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Opinion

From the Archives: Freshman Plus 10

8.25.17


What awaits members of the class of 2021? Recalling his “unusually close-knit entryway” in Canaday, Adam Goodheart ’92 returned to campus to write about his first year a decade out, in “Freshman Plus 10,” published in November-December 1998, Harvard Magazine’s centennial issue. He ruefully recalled his prefrosh housing survey: after he indicated an interest in Harvard’s history and therefore one of its older dorms, he was, of course, assigned to the modernist mishmash of Canaday. He swings by his future House, Dunster—pre-randomization, and of course, pre-renewal. He reflects on friendships and career trajectories. And that “close-knit entryway”? It was, he recalls, documented on an impromptu “sex chart,” a reminder of one of the timeless extracurriculars.                                                                               ~The Editors

WHEN I THINK BACK to my first year at Harvard, one of the things I always remember is the sex chart.

The last week of spring semester, someone in my entryway had the good idea of buying a huge sheet of white newsprint and some magic markers so that we could create a lasting memorial to the odd experience of being freshmen together. We taped the paper up on the cinder-block wall just inside the doorway of Canaday A, and before long, nearly everyone had stopped by to leave some sort of mark.

I don’t remember what I wrote on that paper, or anything else specific that was written there—a private code of names and phrases, hardly more intelligible to outsiders than the petroglyphs of some vanished tribe—except for one thing. In one corner of the sheet, somebody drew a diagram of our entryway in cross-section, with the names of all the residents written in, room by room—and then, with ruthless exactitude, drew lines between the names. A regular line meant that two people were a couple. A line with Xs across it meant that two people had been a couple, and had broken up. A dotted line stood for a passing fling or an unrequited crush.

Ours was—how should I put it?—an unusually close-knit entryway, and so the diagram ended up resembling an electrician’s manual for the inner workings of some complicated and expensive device. My own name had only two lines attached to it, I think, but certain other people’s were complicated nodes of sexual intrigue. Between one of the men’s suites on the fourth floor and one of the women’s suites on the third, the connections were so plentiful and so tangled that there was barely room to fit them all in.

The previous summer, when the Freshman Dean’s Office had sent along a questionnaire asking for my housing preferences—big group or small group, smokers or non-smokers, that sort of thing—the one point I’d really insisted on was that I wanted to live in a dorm that had some history to it. On the back of the sheet, I explained (very convincingly, I thought) the sad tale of how I, a fervent student of history, had been cursed to grow up living in a boxy, ugly ranch house from the 1950s, and how nothing would mean more to me than to spend my freshman year in one of the old colonial buildings that had sheltered Thoreau and Emerson, Cotton Mather and the Continental Army.

So the distant rulers of the Yard had reviewed my plea, considered it with the customary degree of care, and assigned me to Canaday Hall, a boxy, ugly building from the 1970s. It was, I thought bitterly, almost the only place at Harvard with no history whatsoever.

But when I think about that diagram on the sheet of newsprint now, I realize just how much history there was in that place, after all: By the end of freshman year, our entryway had become a three-dimensional map of desires and jealousies, of friendships, rivalries, and emotional entanglement.

 

IT’S NOW ALMOST 10 years since I moved into Canaday A-12. I’ve returned to Harvard for a long spring weekend, and one of the first things I do is pay a visit there. I stand outside, and through the big common-room window I can see a bottle of laundry detergent on the sill, the corner of a poster on the wall, and a black floor lamp.

Except for the fact that it is someone else’s detergent, poster, and lamp, it might by all appearances still be my room. If I go inside, I think momentarily, I’ll find my roommates still sitting with their feet up on the coffee table: Dave, the Californian, girl-crazy, who slept in silk pajamas he’d bought in Bangkok; Andy, the economics concentrator, who stacked his pocket change in neat piles on the dresser; J.D., the nervous prodigy, who held court endlessly in our common room, juggling, making pronouncements, quoting Foucault. But of course, I would just find someone else’s roommates, with their own names and attributes, thrown up by the endlessly recombinant student gene pool.

So nothing has changed, and yet everything has. Not just 10 years have passed, but also 10 generations of inhabitants—each, no doubt, with its own sex chart, whether or not it was ever written down.

I’ve come to Harvard on this particular visit, this almost-anniversary, to take my first good look at the place through a stranger’s eyes since arriving here a decade ago. I know that I’ve changed a lot since then. And I want to see whether it has, too.

For a moment I consider actually going into my old dorm, but then I remember a weekend afternoon, two months or so after I’d arrived at Harvard, when there was a wedding at Memorial Church, just opposite our entryway. A couple of groomsmen in morning coats walked over, knocked at the door of Canaday A, and somewhat peremptorily asked to use the bathroom. We let them in, but then afterwards we were indignant about the intrusion—this was our home after all, our place, even if they somehow thought otherwise.

Undoubtedly, I tell myself, the current inhabitants of Canaday A feel as proprietary as we did then, and the idea that someone else once lived here will strike them as vaguely improbable—at best, irrelevant.

So I walk over and sit on the steps of Widener for a while. I’ve come to Harvard on this particular visit, this almost-anniversary, to take my first good look at the place through a stranger’s eyes since arriving here a decade ago. I know that I’ve changed a lot since then. And I want to see whether it has, too. Ten years might not be very long in the grand scheme of things, but it is long enough to encompass its own little swath of history.

From my vantage point on the steps of the library, everything looks familiar enough. Since it is a warm spring day, a teaching fellow has brought her class outside, and they sprawl out a few steps below me as she reviews the course’s themes for the final exam: “Professor Feldstein’s spring mantra is fixing Social Security; in the fall he pushes marginal tax rates a lot...”—little enough has changed in Ec 10. A tour guide passes by and explains the curious stipulations of Harry Widener’s mother’s bequest to some half-interested sightseers. (As usual in Harvard Yard, you can tell the tourists from everyone else because they are the only ones who saunter. Everyone else moves across the pastoral space, incongruously, at Manhattanite speed.)

But there are, of course, changes that are easy enough to notice, once you start looking for them, once you get yourself into the right Rip van Winkle frame of mind. You can start making a list.

1988: A high-school friend came to visit me from Amherst, where she was taking a computer class. We went down to the computer center in the basement of the Science Center so that she could send an electronic message to one of her classmates back at Amherst. After a few minutes, a reply flashed back to her in green characters on the black screen. I was bored. This was my only college experience with e-mail.
1998: In the lobby of the Science Center, students line up to check their e-mail between classes. One of them tells me he gets several dozen messages a day. People spend a lot of time chatting electronically with their friends across campus. You can check when and where another student last logged on, so that if you have a crush on someone, you can obsessively monitor his comings and goings from the comfort of your room.

1988: The dorms in the old part of the Yard were shabby. The elms were dying.
1998: Harvard looks expensive. Everywhere, you can see the salutary effects of new money on old buildings. The Yard dorms, scrubbed and retouched, are now the colors of clothes in one of the better mail-order catalogs: their sandstone, granite, and brick seem to announce affluence with the same discreet insistence as a well-made sweater. The edges of the Victorian stonework on Weld and Matthews look sharp enough to shave with. The elms, impervious to cash, credit, or securities, are still dying.

1988: Exotic coffee drinks at Café Pamplona. Roast beef sandwiches at Elsie’s. Midnight hamburgers at the Tasty.
1998: Though the menu hasn’t changed, the coffee drinks at Café Pamplona are no longer exotic. Otherwise, the place is just as it was: same cavelike, whitewashed walls, same rickety chairs, same dour, pallid waiters. Elsie’s and the Tasty, meanwhile, have vanished as completely as the Continental Army. That’s how these things work.

 

THESE DAYS, I live in Washington, D.C., and I get up to Boston once or twice a year for one reason or another. For the first couple of years, I’d often stay on campus with friends who hadn’t graduated yet, but all too quickly the last familiar faces had gone, and I felt like a stranger there. So now, when I come to Boston, I usually end up paying a visit to Cambridge, but I often find myself averting my eyes from Harvard as much as I can. (I skipped my fifth reunion altogether.) This visit is different, though.

On the T from Logan Airport to Harvard Square, I look down at my duffel bag and realize that it’s the same one I had with me when I traveled this same route as a prefrosh, on my way to spend a long weekend on campus, to try to decide if I wanted to go there the following September. In some respects, Harvard never recaptured all the promise it seemed to hold then. Cambridge was just thawing out from a big winter storm, and on that Friday night, people scooped up snowballs from the melting drifts that they passed on their way toward hockey games and a cappella concerts, toward crowded keg parties and the glittering caverns of Widener. Harvard seemed to offer the sweetest parts of both youth and adulthood, all mine for the taking.

Once I arrived there for real, of course, I discovered that not all of it could be mine, not by any stretch. Very quickly, like everyone else, I found my way into one particular Harvard, which included certain things but not others, certain people but not others, certain dorm rooms and lecture halls and gathering places, while others—entire buildings even—would for the next four years remain as much a mystery to me as before I’d ever arrived. And this is the Harvard that, for better or for worse, has stayed with me ever since.

What would my 18-year-old self say if I could tell him, for example, that almost every important professional opportunity I’ve had since leaving college could be traced, more or less directly, to the decisions I made that fall? Would this sound to him like an opening-up of possibilities, or a closing-down?

Back to the spring of 1998. A bulletin board near Johnston Gate is festooned with posters whose edges flap in the breeze like flowers on some exotic tree. They advertise a typical weekend’s range of offerings: Revisionist History—”A New Play at the Adams House Pool Theatre”; a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; another play, called Ménage à Trois, at the Loeb Experimental Theatre; a staging of The Tempest on the steps of Memorial Church; the Harvard Glee Club’s 140th-anniversary concert. Under this layer of postings, the bulletin board is covered with the brightly colored scraps of others that have been torn away. Who remembers what was posted here last week, let alone last year?

Everywhere you go at Harvard, you are confronted by a spectacle of industriousness that, depending on your mood at the moment, can be either exhausting or exhilarating. Everywhere, people are busily occupied at doing and accomplishing—at making a film or diagramming a molecule or talking about Racine—full of brittle, cheery, self-promotional energy. They rush across campus on individual high-speed trajectories. In the Yard, a group of young women with floral wreaths on their heads passes another group of women who, for some reason, are wearing swim caps. On Mount Auburn Street, some Crimson compers, as part of their initiation, are walking around in hats made from newspapers. A young man and woman in splendid party clothes sprint past, hand-in-hand, headed toward the Fly Club. They pass by each other like extras on a Hollywood studio lot, dressed up for roles in their various costume dramas, united only by their shared stage fright.

On the sidewalk in front of Bartley’s Burger Cottage I run into two of my classmates, casual friends whom I haven’t seen in a year or so. We walk over to Café Pamplona to get coffee. One of them, a rising-star news reporter (we comped the Crimson together) has just accepted a dream job covering Washington politics for a top national paper. The other is finishing his Harvard Ph.D. at breakneck speed; Princeton University Press wants to publish his dissertation, and the World Court consults him frequently on matters of policy. All this information is proffered with not-so-casual casualness within the first half-hour or so of conversation, and I, in turn, let slip the far less impressive details of my own recent doings. This is a reflexive ritual, certain to be repeated every time we meet hereafter, until one June day in 2067 we find ourselves back in Cambridge for our seventy-fifth reunion, seated together under a sturdy (genetically engineered) elm tree in the Yard, chatting pleasantly, secretly wondering which of us will end up with the most column-inches in his obituary.

I’m genuinely happy to see my two friends. But more than once in the course of our conversation I find myself asking just what, exactly, I got myself into back in 1988.

 

ONE DAY midway through our senior year, my Dunster House roommate looked around the common room of our spacious first-floor double and said, “Do you realize that this is probably the nicest apartment either one of us is going to live in for the next 15 years?”

That same former roommate, now the chairman of a company that does business on the World Wide Web, lives not far from me in Washington. He owns a large, pre-Civil War townhouse on a corner lot in Georgetown, with a walled garden behind it that he pays people to come and tend. He talks seriously about buying a weekend place on the Chesapeake—something with good bay frontage and plenty of land—or, perhaps, a condo in Miami.

My college class spent most of its time at Harvard faced with the prospect of graduating in the midst of a recession. Middle-class kids like my roommate and me fretted about the future and cracked nervous jokes about flipping burgers. Privately, we worried about whether the four years of aristocratic ease for which our parents had mortgaged themselves into the next millennium would turn out to be just a momentary respite from the life of squalor and frustration that awaited us. Graduation meant our gilded coach turning into a pumpkin.

But there are new kinds of anxiety, as well, such as the kind that comes from having too many choices, and the kind that comes from knowing that full adulthood—complete with mortgages and pension plans—lies dead ahead.

Instead, although we didn’t know this, we graduated just in time to catch the swelling wave of one of the biggest booms of the century. When our fifth-anniversary report arrived in the mail, I marveled at the number of my classmates who had metamorphosed so quickly into international lawyers, financial derivatives traders, securities analysts, and real-estate consultants. Many of them are, if not quite rich yet, at least tasting the first sweetness of wealth, and they talk about money with wonderment, as though no one else had ever discovered it until they came along.

So the Harvard diploma is now, more than ever, a golden ticket to a certain kind of success. That means that students today have a certain kind of confidence that we didn’t have. (Humility, never a plentiful commodity in Cambridge, is certainly not on the rise there.) But there are new kinds of anxiety, as well, such as the kind that comes from having too many choices, and the kind that comes from knowing that full adulthood—complete with mortgages and pension plans—lies dead ahead.

At the same time, today’s undergraduates seem slightly kinder than my classmates were, less competitive, more concerned with giving everyone a fair shot. I stop by the Crimson and find it much changed from the hotbed of postadolescent rivalries and intellectual hazing that I remember. One of the current editors tells me that they’ve made the editorial competition easier, started offering stipends to work-study students, and tried to recruit more minorities. “We had three candidates for managing editor this year,” he says proudly, “and two of them were Asians. The third one was a white male—but he’s gay.”

Is it simply because I am older that Harvard now seems less imposing and intimidating, or has something material about the place changed, too? I think about this as I stand in the lobby of what used to be the Freshman Union, the place where I felt the grim grandeur of the University most strongly, amid the stained paneling and the portraits of other people’s ancestors. The first week of freshman year, some upperclassmen started a rumor that the dining hall’s round annex room was reserved for the children of faculty and other dignitaries, and for at least a day or two, many of us believed it, because such an idea seemed in keeping with the spirit of the place.

Now that rotunda is a snack bar. The building’s medievally proportioned great hall has been chopped up into offices and seminar rooms, part of something called the Barker Center for the Humanities. The twin fireplaces, each large enough to roast an ox, that once faced each other across a half-acre of hungry freshmen are now confined to separate rooms that are far too small for them, where they look like relics of some remote epoch when human beings were larger than they are now. The Sargent portrait of a bearded gent still hangs where I remember it, but—well lit and cleaned of butter pats—it has lost its baleful quality.

One by one, the last redoubts of dour old nineteenth-century Harvard are being lightened and brightened and festooned with espresso machines. Even the basement of Memorial Hall—perhaps the dead epicenter of Harvard Gothic—has been colonized by Starbucks, as part of the new undergraduate student center called Loker Commons. There are Internet stations here (as there would have to be now in any place where Harvard students were expected to stay for longer than a half-hour), and a television room where people are watching a basketball game, and a folk-music performance in progress, and several student art projects. One of these is a wall full of Etch-a-Sketch boards. A sign says, “The Office of the Dean of Students has made possible a wall of Etch-a-Sketches so you can relive childhood—maybe even for the first time.” Some of the Etch-a-Sketches are filled with elaborate compositions—there’s one of a neat colonial building, with every brick and shingle in place—and, Harvard being Harvard, I wonder how long it’ll be before someone comes by and gives them a good shake.

 

A STUDENT isn’t really supposed to leave any enduring mark on Harvard. Perhaps years later, when he’s rich—or, even better, rich and dead—his name will adorn a new dining hall or a professorial chair, but otherwise he’s likely to find that within a few years of graduation, his Harvard identity will be reduced to a name, address, and dollar figure in some Development Office computer. Such oblivion is the fate of the famous as well as the obscure. I remember one weekend night, early in freshman year, when I went with some classmates I’d just met at a party back to their room in Hollis. They told me it had been Thoreau’s room back when he was an undergraduate. If so, the scarred, bare brick walls held not a trace of him. This was exactly the sort of room I’d thought I wanted to live in at Harvard, yet it felt no more historic, especially, than my room in Canaday A.

As freshmen we knew that any mark we left on Harvard, literally speaking, would be assessed on our term bills. So we gave our rooms a careful inspection the last week of spring semester, looking for any nicks or nail holes that we’d inflicted on the walls and patching them with dabs of white toothpaste, or with the poster gum that the yard superintendent issued in unlimited quantities. This illicit ritual will no doubt repeat itself until the day when the walls of Canaday are composed of nothing but poster gum and toothpaste, and the building collapses in a powdery white puff.

Harvard Yard reminds me of one of those long-exposure photographs where all human movement is a dim blur, and only the architecture stands crisp and permanent. And then at other moments it reminds me of a time-lapse nature film, where a plant blooms and shrivels in mere seconds, only here it is a countless number of dramas and melodramas that unfold every year, then vanish without a trace. Three centuries of accumulated teenage angst should be seeping from the bricks. It is not. And yet I find it incredible now that, when we were students here, we so trustingly embraced the illusion that the place was ours.

 

On the last afternoon of my visit, I head down to Dunster House, because I’ve heard that they are having the goat roast today. This is an annual ritual that was started by one of the House’s former masters, an anthropologist who had spent a lot of time in Africa. Some of the anthropology concentrators buy an entire dead goat, butcher it with stone tools, and roast it overnight on a spit in the Dunster courtyard. The next afternoon, everybody in the House comes out to partake. Like nearly any tribal ritual that’s worth performing, the goat roast always sounds bizarre to the uninitiated, but it was one of the great events of each spring semester that I lived in Dunster.

In the courtyard, it’s all as I remember: music blasting from someone’s portable CD player, coolers full of beer and sodas, people loading up their plates with big chunks of goat and with rice, beans, and plantains specially prepared by the West Indian dining-hall workers. Then I look around and am suddenly hit in the stomach by the realization that I don’t know a single person here. Not just that, but I realize even the sophomores I knew as a senior had already graduated by the time the current seniors arrived. Suddenly I feel older than I have all weekend.

As I’m standing there letting this sink in, a couple of guys come over and ask me if I’d like a beer; I probably look as though I need one. We get to talking. They’re seniors, it turns out; their names are Lou and Robin. I tell them I lived in Dunster as well, back in 1992. “So, you were here before they randomized the houses, when Dunster still had its own personality,” Robin says. He shakes his head sadly. “You know, our class is the last one that even remembers when this House had a great music scene, and Adams had the best parties, and things like that. Now all the Houses are basically the same, and they’d never be able to change them back, even if they tried. Next year’s seniors don’t even know what it used to be like.”

They ask me where in Dunster I used to live, and I point to the window of my old senior double. Then they start telling me about Robin’s room. When one of the roommates in his five-person suite transferred out a few weeks into fall semester, the remaining four saw an opportunity. “We took his bedroom and turned it into a pub,” Robin says. “We went to a lumber place and got a lot of wood and built a bar and some shelves. You ought to come up and check it out.”

Like nearly any tribal ritual that’s worth performing, the goat roast always sounds bizarre to the uninitiated, but it was one of the great events of each spring semester that I lived in Dunster.

Robin’s suite, also known as the Mask and Spear Pub, is on the second floor of E entryway. The barroom is decorated with carved tribal masks and maps of Africa. A sleek wooden bar, gleaming with varnish, rests snugly against the wall at either end, but isn’t attached to it. “We didn’t want to get in even bigger trouble with the super,” Robin explains. “He said we have to be able to get rid of this when we move out.”

Behind the bar, a lighted shelf holds an impressive array of liquors, from rum and gin to some of the more recondite cordials. There’s even a bottle of bright-green absinthe that Robin smuggled in from Portugal in his backpack last summer; he pours us each a shot.

Then I notice that a few of the bottles, above their regular labels, have other, computer-printed labels pasted on. “David F. Elmer Bottle of Sweet Vermouth,” one of them says.

“What are those for?” I ask Robin.

“Oh,” he says, “those are the endowed bottles. Whenever somebody donates a bottle of something to the pub, we put their name on it as a token of recognition.”

I think for a second. Then I ask him, “So, is there anything you guys are running short on right now?”

“Well,” Robin says, “we could use some sambuca.” He turns to his friend. “What do you think?”

“Yeah, sambuca’s great,” Lou says. “We could make some of those espresso-and-sambuca drinks tomorrow night.”

I reach for my wallet. I’ve never given money to Harvard before, I think to myself, and I’ll never be able to endow a House or a new professorship. But I think I’d like to endow a Dunster Class of 1992 Memorial Bottle of sambuca. I know it’ll spend only a few weeks, at most, on the shelf before Commencement comes. Still, it’s good to think that it will be here until then.

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