Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

November 7, 2001:
Times They Are a Changin'
Our prodigal columnist returns to find a different campus

By Wes Tooke '98

A few weeks ago I returned to the Princeton campus for the first time since I stopped working for PAW. I took the train from Penn station in New York, and as I was sitting on the Dinky, I felt as if I had been transported back through time to the spring of 1998. The thick New Jersey air smelled the same, Route 1 was still a parking lot at midday, and I even recognized the conductor.

But a few minutes later, as I walked across campus, that feeling of familiarity abruptly shifted. It occurred to me that I no longer knew a single undergraduate student, and I was meeting the only professor who would recognize me without prodding for lunch. There was virtually no chance that I would bump into a familiar face on one of the paths I know so well.

That sense of complete anonymity, which was so completely different than anything I had felt on campus during my college years, was strangely empowering at first. I am an essentially monkish person, and I enjoyed being able to scout my old haunts free from the fear that I would be trapped into a conversation with an old acquaintance.

But as wave after wave of Princeton students passed me, most looking vaguely like people I used to know, my liberation slowly evolved into depression. I had always imagined that Princeton would remain a community for me in much the way my old neighborhood has remained a community - a place where I could always return and feel at home. Princeton, however, now felt somewhat akin to a links page on the Internet: Every familiar spot I passed served as a reminder of people who now live in Boston and London and San Francisco. The campus was no longer a home; it was merely a map whose details remained imprinted upon my brain.

Eventually I followed the whims of my subconscious mind and went to find my dorm room from senior year. I discovered that my subconscious had conveniently forgotten that the university had remodeled Patton Hall a few years ago. The contractors had replaced our cramped singles and expansive common room with a set of antiseptic and horribly rational mini-suites. My senior year we had carved our names into the old wooden fireplace, alongside the names of a generation or two of previous occupants, and I had often imagined returning to the suite at my 25th reunion and finding my initials. Now even the geography of my memories has changed.

So now that I've returned to Berkeley, I wonder why I'm so excited to see the basketball team play on the UC campus in a few weeks. I can barely name three players, and even Coach Carmody has left for more expansive pastures. Yet my interest remains real, and I know I'll root almost as hard for the team as when Mitch Henderson was dumping the ball to Steve Goodrich down low. I suppose the lesson I've drawn is that memory is a funny and fragile creature that thrives in the abstract and dies in the specific. I can watch basketball because watching basketball returns me to a set of old emotions that instantly recall a library of lost memories. But returning to campus alone, at least for a psyche such as mine, serves as nothing other than a brutal reminder of how swiftly a home can change from a concrete place to a concept held for convenience by my gradually decaying mind.


You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu