April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer.

Back in 1996, only rich people had mobile phones, because they were large and expensive.  If I wanted to call someone in another city, I had to make a long distance call from my landline telephone, and I would get billed for the call by the minute.  The University of Jeromeville got some kind of deal with MCI, a major company in the telephone industry at the time until they were acquired by Verizon in the early 2000s.  MCI provided new state-of-the-art student identification cards to all of us students, and in exchange, we got to use MCI to make long distance calls at a slightly discounted rate.  I had no plans to use this service; I already had long distance service on my phone with another company, and I did not make long distance calls very often except to my parents.  But because we were getting new ID cards, all students had to get our pictures taken again at some point during the first week of spring quarter.

“You said it looked bad!” Danielle was saying as I walked into the Newman Center chapel Wednesday night for choir practice.  I looked up to see what was going on; Danielle was holding one of the new student ID cards.  “I think this is a good picture.”

“No I don’t!” Danielle’s sister Carly exclaimed, trying to take the card away as Danielle held it away from her.

“Greg!” Danielle called out as I approached the others.  “Isn’t this a good picture of Carly?” Danielle asked as she tossed Carly’s ID card to me.

I caught the card and looked at it as Carly said, “Eww! Give it back!”  In the picture, Carly was smiling, and her straight brown hair looked neatly groomed.

“Here,” I said, handing the card back to Carly.  “I think you look just fine.”

“I should have taken my glasses off,” Carly said.  “But, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

“Can I see your new picture?” Danielle asked me.  “Did you get it yet?”

“I didn’t.  I’m probably going to go tomorrow.”

Phil Gallo turned toward us.  “I heard that people are upset because apparently MCI has all of our personal information now.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  That sounded a bit unsettling, but there was not much I could do about it at this point, except possibly boycott MCI and not use their service.

“How’d your week go, Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?” Danielle asked.

“Two math classes, Computer Science 30, and Anthro 2.”

“Is that the same Anthro class that Claire’s taking?”

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

“What?” Claire said, turning toward us. “I heard my name.”  Claire Seaver was a junior with a background in music, and although there was no formal leadership structure in our church choir, she performed many leader-like activities for the group.

“You’re in my Anthro 2 class,” I said.

“Yeah!  And we have to miss it on Friday because we’re singing here for the Good Friday Mass.”

“I know.  I hope we don’t miss too much.”

“Do either of you guys know someone who you can ask to take notes?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Tabitha Sasaki is in that class too; I already asked her today if I could copy her notes for Friday.  I’ll ask her if I can make an extra copy for Claire.  Danielle, do you know Tabitha?  She goes to JCF, and she lived in Building B last year?”

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

“Okay, everyone, we need to get started,” Claire called out.  “We have a lot of new music to practice this week, because we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”

Choir practice that week took much longer than usual, over two hours.  We had more music to practice for the upcoming Holy Week services, as well as songs specific to Easter Sunday.  By the time I got home, it was nine-thirty, and I was too tired to do any more homework.

Fortunately, the next day was Thursday, my lightest day of the week that quarter.  I was done with lower division mathematics, so for this quarter I signed up for Combinatorics and Linear Algebra Applications, two upper-division classes for which I had taken the prerequisites.  The mathematics major also required one of two possible lower division computer science courses, and being one who liked to play around with computers, I was excited for that class, Introduction to Programming.  I completed my academic schedule with Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  This would satisfy a general education requirement, and I already knew the professor, Dr. Dick Small.  He taught a class I took last year for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was in, about the literature and culture of South Africa. I always thought that Dr. Dick Small was one of the most hilariously unfortunate names that one could possibly have.

When I was signing up for classes this quarter, I noticed that all four classes that I took were only offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And, without realizing it, I noticed after the fact that I had left my Tuesdays and Thursdays completely empty, having chosen an anthro discussion on Wednesday and a computer science discussion on Monday.  Since I had also decided to take the quarter off from my part-time job tutoring at the Learning Skills Center, I had no reason to get out of bed on a Tuesday until Bible study in the evening, and no reason to get out of bed on a Thursday at all.  Some of my friends had told me that they would be perfectly happy with a schedule like that, but I did not think it would be good to be that lazy and antisocial.  The UJ physical education department offered a number of half-unit classes twice a week, and I decided to take weight training this quarter just to give me something healthy to do on these days.  I had taken bowling in the fall, for a similar reason.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds that Thursday morning, so I rode my bike to campus instead of taking the bus.  I parked outside of the Recreation Pavilion, where the weight room was.  Those first few classes the first couple weeks of the quarter, we learned a little bit about technique, and the rest of the hour we just lifted weights.  After class, I changed into normal clothes.  I also put on the jacket I had bought a couple months ago when a theft in the laundry room had forced me to buy new clothes; I had worn the jacket on my bike but taken it off for weight training.  This jacket had a black torso made from the same material as athletic wear and lined with something warm, but the sleeves were gray, made out of the same material as sweatshirts.  The jacket also had a dark green hood, but I did not put the hood on that morning.

I got back on my bike and decided to try something new today.  I rode east across campus, past the Memorial Union and the Death Star building, on the path that became Third Street.  I crossed A Street, which marked the border between the university and the city, and parked my bike about a hundred feet past A Street.  Next to this bike rack was a coffee shop called Espresso Roma.  I walked in and continued to the counter, where one person was in line in front of me.

I did not drink coffee, but at that time I had a bit of a curious fascination with coffee shops.  It seemed like hanging out in coffee shops was the cool thing to do, and I wished I could experience that, despite the fact that I did not like coffee.  The Coffee House on campus at the Memorial Union was more like a student union than an actual coffee shop.  I had seen Espresso Roma before, to my knowledge it was the closest coffee shop to campus, so I figured I would give it a try.

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

“Yes.”  The hot chocolate at the Coffee House on campus did not come with whipped cream, so this place was better in that sense.  I found a table and took off my jacket, placing it on the back of the chair.  I got out my backpack and combinatorics textbook, and looked around.  Last week, I was back home in Santa Lucia County on spring break, and I went to a coffee shop in Gabilan called the Red Bean with my friend Melissa.  Espresso Roma did not look much like the Red Bean.  Although in an old neighborhood like the Red Bean, Espresso Roma was in a much more modern-looking building.  The interior had a concrete floor with electrical conduits and air ducts visible in the ceiling above.  Floor-to-ceiling windows, with wood borders around the glass making them look more like doors, faced Third Street; one of them actually was a door, leading to outdoor tables.

I got my hot chocolate a couple minutes later and sat back down.  I had plenty more to do after I finished my combinatorics homework, since I got nothing done after choir practice last night.  I spent almost two hours in Espresso Roma reading and studying and doing homework.  I went back there several more times over the next couple years for hot chocolate and a different place to study other than the Coffee House in the Memorial Union and the library.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter, my only class was the weight training class.  I could go back home any time I wanted. But today, I had one more important thing to do before I left campus: I had not yet taken my photo for the new student ID card.  The photographers had set up in the Recreation Pavilion on the basketball court; I had seen them on the way to weight class this morning.  When I unlocked my bike, I noticed that the sky had turned gray; it had mostly been blue when I arrived at Espresso Roma two hours ago.  I felt what seemed to be raindrops on my head; that was not a good sign.  By the time I rode past the Death Star building a minute later, the rain had become much more steady.  I pulled my hood on, hoping that wearing my hood would not make my hair look funny for my picture.

It only took five minutes to get to the Recreation Pavilion by bicycle, but in that five minutes the rain quickly became a heavy downpour.  By the time I walked into the building, I was drenched.  My jacket had kept my torso sufficiently dry, but the sleeves, not being waterproof, had soaked through to the long sleeves I was wearing underneath

“Your old card, please?” a woman asked as I walked inside.  I handed over my old card, and the woman who took my card pointed at a line for me to stand in.  I could have come back tomorrow when it might be dry, but by giving her my old card, I had made my decision.  I would be looking a little bit wet in my new student ID photo.  It was no big deal.

A few minutes later, I set my jacket and backpack down when I got to the front of the line to get my picture taken.  “Looks like you got a little wet today,” the photographer asked.  “Is it raining?”

No, I thought, I was wading in the creek and I dropped something, so I had to reach in with both arms and get it.  But somehow my torso stayed miraculously dry.  “Yeah,” I said out loud.  “It just started coming down hard all of a sudden while I was on my way here.”

“You sure you want to take your picture like that?” he asked.

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

I stood and looked where he told me to.  In every ID card and school picture I had taken, I always tried my best to smile, and I hated the way I looked in every one of these pictures.  So I deliberately did not smile.  I kept my face in as much as a natural position as possible, and not smiling was natural for me.  I stared at the spot that the photographer had told me to until I heard the click and saw the flash.  “Thank you,” the photographer said.  “Go over there, and they’ll have your card ready in about ten minutes.”

A while later, I heard someone call my name from the table with the card printer on it.  A guy sitting there handed me my new card, along with a sticker to put on it to show that I was registered as a student this quarter. Whatever look I was going for, being wet and disheveled and not smiling, it did not work at all.  My face appeared angry and unstable, my hair was messy, and my wet arms were visible on the sides of the picture.  Smiling for school pictures did not work, and apparently not smiling did not work either.  The photos on ID cards just did not look good, and this was something I would have to come to accept.  And as if to drive home the point that I was just cursed with bad luck when it came to ID card photos, the weather was dry by the time I left the Recreation Pavilion, and it stayed dry for the rest of the night.


(Author’s note: This is a reconstruction, made with the help of Bitmoji. I still have the original card, but the photo is smeared and scratched after having been put in and taken out of my pocket for years, and the original card has personal information on it that I do not wish to copy here.)

The rest of the week went as planned.  I sang at both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Masses.  Friday night I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, hoping that Tabitha would be there and that she had remembered to bring her notes from anthropology class.  I noticed a few of the regulars were missing, probably because it was the weekend of Easter and some people had gone home to be with their families for the weekend.  Tabitha was there, and after the last worship song, I walked over toward her.  She was talking with Eddie, Haley, Kristina, and a guy whom I had seen around but had not met yet.  I walked up, not saying anything, not wanting to interrupt.

Eddie acknowledged me first.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Did you get your new student ID yet?  We were just talking about that.”

I pulled my new ID card out of my pocket.  “I look like a deranged serial killer,” I said sheepishly as I handed Eddie the card.

“Why is there a shadow on your arms?” he asked.

“My arms were wet,” I said, explaining the sudden downpour and my jacket.

“I want to see the deranged serial killer!” Kristina shouted.

“Is it ok to show the others?” Eddie asked me.

“Sure,” I replied.  Eddie passed the card to Kristina; Haley and Tabitha also looked at the card.

“You’re not smiling,” Haley pointed out.  “How come?”

“I smiled for my driver’s license, and all my high school yearbook pictures, and my old student ID, and I never liked the way those looked,” I explained.  “So I tried something different.  That didn’t work either, apparently.”

“It’s not bad.  But I think you would look better if you smiled.”

“Thanks,” I said, making my best attempt at a smile.  Then, turning to Tabitha, I asked, “Tabitha?  Do you have your notes from anthro today?”

“Yeah,” she said, reaching down under her chair and picking up a notebook, which she handed to me.  “I think I got all the important things Dr. Small said.”

“Can I give this back to you Monday in class?  Or do you need it sooner?”

“Monday is fine.”

“Greg,” Eddie said.  “I was going to ask you tonight.  Are you busy next weekend?”

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

“We’re planning a sophomore class trip.  We’re going to go to Bay City on Friday night, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, then find a place to sleep on the beach.  We’ll be home Saturday night so everyone can go to church Sunday.”

This invitation came as a surprise to me, I had never done anything like this, but I was intrigued.  “Who all is going?” I asked.

“All of us,” Eddie said, gesturing at himself and the others I had been talking to.  “I’m going to invite a few more people, but I don’t know yet who is going for sure.”

This was not my usual reality.  I had never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, I had never slept outdoors, and taking a trip like this was not something I normally would do on short notice.  But I learned the hard way recently that hesitating on a big decision had consequences.  Also, this trip would be a chance to spend time with friends; my 19-year-old boy mind was specifically excited about the thought of spending time with Haley.  “Sure, I’m in,” I replied.  “I should bring a sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you in a few days with more details.”

“Sounds good!  May I have my ID card back?”

“Oh yeah,” Kristina said, handing me the card.

I really was okay with the fact that I was stuck with this horrible picture on my ID card for the next few years.  Everyone seemed to have a bad student ID or driver’s license picture at some point in their lives, and now I had one with a good story behind it.  I had learned two important lessons that day.  First, my jacket was not completely waterproof, and second, I may as well smile in pictures because I did not look better not smiling.  Smiling still did not feel natural to me, but maybe I could just make myself think happy thoughts when I was posing for a picture.  And now Eddie had included me in this upcoming trip, and Haley was going to be on the trip too, and all of that certainly gave me a reason to smile.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

All the cool kids in 1996 hung out in coffee shops  The characters in the popular TV show Friends hung out at a coffee shop, bringing coffee shop culture into the mainstream.  A coffee shop served as a communal meeting place, where people could interact or just hang out while enjoying a nice drink.  Artists and performers showcased their work at coffee shops.

Unfortunately, I felt left out of this coffee shop culture, because I did not drink coffee.  I had tried to drink coffee before, and I just could not stand the taste.  And I had never seen Friends; from what I had heard, the people on the show probably would not be friends with me.

When I moved to Jeromeville, it was full of unique locally owned coffee shops, each different from the others.  But soon after that, large corporate coffee shop chains began moving in, and many of the independent coffee shops closed.  By 2020, the city and university campus had a combined total of around 80,000 residents and eight Starbucks locations, with only a couple of the independent coffee shops from 1996 remaining.

Plumdale, where I grew up, was never cool enough to have a coffee shop, although Plumdale did get a Starbucks in the early 2000s.  But Gabilan, the nearby medium-sized city, had a coffee shop in its historic Old Town called the Red Bean that would go on to survive the onslaught of the corporate coffee shops.  On the Thursday afternoon of my 1996 spring break, I found myself at the Red Bean, waiting for someone, after what felt like one of the most legendary accomplishments of my life.

This all started a little over a week ago, when I had gotten an email from Melissa Holmes, a good friend from high school.


From: “Melissa Holmes” <m.l.holmes@sanangelo.edu>
To: “Gregory Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Tue, 19 Mar 1996 19:23 -0800
Subject: Re: hi

Hi!  How are you?  Do you have finals this week too?  I had two today, and I have two more later this week.  I’ve been so busy studying, but I needed a little break today, so I’m actually checking my email for once.  How did your classes go this quarter?

Are you going to be home at all next week for spring break?  I’m doing something with my family down here on Sunday, but then I should be home Tuesday through Friday.  We should hang out and catch up.  Give me a call.  Maybe we could go bowling again.  I’ve been bowling a lot lately.  Some of us from the pre-med club went bowling a few weeks ago, and I bowled 178 – it was the best game of my life!  Hopefully I’ll see you soon!


The number 178 caught my eye.  I took a bowling class fall quarter, and the best game I bowled during that class was a score of 178.  By some bizarre coincidence, Melissa’s new personal best in bowling was exactly the same as mine.  I told this to Melissa in my reply email and said that I definitely wanted to go bowling when I was home for spring break.

Melissa told me to meet her at the bowling alley in Gabilan at one in the afternoon.  One game, to see who was really better.  One o’clock seemed like a strange time to me, but she was free then, and we were students on spring break with no schedules to work around.  I walked into the bowling alley; it was mostly empty at this time of day.  I saw someone with long brown hair sitting at a table looking away from me; I was pretty sure it was Melissa, and she turned her face toward me before I had to choose between awkwardly staring to make sure it was her or possibly embarrassing myself by taking to a stranger.

“Hey, Greg!” Melissa said, getting up to give me a side-hug.

“Hi,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Good.  Enjoying your spring break?”

“I haven’t been doing much, but it’s been good.  What about you?”

“Same thing.  Just hanging out.  You ready?”

“Sure.”

We got our shoes and balls and went to our lane.  “So what kind of things did you learn in that bowling class?” Melissa asked.

“A lot of stuff.  Throwing technique, strategy for how to aim, a little bit about the history of the game.”

“That must have been fun!  I don’t know if we have a bowling class at San Angelo.”

“Are you ready?” I asked.

“Yes!  Are you?”

“Sure.”  Trying to be dramatic, I continued, “One game, just like we said.  You versus me.  One-seventy-eight versus one-seventy-eight.”

“Good luck!” Melissa said.

“You too!”

Although this game was strictly for fun, and nothing was actually riding on the game, I felt like this was the most important game I had ever bowled.  Melissa set the tone from the beginning, getting a strike in the first frame.  I hit eight pins with my first roll and converted the spare.  I tried to continue making conversation, but I realized quickly that this was the wrong environment for that.  When bowling with a big group, it is easy for the people waiting their turn to talk to each other, but with only two of us, talking would be too distracting to whomever was bowling at the time.  This game was too important to lose focus, and distracting Melissa on purpose was playing dirty.  I wanted to win this fairly.  Our words during the game were limited to comments like “nice shot” and “oooh, almost.”

Both of us were bowling our best that afternoon.  After five frames, Melissa had bowled three strikes and two spares.  I had a strike and two spares in my first four frames, but she was clearly bowling better at that point.  When my turn came in the fifth frame, though, I bowled a strike.  “This isn’t over yet,” I said, chuckling.  Melissa bowled her first open frame in the sixth, with seven pins on the first roll and two on the second.  With no strike or spare, the scoreboard showed her full score of 113 for the first six frames.  That was more like what I usually got for my final score.  I stepped forward for my sixth frame and rolled another strike.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “You’re heating up!”

“Thanks,” I said.

Melissa bowled a strike in her seventh frame, and I answered with another strike of my own, my third in a row.  “Turkey!” I shouted.

“Huh?”

“Three strikes in a row.  They call that a turkey.”

“Oh yeah.”

In the eighth frame, both of us bowled spares.  Because the score after a strike or a spare depended on the next roll it was impossible to know the exact score after the eighth frame, but by doing some quick adding in my head, I could tell that this was going to be a very close game, and I said so.

“I know,” Melissa said.  “You’re doing really well.”

“So are you!  This is already a better total than I usually get, and we still have two frames left.”

“That bowling class really helped you.”

“I hope so.  All the practicing has helped you too.”

Melissa bowled another strike in the ninth frame, giving her a total of 153 for the eighth frame and a minimum of 163 now.  My hand slipped as I made the first roll of my ninth frame, and the ball only hit four pins.  I did not come anywhere close to converting the spare, only hitting three pins on the second roll and giving me a score of 160.  I still had a chance to win, but Melissa was clearly ahead now.  Even if I finished the game with two gutter balls, though, this would still be my third best game ever, and that was nothing to be ashamed of.

Melissa began her tenth frame with a 7-10 split, leaving the two pins in the back corners.  Her second roll hit nothing, passing between the two upright pins and just missing the one on the right.  “Field goal!  It’s good!” I said, raising both of my arms straight up as if signaling a score in a football game.

“Yeah,” Melissa said, chuckling.  “I don’t think bowling works that way.”

“Look,” I said, pointing at the scoreboard.  “It’s your best game ever.”  Melissa’s final score was 179, one better than either of us had ever bowled before.  “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” Melissa replied.  “Now let’s see what you can do.”

I looked at the scoreboard.  Since the score for a strike or spare requires knowing the next roll, and there is no next roll after the tenth frame, rolling a strike or spare in the tenth frame results in bonus rolls to resolve the score.  I was down by 19, so I could still win this game and get a new personal best too.  But I would have to get a strike and a spare at the minimum.  I stepped up to the lane, rolled the ball, and knocked down nine pins, all but the number 10 pin in the back right corner.  I still had a hard time hitting that pin, after all the practice in bowling class.  I had no room for error remaining.  I picked up my ball, carefully rolled it toward the one remaining pin, and knocked it over.

“I’m still alive,” I said to Melissa.

“Pressure’s on,” she replied.

I began to feel nervous as I moved my hand over the fan.  I picked up my ball, hoping that my hand was sufficiently dry.  I brought the ball to my face, carefully aligning my body and the ball with the pins.  I thought of the time I was in bowling class, when the red pins appeared at the front of the lane, and I won everyone in the class a free game by bowling a strike.  If I could do that, I could do this.  I brought the ball high, began walking toward the lane as I swung the ball forward, and released the ball just before my feet reached the foul line.  The ball rolled down the lane to the right, curved slightly toward center, and hit the front pin hard just to its right.  I watched all ten pins fall, pumping my fist in the air.

“180!” I said as I watched my final score of 180 appear on the scoreboard just below Melissa’s final score of 179.  Melissa had beaten her previous personal best by one, and I had beaten my identical previous personal best by two.  I stared at the scoreboard for a while, grinning from ear to ear; I still could not believe that this perfect ending was happening.

“Wow,” Melissa said.  “Good game.”

“You too,” I replied.  “That was amazing.”

“It was.  I guess you really are the better bowler.”

“Don’t say that.  It was just one game.  We both did really well.”

“I kind of feel like I want a rematch, but we agreed, just one game.”

“Yeah, we did,” I said.  “You want to do something else?”

“Sure.  Red Bean?”

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you there.”

The Red Bean and the bowling alley were on the same street, about a mile apart.  I found a parking place across the street and walked into the building.  The 100-year-old buildings in this block of Old Town Gabilan touched each other, with no space in between, and parking either on the street or in the back.  The front wall of the Red Bean was mostly large windows, with tables and chairs visible inside; an older man sat inside next to one window reading the newspaper, while the table by the other window was empty.  The front door was recessed a few feet from the front windows.  I walked in and looked around.  Paintings hung on most of the walls, some with small signs stating the title and name of the artist.  Two women sat talking at a table toward the back of the room.  The counter was on the left; I was debating whether or not to order a hot chocolate when I saw Melissa walk in.

“Hey,” she said.  “What are you getting?”

“Hot chocolate.”

“You don’t drink coffee.  That’s right.”

“I’ve tried drinking coffee.  I just don’t like the taste.  I can’t.  I wish I could.  I feel like not drinking coffee stunts my social life.”

“How so?”

“Because if I’m hanging out in a fun place like this, I feel out of place not drinking coffee.  And it’s weird to think of asking a girl out for coffee if I’m not going to drink coffee.”

We got our drinks and sat at the empty table by the window.  Melissa looked at me and smiled slyly.  “So, who is this girl that you want to ask out for coffee?”

“What?”

“You mentioned wanting to ask a girl out for coffee.  Who is she?”

“Well,” I said, “I just meant in general.  There is a girl, but… I don’t know.”

“Does she know you?”

“Yeah.  She goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But I just met her a couple months ago.  It’s probably too soon.  And I don’t know how to ask girls out.”

“You just ask her.  You’ll never know unless you try.”

“I suppose,” I said.  “So how’s school going for you?”

“My grades are still good.  And I’ve started to get involved with the pre-med club.”

“Good!  I remember you saying last year you felt kind of isolated because you lived off-campus with your grandma.  I’m glad you found a group to get involved with.

“Yeah!  It’s fun.  What about this new Christian group you’ve been talking about?  What denomination is it?”

“It’s part of a national organization called Intervarsity, but it’s nondenominational,” I explained.  “The weekly meetings have music, and a talk kind of like a sermon, and then there are small group Bible studies too.”

“Are you still going to Mass?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it weird that you’re hanging out with Protestants now?”

“I don’t think so, really.  It’s the same Jesus, and the things that Catholics and Protestants have in common are so much more important than the differences.”

“I guess.  That’s true.”

“And I’m learning a lot from reading and studying the Bible.”

“Good.”

“Oh, yeah.  A guy from my Bible study named Evan Lundgren said he knows you, and told me to tell you hi.”

“Evan!” Melissa exclaimed.  “I forgot he went to Jeromeville!  How’s he doing?”

“He seems to be doing well.  He’s a really nice guy.”

“Yeah, he is.”

“How do you know him anyway?”

“One summer, we both volunteered at the hospital,” Melissa explained.

“Oh, okay,” I said.  After a pause, I asked, “Do you still hear from a lot of people from high school?”

“I still see Deanna around campus pretty often,” Melissa said.  “I hear from Renee and Catherine occasionally too.  Anthony and Kevin haven’t written me in a long time.  Didn’t you go visit Renee in Valle Luna?”

“Yeah.  Back in the fall.  That was a fun trip.”

“Who else are you still in touch with?”

“Just you and Renee and Rachel Copeland.  I haven’t heard from Catherine in a while.  Tell her I said hi if you hear from her soon.”

“I will.  Where is Rachel now?”

“She’s at St. Elizabeth’s, in Los Nogales.”

“Is she Catholic?”

“I don’t think so.  She just said she liked the school.”

Melissa and I spent about an hour and a half catching up at the Red Bean.  I did not like the taste of coffee, and I was not exactly part of the Red Bean’s trendy clientele, but I appreciated the niche that places like this filled.  It was a perfect place to sit and catch up with an old friend.

In Jeromeville, where I lived during the school year, I followed the local news, and I knew that many residents of Jeromeville opposed corporate chain stores, wanting to keep Jeromeville a unique and quirky university town.  As one who generally supports a free market, I thought at first that those people were un-American.  If a corporation wants to open a new location in a new city, they should be allowed to, and if the people of the new city really do not want the corporation there, then they can vote with their pocketbooks and not patronize that business. I also came to realize over time that Jeromevillians were a bunch of hypocrites on this matter, only opposing corporate chain stores that they perceive as low-class.  They have never allowed Walmart in Jeromeville, but few people fought the arrival of Starbucks, Gap, or Trader Joe’s.

While I still lean toward less government regulation, I have come to appreciate what small businesses do for a community.  If corporate chains were to take over everything, then cities and towns and neighborhoods would be one step closer to all looking the same.  I now live about 30 miles from Jeromeville in a sprawling suburb on the other side of the Drawbridge, and while there is much about the culture and political climate in Jeromeville that has kept me from moving back, I do miss the uniqueness and quirkiness sometimes.  But no matter where I am, I can find local businesses to patronize, and I can do my part not to be exactly like everyone else.