I learned last week that an old university friend died. We spent two years together in Bennett House at Mount Allison University in the mid-80s. His name was Jim Morrison.
Not that Jim Morrison. Not the Lizard King, though Jim was big like a T Rex, and he tended to lumber like one. He was also legally blind, but only in the sense that you wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel with him.
Big Jim could appear terrifying when he wanted to, especially if he was scowling.
But it’s not the scowl I remember. I remember the grin. I remember the stereo.
I was an insecure, vanilla kid living away from home for the first time in a dorm aptly known as “Animal House.” It was like permanent summer camp, complete with the sort of pranks you’d expect when 18- to 23-year-old boys live virtually unsupervised.
A favourite was leaners. Dorm room doors opened inward, so it was a pretty simple trick to fill a garbage pail with water, lean it against a closed door, knock and run. Big garbage pails. Carpeted floors. Bennett House was quite the swamp.
My roommate and I received a few such leaners. Freshmen were regularly reminded they were freshmen. Even though these upperclassmen were three, two, even just one year older, there was a definite pecking order.
So imagine a young me, feeling his way, trying to make friends, and this giant older student with a take-no-prisoners grin welcomes me into his room. And imagine that room has the biggest big-ass stereo in the house.
Jim was big, his talk was big and his music was big. He unabashedly loved Top 40 and he loved to crank it. Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” – for when the drums kick in. The intro to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” – for when the drums kick in. The theme to “Miami Vice” – for… well, it was pretty much all drums. Jim loved the drum parts.
I had forgotten “Money for Nothing” until I began writing this, and when I did, I smiled to myself, because Jim shared (imposed) his music with such gusto. This was happy music, even terrible songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Sussudio.” You want Zeppelin and Floyd? Down the hall in the room with the black light and the closed door. Jim’s door was never closed.
I don’t know if you’d call him the King of Bennett House. More like the Cruise Director of Bennett House. Something was always happening in Jim’s room. People wanted to be around his energy, and he wanted to be around them. Jim was a storyteller. He could regale. And what’s a regaler without an audience?
He was also generous – with notes, with clothes, you name it. Want to make a mix tape? He’d set you up. Yes, I made a mix tape with “Like a Virgin” on it. It’s Jim’s fault.
We weren’t close, but we were close enough that I saw some dark times too, usually over what any young guy’s dark times are about – girls. The girls loved Jim, but they didn’t love Jim. He wasn’t standard-issue boyfriend material.
So I was happy to see in Jim’s obituary that he had married, that he had had a successful career as a financial analyst and that he had two young sons that he loved to watch play sports. Did he still play it loud, I wondered? Was he still the universal donor of friendship?
Jim wasn’t on social media, and I had no contact with him over the past 30 years. I learned of his sudden death through a mutual friend. We’re getting to that age where there will be more and more such news, I’m afraid.
Jim and I didn’t hang out after I moved out of Bennett. As I said, we weren’t especially close. Yet I can’t think of those first two years without thinking of him. Big Jim was cool — he shouldn’t have been, but by the force of will he was. He filled the room, and letting me squeeze in that room during those early days of my independence made this kid feel like, hey, I’m all right. I’m going to be all right. Leaners and all.
That’s what I want. I want to remember how a generous spirit can make a difference in someone else’s life. I want to remember Big Jim’s big grin and warm heart. I want my MTV.