Tomorrow I go to Princeton Reunions.
I’ve discovered over the past few weeks, as I’ve told my friends that I’ll be out of town for a few days, that “Reunions” is a confusing term. Most people think of college reunions in the singular, as in “it’s my 25th reunion.” Reunions bears no resemblance to these paltry one-offs. It is not the celebration of a particular, terminated epoch: it is eternal, like the whirling masquerade ball under the faerie mound, in which men lose decades of their lives dancing with ghosts. You may come and go, but Reunions carries on forever. An endless mardi-gras, the purpose of which is emphatically not to get together and chat about what you’ve been doing in the Years After Princeton: its purpose is to make you believe that you never left.
What happens at Princeton Reunions?
It lasts three days, starting Thursday at noon and continuing to Sunday at noon. Some local hotels book up years in advance. Many alumni attend every single year. Dozens (maybe hundreds?) fly from places as far-flung as Lesotho, Amsterdam, or Argentina to attend, arriving desperately jet-lagged but exuberant nonetheless. Many alumni bring their entire families: attendees range from newborn babies to 17-year-old undergrads to shaky 100-year-old fossils. It is, apparently, the largest single purchase of Budweiser on earth.
On Saturday we will all march down Alexander Road in chronological order as the “P-Rade,” led by the centenarians in their festive golf carts. They will be trailing three or four generations of their families behind them, Budweisers clutched in their claw-like hands as they peer out at the throngs of orange and black. Any delicacy of complexion has long since been obscured by a thick dappling of age spots, but all are white men. It takes at least 30 years for the first black students to start showing up; 30 more for women. When they start to appear in the parade I feel guiltily surprised, shocked by how easy it is for my eyes to accept that white men are the only people on earth. Later years are increasingly racially diverse and split evenly between men and women, but I’d wager that a larger proportion of white alumni come back to Reunions than do alumni of colour. So much of loyalty is built upon a sense of belonging.
Later, regardless of age or sex or race, we’ll all be sprawled on the familiar lawns, decked out in our fancy clothes and hideous beer jackets, drinking booze from plastic cups. I’ve been told in one of the innumerable reunions emails that the class of 2007 will be embarking on a sustainability campaign: all of our beer cups will be recyclable, and we should make an effort to reuse them. The canteens we’ll be given as part of our costumes (our class costume theme is “Hargadon’s Heroes,” after the legendary dean of admissions who let us all in with his trademark “YES!”) should be used to drink – gasp – tap water. This will help us believe that we’re good people. Better than the non-sustainable people. The best of all possible people. Smarter, prettier, richer, and better at partying than all of the other people.
I sound cynical. I am cynical about Princeton, but I’m also idealistic. And I’m looking forward to Reunions enormously. True, it will be full of greedy businesspeople trying to make deals, and dangerously inebriated 50-year-old frat boys reliving their glory days. It will be full of desperate singles (or not-so-singles) trying to snag the one that got away. It will be full of good-ol’-boys and outrageous wealth and privilege and I’ll feel out of place with my dreadlocks and my left-coast hippiedom. But it will also be full of my friends. It will be full of the people that I consider to be among – yes – the BEST people I’ve ever known. It will remind me what we’re all capable of, because so many of us have followed our dreams.
I want to stay up all night talking, drinking, and walking through the town. More than the campus, I remember the whispering streets of the town at night. Princeton with its thick greenery and quaint streetlights. The quiet cemetery and the emptiness of the roads in the wee hours as I’d fly down them on my bike, the summer nights warm in a way I’d never experienced before. I’d feel the stickiness melt off my skin in the perfect midnight climate, the breeze cool against my bare limbs. There are so many sense-memories: lying in the cemetery with a girl I’d spent the night with, the grass prickly, our arms touching, the wind in the trees overhead. The creaky, dark old wood of the worn-out stairs in an eating club. The crazy voluptuousness of the magnolias around the fountain of the Woodrow Wilson school, and the way I’d stand among them, abandoning my senses to that little world: the wild changeable light, the caress of the velvet-fleshed petals, the susurrus of the giant flowers and tiny new leaves as they moved around me, mixing with the splash of the fountain. The aching acidic weariness of a night without sleep. The particular smell of Richardson Auditorium during orchestra rehearsals, blended with the smell of rosin.
What is it that makes these memories so abruptly, incredibly real? In some ways they’re more vivid than any of my other recollections. Was it my age? The sense of possibility and of self-importance? The place itself? Princeton changed me so much that I had to try and change back into myself when I left, and now I’m a third person, entirely different yet agonizingly the same. I can’t help going back. What sort of a place was it, that returning seems as though it will mean infinitely more than a drunken long weekend with old friends?
We always go back, all of us. Once we’ve spent our four years, it never leaves us. We’re like children held on curly elastic leashes, stretching our restraints to the limit before snapping back to the bosom of The Best Old Place of All.
p.s. I kind of don’t mean that last bit – like hey, c’mon, actually, it’s just that dozens of my marvellous fascinating friends will all be in one place, AND THERE’S FREE BEER! And yet…