My recent visit to Chicago brings back memories of my first visit to that city back in April 1991, when I was 17 years old. There were things I did and saw on that weekend that made a huge impression on me. And yet, there’s a lot of detail I just can’t remember. I kept no journal at the time and I took no photographs, and I’ve lost contact with anyone else who I encountered. I can’t remember the names or faces of most of the people I met there. I’m not even sure if I stayed there for two nights or three nights. So, forgive me if this story is a bit disjointed. If you like what you read, check out my City Stories about Brooklyn, Derry, and London.
The final spring break of my high school career began with the death of my father. His health had been deteriorating for more than a decade due to Multiple Sclerosis. So the week began with attending the wake and funeral in Brooklyn, which proved to be a surprisingly cheerful family reunion. The week ended with me making my first ever solo trip. I’d been accepted to the University of Chicago and was going to Chicago for the Prospective Student Weekend. The name is a bit of a misnomer as the weekend was for admitted students who had paid the deposit to enroll in the fall. I was excited about the opportunity to attend University of Chicago, but the fact remained it was the only school I’d been accepted to that I’d never actually visited, so there was still a bit of uncertainty, deposit or no.
My mother drove me to Westchester County Airport, a small regional airport on the border of New York State and Connecticut. At that point in my life, traveling by air was a rare event for me, at least compared with my jet setting classmates from more prosperous families. I think I’d only been on six roundtrip flights, and the most recent was seven years earlier. So here I was getting on an airplane all by myself.
I tried stuffing my suitcase under the seat in front of me, and though it was supposed to be carry-on size, the hard sides made it get stuck halfway out. The flight attendant saw my struggle and told me “That won’t do.” She took the bag out and stuffed it under my own seat. She didn’t have better luck getting it to fit all the way under, but there was no one sitting behind me so I guess it was okay for it to stick out back there. I can’t imagine any of these things happening on a flight in this day and age.
I sat back and listened to music through headphones that were just hollow tubes. One of the radio stations played a “modern rock” mix so I ended up hearing Depeche Mode’s “World in My Eyes” repeatedly while trying to Tess of the D’Ubvervilles for English class. I took in the view of Chicago from the window, amazed less by the skyscrapers, and more by the fact that the earth appeared to be perfectly flat. Even Lake Michigan looked flat
Arriving at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport was a culture shock after departing from the tiny Westchester Airport. It was like a city of its own full of wonders. A concourse lit with neon lights connected the two United Airlines terminals while a recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” blared over the speakers. In the restroom, the toilets had a little red sensor and would flush on their own. These became commonplace in the ensuing years, but I’d never seen an automated sensor activated toilet before so I gawked in awe and wonder like a rube from 19th century.
I took a shuttle bus for prospective students to the University of Chicago. My first impression of the campus was walking along the expansive grassy area of the Midway Plaisance. The Midway is a large, open park now but originated as the entertainment district of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and lends it name to the many “midways” in amusement parks and carnivals.
The Prospective Student Weekend began with a gathering where deans and faculty and students offered the usual pleasantries of welcome and inspiration. There was also a performance by a student improve group about a potential romance between a student and “prospi” set to the music of Grease. It final tune was a duet on “Prospi Nights” in which the male student made his move and the female prospi used a blue emergency phone to call the cops on him. Yes, female admits were being warned to watch out for sexual harassment, but everyone had a good laugh.
For the remainder of the day (or was it that day and the next day), the prospies were able to get tickets to attend classes and other activities across the campus. I remember sitting in on a History of the Vietnam War course which was very interesting, especially since it was taught by an Asian-American professor. Nevertheless, since I’d awoke before dawn in another time zone, I started dozing off. I jerked myself awake several times growing increasingly fearful that being seen as the “guy who fell asleep in class” would reflect poorly on the start of my college career. I also went to an English course, but the professor for that course was not having it. Apparently no one notified her of the Prospi Weekend and she was in a full rage at all these youngsters entering her classroom and occupying the seats. Eventually she barred entry to any more prospective students, tickets or not, but I was one of the “lucky” ones who got to observe her angry discussion of Shakespeare.
“Wow, she was a bit nuts!” said a fellow prospi, a young man with crew cut hair and big eyes who introduced himself as Shannon after we left the class room. We walked to the cafeteria, picking up another prospi along the way, a short bearded guy whose name may have been Randy. Outside the cafeteria, a man with a wild beard and glasses was hawking t-shirts featuring a cartoon image of a man with a wild beard and glasses, basically himself. As we ate we talked about the usual things – where we were from, what other colleges w applied to, what majors we were considering. The real significance was that for my introverted self this was the longest conversation I had with fellow prospective students the entire weekend, which will gain added significance at the end of the story.
I also found time to wander the Oriental Museum and explore University of Chicago’s collection of ancient artifacts from the Near East. And I ambled through the library, discovering the map library. I love maps so I excitedly step past the counter to peruse the maps. And I was just as suddenly rebuked by a map librarian for stepping across an invisible barrier that I wasn’t supposed to cross. It was my first lesson that academic libraries and public libraries are very different things. Now that I work at an academic library I try to remember to admonish people more kindly when they stray.
The absolute highlight of the weekend was spending time with the current students. Each prospi was adopted by a pair of roommates and got to stay in their dorm room for the weekend. My hosts lived in a residence hall called Shoreland which was actually quite a distance off campus in a former hotel overlooking Lake Michigan. They walked me around from room to room introducing me to other students and their prospis and our group grew as we gathered in different dorm rooms to shoot the shit. They were the coolest people I’d ever met in my young life.
Since it was once a hotel, the rooms were carved up into different sizes and unusual shapes and the students creatively decorated them. A pair of woman roommates had pooled together their music collections and put them on display, with over 800 cassettes and 200 CDs hanging on the wall. I vowed to myself that one day I would also put my tapes and CDs on the wall like this if I had the chance. By the time I actually got around to doing it though, cassettes were passe and even CDs were on their way out.
The students insisted that they needed to take the prospis to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. So we caravaned to an ancient movie theater somewhere on the North Side. I had seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show on television and listened to the audience participation tape but this was the first time I experienced the actual show. The showing was sparsely attended but the shadow cast enthusiastically performed along with a trailer for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and a Simpson‘s short in addition to the actual movie. They also made us Rocky Horror virgins march around the theater in a conga line as they sprayed us with water pistols.
On the way out of the theater I overheard one of the students rather spacily suggest “Let’s go on LSD!” Nervous about the potential drug use, I repeated “LSD?”
“Yeah,” he said in is normal voice. “Lake Shore Drive.” We did indeed drive back to Shoreland via Lake Shore Drive and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city’s illuminated skyline.
Well after midnight (or was it a second night?), someone suggested we go to a burrito place. I wasn’t sure if I was up for burritos, but I was assured that they were the best burritos. I have no idea where we went that night, I just remember a long drive zigzagging through Chicago’s street grid – west, then south, then west, then south – until we finally arrived at the small Mexican cafe. It was worth it though because they did have best burritos, and they seemed as big as your head, too.
“I wonder if someone could eat two of these?” one of the prospis asked.
“I could, if I didn’t eat anything for a couple of days,” I said.
“Your stomach would actually shrink if you didn’t eat for that long,” a student informed me.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed. I still think I could do it.
Back at the dormitory, we sat up talking and I rested my back against the sleeping bag, pillow and sheets my hosts had set out for me. Eventually, I just conked out in that position sitting on the floor. I remember one of the students suggesting I could actually lay the sleeping bag, sheets, and pillows out on the floor as intended, but I was too tired to move. I’d been awake for a full day at that point – 25 hours if you count the time zone change, so I just wanted to sleep.
The prospective student weekend ended on Saturday but my mother found the airfare more affordable if I returned on Sunday. So I needed a place to stay Saturday night. This came up at my father’s wake and one of my father’s old friends from New York had a son who had a best friend attending University of Chicago. So I spent the remainder of my trip with Billy, and his roommate, and his girlfriend at their off campus apartment. I felt a bit like a fifth wheel but they were friendly, nonetheless.
I traveled home on Sunday fully expecting that I would return to Chicago begin college in August. In fact, I would not return there again until 2004. A few weeks later, the College of William and Mary accepted me off the wait list leaving me with a tough decision. For one thing, my family was in the process of moving Virginia, so at William & Mary I’d be close to “home” while Chicago would be even farther away. For another thing, the tuition for one year at University of Chicago was equal to three years of out-of-state tuition at William & Mary (and in 12 months I would eligible for in-state tuition). Chicago’s financial aid package was rather stingy and not wanting to spend the money I’d recently inherited from my father all at once, I decided to go to William & Mary. I often wonder what my life would be like if I had gone to the University of Chicago, but since I wouldn’t have met Susan and there wouldn’t be a Peter and a Kay, I don’t think of it much anymore.
In August 1991, I registered for classes at William & Mary Hall, and a few hours apart, I met up with Shannon, and then Randy. Remember, these were the guys who were also prospective students that I had lunch with at the University of Chicago. All these years later, the coincidence still blows my mind that the only two prospies I really talked with also a) applied to and were accepted to both University of Chicago and William & Mary, b) paid the deposit and became and admitted student at Chicago, and c) also changed their minds and ended up at William & Mary.