When I was 16 my best friend was named Dave. In our suburban town we were two lonely kids trying to figure out the world. We both played sports but, despite being reasonably good at them, we never felt like we really fit in there. I felt incredibly awkward. When I saw the move Superbad a few years back, a movie I loved, I thought, “That was me and Dave.”
Springsteen was out largest shared obsession. Both of us knew every song on every album through Born in the USA by heart. We talked about the songs, how they worked and what they meant and why they were so great. We drove around singing them (we had just started driving). When I listen to “Backstreets”, a song I want to write about here at length at some point, and especially the line “trying to learn how to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be,” I think “That was me and Dave.”
Thing about being 16 is you do a lot of things for the first time. First time I drove in a car with a friend it was with Dave. First time I ever got drunk it was with Dave. So you experience these things and you talk about them and then you try and figure out what they might mean.
Dave had a close family friend who was a freshman at Michigan State University, the huge college in the town where we lived. During my junior year I didn’t have much happening socially in high school. I just had a handful of friends, didn’t go to dances or parties or things like that. Had never had a girlfriend. It was all pretty hard to negotiate. And Dave and I would hang out at his friend’s dorm, which I liked a lot. It was like Peanuts in a way—a parent-free zone. I got a sense of the possibility in it, of leaving home and living on your own.
There was a point where we’d be going to parties at this dorm pretty regularly, and we would try and pass ourselves off as college students. After we had a few beers, we’d try talking to college girls there, saying we were going to MSU, we had fake lists of classes we had memorized and another dorm that we said we lived in.
It’s funny to think about how ridiculous we must have looked. In the abstract you could say we were “trying to pick up girls” but it was, like, a million miles from happening. We were both afraid, but the possibility of something ever going down was so remote it didn’t really matter. It was almost like an inside joke or something.
In Hubbard Hall at Michigan State they used to have this legendary party every semester called “10 on 10”. On the 10th floor, where my friend’s friend lived, they would have 10 kegs in 10 rooms and the entire complex would cram into the floor. Maybe stuff like that still goes on at public schools, I have no idea. But we went to a couple of these things and at one of them we started talking to two girls who seemed to find us entertaining for some reason. They were laughing at jokes and maybe they believed we were in college. And eventually they said this party is too crowded let’s go down to our room, which was a few floors down. OK.
A weird thing I remember about walking to their place is that someone had vomited in the stairwell on the 10th floor, but they had done so over the railing and had positioned their head just perfectly so that the vomit actually hit every landing of every floor down to like the second floor. If you tried to aim it this precisely you woud have a hard time.
So we got down to their room and we walked in and I was thinking, wow, what is going to happen now? And they pulled out a couple of beers from a little fridge and we sat down and before long one of them went to put some music on the stereo. It was an album I had never heard of, by a band called the Violent Femmes. And they cranked it up and started dancing around the room together, like jumping and screaming the lyrics and they were going crazy. And Dave and I just got of sat there looking around, wondering what the hell was happening, and feeling like we were somehow in way over our heads. And pretty quickly it became clear that they didn’t really care if we were there or not, that they momentarily found us amusing but that had ended and what they wanted now was to jump around and listen to the Violent Femmes. They ignored us completely. But I got to hear this music, and I’ve thought of this night every time I’ve heard it in the years since (which is many times) And after a few songs we kind of slipped out and started the long walk home.