Monday, March 10, 2014

Being a Mentor in My Kind of Town


The other night I went to a show at the new music venue in Berwyn, Wire.  It was the guitarist from Dada, playing with a jazz quartet called Mike Gurley and the Nightcaps.  They played some of their own songs and covering a lot of the standards: Sinatra, Billie Holiday, that kind of stuff.  They covered a Stevie Ray Vaughan song, Lenny, which made me think back to high school when I listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan a lot.  I mean, all the time.  So that made me want to listen to music I hadn’t listen to in a long time, so I fired up Spotify to listen to some SRV, then some Frank Sinatra, who my wife’s grandfather loved and her grandmother just died so then I wanted to listen to a lot of Sinatra.  Then My Kind of Town came on and that reminded me of the summer of 1996 and my time as a new student Orientation Mentor at DePaul University.

Frankie
Are you with me still?  I know, what a long way to go to get to here.  But that’s how my mind works most of the time and sometimes I can’t even trace my way back.

Summer of 1996?  Hmm, Sinatra?  I’m lost here, Mike, you are saying to yourself.

Here me out.  Come with me on this one.

Let’s explain what it means to be a new student Orientation Mentor.  Basically, you shepherd around incoming freshman during a two day orientation session on campus.  You meet the kids in the morning, take them to testing, and show them around campus.  They stay overnight in the dorms, which includes dinner in the cafeteria , a bus tour, and a night of music by the mentor band (and some other stuff that I don’t remember).  During my freshman orientation, I thought it was the coolest job so I applied for it going into my senior year and somehow made it through the interview process and got the job, along with 16 other mentors. 

The Shockwave!
 I lived on campus for free that summer and worked my help desk job when we didn’t have a session.  I learned more about the school and knew people in every department by the time the summer ended.   The president of the university at the time, Father John Minogue, was a big fan of the mentor program and he often joined us for team dinners and later in the summer took us to Six Flags Great America.  It turns out Father Minogue was a bit of a roller coaster nut.  I was lucky enough to ride the Shockwave with him.  It was the last time I rode the Shockwave.

I also had just turned twenty one right before the summer so it was a good time to be in Lincoln Park and of legal drinking age.  There were some other good firsts that summer.  I had a girlfriend.  That was cool.  I got a lecture about not taking advantage of young college freshman from the woman who ran the program.  Not like a group lecture to all of the guys on the staff.  Just me.  Which was funny.  I also got called out for having a hickey on my neck the first time Father Minogue had dinner with us.  Not by him, but as much as you can try to say “It’s not a hickey,” even the Catholic priest knew it was a hickey.

“Okay, Mike, but way up at the beginning you said something about Sinatra.  When do we get to Sinatra?” 

There were a few things we did as part of the orientation that I remember very well.  The first day started off with a small group meeting, then we brought the entire group of students together to see our introduction skit, where we taught the audience about DePaul and its core values (urban, Vicentian and teaching) and introduced ourselves.  In the skit I played the super cool laid back surfer dude roommate and along with one other mentor named Andy, got to say the second best line of the entire skit:   “Mmmmm, Funyons.”  There was an actual bag of Funyons as a prop.  Andy and I were dared to eat the Funyons at the end of the summer.  We didn’t.  If you are wondering what the best line of the skit was, the announcer, Veronique, said “Arugula.  It’s a vegetable.”  Why these two lines stick in my memory, I cannot say.

The first day was long.  Testing, campus tour, going to each college office to meet with counselors and advisors, lunch, traveling downtown if my group was in the College of Commerce.  Then, at night, the bus tour of the city, where we often played a game called “Is Mike lying.”  During this game, I would explain some fact about the city of Chicago, or a building we were passing and the students on the bus would have to guess if I was telling the truth or lying.  Standard lies that were part of the tour included “That there is the first Wendy’s in the U.S,” (there was always someone from Ohio who knew it was in Dublin, Ohio), “That gas station canopy was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (Clark and LaSalle, totally not true) and “There is a Walgreens on every block in Chicago,” (not true at the time but might be true now).

After the tour, the Mentor Band took stage in the 3rd floor lounge of Seton Hall.  Made up of Chris Hamblett on bass and vocals, John Alvarado on guitar and another Chris, who was not a mentor but a DePaul music school student, on drums and yours truly on guitar trying to keep up with these real musicians.  It was a blast.  Chris singing Zombie by the Cranberries and the one kid who actually knew all of the lyrics to Blues Traveler’s Runaround were highlights of the summer.  Oh, and how could I forget the bitchin’ version of Wicked Game that we played.  Oh, why were there no smart phones with video back in 1996.

“Is this where Sinatra comes in,” you are asking now.  “Did you sing ‘Strangers in the night’ for everyone?”
It’s not Sinatra time yet, but soon.  I promise
The Stuart Center was the student center and houses the cafeterias and other common areas.  It had an area known as “the Pit,” which, was, well, a pit.  It was our de facto meeting place.  We spend a lot of time doing nothing but waiting in the pit.  It could get a bit boring.  If it got too boring, we starting singing the theme to “I Love Genie.”  (Insert Spotify link).   We did that a lot.  Well, at least twice.  People looked at us funny.  DePaul’s incoming class probably wouldn’t know the song.

The second day of the orientation was shorter and we ended the day in the same large auditorium that we had started in the morning before.  This was the wrap up, the send-off for the rest of the summer, the see you Freshman in September when classes start.  It also marked the end of two long days for the mentor staff.  It ended with a slideshow of Chicago sights, set to My Kind of Town. 

“Finally, Sinatra,” you are saying.

The first few sessions we just listened to the song.  Then we started to mouth the words silently.   By mid-summer many of us were singing along quietly.  But by the end of the summer, then entire mentor staff was singing along with every word.  Not only did we like the song but it also marked the end of the exhausting two days.  It also meant that we were just a few minutes away from the post orientation drink, a tradition that we started early in the summer and completed dutifully in my room as soon as we sent the no longer nervous incoming freshman into the arms of their now very nervous parents.

And here we are back where we started.

When you spend that much time with a small group of people, you become good friends.  I wish I could say that I still talk to all of the people I worked with that summer, but I can’t.  I haven’t see any of them for ages.  Because of the modern joys of Facebook, I know where a few of them are and what they are doing.  And every time I hear ‘My Kind of Town’ I’m taken back to that summer.  To the purple shirts we wore  all summer (see picture), to the sixty six students I met that summer and help introduce them to DePaul University and the city of Chicago, to the fun I had, and the Funyons we never ate, to that very auditorium that still does exist.  I can see us all at the back of the Auditorium, singing together in the darkness as the slide show played.  It ended with the last 'My Kind of Town,' the song ended and the lights came back up.

The 1996 DePaul University mentor staff.  I'm the dude with the mushroom hair in the front row.
My Kind of Town, Chicago is
My kind of Town, Chicago is
My kind of razzmatazz
And it has all that jazz...