A cat wanders into Mt. Palomar observatory without really knowing what it is. She jumps up onto the observer’s chair to sit quietly in the dark. In a minute there is a great whirring noise and the ceiling, which is dome-shaped, opens in a long slit. The cold night air comes in and so does the deepest night the cat has ever seen, because she is looking through a lens hundreds of times the size of the lens of her eye. The cat is regarding the cosmos. That was what college was like for me.
I even took physics that fall of 1957 and at the very first lecture the professor played for us live the sound of Sputnik going overhead, beeping. Then he found out I couldn’t do math and threw me out. No matter. There were plenty of other astonishments.
Cat in the star nursery.
Just getting there alone was pretty amazing. I had flown, but not alone. My mother took me to the airport but partway there we realized my ticket was still on the dining room table and had to go back. Getting into the car again I ripped my nylon stocking and said, “Well, now I can’t go to college because I’m not properly dressed.” She thought she knew a shortcut, but it wasn’t. By then I was crying. “Roll down the window and stick your head out,” she ordered.
When I got to the plane, I was nearly too late but a mob of friends had come. I had joked that I had no stuffed animals, remarking that all photos of college dorm rooms always showed lots of stuffed animals, so they had brought me lots of stuffed animals, too many to carry, but I did anyway, because this was a big ceremony for my friends. No one else had gone off to a big fancy college and they needed to participate. I could have used a trash bag to carry those stuffed animals but trash bags weren’t invented yet.
O’Hare at that point was brand-new with nothing but fields around it. I went to the taxi stand and was lucky. The driver was the father of a girl my age and though he hadn’t expected to drive way off to the South Side, he didn’t complain -- he gave me advice. When we got to the dorm, which was a converted hotel, he escorted me in, carrying my luggage, and formally presented me to the house mother by name and origin. I hope to heck I tipped him.
I was lucky again with my roommate, Judy Lou Farrer, daughter of a principal and former football coach. She and Denny Meneely, one of those vigorous and sporty Southern belles, took me in hand and showed me around. We went to the lake shore. The strongest sensation of the first day was my bare feet in the warm sand. I could understand that -- the rest was just a big whirl.
My English class, the basic introductory survey if you managed to comp out of bonehead, was in a big auditorium and was taught by Bergen Evans whom I knew from TV. He was witty and mild. I made it my business to sit right in the middle, three rows back, and watch his face as though I were a puppy, responding to everything, so that after a while he was watching me as much as I was watching him. Only recently did the world and I realize he was probably gay. Somewhere behind me were Ivan Doig and Paul Winter, but I never knew them at NU. I took Evans an attempt at a poem (awful) and he was very tactful about it.
My first class of the introductory first-year three quarters in the School of Speech was public speaking. I think I’ll leave that alone for now. But I still care about some of those classmates. We've turned out far more differently than each other or even from what we expected.
When I came home at Christmas, my Jefferson walking group met me with a dozen red roses, as though I were a movie star. I was dumbfounded! They had said to me when I left that now my life would be so different from theirs that we wouldn’t be able to be friends. They were right, but it didn’t happen quickly. Me in high school: hilarious brainy person. In college: confused struggling dummy.
Joanie’s father had told her she had a choice: she could go to college or she could buy a brand-new pistachio-green Thunderbird with a removable hard top. She wisely chose the car. That summer we were hardly ever out of it, at least in the evening when hot cars were out cruising. Pearl was not a cruiser, but Joanie and Diane were definitely on the prowl in shorts and sailor hats. When they checked at home about going out, the mothers all said, “Well, if Mary’s going with you, I guess it will be all right.” Ha.
One night we were dragging Union Avenue, which wasn’t MLK yet. Some boys raced us. We crossed to the Washington side of the Columbia, parked and talked. The boys invited us to take a ride in their car, which they said was the champion souped-up stock car in Oregon. We got into their car and then they got into a race with another fast stock car. It was pitch dark on a narrow road snaking through second growth along the river. The speedometer said 110. The car was shaking hard and only about six inches away from the other one. I prepared to die.
Then the boys wouldn’t let us out. They said they were going to drive up to a cabin in the mountains they knew about and have their way with us. We were feeling around in the bottom of the car for possible weapons. Then one boy looked at his watch and yelped, “Oh my God! I’ve gotta get home! My mother will kill me.” They took us back to the lonesome T-bird. What strikes me now is how different it would have been if the boys had been drunk or on drugs. Or if we girls had been.
But that almost didn’t feel as dangerous to me as the future as seen through the telescope of university. Judy Lou and I went down to some Loop ladies’ tea room and each had a single Pink Lady, which made us so drunk we could hardly ride the El home. My guess is that we were all virgins except maybe Denny. I was probably wrong. This was before seamless nylons or pantyhose, but not tights worn with skirts. I had a scandalous little mini-kilt, which I wore with colored tights, but it was one of two garments that when I wore them, no one would walk around campus with me. The other was a sweater my mother knitted for me that mysteriously disappeared. It cupped my butt. I didn't think that was a problem. Judy Lou introduced me to Chanel #5, Arpege, and silk-lined dresses. Everyone had money, was on a diet, and obsessed about grades.
Must've ditched his scythe somewhere.
I didn’t really give a rip about clothes. In 1957 I was thinking about eternity, death, destiny and foreign films: “Wild Strawberries,” “The Seventh Seal,” “The Cranes Are Flying”, “Black Orpheus,” Truffault. I didn’t have a fuck buddy, I had a film friend, because some of the films were only shown by societies that met in strange ethnic church basements and you didn’t want to go there alone at night.
Nine Little Rock Arkansas high school students started a riot by integrating their school -- with the help of the National Guard. The first Vietnam combat casualty was killed but no one noticed. Nuclear submarines were starting to prowl the ocean. The cat's observatory viewing became colder and wider all the time, but it was a math-driven sidereal world of the mind, not the warm earth of the body. It was the Cold War and on some random afternoon I expected a far-too-bright sky. Then nothing.