A recent Christmas vespers at my undergrad alma mater, Mundelein College, had its usual effect on me: flooding me with memories of my first four years in Chicago, arriving here to attend school. The post-vespers reception took place in the lake-front dining room of the dorm I lived in for the first three years of my four years there.
I attended the vespers with three of my four best girl friends, although there was a missing piece to the evening, as one member of our group was unable to join us. We’ll catch her next time.
The dorm, of course, was the home away from home during those four years. It carried particular meaning for me, since I’d traveled from Florida to study in Chicago. The city’s reputation preceded itself for me on many levels, too, since my mother grew up there, and one of my older sisters lived there. My mother had been unable to take advantage of a voice scholarship to Mundelein many years ago, a dream unfulfilled. My sister had graduated from there a few years earlier, so I had a built-in city and school mentor.
But the dorm was where you built your life. It was where your friendships developed, if you were lucky. You were especially lucky if you landed a decent room mate (or if you were perceived as such by others). At least that’s the way it happened for me. The postage-stamp campus on Lake Michigan couldn’t have been more beautiful — all year round. The lake was blue-green in the fall, ice-filled and roiling in the winter, and blue again in the spring. On especially windy days the spray from the waves would hit the fourth-floor windows of the dorm.
We were Dorm Demons. Trouble-makers. Well … we were trouble-makers-lite, really. We didn’t wreak havoc or break the law (well, I didn’t), but we certainly irritated a few folks. Still — what can you expect when you put a bunch of young women together, on extended leave from home for the first time, with all that freedom and all that Catholic repression in their backgrounds, too?
We were a gang of six at that time. Our friendships grew over the evenings and week-ends we lived in the dorm, as we learned to manage studies, work, fun, and contemplate our futures. But the dorm was the hub of most of our activity, and as our friendships grew, we decided that this life should be fun.
I am convinced that this collective, unconscious fun-decision was made at some point on a week-end, when the dorm emptied of most of its occupants, leaving us full-timers to create our own entertainment. Allow me to share my favorite memories of those creative endeavors.
I swear I have no idea how this happened, but someone managed to break the lock on the pop machine in the basement of the building, leaving the door ajar. This was welcome information, causing us to drag our bottoms to said room early on week-end mornings, to empty the machine of its contents in an effort to battle cotton mouth.
No one had mini fridges in their room during those years (this is making me feel really old), so we attempted to keep beer cool by attaching string to the plastic 6-pack holder, hang it out the window, slam the window down on the string, and weigh that down with textbooks. We lost several 6-packs before finally abandoning this scheme.
We tested the “You don’t spit into the wind” lyric from Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” hit from our windows during the most blustery winter months. We were pretty confident that our loogies hit the third-floor windows (we were penthouse fourth-floor dwellers).
We quickly learned that the locking mechanisms on our door knobs were useless. Taking the door knob in both hands and quickly rubbing it back and forth popped the lock. This allowed us to take turns, at strategic times, to enter others’ rooms and conceal ourselves under a bed or in the closet, to scare the living hell out of the person upon her arrival, leaving the victim crumpled in the doorway. One member of the group developed a regular entry habit of marching first to her closet to fling the doors open wide, jump back, and follow that with a drop to the floor to search under the bed for any potential hidden intruder.
Carefully-selected centerfolds from Playgirl magazine might appear as you pulled your shade down at the end of the day (placed there, of course, by someone who had popped the lock on your room at some point earlier that day).
Anyone was a potential victim. You were never safe. You came to accept that. One day when I returned to my room after class, I discovered a photo of myself, recently posted in a campus newsletter, taped to the mirror above the sink. My teeth had been blacked out.
The showers and toilets were located at the mid-point in the hallway, separated by a wall. We learned that flushing a toilet could inject a spurt of scalding hot water from the shower head located on the other side of the wall. A common practice involved flushing all the toilets, one by one, to create an extended douse of hot water on the shower victim. Of course, we all eventually learned to step away from the spray the minute we heard a flush on the other side of the wall.
We did questionable things with stuffed animals. A lion often greeted you in your bed, under the blankets, seemingly very happy to see you, given the raised covers. Kermit and Ms. Piggy finally acted on their sexual tension.
We created a game called Dirty Story Scrabble. With spelling, grammar, and pronunciation rules nullified, the goal was to develop a bawdy tale turn by turn, and to use up as many tiles as possible. Superior to any romance novel … and a lot shorter.
Howling, crazy hall dances, disco dance routines, singing, dirty piggy-back songs, water fights, and Walton-style goodnights became commonplace.
And on occasion, you crossed the line.
One Friday night, my room mate and I were in our room after a long day of classes and work. One friend was finishing up a rehearsal for a drama project and the rest of the group had gone roller skating, (by car, a rare and revered form of transportation for us at that time). In a typical display of undergrad logic in the face of a limited food supply, we cracked open some Old Style and Oreo cookies. This served as dinner. As the evening wore on, we became relaxed.
Our friend who’d been working on the drama project eventually returned to her room, and we paid her a visit. She had ordered some take-out food and was clearly exhausted from the day. Her sandwich and French fries were set up on her bed. The usual teasing ensued — a familiar interaction among all of us. We both began pretending to snatch her French fries. She put up with this nastiness for the first few seconds, but as I stepped forward to snatch a fry, she bent down and caught my left leg at the ankle in a firm two-handed grip. To compensate, I started bouncing on my right leg. She took a step back and yanked.
Down I went. I heard a pop come from my left wrist. As I sat up, and we all laughed, I held up my arm and was surprised to see my hand dangling at an odd angle. Within seconds, a thick gray knot formed at my wrist and sharp pain began shooting from my wrist to my shoulder. My friend and I traded apologies as a rocked and held my wrist. “I’m so sorry!” “No, I’m sorry!” “I shouldn’t have pulled your leg!” “No! I shouldn’t have teased you and taken your French fries!”
As if by clairvoyance, the roller-skating gang returned a few moments later, and I was whisked to the hospital. While waiting for the results of the x-ray, I barfed into a trash can in the hallway, with my room mate by my side. After a fracture was confirmed, my wrist was set, care and medication directions were provided, and we were sent on our way.
While this was one of our standout incidents, our antics went beyond the walls of the dorm, to include placing a yogurt cup in the hand of the Christ statue near the lake; climbing the stairs to the nuns’ quarters in the main building (once only, but with cans of pop as proof of the visit); and rocking back and forth on wooden parking lot gates until they snapped.
We studied, too, of course. And we worked our butts off.
Of course, the best result of those years is the enduring friendships that developed. We get together at least once a year, and when we do, we catch up on each other’s lives and we laugh nonstop. We still laugh about those times as if they happened yesterday. I love that.
Life is short enough. So hold onto your friends with both hands. Even if they break one of them.