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Old Stew and Bad Discipline, Cockroaches and Chocolate Milk

by on January 28, 2015 6:15 AM

When I was in my mid-20s and living by myself in an apartment in San Francisco, I had a housekeeping system that went like this:

Monday morning: Eat breakfast, put dishes in sink.

Monday evening: Eat dinner, put dishes in sink.

Tuesday morning: See Monday morning.

Tuesday evening: See Monday evening.

And so on. Note that the schedule didn't call for washing the dishes.

I was making simple meals in those days -- canned soup with a side of cheese on crackers was typical -- which meant there was room in the sink for a week's worth of kitchenware.

I therefore saw washing dishes as a once-a-week activity, same as vacuuming or cleaning the bathroom. (Come to think of it, I might not have owned a vacuum cleaner in those days.)

The cockroaches loved my system. I would turn on the kitchen light and feel like a parent who had come back early from a weekend away and found his teenager having a party so out of control that the cops responding to the noise complaint were waiting for backup before barging in.

I don't live that way anymore. Somewhere around 30, the rage for order must have kicked in. Now, even when the last guests leave after midnight and I'm tired and maybe a little boozy, I clean the kitchen before I go to bed because the only thing I like less than tackling a sink full of dishes after midnight is facing the mess when I come down for coffee in the morning.

This, I suppose, is what it means to be an adult. This week, my feature-writing students reminded me of what it means to be a kid. To get them into the habit of setting a scene, I asked them to describe an apartment or dorm room. Here are a few examples of what they brought back from their journeys into the dark heart of undergraduate life:

"White toothpaste was splattered all over the bathroom mirror. Drunk partiers from the night before missed the toilet bowl completely, leaving the floor sticky and covered with crumpled paper. The bathroom rug was folded and shoved underneath the sink. For most people, this bathroom was unusable and disgusting. A cat litter box sat by the bathtub and had cigarette butts sticking out of the top."

"Handles of DeKuyper brand Triple Sec and Peppermint Schnapps and a fifth of Sauza Gold Tequila are crowded by two empty Jameson Whiskey bottles and several shot glasses that are clustered around their bases. Most of these stout vessels are made of glass, and decorated with writing that reads 'THE JERSEY SHORE' or 'work hard, play harder.'"

"The tenants are easily identifiable by the crude magnetic word arrangements on their refrigerator door and the leaning tower of food-encrusted plates in their sink, which faintly smell of old beef stew and bad discipline."

A student in my column-writing class, meanwhile, wrote about what it's like to live with seven roommates: the chocolate milk that has been in the fridge so long it has become "an actual living and breathing organism," "the pile of dishes high enough to reach heaven itself," and the guy passed out on the sofa whom everyone assumes is someone else's friend but who turns out to be a stranger who drunkenly stumbled into the wrong apartment.

Whenever I get tired of hearing that it's time for us old Rovers to move over and let the Youth of America take over, I think to myself, these are people whose idea of home décor is a display of empty liquor bottles.

But then I remember my suite in Smith Hall at SUNY Binghamton.

There was a vending machine on the premises that dispensed pint containers of chocolate milk. So sophisticated were our tastes in those days that my suitemates and I decided to beautify our lodgings by tacking the brown-and-white empties, side by side, like coupled train cars, onto the strip of corkboard that ran around our common room like wainscoting.

Occasionally, it must be said, we forgot to rinse the containers before tacking them up, so that our Warholesque installation gave off a whiff of sour milk.

We wore our pride in our chocolate milk container display on our sleeves, literally: Our intramural basketball team, which performed its layup drills to the tune of Iron Butterfly's "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida," sported brown-and-white T-shirts.

Old beef stew and bad discipline would be a pretty good description of how we looked and how we played.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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