Don't Follow Me, Im Lost : A Memoir of Hampshire College in the Twilight of the '80s
A strange and salacious memoir of life at the ultimate hippie college during the height of Reaganomics
Opening its doors in 1970, Hampshire College was once known as a land of eternal partying, where countercultures thrived and jocks were nowhere to be found. Self- proclaimed nerd Richard Rushfield knew this progressive Massachusetts campus was the place for him, offering a chance to shed his squeaky-clean California upbringing. He was part of the freshman class of 1986, hiding out from Reagan-era excess in a liberal haven where overachievement and preppy clothes were banned.
By turns hilarious, ironic, and steeped in history, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost takes readers to a campus populated by Deadheads, club kids, poets, and insomniac filmmakers, at a time when America saw the rise of punk and grunge alongside neo-conservatism, earnest calls for political correctness, and Take Back the Night vigils. Shunned by all of the school's reigning subcultures, Rushfield joins the most hated clique on campus, the Supreme Dicks, navigates a dating scene where to express interest in anything is social suicide, and mostly avoids class where hippie professors blather on about post-structuralism. Culminating in a mad clash of slackers and yuppies, Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost captures a watershed moment for American youth in one hilarious and unforgettable trip.
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October 27, 2009
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Excerpt from Don't Follow Me, Im Lost by Richard Rushfield
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- m�ch� 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 clich�d 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 U shaped, 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.
"Are you Richard?" the head asked. I confirmed that I was.
The head withdrew into the room and out came a young man, a few years older and, not counting the hair, a few inches shorter than myself, swaggering down the hall toward me with a magisterial air-- his pomp just slightly undermined by the fact that he was wearing only a black unitard, with fuchsia stripes up the sides.
"So there's been a mistake," he said.
He nodded grimly. "You're not supposed to be here. It was a really big screw- up. I've been telling the housing office for four years now that their filing system needs to be overhauled, but they won't listen, and now, here you are." He tutted, looking me over with such barely contained disgust I thought he might at any moment start spitting to get rid of the foul taste I was putting in his mouth.
"But I sent in my tuition. They sent me the acceptance letter-- "
"Yes, yes. Of course you're supposed to be at the school. The mistake is much more complicated than that. You see, the housing office placed you on my hall."
"They gave me a key."
"Precisely, they gave you your little key. But what you don't know, I mean how could you, is that this is a quiet hall."
"Oh . . ."
"For older students."
"Well, can I go back down and tell them I need to change?"
He threw his head back and roared. "Ha ha! Don't you think that if there were any way possible to not have you here, I would've done that by now!?!"
"The fact is, the school is overbooked, every room is full. So until someone drops out and their room opens, we're stuck with you."
"Wow. I'm sorry."
"Yes. But don't worry, we'll let you know when you're disturbing us."
"Oh, good. Thanks."
"Until then, don't get too comfortable. And by the way, if you need anything, I'm Lonnie-- your SID [Student Intern Dakin House]." "I'm at the end of the hall. Don't hesitate to knock." And with that he wheeled back down to his room, golden mane waving behind.
I stepped into my room. I estimated it was about the dimensions of a medium- sized refrigerator. But at least, I reminded myself, it was a single room. The summer before, when people asked me why I had chosen Hampshire, I spoke about the progressive education system-- the freedom to invent one's own curriculum that was a natural mirror of one's soul, inner depths manifested as a course outline, and all that. I would turn to the charms of Massachusetts's Pioneer Valley, tucked at the foot of the Berkshires-- renowned for its brilliant springs and the poignancy of deep, rich autumns; the area's historical riches-- it had once been home to Emily Dickinson and Calvin Coolidge; the five- college system, which allowed me to take my classes not only at Hampshire but at neighboring Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and UMASS. Unmentioned was the reason truly closest to my heart, what in fact, if I really stopped to question myself, may have been, apart from Malaria's red stockings, my only real reason for choosing Hampshire-- the promise of single rooms for each and every entering freshman, just like, I frequently imagined, an all- suites hotel! My desperate longing for a single came not from a pathological need for privacy or any inability to share--
I was, in fact, unable to share anything, but that was a separate issue. The thought that loomed throughout my high school days as the clock clicked ever closer to graduation: A single room meant I was likely to be beaten up far less often than if I had a roommate. And by that thread, my choice of colleges hung.
Like Hampshire, my high school was a liberally oriented school cloistered from reality, with no gymnasium and no required athletic activity. The official selections for my high school PE class included bowling one year and bicycle rides to neighborhood lunch spots the next. Without the presence of jocks, one's chances of getting beaten up at my high school were slightly less than being electrocuted by a passing zeppelin. My high school had been founded on 1960s- inspired principles of nonviolence and social reform that losers like myself could take advantage of to roam the campus, head held high, and play monstrous pranks on our snooty socialite classmates without any fear of an ass- whooping.
But I knew this could not go on forever, and I counted down to the expiration date on my charmed life. In a vision that perpetually haunted my sleep, I pictured my roommate, the football team's star human meat grinder, arriving home after a night of keg- pounding and date rape at a Scorpions concert; he would spend the rest of the evening vomiting on my bed and pummeling me to a fine paste while casting aspersions on sundry elements of my physique. (Amazingly, this scenario played itself out, almost to the letter, on a friend who went to NYU.) So when Hampshire's promise of a room of one's own was dangled before me, it was like hearing the phone from the governor's office ring just as the warden had finished his final polish of the electric chair.
But beyond the unbelievable lure of the freshman single, Hampshire College looked to be very much a continuation of the blessedly cloistered life I had known thus far. Hampshire College had been founded as a self- conscious experiment in education by the four major schools located in the idyllic western Massachusetts wilderness of the Pioneer Valley. These institutions-- Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts-- conceived Hampshire as a laboratory free of the constraints of established schools, an educational institution with standards second to none, with the boldness to traipse down the paths its stodgy neighbors feared to tread. Hampshire professors were to serve without tenure, students would not have majors but create their own multidisciplinary courses of study; communal living, no grades, projects rather than papers-- all this was Hampshire's promise. When the gates opened in 1970, the boldness of the experiment met the spirit of the age and the school was flooded with applications. It was campus legend that for that first year Hampshire was harder to get into than Harvard.
And for a few years the promise of looser restrictions but world- class standards seem to have held. However, by the early 1980s looseness was clearly driving the cart. Whatever the talk of world- class standards, Hampshire drew a collection of misfits and malcontents from around the globe, drawn to the school by its lack of formality and discipline. The structure of the school, intended to break down departmental walls, had become a three- tiered work- at- your- own- pace gauntlet of invent- your- own projects and concentrations. Without a static four- year system, the school was famed at this point for the high number of students who stayed on as undergraduates well beyond the half- decade mark, and for the one student who had "majored in" Frisbee. While the first- year admissions may have been impossibly competitive, by the time I applied somewhere upwards of 60 percent of applicants were accepted. And even that figure is suspect. To this day, I have never met anyone of my generation who admits to having been rejected by Hampshire.
When making up my mind, I had heard murmurs of all these legends and found them all immensely reassuring. No standards, no requirements, and single rooms; why, I wondered, didn't everyone go there?
My dorm room was furnished with a few pieces of wooden block furniture pushed into one corner and a pale- green plastic mattress leaning against a wall. Exhausted, I lowered it to the floor and climbed aboard. Rolling up my jacket for a pillow, I quickly passed into unconsciousness and, the drum solos resounding from a faraway hall, drifted to a land far away from Hampshire College.
Some hours later I awoke, my face glued to the green plastic by a sheet of hardened drool. The world was dark and I could barely make out the outlines of the room, the furniture shoved to one corner. I felt my body warring between pangs of disorientation, hunger, nicotine withdrawal, and exhaustion. Outside I heard distant strains of conversation and drumming. Someone strummed a guitar very, very slowly. I realized I had missed the orientation sessions that Deb, the house madam, had warned me I was to get myself to immediately. I turned on the light and picked up the schedule.
"7 p.m.-- Hayride and new students mixer. The Red Barn." I wondered if I might find Malaria there. I threw on a jacket over the orange Hawaiian shirt I'd picked out for my first day of school and headed out.
It was a warm, still, summery night and the campus was out loafing in the damp heat. Across the dark quad, clusters of students plopped on the ground talking, some drinking. I walked by one group passing around a purple glass bong. A man who looked to be in his fifties sat on the ground taking a hit in his turn. I wondered if he was a parent? A professor? I looked around in vain for any sign indicating where the Red Barn was, or even where the main part of campus was. The paths I had taken that bright morning had vanished.
Around a picnic table a group of seven or eight sat nodding their heads gently in silence. I approached and noticed one of them picking at an acoustic guitar. Was he actually playing something, or just poking it, perhaps tuning, or inspecting its structural integrity? I stood at the group's edge with the others. No one looked up at me, so I began nodding my head, more or less in time with the others, who seemed to be keeping rhythm with some unheard melody. The guitarist gently rubbed his fingers across the strings, humming softly to himself as others grooved to the phantom melody.
After I'd been watching for a few minutes, the guitarist stopped. He cleared his throat, as if coming out of a trance, pulled his long hair back, tying it with a rubber band, and looked up, straight at me.
"Can I help you?" he asked. The others stopped nodding and also looked at me.
"The Red Barn?" I stammered. "I was looking for the hayride."
The guitarist stared at me with a look of deep sadness, as though glimpsing for the first time the sad fate of a doomed planet. "Jesus," someone else muttered. "Fucking first- years."
"The Reagan Youth are taking over." They all shook their heads and grimaced at each other. I grinned like a halfwit. "Is it down by the road?" I begged.
A young man in John Lennon glasses said, "We don't know anything about your hayride, but if you're looking for the Barn, yes, it's down by the main road." I thanked him and walked on into the night, listening to the group exchanging whoa- what- was- thats behind me.
A sign reading New Students directed me down a muddy path through a yellowing field. In the darkness the crickets chirped and a stream burbled somewhere far off. I tried to recall how I had gotten here from Los Angeles, where I had woken up just that morning. After ten minutes' walking, I arrived at a big red barn sitting next to a cluster of clapboard buildings. Out front, a few students picked beer bottles and plastic cups off the ground. "Is the hayride still happening?" I asked one.
He shook his head and said without looking up, "It ended hours ago."
I walked inside the barn, which had been converted into a sort of assembly hall. The room was deserted but, starving, I lunged for the disheveled food tables. Even in my hunger the plates of sticky glowing cheese cubes and melting broccoli spears were too ominous to toy with. I spied, however, an unopened jug of Gallo red table wine and picked it up. Slipping quietly out the door, I retraced my way down the path toward the dorms.
Back at Dakin House, I plopped down in a lounge on the first floor. Three others sat on mustard- colored couches, glancing at each other while a Leonard Cohen tape played in a tiny cassette deck on the table between them. They gave me nervous looks as I entered. I collapsed next to a pinched- faced young woman who had her arms clasped around herself as though for protection. I opened the jug of wine and took a sip, which provided a moment of solace to my empty stomach, followed by a spasm of pain, which I chased away with another gulp. Still no one spoke; the boy leafed through an ancient copy of the Utne Reader.
"Are you all freshmen?" I asked.
"First- years," said the girl next to me. "We're called first- years here."
"Right, well, are you?"
"I'm a transfer," volunteered a boy in floppy blue jeans and V‑neck sweater, who looked much too normal and clean- cut to be here.
"Where from?" I asked.
"What the hell are you doing out here, then?" I guffawed.
He answered in earnest, nodding as though he'd been forced to tell this story many times. "Last summer, I picked up a book, poems by Richard Brautigan. And I just knew, right away, that was what I was going to do with my life."
I nodded, impressed, and offered him a sip of the Gallo. He shook his head and rewound the tape to play a song over again.
The girl next to me said, "I'm first- year. I'm going to study plant biology."
"That sounds hard."
She shook her head. "It's not. It's just something you have to work at a lot."
"Did you guys go to orientation?"
They looked at me incredulously. "You missed it?"
"Was there anything important?"
The girl looked like she was about to cry. "You're going to be in so much trouble tomorrow."
"Everything. You better call your advisor first thing in the morning."
I didn't feel up to asking how they knew who their advisor was, so I took another sip of the wine and, after a few quiet moments listening to the Leonard Cohen tape, noticed the room was starting to spin, very pleasantly. A few minutes later, we were joined by a guy with curly brown hair and glasses, in a denim jacket with a clock hanging from a chain. "WASSUP!!" he greeted us. "Home- ies!" We soon learned, with little prompting, that he was Ace from Baltimore, a musician of the streets, so he told us.
"Is that the same as a street musician?" I asked.
"You watch your tongue, my man." Unfolding a sheaf of lyric sheets, Ace volunteered to perform his raps for us. All of them. I gave a look of alarm to the girl, who said, to my horror, "That would be nice." I drank rapidly through my jug as the raps beat past. Frequently, Ace would lose track of his beat and have to start a song over. I remember, about half an hour in, turning over the jug and finding the wine was all gone. I have a rough memory of crawling through the halls of Dakin House sometime after this on my hands and knees, trying to get back to my room. I remember crawling past an open door and a hippie girl seeing me and calling out, "Horsey ride!" She raced out to jump on my back, but then, catching my ghastly pallor, yelled, "Oh, no!" and ran back into her room, slamming the door behind her.
A while later, I woke up in my still dark room, my face again stuck to the pale- green plastic mattress. But this time I had a horrible feeling that a nuclear warhead was about to launch from my stomach. I lunged for the door and, in midleap, realized I was completely naked. I grabbed at my jacket and, holding it, raced into the hallway, barely making it out of my room before I collapsed on the hall floor. My body, convulsing, churned up the jug of wine, every last drop of it, sending it on the return trip from my stomach onto the hall's brownish- gray, Lysol- smelling carpet. Naked, I heaved and shuddered and bawled, amazed that the wine kept coming and coming, long after it seemed a jug, even two jugs, had been released. The thought passed through my head: It's like the Chanukah oil. And more miraculously, no one came out into the hall to discover me vomiting over the carpet of my new home.
When all was finally expelled, I stood up and looked down at the catastrophe I'd unleashed. I wrapped the jacket around my waist and grabbed a handful of paper towels from the bathroom. I dabbed and mopped at the sea of vomit, but its volume didn't seem to decrease. After a few more pathetic tries, I saw there was nothing to be done and gave up. Feeling much better for the purgative effect on my stomach, I plopped back onto my green plastic mattress and sank back to sleep.
In the morning, after a good night's rest, the mattress actually felt rather homey. I was able to lie on it peacefully for several minutes before the smell hit me--and the sound of voices in the hall.
I stood up, threw on yesterday's clothes again, and gently opened my door. The horrible, deathly holocaust smell rushed into my room. I gagged and looked up. Lonnie stood with ten or so others, inspecting the lake in their hall.
"Richard," Lonnie said, "did you do this?" They all glared at me, nostrils flaring in revulsion. I considered making a break for it, but then remembered I had no place to go. This was my home now. "No," I said, shaking my head. "No, I didn't."