability its nickname: “The Ghetto Cruiser.” It was a tribute to the boat-sized vehicle in which a pimp was ushered about the seedier parts of town on a popular TV show. Like my Galaxy, the pimp’s car had opera windows, the oval portholes cut into the vinyl roofing that gave a VIP mystique to anyone riding in the back seat (when the back seat wasn’t crammed with my worldly belongings).

On the long night that will forever live in the annals of our friendship (and nearly ended it), Scott and I ventured into the suburbs, forced to squeeze together in my front seat, much of which had been annexed to stash the personal belongings to which I needed quick access during my vagabond stage – clothes, toiletries and porn magazines.

Our intramural football teammate, Kip, was performing with his band at Haymaker’s, a locally renowned nightclub in Mount Prospect. Kip’s girlfriend lived in our dorm, but he had another arrangement altogether in Oak Park, a suburb 12 miles west of DePaul’s campus.

Although his qualifications seemed suspect to me—he was a black guy from Toronto —Kip contended that he was part of a foreign exchange program. The female half of the alleged couple who “hosted” Kip in a well-appointed home was an attractive 40-something who wore revealing clothing and encouraged us to drink liberally from her home bar. The man of the house was never around; his very existence became the source of scandalous debate among our circle of friends. 

Kip’s Sunday night show at Haymaker’s ended after midnight, by which point Scott was stressing about his Monday morning class load. He was enrolled in DePaul’s business school so, unlike Kip and I, he took class attendance seriously. But he was also buzzed, so he conceded to the majority when our three-man vote to continue the party at Kip’s cougar shack in Oak Park yielded a 66.7 percent affirmative result.

With plenty of room in Kip’s van, there was no need for Scott to straddle the dirty pile of clothes in my front seat. We were all set to launch when I made the fateful suggestion that Scott and I switch places. After all, I reasoned, I was the only member of the trio who didn’t know the suburbs (Scott grew up in nearby Palatine) and if I got separated from the van, I’d be lost. I didn’t feel it necessary to mention my real motivation: the bag of weed in Kip’s glove department.

To my surprise, Scott agreed—on the condition that we travel on surface streets the entire 20 miles. For some reason, he didn’t trust the Ghetto Cruiser at highway speeds. I tossed Scott my keys, he and Kip verbally mapped out a route, and off we went.

Kip and I were soon ablaze and listening to a tape of that night’s performance. Things were good in the front of our mini-convoy.

On the back end, however, Scott was learning that oil and brake fluid weren’t the Ghetto Cruiser’s only addictions. It also guzzled gasoline. That’s assuming there was gasoline in the tank to be guzzled, which, I had neglected to mention, there wasn’t. Somewhere along the 12-mile stretch of Harlem Avenue that we were traversing southward, Scott hit the accelerator and got no response. After some desperation foot-pumping, he began honking the horn and flashing the headlights to let us know that he was in trouble. Although Harlem Avenue is a major thoroughfare, it was practically barren in the wee hours of Monday morning. So Scott was beyond baffled when Kip’s van just kept going, the taillights disappearing into the night.

In our defense, Kip and I were embroiled in a lengthy debate. As a purple haze filled the van, Kip had the audacity to put forth the theory that plain M&Ms were superior to the ones with peanuts. That devolved into a Doritos vs. Pringles debate. By the time we decided to settle the whole matter by stopping at Circle K, there were no longer any cars in the rear-view mirror.

Somewhere in the darkness astern, Scott used the last burst of petroleum to steer the Ghetto Cruiser onto a side street and abandon her where she died, vowing to see my head impaled a stick.

We’ll never know exactly how much time passed before Kip and I came to agreement that there was nobody following us. But shortly thereafter we nobly tabled our overwhelming urge for munchies, did a U-turn and headed back the way we came on Harlem Avenue. A few minutes later, a small cluster of cars zipped by us headed in the other direction. But with our facilities as dull as a butter knife, we couldn’t decide if we had seen a Ford Galaxy or a Ford LTD, if it had been black or green, or if Pop Tarts should be heated or eaten straight from the wrapper. We circled back.

Six U-turns later, we came to two conclusions: Doing U-turns on Harlem Avenue was  getting us no closer to Scott (or the Hostess Twinkies in the cupboard at Kip’s place); and doing U-turns on Harlem Avenue was a bad strategy for getting through the suburbs, especially since one of us was black and both of us were stoned.

Which was just as well, since Scott—having cycled through bewilderment, rage and detoxification—had begun zig-zagging his way in a generally eastward direction toward his dorm room, roughly 15 miles away.

In the era of cell phones, the whole mess could have been avoided. But the technology of the times didn’t explain the pain that Scott put himself through that night, for he passed dozens of pay phones. He wasn’t at a loss for friends who would have picked him up, even at that hour. But that wasn’t the way Scott rolled. Raised in less than ideal conditions, he adopted a fierce independent streak early on. His determination served him well in coming years, when he was forced to live a Spartan existence after foregoing a business career to pursue a pilot’s life. But that night, he may have been determined to outpace some abandonment issues.

So onward he marched, until at last he dropped from exhaustion in somebody’s front yard, abandoning hope of attending his Monday morning classes.

Meanwhile, in Oak Park, we were raiding the refrigerator, pantry and bar at Kip’s place. We called Scott’s dorm room, but the phone went unanswered. Many beers later, we still hadn’t come up with a strategy for finding our friend. But we did, at long last, come to a truce on M&Ms, with Kip acknowledging that the peanut variety was an appropriate choice for Cubs games and other sporting events, while I conceded the plain ones might be better for entertaining chicks.

A dozen or so miles away, Scott’s camp-on-a-stranger’s-lawn plans were being scuttled by the Chicago Police Department. The cop who rousted him decided he was harmless, but flatly denied his request for a lift to campus. The conversation, as Scott recalled, went something like this:

Cop: “I can’t give you a ride, sir. But I have marked your location.”

Scott: “What does that mean?”

Cop: “I’ve marked your location—in case something happens.”

Scott: “What would happen?”

Cop: “An incident.”

Scott: “You mean like someone killing me in one of the shitty neighborhoods between here and DePaul?”

Cop: “Any kind of incident.”

Scott: “Thanks.”

Cop: “Be safe, Mr. Davis.”

Long about then, Kip, having satiated all his other appetites, decided to drive to the dorms, where he could ponder the matter further while having sex with his girlfriend. It was all the same to me, since my residence-on-wheels had—along with Scott—vanished in the night.

It was past 5 a.m. when we arrived at Clifton Hall. The first shards of light were beginning to break up the night sky over Lake Michigan, a mile east of DePaul’s campus in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Predictably, the security guard was asleep. Kip used his girlfriend’s key to gain entrée to the women’s side of the dorm, and I used the one I had never surrendered to get into the men’s side.

I knocked softly on the door of Room 420. Nick Maucieri, who lived in Room 422, walked through the common bathroom and groggily answered the door. I recounted the events of the night. Nick reported that he had been studying all night and hadn’t heard the phone in either room ring.

It had been a long day, beginning with our flag-football victory on Sunday morning in Waveland Park, along the lake. Scott, Kip and I were teammates on “DOA,” a collection of incorrigibles which, to the surprise of all of us, advanced to DePaul’s intramural championship game that fall. I was fried and homeless. Nick started to prepare for class, but invited me to hang out. While he was showering, I collapsed into Scott’s bed, grimy and stinking of beer, weed … and the roast beef and pastrami hoagie that Kip and I purchased at Mr. Submarine on our way to the dorms. I fell into a deep slumber.

I dreamed of giant M&M’s, the kind that would later become a staple of their TV ad campaigns.

I was ripped from sleep by a shrill, curse-laden, demonic diatribe, as if a drill sergeant and a longshoreman had inhabited the same body and were competing to kill me by myocardial infarction as I regained consciousness.  I raised my hand in front of my face, partially out of self-defense and partially as shelter from the spittle that was pelting me from forehead to neck. I ventured one eye open and cautiously peeked through my own fingers. It took me a few seconds to recognize the beet-red, pulsing head discharging all the sputum and profanity.

Soaked in sweat and itching from the herbicide that covered the lawn on which he had attempted to spend the night, Scott had staggered down the dorm hallway to complete his 15-mile trek from the Ghetto Cruiser. Anticipating a hot shower and a glorious slumber, he unlocked his room, only to discover the object of the rage he’d been cultivating for the past six or seven hours snoring contentedly in his bed.

The Guinness Book of Records doesn’t track the most uses of the word “motherfucker” in a 10-minute period, but I’m pretty sure the standard was established that morning. There were quite a few “assholes” thrown in as well, and I distinctly remember the whole soliloquy being tied together with various death threats. On several occasions, Scott demanded a detailed recounting of the events that led us to desert him on Harlem Avenue. But each time I opened my mouth, he immediately rebutted with a variation of “Fuck your explanations, you motherfucking asshole.”

Like the Ghetto Cruiser, Scott’s tank abruptly ran dry. Exhausted, he at last revealed the approximate location of the car and produced the keys from a pocketful of change. I wisely decided to pass up the opportunity to explain the correlation between loose change and pay phones. I grabbed the keys and made a hasty exit.

A few weeks later, I found an abode that was the envy of all my friends: the garden apartment of an upscale brownstone owned by a successful young couple, directly at the midpoint of the four-block walk from the dorms to Players Bar. I reclaimed the back seat of the Ghetto Cruiser, which held as many as five passengers once devoid of furniture.

When you pee standing up, there’s a time limit on grudges. Scott held out for a couple of days, after which I called an impromptu meeting of my DOA teammates at Player’s Bar to discuss a trick play I wanted to insert into our upcoming game. With the clank of our beer mugs, the incident was put to rest. That is, except for the 2,742 times Scott has retold the story over the years, adding a bit more drama and suffering with each account, until it was easy enough to imagine that he had dragged a crucifix and been scourged by Romans for the entire route.

Against all odds, both the friendship and The Ghetto Cruiser survived my transfer to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale to pursue the journalism degree that DePaul didn’t offer. Scott and I found excuses, most of them alcohol-related, to make the 350-mile journey between the two schools. After my junior year, when it was clear that SIU would be demanding tuition each and every semester, I took a year off to get my financial act together. I relocated to Chicago and performed the mind-numbing task of proofreading documents at the downtown Chicago law firm where Barack and Michele Obama would first cross paths a few years later.

Alas, the Ghetto Cruiser wasn’t long for this world. One night in early 1984, at a party that my former girlfriend was throwing for her current boyfriend, I ran into a guy I recognized as a mechanic at the garage that shared custody rights to the Ghetto Cruiser. He half-jokingly told me that the owner was putting his kids through college on my repair bills, That money, I decided on the spot, should have been putting me through college.

I got home that night the same way I got home during most of my tenure as the Ghetto Cruiser’s caretaker – by walking. Scott lived in the same general direction, so he headed out of the party with me. Chicago was stuck between winter and spring. It was raining. As we walked west on Waveland Avenue, we could hardly believe our luck: one of the gates at Wrigley Field was slightly ajar.

We slipped inside, expecting at every footstep to be encountered by a security guard, but none appeared. We followed the sound of machinery as far as we dared. Peaking around a corner, we saw a group of welders laboring beneath the stands, assembling new seating rows and disassembling old ones. We headed back into the darkness, up the ramp into the ballpark. We made our way down the aisle and slipped under the railing onto the field. We looked at each other in disbelief. We were standing on sacred ground.

The tarmac was spread over the infield and the rain was picking up intensity. Brilliant, staccato bursts escaped from the entrance tunnels adjacent to the welders’ work area, bathing the field in strobe lighting. We sprinted around the covered basepaths, over and over again, in the surreal, motion-picture flickering of welding light, sliding head first across home plate until the tarmac had been transformed into a pond.

When our clothes couldn’t hold another drop of water, we knelt at home plate and performed an impromptu ceremony. We urged the rain gods to end the playoff drought for the Cubs, who hadn’t sniffed the postseason since losing the 1945 World Series. Scott insisted that we should sacrifice something, preferably a goat, to rid the Cubs of their longstanding hex—the Curse of the Billy Goat.

I thought it unlikely that we’d find a goat on the premises and, being a Cincinnati Reds fan, I wasn’t inclined to look for one. In order to expedite matters, I offered up another sacrifice: the Ghetto Cruiser.

True to my word, I called the garage the next day and told them not to bother with the current repairs. The owner said he was going to miss the old rust bucket, probably because it meant that his kids would now have to attend state colleges. So I told him to keep her. He laughed. He told me he’d have it scrapped as a favor.

And so it came to pass. The Cubs won 96 games during the 1984 regular season (25 more victories than the previous year) and were two games up on the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series when the curse returned. We should have looked harder for a goat.

A couple of decades later, I was visiting my parents in Ohio when my only nephew, Ian, launched into a tantrum. My brother Patrick threatened to ground him, which only caused a bigger hissy fit. Exasperated, Patrick packed Ian into his car and drove him home for an early bedtime.

They were scarcely out of the door when my dad and I burst into laughter, reveling in the karma that had returned to bite Patrick in the ass after his demonic childhood. When we finally caught our breath, I asked dad if my lack of procreativity had denied him the same grandfatherly come-uppance.

He thought about it for a second and, probably not wanting to say something he’d regret, went silent. Mom chimed in from the kitchen.

“You should have seen the smirk on your father’s face when he signed over that Ford to you back in college.”