I’ve known my friend (let’s call him “Rubin”) since we were 12 years old. I didn’t want to let him on my parish basketball team because I thought he was a ball hog. Today he goes to school at Brandeis University. We still play basketball recreationally, but neither of us is going pro, though Rubin swore he’d be the first Israeli in the NBA when we were 13.
Brandeis has a free shuttle bus (the Diamond Line) that runs from the school to Harvard Square, Boston, and back. I get on outside Boylston Gate to go to Brandeis, over Rubin’s protests (“Come, of course you should come, I want you to come, but I’m just saying that campus is dead tonight”). It’s the first of Brandeis’ two spring breaks, and many people are home. But Rubin and a few of his roommates are still there. The bus takes maybe half an hour, and you get good views of Fenway, the Citgo sign, the Boston skyline out the back.
I call Rubin once I arrive, and we go to his room. Rubin and I are from the part of Brooklyn that isn’t hipster yet, but it’s feeling the urges, and Rubin has on tight jeans and a white v-neck. His room is below ground in one of the sophomore dorms (you could say the basement) but it’s fantastic, a full lounge with couch and an enormous sound system, single bedrooms sprouting off to the side. Rubin’s own room is filled with music equipment; he’s a music major now, and he’s really good on the piano. He and his roommate Dave are in a band together, and they’re always recording in Rubin’s room. There is an enormous Mac desktop, synthesizers and drum pads, keyboards on the bed.
Everyone starts drinking quickly because we’re going to someone’s friend’s birthday party, and everyone’s almost here, and we’re all going together. So far there are six of us, all guys, and we’re listening to Rubin and James’ new songs: dance-type mix-ups, similar to Girl Talk or Ratatat but more musical, with more training.
We’re on our way to the party, we’re walking up the stairs, we’re outside the door, and it’s strange because it’s pretty quiet. Inside we find more guys, the lights all on, drinking and watching the Olympics. We decide to stay. They offer drinks. At this point it’s midnight, and it has become Valentine’s Day without us noticing. We talk about girls. There’s one, Orli, whom a few of the present company (still all dudes) have been putting the moves on. One took her to the Boston Aquarium (he had free tickets), another out to dinner. Nothing. How does a girl go with you to the Aquarium and then nothing, we cried. I look at Rubin and ask him if she’s good looking. He rolls his eyes.
“Sorta,” he says.
We have our coats on and we’re outside, in a parking lot, on the cement. A block away there’s a circle of heads passing cigarettes around and nodding. Dave begins to beatbox. Rubin begins to rap. The rest of us are dancing. I’m beatboxing. Rubin is good, actually. He was always a performer, even in basketball. Here, Rubin is in his element.
We are walking around campus, all dudes, hands jammed in pockets. There is a castle—built in the ’70s as a dorm—that we head for, to climb to the top. They’d never done it. We’re on the ramparts, and there’s a staircase weaving around the tower. There are turrets. We discuss places where Rubin and Dave can have their first concert: out a window, above the portcullis. This is the realest castle we’ve ever seen. We get as far as we can go, stopped by a wooden door, and the guy who went to reform school gets it open. We’re inside. It’s just a residential hallway and we’re disappointed. But on the edge is another door, one we can’t open. Through the chinks underneath you can see within: the walls are stone, graffiti dragons and gang signs all around.
Outside we lean against the railing, as high up as we can go, Boston’s lights laid out in front of us. Right here, says Dave, this is where we should do it.
We’re back in Rubin’s room, we’re beatboxing some more, there are fliers on all the walls: The Roots’ “Phrenology,” Talib Kweli, “Grindhouse,” “No Country for Old Men,” a fake copy of The New York Times with the headline “Iraq War Ends.” There’s a book on the shelf called “Cinema Now.” We eat crackers and hummus while everyone winds down, and I look at the Clash’s “London Calling” poster, Paul Simonon smashing his guitar.
I’m headed home. The bus goes back to Harvard Square. I feel I haven’t given Brandeis a fair chance: I’ve been there many times before. Rubin and I have played basketball in the gym, seen Nas perform on the same court later that night. They have frat parties that spill happily from upstairs bedrooms to basement dance floors where water pipes slither overhead. Rubin has already reserved my ticket for Pachanga, the greatest dance party of the year—a student newspaper editorial calls it “moderated madness” and likens it to tribal rituals. But often we sit in his below-ground room and turn the lights off, the bass up loud: me sitting on the couch, Rubin on piano, Dave drumming with something or another, me talking about how they’re going to make it big someday, bigger even than NBA stardom. Or else we’ll go to a room somewhere in the castle where they’ll have music on and everyone will bob their heads and bend their knees.