Off the Campus
Recent grads look at life outside Princeton's gates...

Looking back at Reunions

by Field Maloney `97

It's one-thirty in the morning, the night before a full moon. The sky glows green-blue. The moonlight blends with the fluorescent yellow of high-powered overhead lamps, bathing in an unnatural glow hundreds of people who once went to school with you. The air is heavy with the chatter of a thousand conversations--giddy, anxious, nostalgic--and the smell of cigarettes and beer and summer. Clusters of Princetonians break apart, eddy, and come together. Some move slowly and hesitantly. A few dance about from one pocket of people to the next--whirling dervishes in khaki shorts.

Going back, going back,
Going back to Nassau Hall
Going back, Going back
Going back to the best old place of all

Princeton Reunions can induce an unsettling feeling of dislocation. Going back to Old Nassau on New Jersey Transit, I was greeted by a piped-in, computerized voice announcing station arrivals and reminding me not to leave behind belongings. The mechanical voice has been carefully modulated: feminine, hushed, and gentle--it's as if HAL's great-aunt Louisa now worked for the Transit. Hearing that wild string of New Jersey place names--Edison, Elizabeth, Metuchen, Rahway, Metro Park--still affects me. But the sound has been stripped. I miss that unseen conductor who used to bark gravelly New Jerseyese through over-miked speakers. Changes.
Reunions bring to the fore all we've done (or failed to do) since we left college. "What are you doing?" is the question of the day. Some people are aggressively proud of themselves, others apologetic. Standing the sidewalk outside of Small World Coffee, one man I know announced to me and another: "I've sold out. I'm working in real estate securities." The expression on his face was unnerving: sarcastic, defiant, and not without self-contempt. After he spoke there was a heavy silence--we didn't know whether to laugh on cue or run for cover.

The whole prospect of explaining yourself for an entire weekend can be pretty daunting to anyone. I even noticed on the subway the other day an ad for Kaplan Testing Prep that read: "Now" [after the successes the Kaplan course will bring you] "you'll want to go back to your high school reunion."

But for Princetonians, Reunions seem to provoke particular anxiety. After all, this is a place where even simple socializing frequently takes on a strangely driven, competitive undertone (witness the skyrocketing campus popularity of not one but two collegiate social hierarchies--eating clubs and greek orders.) Students tend to have wild expectations about what should be their role (and their prominence) in the world. Undergraduate life does not do much to discourage such notions. A small army of maintenance men strip a spring's worth of flowers and replant pink and red and orange tulips for one single May weekend of parties. Most of us began eating our meals in mansions before we were 20. A few were even waited on at table by men and women many years our senior. In libraries, classrooms, and clubs we're watched carefully from above by great and good old men gone before, embalmed in heavy oil paints and hard-wood frames, their exhortations and deeds chiseled in stone lettering around campus. All this breathtaking pomp and lofty expectation has its charms (I for one often fell under its thrall). Grand history and tradition can spur people to do good things. But the spell of Princeton often just encourages smugness and creates unneeded anxiety.

A friend's father recently came back for Reunions after years and years of not going. The father, who had toiled for years as a mid-level administrator at a small liberal arts college, had finally been made president. My friend secretly suspected that his father's promotion allowed him, as it were, to come back.

As the night gets older, people do seem to loosen up: perhaps it's the beer, or perhaps everyone's just too tired of summing themselves up--what it feels like to be 22 or 24 and out in the world--by three-sentence job descriptions. More tall tales, jokey talk, and flirting goes on--a good thing. One person after another sidles up to you and, absolutely convinced of the hilarity and fidelity of their imitations, delivers lines from the movie of the moment. (My senior year it was Austin Powers. You don't know how many "Yeah baby!"s and "Shag me rotten!"s in third-rate British accents I had to try to chuckle at--and that was `97. Thank heaven the sequel came out after Reunions this year.)

Sometimes the gaity and enthusiasm sound forced. People often talk louder than necessary, partly to make sure they can be heard over the din, partly, one suspects, to convince themselves of something, to enforce and project contentment and to banish doubt. But you also see people sitting in shadows and talking in small groups, sometimes with an old friend or two, sometimes with someone they barely knew at college but with whom they find a good connection now.

A couple of years ago I had an experience that made me hopeful about old Princetonians and our Reunions. I went with my father to his 35th reunion--the first time we'd ever gone together. The 35th courtyard is smaller than the fifth, and the crowd was spread across it more in the fashion of a waltz than like a moshpit. The music of Glenn Miller and David Bruback, not Matchbox 40, floats through. The old Princetonians (all men, of course--many with their wives) listened more than they talked, and seemed both modest and hopeful about what lay ahead for them. They seemed to look at me, a young undergraduate, with a certain benevolent grace. Opportunities seized or squandered were behind them now. They'd watched marriages flower or fall apart or remain grindingly the same. Some had seen their kids turn to drugs or to Harvard. They'd lived through the thousand small betrayals and loyalties, moments of strength and weakness, successes and failures which make up a life. And now they seemed happy to sit down together, sip gin-and-tonics, wear silly orange-and-black sportcoats, and listen to each other and to the music that wafted gently through the air. After all, here they all were, passing another balmy spring evening together, as they had done many, many years before, in the same strange, charmed place, when they were young.

Field Maloney '97 lives and works in New York City.

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