Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Scion

Every so often I wonder whatever became of Bob Building IV. That's what I'll call him because his family name is on more than one campus edifice. Big ones. Important ones.

Bob was a student of mine more than 10 years ago. No one who's enrolled now would know him and they probably don't know the colorful backstory of this black sheep of a very wealthy and influential family.

He was already a "non-traditional student" by the time he appeared in my classroom. Must have been 25 or 26 then. He had a receding hairline and was thicker around the middle than most college boys are. I could tell he had some miles on him. He was a cocky guy, as I recall, and it didn't occur to me to connect his last name with the letters chiseled on the front of one of the school's newest showplace piles of bricks.

A few weeks into that semester way back when, I ran into Bob at the bad Chinese joint that used to operate across the street (outside of all health code regulations, it seemed... the lunch special was Ptomaine Lo Mein). We chatted over a long lunch that day and I heard Bob's life story, which he told with relish (and a sprinkle of soy).

He was the son of the son of Building No. 1 and was returning to college after a five or six-year lay-off having to do with various rehab stays and a stint as a sort of yeehaw playboy in the finest casinos of Monte Carlo. He'd cleaned up his act, he told me, and was working in a retail business while he finished up two years of undergrad studies.

His first two years (starting some seven or eight years previous to his return) had been his "full-time party years," he said. He'd pledged the best frat and become its treasurer (also known as the guy who pays back the guy who rents the kegs). The cashflow was a bad temptation and I seem to recall that he hadn't managed it very well. His own cash, however, was a different story. He had plenty of it, mostly from a generous trust fund provided by the namesakes of Building I and II. But he spent it frivolously and frequently found himself short of green.

So he started a little import business. And here I have to be careful. I don't want The Buildings to crush me. See, he imported antique books from South America. Big old books of maps and folios of art. Naive me, I thought, how interesting, a young man with a knowledge of antiques!

But the books were just the "mule" for the real product. Under the cloth bindings of each book, he explained, was a thin, highly concentrated layer of something those nasally trained dogs might have sniffed out and, in the 1980s, was very desirable as sniffage by the young and affluent good-time gang. Bolivian marching orders, the late Hunter S. Thompson would have called it. Read it and fly.

As I listened to Mr. Building IV spin his yarn, I couldn't always tell if it was all true or if he was exaggerating to impress me. He said he sold most of his imports to his frat buddies and at one point was pulling in $10K a week. Cash. Not bad for the '80s.

But like so many importers, he began to sample the goods. He inhaled his profits and got himself a nasty habit. He went into a black hole for a few years. The family disowned him, cut off his trust fund and told him to get lost. He was supported for a while by girlfriends and one or two other trust fund babies whose importing habits were also interfering with, say, going to class, eating and bathing.

Eventually, Bob found redemption. He turned to Jesus. He went through rehab and quit marching and importing. He somehow avoided the law. He started managing a posh retail establishment not far from his family's palatial home and gradually worked his way back into their good graces.

He had returned to college -- but not the party life or the fraternity house -- and gotten serious. I believe he said he was headed for law school.

That semester was the last I saw of Bob. By now he's probably married to an Ashley and has produced a little Bob Building V. No doubt he's rich as Croesus, too, just like the previous Bobs. I envision him cruising by campus in a gleaming Humvee, deciding which slice of real estate his namesake pile of bricks will occupy.

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