January 15, 2012

The Dorm


There was a time—and this may still be the case—when all incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago were required to live in one of the dorms. It was an obvious and clearly-stated policy of forced socialization, aimed at a student body that by nature tended to be populated with geeks, loners and outcasts.

          There was a very clear social hierarchy set up within the dorm system. Those students who came from families of wealth, power and influence lived in the luxury dorm, a beautifully ornate, century-old gothic building with hardwood floors, high ceilings, and fireplaces. That’s the dorm that appeared in all the brochures. The freewheeling hipster party animals were in the modernist building with the orange and purple walls. Older or married students were put in a real, sedate apartment complex. And those losers who didn’t fit any of those categories got dumped in Pierce, a burned-out flashbulb of a high-rise that would’ve fit right in with any of the public housing projects on the south side.

          It was a mess of a building, with peeling paint, cracked tile floors, dangerous staircases and bathrooms that had never been cleaned. The rooms were twelve-foot-square cement cubes furnished with second-hand army cots. In the summer there was no ventilation and in the winter the rooms filled with steam while the pipes clanked all night. Most of the building had not been wired for telephones (we were still twenty years away from cell phones), so if you got a call, you had to pick up a handwritten message at the front desk, then go looking for a pay phone.

          I will say, however, that it was an interesting (which is a nice way of saying “motley”) collection of people who lived on my floor. We had the chubby math major and record geek, the skinhead, the wild woman, the white trash woman, the flamboyantly gay kid, the deeply closeted cool couple, the funny Jewish kid who loved rap music, the part-time hooker, the upright fellow, the kindhearted but oafish doofus, the angry Chinese kid, the perpetually horny kid, the hippie chick, the broad-shouldered butch lesbian twins (really) and the loud and abrasive “nice Jewish girl from Joisey.” There was the obsessively clean and fiercely homophobic son of Japan’s Minister of Finance. There were two streetwise kids from the Bronx who were caricatures of low-rent gangsters from the thirties, right down to the pencil-thin mustaches and the “yo, wha’chuse doin’?” patter. There was a feral child and a tech whiz.

          I got lucky so far as randomly-chosen roommates went. Tom was a geek’s geek, a simultaneous math, chemistry, physics and computer science major who read science fiction and could recite the complete works of Monty Python.

          As a group, they were like a stock company hired to play in a generic college comedy. The only difference was that all these people were very, very bright. At the table in the dining hall, they really did discuss literature, politics, science, and philosophy along with the usual undergrad hijinx. While they talked about drugs and booze, unlike NYU there was no open drug trade, and only rarely did I smell pot smoke coming from any of the rooms. The one time there was a party in which beer was offered, well, the next morning the dorm was awash in a sea of vomit. It was in the lounge, it was in front of the elevator, it was in the hallway, and someone had been kind enough to puke behind the radiator in the men’s room, which carried the stench throughout the building. In short, they were lightweights despite the characters they hid behind.

          Regardless of the university’s intentions, none of it helped me socialize at all. Surrounded by a cast of characters like that, my first impulse was to do what I could to be completely invisible. I rarely spoke, I didn’t hang out in the lounge, I ate at odd hours when I knew no one else would be around.

          But all my efforts were for naught. I kept myself so outside the scene there, that I called attention to myself. My room became a destination for the lost. I couldn’t leave my door open even a crack without someone wandering in to sit down and talk for hours. The doofus, the abrasive girl, others. I could hear them coming, the grunt of recognition from down the hall when they saw the light, and then it was too late to do anything. I don’t know why they chose me, except that I was a cipher who would listen and wouldn’t throw them out. (Not that I didn’t try—they simply chose not to notice.) I guess they were as close to “friends” as I had there (except for my future ex-wife, who also lived there. But that’s another story).

          There was one woman, Katie was her name. She was an odd case. Petite girl, sharp features. Pretty in a certain severe way, but a walking series of contradictions. She’d obviously come from money somewhere out West, went to boarding school, always got what she wanted and became furious when she didn’t. Casually racist and not all that bright, though she knew how to play the part. Extremely uptight girl whenever sex came up in a public conversation (women who were raped were asking for it, she said), yet she insisted on going braless beneath a tight, thin pink stretch pullover that was two sizes too small. She was devoid of any noticeable sense of humor. Most people considered her a stuck-up bitch, and she was undeniably nasty to almost everyone. Except, for some reason, me.

          She’d show up in my doorway greeting me in a sing-sing voice, twisting her torso and snapping her fingers to some music only she heard. At first she showed up in my room with her roommate (the white trash woman), then alone. After a few weeks, she began getting up early, and would join me for breakfast in the dining hall. Although I don’t recall that I ever learned what her major was, I heard about her troubles at school, with her roommate, with other people in the dorm, and with her family. Sometimes it was the food or the weather. If she was in a good mood, she came in my room and danced. If she was in a bad mood, she came in and paced.

          One night she told me she had written home about me.

          Unaccustomed as I was to this sort of thing, it nevertheless seemed pretty obvious where all this was headed.

          Well, I was wrong. In fact the only time I touched her—I put a hand on her arm to try and stop her incessant pacing, which was driving me nuts—she jumped away as if I’d taken a butane torch to her and yelled “I hate being touched! No one touches me!”

          “Okay,” I said, and she continued to pace.

          In the end, nothing ever happened. I was just someone who listened to her with her snapping fingers and tight pink top.

          All the really dramatic things in that dorm happened while I was away, usually visiting my folks. On one weekend a woman was raped. On another, there was an attempted suicide. On another, a crazy student set a mattress on fire and the whole place nearly went up. And on yet another, Katie, without a word to anyone, packed up her bags and went back West, never to be heard from again. Her white trash roommate told me that Katie was a deeply, deeply disturbed young woman. That’s all she told me. I asked no further questions, satisfied to simply consider myself lucky.


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