College Life (Revisted)
At 2:00 a.m. I’m squinting through the thick white haze of a smoky joint named Soupie’s looking for my student-host, Constance Fowler. I need her to help me maneuver this under-21 crowd.
At my advanced age, I’m exhausted and ready to go home. As I sit on a stool next to
a table that needs a good scrubbing, I scan the crowd. Constance’s friend, Melissa Downey, sits perched on a stool nearby, deftly holding a cigarette she’s bummed and chatting with anyone who will listen. Another friend, Amme Hawkins, stands by her, blonde hair in perfect trim, a touch of blue eye shadow setting off her freckles. She’s pretending not to notice the guy she has a crush on because, she glibly told us three hours ago, her mouth turns to mush when he shows his face.
To my back is Keith Jackson, the basketball player. His ball cap is on backward, his pants hang loose, he’s got an easy smile. A girl prances in with her boyfriend. He’s stylish with hair spiking up. She’s in a skirt that couldn’t be shorter and brown suede ankle boots trimmed in white fur.
It’s only Wednesday night, but Soupie’s is a happening place. You have to be 21 years old to drink, but you can come inside if you are 18. The girls scream over the music that I should come on Thursday or Friday, when it’s standing room only. I laugh because I know that won’t be happening. It’s only because of them that I am here now. Constance and her friends agreed to let me spend 24 hours in their shadows, getting a feel for how student life today compares to that of my own.
It’s been 30 years since my undergraduate days in Boulder, Colo. It was in a different place and a different era—the 1970s, the tail end of hippiedom, a time of bad clothes, big hair and such weirdness that they make television shows about it nowadays. Nothing, of course, could (or should) match the style of those days, but it was the structure and substance of college life I was curious about. What do they do with all their free time? What’s dorm life like these days? With a child of my own just a year away from entering college and campus visits on the agenda, can I still offer him an honest portrayal of what he can expect? Or has time consumed what was my reality?
These were questions that needed answers, so here I sit, chasing the decades, hanging out in a noisy bar in the middle of the night in search of how the life and times of today’s college students have changed— or not.
Constance, my roommate for the day, is just turning 20. She has a 3.4 GPA, is at the University on a partial scholarship and, when not at school, lives with her mother, a body shop manager in a small Ohio town. She takes any babysitting or house-
sitting job she can snag to help pay her tuition, in addition to her work-study job. A member of student senate during her freshman and sophomore years and a member of Xavier College Republicans, she’s just been elected to a leadership position in the student government association as the legislative vice president. She relishes the responsibility.
“I like to be leading people and listening to everyone, being a voice, and that position let’s me do that,” she says.
I ask her how she has time for all this. She answers, “I don’t sleep.”
It’s true. Just this morning, she says, she went to bed at 3:30 a.m. and was up at 6:00 a.m. “I’ve been going all day,” she says.
At 3:00 p.m. on a Wednesday, I join Constance for a class on urban administration and public policies. It fits her majors—political science and criminal justice. She plops down her notebook and pushes aside an envelope addressed to Bush Cheney ’04. It holds a student campaign volunteer form that she’s been trying to mail for days. Tuning in to her teacher, she heaves a sigh of relief when she hears that their next paper won’t be due for another two weeks.
Meanwhile, I’m wondering what my story’s going to say. The classes, the studying, the demands of academic life haven’t changed. Ten-page papers are still required, along with quizzes, exams and reading three chapters by tomorrow. Textbooks are still marked up by highlighters. As I ponder, I hear a muffled ring, and Constance dives for her backpack. She yanks out her cell phone, turns it off and I suddenly know. Technology. It’s everywhere. Walking across campus, students hold phones to their ears as they move between the buildings. In Constance’s class, a guy sitting next to her pulls out his cell phone, holds it below the table top and punches in a text message to her. He sends her a picture, too, that she views on her phone. She says she’s heard some kids use their phones to send test answers to each other in text messages. Beats writing the answers on your hand.
After class, we walk across the campus green, right past the mailbox, to Husman Hall. She forgets to mail the letter again. Inside the entrance, she gestures to a notice describing an incident where people vandalized hallways and the basement. As a result, all student residents are to pay $4 toward the cleanup. Those who don’t are charged $10 on their bursar bills. Constance says everyone thinks it was freshman boys visiting from another dorm. They really trashed the place, she says, and now she has to pay for it.
Welcome to college, I think. The worst thing I remember happening in my dorm at the University of Colorado—the first year of co-ed living—was guys slapping on their snow skis and clacking down the stairs at 2:00 a.m. It was funny, and the noise was enough to wake the whole building, but the damage was limited to the skis alone.
Actually, there was something worse, but it didn’t involve me. Twice I witnessed students streaking—running in packs while wearing only sneakers and a smile. I’m still not sure why they did it, but I do remember it got them on the evening news.
Husman is a co-ed dorm divided by wings. Girls on one side, boys on the other, all on the same floor. Constance’s room is on the second floor, east wing. We walk past an empty all-glass study room and down the hall, passing soccer shoes and gym bags stashed against the walls. The girls don’t want their smelly shoes inside, she says.
But there’s another reason. Open the door and you see—there’s no space left in these dorm rooms. Constance’s room, with a window looking out over the residential mall, seems much smaller than what I remember of mine. Perhaps it’s just perception. But there’s very little floor space and virtually no wall space except for one corner. In addition to one set of bunk beds, two dressers, two desks, a sink and a small fold-out sofa, the room is crammed with everything electronic or technological.
Constance’s cell phone goes off. It’s Sirisha. While she talks, I take inventory. There’s a television with a DVD player stacked precariously on a shelf high above. Next to it is a small white refrigerator holding only a tub of margarine, a bottle of salsa, three water bottles and two slices of American cheese. A microwave oven sits on top of the fridge and stashed around it are a jar of peanut butter and a box of popcorn. We were only allowed hot plates in our dorms, and microwaves ovens were barely a household item.
Constance’s roommate Adrienne Blumthal—Ada for short—has a Dell flat screen computer monitor on her desk with a printer shelved above and a stereo higher up that feeds through the computer’s speakers. Over on Constance’s desk, is a Dell
laptop notebook computer, a printer shelved above and a five-CD stereo system on the top shelf.
These girls are wired. Somewhere, there’s a room phone on a land line, but the girls only check for messages about once a week. My 1973 dorm room had an outlet for a lamp and my turntable with speakers. The phone was downstairs in the lobby.
In the last corner of this rectangular space is a small sink. It’s limited surface space is obliterated by sink-type things—toothbrushes and toothpaste, hair clips and curling irons. Someone using the sink blocks the door to the bathroom, which is shared with the two girls in the adjoining room. The tiny bathroom has a toilet and a shower and not much else. A sign on the doors inside the bathroom reminds users to unlock them when they’re finished.
Despite the small dimensions, the arrangement could be considered superior to my own experience. Our dorm rooms all shared a common bathroom with showers way down the hall. I’d throw on a bathrobe, grab my soap, razor and shampoo and hope to find a shower stall not in use.
“You going out tonight?” Constance asks Sirisha.
It’s the question of the evening. Most say no. They’ve got too much work to do. Papers or reading or projects. Ada leaves for dinner at Zip’s—a nearby burger joint—with some friends, while Constance and I head to the cafeteria for food. Over a plate of nachos and cheese, pasta and sauce, a grilled cheese sandwich and frozen yogurt dessert, Constance, who is very skinny, talks about her friends, her classes and her ambitions in student government and politics. Some kids on campus are very religious. Others not so much. She tries to get along with all.
At 7:10 p.m., it’s off to a meeting of Amnesty International where a group of bleary-eyed students in sweatshirts and jeans sits around talking about what to do with the little bit of money left in their budget. A guy with a heavy beard and long shaggy hair—a throwback to the Boulder boys—takes notes on his hand and arm.
Constance leans over. “I’m getting really nervous about my paper,” she says. Fortunately, the meeting breaks up and we arrive back at the dorm as Ada returns from dinner. They both sit down to their computers, as if 8:00 p.m. is the designated homework start time. Ada’s working on a business project for her entrepreneurship class. She cuts and pastes on her Dell. Constance, at her computer, writes and edits her own paper. There is no White Out, no ripping of paper, no scissors and tape.
“Are you going out tonight?” Constance asks Ada. “No,” she says. “I’ve got too much work to do.”
But at 8:45 p.m., Ada leaves to join friends in another dorm room where they watch the show “The OC.” It’s almost as popular as “American Idol,” and she says they never miss a show, reminding me of the weekly afternoon “Star Trek” gatherings when we’d crowd into someone’s room to watch Capt. Kirk and Spock outsmart the Klingons.
At 9:00 p.m., Constance and I walk to the Gallagher Student Center to pick up a financial aid form faxed from her mother. The center is alive with students escaping the chilly weather. They play pool, talk by the fireplace, study in lounge chairs. Back in her room, I help Constance edit her paper while she makes a few phone calls. Amme drops by. She’s from Spokane, Wash., where her family wanted her to stay at Gonzaga University, but she fell in love with Xavier and has never regretted leaving home.
After another phone call from a guy inviting her to a late, late night party at a University of Cincinnati fraternity on Friday night, we go to Melissa’s room. Constance asks them if they want to go out. This group says yes, and Amme goes to take a shower. It’s 11:15 p.m.
While we wait back in Constance’s room, Aaron stops by. “You going out ?” she asks. “Not tonight,” he says. Too much work to do.
By 11:45 p.m., I’m beginning to ache all over. But I wash up, pull on my leather jacket and tell Constance I’m ready. She plans to go out in just a long-sleeved shirt, because she doesn’t like the smoky stink that clings to anything worn in the bar. But it’s really cold, I say—38 degrees. She shrugs. We find Melissa, and Amme finally shows up with perfect hair and makeup. Constance relents and grabs a jacket, and we head for the door. It’s midnight. We won’t stay long, she says. She has to come home early to do her laundry—something I’ve still never done after midnight. After a quick stop at the money machine, we wait for the shuttle. It arrives, but it’s packed.
“Let’s just walk,” she says.
I’m thinking dark streets, late night, group of girls, not a good idea.
“Good idea,” say Amme and Melissa.
So we cross the Cintas Center parking lot, down the sidewalk and along Cleneay Avenue. Nobody’s out except us. And Keith Jackson, who’s standing by the sidewalk that leads to Soupie’s. Constance convinces him to join us, and Jackson, whose season just ended, saunters up as we enter the uproar. Everyone has to show an ID. Even me.
am recalling the cowboy bars and burger joints of my college days in Boulder, where the 18-year-old drinking age put 3.2 percent beer within everyone’s reach.
Soupie’s is one of those places that’s just for the college crowd. The students smoke and share pitchers of beer or soda, talk loud and dance to the pounding music played by a band that’s far too radical for this blue-collar neighborhood. They come in to burn off steam and energy, to shake off the stress, to mingle, to let it all go. They have to, because their days are far too crammed with the demands of professors, parents—and themselves.
By the looks of the crowd inside, you’d never know that no one could go out because they had so much work to do. Maybe they changed their minds. Whatever. Right now, they’re talking and dancing and hugging. They do a lot of hugging. They also smoke, drink and talk loudly.
Two hours later, my eyes burn and I’m nodding into my mug. As the band breaks up, Constance and I walk back to the dorm. The tobacco smell tags along, but the cold night air feels good after the stuffiness of the bar.
As we walk, I feel a certain sense of misplaced pride. I can still do it. I put in a full day’s work after rising at 5:30 a.m., sat through a late afternoon class, edited a homework paper, chatted with friends and, an hour after my body konked out, spent
two hours at a bar.
Inside Husman, we pass the study lounge where a girl is buried in her books. We find Ada already asleep in the lower bunk. She doesn’t stir as we squeeze around each other getting ready for bed. I fold out the sofa bed. Constance has changed her mind. She’s not going to do her laundry after all. She’s going to study.
At 2:30 a.m., as I’m dozing off, she slips out of the room with her books to spend time reading in the study lounge. She returns at 4:00 a.m. and goes to bed. Four hours later, she’s up again, showering and using a curling iron on her thick hair that she pulls back behind a head band.
In jeans and a Xavier sweatshirt, she skips breakfast, grabs her cell phone and heads back out for the day, which begins with a meeting with her professor at 9:00 a.m. On the way, she slips the Bush Cheney ’04 envelope into a corner mailbox and closes the lid.
As for me, I find my car—a nice white mini-van—and head back into my world, satisfied with the experience but convinced that the college students of the ’70s were much more sane.