by JIM KNIPFEL
November 6, 2016
Tufts House, Pierce Tower
Can’t say whether this still holds true or not, but thirty-three years ago one of the stipulations that came with being accepted at the University of Chicago was that first year students had to live in the dorm system. Perhaps understanding the sort of nerdy, awkward students they attracted, it was a stab on the university’s part at a bit of forced socialization. After that first year living among others, we were free to hole ourselves up in tiny dark hovels if we liked and never speak to anyone again. But only after that first year.
There were several dorms to choose from, each catering to different economic and social strata. The rich kids from powerful families lived in Burton-Judson, the stately Gothic dorm on the other side of the midway near the law school. BJ, as it was known, offered enormous and plush rooms, some of which came complete with fireplaces, and a gourmet dining hall. The hipsters who didn’t have quite as much money, but still more than most, landed in a bright, modernist structure in the center of the campus. Those at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile got shoved into Pierce. As a result, while BJ was a melting pot of tomorrow’s leaders and white collar criminals, Pierce was a freak show.
Built in the early Sixties from plans for a typical low-income housing project, more than anything Pierce Tower resembled a burnt-out flashcube on stilts. The main lobby and cafeteria were on the ground floor. The second floor consisted of a long, bright and spare lounge no one ever used, and the ten residential floors above that were divided into distinct houses of two floors each. The core of each house was a two-story lounge with a tile floor, a couple of shabby chairs and couches, a small wall-mounted TV, and a mini fridge. The carpeted hallway that circumnavigated the sad lounge was lined with double-occupancy rooms, with single rooms at each corner. The single rooms were reserved for those students who decided, for whatever godforsaken reason, to stay in the dorms after that first year. Each double had a cement floor, two narrow built-in formica-topped desks in opposite corners, two army cots, and two tiny doorless closets. Since the rooms were not equipped for telephones, each floor featured a pay phone mounted in the hall. The male and female bathrooms were on alternating floors. In short, it was set up pretty much like a flophouse writ large.
The building’s archaic heating system was a clanking and clattering nightmare, the tiny elevator was suspect even when it was working, and the whole tottering structure was at the opposite end of the campus from the grandeur of Burton-Judson, nestled tight against the border campus security warned us we must never cross if we wanted to get back alive.
Of all five misbegotten houses in Pierce, the most misbegotten of all was Tufts House. Inhabiting the third and fourth floors of the tower, Tufts was at the very bottom in every conceivable way, which of course explains why I was assigned to live there.
When I arrived at the U of C, I only knew one other student. A year earlier it had all been part of the plan, as we’d been sort-of dating clumsily and uncomfortably in high school. We even accidentally ended up in the same house in the same dorm. Unfortunately things had long since gone sour by the time we got down there, so we had nothing more to say to each other. I was ostensibly alone.
I was ill-equipped to deal with the realities of communal living. I was so socially awkward I went without eating for my first three days of college because I was too hesitant to ask anyone how to go about getting the photo ID required to eat in the dining hall.
Once I unlocked the bureaucratic mystery of how to eat regularly, I worked out the general public rhythms of dorm life and rearranged my own schedule accordingly so I could eat alone, bathe alone, study alone, and apart from classes have as little human interaction as possible. Part of it was that I simply didn’t like most of the new faces around me much. I think a bigger part of it though was that they all seemed so damnably smart in one field or another (even though we were in the gutter dorm), I was reluctant to engage them in conversation for fear of revealing myself to be the idiot I was. As a result, I spoke very little my entire time there.
Although now I look back at my time in Chicago with great fondness and regret—I’d been dreaming of going to the U of C since I was ten—I can’t exactly claim that at the time they were the happiest days of my life, and I came away after a year and a half in Hyde Park with no lasting friendships. I doubt anyone even noticed when I left. But thinking back now to that menagerie of characters that lived all around me that year and a half, I’m kicking myself again. It was, almost to the last person, a gaggle of eccentrics.
My new roommate (another requirement of that forced first year socialization project) was, from my perspective anyway, about as perfect a match as I could have hoped for. He was a scrawny and bespectacled kid whose parents taught at Northwestern. A geeks geek, he was endlessly quoting Monty Python, had questionable hygiene habits, and was a quadruple major in math, physics, chemistry and computer science. After a few weeks, however, our schedules diverged wildly and we were rarely in the room at the same time. At the beginning of our second quarter there, he stopped cutting his fingernails, toenails and hair, stopped wearing shoes, and took to spending a lot of time in trees. Last I heard, and this was some years back, he’d founded his own Silicon Valley software company and was a multi-millionaire.
Hiram, with whom I did speak on occasion, was a chubby kid with round glasses and a Jew-fro. He was another math major, but that was secondary to his record collection. He had a massive library of rock’n’roll records from across the spectrum, and after learning that despite all appearances I was a punk rock kid, he was always stopping by my room to show off his latest acquisition from the neighborhood’s used record stores. Rarely said a word about it, just pounded on my door, and when I opened it to find him standing there grinning excitedly, he’d flash the album cover then skip away. We went to a Violent Femmes show together once, and unbeknownst to me—these were the pre-smart phone days remember—he had a clunky tape recorder strapped around his ankle beneath his pants to record the show. When I disappeared into the sluggish pit for a bit, his underhanded scheme was uncovered and he was escorted from the premises.
Hiram later formed a garage band with three other obese Tufts residents. There was Wayne, a three-hundred pound Texan who was studying business but wanted to be either a musician or filmmaker. “I don’t wanna make fuckin’ Gandhi or any of that shit,” he said once. “I wanna make fuckin’ Star Wars, man.” Wayne’s roommate was Mongo, a three-hundred-fifty pound bearded Pakistani from Ohio who spoke in cryptic riddles. And the future drummer was Ted, who weighed in at a mere two hundred pounds. Ted was an earnest and gentle epileptic physics major from a mystical white trash Elvis-loving family in the Chicago suburbs. Ted may well have been the closest thing I had to a friend there. When he got excited or found himself overly happy, he would walk quickly around the hallways of our floor again and again and again, twirling in a little circle at each corner. Had to talk him down from a couple of his frequent petit mal seizures. The band, which played mostly classic rock covers, wasn’t very good, but they didn’t care so long as they were having fun. The Pain Amplifiers even opened for them once at the University’s Ida Noyes Hall, where we played to an audience of two. I quickly lost track of all of them, though I did hear Ted became a born-again Christian at some point.
There were two dorm harlots. Lizzie, an actress who was wild-eyed and more than a little nuts, and Marlene, who was more low-key about it, and expected to be paid.
Four out of the roughly forty kids in Tufts were from New York, and if you were to put them in a movie they’d all be dismissed as nothing but cheap stock company stereotypes. But being the house New York crew, they all hung together. Nobody knew exactly why Eddie, a street kid from the Bronx, was at the U of C, as he seemed to be lacking the most rudimentary of required skills, like a command of arithmetic or English. Eddie was wiry, energetic and almost completely emotionless, with a mop of dirty hair that hung in his eyes. He seemed semi-literate, moved like an animal, and I always considered him half-man, half feral dog. His best friend, also from the Bronx, was Raoul, with his pencil-thin mustache and slicked back hair. He was a finger-poppin’ operator with a clipped Bronx accent. It was never real clear what his major was, but I think it was pimping. Paulie, a round, slow and slovenly mush-mouth from Brooklyn was an eighteen-year-old Burt Young, and Josh, also from Brooklyn, was a gregarious, fast-talking Ferris Bueller clone. Only time I saw Eddie smile was when he and Josh ran into each other on the stairs once and spontaneously recited “Rapper’s Delight” in its entirety.
Kathy, about four doors down the hall from me, was a petite, sharp-nosed uptight rich girl from Denver with crazy crazy eyes and at least one verifiable screw loose. Not nearly as bright as she believed she was, Kathy had an unpredictable and explosive temper, a penchant for writing accusatory notes she left under people’s doors, and despite insisting she never be touched in any way, still made a point of wearing too-small, too-tight clothes and no underwear. I swear I got up at about four one morning (my usual schedule then) and saw her wandering the halls naked. She didn’t see me, and later denied doing any such thing. One day in the middle of our third quarter she just packed up without explanation and moved back to Denver.
Her roommate—and here was an hilarious teaming—was a, well, big-boned stubbornly redneck (and rock-stupid) girl from South Carolina who relied on some insane pseudoscience to support her fierce pro-life stance. She also, without giving it much thought, used to regale people with stories about how she and her friends went driving around her home town, um, “nigger thumping.”
Oh, there were the lesbian twins from the women’s crew team, the fey, funny and persnickety gay kid next door who also loved hardcore, the gay Penn and Teller doppelgangers the next door down, the drunken hipster from New Delhi, and Rusty, the frizzy-haired and adenoidal libertarian who felt stoplights represented too much government intrusion, was convinced he was smarter than everyone, and made ham-fisted passes at every last woman he met. I think I’ve written about Yuki before, the stocky son of an economics minister in the Japanese government who took eight showers a day and later shaved his head and joined an anti-gay group called the Brotherhood of the Iron Fist. We also had an angry and wildly racist Chinese American student who nevertheless insisted on being called “Brad.” Then there was Heloise.
Heloise was a short, round girl with stringy hair and a face like a boxer who stomped through the halls with a slight hunch. She was aiming for a doctorate in Medieval Studies, and her eternal refrain was “What do I know from things? I’m just a poor Jewish girl from Jersey!” She was from Jersey, too, no doubt about that. Heloise was okay enough, one of the few people there who talked to me at length, mostly I’m guessing because I didn’t interrupt. When Heloise started talking, and she was always talking, she simply didn’t stop, ignoring the fact she had nothing to say. And Heloise had a voice that could peel iron. Whenever the door to my room was open even a crack, I always had a few seconds warning I was in for it. Once she spied the open door from the other end of the hall she would let out an involuntary grunt of recognition, and I knew it was time to close the books. She’d march in, drop herself on my roommate’s bed, and start talking, her voice growing louder and more painful the longer she talked. I, meanwhile, winced and pretended to be interested. Some part of me did feel bad for her, but most of me just wanted her to go away. But I guess that’s mean, considering she was openly shunned and mocked by pretty much everyone else in Tufts.
At the time, see, I was convinced the whole ugly stew was no different from what I had to deal with in high school. The only change at Chicago was that I now had to actually live with all these people day in, day out. And I’m certain if placed in the same situation now I would react with the same kind of horror. But time and distance and hindsight are wondrous things. Only now can I see what a, yes, freak show it all was, and being at Chicago a freak show unlike anything you’d find at Harvard, Yale, NYU or Madison. Sure they were all misbegotten, they were all freaks, they were all hapless, but damn it they were smart. Most of them anyway.
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