By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 6, 2015
I’ve spent most of the past two weeks visiting the house outside of New York City where I grew up. It’s also the same place where I lived for several years after college. The home is still occupied by one of my progenitors, whom I often refer to as my parental unit or P.U.
P.U. is likely to move at some point in the next few years, so there have been rumblings about the need to reduce some of the stuff that clutters up the house — much of which is my parent’s, but some of which is mine and my sibling’s. Now, we’ve heard talk about moving for years, but there’s a certain urgency on my parent’s part now. Also, psychologically, I feel ready to do my part in getting rid of old stuff.
So the other day, when I had a little spare time, I ran down to the basement and picked out a box of my old belongings that had been packed away for several years. I must have been talking on the phone while I did this, because when I got upstairs and opened the box, it wasn’t at all what I expected to find.
A lot of the stuff in the container appeared to be notebooks and papers from school. (Whether these date back to high school or college, or both, I have yet to check.) But it also held a stack of small boxes of old checks and checkbooks, which were definitely from my college years. I started looking through these documents and found myself captivated.
Without revealing my exact age — suffice to say that college was a long time ago! — the American financial landscape was very different when I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree. Debit cards had yet to be invented. (Or at least, they’d yet to be ushered into widespread usage.) Cash-dispensing ATMs were relatively new in those years. Credit cards were well-established, but lots of smaller vendors didn’t take them. That was especially true at that time of artists who sold their goods at fairs and other gatherings on college campuses and of students who sold to other students.
So what did these old documents tell me about my long-ago self? Come along and find out, friends!
• Based on the evidence of my old checks, I didn’t carry much cash around campus with me. I found lots and lots of checks that I wrote for purchases of less than $10. Many of these were $6.50 and $8.50 checks written out to Stanford Food Services.
I found at least two checks that I wrote for purchases of less than four dollars. As a freshman, I made out a check for the whopping sum of $3. The recipient was Shellscape; the memo read “SS shell.” I have no idea what I bought for three dollars, what Shellscape is or was and what an SS shell might have been.
• The process of paying by check was often neither quick nor easy. Vendors jotted down my SUID — my Stanford University student identification number — on many of my checks. Other checks bore my phone number, which was (415) *97-4647 at one time and *97-6398 at another time. Sometimes vendors asked for my driver’s license, the number of which also got recorded on my financial instruments. A number of checks had two of these three numbers.
• Do you remember when telephones, fax machines and photocopiers were just about the only high-tech information devices in widespread consumer usage?
Do I miss those days?
Running across a check made out to a place called Copy Perfect spontaneously brought to mind the inconvenience of this period of time.
• I had a goofy sense of humor. I found a stray page from my check register that included a notation for Tresidder Express, which was either a convenience store or a food outlet at Tresidder Memorial Union on the Stanford University campus. That entry had a parenthetical addition that read “Tresex” — my version of a clever portmanteau.
Even more embarrassing, I found some checks that I wrote to a dorm mate, a payment for something related to a dorm ski trip. Her name was Angela, but I saw fit to render it into syl la bles. Yes: The check’s recipient was “An gel a”…
Once, I wrote a check for $3.75 to someone. (Memo: “SS orna.”) Except, in another attempt to be clever, I rendered the amount as $03.750 in the number box and “three 750/1000” on the amount line. Mathematically, those are just two different methods of stating the same amount. Wasn’t I clever for knowing this?!
• Memory can be resilient. I ran across a $140.48 check that I wrote to the North Face. The memo said “Cat’s Meow bag and thermarest pad, factory outlet.”
But I didn’t need the memo, because I remember the purchase well. It was just before the start of my sophomore year, and — not quite on the spur of the moment — I’d decided that I needed to get in line to sign up for a creative writing course.
This would require camping out overnight. So the day before signups began, I bicycled over to the North Face and bought a blue sleeping bag and a burned-orange pad to place beneath it.
I owned both of those for many many years. But I went camping with them almost never.
• A haircut cost only eight bucks at the Campus Barber Shop. The price is probably about twice that in most places in the country these days.
• Dorm ski trips seem to have been a good bargain, even for an awkward introvert like me who wasn’t much of a skier and who wasn’t making time with pretty girls in Lake Tahoe (or anywhere). $120 or less for transportation, lodging, equipment rental, a lift ticket and sometimes even a meal or two? Wow, that’s a great deal.
I mean, yeah, I must have paid cash for additional expenses. But still, that’s a nice deal.
I went on three dorm ski trips in college, as I recall (and as my old checks indicate), each time in a different winter’s season. I’d never gone skiing before I went to college.
• My freshman roommate’s middle names were “Hadleigh John.”
• I bought a lot of novelty Stanford T-shirts. I bought T-shirts made by The Stanford Chaparral, the campus humor magazine. I bought T-shirts made by The Stanford Daily, the student newspaper. I bought T-shirts made by random students showcasing such themes as a Late Night with David Letterman Top 10 list of Stanford in-jokes. I bought T-shirts commemorating Big Game, the heated annual football rivalry game between Stanford and Cal.
This wasn’t exactly news to me; after all, I still have many of these T-shirts. But knowing that I have a bunch of T-shirts is one thing. Stumbling across the checks I wrote for them is another.
• On at least two occasions, I paid people for books. I wrote a $9.95 check to a man named Zingsheim (?) for a copy of J.G. Ballard’s trippy novel The Day of Creation. I wrote a $19.26 check to a woman named Djudzman (?!) for a copy of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s seminal steampunk novel, The Difference Engine. (I like both of those writers, but I absolutely hated that book — and I see that I’m not alone in that.)
I guess that the first purchase was at a sale of some sort. I think that I must have paid Djudzman, who I’m sure was a fellow student, to get me The Difference Engine because she was going to an off-campus bookstore. I didn’t have a car, so I depended a lot on the kindness of others.
But most of my book purchases — and purchases of other necessities, such as gift cards, wrapping paper and Stanford apparel — were made at the Stanford Bookstore, conveniently located at the heart of campus.
I paid $16.18 for a copy of Successful Scriptwriting, which I don’t remember at all. I bought not one but two copies of The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s popular 1983 retelling of the legend of King Arthur. This book was assigned for one of my English classes; I assume I needed a second copy because the first one was borrowed but not returned, or because I lost my copy, or because I somehow ruined it, perhaps by getting it wet.
There were lots of expenses for textbooks, including $49.25 for what is described in the memo as “Hum Sex text.” (That was the textbook in my introduction to human sexuality course.) School can be expensive.
• I’m kind of a klutz. I found an $83.62 check written out to the Bike Doctor; the memo stated, simply, “plethora.”
In the spring of my freshman year, I paid $34.98 to a fellow student. Memo: “breaking bike tire.”
• Remember music stores? I do!
Back in college, I used to visit them every so often to pick up cassette tapes, usually of movie soundtracks. I found a $21.63 check to a place called Wherehouse for the Blue Velvet and The Last Emperor soundtracks. The previous day, I’d paid Tower Records $11.30 for the Thelma & Louise soundtrack. I bought the excellent Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country soundtrack, composed by Cliff Eidelman, at the Stanford Bookstore at the same time I picked up my second copy of The Mists of Avalon.
One of my most ignominious purchases was at the Wherehouse, which was the recipient of a check for $8.64. On the memo I wrote Dick Tracy and Was (Not Was). I’d bought a copy of Danny Elfman’s soundtrack (not bad, if I recall correctly) and what was essentially a novelty rock album.
Actually, my worst twofer was probably a purchase that I made at Rasputin’s, a Berkeley, Calif., music store that I remember warmly, if vaguely. I paid $14.99 for a copy of Philip Glass’s bizarre “science fiction music drama” 1000 Airplanes on the Roof and Open All Night, the sophomore album from the goofy Southern-fried rock band the Georgia Satellites. Curiously, although I was kind of a fan of their music, I wrote “Georgian Satellites” on the check memo.
• Memory can be fickle. When I found that stray page from my check register, I was baffled by an entry for a $13 purchase that was labeled “Baywash.” Perhaps this was a student theatrical production? I’m really not sure.
I tweeted out a photo of the page. To my surprise, it triggered a lengthy discussion among my Stanford followers about pizza joints from their long-ago student days. One place that got mentioned quite a lot in these tweets was Roundtable Pizza, which I didn’t remember at all.
I fondly recall the pizza at Ramona’s and/or Ramona’s Too, which was the recipient of several of my checks during my college years. I also enjoyed the pizza at Applewood Inn, where I dined infrequently. (It was less convenient to campus and surely did not deliver, which Ramona’s did.) Roundtable? Didn’t ring a bell.
Later, I found a check written out to Roundtable, meaning that I’d definitely had their pizza.
Subsequently, I glanced at the photo of the check register that I’d tweeted out. There actually was an entry for Roundtable in the picture, which I hadn’t noticed at all.
I still don’t remember much about Roundtable. But yeah, I’ve had their food.