At summer orientation before freshman year, everyone was nice to everyone else. Mostly we were all a little bit intimidated as well as eager to finally be on our own. I found the heads in my group almost without trying and we hung around for most of the three days.
At night, after dinner in the dining hall, we went back to the dorm where we were staying. I don’t remember any other performances, but one night, this little guy volunteered to sing for the group in the lounge. He was short and runty, rat snout nose, greasy black hair, bad acne, and the same black glasses all the guys were wearing. Holding a guitar that was almost bigger than he was, he sang some Beatles songs. What I remember most was the crowd, yelling at him the entire time. I couldn’t believe it, that they were so nasty and that in a day and a half he’d managed to make people who were all trying tobe nice to everyone all hate him. He was dogged, though, and finished the set. I thought he was pretty terrible. We all thought we were outcasts in our group, proud that we didn’t fit in to the clean cut collegiate scene, and so this kid became part of our group.
That September, when school actually started, the heads found each other again. This kid, of course, found us, too, and started hanging out. He was annoying, really annoying, and when you passed him a joint, the end came back soggy. One of the heads was a small girl who nicknamed herself Bug. Bug looked 14, but turned out to be one of the smarted people I knew that year. Finally Bug in some fit of piqué just said, “Shut up, Bertil.” Later amended to Bertil Shagnastic, that’s who he became.
It was hard not to treat him like everyone else did, but my memory is that I didn’t mock him. Of course, part of any scene was ducking Bertil and god help you if you’d just dropped acid and Bertil happened to find you. You’d spend most of the trip just telling him to ease up, be cool, listen to the wind, and he’d be saying, “Yeah, the wind man, the wind” in a way that managed to cover it in mucous and bad vibrations. That’s a hippie cliché, bad vibes, but you’d be at the creek across the street from the dorms, at the little rocky beach where two streams met, seeing a thousand shades of pink feldspar and shiny black mica and and pearly white quartz in every granite pebble on the beach, trees framing the puffy clouds in the rich blue sky, the sounds of someone throwing pebbles into the creek some John Cage performance piece and Bertil would stick his head in front of yours and say, in a wet lisp, “Yeah man, that’s intense,” and the sky would go grey and the field of pebbles gone suddenly grey and stony like some Analog cover scene, 14 foot aliens just around the bend.
“Cool it, man,” you’d tell him, setting him off on some riff about cooling it and how cool things really were and how cool it was to be so cool and after a while it would blend with the John Cage symphony and the sun would come back until you realized he was waiting for an answer and, guilty that you’d completely blocked him out, I’d come back from wherever I was and try to converse until I could get away.
Anyway, the reason I bring up Bertil was two things. The first was The Line. At some point, I realized that every attribute you could name existed on a spectrum, every skill, every beauty, everything you would want to be or do. Look in front of you and you saw the people who were better than you. Look behind you, you saw everyone you were better than. I was always looking ahead. John always looking back. And, if you looked way back to the end of the line, at the last guy on every line, there was Bertil.
By the second year, he seemed to be around less or maybe I was, hanging out mostly with Matisse or John. And then I didn’t see him anymore. I always figured he went back to Albany and became an IRS agent, but no one knew and no one wanted to find out. Still, I alway remembered that I’d met the last guy in line and I was better off than I thought.
The second reason I mention Bertil is this party I went to in my junior year, the year Matisse was living at home. Somehow I ended up at this party filled with people I didn’t know and somehow I found myself talking to this blonde girl who looked like Patty Boyd and who was clearly way ahead of me on most of the lines I could name. She let me know she was waiting for her boyfriend pretty early on, but it was cool to be talking with her so I kept on finding things to say until the door opened.
“Mitch. Mitch,” several people started shouting and this short guy with a guitar and fringed leather jacket came in and started telling this wild tale about hitching to the party and getting into this huge conversation about minor sevenths and forgetting his guitar in the guy’s car and having to run after him hoping the guy didn’t think he was some kind of lunatic. People were laughing and the blonde was standing next to him, towering over him by a good three inches.
No, it wasn’t Bertil, but looking at him, Mitch could have been Bertil’s older brother. Same rat pointed nose, same black hair, same acne and glasses. But the hair was clean, the glasses were wire rims, and Mitch was just who he was. Matisse never paid much attention to where she was on line and Mitch didn’t seem to care very much either.
So, Bertil. It’s hard for me to picture that skinny rat faced IRS agent-to-be getting shouted down at summer orientation without seeing Mitch telling Patty Boyd some long involved tale about his guitar and feeling like I needed to stop looking around and just get on it.