Although nearly half a lifetime has elapsed since the last disaster I associate with this month, I still incline to tiptoe during the interval each year between April and June, because the darkest and direst episodes in my life have occurred in May. One such occurred half a century ago.
1971 was…eh, not the best year in a life less than abundantly provided with such years by that point. By mid-January my sweetheart had presented me my walking papers; by March the University of California had begun to get pissy about the considerable arrears that I’d accumulated fee-wise, and the professors of all three classes that winter quarter had flunked me out, at which point UC and I severed all relations save that of creditor-debtor, and the University notified the good people at Selective Service of my availability for the struggle against international communism then being conducted in Indochina. By the end of the year I found myself discreetly homeless, although I flatter myself that an onlooker would not have so identified me, and also near-starvation, eating just four meals a week.
So no, for these and other reasons, things weren’t going well for me by the first of May 1971, and that evening I stumbled into a personal contretemps I don’t propose to relate here, but which involved me in a spirited beat-down administered by uniformed public employees and the subsequent withdrawal of my freedom of movement for the better part of a day. That I somehow contrived to talk my way out of this fix while leaving only the faintest of audit trails—more, and I would certainly never have enjoyed my alleged career; less and I would likely not have completed college—seems remarkable at this remove.
Actually, I used to retail the anecdote rather casually, because it certainly had its droll and entertaining elements. I was twenty-one, about thirty months later, when I lightheartedly related it to a new girlfriend who startled me by appearing appalled by the tale, at which point it struck me for the first time that I might not really want the incident following me around forever after.
Still, I recognized at the time, in the aftermath of 2 May 1971, that I probably needed to order the course of my life in such a way as to minimize the likelihood of ever again landing in such a plight, and in this I’ve largely succeeded.
As to the “audit trail,” those ghostly glimmers of my indiscretion were sufficient to persuade some University of California bureaucrats (and I learned that year that a Department Secretary can be mightier than a Dean) to consent to allowing me a second bite at the apple, and that has made all the difference in my life. Another such hinge from that summer: I sat brooding at loose ends on a median of a then sparsely-traversed street in Southern California when a passing carload of high school acquaintances spotted me, stopped, and invited me to accompany them to the graduating class’s “one-year reunion.” There I fell into conversation with a classmate whose chance remark set me on a course that ultimately brought me back into UC’s good graces.
And had even one of my professors—I’m thinking in particular of the one who told me afterward that I was taking up space at UC that ought properly to be given over to “someone serious about receiving an education,” and who regretted assigning me a failing grade (“I’m only sorry that the University doesn’t let us give a grade lower than F”)—had only one of them given me a “D,” I could not have made it back in. Thanks, Dr. H!
The following decade, in my mid-thirties, weekends late in May occasioned, in the first instance, consternation and grief as a decisive blow was landed upon my domestic arrangements, and a year later a descent over the course of a day into chasms of wretchedness—the abrupt emotional implosion following a year of insupportable stress—such as I hope never to experience again.
I’ll allude to one other hinge of fate: in 1966 a customer at a Southern California coffee shop spilled a drink. I wasn’t there, and although the immediate consequences were unhappy, reverberations from this trivial incident changed the course of my life profoundly for the better. At fourteen I was going rapidly feral: I would likely not have completed high school on that trajectory; I would certainly not have made it to college. The entire course of my adult life has followed upon that deflection, of a few ounces of beverage making for a slippery floor. Funny old world.
But May 1971: fifty fucking years! Geez.