Cat Pierro

Sketchy Joe


ISSUE 41 | INFAMY | JUN 2014

Here are the facts which were widely known about Sketchy Joe, in order from most widely known to least widely known:
  1. Sketchy Joe lived off campus, yet he spent his afternoons in a lounge in one of the East Campus dorms, acting as though he belonged there. Really he was attempting to seduce first year girls.
  2. Sketchy Joe was old, perhaps 24 or 26. He may have still been a student, though, because he may have had trouble passing a certain Combinatorics class, requiring him to retake his senior year many times over. To be able to afford the extra tuition, he may have come from a quite wealthy family.
  3. First year girls could not always necessarily tell that he was sketchy. They might instead just think “I guess this is what college is like.” Thus, tragic stories would occasionally circulate about an unwitting victim who was seduced and only later learned the identity of her seducer.
  4. He preferred to be called Joseph.

* * *

There were 1,400 students at Grinnell when I enrolled. Not everyone met Sketchy Joe, but everyone heard of him. One student told me he was gossiping about Sketchy Joe with someone he’d just met, when that person interrupted with a twisted grimace and said, “I’m Sketchy Joe.”

When I met him, visiting my friend Rob who lived on East Campus, someone whispered his identity to me. I looked him over with interest, finding him neither unattractive nor handsome, but tall with a sharpness to him and darting eyes. He was neither obviously awkward nor smoothly seductive, but he was certainly ill-mannered. The story I brought home to my own dorm was that when I sat down about three feet away from him on the couch, he told me that I needn’t be shy, and I retorted that I was not at all shy, I had sat exactly where I wanted to sit. The girl to whom I told this story looked at me with some astonishment and called me something like sassy or saucy or bold, which provoked me to mentally reexamine my retelling for any trace of self-aggrandizing falsification: perhaps I’d said less, perhaps I hadn’t been so forceful.

* * *

Sketchy Joe will never know to what extent—and it was an extent that increased steadily during my time in college—I was his ally. I would memorize the ridiculous things people said about him (along the lines of “Oh my God I hate Sketchy Joe, he’s just so sketchy, I’ve never met him but he just gives me the creeps!”) so that I could quote those things whenever his name was brought up and roll my eyes. I pitied him, quite simply. I couldn’t stand that his epithet ostracized him so thoroughly. It was like a caste system, like declaring someone untouchable.

Even after college, I never used the word “sketchy,” and I tried to call people out who did use it. At some point I provoked my friend Kate to argue in earnest that “We need to call some people sketchy—otherwise everyone would sleep with everyone!”

* * *

A few weeks ago, I went to my college reunion. I wondered whether, half a decade later, people would still remember Sketchy Joe. Well, to be perfectly truthful I had no doubt that they would. But when I asked them, what came out was ... sketchy.

“I remember that he graduated,” one person said, and couldn’t think of anything else.

* * *

“What do you guys remember about Sketchy Joe?” I asked a picnic table full of alums.

ROB: Oh, my God. Oh, my God, I can’t believe he’s coming up. I can’t believe he’s still coming up.

KEVIN: That was like the first thing they told you at orientation. Don’t interact with Sketchy Joe.

ROB: It was so horrible when I found out later some people had nicknamed me Sketchy Rob.

Supportive exclamations of disbelief.

ROB: But Sketchy Joe, he was like a legend. Only a handful of people called me that.

KEVIN: There were so many Robs on campus, I think it was just to distinguish you.

ANGELICA: Who is this Sketchy Joe? I remember the name, but I don’t remember the legend.

ROB: So, he was this guy. He should have graduated, but he hadn’t. He hung out in all the dorms and he was a very in-your-face personality and he hit on all the underclassmen girls relentlessly. I remember Penelope—he just reached up and touched her face. And you can see this look in her face, like, what the fuck is going on?

KEVIN: I remember being in Cleveland Lounge and he was in there on his own, watching the L word. Which is kind of creepy in itself... I didn’t know what he looked like, so I didn’t know it was him. And I remember an upperclassman who came in and saw him doing it just yelling GET OUTTA HERE GET OUTTA HERE because he was, you know, his reputation preceded him.

ROB: Yeah, I felt bad for him, but there was sort of a reason for that.

KEVIN: He also... I remember investigating him and he had gotten kicked out of another college for... I don’t know if it said. My sense was that it was for sexual assault, but I don’t think it said exactly. And another really weird thing about him is, he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

ROB: Oh, I kind of remember that! He was really involved during the Kerry Bush thing.

KEVIN: You remember that... I don’t know how he pulled that off because everyone here hated him. I remember upperclassmen saying to the administration, “This is a plague,” a horrible thing that they’d not kicked him out. I think there was a lot of talk that he’d sexually assaulted a woman or more than one woman at Grinnell. It was more than him just being ... creepy around them ... I don’t know that for a fact, though. Yeah, that was not good. It was funny that that united every part of campus, their dislike for this guy.

ROB: And I was an underclassman and we were actually kind of friendly for a while because I didn’t know anything about him... I remember he was just trying to get in good with all the freshmen early on, but I mean he was just so abrasive and kind of just annoying and, yeah, he was always in the lounge. And it did get to a point where you kind of wanted to avoid being in the lounge.

SEBASTIAN: What did he look like?

KEVIN: He was like a decent-looking dude. He was Jewish, sorta darker skinned... yeah, he seemed, he looked fine... he didn’t look like some lecherous horrible person....

ROB: I remember him wearing a baseball cap, though.

KEVIN: That might have been, I don’t know.

CAT: I remember one girl telling me that, like, he didn’t tell her who he was, so she hooked up with him and afterward she learned and was mortified.

Laughter.

CALVIN: What was he supposed to say, “I’m Sketchy Joe”?

SEBASTIAN: What did he say, “I’m Matt”?

KEVIN: I wouldn’t be surprised if he used a fake name a lot.

CALVIN: The only thing I ever heard about him was that he described himself as a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.

CAT: Oh! I remember that!

CALVIN: I don’t remember what the context was, if there was context, if that was how he really felt about himself...

ANGELICA: That’s not unusual. I’ve dated, like, three or four guys who’ve said that. There’s something there.

KEVIN: What... does that mean? They feel more female, and yet they... It almost just sounds like something exotic to say that is actually meaningless.

ROB: Exactly yeah. I think he borrowed those scenes of the L word from Danica. I seem to recall him borrowing those at the time because I think we were all underfreshmen who didn’t really know much about him at that point. He seemed like an okay guy who hung out occasionally in the lounge. And I remember when we kind of had to ignore him for a while. Yeah, he was a weird guy. When did he leave? I thought he was gone by junior year.

CAT: Did he graduate?

KEVIN: I think so. I wish I could think of his last name.

SEBASTIAN: He probably graduated to graduate school where he was... Sketchy Sam?

CALVIN: Spent seven years there... hanging out with undergrads.

SEBASTIAN: He’s probably a professor.

ANGELICA: For all we know he could be at this table.

ROB: He lives in one of the abandoned dorms somewhere and just comes out late at night.

CALVIN: That’s what they scare the freshmen with, nowadays.

ROB: But yeah he definitely roamed around. Because I saw him on East Campus, and he made it all the way over to Cleveland lounge.

KEVIN: He just tried to go places where he thought people didn’t know about him yet.

ROB: Yes, exactly. That’s why he went to the new, those were the new campuses when I moved in.

CAT: Any more memories? Graham? Do you remember being told anything about him?

GRAHAM: Yeah, I remember hearing his name, but I never saw him, or, I don’t know what he looks like.

CAT: I feel like the average Grinnellian has heard of him and hates him but has never met him.

ROB: Again, you want to feel like maybe it’s a case of us all imagining these evil things, but at the same time, it’s Grinnell. Everyone was pretty weird. So, to stand out like that...

SEBASTIAN: It sounds like there’s enough evidence against him. Enough people have actually seen him in the flesh.

ROB: And like I said, from this campus I just got very used to people not understanding how to be sociable in the right way, myself included, so, like... you feel like there’d be a gray space.

Sounds of agreement.

CAT: Or, my friend suggested that we all took our awkwardness and projected it onto one guy that we could exculpate.

ROB: Ha, like a social scapegoat.

KEVIN: I don’t think that was the case. I don’t think he was awkward. I think he just did illegal stuff.

ROB: He was creepy and kind of confrontational in a way.

KEVIN: That’s how I remember him.

* * *

Penelope, the woman in Rob’s dorm whose face had been touched, laughed when I brought up Sketchy Joe. But she looked serious at the same time. She told me that he used to hang out in their dorm and they would watch TV together, him and her and Rob and Eliza and some other people. And he’d offer backrubs, and before they knew who he was, they’d say “Sure!” because they were stressed out or whatever. After she found out who he was and hung out with him more, she was like, “N-no, please don’t touch me.”

I wasn’t sure what to ask Penelope. I wanted more. She knew him well enough to get in a car with him, she said. First year he drove four of them out to the cornfields to see the Northern Lights when it was super spectacular.

“Do you think he earned the name Sketchy Joe?”

“He was definitely sketchy.”

“Can you define sketchy?”

“Hm. That’s a good question.”

“Is it the same as creepy?”

“Not quite. It’s similar, but it has more of a... sexual... undertone.” I’m not sure how to describe what was on Penelope’s face as she said this. Kind of like a smile.

After that we got caught up talking to other people. I thought our conversation was over. But later she turned to me and admitted that she didn’t think Joe was as bad as his reputation. His reputation preceded him and it was unfair. After she spent more time with him—after she was like “not happening”—they were able to get to know each other a little bit.

“At the same time,” she added, “I didn’t seek him out to hang out with him ever.”

* * *

“I remember we encouraged him to remove himself from associating with the Dag group at one point,” Logan told me.

Logan was referring to Dagorhir, a fighting game played with foam swords.

“He shows up at fighter practice early in my sophomore year, and there were a couple people who really, really hated him because of... sketchiness, in the past, with friends. It was when I was in charge of the group, and I said, ‘Okay, guys, you’ve got to give this guy a chance—he doesn’t really deserve it, but we’re going to do it anyway.’ And then, partway through the practice, he hit on someone. At that point he was making coming to the group uncomfortable, and I talked to one of the folks who wanted him to leave and I said—free reign. And then they went over there and belted him. Every fight he would get belted and he lasted about two fights and was done forever.

“You don’t want to tell him, Just leave,” he explained. “We’re not an exclusive group, you’re welcome to stay, but I can’t vouch for how all our members are going to behave.”

* * *

Meanwhile, I requested stories about Sketchy Joe on Plans, Grinnell’s internet community. I wanted to include people in the conversation who hadn’t come to Reunion, particularly “upperclassmen,” since everyone I was talking to seemed to be taking the perspective of a first year or a second year.

The first person who replied posted, “I remember ‘Sketchy Joe’ as a lot of things, and one of them was a human being who was treated pretty awfully by a whole campus of people, so I’m pretty uneasy with this article you’re talking about. Just. Throwing that out there.”

“That’s kind of the point!” I posted back.

Then someone else emailed me privately. “I have deep reservations about this... the guy is a person. Get a bunch of people together and they all have ‘Sketchy Joe’ stories but damnit, he is a real person.”

I edited my request as clearly as I could. “Some people seem to have gotten the impression that I am writing an article bashing Sketchy Joe. I am not. I want to think through something like groupthink. I have always believed that the campus’s treatment of Sketchy Joe was horrifying and cruel. At the same time, I want to empathize with all the individual people on campus who tried to sort through everything they heard about him, and their own encounters with him, and their own feelings.”

One woman wrote to me that Sketchy Joe was a great listener when she was going through a hard time her first year, and that there were a lot of people on campus who were sketchier than he was. One guy told me he thought the name should have been “Awkward Joe.”

Another woman emailed that she had been warned against interacting with him, that she guessed he sexually assaulted women but that she wouldn’t know for sure because she did not drink and never allowed herself to be alone with a man. I felt bad when I read that.

“I can’t think of a more nauseatingly tacky use of pseudo-journalistic energy,” a person I had never met posted. I felt a twinge of self-consciousness there. “Cheers, but I’m not trying to write journalism,” I wrote back. Why was everyone so happy to blab about this guy amongst their friends, but had such a block against seeing any of it in writing?

Another said, “I agree with some others who feel uneasy about an article ostracizing a former student, no matter how deserved.”

I resorted to all caps. “I AM NOT WRITING AN ARTICLE BASHING SKETCHY JOE.” I couldn’t understand how people could even possibly think that anyone outside the Grinnell community could be convinced to join in our weird anti-Joe cult by some article I wrote. I assumed if I expressed people’s thoughts neutrally, then obviously, obviously, the joke would be on Grinnell. Wouldn’t it?

* * *

Anne Marie shook her head when I asked her. “Sketchy Joe was my friend, and I have no negative opinions about him.” She seemed surprised when I wasn’t disappointed to hear that.

“I understand that other people have a bad opinion of him, but my interactions with him were never negative. He was my friend, he lived on my floor, or near my floor, freshman year, and he hung out with us. I always got the sense that he was only sketchy because we’re Grinnell, not because he would have been sketchy at any other school. Grinnell is a small school and we were all 18 to 22, and the fact that he was an older student just bothered people more.

“Like Gary was saying, Gary took a year off and when he came back, most of his friends were freshmen because freshmen were people who were willing to be friendly and excited about other people. And I think Joe wanted to be friends with freshmen not because he was sketchy, but because freshmen wanted new friends, wanted new people to talk to. He was socially awkward, and unfortunately he was like 26 and socially awkward rather than 18 and socially awkward. So it was sketchy instead of just, ‘You’re awkward! This is a little weird! You’re crossing boundaries!’—which happened with other people.

“But I liked him, I thought he was a good guy. We’re both Jewish, we bonded over that kind of stuff... I don’t remember specifically, but we did Jew stuff together. And we talked about how hard it was for him at Grinnell, too. All of the things other people thought were sketchy were not so sketchy for me. He crossed the line with one of my friends—I think he read something wrong and felt like she was more interested in him than she was, and he went into her room at a time that she felt was really inappropriate. So I can see how people might think that was sketchy.

“Certainly he flirted a lot and misread people. There are the geek boys who never flirt with anybody and don’t know what that is, and the geek boys who flirt with everybody and you have to explicitly tell them I’m not interested and then they stop. I never had a problem. Maybe he just wasn’t attracted to me.

“He’s married now, by the way.”

“He is?”

“Yeah, we still keep in touch a little. Facebook and things. He got married. I don’t keep up with him a ton, but we’re Facebook friends.”

* * *

I wasn’t sure how to think about the sexual assault allegation. If it was true, I obviously should not defend him, I should support people who wanted to warn each other. And a person who was willing to flirt “relentlessly” right up until the point where a woman stated very clearly, “not happening”—a guy like that might be willing to take advantage of a woman who was feeling a little less lucid.

I had to keep reminding myself that I couldn’t find any woman who said she’d been sexually assaulted by Sketchy Joe, nor anyone who knew of any woman who said she’d been sexually assaulted by Sketchy Joe. Of course, that didn’t mean it hadn’t happened. But that did mean people brought this up because, at some level, they wanted it to be true. That’s what bothered me the most—the progression from “I don’t want this guy’s attention, he’s kind of gross” all the way to “and by the way I’m justified in gossiping this way because I bet he sexually assaulted someone at some point.”

I don’t remember the sexual assault talk from my college days. I do remember that some guys I knew had a rule that you couldn’t hook up with a first year before fall break—maybe it was just them or maybe it was widespread Grinnell code, who knows. Joseph definitely at least tried to break that rule.

* * *

“Actually, I’m just remembering this now,” said Julian. “A friend of mine dated him. Our second or third year. I was really frightened once I connected that he was Sketchy Joe and she was dating him. And she kind of dropped off all social channels and I was worried that he had done something. And I think it’s actually a legitimate worry, because she had kind of not sustained any other connections... she was someone who was naïve... not naïve... easily dominated ... what’s the word ... you let people cower over you ... easily cowed. But they broke up. I don’t know how it ended. I never learned anything more about it.

“I did meet him personally, once, in Rawson lounge,” he said. “I was unimpressed.”

* * *

I wondered what it was like to date someone who the entire student body referred to as Sketchy Joe.

I can remember waiting on the subway platform in Boston and imagining the strange man who was standing somewhere behind me. In moments like that, it seems like the whole force of a culture is telling me to stare straight ahead, not to engage him, not to be too familiar with him—especially not if he talks to me, because that would be a clear indication that he’s sketchy. It’s not quite that I’m attracted to all the creepy guys on the subway. It’s more like I can’t locate my own desire among the forces, and that feels restrictive.

* * *

Logan contacted me again the next day. He had suddenly remembered something else, long before the Dag thing. It was at most two months into his first year at Grinnell, on a Friday night. A Harris party was scheduled, one of the less popular Harris parties, and Logan went by himself. At Harris he got to talking to this guy who introduced himself as Joe. He seemed like a normal, pretty cool upperclassman. The two of them went around the dance floor together saying hi to various people. Logan didn’t notice at the time, but most of the people his new friend said hi to were women. That wasn’t necessarily weird. There was one sort of odd thing, when Joe started talking to a girl who immediately made an excuse and left. And then, when they went to grab a beer, he flirted openly with the server. But that didn’t really seem unusual, either.

Eventually, Logan walked off. Almost immediately, he was pulled aside by some second years. “What are you doing?” they asked him. “Why are you hanging out with Sketchy Joe?”

* * *

Natalie had heard about him. She heard that he was 24 or 26 or something, which seemed really old, and that he always tried to get with freshman girls. She also heard that he was very smart, but that he would keep failing one class again and again in order to stay at Grinnell longer. She always wondered why he kept coming here, why he didn’t transfer schools to be in a place where he didn’t have such an awful reputation. On top of that, she always wondered what he thought about the name Sketchy Joe. Was he proud of it? Did he even know about it?