back to the Black Table

Most people, when they arrive on their college campus for the first time, are prone to go a little nuts. After 18 years under their parents’ thumb, kids can be forgiven for rocking out as soon as they have the opportunity.

When I arrived in August 1993, I met a kid named Tony, from the north suburbs of Chicago. He was blaring Duran Duran’s "Ordinary World" from his dorm room, just down the hall of mine. Figuring this was as good a time as any to introduce myself to a floormate, I knocked on his door.

He opened wearing only his boxer shorts, wearing a fresh coat of shaving cream. "’Sup, dude. Phat hat." I was wearing a fedora. For some reason, I thought people in college wore fedoras. I told him


my name was Will, and that I was from downstate, about an hour south of Champaign. Tony appeared to be readying for a night out, even though it was noon, and classes weren’t starting for three more days. I asked him where he was going.

"I’m thinking I’m gonna rush either Pike or ZBT, and they both have shit going on tonight," he said. It was too early in my college career to have the slightest idea what he was talking about, but I let him keep going, eventually deciphering that he was referring to fraternities. "You know where you gonna rush?" I told him I hadn’t planned on joining a fraternity. "I want to write for the newspaper. I don’t think I’ll have time to be in a frat." Tony said that was cool, man, and to let him know if he was being too loud with one of his ladies that night. "That shit’s rude, you know?" I didn’t, really, but I figured he was probably right.

I bid Tony good day and locked my dorm’s door. I grabbed my backpack, three brand-new Bics my mom had bought from the Illini Union and hopped on the 80 Orchard Downs bus toward the Daily Illini. The paper wasn’t publishing that day, but that was no matter. I would impress them with my pluckiness, my go-get-‘em-ness. I showed up in the office, told anyone in earshot that I wanted to write movie reviews and signed about 10 different sheets of paper begging editors to call me. I then went back to my dorm, and ran into Tony, who was still applying cologne. "You gonna be Roger Ebert, man? Thumbs up!"

I unlocked the door and saw my answering machine flashing red. My first message! I’d never had a phone message on my own phone before. I was a grownup! Fully expecting it to be my mother, making sure I hadn’t lost my keys, I hit play.

"Yeah, Will, this is Rod O’Connor, I’m Diversions editor at the Daily Illini. I saw you were interested in reviewing movies. I must have just missed you. Anyway, I got this movie that no one here wants to see, and I thought you might want to see it for us. It’s by Woody Allen, Manhattan Murder something. Gimme a call if you’d like to do it for us." Needless to say, I had seen the movie the night before, and had written about 1,000 words of a hypothetical review already. I called him immediately. Rod O’Connor was a little stunned to hear that I was "polishing" the review as we spoke and that I would be at the offices in an hour.

After sprinting the two miles to the DI, I, breathless, handed the stunned senior my manuscript. It was 2,000 words. He read it over and said, "this is good. Here, fill out these papers so you can get paid." Paid! I hadn’t imagine they would actually pay for this! I told him he didn’t have to pay me if he didn’t want to. He said it was fine, we pay everyone. Trust me. You’ll like it.

Rod O’Connor asked me if I wanted to review another movie, and I said I’d like that just fine. "When will the Woody Allen review run?" I asked. "Oh, Friday. It’ll be in the Friday issue." It was Tuesday. Classes started Thursday. He had to be kidding. So soon? "That’s the way it works," he said. "Like writing an

ail." I had never written an email before, but I took his word for it.

I came straight home. Tony had finally left. I immediately called my parents, my girlfriend, my friend Tim in California and anyone else whose numbers I remembered. I was going to be a published film critic! Like Roger Ebert! Screw classes! I had already made it. Champaign was mine.

The first day of classes was inconsequential … and endless. My first day of college was spent like many in the future would be: waiting for this boring crap to get over with. TAs passed out syllabi, everyone took detailed notes and I sat in the back, watching the clock. The night before, I’d stayed up all night to see exactly when the fresh copies of the Daily Illini were dropped off at the dorm’s gates. It was 5:07 a.m. I stayed up all night, annoying my roommate, as I flipped through furiously. Maybe they had decided to run it a day early? They hadn’t … just one more day.

After my last class, I went straight to the dorm and waited, aimlessly flipping through MTV on my small, black-and-white television. Tony dropped by my room. "They run your article yet, Will?" I patiently explained they weren’t called articles, they were called reviews, and no. He was heading out to ZBT tonight; he figured they might be the winners of the Great Tony Frat Derby. "Those Pikes are pricks, dude."

He left, and I waited, waited, waited. I tuned the radio to the Cardinals game – these were the dark Cardinals years, back when Joe Torre was managing and they were finishing behind the Cubs, for cripes sake – just to make sure I stayed awake. 1 a.m. … 2 a.m. … 3 a.m. … I somehow kept it together, though novels had been written in the time since I’d last slept. Finally, at 4 a.m., I decided I’d just go downstairs and wait for the paperboy to show up. Armed only with a Diet Coke and a Leonard Maltin movie guide, I ventured through the security doors and sat.

After half an hour, I heard some rustling. This was it! Turning the corner was … Tony. And a girl. A hot girl. "Dude, Will, your paper come yet?" I said it hadn’t. Tony introduced me to Becky, who was as tall as Tony and had a bemused smirk. "Becky’s a junior," Tony said, not even pretending to disguise his pride. "She says she hasn’t been to a dorm in two years." Tony explained that if anyone asked, I didn’t see him, since, technically, we weren’t supposed to have female visitors upstairs past midnight. He then walked away, slipping in the side door, calling out behind him, "I’ll try to keep it down, right?"

As their silhouettes faded, I heard the large white van with the Daily Illini logo on the side pull up. It was the same delivery man from the night before. He smiled. "I hope your story’s in this one, because if I see you standing here Sunday night, still waiting, I’m gonna call your RA." He might have been joking. He was probably joking. But I wouldn’t have noticed either way, because I handed him three dollars – the newspaper was a quarter – and took as many papers as I could hold. I riffled through them right in front of him. And there, on page 5 of Diversions, was a review of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, written by … Wil Leitc. An overzealous page designer had decided to cut the headline and byline in half, and besides looking ridiculous – who gets arty with a review of a Woody Allen movie? -- it had made my name indecipherable.

Not that I cared. I ran upstairs and put the 20-some-odd copies of the paper in a box, wrapped it up and put my parents’ address on it. I placed one copy in my backpack; I wanted to carry it with me from class to class all day. Heck, you never knew if you were going to run into someone who asked you what your major was. "I’m a journalism major … and I even write for the newspaper. Look!"

I then lay down and, in a sign of days to come, slept through all my Friday classes. To this day, my parents have a copy of that first Woody Allen review, framed, in their basement. My mother still gets angry when she looks at the bungled byline.


Last week, for the first time in New York City, I had a story published in a city daily newspaper. It was also a review; this time, a book review.

Of course, it’s now 10 years later. I spent the night before my review came out working late, paying off some bills and going to bed early. I had completely forgotten until lunch that the "article" was in the paper that day. It was just another story among the hundreds, something else that I’d finished and put away, before moving on to the next one.

You know how they say you never forget your first love? I’ll never forget that first review. When I read it today, it’s clumsy, cliched, wordy and not particularly enlightening. But it was mine – or Wil Leitc’s, anyway – and that excitement hasn’t been duplicated since.

Some would call this progress, and maturation. Possibly. I hope so, anyway.



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