Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Elvis Fan

I can’t really think of Elvis without thinking of Ruth. Ruth was my suitemate in college, and the penultimate Elvis fan, expert in his life history, songs, movies, and trivia. She papered the walls of her dorm room with his posters and was always on the alert for an opportunity to steer the conversation to a discussion of his merits, driving us crazy with the on and on of it. This was back in the days when Elvis was on television, long past “You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog,” gaining weight but still able to throb some hearts. I recall walking through the lobby of our dorm one night during one of his T.V. specials and spotting Ruth parked in front of the TV, bouncing up and down and screaming. My roommate and I waited excitedly in our room for a call that she had fainted, but she somehow held it together.

Until I met Ruth, I had never considered the merits of Elvis. He was just some guy twisting around on the stage singing about love. In my eyes, he was already an old man, and certainly not worth the effort that Ruth put into worshipping him. I laughed at her, poked fun, and jeered on every occasion when she brought him up. My ridicule did little to flag her devotion and thinking back on it later, I wish I had been less critical. I should have enjoyed watching a true Elvis fan in action.

When Elvis died in the summer of 1977, I was driving across Ohio. Upon hearing the news on the car radio, I immediately thought of Ruth, as all of her friends did. We knew she would be devastated. Back at school for our senior year, I asked her how she was; she said fine. She wasn’t really though—Ruth changed when Elvis died. She lost the sparkle in her eyes. She broke things off with the guy from Utah she was having a fling with, and went back to her steady high school boyfriend. She stopped going to parties and told us she was too busy studying to socialize. She settled into planning the rest of her life and then following the plan—degree in home economics, engagement, marriage, kids. Worst of all, she did it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Incredibly, I found myself wishing that Elvis had hung around. His loss left a big hole in the road for me, and I didn’t even like him. I missed the days when Ruth inserted his name into a conversation that started out as a discussion about a psychology test. Some people never feel that amount of excitement their entire lives—I know that I haven’t very much.

I haven’t heard from Ruth in many years, but I like to think that one day she woke up feeling excited like she did in our college days, when Elvis was still alive. Perhaps on the anniversary of his death some year, she became a hard-core Elvis fan once again, and hung her dorm room posters all over the living room. Or, in 1992, when Bill Clinton announced that he didn’t think George Bush would have liked Elvis very much and that was just another thing wrong with Bush, she might have gone into politics. Any year now, she’ll run for national office on an Elvis platform with slogans like, “It’s Now Or Never” or “Follow That Dream.” Or maybe one day when she got a piece of mail with an Elvis stamp on it, she left her husband and moved to Memphis, and got a job working as a bartender during the week and a tour guide at Graceland on the weekends.

Even if not the extreme, perhaps Ruth did take some action. If she hasn’t, maybe she still will. She might go to Memphis for Elvis week in August, where she’ll make new friends and come home with T-shirts for her family, who will think she’s just entering menopause and it could be worse. She might welcome a big stray tomcat into her spotless home and name him Elvis or The King. Maybe she’ll just get out her old records and buy a turntable from a flea market and listen to them when she’s supposed to be doing something more important.

John Lennon once said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.” We all need a hero to drive our passions and inspire our zest for life, someone to look up to and admire. I missed the inspired Ruth. So what if Elvis was a fat, old guy. If he kindled the excitement in Ruth’s life, then it didn’t matter what I or anyone else thought of him. I admire her now for her fandom, because I envy the passion that she felt. I know now—there’s nothing like an Elvis fan to teach you about passion.

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