Watermelon Sherbet at Penn State

In September of 1968 I headed north to Penn State University, which is not to be confused (though it often is) with the University of Pennsylvania. The latter school is based in urban Philadelphia, whereas PSU enjoys an isolated perch in the state’s mountains, adjoining what was then a small town called State College. State College may be a larger and far less isolated municipality by now, but when I arrived it was a diminutive rural adjunct to the giant Penn State campus. There’s an airport near the campus today, but if there was any way to get to the school in 1968 other than by either bus or a lengthy haul from the Black Moshannon Airport some miles away, I wasn’t aware of it. I got there by bus.

My goal by enrolling at PSU was to buckle down for a couple of years and come out the other end with a Master of Fine Arts degree in hand. That degree was sure to open major doors for me, I thought. I envisioned myself ultimately following in the footsteps of my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Arnold Powell, by landing a position mounting exciting plays for some school’s theatre department, as Powell did.

I had been propelled to Penn State on the wings of a prestigious Shubert Playwriting Fellowship, for which I had applied on the basis of my script for The Sixth Story, a full-length play I had written and directed at Birmingham-Southern College the year before. “Arnie” (this was Powell’s preferred nickname despite his intellectual stature) thought that Sixth Story might strike a chord with Mark Berman, then a Playwright-in-Residence at PSU, and lead him to recommend me for the Shubert honor. Happily, the plan worked.

Now here I was in the Pennsylvania mountains, joined at the hip by fellowship money to a storied educational institution more massive than any I had seen before. The school’s student lodging service helped me find an inexpensive rooming house that I could stay in, eight blocks or so from the campus perimeter. My room was furnished with a small bed, a desk to study at, and a rickety wardrobe that I could stow my clothes in. It’s a good thing I had put my cartooning inclinations on hold, since the lighting from the desk lamp and bedside lights provided far too little illumination for drawing.

A communal bathroom was available to share with the other students living in other rooms, whom I never got to know because there was no common area for residents to hang out in. There was a pay phone in the hall in case I should think of anyone I wanted to call without incurring prohibitive long-distance phone fees. To sum up: the accommodations were spare, but I could deal with them.

It was somewhat romantic to live the life of a hardship-hardened grad student, rather like being an unknown artist painting masterpieces in a dingy loft. I was a stranger in a strange land, poised on the threshold of a new adventure. I expected that my adventure would keep me occupied for a few years and then leave me with a prestigious degree and good prospects for a creative career.

Viewed from the outside, my first term at Penn State went well. I got on well with my teachers, especially Associate Professor Kelly Yeaton. Yeaton was noted for advocating that virtually any play could best be staged “in the round,” with audiences distributed on all sides of the dramatic action. No proscenium arches or fly lofts for this guy! I had no trouble appreciating his point of view, since Arnie, back in Alabama, had inculcated a similar esthetic in his students, though Arnie was not averse to using the traditional proscenium-audience configuration when it suited a particular play.

I first encountered a play staged in a modified in-the-round arrangement when my high school classmates and I were taken to see Arnie’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In this case the audience members were divided into groups that faced each other on opposite sides of the action. You couldn’t call this “in-the-round” staging in the strictest sense of the phrase, what with the audience observing from two sides of the stage rather than four, but the theatrical principle was the same. Seeing Twelfth Night staged that way showed me that being able to see the faces of other audience members while watching a play being performed in between didn’t have to interfere with the audience’s collective “suspension of disbelief.” This was a revelation to me. It was frankly acknowledging that theatre was make-believe, not reality, and there was no need to pretend otherwise.

So Kelly Yeaton and I were on the same page from Day One.

A fellow MFA candidate named Judi Brickel and I quickly bonded when she asked to direct my one-act play Three Clowns on a Journey for Penn State’s Five O’Clock Theatre, a workshopping series that took place in The Pavilion, a venue where main stage productions were sometimes mounted during normal evening hours. Student playwrights like me could try out their shows on the Pavilion’s’s arena-style stage for single performances that took place at (guess when?) 5:00 in the afternoon with other drama students doing the directing.

Three Clowns was the first play I wrote in my space at the rooming house. Inspired as it was by the still-fresh memory of a particular LSD trip back in Birmingham, the first draft of Three Clowns spilled onto paper fairly effortlessly. Its surrealism resonated with Judi, who was quite at home with the psychedelic subculture of the ‘60s. (I envied her because she had already seen the trippy animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine, whereas I had left for Penn State before it was released in Birmingham and thus could only be teased by the rapturous reviews it was receiving.)

Judi and the cast did a bang-up job with Three Clowns, and the friendship it spawned lasted for many years after we had both left the Penn State campus. After our initial conversation she had remarked in wonder, “I didn’t know that there were smart southerners!” (I took that as a compliment rather than an insult to my home state, since white Alabama had indisputably spent the ‘Sixties earning a terrible reputation for the flagrant racism of its politicians and a portion of its populace. It was only when Jimmy Carter ascended to the presidency in 1976 that northerners began modifying their stereotypical view of my region’s citizenry.)

Soon after Judi’s Three Clowns production I got a chance to exercise my own stage-directing muscles. Although playwriting was my favorite theatre activity, directing was next in line, with acting a distant third due to the admitted modesty of my talents as a thespian. Directing and playwriting come with a very special perk. Both a play’s director and its author get to view their finished work from beginning to end alongside their audiences. By contrast, actors often have to sit quietly in darkness backstage during many scenes, waiting for cues that will eventually come while listening to their castmates having all the fun.

For my directing debut in the Five O’Clock Theatre series I chose a one-act script called Two’s Company from the stack of newly written works that, after being deemed worthy by playwriting professors, were traditionally placed on a table in the lounging room that was available to all students in the PSU theatre department. The script that I selected had only two characters and required very little in the way of a set. I proceeded with auditions and found casting to be no problem.

There was a slight technical challenge waiting for me, though. For reasons I’ve forgotten, the plot required one of the characters to fling an empty glass mason jar violently out through a door.

Unfortunately, we had no door to throw a jar through.

The Pavilion Theatre boasted an in-the-round stage, meaning that audience would observe performances from multiple directions. Kelly Yeaton would approve. The venue’s “backstage,” if you want to call it that, was accessible by way of ceiling-to-floor spaces that lay between The Pavilion’s banks of seats.

Ours would be essentially a bare stage production. Maybe we’d have a table and some chairs to suggest the action’s interior location, but we would certainly have no walls to place a door frame in, and hence no doorway to propel glassware through. A three-foot corridor between the tiers of seats would serve as entryway and exit for our actors, and if the audience used its imagination the way we hoped it would, that corridor would stand in for the imaginary “door” through which our actor would fling his mason jar.

Good aim would obviously be called for, or some innocent audience member might find his or her head smashed in with heavy glassware. I wasn’t too worried, however, that my actor’s aim would fail. He seemed athletic and well enough coordinated. But what if the jar shattered, onstage or off, when it hit the floor? The area might be showered with dangerous shards.

The possibility of bits of broken glass flying through the air gave me the willies. Mason jars are comparatively tough, but I didn’t dare hang my hopes on that attribute alone. Potential personal injury lawsuits are nothing to be blasé about.

But luckily, inspiration struck. Feeling very clever about my plan, I tucked the jar into my backpack, headed for a hardware store near the campus, purchased a bottle of Elmer’s Glue-All and a brush, and retired to my living quarters, where I began applying layer after layer of the rubbery synthetic polymer to the jar’s surface. In theory, if I coated the glass with enough coats of rubberiness, the jar’s ability to withstand a backstage bounce or two without breaking would be reinforced. And since Elmer’s Glue-All is transparent once it dries, our audience would be none the wiser.

It worked. At first. Through several rehearsals and repeated flings, the jar held together valiantly. I was greatly relieved. But my relief turned out to be premature.

I’m not sure what laws of physics were involved, but when the jar was flung during our actual performance, with the exact same force as in rehearsals as best we could tell, we were rewarded with the sound of wildly shattering glass flying through the air backstage.

That distinctive sound was hard to ignore, but we detected no immediate sign that anyone had been injured by the broken glass, so the cast soldiered on as if nothing had gone awry. Once the actors had taken their bows and the audience had begun leaving, though, I hurried sheepishly backstage to assess the damage. There was much sweeping up of shards to be done, but no blood had been spilled and no lawsuits followed. I worried that I would be reprimanded for my bad judgment, but my supervising faculty chose not to comment on the debacle.

On other fronts I dutifully fulfilled my non-playwriting duties to the department. Our stage designer was busily finishing her set for the upcoming production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, and I was drafted to paint dozens of autumn leaves for a tree that would be dominating her realistic set. The result was beautiful to look at, enhanced as it was my my excellently colored leaves. The show was a well-acted, with its comedy framed by a conventional proscenium arch. Not every director at Penn State shared Kelly Yeaton’s biases.

But despite my largely enjoyable experiences with various aspects of my post-graduate training, a pall began darkening my creativity once Judi’s production of Three Clowns had come and gone. I found it disturbingly difficult to write a new play. Fresh ideas eluded me. The dreaded “writer’s block” was rearing its evil head.

My record as a newbie graduate student had been promising, for sure, but now I found myself propelled into an emotional free-fall. I was acutely aware of the obligations that I had assumed when I accepted my Shubert fellowship, so I did my best to ignore the dark cloud that hovered over me as I doggedly tried to mine the only project I could come up with: a new absurdist play called Black Coffee Blue. But I knew I was milking a half-baked premise. My heart just wasn’t in it.

Three Clowns had unspooled itself onto paper with little effort. Black Coffee Blue was different, a struggle from the outset. Its labored carpentry showed. Eventually I hammered it into a shape that I could show to others, and the fact that it found favor with another student director once it had been deposited onto the stack of scripts in the departmental lounge suggested that it wasn’t entirely lacking in merit. She gained the required approval to stage it some time after the Christmas holidays.

That felt good — but also hollow. I had begun doubting my readiness to enter into serious playwriting.

There were reasons enough to be uneasy about Black Coffee Blue, if for no other reason than its emotional inauthenticity. But that’s not the only reason I wouldn’t claim it today. I had no way of knowing when I wrote it how poorly it would age in the decades to come, since it was only in the years that followed that my eyes were opened to the issues raised by the Women’s Liberation Movement. My play’s main running gag rested on a character’s bewilderment over a succession of traditionally male occupations that were being performed by females. (“A lady garbage collector??!”; “A lady plumber??!”) Deviations from the norm such as that felt like clever absurdism when I wrote the thing. Now I cringe.

Unconscious sexism aside, though, the desperation that infiltrated my creative process while I was struggling to make Black Coffee Blue stageworthy was unnerving. I was supposed to write plays. Good plays. But my work-in-progress was clearly falling short of that. I could feel my confidence eroding by the day.

I was also losing confidence that I belonged in graduate school at all. My sense of the absurd was triggered by a class in thesis-preparation. The requirements being laid out struck me as arbitrary. Why was such emphasis placed of the proper width of margins? Why would I be forced to retype stretches of text should the width of margins fall short of a full inch? Why was that as important as the content of my text?

In today’s world of word-processing, fixing such trivial typing flaws would be a breeze. But those were the days of manual typewriters, and if I was going to spend hours on end hovering over my portable Smith-Corona, I wanted to be writing creative stuff, not catering to some stupid academic margin-fetish.

In the years since then, I’ve learned how depression over even trivial matter can make small compromises with absurdity feel like catastrophic violations of one’s core beliefs. And I was more prone to immobilizing depression than I realized. My impulse to rebel against apparent pointlessness had led me to drop out of college three times during my undergraduate stint at Birmingham-Southern and to switch majors repeatedly until a major was created that I could finally buy into wholeheartedly: the Drama/Speech major. Furthermore, my rebelliousness had been amplified by the psychedelic gospel of freedom from authority-generated pettiness. Stymied as I was by my inability to write a new play that met my self-imposed standards, my uncertainty about why I was at Penn State in the first place was compounded. My general alienation kept ballooning.

That’s not to say that feeling alienated could keep me from enjoying seeing Three Clowns brought to life by Judi and her cast, or even from losing myself in the soothing process of painting one autumn leaf after another for Ah, Wilderness. Underneath those satisfying moments, waves of unexpressed dissatisfaction continued to churn.

It didn’t help that the normal creature comforts of life proved elusive. My fellowship paid for my tuition but it didn’t cover all of my necessary expenses. Like eating, for example. My rooming-house digs did not include a kitchen for preparing food or a refrigerator for storing perishables. Except for my midday meal of cheap sandwiches at the school cafeteria, I was dependent for sustenance on the few inexpensive eateries I passed while walking to and from the campus. I was a regular for breakfast and dinner at one particular diner, where I would choose simple eggs and toast from the menu each morning. Supper was usually a bowl of baked beans, the cheapest dish the diner served.

The winter’s first snowfall in State College added to my gloom. Back in Alabama, a few inches of snow would be enough to bring the city to a halt. But the first snow at Penn State that year, which was deposited amid icy winds from the thick gray clouds overhead, was eighteen-inches-deep! And it took place on the first of November! In Birmingham, if there was any snowfall at all during a winter, it almost never arrived before deepest December. This degree of snowfall, however, was apparently to be expected in the Pennsylvania mountains, so State College never missed a beat. But this Alabama boy, who hadn’t even thought to bring any serious snow-boots along when he came north, was daunted. Who knew what an unprepared southerner would have to deal with in the dreary months that lay ahead? The snow was admittedly pretty to look at, but the freezing, twice-a-day slog between my rooming house and the campus was a burdensome trek.

Severe cold and grayness on top of accelerating academic anxiety could undermine a fellow’s disposition!

And oh, yeah, the loathsome Richard Nixon was elected president in November. With my help yet! I had felt so alienated from the Democrats that summer because of the brutal police riots at their convention in Chicago, Gene McCarthy’s flameout and Robert Kennedy’s murder, which left the uninspiring and vacillating Hubert Humphrey as the last Democratic choice for POTUS left standing, that I hadn’t even bothered to file for an absentee ballot before leaving for Pennsylvania. Bad decision. (I’ve never failed to exercise my right to vote since.)

Then there was sex. Or the lack of it.

I used music and colorful snacks to distract me from my persistent horniness. That was the autumn when the Beatles’ comforting song “Hey Jude” was released as a single. Students played it endlessly on the cafeteria’s juke box, which was fine with me. It was also the season when I discovered a dayglo-hued frozen dessert called “watermelon sherbet.” Nursing a cone packed with multiple scoops of the stuff not only made my belly feel attended to; it led to absorbing contemplation of the internal contradiction that was built into the flavor’s moniker. A crucial part of enjoying a slice of watermelon, aside from its taste, is the crunchy texture relished by the partaker as the fruit rolls across the tongue. That texture was nowhere to be found in the fruit’s sherbet cousin. Sherbet was far too silky to bring watermelon pulp to mind. Think about it. I certainly did in 1968.

Pondering the sherbet contradiction could usually dull my moroseness for the time required to consume the delicious pink substance down to its cone. I could almost believe that the dessert’s brilliance, with or without a watermelon’s true texture, would make all things right.

Almost, but not quite. Not even when accompanied by “Hey Jude.”

The fashion of the day for males was skin-tight jeans that showed off the wearers’ manly baskets to great effect. This was not helpful to my mood. Down in Alabama, wearing jeans so snug might have signaled availability for same-sex horseplay, but nothing else about the well-built men who strode past me in the cafeteria seemed in the least gay. As far as I could tell, hormone-teasing hunkiness had been bred universally into the apparently heterosexual male stock of rural Pennsylvania. I would never have dared make a move that suggested otherwise.

One day I thought an opportunity for casual sex play might be falling into my lap. An enticing student sat down at my table and struck up an innuendo-laden conversation. I was wary at first, but his floppy hair and inviting smile put me at ease, and the uninterrupted eye contact he made with me seemed clearly goal-oriented. Damned if he wasn’t making a pass at me! Did such things actually happen in State College?

My erotic bubble quickly burst, though, when some conversational probing revealed that if he was a student at all, it must have been at a local middle-school. His stature and voice allowed him to pass as college-aged, but in actuality he was barely-pubescent, a member of some Penn State faculty family. Once I got the picture I rushed to nip any flirtation in the bud. Pederasty was simply not in my makeup.

I had to give him due credit, though. His command of sexual innuendo at such an early age was impressive.

I found spotting potential partners for gay sex anywhere in State College to be a challenge. Conceivably there was a thriving gay subculture just waiting to welcome me into the fold, but if so I wasn’t detecting it. Even in the school’s drama department, my gaydar came up empty. I’ve never been around a theatre group that was so devoid of discernible if not flagrant homosexuality. I couldn’t intercept any gay vibe anywhere — not among the actors; not among the techies. Did I dare let my own gayness manifest itself? What were the rules here? Being forced into reticence now was a real downer after the struggle I had gone through to be open to myself and to friends about my sexuality back in Birmingham.

If there was more than one gay bar in State College, I never spotted it, and even that one bar that my sleuthing finally unearthed wasn’t fully gay. It had an area in front where many straight people liked to hang out. If you wanted to socialize with fellow queers, you had to walk past the heterosexual enclave and pass through a door that was clearly visible to any idly prying eyes. This prevented the place from serving as a true refuge for gays like me, who were uneasy about which straight students or faculty members would have to be passed.

But I didn’t have a lot of options for cruising, so I ventured into the gay portion of the bar several times that fall, trying to look as if I didn’t care who saw me. None of my visits rewarded me with actual sex partners, but I did fall into conversation with at least one fellow who revealed himself to be a theatre colleague. The two of us swapped anecdotes about our respective stage experiences; then he drifted away, presumably in search of a potential partner who was more his type. I left the bar alone.

Decades have passed since that conversation took place, so I can’t recall now any details from it. But I must have told the guy how much I had enjoyed being in Birmingham-Southern’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, given what happened when I returned to the bar a few days later.

I was sitting on a bar stool and nursing my drink during that return visit when a friendly fellow named Ralph sidled up next to me. We fell into conversation, and it quickly became obvious that he was quite smart, as well as attractive in a scholarly kind of way. He was also prone to offering wry observations about this and that. This was a plus: intelligence combined with humor has always been an effective erotic combo for me. My sense was that our attraction was mutual.

That unspoken vibe served as subtext for a wide-ranging conversation that ran on for a while. In the course of our meanderings he mentioned that he was, like me, a Samuel Beckett fan. In fact, he told me, he had quite a few plays by and books about the playwright at his nearby apartment. Would I like to come and look them over?

It was a classier pitch than inviting me to admire some etchings would have been, a pitch that was tailor-made for Howard Cruse.

We made out some at his place and may have even made it down to the underwear-only level. My long-term memory isn’t good enough to provide specifics about that. But there was no denying that we turned each other on. Still, something kept us from moving on to full-blown sex that night. Maybe he had a roommate and thus a deficit of privacy. Maybe we were both fatigued; our visit was extending into the morning’s wee hours, after all. Nevertheless, what transpired seemed to have the makings of a substantial friendship.

And as things turns out, it did.

Before I left to catch some sleep before the next day’s classes, Ralph confessed that we hadn’t bumped into each other at the bar purely by accident. I hadn’t noticed it, but Ralph had coincidentally been standing nearby while I was talking about Endgame to that other guy several days before. So he knew from the outsetthat I was likely to respond positively to his own enthusiasm for Beckett.

I admired his strategic approach to hooking me and was complimented that he wanted to.

There’s a frustrating epilogue to this tale. Not too long after Ralph and I first connected, we agreed that he would come over to my place that night, after he was finished with an existing obligation earlier in the evening. I had no roommate, so there would be plenty of privacy — or at least as much privacy as a multiple-occupant rooming house can provide. In my mind and seemingly in his, this would allow us to take our flirtation to a more carnal level.

I spent the early part of that evening lying on my bed, trying to write or otherwise juggle school work with my building anticipation of sex play to come. But the clock ticked on and on with no knock on the door. I didn’t intend to doze off, but apparently I did, because I woke up after midnight, still alone and disappointed as I faced the fact that Ralph was not likely to show up.

But actually he had shown up. When I saw him on campus the next day he described how he had stood in the hall and knocked on my door repeatedly. I kept not responding, so finally he gave up and went home. I was dismayed that I could have fallen into a sleep that deep, especially when sex was in the offing.

There were no hard feelings, but our flirtation was never consummated. For years afterwards, though, we maintained contact as friends, and I took pride in his subsequent contributions to the welfare of the LGBT community that we were both a part of. Those contributions, I'll save for another time.

As my fall term at Penn State wore on, my writer’s block persisted and my melancholy increasingly overshadowed the good times I was having. More and more, I felt like a duck out of water. Being a part of academia became an alien concept. Out of obligation, I soldiered on with Black Coffee Blue until I finally had something I could hand in. But writing the play had become an empty exercise for me. Why was I even here? I kept asking myself.

I was there because my ego had been stroked by well-meaning teachers, including Arnie, who saw pursuing a master’s degree as the natural next step for me. Momentum had taken control as I followed their advice and applied to several major universities whose drama departments seemed suitable. Most of them rejected me, but Penn State was welcoming. So here I was.

The more I contemplated my situation, the more disconnected I felt. For all the compliments and encouragement I had received, I knew by then that I wasn’t ready for prime time as a playwright. I hadn’t had enough life experience; my perspectives on the human condition hadn’t yet been seasoned by living in the same larger world that my prospective audiences would be living in.

I was awash in a level of despair beyond anything that Watermelon Sherbet could ameliorate.

I didn’t realize how close to the edge I was until the day I found myself waiting to cross a busy off-campus street in State College and thinking how liberating it might be to leap under the wheels of one of the large trucks that were rumbling by in front of me.

My instinct for self-preservation intervened. I stood apart from myself, aware of an extreme heaviness in my chest that was weighing me down like an anvil. I recognized that heaviness. I had felt it before. The temptation being generated was dangerous, not liberating.

I didn’t belong at Penn State, I suddenly knew. My sense of being imprisoned there by momentum was an illusion. No law was forcing me to be in State College. I would not be hung at the gallows if I never had an MFA to brandish.

Action was called for. I had to bail out of grad school fast if I was going to survive!

My best option was clearly to move to New York City. Julie Brumlik and other mutual friends of ours from Birmingham-Southern had already settled into a kind of high-rise communal crash pad in Manhattan, on Fourteenth Street just north of Greenwich Village and half-a-block from Union Square.

There was an awkwardness to deal with first, of course. I had won my playwriting fellowship in competition with other worthy aspirants; it felt ungrateful to suddenly discard an honor that others had striven for.

I sought out Mark Berman and explained my dilemma. He was disappointed, but once he realized that I might opt for becoming roadkill on a State College street if I didn’t change course drastically, he got the picture and didn’t guilt-trip me. And the good news was that the runner-up for my Shubert Fellowship had enrolled at Penn State even without the fellowship’s subsidy. Mark was confident he could arrange for the remaining funds in my fellowship to be diverted to him. My exit would turn out to be a windfall for another deserving playwright.

That freed me up to make my big mid-course correction without having a cloud of guilt hanging over me. I completed my classes for the term, packed up my minimal belongings, checked the interstate bus schedule, and put my days as a rising academic behind me.

©2018 by Howard Cruse

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