VOICES — 'The Resident Assistant'

(EDITOR’S NOTE — 1120 Press, which aims to give voice to writers from all walks of life, is proud to present Gerry Dempsey’s essay ‘The Resident Assistant,’ a hilarious and touching story about self-discovery, higher education, the father-son relationship — and welding. The essay is the second installment in the 1120 Press ‘Voices’ series. A native of Buffalo and resident of North Carolina, Dempsey is a writer and host of The Smartest Guy in the Room Podcast, available on Apple, Spotify and Google podcasts.)



With images of Delta House dancing in my head, I pushed my way over to the keg for a

refill. College life, I was discovering, wasn’t as exciting as I had anticipated. So much for expectations.

I’d been at Rocky Creek University for one semester and the most exciting thing that had happened besides an on-campus shooting was my winning a chicken-wing eating contest at a local sports bar. I consumed 50 wings in five minutes. Advertised as “Hot Buffalo Wings,” I knew better. I grew up in Buffalo, the birthplace of the “chicken wing.” Anyone from Buffalo knows you can only get “Buffalo” wings in Buffalo. But enough about that. And besides, I don’t remember feeling like a champion. I felt disgusting, fat, and short of breath. In my mind’s eye, Dean Wormer appeared, speaking his classic line from Animal House: “fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.”


I was fat and a little drunk, but I wasn’t stupid.


It took me three years and multiple semesters split between Upstate and Seneca Community colleges, but I had finally got my grades high enough and saved enough money to go away to school. It was a dream come true.


Anyway, while the party was full of people showcasing their independence by imitating each other, I could not help but notice a red-haired girl wearing a Kermit the Frog sweater. I imagined her to be checking me out, too. Between talking crap with some of the frat boys about the cost/benefits of joining a frat — (“buying friends,” as I referred to it, did not appeal to me) — and repeated trips to the keg for refills, it was a miracle I noticed her at all.


“I really like your sweater!” I told her, enthusiastically. She smiled and asked me what number beer I was on. I still had some wits about me, so I asked her where she was from. She took the bait and began talking about herself. She was from Massapequa or Minneola. I can’t recall. It surely was one of the towns you hear the conductor bark out on LIRR as you traverse that gigantic suburban wasteland. I was listening to her accent as she was explaining why she was studying Anthropology and why it was so fascinating. I nodded my head at all the correct times, not hearing any of it.


The desire to make fun of her accent overtook me. No one thinks they have an accent until they go somewhere else and are soon outnumbered by people speaking in a slightly different way than they do. Being that we were on Long Island made me the outlier.


“You sound like a farmer!” she said.


She was now laughing at my Buffalo accent. Growing up in a place like Buffalo, you have no idea that you have an accent. I doubt most people think they do. Buffalo people like to go hard on their Rs, and they like to pronounce every letter in every word if humanly possible. There is a hint of the Midwest, a tiny bit of Canadian, and a good dose of truck-driver. Cursing is a requirement. A reflection of the blue-collar heritage that is pervasive in Western New York. Plain spoken and direct is how my mom would describe it. I let the red-haired girl make fun of my accent while playing the “how do you say this word” game. She was laughing at me, but I was laughing with her, so it was all good.


I got her a beer and another for myself. Somewhere between her mimicking the way I said “Akks-ent”and me telling her we don’t call them “Buffalo” wings in Buffalo because that would just be stupid, we kissed a little. I was rubbing her arm with my free hand, and working my way toward, well, you know where, when she pulled back. Still smiling at me, she sarcastically said, “you must really like Angora.”


“Who the fuck is Angora? I thought you said your name was Suzie.” I was too drunk not to be confused.


“No silly, Angora. My sweater is made of Angora wool.”


“I love your sweater,” I declared, trying to focus my bleary eyes on her face.


“Oh, do you like the way it looks on me?” she said, daring me to look at her boobs, which were looking quite perky in that tight Angora sweater.

“I do!” I exclaimed. I was trying so hard not be drunk, but something overtook me.

“You know what else I think?”


“What?” she asked


“I bet that sweater would look great on my bedroom floor!”


*


The wet wind was whipping me in the face. The rain felt like little ice balls and the January wind was just cold enough to make them so. What didn’t help was the wet beer that was all over my face and down the front of my hoodie. Suzie let me have it after my inappropriate comment. She dumped a full beer on my head. Everyone at the party laughed. I did too. I trudged back to the dorms, reflecting on how nice it would have been to be walking Suzie home and perhaps fooling around with her some more. If only I could have kept my dumb mouth shut. It was not to be. I took comfort in the fact that I went with my gut instinct and chose humor over love. In some strange sense it was worth it. You can’t put a price on good humor.


I made it back to my dorm which was a full mile from the off-campus frat house that hosted the party. I was shaking the cold off and thinking about how boring this place was. Rocky Creek is smack in the middle of Long Island. Most of the students are from Long Island which makes it mostly a commuter school. Most students go home on the weekends to work jobs or just hang out with their friends from home. As I walked down the vacant, quiet hallway, I heard a noise from one of the rooms. I walked up to the door and pressed my ear against it. I could hear quiet conversation and “Tequila Sunrise” by the “Eagles.” I hated The Eagles. I also smelled what I believed to be marijuana wafting up from the beneath the door.


I pounded on the door, shouting, “Open up … this is the RA!”


I just landed the Resident Assistant job the semester prior. A friend and I were discussing ways to make money to pay for school — (I was adamantly against taking out student loans) — when the idea of becoming an RA came up. From what I understood, you were a glorified hall monitor, and that sounded awful. My buddy, Tim, however, said it would be like letting the inmates run the asylum. I thought about that for a second and changed my mind.


I must admit, I was surprised when they offered me the job. I did not see myself as a role model or even a stellar student. I was not really into rules and the interview did not go well. I was sure I blew it. They asked me what I liked to do in my spare time, and without thinking I replied, “I like to drink beer with my friends.” So much for my gut instinct.


“What are you doing in here?” I felt the energy of my first power trip surging. There were six students in the room, four guys and two girls. They were all from the hall and looking at me like stoned, drunk deer. I glared at them with authority.


The kid whose room it was spoke first. I kind of remembered him from the orientation meeting. The last RA had quit because the hall was “unruly,” and he lacked the leadership, or the ability, or both, to keep things under control.


“We’re just listening to music and hanging out.”


“There better not be any beer in your fridge,” I said, accusingly. Before they could lie to me, I opened the refrigerator door to a half-full 12-pack of Old Deutschland,a local brand of awful-tasting beer.


“I’m going to have to confiscate this beer,” I said.


“Are you going to write us up?” the kid asked


“I’ll be asking the questions, smartass,” I shot back. He seemed genuinely scared.


“Listen,” I said, “you’re on thin ice right now, so you better do your best not to break through it.”


“Shh…sure” the kid mumbled after a second.


The rest of them all nodded in compliance.



*


I sat in bed drinking the beer I’d confiscated and thinking how Suzie was the first girl I had kissed in about seven months. I wondered if it would be another seven months until my next kiss.


A smile appeared on my face. Why did I drink all that beer? It’s a fair question, and one with no answer.


Somehow, I made it to class the next morning. It was painful, but necessary. I did not prefer early classes, but at least this way I was finished early and had the rest of the day to study, or not.


Introduction to Behaviorism. I took this class on a whim, thinking that psychology was a piece of cake compared to the business and math classes I was taking. We were discussing B.F. Skinner and the concept that “free will” is an illusion. My mind immediately went to the fact that not only had I freelychosen to confiscate the students’ beer, but that I also freelydecided to drink all of them without any kind of conditioning or having to be placed in a box. B.F. Skinner was famous for placing small creatures like rats and pigeons in boxes and “conditioning” them to perform simple tasks. They would be rewarded with food. I wondered to myself if any of the dumb or stubborn ones starved to death.


The day was going to be a long one. It was Friday, which typically meant studying a little, maybe a workout, grilling on the Quad and drinking some beer. But this was not a typical weekend.


I had to drive back to Buffalo with my dad.


*


It just so happened that my father, who was a welder, found a job working in Queens. He was a union guy his whole life, but when the opportunity for him to branch out presented itself, he jumped on it. He was teaching ARC welding to the employees of Consolidated Electric, the largest energy company in the Tri-state area. It was good for him and his career, but my mom hated it. He had a small apartment near the plant, where he basically slept, ate, washed up, and watched TV. It was tiny. He would drive home to Buffalo almost every weekend. When I started attending Rocky Creek, we made a deal that I would go home with him once a month or so to assist him with the driving. It really worried my mom that he would get up at 5 a.m., go work his shift for eight hours, then hop in the car for a seven-plus hour drive back to Buffalo. He would repeat this on Sunday night, going to bed around 1 or 2 p.m., get up around 10 p.m., and drive to Queens, and go right to work for the entire day.


My dad was a real tough guy, but he wasn’t getting any younger. My mom always had visions of him falling asleep at the wheel and crashing the car somewhere along Route 17.


I arrived at the train station early, so I went over to the Quick-E-Mart. I grabbed a bag of chips, two candy bars, a water, a roller dog and a 40oz. malt liquor, which I never had before but decided would be the cure for my hangover. The clerk eyeballed me as I passed my fake ID to her and smiled. It was a great ID. One of my pals had an ID-making machine that he borrowed from his school under false pretenses. He then went around to a bunch of colleges across upstate New York, printing fake IDs for thirsty students. That kid was going places, I thought. I coordinated his visit to my school, where he must have made more than 100 IDs. My payout was a free card.


The malt liquor was disgusting, so I got rid of it when the train stopped in Grand Central. I had to change trains from the LIRR to the subway to get over to where the plant was. I got a slice of pizza. That hit the spot. My headache was gone but now I was tired. I wasn’t sure if my dad was going to let me drive, anyway. He hated my driving — said I never paid attention.

“I am paying attention, just not to the things you want me to,” I said to him once. He didn’t like that answer. He also thought I drove too fast. My father was a methodical person. He liked to think, and he liked to be cautious. I, on the other hand, didn’t like to waste time. Driving slow wasted time. Time was money. I learned that in business class.


I arrived early to Con Electric. I entered the facility and started walking around when a giant man in coveralls, welding goggles, and smoking a cigarette spotted me.


“Hey kid, where the heck do you think you’re going?”


I explained to him that I was looking for my father, who I normally met in the parking lot, and that since I was early, I thought I would come into the plant and find him. He asked who my dad was, and when I told him, he seemed excited. I found that to be odd.


“So, you’re the Monk’s kid, huh?


“Yes,” I deadpanned. He had way too much enthusiasm, so I became suspicious.


“Your dad is awesome!” he barked out at me. It was very loud in the plant and being hungover, I wasn’t too keen on small talk with this huge fellow.


“Yeah” I said, “he’s a real gem.”


“Are you going to be a welder like your old man?” he said smiling


“Not a chance, my man!” The sad look on his face was enough to make me regret the way I answered him.


“Oh” he said. That ended our conversation.


*


We came to a room that was the size of a gym, but far more awful. It reminded me of a torture chamber. It was dirty, smelled like poisonous chemicals and was hot as Hades. Tools were strewn about as were welding machines, acetylene cutting torches and sections of pipe, some still glowing. Men were busy working, clad in heavy coverall suits, welding gloves helmets, and thick welding aprons. It was easily over 100 degrees in the room. I was sweating in board shorts and a T-shirt. It smelled like death. The big guy pointed to where my dad was and waved to me as he went on his way.


“You’re early,” my dad said. He always looked angry. I knew better.


“So what? Let’s get the hell out of this place.”


He took off his welding mask that was perched on his head. His face was all sweaty. He looked tired. He introduced me to a couple of the guys. They were big dudes, just like the first guy I met. They also praised my dad. One of them said, “You’re really lucky to have a dad like yours!” That statement shocked me. I had never considered myself lucky for anything. Having my dad as my dad, in my opinion at that point in my life, was to me, a burden. He was tough, mean, and could smell a lie from a hundred miles away.


He’d been showing “the boys” some welding techniques. He loved to talk about welding and the critical nature of welding pressure vessels. The welds had to be perfect since hot water or steam travels through these pipes and at times there is tremendous pressure inside. The goal is to make the weld seamless with the two tubes of metal you are combining. Simply put, think of a chain: You are adding a link that must be as strong as the other links, otherwise, it will blow up as the pressure builds. And that’s no good. Welds had to be run through an X-ray machine to ensure they were without flaws. It made me think it was good there wasn’t an X-ray machine for our souls.


“Here, son, give it a try,” my dad said, waking me from my daydream.


“Uh, that’s OK, Dad. I’m good,” I said back.


“Come on, just give it a try, will you?” He smiled and handed me some gloves and his welding hood. The hood smelled like cigarettes and a sweaty jock strap. A real shock to the senses. Knowing he was not taking “no” for an answer, I pulled the gloves on, pulled the hood down over my face — (which by the way, renders you essentially blind) — and focused on the piece of pipe before me. I went right to work trying to spell my name as the gun fed the line of tungsten into the white-hot electricity “arc” just hot enough to melt the metal and fuse it with the existing steel plate.

“What the fuck are you doing, you moron!”

I welded out the first three letters of my name before my dad figured it out and put an end to my welding career. He grabbed the welding gun from my hand and walked away in disgust. Several of his students looked at me with disappointment. I felt somewhat embarrassed, but ultimately was proud of myself because I thought it was funny. Humor has and always will be a priority in my life — sometimes to my own undoing.


*


My dad and I travelled the route back and forth from Buffalo to Queens maybe a dozen times during my year at Rocky Creek. There were times we barely spoke, there were times he lectured me about life, and there were times we had spirited debates. Regardless of his mood, he made me feel safe. I always felt I was with a kindred spirit. The time I spent with him made me respect him more. I saw him from a different perspective and grew to appreciate his struggle in life and how hard he had to work to provide for the people for whom he cared. It was during those car rides that I finally realized — as his student had suggested back at the plant — just how lucky I was to have him as a dad.


Being one of eleven kids, most of my experience with my parents was watching them run around like chickens with their heads cut off. They only paid attention if something was wrong or broken.

I had a brother, ‘Ud,’ who figured that out early and was always getting into trouble. Maybe that was his cry for attention? I don’t know. In my opinion, the approach didn’t work out for him as he got kicked out of our Catholic grade school, two Catholic high schools, and the Navy, thus making for a life that was rather miserable as he bounced from job to job. Still, to be fair, he did excel at two different jobs from what I recall: selling cars and working for a bill collector — neither of which carry much prestige but are necessary and require a set of skills for which he was suited.


My parents were overwhelmed by their lives, and they could not hide that from their children. We were screamed at, verbally abused, sometimes physically assaulted, ignored, berated, and heavily criticized over the years. We also learned to follow that pattern. As I sit here now reflecting, I wonder how I escaped as unscathed as I did.


I was glad to see the other men look up to my dad. It made me realized he was a nice guy and didn’t act like a dick all the time. Then I got mad at him for not being that way with his family more. I felt bad for him. I didn’t pity him, but I was just sad because I bet if he knew what he was doing wrong, he would have fixed it. He was great at fixing things he knew were broken, but the things he didn’t see, like his shitty attitude or behavior, were left unattended. People pass down traits like brown hair and other physical characteristics, but rarely are they aware of the bad behavioral traits they pass along.


Self-analysis and introspection are not for the faint of heart, I suppose.


*


Back at school came the fateful day as the year was about to end. I decided to have a party in my room. Being the RA, I knew the risks I was taking. The dorm director was gone for the weekend, and I decided no one would mind. I was wrong. Very wrong. Another student informed my boss about the party I had thrown, telling her that I had served alcohol to underage students. The weird thing was the kid was someone who I thought was a friend. Either way, I was summoned to the director’s office and summarily fired from being a Resident Assistant. While I was not kicked out of school, I made the decision to return home and transfer to Western Buffalo to finish my degree in Economics. I had accomplished my goal of going away to college and achieved good grades. In my own way, I had slain the dragon.

The most important thing I learned was how to teach myself. I went to most of the classes, I studied and prepared for the tests. I made schoolwork a priority, while developing self-discipline. I gained confidence and realized I had the intelligence to not only finish college and get a degree, but to build a life for myself that I would be proud of and enjoy. I felt great inside every time I reminded myself of that.


I hated being an RA. While the job is a necessary one, it wasn’t for me. I’ve never been a big fan of authority and never saw myself in such a role anyway. I had fun, which should always be on everyone’s bucket list. But that coat just didn’t fit.


Anyway, the day came when I had to tell my dad what happened. We were driving home again from Queens to Buffalo and I was going to have to let him know I lost my job which allowed me to pay for my education. My father had been boasting to his boys about how proud he was of his college student son, and I knew he would be disappointed with the news I was about to report. I had a pit in my stomach. I expected him to yell at and belittle me. But when I told him, the first thing he asked me was how my grades were. I showed him my report card and he smiled. I ended the semester with a 3.1 grade point average. Not too shabby considering I was taking accounting, calculus, and geology classes along with some social sciences and English literature. Math and English, I discovered, came naturally to me.


I quickly told him that I didn’t like being an RA and that I wanted to return home to Buffalo and finish up at night school. He agreed that my plan was best and told me not to worry about it. That was a good thing.


As we were getting in his truck, I felt euphoric. We were talking like you see people talk in Hallmark movies where everyone is nice to each other.


“How about you drive, Ger?” my dad asked. He was feeling a little tired from his long week of working himself like a dog.


“Sure … happy to,” I said gleefully. I was full of positive energy and was eager to let my dad get some rest. Adding to my euphoria was the fact that there was a girl waiting for me back in Buffalo. An old girlfriend of mine and I had been talking and I could not wait to get home and take her out.


My father loved driving the speed limit and never went over it. This used to make me insane. He also had this thing with toll booths. There was a bridge we had to cross to get out of the city and the toll was $3. My dad would always find the longest line in the exact change lane, drive up to the basket and plunk the quarters in one at a time. One time, a quarter didn’t register, and he sat there yelling at the basket for a couple of minutes. People behind us were beeping and I was screaming at him to just drive. I mean, there wasn’t even a gate down, so nothing was even in our way. It was exasperating.


My father went right to sleep as we got on the highway that day. A stroke of good luck fell upon me as I drove to the toll booth at the base of the bridge. There was a lane wide open in front of me, so I rolled down the window, slowed the truck down just a bit and scooped a handful of change from his change cup that he had welded to his dashboard. Yeah, he welded it. It was awesome.


As I passed the toll booth, I whipped the handful of change, resulting in coins bouncing off the basket, hitting the metal booth and generally flying in every direction. I felt exhilarated as I stomped the gas pedal and flew away. I let out a silent “Yee-haw! Fuck you toll booth!” But what I didn’t notice was my dad watching with the one eye he kept open when he slept. I didn’t notice too that there was a state trooper sitting alongside the road and he was now in hot pursuit of the idiot who flew through a toll booth at 38 miles per hour when the sign said come to a complete stop before entering.


I spent the next 35 minutes getting berated by both the cop and my old man.


At least I had the girl waiting for me back in Buffalo. I just hoped she was willing to wait a little longer.



— END —