No Leaders by Barry Garelick

Monday, February 21, 2022
Barry Garelick tells the nostalgic tale of dropping out of university and having a brief relationship with a girl called Sherry, in Michigan in 1970. 

In the fall of 1970, I dropped out of the University of Michigan during my senior year with the intention of never returning. One week later, I got stoned with a girl I wanted to go to bed with and took her to see Yellow Submarine. The theater was packed; the crowd was stoned. The projectionist/manager announced that because of the fire laws, he could not show the movie until people cleared the aisle. No one moved. Someone stood up and pleaded that the people leave. An intense serious-faced, bearded young man, an aisle-blocker, shouted "No leaders!" After ten minutes, the projectionist/manager cancelled the show, screaming at all of us that we were "nothing more than a bunch of blue meanies."

As if talking about it were unhip, neither of us mentioned the event on our way back to East Quad dorms, where Sherry now lived (and I once had). Instead, she talked about various drug experiences and I talked about mine. Mine didn't hold a candle to hers. Nevertheless, my lack of drug credentials wasn't enough to keep her from inviting me up to her room.

She asked me if I had really dropped out of school, and why.

"It doesn't make sense for me to be in school."

"What does that mean, 'it doesn't make sense'; what is that supposed to mean?"

"I've been in school all my life," I said, as if that explained everything. She stared at me. "I've had it with math."

"So what're you gonna do? Now that you've dropped out, I mean."

"I'm a photographer," I said.

"That's original."

"What does that mean?"

"Everyone's something; writer or artist or photographer. You know how hard it is to make it in something like that?"

"I'll work to support myself."

"Doing what?"

"Whatever I can find."

Among certain people, the arguments I had constructed to support my decision seemed unshakeable. In front of a mirror, they were even more so. But now the evidence against me seemed to be mounting. Sherry leaned back against the wall, propping a pillow behind her. "My parents would shoot me if I did something that dumb," she said.

"You let your parents run your life?"

"It sounds like yours do."

"What does that mean?"

"It means they say you should go to school so you decide not to," she said. "That's what it means. I don't think you know what you want."

"That's easy for you to say. What the hell do you know: a freshman who thinks everything's just rosey. Come talk to me when you're a senior and we'll see how you feel."

I thought she would ask me to leave, but she didn't. The record ended and she put on the Beatles' Abbey Road.

"Did your parents yell and scream when you told them you were dropping out?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "They yelled and screamed."

What I didn't tell her was that after yelling and screaming, my father threw up and my mother cried. "All those years you told us you were happy in school," my father had said. It was true - I had been. But up until senior year, I didn't think about what I'd do after I graduated. During junior year I had exhibited (in the lobby of East Quad) a group of photographs of people sleeping in doorways, marking my entrance into what I considered the art world. By senior year, not doing well in some key math classes and thinking I had become a full-fledged artist, it was relatively easy to throw everything away.
"It was all a big lie," I told him, and although we both knew that what I said was also a big lie, it seemed perfectly true. That was when he threw up and when my mother cried. "We really do want the best for you," she said, without the usual laying on of guilt, as if we were in a hospital waiting room, telling each other the kind of truths reserved for such places.

Sherry hummed along with "Here Comes the Sun" and in the middle of it asked if I were Jewish and whether my parents had accents. I told her yes, I'm Jewish, but no, they didn't have accents. "Mine do," she said. "They're from Russia. They never say 'have', they always say 'hev'." This fact established, she rubbed her chin against her arm and watched me pacing around the room. "So whattya wanna do?" she asked. "It's getting late, and I'm tired."

Back then it was not unusual to suggest going to bed with each other, and when one said no, the other said "why not?"

"I'm not quite ready for you," she said. "But I'll tell you what I'd like. I want you to watch me go to sleep. I love to have someone watching me when I fall asleep." She pulled the bed covers back and slid underneath, fully clothed.

"I'd like you to just watch me go to sleep," she said again in a murmur, and I did. I sat there and watched as her breathing became heavy and she fell asleep. I turned off her record player and I looked around the room. I heard people running up and down the halls, the cacophony of record players, and the sound of footsteps across the courtyard. She slept as if no sounds existed, her mouth open; her hair was long and spilled over the pillow. She looked like a kid, and I wondered what the hell I was doing there.

Many people believe that sex was rampant back then (and it was), but such activity was not exempt from challenge. One had to be prepared to defend one's sexual activities as an adjunct to love; having sex was still hip, but it had to be for the right reasons. Sherry was susceptible to the culture's beliefs, but she was also young enough so that her test for love was similar to the 24-hour observation of bacteria growing in a Petri dish.

In her case, the growth of the proper bacteria was fostered by my watching her fall asleep. She fell in love with me the next day - or claimed to. I was back in the dorm, camera slung over my shoulder, walking down a hallway that resounded with ten different stereos playing at varying levels.

I emerged from the sonic corridor into an open area where a wall had once stood. East Quad had been remodeled. No boundaries existed between men's and women's corridors. Now almost anything was acceptable - almost everyone did drugs, co-ed hallways were hardly blinked at, and dropping out had become a statement as universal as "no leaders" and other anarchist statements that seemed to make sense to too many people at that time. The world seemed like it was going to stay that way forever, I was thinking, when I ran into Sherry.

"I wanted to apologize," she said and told me all the things that had gone through her mind the night before. She liked going to sleep with me watching her. She liked my spirit. She liked how I knew what I wanted (even though she had said I didn't know what I wanted). She knew I was strong. "It was mean of me to say you didn't know what you were doing. I think it took courage to just drop out never to return." She knew I was an artist. She knew I would go far.

That was the start of the relationship between a twenty-one-year-old drop-out and an eighteen-year-old freshman. It lasted one month. In the beginning, her adulation eclipsed anything remotely objectionable. "I'll work to support you if I have to," she would tell me. She once told me how I could "spare change" people if I couldn't find a job and needed money, and I suddenly saw that she was just some little kid and wondered what I was doing with her. The doubt showed on my face; she said in a pleading voice "What do you think about when you look like that?" I said I was having doubts about my life. This sufficed in the beginning.

She looked at my photographs and declared me an artist. She introduced me to her friends at school and at home. During that visit home, I met her parents. Her father looked at me and told me to sit down. "I want to ask you some questions," he said in the same accent that Sherry used when mocking him. Although he couldn't understand why I would want to leave math behind after I had come this far, he made a pronouncement in my favor. "I think you are a nice young man," he said.

I took pictures of Sherry with her parents, and then several of him. They are not anything I would show today as examples of my work. He sat with his hands in front of him, his body stiff, his mouth a steadfast line - the look one sees in the formal portraits taken at the turn of the century.

His eyes, strong and piercing, stared directly into the camera. They weren't like George Harrison's eyes in the poster that Sherry had in her bedroom, eyes that would cause her to exclaim "Oh he knows, like he really knows." Her father's eyes were the same as my father's; they gave him the look of someone who has seen many things and is resigned to what he saw.

Back at school Sherry showed the photographs to a young man named Scott. It was after breakfast and the day still held promise and my lack of employment did not bother me. Scott was a photographer also; we did not get along. His lips seemed more pouting and puffed when I was near him, and his sarcasm more pointed.

Scott and some members of his clique stood looking at the photos. Scott held the photos as if they were paltry evidence brought in by the defense attorney at the last moment of a trial.

He looked at the photo of Sherry's father staring straight into the camera. "I could do a lot with this," he said, and stared at it some more. "I'd like to see him talking, laughing. What does he do with his hands when he talks? He needs to be alive."

"It's the stiffness that I like," I said.

"Why?" Scott asked.

"Because it says as much about him as if he were laughing or talking."

"It looks like a snapshot," he said.

"What's wrong with snapshots?"

"Nothing," he said, handing the photos back to Sherry, and walking away with his famous half-smile.

I brooded for the remainder of the day. "What do you think about when you look like that?" Sherry kept asking. I didn't tell her but she figured it out by evening. "You're jealous of Scott, aren't you?" she said.

"Why would I be jealous of that little snot?" She said nothing, and walked down a hallway, exaggerating the wiggle in her hips, and I followed. We went to her room. "How'd you get so friendly with that crew anyway?" I asked.

"You are jealous!"

She took a joint out of her purse, and I knocked it out of her hand. "You listen to me. I'm not jealous of that asshole; I hate his guts."

"Oh, of course; excuse me, I thought you were jealous."

"I don't care for his little group of friends; they've always treated me like shit, and seem to think that mathematicians and scientists have no conception of art. I'll tell you one thing, Scott wouldn't have the balls to drop out, and if it weren't for East Quad, he wouldn't have any place to exhibit his work."

This wasn't much in the way of an argument, I realized, and so did she. So I upped the ante. "Keep telling yourself that they accept you. You're just their court jester."

She took a book off her desk and threw it at me (it grazed my arm), and then sat on her bed and cried. I tried to put my arm around her but she shook it off and told me to leave. After a few minutes she turned to me. "I thought I told you to leave."

I expected another book to be thrown, but instead she stood by her dresser, her back to me, brushing her hair. "I sometimes don't know what I am, or if I'm good at anything at all," she said. "I keep telling myself that if someone doesn't like me or they think I'm not smart, that's their problem. But it's hard for me to have that confidence all the time."

She talked about confidence and having friends and feeling lonely. She asked if I was watching her.

"I'm sorry I was mean," she said.

She sat on the edge of the bed and I came up behind her; she leaned against me and told me how when she was little, her mother would sit in her room while she was getting ready for bed, and Sherry would tell her what was on her mind while her mother combed Sherry's hair. She told me how during one such evening her mother had explained sex to her, how a man spreads his warmth into a woman, and how that warmth becomes a part of the woman, and how that warmth becomes a child.

By mid-November, Sherry's patience had shortened, and my influence diminished. In the beginning, her "to-do" list, paper-clipped to her lamp shade, contained notes to not bug me and other evidence that I was a savior; it now concentrated on study assignments, and names of people I didn't know. I continued to take pictures, but my money was running out, and jobs were scarce. I talked to her about the futility of school, its meaninglessness, the games of the academics, big egos and name-dropping; if you weren't a genius you weren't worth talking to. Our bickering and insults increased. At night we made up while she combed her hair and I sat on the bed and watched, but our evenings together decreased.

Our relationship ended in mid-November on my first day of work - a three-day stint at which I only lasted one day, unloading phone books from the back of a semi, into the too-small cars of the people delivering them. The night before I started, we both looked upon the job as the dawning of a new life; my life as a working-man, making good my promise to make it on my own and never to return to school. "I'm proud of you," she had said. I felt like one of the many soldiers that seemed to be crowding the airports those days, destined for Viet Nam, standing with impassive, sometimes dumb looks as their girlfriends cried.

The telephone book operation took place on the edge of town, in an area rarely frequented by students, the Moose Lodge parking lot next to a shopping center. There were four of us, all drop-outs; this was the only job we could find. It was one of those jobs where no one really got to know one another well. Two of the guys were friends and shared a house with a girl and a dog they referred as "she" and "Dylan," respectively. One of them was named Dave, I remember; the other guy looked a lot like George Harrison, so I've thought of him as George all these years. The third person was a bearded, burly-looking guy who wore a plaid wool jacket. We called him Lumberjack, which he seemed to like.

Dave and George chatted almost non-stop during the first hour. During that time, I loved the work like a person loves their very first apartment. I loved the feel of the bundles as I picked them up and hauled them down to the ground, and eventually got so I could carry two, one on each shoulder. It was cold out and gray, and I only had a thin corduroy jacket, but it almost seemed as if the sun were out, as we stacked the phone books in readiness for the cars to come by for loading.

At the end of the first hour I thought it was time for lunch, and I glanced at my watch only to see that it wasn't. It had started to rain, and my hands were freezing. By lunch time, it took all my strength to lift even one bundle of phone books into a car.

The rest of the day was slightly easier, but not by much. The rain let up, although it remained cold and overcast. The conversation for the most part was still mostly between George and Dave. Dylan belonged to Dave, I found out. The girl referred to as "she" was George's girlfriend. Lumberjack, we found out, was from a farm in Michigan, his drop-out temporary while he straightened out some financial and family matters. "Not much to do on a farm in winter," he said.
During a lull in which the next batch of phone book deliverers were being told their instructions in the basement of the Moose Lodge, we all sat on the back of the semi, our legs dangling, looking down at the pavement of the parking lot and talking about nothing.

"Whatever made you drop out in your senior year?" Dave asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Just tired of it all, I guess. Why did you?"

"Just wanted some time to think," he said.

"You thinking of going back?" I asked.

"Yeah; probably sooner than later."

We heard a door slam in the distance and the sound of cars starting up. We all dismounted the truck loading platform at the same time.

"How about you?" asked Dave. "When are you going back?"

The answer that came to mind was "never", but what with the next onslaught of cars coming to be loaded, and my arms feeling like they were about to fall off, I felt I would not be able to make a very convincing argument that I had better things to do than go to school. "Probably next semester," I said, telling myself that I hadn't really made any decision, when in fact I had.

The last car of that batch drove away, and the lights in the parking lot came on. There was only one more hour to go, but it had become much colder. We sat together in Lumberjack's car, and tried to keep warm.

We talked about how we got out of the draft. I had a high lottery number; George and Dave were respectively crazy and homosexual during their physicals.

"How'd you get out?" George asked Lumberjack.

Lumberjack turned the ignition key slightly in its slot without starting the engine, and turned on the radio. "Exempt," he said.

"You 4F or something?" Dave asked.

"My brother was killed in the service," he said. Dave nodded and Lumberjack scratched his cheek with his shoulder. A car drove up to the truck. We all got out and loaded it without a word.

Lumberjack offered me a lift back to the Quad after work was over and everyone waved goodbye. It took several tries to start the car, during which he never swore but just blew on his hands as if proper hand temperature would tempt the engine into ignition. Once on our way, Lumberjack didn't say much; he was the type of guy around whom one felt comfortable even if no one said a word. I liked him; he was unassuming, he worked hard, something about his uncomplaining manner told you he was strong and would be the type of guy you wouldn't have to worry about saying anything bad about you behind your back.

"Whattya think of this job?" I asked him.

"I've had worse," he said.

"Like what?"

He rubbed his beard. "Shoveling pig-shit in hundred degree heat." I nodded and he reached in his jacket for a pack of cigarettes.

The talk about jobs reminded me of a line in Karl Marx's "Value, Price and Profit" that I had to read for a class once. I mentioned it to Lumberjack. "He talks about how all of us feed from the same trough, but some of us have wider spoons," I said.

"I could've told you that without reading Marx," he said.

We rode on in silence. As the car warmed up and exhaustion set in, I became horribly melancholy and sentimental towards Lumberjack and people like him. I was thinking along the lines of God bless the boys from the farm and their brothers who died in Viet Nam; they keep the country alive. If you're stuck freezing in a snowstorm, they'll be the ones to wrap you in a horse blanket and haul you in the house in front of the fire. They won't be much for conversation, but they'll always know the right thing to do.

I caught myself at that point. I could never sell such crap. Who knows what Lumberjack's brother was like? Maybe he was a racist, right-wing, war-mongering asshole. No, the sentiment toward Lumberjack's brother in Viet Nam was not likely to be easy to sell and come to think of it, God-bless-the-farm-boys wasn't going to garner much interest either. Nevertheless, both played in my mind, and when I thought about it, no matter how superior you thought you might be to whoever it was who died, death was one of those things that made it pretty hard to say, "Well, he should have known better," even for a war-mongering asshole.

Lumberjack waved a gloved hand in my direction as I got out at East Quad. "See ya t'morra," he said, and I shook his hand.

Sympathy for the boys from the farm was my mood when I entered East Quad and found Sherry along with Scott and his entourage in the dining room, entertaining yet another visitor from another school. (They always seemed to have friends from other schools visiting.) This one knew something about China and somehow had gotten to live there. He spoke with great authority and conviction about the cultural revolution, his speech littered with the phrase "I have little sympathy with..." generally applied to those people in China who happened to find Mao's policies stifling. Scott listened, not saying much, and Sherry seemed to be embarrassed by my presence.

I suppose that had I been in a better mood, the argument with Sherry never would have happened. The fight was about the number 0.999... I don't know how we got on that subject, but I told her that, just as 0.333... equals 1/3, then 0.999... equals one. She fought me on this, saying it couldn't possibly be true, and refused to believe in the concept of infinity. My voice raised and she said, "Pretty touchy about something you say you really don't give a shit about, aren't you?"

I knew she was right. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell her then that she was an idiot, and that Scott was an idiot and that in a world of infinite possibilities those two were as finite as you could get. But I said nothing. I had become gun-shy (or perhaps book-throwing shy) with Sherry.

"You think you're fooling everyone looking so profound when you don't say anything," she said. "But the only thing you're thinking about is losing me."

I didn't deny it because she was correct. Once afraid of losing someone, they were as good as lost. So I sat on her roommate's bed and frowned. She turned her back to me and sat on her bed, and brushed her hair. I watched her. I could tell that she knew I was watching her.

"I think we really ought to start seeing other people," she said.

"Kind of a sudden decision isn't it? We have an argument and right away it's over?"

"It's something I've been thinking about." Her hand followed in the wake of hair her brush made. I looked at the picture on the wall that she had told me was a prison, and which was nothing but a square with lines around it.

"It isn't fair," she said, her back still to me, and the brush now next to her on the bed, like a pet that had gone to sleep. "I'm just starting school, I like school, and I like my friends. I know you don't like school, but I'm not ready to hear about it. I'm positive about everything, and you're so negative. You don't have to be, you know. Look at that picture of you. That's the you I love. Or loved. I'm sorry." I could see she was starting to cry. I imagined going over and touching her. That's probably the last thing she wants, I decided, so I sat there on her roommate's bed.

"I'm not a mean person," she said. "It's cold out and you've had a long day. You don't have to leave. Susie's not coming back tonight. You can sleep in her bed," she said. I watched Sherry get into bed, and stayed where I was. She kept the lamp on, and I watched her until she fell asleep. I stood up and left quietly, and was tempted to slam the door but didn't.

The next week I returned to my parents' for Thanksgiving. I knew I was going to go back to school, but justified it by telling myself that my degree in math would help me find decent work to support me while making my way up the artistic ladder.

I have had a few successes along this road, but not enough to qualify as the heir apparent to Stieglitz, or even Scott for that matter who produces documentaries for WGBH in Boston. I am a math teacher. I haven't kept in touch with Sherry, but in an alumni newsletter some years ago I read in the class notes a brief paragraph which said that after she graduated "she traveled, bummed, worked in a factory, sang on stage, fell in and out of love, fell in again. She is married to a scientist and has a six-month-old son and is living in Ann Arbor." Whether or not she ever put the moves on Scott, I'll never know.

I have told this tale many times to different people as if it were important. What was important changed with each telling. In the beginning it was the phone book job. Later, it was the art scene. Still later, the drug scene. At latest telling (to my wife) it is just another story about loss of innocence and girlfriend, just another confused middle-class kid with long hair trying to rebel, though I can't say I was the type to yell "no leaders!" in a crowded theater.

The end of the tale has remained unchanged. All the students were abandoning school for Thanksgiving. I thought it was time I did the same.

Rather than take the Greyhound and have my parents pick me up, I caught a ride from someone whose parents lived near mine, so that I arrived much earlier than scheduled. My parents wouldn't be home for a few hours. I was alone in a condo-apartment they had recently moved into, wondering how they would take the news of my return to school.

I headed straight for the room that my mother had designated as mine, even though we all knew I would never live with them again. The only thing that mattered to me then was the black coat with the silver buttons that I knew was in the closet. I took off my shabby old corduroy jacket and put on the heavy, oversized black corduroy coat with the polished silver buttons and warm red lining, and looked at myself in the mirror. I imagined Sherry in the room, sitting on the bed and watching me.

"What are you thinking about?" I imagined she asked me, and for once there was no silence. I answered, but I didn't talk about how rotten the world was; I said I was thinking about math. She asked me how I got interested in math, and I began to tell her how beautiful math really was. I explained to her about the structure of math, how the number system we know is just a special case of a broader vaster concept. We can describe properties of dimensions that we are incapable of perceiving or imagining. She understood everything. The translation of the world into a mathematical view. Exploring beyond our perception.

14 comments:

  1. Really lovely story - the details make it authentic. Like real life, there's a few cul-de-sacs here while the character moves forward. Strong dialog and excellent pacing. It more than meets the reader halfway and is super rewarding.

    thanks for this.


    David

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    1. Thank you; glad you enjoyed it, cul-de-sacs and all!

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  2. A most enjoyable read from someone who graduated from college in 1972.

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    1. Glad the story resonated with your memories from that era; thanks.

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  3. Very nice story. I started out not liking it, but as it evolved, I found it both insightful and appealing. Good character development.

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  4. I was teaching in the RC (1967-1978) and recall the East Quad ambience . . . your story shows a side of undergrad life well beyond my experience. Thanks for this evocative memoir!

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    1. Yes, I remember you well and we've communicated since. I imagine that today's undergrad life is well beyond my experience now. Thanks for your comment.

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  5. I'm glad you shared this slice of your life, which seems to be a very big slice on reflection.

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  6. Immersed me into that time and place..more sank in after reflection. Those were times of hope and turmoil, when the majority of the population was under thirty. I liked the dichotomy between the working class and middle class experience of the time.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the story.

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. The sincerity and authenticity made the story for me. You don't have an agenda and aren't selling anything. It's up to me as reader to take from it what I can learn by comparing it to my own experiences. I was few years ahead of you, and dropped out for a time too. Your story sort of gave me a context for my own experiences back than. You provided the substance, and left it to me to find the meaning. Nicely done, thanks much.

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    1. Thank you; to me it's about finding one's way and not being defined by others.

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