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In Spring 1990 in Duluth, Honesty was Worth $75

Chris Godsey Saturday EssayI think we were having fun before a bunch of us hustled downstairs, someone hit the lights, and two or three self-appointed noise monitors started whisper-shouting for the rest of us to “SHHHHHH! You guys! GUYS! SHHHHHHH!” (Do the italics make it sound whispery in your head?)

V was definitely there, but I can’t remember if Tom and E were, because I didn’t hang out with those guys as much as I wish I would have till sophomore year. I wish I’d have done a lot of things differently that year.

I could have moved into K section with Tom after winter break 1989, but for some reason I stayed in 219B Oakland with dudes who almost made me look normal, which says nothing positive about how any of us conducted ourselves. Brief examples:

• I got home late (from diligently not studying) on a weeknight to find one roommate at the kitchen table. “Would you like to explain why you spend more time with your friends in the dorms than with us?” he admonished. “We’re your roommates. You’re supposed to be here with us. Can I expect that to change?” I can’t remember what I said in response, but since I had no courage or confrontation-handling skills at 18 I promise it was more mealy-mouthed than the situation called for.

• That roommate went to Play it Again Sports looking for a softball glove because he couldn’t find the one he was sure he’d brought from home. He found his own glove and bat, which had both cost a lot of money, on a shelf. Turns out another roommate had stolen the first roommate’s stuff and sold it to finance a skull bong. First roommate let it slide, even though I stayed on punishment for having friends outside the apartment.

• For a while we all thought third roommate’s girlfriend was just staying overnight a lot. Then the cops showed up and told us she was 17 and her parents were looking for her. Then he just vanished for a while.

Those guys have stories about me, too. Some worse than any I could tell about them. I made a lot of bad, embarrassing decisions that year. And the next year. Junior and senior years, too. Same with second senior year. But after graduating I finally got my head screwed on straight.

Ha! No. No I didn’t.

I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately about how my life would be different now—more productive and admirable—if I’d have done something different from trying to play Division II college football and be a university student right out of high school. I was ill-prepared for approaching either role with any gratitude or grit; I actually knew I was deficient before I got to UMD, but I had no idea what to do about it so I acted like I didn’t care and I tried to make jokes and I learned how to use music as an incredibly potent drug for numbing sadness, loneliness, and terror. I have no idea how I managed to graduate.  I’m not sure what good the whole process did.

What if I’d have started at Rochester Community College or just worked for a year or two or gone into a trade? What if I’d have enlisted? I’m awed by people who serve. A friend’s U.S. Air Force commissioning ceremony in 1994 is still one of the most moving events I’ve ever experienced; I don’t cry at funerals, and I had trouble keeping it together at his ceremony. I’ve always cycled through periods of thinking a lot about military service, and I’ve been deep in those thoughts lately.

Sometimes I think enlisting and going through basic training would have helped me develop a lot of what my brain was missing at 18 or 19—would have set me up to do and be things that led to feeling better about myself at this point in my life than I do on a lot of days. Other times I’m amazed I survived the womb of college. I’m also certain, when I think about where my frontal lobe was at that time and the kind of trouble I’ve heard of 19-year-old recruits getting themselves into, I would have done a lot of the same regretful stuff in the Army or Navy I did in college.

If I wasn’t courageous enough to do what I knew I should be doing instead of what I actually did most of the time in college—if I just didn’t quite get how high some of the human and financial and experiential stakes were in that crazy-comfortable place—I’m not sure I’d have acted any more wisely in the military. Maybe my impulsivity, self-destructive recklessness, lack of courage, and constant, defiant contempt for authority would have been quickly and effectively corrected in basic training. Or maybe I’d have been sent home.

Buuuut anywho . . .

V and me and a bunch of other mostly freshmen boys and girls were in a prototypical Duluth college-rental basement—low pipes and joists; bluestone walls and concrete floor; pleasantly musty aroma becoming more pungent as the humidity rose—trying to avoid getting busted for underage drinking. It wasn’t super late and the party hadn’t been, like, a rager, but enough people had been there for long enough to fry one kitchen keg and make a good dent in another before the call of “Shit! Cops!” went up. What I mean to say is a fair number of us were drunk, and we knew we were breaking the law by participating in the activity that led us to that state. So some of us had fled to the basement.

And almost immediately after getting down there, before someone at the top of the stairs switched off our lights, a bunch of us looked at each other like, “Wait. What the hell are we doing?” We weren’t drunk enough to think we had a chance of avoiding the attention of college-town cops who busted a lot of parties. None of us in this skeptical faction thought any Duluth cops would see a closed basement door and just think, “That door goes to the basement but it is closed. I doubt anyone is down in that basement. I don’t need to look for anyone in the basement.”

But another bunch among us expressed vigorous hope toward our chances of avoiding detection, and they were not. kidding. around. about our plight and how to manage it. They aggressively shushed either the people who were giggling and chatting or the people who had shushed the people who were giggling and chatting. (Seriously: the cacophony of giggling and shushing rising to the top of the stairs must have sounded adorable to the cop who passed by the closed door a few times while managing the main-floor scene.) These folks included a handful college-jackass folklore practitioners—kids whose older cousins and siblings and permissive parents had schooled them in ancient, mystical arts including those for procuring weed and booze, smuggling alcohol into situations where it shouldn’t be, crafting a buzz, evading chemical-use detection and punishment and, most relevant to our predicament, foiling Breathalyzers.

One of those knowledge-holders had grabbed a jar of Jif on her way through the kitchen toward the basement stairs. Not long after the lights went out it was empty and getting kicked around the floor, its contents shoveled with fingers into the now-stinking mouths of desperate boys and girls ardently following specious advice about how long it takes peanut butter to work some kind of magic that renders a Breathalyzer useless. Another wise one, a chemistry major, guided a few gullible pupils through stuffing their mouths full of pocket change, then told them some sort of tale about copper and alkalinity and acids and zinc and saliva and the inner workings of a Breathalyzer. Of their own volition, two dudes split a full tin of Copenhagen. Listen closely: they ate a tin of Copenhagen.

I’m not speaking figuratively when I say I almost barfed while typing that last sentence. Almost all my college buddies chewed, but I never have. Check that: I’ve chewed twice: 1. On a spring afternoon in eighth or ninth grade I swallowed a Skoal Bandit while shooting baskets, then sweated and puked for the better part of 36 hours. It’s the only time I remember my mom and dad responding to me breaking a rule by saying, “You seem to have punished yourself enough.” 2. Early in my senior year of high school I made an I-wonder-if-the-burner-will-hurt-my-hand-this-time decision regarding some Red Man (still a less-stupid decision than naming any product Red Man) and wound up laying on a not-close friend’s living room floor, propping myself up occasionally to nibble saltines and sip ice water. (My couple cigarette-smoking experiments ended with similar sickness. Tobacco smoke tastes so much different from how nice it sometimes smells.)  Since then I’ve always gagged at the smell of any chewing tobacco. V could open a tin across the living room in 8C Village Apartments, and even the faintest waft would just about send me into dry heaves. I was also usually the one who spilled McDonald’s-cup spitters in the same living room then had to sop up the mess.

Those basement geniuses did all that stupid shit with peanut butter and pennies and chew because they literally, sincerely, devotedly believed it would help them avoid getting a minor consumption ticket if one of those cops upstairs were Sherlock-like enough to check the basement.

And eventually the door opened and the cop standing at the top of the stairs smiled and said, “You can come up now. We’ve processed everyone else. My partner and I will be at the front door and a couple other officers will be at the back door. You can leave either way. If you have an ID show it to us. If you’re 21 you’ll be free to go.”

Another freshman and I got in line to leave via the front door. Everyone under 21 was getting a minor-consumption ticket. He and I were last in line. While still in the basement we’d listened to a kid in the living room berate multiple cops who were trying to give him a ticket. “Dude,” one of the kid’s buddies had counseled, “just take the fucking ticket. It’s not the end of the world.”

“Son, I’d advise you to listen to your friend,” a cop had said. A few more of the kid’s peers tried to calm him down.

“Fuck! That!” the kid had screamed. “I am PRE-LAW, and I have a 3.9 GPA, and you are NOT giving me a ticket, do you understand!”

It went on for a while. We later learned they took him to detox.

We’d also watched 15 or 20 folks slur and seaweed their way through not-very-convincing claims of only having one beer, if any. It was embarrassing. We agreed we’d just tell the truth. Then it was our turn.

“What’s your name?”

“Chris Godsey. Chris with a C-H. G-O-D-S-E-Y.”

“Have you been drinking tonight, Chris?”

“Yes I have.”

“How much would you say you’ve had to drink?”

“Oh, jeez. I mean . . . I lost count after seven or eight.”

[Looks up from notebook. Very faintly smiles kindly.] “Seven or eight?”

“Yeah. Seven or eight keg beers.”

The other guy was having his own version of the same conversation.

“OK, Chris. I’m going to give you a ticket for minor consumption tonight. You’ll need to show up at the courthouse at the address on the ticket, on the assigned date, to either fight the charge or pay the fine which will be assessed at that time.”

I can’t remember how we got home. I know at some point I looked at V and said, “Hey, man, my mom always tells me there are consequences to our actions. Tonight I drank, therefore I was ticketed.” He thought it was funny enough that he used to bring it up after college when we’d see each other at mid-20s weddings and such. Last time I saw him in person was the weekend of Jim Malosky’s funeral, in late 2011. (V and I met in fall 1989 as UMD freshman football players. Jim Malosky was our coach. V played all four years. I didn’t. He was team MVP twice. Malosky is kind of a legend.)

A few weeks later, at about 8 a.m. on some weekday, everyone who’d been ticketed gathered again in a courthouse hallway. I can’t remember if anyone tried to fight the charge. One by one we approached the clerks, slid our tickets toward them, and paid the fine they named.

“How much?” everyone got asked when they were done. “One-fifty” everyone said in response.

The guy I’d stood in line with and I were among the last to pay. We were the only ones smiling when we got done.

“How much?” someone asked.

“Seventy-five” we said.

A few folks looked pissed. “How did . . . ? “Why . . . ? What the HELL?”

“We were just honest,” he said.

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