Thursday night. I’m roaming the fluorescent-lit madhouse of the 5th Reunion tents. A long day of travel, starting at 5AM, culminates in this: skulking around the well-known stone courtyards, occasionally running into familiar faces among the throng of thousands. There is a highly efficient two-pronged beer tent, drawing the revellers like a magnet to its sticky white awnings, which are cast a sickly orange under the streetlights. We’re funnelled in the front of the tent, where a no-nonsense security guard stands to herd us through, and then split to the left or the right, one-way traffic, like a cattle run. I grab my beer (would you like Bud, or Bud Light?) and let the flow of drunken traffic push me out into the fray once more.
The security guard is thoroughly ignored. She is a non-Princeton entity and therefore a non-person, and she wields a limp, unrecognized non-authority: this is our campus, and we will do as we please, security guards be damned. We’ll ignore authority when it pleases us, but trust it to save us when we fall.
I had been with friends but they have wandered off and now I roam by myself, reflecting on how it is no longer possible, in any way, for me to drink this terrible watered-down beer and enjoy it. Not even for the sake of nostalgia. All around me, however, the familiar characters are guzzling it down: the preppy boys in their polo shirts and loafers, the jocks shirtless and wearing orange gym shorts. Girls in short skirts and flip flops, or fluttering summer dresses, everything with an understated designer sexiness. Nothing too overt. Everyone is wearing their beer jackets: floppy canvas jackets we’re given when we graduate, emblazoned with our class logo and various orange-and-black embellishments, concealing six inner pockets designed to hold cans of beer.
I run into a friend. I remember him as gregarious, high-rolling, cognisant and appreciative of his privilege, and a surprisingly great freestyle rapper. He’s genuinely happy to see me, but it’s only 9PM and he’s already so drunk. His wide, appealing smile is tilted and his lips are wet. His eyes don’t quite hold their focus on my face, and he sloshes his beer as he throws out an arm to welcome me. The force of the gesture makes him stumble sideways. We have a conversation but I know he won’t remember it, and he doesn’t resist as I make my excuses and slip away.
It’s not just him: everyone is drunk, talking too loudly, stepping too heavily. The roar of thousands of heedless conversations is maddening. My white shorts have half a beer spilled on them already.
The immortal DJ Bob is on the turntables.
I have arrived at Princeton reunions.
No, let me go back. It began on the flight from Seattle to Newark. I was woozy from lack of sleep, ready to pass out in glorious seat 21F, clutching a burrito and trudging through the controlled atmosphere of the airplane. As I walked through first class,* I saw a once-barrel-chested old man sitting in first class with a Princeton polo shirt on. His baseball cap, orange-and-black, identified him as a member of the class of 1965. When I sat down, I realized that two rows behind me were two female alumni who were seated next to each other by chance. Their conversation:
“Oh, we go almost every year – well, not to reunions, but we make it back there for some reason or other every year it seems. How many reunions have you been to?”
“This is my first one!”
“Oh my! And what year did you graduate?”
“Oh my! Your 10th! Congratulations! But how do you manage to stay away??”
Laughter and chitchat.
I sunk a bit lower in my seat and checked to make sure the tinfoil was tightly secured around my burrito. But 20,000 alumni come back every year, and there are only so many flights to Newark: of course there were alumni on my flight.
Back in the tents of the 5th, I get a text from my friend I., who has arrived at last from San Francisco. I go to meet him at the entrance of the tents and he grabs me in a huge bear hug, tickling my ribs unmercifully as I shriek with laughter. All at once the whole nutty endeavour snaps into focus: right. This is why I’m here. So that I can wander the well-known stone courtyards with this curly brown head beside me once more, so that we can retell the well-known stories, so that we can once again ground each other in the midst of this whirling chaos.
This is why I’m here: to pretend we never left.
…. er, to be continued, hopefully, but maybe not, given how terrible I am at updating this blog….
* Boarding through first class: always such a walk of shame! The furtive, longing gazes of the second-class citizens as we are marched through the promise land of first class, and our invisibility to the supercilious first-classers as they sip their complimentary mimosas and diddle with their iPads… It makes me uncomfortable every single time. Such a heavy-handed reminder that there are haves, and there are have-nots. Which is absurd; we’re riding a flying silver chariot across an entire continent, we’re all in the “have” column.