Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Another One of Those Fantasies

Computing Across America, Chapter 25
by Steven K. Roberts
Tallahassee, Florida — March 18, 1984
photo above by Dan Burden

Now, when I start singing, you duck…
— instructions for taking a shower

As the miles unfolded, I became increasingly fascinated by the intertwined threads of connections. It was not uncommon to meet someone randomly, crash at their house, then be handed the name of a friend far down the road. Naturally, this comes with the built-in shared context of having stayed with the first person, so it would be a reliable entry in my hospitality database (managed back then in a small binder, sorted by state). I treasured these connections, and often stayed with friends of friends of friends of someone I had met online or on the street.

Way back in Chapter 12 (Williamsburg, Virginia), the dining-hall routine netted me a night in a dorm at the College of William and Mary. My host and I hit it off, and about two months down the road I received a postcard from him via the base office. “If you go through Tallahassee,” he wrote, “be sure to look up my old girlfriend, Christy. She really wants to meet you, and she says you can stay there in the sorority house. Enjoy!”

A sorority house? The idea occupied my fantasies for almost a month, and when I called Christy from Gainesville she had been thrilled. Oh yes, come ahead — we’ll throw a party!

So all I had to do was wait a few days until Florida State University returned from spring break, relaxing in the Anastasia State Park campground and getting some writing done.

OK. Ready. The sorority house loomed large on the horizon, filled with the soft pattering feet and gentle giggles of girls, lots of girls — not just girls but Florida girls. I bid farewell to my campground neighbors and set out, receiving a hearty handshake from Buffalo Bill’s friend as I saddled up.

It was a 250-mile ride, and it took five days.

High Springs, Florida

At last, Tallahassee — further west than Columbus! I arrived in the season of dogwoods and azaleas, rolling into town on the Ides of March prepared for a fantasy of unimaginable proportions. A sorority house…

But on US27 I was almost killed by a blue pickup truck. Rage, again the rage — I even violated the basic tenet of on-the-road harassment and gave him the finger. (That’s a stupid thing to do: some jerks are itching for an excuse to turn around and try again, with feeling.)

But he didn’t, and by the time a local cyclist guided me safely to the sorority house I was feeling better. This was it!

I parked on their front walk, trembling slightly, needing a bathroom, conscious of the stares. Girls on the balcony were watching me curiously, and I smiled up their skirts as I approached the door. Oboy, oboy, a sororority house! I swallowed hard and rang the bell.

“Hi!” I told the preppy at the door. “I’m Steve Roberts!”

“Yes?” she asked without recognition. “Who are you looking for?”

I had expected a Grand Welcome, but perhaps she had just gotten out of the hospital. “Uh, Christy.”

“Just a moment.” She started to close the door, then said, “Oh, I guess you can come in if you want.”

I walked in and quickly told her what this was all about, assuming that she would suddenly put a hand to an embarrassed cheek and cry, “Oh, it’s you!” But no. The place was quiet, almost austere, with a few sedated girls and a plump maid moving about, tidying up. Sesame Street was on TV, turned down low, and a couple of the sisters smiled at me quite properly and asked about the bike.

Iced tea was served, and Christy was sought. I had just talked with her from a pay phone, so I sincerely believed her to exist… but this was an awfully conservative environment for the wild parties that lay ahead. Lemonade and cookies, with everyone dressed in prep sweaters and wool skirts? I was resolving to stop getting so carried away with expectations when someone stepped into the room and spoke.

“Oh gosh, Christy’s not here — she had to go to North Carolina because like, her boyfriend got in an accident. But she wanted me to tell you that somebody named Pat over in Reynolds can give you a place to stay. I mean, you know, if you want.”

Damn it. Another rowdy all-male dorm. With a sigh I asked directions, then turned heavily on my heel and left. Expectations, expectations… would I never learn? I rode around the pretty campus, not without a few <pangs>, and finally located Reynolds Hall.

I was trying to decide whether or not to bother looking for this bozo Pat when a squealing chorus erupted from the third floor: “He’s here! Oh God, look at that bike!” There were giggles and a slammed window, and only moments later eleven girls poured out of the building and surrounded me. “Hi,” one said, “I’m Pat — Christy had to go to North Carolina.”

Before I knew it, I was frantically distributing packs while they all stood around clamoring for something to carry. There wasn’t enough little stuff to to go around, but the big challenge was the bike, which would have to be hauled in secrecy to the third floor. The administration took its restrictive visitation rules very seriously, and we would have to avoid Resident Assistants (RA’s), staffers, faculty, campus cops, and the occasional nosy snitch.

Up the narrow stairs went our unlikely procession, with my eight-foot bike handed over railings from one forest of tanned slender arms to another — chain grease streaking pretty legs and ill-suppressed laughter echoing through the halls. “Shhh!” my cautious hostess warned, her eyes darting about for the dreaded RA. “We could get in big trouble for this.”

“What kind of trouble?” I asked.

She looked at me meaningfully and jerked her thumb across her chest to suggest “OUT!”

But the barefoot guards posted at each landing waved us on, and we finally deposited the whole package in my room for the night. A crowd gathered, and all the inevitable questions were asked.

“I bet you’re getting some great exercise,” observed one pert sophomore after I mentioned eating 5,000 calories a day (a figure that elicited at least a dozen envious moans).

“Well, I am from the waist down, anyway.”

There was a chorus of gentle titters as all eyes in the room focused on my legs. “I can see that,” someone said.

I spoke of my adventures, flashed the map, demonstrated the bike and computer, and finally indicated that I desperately needed to wash. It’s rather awkward to sit at the center of a crowd of lovely young women and realize that you stink from the day’s 56.4-mile ride. But where in a crowded all-girl dorm would I be able to take a hot shower?

Fortunately, the ladies were no strangers to the strategies and deceptions involved in concealing a male overnight guest: more than one boyfriend had been kept hidden from the dreaded RA’s by his winsome companion and her wily confederates. Spies were immediately dispatched to monitor the activities of the enemy, provided with “repair reports” to use as a diversionary tactic if necessary. I was briefed in the showering technique:

“OK, I’ll carry the towels down the hall, just in case. When we get there, hop into the end stall — and stay low! (Wow! How tall are you, anyway?) I’ll be hanging around the sinks, and someone else will guard the door. Now, when I start singing, you duck — and stay down until I cough. Got that?”

Furtive, alert to every soft footfall and rattling doorknob, we hurried down the long hall and into the bathroom. Pat had already told those who were there not to be startled by my arrival, and I stepped past a few carefully covered females and into the last stall. I stripped and crouched under the chest-high shower head as feminine laughter (and occasional singing) echoed off the tile walls. What sweet madness! As I lazily lathered I realized accurately that this would live on as the most memorable shower of my journey.

Dripping and clean, wrapped in a towel, I was escorted back to the room and immersed again in conversation — where I stayed happily until a long tan beauty breezed in and fixed me with an unmistakable stare. “If you came here to party, honey, you’re in the wrong room.” Indeed. My hostess had turned out to be among the world’s most conservative young women. Some might be tempted to label this poetic justice.

Raised in a small central-Florida town, steeped in Catholicism and staggeringly prudish, 18-year-old Pat was nevertheless disarmingly intelligent and sincere. She was helping me at great personal risk, exposing herself not only to the possibility of disciplinary action but also to the shocked reactions of the other girls in the hall to whom she had become “Mom.” My presence in her room was evidence of her sudden looseness, and rumors spread quickly.

But the stories were unfounded. I had my own bed, and knew exactly where things stood when I witnessed someone’s invitation to go see An Officer and a Gentleman:

“Oh no, that’s R-rated,” she replied in absolute seriousness. “You’re not going to drag me in there!”

So I had already resigned myself to a quiet evening when the “party animal” grabbed my hand and suggested that I accompany her to the campus bar known as Phyrst. How could I refuse? With the dazzling ephemeral blonde leading the way I arrived at the club.

Every male in sight received her caress, her smile, her teasing glance. Spectacular in a skimpy miniskirt, she flitted about with no connection to me, basking in the spotlight and stopping hearts with every pool shot. Having already learned the lesson of shattered expectations twice in one day, I was not about to get my hopes up, so I just watched and enjoyed.

It was a typical campus bar on a typical Friday night, smoky and rowdy. “Want some bud?” asked a sporadically bright bespectacled fellow named Michael.

Not sure whether he meant the beer or the plant, I nodded noncomitally (I was already drinking St. Pauli Girl) and waited for his next move. He motioned for me to follow, and we went outside to smoke with the party animal and admire her legs, which were everywhere in evidence.

Back inside, Michael gave me a lesson in FSU social mores, abstractly categorizing all the women in sight, as have collegiate males down through the ages.

“Oh God,” he said. “Look at that ass.” The party animal was going for the eight-ball, expertly displaying her body while lining up the shot. She stood on tiptoes and bent over much further than necessary, rocking her pelvis suggestively as she slid the cue stick back and forth through the soft chalked circle of thumb and forefinger. Nobody complained about the slowness of her game.

“I have been looking,” I said, “for the last hour.” The two of us stood in stoned adoration and my mouth was suddenly very, very dry. “Michael, I’ve gotta get going — thanks for the buzz.”

“Hey! No problemo.”

I found my way back to the dorm, becoming engrossed in conversation with another early burnout of the bar scene until my bubbly hostess returned to shoo away any stray vestiges of erotic spirit and replace them with wholesomeness.

As we talked, a strange military chanting echoed by on the street below. I looked out to see a snappy cadre of black guys in yellow-and-white uniforms, marching a sort of stylized boogie while calling cadence in a bizarre blend of Marine discipline and funky responsory.

“That’s one of the black frats,” she said. “Sometimes they even go around serenading the sororities.” She giggled at the general naughtiness of college life and gave me an orthodontic grin. I was rather amazed to find that I liked her.

Even though Pat was about as philosophically different from me as anyone can get, we reached strong agreement about roles and expectations. It was a subject much on her mind, since almost everyone who looked in on us reacted with shock, disappointment, or titillation upon finding her with male company.

I didn’t tell her about the lusty fantasies that had propelled me all the way across Florida to this evening.

Continue to Chapter 26…