Susie Allen, AB’09, recalls the human drama and sitcom qualities of the Reg’s One True Floor.
We called him The Guy. We didn’t know his name. We didn’t want to. To know his name would have felt wrong, somehow. We liked that he was anonymous. It added to his mystery.
The Guy sat at the second table on the south side of the fourth-floor reading room of the Joseph Regenstein Library. The Guy’s most marked characteristics were his black beret, which he wore over his long gray hair, and his near-constant presence on the fourth floor. The Guy did not leave.
Once, I heard a girl look at The Guy and whisper to her friend, “I feel like he’s staring into my soul.”
I knew what she meant. When you walked onto the fourth floor, The Guy would fix you with a piercing glance. On the best days, he might then greet you with a little nod of the head, like a bouncer waving a celebrity past the velvet ropes. This was a sign that he recognized you, that you belonged. On these days, I felt very validated by The Guy.
It wasn’t just that my friends and I studied on the fourth floor of the Reg in college. It was that we were fourth-floor people. Regulars. We had a table that was our table, and it was the best table. We felt great affection for our fellow regulars. Together, we drank coffee until our hands trembled, and stared at our computers with floaters dotting our vision. We hadn’t gotten eight hours of sleep in a night since the Clinton administration.
The fourth floor was like Cheers, except nobody knew our names and there was no alcohol or talking and only rarely comedy. But apart from that: basically identical to Cheers.
It was generally understood that the higher you went in the Reg, the more you meant business. The A level was the University of Chicago equivalent of a frat house basement.
Frankly, we would not have been caught dead on the A level.
As first-years, we mostly studied on the second floor before realizing it was time to put away childish things. During second year, we scattered. Sarah went to the stacks, and I entered into a committed relationship with a third-floor study carrel.
Brinton was the first to pioneer the fourth floor. He lured the rest of us there with the kind of energy usually associated with religious converts and drug addicts.
“It’s so great,” he’d say after a productive day of studying. “You have to try it.”
It was all a joke and it wasn’t. Our tongue-in-cheek arguments for the superiority of the fourth floor at some point became entirely serious and unironic. The fourth-floor reading room was a compromise position between the hair-on-fire intensity of the fifth-floor reading room and the sensory deprivation of the stacks. It had nice views of Hull Gate. The tables were well laid out. Why would you study anywhere else? Why would you not study in a world that offered the fourth floor? It was the One True Floor.
By third year, we were firmly entrenched in our routine. I liked the feeling of coming in from the cold and bounding up the stairs, knowing I’d see Brinton or Sarah or Daniel or sometimes Jon or Anna. I liked that if I didn’t show up for a few days, Brinton would say, “I haven’t seen you on the fourth floor recently” with the tone of a pastor tending to a wayward member of his flock.
We paid close attention to our fellow regulars and monitored their joys and sorrows. If you looked hard enough, you could see the entire human drama play out on the fourth floor.
We watched our comrades grind through readings like “Making the Cut: The Semiotics of Scissors in Early Modern Belgium.” We witnessed the silent desperation of graduate students who had lost all faith in their dissertation topics. We saw the best minds of our generation totally bullshit Sosc papers the night before the due date.
We took heart at the hand-in-hand arrival of the Med School Lesbians, a couple who made us believe our loneliness was only a temporary state. Based on her reading material, it appeared one of them was studying to become an OB-GYN. Nothing seemed more beautiful or perfect.
We watched love blossom between the guy we called José and the woman we called the Lamp Lady because she always brought a small desk lamp with her. (At least, we think that’s what was going on. But really, if you leave the fourth floor together, what do you expect? People are going to talk.)
Should we have gotten out more? Undoubtedly. Were many of us single? You know, maybe that’s not your business.
We abandoned our table only during peak study times for the rest of the student body. At these times, the fourth floor would be overrun with nonregulars, or, as Brinton dubbed them, “tourists.”
Tourist season disrupted the delicate ecosystem of the fourth floor. Among regulars, the silently agreed upon custom dictated you could flout library rules and eat something quiet as long as you didn’t make a show of it. Tourists ate anything they wanted. Who did they think they were, we asked one another incredulously. Honestly.
Sometimes I think I didn’t do college right. I didn’t take a Jell-O shot until I was 25, but one night in college I did make a map of the world out of tangerine peels. (Because I went to the U of C, I’ll specify: it was a Mercator projection.) I usually woke up around 7:30 a.m. I was obsessed with strangers who studied on the same floor of the library as I did.
But then I remember the time Sarah and I played a sleep-deprived game of hangman on the fourth floor as a study break. I was so tired I couldn’t see that W A _ _ U S indicated “WALRUS,” so she stuck two Bic pens in her mouth like tusks. If I did college wrong, I’m not sure I want to be right.
Today, I work on campus, and nearly every spot that held some sacred undergraduate memory is now just a part of my routine.
But the fourth floor is the one place I never visit. I think about it, of course, and I wonder if The Guy is still there and whether José and the Lamp Lady drove off into the sunset. I’d try to find out, but I never learned their names.
I don’t know how I would feel to see other people at our table. It would be like finding out someone who broke your heart is dating a Swedish veterinarian. Sometimes you’re better off not knowing.
I tell myself I don’t go back because I don’t need to. But I know that’s not the reason. If The Guy saw me on the fourth floor today, I’d just be another anonymous face, a tourist in someone else’s home.
Susie Allen, AB’09, works at the University of Chicago by day and performs improv comedy with the Improvised Twilight Zone and her two-woman group Smart Pant by night. Don’t worry, she gets out more now.