twenty-four hours in chicago
June 13, 2009

On Saturday morning just after midnight I ran into Lou in the basement of Hitchcock. He was putting ice into his Nalgene. “Hey bro! Want to come drink gin with me by Botany Pond?”

“Dude, I've been drunk every night since Tuesday,” I said. “Yes, I do.”

So Lou filled his Nalgene with gin and we walked out to Botany Pond. We started drinking and we started talking. The ducks who live in the pond were sleeping on the grass and after a few minutes they quacked disapprovingly and waddled away towards the reeds. We were talking about literary criticism and literary theory and I don't know how the topic came up but I was astonished to have such a conversation with Lou—because Lou is like, Mr. Science. He dropped third quarter of Sosc so he could take Quantum (despite not having the prereqs), and he hates taking humanities classes, and he makes fun of everyone who does. So I spent the last two years assuming he hated books. But apparently he actually loves reading and loves literature. I had no idea.

Our conversation went on for an hour and if I were a better writer I would try to recreate it in order to—if I were Steinbeck, I'd write it out in order to prove my point, but if I were Tolstoy, I'd write it out in order just to try to pass along that awesome feeling when you're talking to someone and they have so much to say and you have so much to say and you feel you could just sit there forever and connect—I would do that if I were a better writer, but I'm not, so just believe me when I say it was an awesome conversation and there were ducks in the background and we talked about... about the role of the author in creating literature? and in the role of classes and of other people in helping us understand literature? and stuff like that?

And the sad part was, we never got to finish the conversation, because we ran out of gin, and when we walked back to Snell to get a refill we ran into Aaron Space and Alex Korbonits and Rathika and a bunch of other people and of course Space has keys to Ryerson, so we were like, dude, let's drink on the roof of Ryerson! Which I had never actually been to before. So we went to Ryerson and first we climbed the grand staircase to the second floor and then we climbed a tiny spiral staircase to the Astronomical Society turret and then we took a gangway up to the roof. It was really pretty. The Astronomical Society keeps all its telescopes on this gravel patio protected by seven-foot-high crenellations. It was like Carl Sagan visits the renaissance fair. We put a ladder up against one of the crenellations and put another on the other side and we climbed out onto the naked roof and I was kinda worried since by this point I was wobbly-drunk, but it was so beautiful. We were on top of the roof and had a 270º view of 75% of campus and the Gothic quads and everything lit up at night and that orange Chicago sky.

We carried folding chairs up. We sat on the asphalt shingles, in between a skylight and a precipice, and drank scotch. Expensive scotch. It was Lou's. And it tasted really good. I've never drank hard liquor before that didn't make me want to throw up. But this, jesus, it was so good, and we sort of just kept drinking it and drinking it.

Around 2 AM it started to rain. We went back inside and decided to take over the Barn, that famous math classroom on the third floor that Paul Sally teaches in. We sat there and we drank more scotch and we drank more gin. We talked about algebraic topology and girls and then algebraic topology again. I tried to go to the bathroom in Eckhart and there was this grad student in his office and he gave me a funny look. Actually he must have been a postdoc, since grad student offices are in the basement.

Alex left to go to the bathroom and he never came back, and we sent Brian out to look for him. We were kind of worried he had gotten lost. Or hurt. Or killed. Like, murder mystery dinner—murder mystery math night! Oh man. That let to scheming about exactly what such a dinner party would be like. Rathika was sober. She just kept making fun of us. Especially when I fell over in my chair. I solved that problem by lying on the table instead.

Around 4 I got bored so I walked back to Snell, and Jory was still working on his paper in the kitchen. I had seen him at 11:30 and he had been 267 words into a five-page paper. “It's Saturday!” I said. “Finals week is over!”

“Which means this is late,” he grinned.

“But you're already at 4.5 pages! That's so close!” I was leaning over his computer to see how much progress he was made and when I said this I lost my balance and sort of fell into his lap slash on his computer. “You can do it! I love you, Jory!”

“I love you too, Andrew.”

Upstairs, Noah and Alla were sitting in the Tea Room. I asked Noah to explain functors and categories better because Alex didn't really explain them well, I said. Oh yeah, we talked about algebraic topology while we were drunk. There was a jar of peanut butter on the table and Noah was sitting there explaining what a category was and I was trying to eat the peanut butter but really I was just smearing it near my mouth. We talked for a while but I don't remember most of our conversation. All I remember is that I was really drunk and Noah was sitting in the chair and Alla was standing next to him leaning on the chair and they were both looking at me and I was really happy and I tried to take a picture of both of them together but for some reason my phone wasn't working and I tried so hard but I couldn't capture that moment.

* * *

Two and a half hours later, I woke up, showered, put on my cap and gown, and went downstairs to meet Aneil and walk over to the staging area with him. Noah was still around. “Why are you up so early?,” I asked.

“Never slept.”

“Why not?”

“So I could hang out with people before they leave.”

Noah makes such a show out of being a hardcore nerd who takes graduate math courses at age 18 and is completely focused on getting into graduate school, but somehow, at that moment, at that moment I didn't think I had ever heard anyone say anything sweeter than what he said to me then.

Aneil and I walked over to Ratner together. We got there at 8:30, before it started to rain.

For possibly the first time in my life, I discovered that I was not at the front of the line. They don't line you up by last name, see; they do it by division. So the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division goes first, followed by the Humanities Collegiate Division, and so forth. I was the second graduate from the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division and the 471st overall.

The kid in front of me was a kid who I know only by face. We had been in the same lab section of o-chem together. He always wore this goddamn Exeter football jacket, every day, and I kept seeing him wearing it around campus, and it really pissed me off my second year. I didn't say anything to him until he introduced himself.

“You dated Laura, right?”


“And you wrote that article about the chem department for the Maroon, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, grimacing, because none of the other chem majors had liked that column, besides Ross and Bob. Actually, judging by their comments on the website, they had all hated it, and me as well.

“I liked it," he said. “I mean, I thought it was kind of harsh. But gen chem and o-chem, you know? It's supposed to be hard, but they make it hard in the wrong way. Like, my TA for gen chem took points off one of my labs because I used an Erlenmeyer flask instead of a beaker for this one step, even though it didn't make a difference at all, and it wasn't even in the lab report—he just saw me using it, even though everyone else was using the flasks, too.”

On the other side of me was Harry Altman, a math major who a couple Ithaca friends of mine used to know. He was in the 2002 movie Spellbound, as one of the contestants in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee spelling bee, the kid who made all these funny faces. I read his LiveJournal for a while. Harry was curled up on the floor, sitting in the fetal position, apparently trying to sleep.

Next to Harry was Cora Ames, another math major, a cute one, who I met at one of the Outdoor Adventure Club's camping-on-the-quads things. She was talking to Emily Bargar, who I had Hum with our first year, physics our second year, and sculpture our third year. She did the Polar Bear Run painted up like a Mondrian two years ago. She's a FIST Scavvie, and I always see her at Scav events. Our paths keep crossing but I've never actually had a conversation with her. I don't know why. I read her LiveJournal. She seems like a really cool person. Apparently she's going to grad school in Boston next year, for math.

A few feet further down the line, Jon Cheng and Wily Chyr and Daniel Citron—three physics majors, two of whom were my roommates last summer—were laughing about something. Aneil was near me in the adjacent line, at the beginning of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division queue, and so was Simone Wanless, at the end of the Physical Sciences Collegiate Division queue. There were a thousand people there, and it felt like I knew everyone.

Last month Casey and Robby and I had breakfast at Valois. We talked about graph theory and its applications to real-world systems—social networks, chaos theory, physics. Casey told me this:

Imagine you have a bunch of molecules frozen in a lattice—a solid block of ice, say. Then you can consider each molecule as a vertex of a graph, and draw edges between the molecules if and only if they are adjacent in the crystal lattice. Then when the ice (or whatever) melts, you start erasing edges as molecules leave the lattice. In physics, we call this a phase transition—but we can call it a phase transition in graph theory, too. In fact, it's more general. A "phase transition" in a graph is simply a change in the connectivity of the graph—meaning that before a phase transition, you can get from vertex A to vertex B, and after a phase transition, you can't [0].

I hate it when people make analogies to science because they always suck, hard, but at some point this year my social network underwent a phase transition. It was amazing at how many of the parties I went to in the last six months how many of the people I knew, and through how many different channels. Not just the Snell-Hitchcock kids, but the OAC kids, the Maroon kids, the Scavvies, even the few Doc kids who aren't pretentious gits. I went to a party last month and talked to this kid, a friend of a friend, whose dad I hung out with in Chile but whom I had never met. Daniel had told me stories about him—about how when he lived in the Shoreland, how he would stand in the elevator and play his guitar for hours on end, being a vertically-roaming troubadour. At that same party I talked to a girl who was one of those people who friended our entire class the summer before before school started. I never accepted any of those requests, but for some reason I never forgot their names, either, and it turned out that despite the Facebooking she's actually really cool and really smart—an English/French major (with double honors, according to the convocation program)—and she was born in the same hospital in the Bay Area as me.

Somehow I reached a critical point and everything condensed into some sort of supercritical social fluid. Just like Ithaca. Where I can never leave the house without running into someone who knows me or knows my parents or knows my grandparents. I like that. I like being in small communities. It makes me feel less alone in the world.

But I know that not everyone feels the same way I do. And if I needed a reminder of the terrible, terrible side of the U of C, it was two places in front of me. At the end of the line for the New Collegiate Division was a girl who I recognized. She had been roommates her first year with a girl I went to high school with, Laura Burkhauser, who had been a year ahead of me. She graduated from the U of C last year. And I guess her roommate was graduating a year late. She was standing there silently, not talking to anyone, not making eye contact with anyone.

For a moment I remembered exactly what it was like to be in her position. Then I turned around and asked Aneil if he was going to come back for Scav next year.

* * *

Three minutes before ten we started to march. We marched out of Ratner and past Max and past Snell-Hitchcock and through Hull Gate and straight down the quads like a spear toward Harper. At the intersections UCPD was blocking off traffic with their lights flashing. In the rain and the gray and the black gowns and the flashing blue-and-red lights, it was like a scene out of Blade Runner, or some other science-fiction dystopia.

There are bagpipes off in the distance.

It's not real. It doesn't feel real. It's just an ordinary day at the U of C and we're all assembling for some reason—the principal has some important news and we get to miss 7th period to hear it, or maybe there's a new safety video the whole school has to see.

This is the same route I've walked every day for the last four years.

I like the marching. In middle school, back when my mother still forced me to go to church, the religious leaders always liked me, and they had me come in on a couple Sundays and give readings for the services. I read from Genesis. I got to walk in wearing a robe and march right after the choir and before the clerics. We walked in and out to music, walking with that slow, relaxed cadence of dignity.

Marching for convocation reminded me of that. I walked through the rain, straight through the puddles in my sandals, and I was making this facial expression I don't make often, the one of contentment with a hint of cockiness. Steve Kron marched in with the faculty party; he was making it, too. You start to smile but stop almost immediately, as soon as your lips are perfectly horizontal, just before any cheek creases start to form. It's in the eyes. Chin up.

I marched past my family and they were all screaming and yelling for me to look at them and make eye contact and I just kept staring straight ahead and after I passed them I couldn't stop myself from grinning.

I counted fifteen bagpipes and eleven drummers. One night at Doc last year, Becca Hall made friends with a bagpiper who was playing at the Folk Festival and invited him up to the booth after the show. He was 23 and living in Wicker Park and he was drunk and he played bagpipes for us and we projected archival movie trailers for him.

The ceremony began.

“At the University of Chicago,” the Marshal told us, “we call our ceremonies Convocation. Not 'graduation,' as some schools do, and not 'commencement,' as other schools do. The first of these words signals the end of something familiar; the last one, the beginning of something new. We call it Convocation.

“This was not a random choice. William Rainey Harper wanted the faculty, students, and alumni of his new university to form a single, permanent community. He called the first Convocation in 1892, just as classes were beginning, and the meager faculty and student body dressed in caps and gowns and assembled in a classroom in Cobb Hall They listened to lectures, awarded honorary degrees, and heard a report on the state of the University. It was, by Harper's design, as if they had been a community forever. He wanted it to seem as if the University of Chicago had been in continuous operation for a thousand years.”

In the beginning, I estimated they were shuttling through one graduate every five seconds. With 1000 graduates, I've have to sit there for an hour and a half. But it didn't feel like I had to. I didn't get bored. I looked at every single person who graduated.

At 12:17, I joined them.

And then the bagpipes started again. We marched out and everything dissolved in the rain.

Later, I was cleaning out my room in the top southeast corner of Hitchcock, with its peeling plaster and leaded glass windows, and all of a sudden I realized I was done. And then I just kind of lost it.

It's not like high school—it's not like that at all. I still have the same room I had in high school when I go home, and I've seen basically everyone I graduated with in the last four years. I had taken almost all the courses I wanted two—a couple more years of Latin would have been nice, but two is better than nothing—and there were one or two people I wish I had known better, but I was headed off to the U of C, to better classes and cooler people! And now I want to scream, no, you fuckers! You can't take me away from this place now! Not when I've just figured out how to be happy here! Not when I've just started studying what I want to be studying, and not when there are so many amazing people who I've just started getting to know!

But instead of screaming that I just sat on what used to be my desk with my legs crossed and felt like throwing up.

After 20 minutes, my grandmother called and asked why I was taking so long. I got up and I turned out the lights and I tried to leave but I hit my elbow on a corner on the way out and swore loudly. It pinched my ulnar nerve and I had to use my left hand to lock the door.

We went out to dinner and all my parents and my grandmother wanted to talk about was how exciting teaching high school would be and what a great place to live Phoenix would be. I nodded. All I could think about was how hard it would be to be so far away from everyone I love.

Like four years ago.

The weekend after graduation, I went to Virginia for a wedding, and when people asked me where I was from, I said I was from Chicago. I had never done that before.

Sam Bowman said, “Andrew, just promise me you won't become one of those people who never leaves Hyde Park.” I told him that it would be worth it for a couple years, for the people. There are so many people who I know and love and want to keep having conversations with, and so many people who I know only well enough to wish that I had known them better.

These communities don't form overnight. It takes years of of slow crystallization.

What I want to do with my life, I decided, is to be around people who are smarter, more creative, harder-working, more athletic, more artistic, more ambitious, better people than I am.

If I stayed in Hyde Park, I probably would never leave.

That night, I walked out to the Point and called Evan, and I broke down crying on the phone. I stayed out there until the tea in my thermos got cold. The bagpipes were still ringing in my ears.

I am not ready to move on. But I must.

[0] OK, it's a bit more complex than that. “Connectivity” is more serious term in graph theory than I treat it here. Rigorously: we say a graph is k-connected if, given any k vertices in the graph, there is a unique path between them (we can get from vertex to vertex without having to transverse the same edge twice). In this case, we say that the connectivity of the graph is k.

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