As I draw on to the end of my fifth decade, I’m feeling reflective. Indulge me in a little reminiscence, and by all means come to my birthday party.
A spiritual quest
I celebrated my 20th birthday in 1987, just as I began my second semester of college at Indiana University in Bloomington.
I found much to love about the academy. Here at last was a community of mind, a place where all manner of ideas could be explored. I took an eclectic array of classes, studying whatever seemed interesting: religious philosophy, linguistic anthropology, comparative literature, semiotics, folklore, Latin, Chinese, Asian-American literature, criminal justice, 3D art, bass guitar. I even took an accounting class to humor my father, who was after all footing the bill.
If I had little regard for how my studies would lead to a degree or a profession, it was because I wasn’t focused on the future. I felt I didn’t have a future. I had come to see society a monstrous, self-perpetuating machine, fueled by the souls of the hapless humans who had invented it. I was on a spiritual quest, as many young people are — a search for meaning in life.
For a while I thought romance alone could supply that missing value. Yes, I had a girlfriend, but she dumped me after a couple years, and I learned I was not immune to the pangs of jealousy.
Perhaps the key was to maintain a sense of humor. I bought a dedicated word-processor, ostensibly for academic purposes, and I began to crank out a high volume of silly prank letters, which I sent to all manner of people, but especially to corporate executives.
There was a presidential election during my junior year. It was the first in which I could vote, so I paid special attention. As it developed, both Bush and Dukakis missed the filing deadline; there was only one legitimate candidate on the Indiana ballot. I put a sign up on the door of my dorm room: “GET THE RICH WHITE BASTARDS OUT OF OFFICE! Sick of the Republocrat rule? There is a choice. Vote for Lenora Fulani on Nov. 8th.” I voted for her. But Bush won.
I was fortunate to live in the Collins Living-Learning Center, a special dorm which combined academics with residential life. I loved it there. While many students moved off-campus as quickly as possible, I stayed in the dorm all four years of my undergraduate career. In fact, I never wanted to leave.
Losing my mind
My senior year defies quick description. Recounting the bare facts will make me sound crazy. Maybe I was; maybe I am. I had mystical visions, got a mohawk, got interested in psychedelics, hitch-hiked around the country, made a road trip to New Orleans (and spent a night hanging with winos on the river), and got arrested for streaking on campus. My parents were none to pleased with my erratic behavior, and so I became “financially independent” in the fall of 1989. I got a job — several jobs, in fact, all part-time low-paying jobs, but I managed to stay in school. I was in and out of the hospital because of injuries and various episodes related to my epilepsy. And in the spring of 1990, I fell off the top of a building and died. Think I’m joking? There is a plaque in downtown Bloomington that commemorates my untimely demise.
In the midst of it all, I experienced an episode of unitive consciousness, in which I truly lost my mind and became one with the universe in a single blazing instant. It sounds ridiculous, but in that moment I had a revolution of understanding, and all the value and magic which had drained from the world in my apostasy returned. I would spend the next several years preoccupied with how to communicate this revelation.
Somehow I managed to graduate in spite of all that. I got a Bachelor of General Studies.
But what to do with my degree? How about: nothing. I got a job as a convenience store clerk, then on the assembly line of a greeting card factory, and eventually as a part-time telemarketer.
I’d fallen in love again. My girlfriend and I got an apartment together, and I set about writing. I had a novel in mind, a weird fantasy about a convenience store clerk with delusions of grandeur. I was also making art videos.
It was the early 90s. The age of the slacker was upon us, and I was a poster child for the zeitgeist.
The ROX years
After a couple years, my girlfriend dumped me. Sound familiar? By then I’d launched a new project with a friend, a weekly program on cable access television. With an ostensible focus on mixed drinks, we called it J&B on the ROX, later just ROX.
I fell in love again, this time with another local quasi-celebrity. She had her own TV series, also on cable access. We decided to join forces. Our puppet-show wedding was televised, naturally enough.
I was also fronting a band, The Submersibles, a rock-rap hybrid. We played around Indiana a few years and recorded a few songs, enough for an album, though it wouldn’t be released until many years after we broke up.
Bill Clinton was elected president, and I thought for a few weeks that maybe we’d catch a break, until he actually took office and I saw how he governed.
ROX gained some notoriety for pushing the envelope in terms of good taste and good judgment. We ran afoul of the censors more than once. We also managed a couple halfway-skillful publicity stunts. We smoked marijuana on TV, which got us international media attention. And in April of 1995, we became the first TV show on the internet.
It all came crashing down around my ears shortly thereafter. We ran out of money. We stopped production of the show. My wife and I moved into a tiny garage on a back alley. I went back to work as a telemarketer. My partners and I spent a full year trying to figure out how we could make a living off the TV show, and I set my 30th birthday as a personal deadline. If we couldn’t figure it out by then, I’d focus my efforts elsewhere.
We couldn’t figure it out. At the end of my third decade I was practically penniless and seemed to have few prospects for the future. On top of that, a huge rift had opened between me and my father, which was to provide the opening act for my next decade.
Tune in next time for the hope and heartbreak of my thirties!
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.