He was from Johnson's Ford, a little town not far from our school. Most of the other guys in our dorm, myself included, were from the downstate suburbs, Long Island or Westchester or Staten Island or Queens, and so Phil became our token hick. Ribbing Phil with farmer-boy jokes would become one of our major sources of amusement during the next few years. It started only a few minutes after he and I met. We unpacked, chose beds, and wandered out to the dorm lounge where a bunch of other freshman guys were watching TV. One of them asked Phil what the red 'JF' on his black cloth jacket stood for.
Phil told them about Johnson's Ford. "They named your town after somebody's car?" said a smirky-faced guy with blond ringlets like a helmet around his head.
I disliked this guy instantly. He had a wheezing cackle that reminded me of an old TV cartoon dog named Smedley. His name was Eddie Rothstein; in time I would come to like him, and in time he would become Phil's closest friend.
"Hey, what happens if Johnson trades it in for a Chevy?" another guy said. This was Nick Moroney, who would eventually become my own closest friend. "Do you gotta change the letter on your jacket?"
"Ah fuck alla ya," Phil said. "Ford means bridge. You'd know that if any of you was educated."
That silenced them for a minute. Then Eddie Rothstein said, "So what do y'all do, you gotta hand Old Man Johnson a dime and he lets you drive over his bridge, or what?"
I got into the act. "No, I hear Old Man Johnson stands there with his pitchfork," I said. "And if anybody tries to sneak over without paying he pokes 'em in the ass!"
"Yeah, but if you drive a Ford he only charges you a nickel!"
"No, only if it's Johnson's Ford!"
Phil stood smiling, taking it all in. I think we came up with our entire repertoire of hick-town jokes during the first two weeks, and proceeded to entertain ourselves with them for the next four years. We constantly asked Phil questions about farming and livestock, even though he'd grown up in a suburban home with a father who ran an oil heating business. There was a running joke that Phil had an amazing natural ability to play any musical instrument. Whenever we entered a room where a guitar or harmonica was laying around it would be handed to him, even though he couldn't play a note of music.
The fact was, Phil wasn't any different from the rest of us. Maybe it was precisely because the jokes were unfair and untrue that they seemed so funny to us. Phil had grown up the same way we had. He'd watched the same shows on TV. He'd played baseball in the summer and football in the fall, he'd gone to school, he'd eaten burgers and pizza and wished he'd owned a car and spent weekend nights hanging around parking lots drinking beer. If Phil really had been a hick boy, it wouldn't have been funny to hand him a glass and say "Yo Phil, I'm thirsty, mind running out to the back and milkin' the cow?" We probably wouldn't have ranked on him at all.
But he never protested. Maybe he minded that we ganged up on him, but he took pleasure in waging a lopsided war against New York City and everything it represented. We'd be watching the ten o'clock news and hearing about the latest rapes and murders in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Phil would say "Yeah, gee, I sure wish I was from the city. Shit, yeah, I'm missing out on a lot." He started blaming everything on the city just to get a rise out of us. Once he stormed back to the dorm furious about a calculus test he'd failed; he kicked the door open and yelled "Fucking New York City!" as if the city had anything to do with the fact that he didn't know calculus.
Phil had never been downstate, and during the summer vacation between our first and second year he took a bus down to stay with Eddie and his parents in New Rochelle. This was a big day, and six or seven of us met at Eddie's house to usher Phil into the Big City. Phil didn't realize it, but he'd called our bluff, because none of us knew Manhattan very well. We got off the subway at 14th Street and 3rd Avenue and argued about whether or not you could take a subway to the Statue of Liberty, as Rich Mancuso of Floral Park believed, and whether or not Greenwich Village was a part of Manhattan Island and whether we'd have to pass through Harlem to get there. I later learned that we'd more or less been in Greenwich Village all the time we stood there talking, and that Harlem was a fairly nice part of town where a white guy could walk without even attracting stares. But we were frightened college kids then, and Phil Peverill took the train back to Johnson's Ford that summer believing that New York City consisted of a boarded-up May's department store, a couple of newsstands and a very crowded traffic intersection.
For our second year we switched roommates: Phil went with Eddie Rothstein and Nick Moroney went with me. Nick and I were a good match because we both liked our room neat and quiet and suitable for girlfriends, and Eddie and Phil were a good match because they liked their room messy, full of beer and suitable for Sunday afternoon football. Nick and I developed a theory over a pitcher of beer one night that all guys could be placed on a continuum between two extremes: guys that girls liked and guys that guys liked. Nick and I were nearer the girls' guy extreme, the classic ideal of which was Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. Phil and Eddie were on the guys' guy end, the archetype of which was Joe Rockhead from The Flintstones. When girls I dated mentioned Phil's name, their voices took on the same tone as Wilma's and Betty's when they talked about Joe Rockhead.
During our first two years in college neither Phil or Eddie went on a single date. Playboy centerfolds decorated their walls, but women were alien invaders to them. Females did not speak the language they spoke.
I often got sick of Phil and Eddie, and I sometimes got sick of Nick too. Just as Phil was the token hick in our gang, I was the token hippie, and I got ranked on a lot for being a vegetarian, for studying philosophy, for attending nuclear power protests and listening to the Grateful Dead. Sometimes I wondered why I hung around with these amiable lunkheads, but I guess there was something about Phil and Eddie and Nick that I liked. Maybe I just enjoyed the random element of our friendship: a computer had assigned us together in a dorm, and thus it was ordained that we should learn to understand each other. During the next few years I would even allow these beer-guzzling Young Republicans to influence me a little too much. I cut my hair shorter and started eating hamburgers and changed my major from philosophy to computer science so I'd be able to make some money when I graduated.
But I also used to hang around with the college Deadhead crowd, the group that Eddie Rothstein sneerily referred to as the Beansprout Contingent. There was Tonka, the eternal senior who must have been in his mid-twenties, who could never graduate because he had to follow the Dead whenever they swung by the East Coast and would return to classes a month later with a relaxed smile on his face. There was Matt Simpson, hacky-sack player extraordinaire, who liked to be called Cosmic Charlie and who would eventually become a born-again Christian in Texas. And there was Wendy, a little red-haired ragamuffin in torn bluejeans who somehow managed to get amazing grades and was planning to become a dentist.
Wendy also happened to be an amazing pool player, and one night Phil and Nick and Eddie and I found ourselves in the same bar as Wendy and her Deadhead friends. Nick and I started a pool game against Tonka and Wendy, and when we lost Phil and Eddie took a turn, scoffing at us for losing to a team that included a girl. Wendy proceeded to clear the table.
Phil took this as a personal insult, and challenged her to a round of one-on-one. She murdered him. I looked at his face and saw an expression I'd never seen before. Something had changed. Phil had fallen in love.
They continued to play against each other for the rest of the night, and Phil gazed at her with adoration as she proceeded to slam away shot after shot. At one point I sidled up to her and whispered, "What's your secret?"
She whispered back, "Three older brothers and a pool table in the basement."
During breaks in the game we walked over to Phil and urged him to ask her out. He listened to our exhortations solemnly, nodding his head and staring at his beer. Finally he asked us to leave the bar for a while. He'd never tried to ask a girl out before, and didn't want us to watch him 'operate.'
He caught up with us a few bars later. "How's it going, Phil?"
"Things are cool," he said.
"I said to her, if I win this next game you have to take me to a movie this weekend, and if you win I'll take you to a movie."
"Yeah? Then what?"
"I'm taking her to a movie this weekend."
To our utter shock, Phil and Wendy became a couple. This honestly surprised me; I was able to imagine them dating a couple of times, but I never saw them as a permanent relationship. By becoming her regular boyfriend, Phil inserted himself right into the center of the territory I'd previously considered my own. Suddenly he was right in the middle of the vortex of the acoustic-guitar strumming, bandanna-wearing, pot-smoking, Jeep-driving, hackysack-kicking, couscous-eating minority fringe, the fringe that had survived from the 70's and would eventually reemerge in the 90's.
It had surprised me a little when Phil hit it off with Wendy, but it surprised me a lot when he hit it off with Wendy's friends. He'd certainly never shown the slightest hippie inclinations before. There was nothing obvious in Phil's personality that would seem to connect him to this group of people, and yet he was drawn to them and they to him.
Eddie and Nick and I felt slightly hurt; we'd thought he'd belonged to us completely. Soon Phil was growing his hair out and saying that maybe Ronald Reagan wasn't really that great after all. Wendy and her friends took Phil with them for a weekend drive to a Grateful Dead concert in Glens Falls, and when he returned he wore a bright red bandanna around his sloppy dark brown hair and announced that he was a Deadhead.
For some reason, this irritated me incredibly. Maybe I was jealous of Phil hanging with my friends, or maybe I was just in a bad mood that day, but after enduring two years of Phil's taunts for my own hippie tendencies I was completely unwilling to accept the notion of him truly understanding the Grateful Dead. I could only imagine that he was trying to ingratiate himself with Wendy by calling himself a Deadhead, and to do this was to cheapen something I cared deeply about. "Phil," I said, "You can't just decide to be a Deadhead. It's not like a club you join."
"They were great," he said. "Man, Jerry doing 'The Wheel' ... it was amazing."
"Where the fuck did you get that bandanna?" I demanded.
"I bought it."
"Bought it where?"
"In a store."
"See, there you go, Phil," I said. "Real Deadheads don't go out to fucking Macy's and buy a bandanna."
"Then where do they get them?"
"They don't get them. They just kind of have them laying around. Anyway, how many live tapes do you have?"
"My friend Ken taped Europe '72 for me."
I snorted. "That's a released album! Shit, Phil, you gotta have at least three shelves of tapes and they gotta be indexed and cross-referenced by location and date and whether or not they played St. Stephen or Dark Star. Come on, Phil! You're a rookie!"
I expected this phase to pass quickly, but it didn't. Phil would hang around our dorm room drinking beers and watching football, but then he'd tie his sneakers and get up and say "Well, I think I'll head out for a walk." We'd know he was planning to end the night with his other friends. Eddie would rip into him: "Oh, let's go visit Wendy. Let's put on Terrapin Station and chant for the sun to rise!" Phil would smile or give him the finger, depending on his mood, and then he'd be off.
I only saw Phil once after college.