In a conversation I had with my mother about sixteen years ago, she said, “I always thought that all your friends were weird.” This after having broken up with a girlfriend a few weeks before, my first serious relationship in three years. Thanks, Mom! Of course, a month later, I began dating my wife of nearly twelve years (and yes, my mother thinks that Angelia’s weird, too!).
But she did have a point, albeit a small one. Some nerve, since I’m her son, after all! I had accepted this reality by my second semester at the University of Pittsburgh. This after a semester of attempting to be cool, then to not be cool, then to just close myself off out of picking my old Crush #2 scab.
I began my second semester in January ’88, attempting to meet people more like myself, which often meant meeting people a good five or ten years older than me, students comfortable in their own weirdness. The first friend I made this way was Regis. He was a working-class Western Pennsylvanian through and through, with that guttural Pittsburgh-ese accent. Regis said “jag-off” for “jack-off,” “ruff” for “roof,” “yinz” for “you all” or “y’all,” and “dahntahn” for “downtown.”
Regis had been unemployed for nearly a year, laid-off by Westinghouse, where for the previous five years he guarded a boiler room in one of their plants. He was about five-foot-six, constantly scruffy and disheveled, and sometimes looked like he was a step or two away from insanity. Kind of like a Pitt student’s version of Rasputin.
But Regis was a quick study and absolutely enjoyed going to college, as he was a deeply critical thinker. Heck, he was the smartest person I knew during my Pitt and Carnegie Mellon years! As a result, we hit it off right away in our discussion sections on Friday mornings in Western Civilization II. Me and Regis would often gang up on the rest of the class in the discussion of all things Western European-related, from the French Revolution to the connections between the European slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and European imperialism. It was wonderful not being the only oddball in class for a change.
What made us friends, though, had more to do with the fact that Regis didn’t allow himself to be blinded by my attempts to hide the real truth behind my weirdness. He saw through my coping strategies to mask the battering I’d taken from poverty, abuse and Humanities in Mount Vernon. Regis was there for me my sophomore year at Pitt in a way that any true friend would be.
After my bout with homelessness — which I hadn’t told Regis about — I was broke from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. Despite my pride and my mother’s constant mantra of not asking for “handouts,” I first asked Regis for help in November ’88. This after he noticed that we weren’t even hanging out at the Roy Rogers in the Cathedral of Learning anymore.
“To be honest, I’ve only had $205 to my name since September,” I said.
“How’ve you been making it?,” Regis asked.
“Spaghetti one week, pork neck bones and rice the next, tuna fish after that. I’m now down to peanut butter sandwiches,” I said.
“What’s ‘pork neck bones’?” Regis asked, with this incredulous look on his face.
After explaining the intricacies of my diet and poor people’s cooking — especially since this was the first time I’d eaten any pork in seven and a half years — Regis finally said
“I don’t have much, but I can at least bring you some bread and a potata. We don’t want you out here starvin’,” having patted me on my right shoulder as our conversation ended.
Sure enough, later that week, Regis actually gave me some bread and a small sack of potatoes. It would’ve been enough to make me cry, but I was too hungry and tired to do much more than say a weak “Thank you.” That, and make the most of four days’ worth of Russet potatoes.
Regis was in my circle on other matters that semester. We talked, mostly about his Heidegger course, a scary existential philosophy course for anyone to take. I heard so much from Regis about Heidegger’s Being and Time that I felt like I was in the course. Whenever the subject came up, he was always like, “So you got a hot date tonight, right?” No excuse was good enough for him, whether it was lack of money or lack of confidence.
I stayed in touch with Regis for years after that semester and year. We took a Greek History course together in the fall of ’89. I began introducing him to my other weird and not-so-weird friends. He introduced me to working-class White Pittsburgh, for better and for worse. We stayed in touch during the summers I was back in Mount Vernon, through our master’s degrees and my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon.
The last time I saw Regis was in May ’96, just as my fight over my dissertation with Joe Trotter (see my “Running Interference” post from April ’11) was in high gear. Despite two degrees — both in Philosophy — and a professorial disposition, Regis hadn’t secured regular work and was still living at home in East Pittsburgh with his parents. I encouraged him to get a doctorate. But sensing how unhappy I was with my own process, Regis said, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?”
I wonder how Regis is doing today. Well, I should just look him up. After all, we’re both weird Pitt grads!