We were in the middle of a dorm war. Every morning between one and three a.m., a resident of some enemy dorm pulled our fire alarm. Presumably someone from our dorm was doing the same at some dorm across campus.
In this war I was a mere civilian. A pacifist, a bystander, a protestor. And every night I was part of the collateral damage.
I was as young and stupid as anyone else, and I vaguely regretted that I was not out there, scheming, pranking, doing college things. Going to parties, meeting new people, heading out on unplanned road trips, horsing around in creative and astonishing ways. I did none of that, and part of me felt I was missing something important.
Frankly I was barely surviving at this place, and I was on the verge of losing my academic scholarship. Pranks were a luxury I could not afford.
And so after ten days of dragging myself out of bed, alarm horns blaring in my ear, I had had enough. Dorm wars? Not for me. I was one of the ones who demanded some action from the administration, which started with an angry meeting with our resident head, Brian.
Brian was a PhD student with a Dutch wife, a beard, and a baby, all of which impressed me. Brian was known as a hands-off resident head who didn’t care about the students experimenting with illegal substances as long as they did it in their rooms and kept the doors closed. (“I”m not a policeman,” was his resident-head mantra.)
We didn’t expect answers from Brian. Brian brought in the director of campus security, who gave us no answers either. Taking the issue seriously, measures were being taken, perpetrators would be brought to justice, penalty would be swift and severe, anyone with any information blah blah blah.
And then, on the eleventh morning, as we groaned and cursed and dragged ourselves out of bed for yet another two a.m. trip to the night streets of Chicago, a thought jumped into my head. Not even a thought. An impulse. But one with a whole wave of thoughts behind it.
The alarm was already going, the fire truck was on its way. Students were already walking out the exits. There was an alarm in our lobby. It was unpulled. And that was my thought:
I should pull it.
What compelled me to think of such a thing? In a strange way I saw it as my reward. Hadn’t I gotten up every morning for ten days straight?
A reward? Let me explain.
These were the years when I believed I was a writer, where my ambition outweighed any sort of achievement or even actual promise. When I wasn’t writing, I thought I needed experiences of all kinds.
(I’ve written about this madness before. I am aware that it is somewhat pathetic.)
In the summers I worked at a carnival, I volunteered at children’s hospitals, I hitchhiked across the midwest and hopped trains all the way to Montana. All this activity was deposited in my writerly savings account, stored for future withdrawals.
During the academic year, under the crush of coursework, I spent my days and nights holed up in the library. For months I could only make tiny deposits in my experience bank. I seized small opportunities where I could. A brisk walk to Lake Michigan on the coldest day of the year. Riding the El train to the end of the line. Work-study jobs at a dance studio and the alumni telefund. Offering myself up as the subject of psych experiments.
This was one of those chances. Who gets to know how it feels to pull a fire alarm? How much resistance would the little bar put up? Would it click into place? Slide down easily? Would it feel cold? Metal or some other substance?
Someday I might write a story in which someone pulls a fire alarm. Having an actual experience to draw upon would be handy.
All those thoughts in a half-second. So as the horns blared in my ear, and I walked in my pajamas and slippers toward the elevator, I reached out and pulled the bar.
I have no memory of how it felt. A failed mission.
What I remember is this: A jet of blue dye shot out of the little box, staining my hand purple.
Ahhhhhhhhh, I said. I was quiet to make sure nobody heard, but I couldn’t stop myself from emitting some kind of sound. A barbaric yelp, of sorts, or possibly its opposite. Noooooooooooo.
My brain shot messages of terror throughout my nervous system. I was in a panic. Luckily everyone was half-asleep and no one seemed to notice.
My hand looked like a dead limb. What was I thinking? Why, why, why, why, why did I do this?
Now what? Several hundred furious people were outside, vowing murder against whoever had interrupted their sleep yet again. And here I was. Stained. If I left now, the mob would tear me to pieces.
I veered out of the exodus, ducked into the bathroom, and attacked my hand with heaps of pink powdery soap and the hottest water I could bear. Panicking, my heart racing, I scrubbed, and scrubbed, and scrubbed,
Suddenly a door slammed open. I thought I might collapse. Somehow I managed to look up from the sink.
It was a cop.
Not Brian. Not even a fireman. A cop in full uniform. Carrying a nightstick and a gun.
He had huge square shoulders and was wearing a hat low on his forehead. His eyebrows were darker and bushier than any I’d ever seen on a human face. He had come in to tell me to evacuate, but when he saw me at the sink, scrubbing away, my guilty hand purple under the lattice of pink foam, he smiled. There was a gap in his teeth.
“All right, kid,” he said. “It ain’t comin’ off.”
“I can explain,” I croaked.
“So can I,” he said in a way that made my heart fall to my knees. “You’re in a whole fucking world of trouble.”
I stared at him, nodding slowly. The water was still running. It sounded far away.
“It ain’t comin’ off,” he said. “And you’re comin’ with me.”
He laughed again, pleased by his own turn of phrase.
I spent the night being shuffled around and yelled at until I was eventually informed that my matter would be handled by the campus authorities. Four days later I received a letter giving me official notice of a hearing whee my enrollment status would be determined. Notice? Hearing? Enrollment status?
Everything about the letter terrified me. I knew how these things worked. My parents were not wealthy or powerful, and I did not know of anyone who could lean on the administration. No high-placed person to put in a call or pull a few strings on my behalf. I was a scapegoat.
My purple hand had barely even faded.
“Well, I’m off to my hearing,” I said to my roommate, desperate for some words of encouragement. “This is probably the end of my time here.”
“Good-bye,” my roommate said.
I was not given a lawyer, but they had asked my resident head to accompany me. Brian met me in the lobby. He looked disheveled; behind us, his baby was crying, and his wife was gargling out some kind of lullaby in her Dutch accent.
“Thanks for coming, Brian,” I offered as we boarded the elevator.
“You had better have a really good explanation,” Brian said.
I nodded and mentally rehearsed my speech. The alarm was already blaring, the fire truck was on its way—I ask you, could there be a better example of a victimless crime?
“You’ll probably be expelled,” said Brian, as if he were discussing whether to have another cup of coffee.
I nodded again. As we trudged out the building and down the sidewalk, I mulled this over. I still had not told my parents or any of my friends. Expulsion would mean returning to Wisconsin, to my little town, where everyone would know my disgrace.
As we walked down University Avenue, Brian filled the silence by talking about his research and a book he’d written that had just been accepted for publication. He was an anthropologist, and his book had something to do with religious rituals in contemporary rural Peru that I didn’t quite follow. He must have sensed I was in no mood to talk about his scholarship.
“Look, I know you’re scared. But just tell your story. Be honest. Then I’ll say you’re a good kid, and it sounds like probation is more appropriate, we’ve all learned lessons here. Hopefully they’ll buy it.”
Probation! That would mean staying here, on this campus, among all these people and all these books I had learned to love.
“Do you think they’ll buy it?”
“Why else did they ask me to come?” he said without even trying to hide his irritation. “To make sure you actually leave?”
Being a resident head did not seem like that much fun. But I didn’t care, because a new set of thoughts had just occurred to me.
Brian was a writer: an actual writer, someone who had written one book already (I’d seen it in the campus bookstore) and had another on the way. He told funny stories about the scathing review he’d gotten from someone who knew nothing about his topic, and about the lunch he’d had with his publisher, who’d informed him that at its current pace the book would earn out its advance in “two-and-a-half centuries.” And he spent months living in Peru. Brian knew that writers needed experiences to draw upon. I would have at least one person in the room on my side.
We reached the admin building and found the room. Brian held the door open for me. I took a deep breath and walked inside.
The room was small and crowded. Two people were sitting behind a table in the center of the room. It felt much more ad hoc than I’d expected. A third member of the panel had arrived late and was still dragging his wooden chair across the floor.
I don’t know what I’d thought I’d find: a courtroom, maybe, or a long room with a raised dais and my inquisitors sitting on a raised dais. This was much less formal but no less intimidating. A severe woman who looked like a professor was wearing a suit. The director of campus security was there; he nodded at Brian and grunted at me. And in the middle sat the Dean of Students, wearing a tan corduroy jacket over a black turtleneck sweater. I recognized him from a welcome speech he’d given to us during orientation week. He’d delivered a message about character that I clearly had not lived up to.
“I’ll begin,” said the dean after Brian and I had sat down. “You are going to be expelled.”
Brian gasped. I felt my nose burn. My eyes started to water.
“Expelled!” Brian said. “You’re—that’s it?”
I glanced at him. It was a good thing he’d said something; I was too stunned to make any kind of sound.
The dean looked at the head of campus security, who cleared his throat. “This has been a very serious matter,” he said in a harsh Chicago accent. “It has been a severe drain on our resources. And of course, it is one of the largest threats to student safety that I have ever encountered.”
The professor nodded. “Absolutely agree,” she said. “You have no idea what a toll this has taken on our students.”
“Of course I know,” I said, thinking of all those nights I’d been roused from my bed. “I am one.”
“That’s enough,” said the professor.
The room was silent as the three of them shook their heads, angry that I had dared to say anything at all. I didn’t know what to say. This was hugely important to me. I was overwhelmed by how it was all happening.
“That’s enough? That’s enough? That’s what you’re going to say?” Brian was so angry he could barely contain himself. “What’s enough? This isn’t your class. His whole future is on the line here!”
The professor looked startled but chastened. Brian was right, and she knew it.
“And this is supposed to be a hearing,” Brian went on. “You need to give him a chance to be heard.” His tone suggested he was ready to cite due process legal precedent dating back to the Magna Carta.
Brian! My hero! The prospect of probation again dangled before my eyes. A dim hope, but still alive…
The dean shrugged. I glanced at Brian, who nodded with some impatience. It didn’t matter. His presence energized me. The others might hate me, they might have already made up their mind, but I had Brian.
I knew I should wish that Brian were more important. These people played hardball, they viewed themselves with extreme self-importance, they ran the business of a university. They courted millionaire donors and signed off on plans for new buildings.
I could have used someone with more power, a table-pounder, a demander, a brass-knuckles defender who could speak their language. Or a fellow elite who could talk to them in the winking language of the rich.
Instead I had a writer, a lowly writer, a liberal anthropologist who spent years at a time in remote Peru, eating ancient grains out of a wooden bowl.
Magna Carta? A healthy annual donation to the alumni fund would have been far better.
But anyway I launched into my story, how I myself had been a victim for ten days, how I’d railed against the perpetrators like anyone else, how my studies had suffered and how desperate I was to pass. I spoke of my desire to be a writer, and how I spent months looking for quick experiences to store away for future use, and how I’d seized upon the opportunity to pull a fire alarm and feel just what it felt like to do so. I did not exaggerate or embellish or make any excuses. I told my facts in plain words, humbly and with the style that comes from unvarnished truth delivered in simple but well-chosen language.
It was the performance of a lifetime. The stakes were high, but I rose to the occasion, speaking fluidly in several full paragraphs. I finished with a rush of words about the importance of experience being fundamental to a liberal education, the very type of education that this university sought to provide to young minds such as my own, and crowned off my monologue with my plea:
“…and so I believe I should receive probation, and should not be expelled!”
I exhaled and awaited their response.
My purple hand had crept into the buttons of my shirt, like Napoleon. I pulled it out and let it sit on the table. No longer guilty but proud. A writer’s hand.
They stared at me.
The silence continued for several seconds. It felt like a lot longer. My heart was doing some kind of crazy dance in my chest.
“That,” Brian finally said, “is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.”
“Really?” I said. My voice sounded soft and hollow.
“No! I’ve never heard anything more stupid! In my life!”
“Oh, I’ve heard dumber,” said the security guard with a chuckle, coming to my rescue against my former rescuer.
“I haven’t!” said Brian. “Jesus, you can’t win either way!” he said. He was so animated that spit burst out of his mouth and got stuck in his beard. “If you’re lying, you deserve expulsion. If you’re telling the truth, you’re too stupid to go to school here!”
The security guard laughed out loud.
“What did you think I would say?” I asked.
“That you were drunk out of your mind! High! Stoned! Tripping on acid!”
“I don’t drink or use drugs,” I apologized.
“Maybe you should start,” said my resident head.
I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The judgment was swift. The panel decided. Expelled. Justice had spoken, or snarled, or shrugged, or whatever it had just done.
I spent the next few days scrubbing my hand and not calling my parents. Every day I checked the mail for the letter that would tell me how long I had to move out and how much tuition and fees I still owed them for credits I would not be awarded.
After a week I started going to class again, just to have something to do.
Every day, as I went down to the lobby to check my mailbox, I braced myself for the awful news.
Days went by. Weeks. One month. Two.
Exams came. The year was ending. I received my financial aid packet for the following year. I relaxed; it seemed like nothing was going to happen to me. I stopped dreading the daily trip to the mailbox.
Maybe they had changed their minds. Maybe they thought Brian’s vitriol had been punishment enough. For whatever reason, the three-person panel had failed to follow through, and I was not dumb enough to remind them.
I decided that it was my job to keep going. At some point they might review my file, and they would see that my grades had lifted, and I’d been a model student, with no additional negative behavior…
Toward the end of exam week, Brian announced to our floor that he and his family were being relocated to a different apartment on the other side of campus. I sat on the carpet trying to be invisible. I didn’t want Brian to notice me and wonder what I was still doing in the school I was too stupid to attend.
The next day everyone helped Brian move boxes down to the U-Haul truck he’d rented. I sat in my room with the door closed.
I still did not know exactly how to take Brian’s outburst. I didn’t think he meant it – pulling a fire alarm couldn’t have been the dumbest thing he’d ever heard of anyone doing. But I did feel like he was being honest in the moment. Something about my wanting to be a writer, and my way of going about it, had irritated him. I thought it might have something to do with being young. Even though Brian was a success, his life was pretty much in place. Who knew what dreams he had abandoned along the way? There must have been something difficult about being surrounded by people who still had their dreams alive.
Even so, it did feel like punishment. No, I had not been expelled. But Brian’s hatred felt like something I did not fully deserve. Actually, the feeling I had was strange: somehow I felt I did deserve it, but I did not know exactly why.
That night I passed by a liquor store on 53rd Street and happened to notice a sign that said “DRINKS AROUND THE WORLD.” I went inside and found a bottle of Peruvian wine on a dusty lower shelf. It was so old it stuck to the shelf and left a purple ring when I pulled it off.
“That stuff’s harsh,” said the clerk. “Not smooth.”
“Fine,” I said.
“All sales final,” he said, tapping a handwritten sign taped to the counter.
“Yep,” I said, feeling slightly uneasy.
I took the bottle back to my dorm and smashed down the cork with the handle of a screwdriver, somehow managing to cut my hand. Then I poured half the bottle into a plastic Wisconsin Badgers cup and looked at myself in the mirror.
Here’s to you, Jacke Wilson.
It was the worst drink I’d ever had, and it took me all night to choke it down.