Authors: Walter Kirn
Tags: #Literary, #Walter - Childhood and youth, #American - 20th century, #Students, #Students - United States, #20th Century, #American, #21st Century, #General, #United States, #Students & Student Life, #Personal Memoirs, #Literary Criticism, #Kirn, #Authors, #Biography & Autobiography, #Education, #American - 21st century, #Biography, #Higher
He must have heard my silent call. The next afternoon, in my room at the fraternity, he described his plan of battle, pacing the creaky floorboards in stiff black shoes. He brandished a pencil and a notepad on which he’d tabulated what I was due as a gentleman who’d been wronged in his Bavaria.
“You contracted for another five weeks of labor. Your unpaid salary will be our base. Then we will multiply it by the injury. Not only the injury to you. I feel that a factor of five is justified, but he will agree to a factor of eight or nine. If not I will speak to Wilhelm as a German and Wilhelm will do what is honorable, I know, and threaten resignation. This will work.”
The speech made me want to back out of the scheme. I felt Dr. Frisch had vastly overestimated the value of my good opinion of his homeland. But I knew why he had. It was Princeton. Princeton awed him. Its role at the forefront of theoretical physics—the subject he’d trained in before becoming a patent lawyer—was the source of his awe. We’d talked about this once.
“The factor is too high,” I said. “I’ll settle for the five weeks pay.”
“But I will not,” Dr. Frisch said. “Now we go.”
We surprised Herr Blick in his office above the barroom. He was counting his money from the night before and tapping one foot to a perky Euro-pop song playing on his desktop radio. When he saw us, he tried to stash the cash in a drawer that was open on his right, but Dr. Frisch stopped him with a word of German. He then brought forth his notepad, tore a page off, and placed it on the blotter on Herr Blick’s desk. There were no negotiations. The bills that made up the fine were counted twice—once by each party, the sinner and the avenger—before being placed in the pit of my right hand.
“Now Walter Kirn is whole,” said Dr. Frisch.
I felt a bit guilty, but he was right. For it was then, that day, in Munich, Germany, as I filled my pockets with blackmail money extracted for a slight against my dignity (and again that night, with Hannah, when I bought beer for a table full of anarchists who thanked me with a noisy, sloshing toast), that I at last knew my power and my status as what I’d forgotten I was: a Princeton man.
I was ready to go back.
Y CLASSMATES’ LOOKS HAD CHANGED OVER THE SUMMER
. Some of them now resembled adults. It had nothing to do with the loss of baby fat. It had nothing to do with wisdom in their eyes. It was their haircuts, literally their haircuts. By experimentation or inspiration or simply by yielding to the wills of experts, they’d finally found the haircuts which best suited them and allowed them to squarely meet the world.
Not that there was just one world to meet. By my second year at Princeton I’d catalogued a half-dozen social groups whose members I found recognizable at middle distances of thirty feet or so, across a quad or down a hallway, and each of which stirred in me, for different reasons, potent feelings of envy and contempt, longing and revulsion. All of these factions, it seemed to me, had certain attributes I lacked and lacked certain attributes I had. And though I knew it was too late for me to belong to any of these groups—not wholly, not permanently, not plausibly—I hoped that by picking and choosing among their traits I could assemble a persona that would let me belong to me. Reason told me this project was impossible, since any “I” fabricated from a “they” would forever regard itself, deep down, as nothing but an “it” and end up feeling lonely in its own company. But reason was not my reigning faculty then. Nor could it be, I felt, in a post-deconstructionist era of wild guesses. No, what ruled me was restlessness, disquiet, a nagging sense of missing out on things that others, more classifiable, had access to.
These others were as follows.
Those Who’d Been on Sailboats
The tender, sheltered skin that forms the eyelids seemed to cover their entire bodies. Their enemy was sunlight, which turned their skin a pre-carcinoma scarlet, while their friend was the double gin and tonic, which flushed vitality into their capillaries. Most of them suffered from thinning hair, the males and females both, which might have explained their fondness for stupid hats. They favored straw hats when cheering the rowing crew, Princeton or prep-school team caps when jogging, canvas hats while lying in the grass, and any old hat when they were drunk, a state that was hard to diagnose in them because they held their liquor well. Sometimes they started nipping away at breakfast, if their responsibilities were light that day.
Their responsibilities seemed light on most days. Their money arrived by stealth, in neutral envelopes sent by lawyers, accountants, and trustees, though sometimes it was delayed by court proceedings in Newport or Kennebunkport or Southampton, where their semiretired parents’ sloops were docked. The names of these craft remembered beloved ancestors
, alluded to family commercial interests
, or displayed an inbred nautical wit
. I saw a few of them once in coastal Connecticut, where I’d gone to the beach to pick up young foreign au pairs with a friend who’d grown up in the area. There were a lot of these girls, but they ignored us, maybe because I was swimming in cutoff jeans.
The effortlessness of the sailboat caste was their most appealing quality. If they dropped something—a pen, a book, a dollar—they scooped it back up like a ball at Wimbledon. They napped during lectures, but rarely to their detriment because they could always charm some awestruck stranger—a plump girl with a limp, a science major with untied shoelaces—into giving them copies of their notes. They danced at a pleasant low intensity, avoiding any new or tricky moves that might jostle the drinks in their right hands or stress their knees, the weakest part of them. If, toward the end of a weekend party night, you spied one puking behind a hedge, he’d grin and salute you, then carry on heaving. Later you’d see him on the dance floor joking away with some girl you’d never speak to because you didn’t understand lacrosse, and lacrosse was all she had to talk about. That, and the time her madcap cousin at Andover, a guy named Topper or maybe Tuffy, released a muskrat in the records office.
For the boaters, Princeton was a lark before the real work of life began: building client lists, hiring tax advisers, courting the daughters of their fathers’ partners, guiding the restoration of summer homes. This lent their time at Princeton a touch of pathos. Custom decreed that they live like there was no tomorrow, but tomorrow was coming, laden with obligations. Tradition and duty owned these kids.
Still, for about a week, I tried to ape them. I found a wall that abutted an empty courtyard and went there at night with a junk-store tennis racket to serve and rally unobserved. I’d had a few lessons in eighth-grade gym class, but I lost all of my balls by the fourth session because my strokes were too hard for the small space. I watched them ricochet off into the darkness like little yellow comets. Next I scrounged up some money to buy deck shoes. The problem was that such shoes had no charisma until they were scuffed and wrinkled and worn out. I tried to distress them by soaking them in water and tumbling them in a coin dryer. This shrunk and dehydrated the leather, causing me to get blisters when I wore them.
Those Who Strove to Serve Mankind
They studied at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy, a selective college within a college housed in a sprawling, stylized Greek temple barricaded from the outside world by an array of slim white columns shaped like vertical drips of Elmer’s glue. The edifice, whose design was so replete with futuristic optimism that it already seemed comically defunct, faced a plaza with a broad reflecting pool whose centerpiece was an abstract sculpture evocative of the maggot-scoured remains of a giant chicken carcass. Set across the street from the main campus, the complex had no aesthetic connection to the rest of the university, which accorded with the insular nature of its pre-senatorial occupants. So crisp and determined they seemed, so sure and steady, so confident that their country would make them boss one day. Did they have doubts? Being young, they probably did, but they also had procedures for removing them, pie graph by pie graph, seminar by seminar. Someday these kids would be nothing but firm handshakes. When they stood on the granite steps below the columns or sat on the plaza eating lunch (the largest expanse of treeless space at Princeton other than the football field), they didn’t look to me like human beings but like stick figures in an architect’s scale model.
What I wanted from them—the only thing I wanted; I certainly didn’t want their workloads—was their seriousness, their certainty, their seeming immunity to second thoughts. The world for them was not some tricky text but a color-coded manila folder. Open it, remove the stacked white pages, scan the outline on page one, read for half an hour, walk down the hall, nod to the guards, and brief the president. The war should begin no later than next April. These short-term interest rates are unsustainable. Only three breeding pairs of black-beaked hawks remain, all of them near the Utah air force base where we’re conducting Operation Parabola. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome, sir.” “How’s the family?” “Excellent.” “Run today?” “Fifteen kilometers.” “Good man.”
A little faith in the establishment and in the orderly cosmos for which it stood wouldn’t hurt me, I decided. With it, I might be able to decline the next hit of mescaline from Adam and pass the sand ashtray outside of Firestone Memorial Library without digging for a butt. From orthodoxy might come self-esteem, even a measure of discipline, perhaps.
I started hanging around the Woodrow Wilson School (“Woody Woo,” the students called it) in the hope of absorbing its can-do spirit. I poked my nose into the lecture halls, which took the form of austere amphitheaters where one might imagine illustrious alumni such as Paul Volcker and John Foster Dulles sketching diagrams on the wide blackboards. Unlike Yale and Harvard, Princeton didn’t breed leaders, historically, but loyal lieutenants, trusted aides, self-effacing senior bureaucrats.
One afternoon on the plaza, eating yogurt, I got to chatting with a girl who hoped to help institute universal health care. It would be free to everyone, she said. She seemed to be talking about me.
“What are you doing later?”
“After you’re done studying,” I said.
“Sleeping, probably. If I can sleep. I haven’t been able to lately. It’s terrible.”
“What keeps you up at night?” I couldn’t imagine.
“Worrying that I should be studying, not sleeping.”
My chance encounters at Woody Woo were like that. They apprised me of concerns I’d never thought about. Some were profound concerns. Epidemics. Border wars. Land distribution in Central and South America. I grew ashamed of my solipsism, my foolishness. The sun on the naked plaza seemed to spotlight them, eventually driving me back into the shade.
Those Who Never Raised Their Eyes
They were scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Life was a distraction to them. They ate and drank to sustain their neural chemistries, but only while doing more constructive things such as walking to the lab or punching calculators. Somehow, someday, they’d reproduce, but that phase was not yet upon them, blessedly. For now they were free to decline communication and dress in pants that didn’t reach their shoes. They were free to read while climbing stairs and free not to say they were sorry when they bumped into people. People didn’t expect them to apologize. People didn’t see them as other people.
I coveted their oblivious self-sufficiency, but I coveted their silence most. I was tired of having to blabber to survive. Sometimes I pretended to be one of them. I’d cross the campus staring at the sidewalk, projecting patterns onto the cement. I’d baffle my friends by declining to say hi to them. I’d ride the elevator three floors down into the deepest strata of the library and systematically pace the aisles between the acres of tall shelves. I’d go to bed without undressing and clip a light to a book and turn the pages with tick-tock regularity, paying the same attention to difficult passages as I did to patches of dialogue. I made notes with colored pencils: black, red, green. Black meant this part is worthy of memorization. Red meant this part might be flawed or dubious. Green meant this part called for fuller analysis, should I ever find the time. I read James Joyce’s
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
by precisely this method, my pencils hovering. The girl who’d later lose her will to live by mistaking herself for Anna Karenina and Adam for Vronsky spied me at this work when she came to retrieve a book she’d loaned me.
“How can you hear Joyce’s music if you keep stabbing it with pencils?”
“I can’t afford to read for music anymore. I’m reading to put this behind me and move on.”
But English could not be reduced to engineering. When I put down a book that I’d marked up, it left my mind so thoroughly that when I picked it up again, the characters were aliens, the story unfamiliar, and the setting no place I’d ever visited. I was toiling twice as hard for one-eighth or one-sixteenth of the gains. And my few friendships were dissolving.
It was Adam who snapped me out of it. He aced an exam, without doing any work, on which I got a B after nights of study. I’d forgotten to dapple my answers with theory words. I’d forgotten to use “gestural.”
“Plus, I was stoned,” Adam told me when the grades arrived. “What the hell did you think you were doing?”
“Play to your strengths,” he said.
“They feel like weaknesses.”
“Not if you play them for all they’re worth,” he said.