I was about 20 months sober when I showed up for my first semester at Rutgers in late August of 1997. I was unpacking in my dorm room in House 27 on Livingston when Andrew and his twin brother Chris walked in. Years later, Andrew would laugh when he told me that he remembered the very first thing I said to him: “I see you are also a fan of the white t-shirt.” All three of us were wearing shorts and plain white t-shirts.
“What do you I call you? Andy? Andrew?”
“Andrew,” he said, intimating that Andy was not something he ever wanted to be called.
“Cool. Like Andrew Cunanan.” The month before moving in Andrew Cunanan had concluded his California to Florida spree by killing Versace and then taking his own life. The Cunanan nickname stuck, so much so that over a decade later many people actually thought it was his last name and how unfortunate it was that he shared it with a deranged serial killer.
After we had moved in, I told him that I needed to tell him something. Like most people that are new to college, he was already a little anxious, but I had to let him know. “I’m in recovery from alcoholism. I got sober in December of ’95. I joined the Army and then went to community college and now I’m here. I’m extremely serious about my recovery, but it’s not something you have to worry about. I just need you to know about it, since we are going to be living together.”
He was slightly stunned. “Do you ever want to drink?”
“Do you mind if I drink?”
“I don’t care what you do outside of here. I’d like to avoid having booze in the fridge. But if you want to have someone over and drink, I’ll dip out. I just don’t like to deal with drunken or rude people.”
That night, I went to an AA meeting at the bottom of one of the river dorms. I was sorely disappointed that there were no students there, just some older adults from town, a few homeless people, and one dude who puked on the floor in the middle of the meeting. I talked to people afterwards and a woman offered to take me to another meeting that started in about 15 minutes. I figured I should meet as many people in New Brunswick as possible, so we went outside and she told me to get on her motorcycle. She was a former go-go dancer turned biker chick, and if that excites you, the image in your head is wrong. As she motored down George street, I was slightly terrified and thought, “This is college!”
After the second meeting was over, I walked through New Brunswick back to campus. It was a Friday night, and I passed a number of drunks on my way back to the bus stop near Scott Hall, including: a cross-eyed man stumbling by the train tracks, a very angry Mexican man being restrained by his friends outside of a bar as he cursed at a fairly scary looking bouncer, and a bunch of frat guys making noise and being their general cunty selves.
Over the next few weeks, I met a number of people that I grew very close with and are still in my life today. I went to see Lisa Laitman at Hurtardo. She was a drug counselor who ran the Recovery House. When she learned that I was almost two years sober and living on Livingston, she asked me why I didn’t apply to the recovery house.
“I thought about it, but I really wanted to live in a regular dorm and meet a bunch of earth people. I figured I’d get to know everyone in the recovery house anyway.”
A few times that fall, she contacted me and asked me to take students who had gotten in trouble to their first meeting. One time, I was driving a guy back from Cook to Busch and he asked me how long I was sober.
“Just about two years.”
“And you still go to meetings?”
“How often do you go?”
“Three or four times a week.”
“You are still that sick?” he asked, clearly very confused.
I laughed. “No man, because I’m that well. My life is great. I went through a bunch of shit, most of it my fault. I got sober and joined the Army. I’m no longer in any trouble with the law, I work, I have a good relationship with my parents, lots of friends, tons of activities, and now I’m here. I love Rutgers. I’m really at peace.”
“Huh,” he replied. I never saw him again.
Sometime in late October or early November, Andrew asked me if he could throw a small party in our room.
“There is going to be alcohol.”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s fine. I’m not going to stick around for it. They can be here ’til 12, then everyone has to leave.”
“That’s cool. Thanks.”
Eight or nine people came over. I hung out in Steve Castro’s room next door (he was one of the partygoers). When Seinfeld was over at midnight, I returned to my room.
“Hey Frank,” said a few people, very happy to see me. Half were also friends of mine, but the others I didn’t recognize.
“Ok, everyone, time to go.”
“Can we hang out a little longer?”
“No, everyone needs to get the fuck out.” I didn’t say it mean, but I was clearly serious.
After they left, Andrew said, “You can be pretty gruff sometimes.”
I smiled. “Yeah.”
I worked as a security guard two to three nights a week. I usually had the midnight to eight shift. I have always been a night owl. I went to work and read textbooks and wrote my papers. Most of the work I from my first few years in college I completed while on the job. I’d get back to the dorm around 830 and go around and wake up all my friends. “Time to get up,” I’d yell while clapping my hands (I have a very manly, very loud and very powerful clap. Not a Trumpian exaggeration).
“Frank, you are a fucking nightmare,” said Neilan, whom lived one floor below. I would open the windows, poke him in the chest, and sometimes even put ice in his bed. After a while, I would just knock on the door and he’d quietly get up in order to avoid my antics.
If you have ever been in a college cafeteria at 845 in the morning, you know that it is sparsely populated and people are usually eating by themselves or with one or (maybe) two other people. We’d have 10 to 25 people from House 27 at breakfast a few days a week. Occasionally, someone from another House would come and ask us if we all were in the same class.
“Do you have work?”
“Some kind of community service project?”
“I don’t get it. Why are so many of you here right now?”
“Frank got us up.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Whenever he works all night he comes by and gets us all out of bed and makes us come and eat.”
“Why don’t you say no?”
“It’s not really an option.”
Andrew asked me if he could come to an AA meeting, to get a better sense of it. “Great, I’ll take you to an open speaker meeting.”
I’m not sure if I took him to one in New Brunswick or further away, but he was really impressed. “You have a roomful of people that are trying to improve their lives and supporting each other doing it. That kind of thing would be good for most people, even without a drinking or a drug problem,” he said.
A few years later, Andrew would leave school for a little bit because (a) he needed to work full time and (b) college kids got on his nerves. He got a full-time job at a liquor store and people would often be waiting there when he opened up at 10 am. Several people came in multiple times in the same day, and they’d give an unasked excuse that they either (a) broke the bottle or (b) some friends came by. He was able to see the dark side of drinking; between that job and knowing me and my sober friends, he got a great education in addiction and recovery. He is now a scientist at Johnson & Johnson. Two years ago he had an employee who had a substance problem and he was so understanding and supportive of her.
The hijinx continued in our dorm. We had communal bathrooms. One day I decided to dump ice cold water on one of my friends while he was in the shower. I’m not sure if I saw it on a tv show or movie or just thought it up on the spot. But it caught like wildfire and soon escalated. One time we crushed Jimmy with four freezing buckets, one after the other – it felt like the Sonny Corleone hit in the original Godfather. Eventually, I just chased after people with buckets of water when they were walking down the hall or coming back into the building. I was terrifying.
I majored in history and English. I took US History 1914-45 with Professor William O’Neill that fall. There were about 60 people in the class. If you were a minute late, he’d mark it and if you had five lates or three absences, you failed. It was an early behavioral lesson, as I was never late or absent. He didn’t let us out early and he always gave an 80 minute lecture without notes. People were terrified of his tests that were comprised from his lectures and the four huge books we were assigned: 60 or 70 opened ended questions and a couple of essays. He hated grade inflation and fought it by only giving 10% of the class A’s. I loved him. I took him three times (all A’s, still a source of great pride for me).
Another wonderful professor was Matt Matsuda, now the Dean of the Rutgers Honors College. I took Development of Europe II with him. He began each class with music (something I copied him when I taught English at Elizabeth High School) and slides of art. He was witty and funny and very casual. I took three classes with him as well, and in the last one I gave a presentation on the literature of the Pacific and how it infantilized the natives in Western eyes. Afterwards he told me I showed tremendous promise as a teacher and speaker and asked if I had a forum.
“12-step meetings,” I answered.
He laughed but soon realized I was serious. “Well, you should consider becoming a professor.”
Lisa asked me to come with her to the Center of Alcohol Studies. She was presenting something in Gail Milgrim’s senior seminar. Gail was the director of education at the Center, a job she held for close to thirty years. I was brought along to tell the students my story of addiction and recovery. Afterwards, Gail asked me if I had thought about becoming a drug and alcohol counselor. “I want to be a professor,” I responded.
“You can do both,” Gail replied. And she gave me a full scholarship to the Summer School of Alcohol Studies in 1998. I took courses and liked it so much that I convinced my Mom to pay for the second summer session. There, I met a whole bunch of counselors. Many of them were in recovery and they told me three great lessons that I’ve remembered every since: 1) no one wants a 22 year old therapist…get some life experience; 2) helping others does not count as self care; counselors in recovery have a high relapse rate, so continue to go to therapy and meetings; 3) don’t get power hungry, remember that your clients have put you in a position of supreme trust.
Nine years later, Gail would give me my first job in higher education as an instructor at the Center. Two years after that, Lisa hired me to oversee the Recovery House. Both were fantastic jobs; I still have the former and the latter gave me a number of powerful, lifelong relationships.
During the second summer session at the Center, I met a first year medical student. She was there with a bunch of other future doctors learning about addiction. It was a brilliant program that was far ahead of its time. The girl was gorgeous and very bright. She was in one of my classes and she showed up at an AA meeting I spoke at. I had a huge crush on her but didn’t have it in me to say anything. School concluded with a dance. I was, by far, the youngest person taking drug counselor courses. A number of the adults (old people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s) took me under their wing. One guy told me, “Go ask that cute little doctor to dance. I bet you two would really hit it off.”
“Why? Aren’t you attracted to her?”
Five of the adults were looking at me. I was 22 but felt like a kid in that moment. “I’m shy.”
“Fuck you and your shyness. You’re not shy. You talk all the damn time.” And he walked over and talked to her. I was mortified.
She came over, all smiles, “I heard you want to dance.”
“Yeah,” my heart was beating really fast. “I was hoping you would talk to me in class. Why didn’t you?”
“There has never been anyone I’ve tried to avoid more.”
She smiled, “I’ll take that as an amazing compliment.” Clearly, she was way more mature than me. We hung out the rest of the summer until she went back to school in Chicago. I half considered leaving Rutgers to follow her but didn’t and eventually chalked it up to a summer love.
“I can’t believe how full of life you are,” she told me when we were playing mini-golf.