BingeWhat Your College Student Won't Tell You
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2005 Barrett Seaman
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780471491194
Chapter One Daily Res Life
On a crisp November Monday evening just past six-thirty, I arrived at the large, rambling cedar-shingled building on the outskirts of the University of California's Berkeley campus. I was there to seek the approval of the governing council of a student co-op, hoping they would allow me to spend a week living among them. I made my way inside. Midway down a broad lobby strewn with mattresses, beer kegs, and empty liquor bottles, I found a lounge where the meeting was already under way. As I felt that old twist of anxiety you get on the first day of anything new or intimidating, I forgot for a brief moment that I was a fifty-something adult.
Apparently as an enticement to improve attendance, the council president had structured the meeting around a word game. From an exposed overhead pipe that created the impression we were below decks on an aging cargo ship dangled two scrolls of printer paper. Each contained a list of scatological and obscene words or phrases (e.g., "salty dog snot," "sand in my vagina") written in thick black marker. As I listened from the back of the lounge, I gathered that the object of the game was to use as many of these words or phrases as possible in the course of articulating whatever point of house business a student wanted to make. So here were a couple of dozen Cal-Berkeley students, women as well as men, lacing their otherwise earnest questions or points of order about housework assignments or budgetary matters with language more appropriate for the lower decks of an aging cargo ship. In recognition of a particularly well-turned phrase or richly inflected sentence, the president would toss a can of beer across the room to the eloquent student.
At most campuses I visited to do research for this book, I requested student housing through the administration and was assigned a vacant room. At Berkeley, however, I had no luck with the administration and decided to seek student housing through the University Students Co-operative Association (USCA), a self-governing alliance of nineteen cooperatives, separate from the university, that provide room and board for some 1,300 Cal students. Scattered around the edge of the campus, Berkeley's co-ops range from cozy houses with fewer than two dozen occupants to apartment complexes with over 400. The largest single co-op with a common kitchen accommodates 151 men and women. A few of the co-ops are for women only. One is for vegetarians. Another caters to gays and lesbians.
I had to contact each house, find out if a room was available, then present myself to the residents, who in the tradition of co-op self-governance would vote on whether they would have me among them. This was the moment to sell myself. Introduced by the house manager with whom I had spoken over the phone, I stepped to the front of the room and told the assemblage that given my age and inexperience and the gravity of my situation, I felt more comfortable passing on the word game and would prefer simply to make my case. Though mildly disappointed, the room accepted this and heard me out.
I explained what my project was about, which other colleges I was visiting, and how I was willing to abide by various ground rules to cover whatever I might see or hear in the course of the week should, of course, they vote to take me in.
"Do we get to see what you write?" asked one student.
"Are you going to use our real names?" wondered another.
The consensus of the group was that I should either vet my material with them before publication or not identify the co-op or its members by name. In order to provide readers with a more accurate account, I opted to omit any further identification of the co-op or its members.
By voice vote, they approved me, though not unanimously. A couple of fellows sitting over on the side of the room said they didn't like the whole idea and thereafter steered clear of me. Most others were friendly enough, though for the most part they went about their business as Cal-Berkeley students.
A number of large universities have cooperatives and some smaller colleges allow one or two as pilot projects, but co-ops are not typical of college housing. In some ways they are a throwback to the early days of residential colleges-a step up from local boardinghouses and more like fraternities in the way they operate. While co-op residents as a Berkeley subculture despise fraternities and all they stand for, the place had the feel of a loosely knit coed fraternity, or perhaps more accurately a commune.
As part of their contract with the USCA, Berkeley co-op residents agree to put in five hours a week supporting the house by cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, gardening, or doing maintenance. In exchange they get a room and three meals a day for less than $2,600 a term, which in 2003 was about half what it cost to live and eat in university facilities. The USCA trains house managers in much the way the administration trains its RAs, the peer resident advisors most colleges recruit to proctor students. In exchange for keeping records, coping with resident conflicts, and dealing with the central office, managers get free room and board. But by tradition, co-op members are self-governed and have little to do with Berkeley's Res Life bureaucracy.
Obviously, an appreciation of the economics of cooperative living was one common denominator residents shared. There were a fair number of long-haired types and bearded young men in the place. I met premed students and engineers, classic nerds with pocket organizers, and others who looked like they had never cracked a book. Most were white, but a former manager assured me that they were actively recruiting from university residence halls, where they were passing out flyers specifically to attract more Asians. I asked one co-oper who had previously lived in university housing how dorm life compared. "No comparison," he said. "Living in a dorm, I felt like I was five years old and a criminal." As chaotic as life in a co-op might be, at least its residents feel free.
My fellow co-op residents were, if anything, a resilient lot. Their food was supplied in bulk through the central USCA office, but its quality hinged on who was assigned cooking duty. At mealtimes, vast trays of food-cornbread or pancakes in the morning, cold cuts at noon, and the likes of turkey cutlets or tetrazzini around six P.M.-were spread out on metal serving platforms in the outer kitchen. From there, diners would carry their plates to one of the twelve-foot Formica-topped tables in the adjacent dining room, which looked like a military mess hall, only not nearly as neat.
Beverages-mostly milk and "bug juice"-were pumped from stainless steel dispensers. If you wanted a soda or a beer, however, you could buy a can of either from a machine for seventy-five cents (no ID required). Regular mealtimes typically drew no more than two dozen out of well over a hundred residents. But since the kitchen was open 24/7, meals were less social gatherings than moving targets of opportunity. I learned that I could not count on the dining room as a reliable source of information.
Often, co-opers raced through the food line and then took their food-laden plates elsewhere to continue watching a movie in the smoke-infested air of the TV/video room, in the den, or outside. At suppertime one evening, I watched apprehensively as a young woman precariously balanced a plateful of an unidentifiable casserole concoction on one frayed arm of a lounge chair while poring over a thick chemistry text on the other. All around her, others watched The Simpsons. One or both of the two large-screen TV sets were on almost constantly.
I later caught up with her and asked what she was studying and if she had plans after college. "I'm hoping to go to medical school," she said. "But there are so many smart people here applying. I just don't know if I'm going to be able to get there."
As this was California, much of the co-op's social life, including meals, took place outside. The favored gathering spot was around the picnic table in the courtyard. Furniture clearly designed for the lounge had been dragged outside and left there. The table was often littered with leftover plates of food from dinners prepared easily two or three nights earlier. No one seemed to mind the mess, which I assumed for the first couple of days was a permanent part of the landscape.
One sunny afternoon in the courtyard, a group sat around watching a replay of the prior weekend's big house party displayed on a Sony laptop. A long-haired guy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with "F.O.V.-Friends of Vaginas" offered wry commentary. A woman wearing a shirt that read "I wave my private parts at your aunties" stopped by to have a look. One guy with frizzy hair recounted for the group how he had been high on acid the night of the party. He said that being groped all night by strangers of both sexes-probably because he'd worn a tutu-added significantly to the surrealism of the experience.
Though there was a distinct chill in the November air, the outdoor hot tub got regular use at night, often by both sexes in the nude. "People are pretty casual about nudity here," an exchange student from Britain advised me.
From the clutter of liquor bottles and beer kegs, not to mention the beer sold out of the soda machine, I wondered momentarily if the twenty-one-year-old drinking age had been repealed in Berkeley. No one seemed to have qualms about smoking a joint in public either, and on a couple of occasions, a bong was passed around the picnic table late in the evening. While I was there only a week, I never saw anyone out of control or in danger, though on Sunday morning I saw two guys who had clearly ingested too much of one substance or another the night before. But that happens in heavily policed college dorms too.
On my first evening following my election as a guest, I was asked to join a small group going to another co-op to watch some movies and do some mushrooms. I had a hunch these were not going to be shiitakes and politely declined. Apparently assuming that my rejection was based on concerns about quality control, my prospective host said with assurance, "When we do drugs here, we know what we're doing." I had no doubt, I said, but suggested as politely as I could that I ought to settle in first. A couple of days later in the TV room, the same fellow came up to me holding a plastic jug filled with a liquid that looked like orange juice, only darker. "Have a whiff of this," he said. The overwhelming musky odor emanating from the jug made me wince.
"Stems and seeds," he explained. "They've been in there for about a week. Try some." I had no trouble declining this offer either.
Toward the end of my stay, one of his cohorts in the house took me aside. "Please don't assume that he is typical of what goes on here. Sure, there are drugs here. But it's not everybody, and it's not all the time." I assured him that I was not misled. While a little dope was clearly part of the scene, it was, as I had observed on most campuses, only marginally so.
Shortly past one o'clock on my first morning, heavy banging on the door of my second-floor room woke me. I threw on a robe and opened it to face four of my new housemates clustered around a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's, inviting me to join them. Again I declined-politely I hoped. Whether because of my failure to be sociable or just because I was the new kid on the block, I found myself on the butt end of a little college hazing later that morning. When I opened my door shortly past six on my way to the bathroom across the hall, I was facing a wall of metal beer kegs stacked over every inch of potential exit space.
Fortunately, the kegs were empty, and I was able to dismantle the blockade without waking the three women who lived next door. I never mentioned the episode, and no one made further reference to it during my stay, though the kegs remained in the hallway for the rest of the week.
What was I expecting? This was Berkeley, after all. Nothing I saw that week would have topped the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll that defined Berkeley in the sixties and seventies. While in some ways a time warp back to those anarchic days, when this brand of hippie libertarianism reigned on college campuses across the continent, the scene at the co-op was fairly contained. Despite the countercultural trappings and one inveterate dopehead, there was a sense of relative safety, sanity, and essential goodwill emanating from this motley crowd of undergrads. Scholars, radicals, and stoners of both sexes were all peaceably cohabiting, sharing duties, bathrooms, and sometimes beds with one another. Even the squalor turned out to be of limited duration. When I returned from campus late Wednesday afternoon midway through my stay, I was struck by a transformation: the plates were gone from the picnic table, as were the empty bourbon bottles and mattresses from the lobby. The cleaning crew was alive and well-just not operating on a daily basis. Once I got beyond the appearance of the place, I began to recognize that the principal business of going to classes, reading textbooks, and writing papers was getting done without a dean or an RA in sight.
Over the years, I have slept in many kinds of student housing, mostly when I was a student myself and in the period shortly thereafter, while I was still willing to settle for any surface that was dry and devoid of sharp objects and insects. I've slept on fraternity house futons, on lounge sofas, and in sleeping bags behind basement beer taps. Many of the settings I slept in while researching this book were very familiar to me: simple rectangular rooms with one or two single beds, shallow closets or clothes cabinets, plain wooden desks, some modest shelving, and maybe a mirror on the back of a door. At most places, beds consisted of thin institutional sheets and blankets spread over standard tick mattresses on box springs, usually set atop metal frames. Absent the stereo systems, posters, and other personal effects students use to transform these cells into homes away from home, my various digs were in their unadorned essences remarkably similar to each other and to what I remember from my own college years. We called the buildings we lived in dorms. Now, under threat of admonition from Res Life professionals, we must call them residence halls. Most students, I found, still call them dorms.
The biggest difference for me was the coed living arrangement. Occasionally, I was fortunate enough to have a private bathroom. But for the most part, the communal lavatories I shared with students were somewhere down long hallways and littered with the detritus of other people's personal care. I never quite mastered the protocol as to when a bathroom was open for my business and when I should return discreetly to my room and wait for the telltale sounds of departure.
Looking back on my other overnight experiences through the prism of co-op life at Berkeley, I realized that they had been somewhat sterile. One-on-one, I did pretty well talking to my various hall mates, some of whom were a third my age. But as a newcomer-and an older one at that-I was not automatically included in hallway conversations to the extent anyone these days even has them. Frequently, it took some urging by an RA to get students to come to me, after which things usually got easier.
Why it is that modern youth has a problem sharing bedrooms with members of their own sex struck me as odd, since few seem to have qualms about sharing bathrooms with members of the opposite sex. Yet fewer students today have roommates, and roommate issues are a big problem for Res Life administrators even though most colleges now use elaborate computerized matching systems to assure maximum roommate compatibility. One of the principal summer chores of junior Res Life staffers is to run the personal traits of each incoming frosh through a program that matches a nonsmoking, occasional beer-drinking white from the suburbs who wears Old Navy clothes and keeps a robust collection of Phish albums in his iPod with a cultural soul mate.