I entered the University of Pennsylvania (‘Penn’) in 1961, at the age of sixteen. This sad story of my friend of that time, ‘the lost boy’, speaks for itself.
THE LOST BOY
My two best friends for my first months at Penn were John Osborne and Robert Snelling. The story of how I came back into touch with John Osborne later in life is an extraordinarily bizarre tale, but it must be told another time.
I met Robert on the first day of Math 140, Section 21, Calculus and Analytical Geometry. I anticipated a steady progress, unimpeded by obstacles, towards my completing this course in mathematics. After all, I had already studied Analytical Geometry at school and I think I was top in that. But I hadn’t reckoned on mass education methods. I was deeply puzzled on that day when I found the lecture room. It was extremely large, and at least 200 students were gathered together in breathless dread. How can one learn mathematics in such a setting, I wondered? The answer was, one couldn’t, of course.
I was slightly reassured when the small Middle European Jewish professor arrived. I have long since forgotten his name, probably because I never actually spoke to him once. [Mel Nathanson thinks he was either Hans Rademacher or Emile Grosswald.] He was well along in his sixties and was doubtless a refugee from Hitler in 1938. He was very confident, had done this all countless times before, and when we were all sitting quietly wondering what he might say, he reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a coin. He threw it suddenly from one end of the lecture stage to the other, and said drolly: “That is a parabola.”
I was thrilled. Here was a man with imagination. The trajectory of the coin was indeed a parabola; what a clever way to demonstrate it! What would he do next? Did he intend to go on with such demonstrative antics? He tried to break through the barrier of being the distant figure on the lecture stage confronted by a veritable horde of apprehensive students by choosing some of us at random to answer pointed questions: what did we think such-and-such was, what idea did we have of this or that? Unfortunately, there were a lot of very stupid and unimaginative students present in the audience. He got some terrible dud answers, especially from some silly girls with pencils between their teeth who had been admired by all the boys in high school and were showing off their brains and busts at the same time behind their clipboards. Their vanity annoyed and dismayed him, their stupidity alarmed and depressed him. He was getting to be an old man, he had once been energetic but was it worth it now? He looked round at us dubiously. He knew perfectly well there wasn’t much he could possibly hope to do faced with more than 200 students sitting in tiers above him. Some said we were 400. Whatever the true figure, this was no way to get an education. For one thing, no one ever managed to get a question in. There was no point even inviting any. I remember sitting very much at the back, high up, looking down as on a distant view of a landscape. The small professor looked like a hand-puppet.
The professor decided to start again. He would try one more tack. He referred to the textbook which we were meant to use rather slightingly. It was Calculus with Analytical Geometry by Richard E. Johnson and Fred L. Kiokemeister, the May, 1961, printing, and thus hot off the press. This was something of a problem for me, as I did not have the book. The cheque for my textbooks had not come, and I was unable to buy any. It would be about a month before I could get the textbook. The book begins with two pages about numbers. The professor referred to this and seemed pretty bored by Johnson and Kiokemeister, who were an uninspired pair, that’s for sure. He then gave a peroration about numbers. He said he had once had a friend who had written the best introductory book about numbers that had ever been written in his opinion. The man’s name was Tobias Dantzig, - another refugee in America from Hitler’s regime, I later discovered. The book was Number: The Language of Science. If we would only read this book, we would become so wise and comprehend so much, we would be transformed. I couldn’t wait. In any case, not having any access to a textbook, I rushed to take this out of the library the same or the next day and started reading it eagerly. It was wonderful. I have two copies of my own now (different editions) and have many times read chapters in it over and over. I thought the course was going to go on like this, but the professor very soon lost heart, and just lectured by rote about boring differentiation techniques and derivatives of functions. He did come alive a bit, and a little of his old flame flared up, when he waxed lyrical about functions; I loved the way he said “f of x” with such a heavy accent, the “f” practically running to three syllables, and the “x” sounding like the first three letters of the word “excess”. But the lack of response, the preference of the students for rote learning, their noses always buried in their clipboards writing things down as notes to be memorised, and their total lack of interest in ideas and the fact that no heads were up listening, all heads were parallel with the desk tops, depressed the professor and made him give up all hope. Nobody could have been more depressed than I was; this was about as enlightening and as interesting as watching the football game described earlier. There were hundreds of questions tumbling around in my head, but during the course of the semester, I don’t believe that my raised hand was ever noticed. I was never called upon, and I never got a single question in. But in that I was not alone; it was an experience shared by most of the huge audience of students. For some reason best known to the university authorities, mathematics was a mass production process, and we were all to be squeezed like sausages through the machine at as little cost as possible. To spend months learning calculus without the opportunity for a single question, with a professor whom one never had the chance to speak one word to even by way of greeting, was dispiriting, and it made the whole process seem a sick joke. I straggled through with a lowly “C”, which was more than some got!
With me in this vast menagerie were various assorted friends and acquaintances. There was of course the shining-eyed apostle of equations, Mel Nathanson, who went on to become a mathematics professor himself. A small, bright and very intense Jewish boy, Mel was made for mathematics, since the substitution of symbols for words did not bother him at all, and he had a mental architecture where the manipulation of these symbols happened as if by itself. His IQ was probably between 150 and 160. Mel did not actually become a mathematician until later. He got a degree in philosophy at Penn, then went on to Harvard to do biophysics, and finally made his way into mathematics through the influence of a philosopher colleague who had worked in logic. Mel is the author of numerous books and articles on number theory. One of his recent books is entitled Additive Number Theory. He went along to Barnes & Noble in Manhattan to check on its availability, only to be told that there was no such book. He eventually discovered this was because someone had added an unwelcome consonant to the title, changing it to Addictive Number Theory! There was also Lew Coopersmith, befuddled and struggling like most of the rest of us, in his good-natured way. He would later be keen on study groups and shared notes, all of which seemed pointless to me but was the favoured approach of most of the class.
At this “parabola lecture” I sat next to a sandy-haired boy with his shirt-sleeves rolled up, a clipboard, and a slide-rule and a surprising number of pencils in his shirt pocket, which I was to discover he usually had there, and used for computations. We got chatting and ambled away from the mathematics hall together after the lecture. He was extremely affable and we became instant friends. His name was Robert Snelling. If young today he would be a brilliant hacker or computer nerd, but in those days computers didn’t yet exist except as huge machines filling whole rooms, so he couldn’t be one. He was a whizz at mathematics. Everything of that kind was effortless for him. His face was narrow and long, he was lean in build and rather tall. In retrospect, I realize that his expression was overly-tense, betraying an anxiety about obstacles, and his expression was also one of determination, - to cut corners in life, and by calculation if possible. But the impression he gave when you were with him was a highly relaxed one, like a competent athlete, which I only realised much later was because he took nothing seriously, held nothing sacred. He was one of the early people I met who thought he could cheat life.
Robert was basically a nice guy. He had no malice. He was generous and a good friend. But some of the nicest guys, who are some of the best friends, have things wrong with them that are so serious that it knocks the prop out from under you. This was to be my experience with him. He had a worm in his soul. He was likeable and good company in the way that Mafia men are in those horrible films by Francis Ford Coppola; they embrace you warmly, are thrilled to see you, offer you things, listen to your troubles, pour you a drink and make you feel welcome; but meanwhile, they are killing people in their spare time.
I enjoyed Robert’s company. Indeed, I delighted in it. I liked the way he could really play the guitar properly and took it seriously, like mathematics. I overlooked the tension in his narrow face and instead believed the relaxed and affable demeanour, revelled in the reassurance of his easygoing comradeship. He accepted me unquestioningly, and I was grateful for that. After all, acceptance was not familiar to me. Everything for Robert was easy, and if I was worried about something, it was not really a problem. He often helped me figure out how to deal with vicissitudes, especially my lack of money. He pitied me for my abject poverty, and I was soon to learn that he did not allow such things to get in his way. One sunny afternoon we were walking down Walnut Street together in the vicinity of Rittenhouse Square. We decided to pop into a shop which sold fountain pens and admire them. Robert knew that I didn’t have one and he wanted to show his friendship to me. I gazed in wonder at an expensive black Parker pen with a silver cap. When we were a bit further along in our walk, he pulled something out of his pocket and handed it to me: it was the pen! He had shoplifted it for me, - touching but desperately alarming! I was horror-struck, since theft to me is a monstrous thing. I wanted to go back and return it to the shop, and protested to him how could he steal? He laughed his easy chuckle and pointed out to me that I needed a good pen and why should lack of money be allowed to stand in my way? I said yes, but we shouldn’t steal!! Please, we must go back and hand it in. But then he explained to me that we couldn’t, because then we would be admitting a theft and he might be prosecuted. I said, what about slipping it through the mailbox or something at night? But that seemed a bit foolish. He looked at me earnestly and said: “Bob, keep the pen. You’re going to be a writer. A writer needs a good pen. Look at all these people who can go into that shop and buy a pen. They can’t write. You can. Why the hell should they have the pen and not you? And besides, it’s a gift. It’s my present to you. If you want to get rid of it now that I’ve given it to you, you’re not being grateful. I’ve already risked getting caught stealing to give it to you. Keep it.”
And do you know, I still have that pen, forty-five years later, and I use it every day. It has been adapted now to take ink cartridges, since Parker no longer make replacements for the capillary-action ink-suction that it originally had.
I could digress at this point about acts of larceny that lie at the bottom of so many literary works, but I won’t.
This incident was a great moral crisis for me. It was the first pebble to ripple the pool of our friendship. I appreciated the generosity of Robert, and his desire to give me something very special that I really needed and wanted. Rarely have I received such a perfectly-judged gift. But the casualness of his thieving and its revelation of his amoral nature, deeply shocked and unsettled me. I worried, and I worried, and I worried, and I worried.
During the autumn I came to know of two favoured folk music clubs haunted by Penn students. The favourite was The Second Fret, on Sansom Street almost as far down as Broad Street. It was expensive and I was never able to afford to go there, so can’t say what it was like. But a nearer one was The Gilded Cage, roughly in the vicinity 18th Street and Spruce, on a small quiet corner.
Robert introduced me to The Gilded Cage. He said there was this wonderful place with a woman who played the guitar and sang folk songs in the evening and you could sit around and drink coffee and enjoy the music and the atmosphere. He quickly became a habitué of the place. He took me there and bought me what was to be my favourite drink at the place, a hot drink of almond syrup and water. I believe the woman was an Israeli, as was the man who ran the wonderful little coffee house in Greenwich Village on 7th Avenue in those days called The Feenjon (Turkish for “coffee pot”), where I was later also to drink the same hot almond drinks, which are apparently popular in the Middle East. When The Feenjon moved to the centre of Greenwich Village it lost all its charm and atmosphere completely. But at its birth it was absolutely marvellous.
The singer and manageress of The Gilded Cage was a very attractive woman with long black hair, and an excellent singer. She sang all the Joan Baez numbers and was our private Joan Baez, right there in person, but with a deeper voice, - like the voice Joan Baez has now, in fact. My favourite of all her songs was one she used to sing every night about the wild goose grasses a-growin’ over me. I don’t know its title. She was charming, mesmerising in fact, at least to me, Robert, John Osborne, and - as later to be described - Mike Sanborn.
There were two wonderful things about The Gilded Cage. Firstly, it was open late and I could walk down there after my kitchen duty and still have a good amount of time there. But most important, it was possible to sit there for hours and spend little or even nothing. On desperate occasions I could drink water. When I had a little money I could have a hot almond drink. Nobody pestered you to spend more. It was wonderful, - I could go either there or the Frank Ford Show, or often both, essentially for free, and have splendid entertainment. The woman who ran The Gilded Cage liked having young students hanging around the place listening to her singing. It was clear that she genuinely liked us. Many of the people who went there didn’t pay attention to her singing, and at least if some of us hung around, we were always all ears and couldn’t take our eyes off her. She never made any effort to talk to us, and there was nothing personal about it. Her attitude towards us could be described as benign neglect, - she “overlooked” the fact that we never spent much and only really looked at us when we applauded her enthusiastically, at which times she would smile sweetly for a moment before moving on to the next song. The Gilded Cage was therefore the most delightful of havens, truly gilded.
It was in The Gilded Cage that I first noticed that Robert was getting pills out of his pocket and surreptitiously swallowing them. I thought they must be antibiotics and I wondered if he had caught gonorrhea, since he mentioned he had found a girlfriend in New Jersey. However, these speculations were entirely on the wrong track. After a while he told me they were pills that made him feel good, and would I like one? I have always been suspicious of pills of any kind, but pills that made you feel good sounded truly appalling. Robert said these were fairly expensive, but he would let me try one if I liked.
I asked him what on earth were pills that made you feel good? He said they were mood pills, they made your mood change, and were wonderful. What kind of mood pills? Well, they were something called amphetamines. He spelled the word and I attended carefully to this new term, which I had never heard before. He said all you had to do was swallow one and you felt terrific. I said I didn’t believe in feeling terrific because of swallowing a pill, but only because I really did feel terrific for some genuine reason. This kind of thinking puzzled him. “But Bob,” he said, “you can feel good whenever you want to. You don’t have to wait. All you have to do is swallow a pill.” “But it’s not natural,” I protested. He then went off into an astonishing paean in praise of amphetamines, of which he said there were different kinds, all of which he knew. He gave me a catalogue of two kinds of description: (a) all the delightful colours of the different pills, - there were the pink ones, the blue ones, etc., and (b) the chemical names were different, and he had made a study of them too, as well as their chemistry!!
It was typical of Robert that his approach was scientific; he had classified all the different types of amphetamines. He knew the subtle variations of their action and spoke of the types as if he were discussing redheaded, blonde and brunette girls, such was his enthusiasm. He added that amphetamines were perfectly harmless and were often prescribed by doctors. However, upon close questioning I discovered that there was another suspicious substance which he took as well. He said it was called mescalin. As he was my pal and was interested in my welfare, he did not recommend that I take mescalin just yet. Mescalin was a more powerful substance, which distorted your perception, but it too had a wonderful pedigree, since it was something which Aldous Huxley, the man who wrote Brave New World, had taken and even written a book about, so it must be all right if an intellectual like that thought it was worth a book, mustn’t it?
All of this greatly disturbed me. I strongly disagreed with Robert’s philosophy that one could add a bit of spice to life by using these artificial substances. In conversations with people over the years about such matters, advocates of drugs have often taunted me by saying: “But you drink alcohol, don’t you? And that’s an artificial substance.” However, I don’t believe that argument holds up. First of all, from the point of view of what the human body is used to, alcohol has been consumed by human beings for thousands of years and with the exception of isolated peoples such as the Native Americans, there is a demonstrable tolerance. The origins of beer are unknown, but go back to the ancient Egyptians and beyond, possibly ten thousand years or more. Fermented beverages of various kinds, whether different beers, mares’ milk, mead, or whatever, certainly go back into remotest antiquity. Admittedly hallucinogenic substances including mescalin have also been used since antiquity in tribal cultures and ancient civilizations, but these were generally reserved for solemn occasions of religious insight or prophecy. Such substances were not “recreational drugs”. The only “recreational substances” used consistently for millennia are the alcoholic beverages, and they are not drugs.
When I was sitting in The Gilded Cage with Robert listening to his rapturous accounts of the drugs he had discovered, it is important to remember that it was the autumn of 1961. LSD had not yet been invented by Timothy Leary. No student yet had marijuana, not even Robert. Not a single student I knew at Penn was “into drugs” except for Robert in the early 1960s. The “Drug Culture” was not yet born. There was no drug problem. The transformation of the Western World which has taken place as a result of drugs is catastrophic. More than half the crime now is drugs-related. At the time of which I speak, the term “drugs” had not yet even crystallised into its present usage. People tended to speak instead of “dope”, - a word later hijacked by the flower people and applied exclusively to marijuana, as in the expression “smoking dope”. Everyone had heard vague rumours that there were unfortunate people in the world who were what we called “dope addicts”. But few people ever encountered such rare eccentrics.
I remember in 1955, when I was ten, a film came out called The Man with the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra. I never saw it, because of not being able to stand Frank Sinatra, but I thought the title sounded nice, - a piece of human anatomy made of gold has probably always held a mysterious appeal, as the story that Pythagoras had a golden thigh which he occasionally showed to people was widespread in ancient Greece. (In fact, it probably was a garbled account of a gilded bronze astronomical instrument in his possession which featured a depiction of a thigh, as The Thigh was the ancient name of the Great Bear Constellation which circles round the north pole in the heavens.) But I was deeply horrified and shocked when I eventually learned that the golden arm was an arm into which injections of heroin, a derivative of opium, were made and that in the film Frank Sinatra played a “dope addict”. I remember that people did not take well to that shocking subject of a film at all. It was beyond the range of most ordinary people’s experience or even conceptions.
And now, sitting here before me in The Gilded Cage, - a golden haven, - I was discovering that my friend Robert was in danger of becoming a “dope addict” or possibly already was one! I protested violently to him about his taking “dope”, and how disgusting it was. But he was immovable. I might as well have tried to convert a Buddhist monk into becoming a Baptist minister as talk Robert out of taking “dope”. We dropped the subject on that occasion, but he raised it repeatedly over the weeks ahead and was clearly getting more and more committed.
In the meantime, there was the girlfriend from New Jersey. She was most unexpected, as she was only fourteen years old!! I thought Robert had gone mad. He said he had picked her up and she and he had to be secretive because her parents thought she was too young to be going out with anybody, much less a boy already in university and aged 18. She certainly was! She was called Nan, her full name being Nanette D……….. She came from Pennsauken, New Jersey. She was practically a child, with huge eyes like a startled doe. She was infatuated by this much more mature, and I must say protective, boy who to her was like a god. He was much taller than her, and his arm was always around her shoulders. She would look up at him like the child that she was, and one half expected a lollipop to be thrust into her mouth and for her to say “Goo! Goo!”
Nan was delightful, childishly charming, and almost entirely silent. She seemed to be frightened to speak, - frightened not of anyone or anything in particular, just of everything and everyone, which is different. There were days when one would have sworn that she had had her tongue cut out. She would react to statements with gigantic doe eyes which darted to and fro, seeking dangers in the forest. If I spoke to her, she would do this searching for enemies instead of looking at me, and only after some time would her gaze finally come to rest upon me. Then she would regard me reflectively, as if contemplating not what I had said but the fact that I said something - the content of my remarks probably not having been perceived. It was the astonishing fact of having been addressed at all that arrested her attention; she was far too startled by that to be able to focus on the subject.
Nan was very pretty, mostly because her eyes were so impressive, and because she had that iridescent beauty with which many 14 year-old girls shine, like certain fine silks if the moonlight catches them at the right angle. But she was so wildly devoted, - like an animal, - and so speechless, that the whole thing was highly alarming. Robert had boasted to me that he had picked her up when she was only thirteen! That had been at some event in New Jersey, possibly a music concert or something of that kind. He had shamelessly overawed her and she was so much under his spell that Robert in effect had a perfect slave. Had Nan been capable of doing anything, I am certain that she would have served him. She physically clung to Robert like a koala desperate for its eucalyptus leaf.
I was the only person Robert dared to introduce Nan to. I had become his best friend at Penn, and he entrusted me with this secret. I didn’t dare to contemplate whether any hanky panky might possibly be going on between him and this little limpet. But it certainly worried me. I became very fond of her, and occasionally with the effort of a baby burping, Nan would utter startled remarks to me in staccato fashion, which passed for conversation. It was her way of being friendly to me and communicating. I never knew quite what to reply, because these outbursts were often quite disordered and without much internal logic. I don’t believe Nan was of below normal intelligence, but her extreme youth made her appear simple. At least I think that was it. But she was absolutely sweet.
So there was Robert with his Lolita, and he was grateful to have at least one friend with whom to have some semblance of a normal social life to share with her. Intense couples who never see anyone but themselves go a bit nutty. He instinctively realised that. Nan completely accepted me, in the trusting way of a dog. Clutching him with both arms, like someone afraid she might fall, Nan would look at me in the blank way that one usually reserves for members of the same family in the kitchen after a good meal.
Robert began to spend more and more time away from the campus, partly devising furtive ways to see Nan despite her parents’ ferocious opposition. But also he was up to other things, and he began to neglect his studies far too much. There was a distinct tendency to let academic work drift dangerously. He had clearly been so clever in high school that Robert miscalculated and thought that he could catch up later; he lapsed into the effortless gliding motion of a top student, unaware that you can’t get away with that at university so easily. I became increasingly alarmed, and lectured and berated him, all to no avail. He was impervious to sermons. I would go along to lectures by the parabolic professor and he simply wouldn’t be there. I would go to his room, and boys would say he had gone to New Jersey.
This became so extreme that he was away more often than not. And then one day on one of my walks, I passed The Gilded Cage and I saw him standing on the street corner outside the coffee house doing nothing in particular. I was astonished. I went up to him and asked him what he was doing. He was a bit shifty and couldn’t give me any proper explanation. I asked him to join me on my walk but he said he couldn’t, that he needed to wait there, as he was expecting to see someone whom he had arranged to meet on that corner. But the person would be some time, - I must go on, and not bother waiting with him. I could see that he wanted me to leave him, so I did. There was nothing unfriendly about him, but his odd behaviour worried me and made me uneasy.
Later he explained to me that there was someone whom he met there from whom he could obtain the colourful little pills. That was where he made his purchases. This made me even more uneasy.
Then Robert dropped his bombshell. He was leaving Penn!! I protested, I expostulated, I complained, I harangued, I warned, but all to no avail. Nobody could change the mind of Robert because he was too clever and knew what he was doing. I pointed out his mathematical talents to him, said he had a great brain, and a superb future if he only didn’t throw it away. But he was determined. And so he left, and for many months I didn’t hear a word from him. I believe he went back to DeWitt, New York, from which he had come, with forays of course into New Jersey. But he didn’t come to Philadelphia. There was no way he could reach me by phone, and I don’t recall a letter or postcard.
He reappeared unexpectedly the next year. At the end of my first year at Penn, knowing that I would have to return to the dorms again, I entered the ballot for choice of rooms at the higher end of the buildings above 37th Street where those second year students who had no choice but to remain in the dorms were allowed to live. To my amazement, I came eighth! All the other students I knew in the ballot were green with envy. It meant I could choose one of the grand suites of three rooms high up in a tower. I selected a superb one. Marty had gone off to live in his Jewish fraternity house. I was at a loss as to whom to choose for a roommate in this enviable setting, as most of the boys I knew were not returning to the dorms, and John Osborne had also dropped out of Penn after his first year. So I made an arrangement to share the suite with a strange fellow I barely knew, and then he never turned up and I had the entire three rooms to myself for the whole year.
In this situation, I suddenly got a letter from Robert. He intended to come back to Philadelphia to see me. Maybe I could help him find somewhere to spend a couple of nights in the dorms. As it happened, there was an entire empty bedroom in my own suite, so he moved in for a bit. It was great seeing him again. For about six weeks or so he was around most of the time, and it was really during that time that I came to know Nan properly. She would come and go, though with some difficulty, as girls weren’t supposed to be there. So would Robert. (There was no security at all in those days, and entry passes did not exist, though today no one can enter the dorms area without a pass.) At one point when he was away he wrote me a long letter asking me to forward his own letter to Nan secretly, to “get round the censorship board” of her parents. He said he was practising his guitar. He didn’t regret leaving Penn.
Then he turned up for another prolonged visit. We went to The Gilded Cage and he was more into colourful little pills than ever. There was a new substance he was keen on now, and there seemed to be no end to his fascination with “dope”. We had our same old arguments about the artificiality of the stimulus obtained from “dope” versus his rapturous defence of it. Neither of us gave an inch. I have never in my life taken any drugs of any kind, regarding them with the horror a botanist perhaps has of randomly-used pesticides.
Then one day casually in my suite in the dorms, we got into a discussion of money. Robert revealed that the reason why he had been so poor this year was that he spent everything on “dope”. But never mind, things were looking up. He had found a way to afford them and make a profit besides. ... “How’s that, Robert??”
“I buy the pills and sell them on to other people and make a profit.” He had returned to Philadelphia largely in order to organise this trade on the street corner outside The Gilded Cage, and at other such centres of “dope” trading.
“Yeah, it’s a really good system. I can actually buy my own pills for free now and I make enough to live on pretty comfortably. I can give you some money soon to help you out.”
I said, “But Robert, that’s dope-dealing!!!!”
“No, not really,” he replied, chagrined at my reaction. “I just make a little extra money and get the pills as well.”
“But you’re spreading dope!”
“No, only to people who want it buy it.”
“But you’re dealing in dope!”
“But only in a small way.”
“But it’s still dealing in dope!”
“Well, I don’t look at it like that. But why are you so upset? I can even pay you something for using your room now. And I can pay for us to go out and have some more good times with Nan and you can bring a girlfriend.”
“Robert, I can’t go on being friends with you if you are going to be a dope dealer.”
“Don’t be silly. What’s that got to do with our friendship?”
“I’m not going to be friends with a dope dealer, - that’s what.”
“You shouldn’t look at it that way.”
“Will you stop?”
“No. How can I stop? It’s the only way I can pay for my own pills. But you know, I don’t use heroin. It’s only harmless stuff that I use.”
“So harmless that you can’t do without it?”
“I don’t want to do without it. Why should I?”
“Robert, our friendship is over. I don’t ever want to see or speak to you again. You can get your things together and go away. I will not be friends with a dope dealer.”
Ordering my best friend to leave was made easier by the fact that there was never for an instant any alternative or choice in my mind. No friendship could ever have taken precedence over such iniquity as becoming a “dope-dealer”. The reason why I could not forgive such behaviour was that Robert was harming other people, and no longer just himself.
After pleading with me for some time, Robert did indeed gather up his things and leave my suite. I never saw him again. And he never contacted me. For more than thirty years I often wondered about his fate, and presumed that he went from bad to worse quite quickly. Did he die of a drugs overdose? Did he become a drugs lord? Did he get thrown into prison for many years? Did he become a master criminal? I somehow suspected that he must have died years ago. How could anyone like that not do so?
Then I hit upon an inspiration, and using my tracking talents with greater than usual determination, I got hold of a neighbour of the D…….. family in New Jersey, who put me in touch with none other than – Nan!
Nan and Robert had married, and he had not become a drugs overlord after all. What is more, they had had a daughter. This was all splendid news. But the bad news was that Nan had been very hurt, and he had indeed died. In fact, he seems to have died at about the time I originally wrote this account of him in 1996 (to which I subsequently added this news). Maybe his spirit hovered over me, and he renewed our friendship before he passed beyond the mortal ken into that realm beyond.
Robert had died not that long before by falling into a swimming pool.
In September, 1996, Nan’s mother wrote to me, commencing as follows:
“I am Nanette’s MA. When your Letter to Nann came here I did read it – Nann gave me Permission to open her mail…
“To myself I said: ‘This boy knew Bob Snelling.’
“Nann’s ‘Psyche’ was very much hurt because of Bob – Nann went thru a lot of Trauma in her Life. She is very much herself now, her True Self … Nann is a Soul of highest Calibre – this I KNOW…
“Within me I had the Feeling that I should write to you these few words.”
So Robert had left a legacy of sadness and bitterness …
I really don’t believe that Robert could ever have realised the error of his ways. He was simply too confident in himself to question what he was doing. I can’t describe him as arrogant, because he never behaved arrogantly. He was very mild and quiet and considerate, and very polite. He had been well brought up. But he just had that worm in his soul, that’s all.
Life was pretty bleak for me after Robert and Nan went away. Robert was not only my best friend, he was one of the few left. I have not yet described John Osborne, Stanley Marsh, and Beatrice Wein. But they had all gone. My only really close male friend now was John Coggeshall, who was four years older and very preoccupied with his own life. John never actually stopped by my room, as the dorms were rather inconvenient. I was pretty much alone. I sat up there on the fourth floor (fifth floor, British style) of a tower in an empty suite of rooms. A sherry bottle, probably bought for me by Robert, sat forlornly on the mantle. I didn’t really like sherry anyway. There was nobody now to drink it. Nan had liked to sip it.
I had ejected the best friend I had at Penn from my life on moral grounds. But morals can make a person lonely ...
Nowadays so many young people are taking drugs and “selling a bit on the side”, that my decision, about which I never believed I had the slightest choice, may seem silly. But I don’t believe it was. There may be nothing we can do any longer to stop the tide of drugs washing over our civilisation and destroying its fabric and our characters.
I took my stand, however, and I suffered for it. But at least I took that stand in my personal life. What more can most of us do, after all, than take a stand in our personal lives? Robert was a forerunner of so much horror that was to come in the world. He was years ahead of his time. What a human waste it was that he threw himself away. And how lonely it left me, just when I needed a friend more than ever, as the most horrible events were mercilessly to unfold, and I would be left alone to cope with repeated attempts by a psychopath to murder me, and neither the university nor the police were prepared to help me in any way. As usual, I would have only myself to fall back on, and I was still only seventeen. Such situations either make you or break you; they didn’t break me. But the sympathy of even one friend would have been at least a slight comfort, like the kind word of a prison guard who hands you your slop through the window in your cell door as you wait on death row. But I was not to have even that.