Amherst Magazine

Like a Set of Old Clothes

By Corey Washington '85

Over these past few months, I have spent a lot of time thinking about Dave and remembering our friendship. I’ve reread letters we exchanged 25 years ago and listened (just once) to an audio letter a group of us sent around after we graduated. Hearing his voice brought back a rush of memories and almost paralyzed me with sadness. Losing him leaves me feeling amputated. Still, the memories often make me smile. We spent an enormous amount of time together, especially during senior year, and what sticks with me now is a sense of his presence, kindness and distinctive voice.

There was something enormously calming and engaging about being around Dave. He would wear the same hooded sweatshirt and boots day after day. He was, for me, a lot like a set of these old clothes. Dave was quiet, low-key, intelligent, warm, funny and, after a time, familiar. He’d greet me each day with a friendly “Hey, Core.” I met him sometime during my freshman year, when I was 15 or 16 and still living at home. I got to know him better the next year, when we had Professor Kennick’s modern philosophy class and when I began to go to dinner with him and his roommates. Dave loved that class and loved Kennick, especially the semi-ironic image Kennick cultivated as a cultured, classical professor—an image Kennick would from time to time tear down. The course had the same sequence each year: Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant. Kennick would begin Kant with the same bravado each time: “Fasten your seat belts—we’re going up.” Dave loved this line and would mention it years later.

At the time I didn’t feel a lot of connection to the college, but dinners with Dave and the gang helped. It’s hard to remember anything specific about the conversations, except that they were never boring, largely because they were just about our world: classes, people, ideas, a little politics. (Almost none of the conversations were personal.) Dave may or may not have been the smartest person on campus, but what made him special was how widely and relentlessly he applied his intelligence, which was not separable from his sense of humor. (His philosophy papers, he once told me, consisted mostly of jokes.) He was fun and fascinating when talking about ordinary things. Being around Dave on a daily basis made it easy to take these experiences for granted. It took me a few years to realize that it was not likely I would have times likes those again.

Dave didn’t enjoy the calm that he gave others. He first mentioned his depression to me in a letter in 1983, during his first of two semester-long absences sparked by anxiety attacks. His mind was intense, restless and nervous and just would not stop. It gave him pleasure and torment. He often couldn’t sleep, but it was during these nights that he wrote many of his papers. (When Dave wrote, he would do a series of drafts and put the last one in his dresser. Then, without looking at it, he would rewrite the whole paper from scratch. At the end, he’d take the new one and old one and integrate them.) Some sleepless nights, he would walk in the early mornings down Route 9 to the malls before the stores opened. Early Sunday mornings, he would sometimes go to Mass, because it was “beautiful and calming,” even though he didn’t believe in God. Every so often, he would take the PVTA bus to Smith or Mount Holyoke to study at night. I would sometimes come on these trips. My father had an apartment in Northampton, and after some evenings at Smith, we would stay the night. The couple in the apartment above had an active sex life and a squeaky bed, which provided fuel for extended hilarious Dave commentary. It was so funny I didn’t want to sleep.

Random memories:

Sitting in his room, we would listen to music by Midnight Oil and other bands that his sister Amy sent back from her year abroad in Australia. He liked Simple Minds and Brian Eno and loved U2’s “40” and Springsteen’s “Going Down,” especially the chorus: “I’m doing down, down, down….” He played that tape until it broke.

During senior week, Dave came to a dance in Valentine Hall. It was the only time I can remember him at such an event. We stood off to the side near the wall and watched people on the floor. I told him I wanted to dance myself. He turned to me: “Core, look out there. You see those people. Now imagine there’s no music...” The image was crippling.

Dave and I had a few big arguments, as people do, when we were at Amherst. During one, he threw me out of his room. We didn’t talk for weeks but later apologized to each other. He apologized twice more in letters in succeeding years. The last time we talked, in May of last year, he told me he thought about these incidents a couple of times each year, and he apologized again. I couldn’t believe it.