(Photography by Tom Tian, AB’10)

Secret loves

At UChicago, theatrical suffering is a proud tradition. The College is more than brutal winters and equally brutal O-chem finals. Here’s a short list of things we love. Just don’t expect to find them on a T-shirt.

Fall: The air is crisp, the leaves are turning, nothing is due yet.

When the Harry Potter series first leapt to the big screen in 2001, many premillennial alumni surely got a nostalgic kick watching Harry, Ron, and Hermione eat, sleep, sleuth, and spell their ways through what looked like Ida Noyes, Harper, Burton-Judson, and other spaces across the UChicago campus. Younger College grads and current students can be forgiven for scouring the course catalog for a potions class or hoping that Muggle Studies might fulfill their Civ requirement.   

Today the dazzling sunlight in Mansueto provides ideally studious surroundings, just as, once upon a time, the geometric cushions in the Harper North pits were the perfect back supports (or pillows) for a leisurely Saturday with Adam Smith or Herodotus. But every now and then you need the laser focus only total seclusion can provide. That’s when you burrow into the deepest, darkest corner of the Reg stacks or, if you don’t mind a few mummies for company, the Oriental Institute library.  

First year, it’s Doc—maybe something in the Wednesday Truffaut series—followed by coffee at the Med (or vice versa). By fourth year, Doc is the perfect start to an all-Ida Friday night: the latest Bond flick, say, and then the Pub for pool, a pitcher, and wings. And even in everything-at-your-thumb-tips 2014, the answer to “What’s at Doc?” is still “Check the poster.”   

Once upon a time, UChicago T-shirts took self-deprecation—one might even say self-loathing—to serious lows, viz., hell. But these days, the tone is a kinder, gentler self-mocking, with a strong hint of pride in all those quirks that make UChicago the unique place it is. Hence, “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” and “If I’d wanted an A, I would have gone to Harvard.”

Everyone knows (or should know) the drill. UChicago was not just a Big Ten powerhouse—it was the Big Ten powerhouse. Jay Berwanger, AB’36, didn’t just win the first Heisman Trophy; he won it when it was still called the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. It’s tough to live up to a history like that—even if you didn’t cut football for several decades—but UChicago still fields serious contenders across Division III, and just about every student plays something, even if it’s just midnight Frisbee. So, yes, Bartlett’s “Glory of Manly Sports” mural is anachronistic and, since 2002 (when the building became a dining commons), out of place, but its intended meaning still rings true. 


Winter: What keeps us going through the season of our discontent.

The College makes you fearless. Quibble with Aristotle’s reasoning? Sure. Take on a Nobel laureate in a crowded lecture hall? No problem. No wonder a UChicago student’s idea of January fun is early morning calisthenics at the Point and doing the Polar Bear Run through the quad au naturel. At least the ice-carving activities are family friendly.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Will one of these examples of Jewish holiday cuisine ever reign supreme? Unimportant. When sophistry is practiced at this level—by the likes of Martha Nussbaum, Edward “Rocky” Kolb, Hanna Gray, and Douglas Baird (above), under the guiding whimsy of the late Ted Cohen, AB’62, professor in philosophy and the College—the only things that matter are that everyone laughs and everyone gets to eat.  

UChicago hardly lacks for coffee shops, from the staid of name but beloved Cobb Coffee Shop and Classics Café to the more soulfully monikered Grounds of Being in the Div School basement and Hallowed Grounds on the second floor of Reynolds Club. Coffee shops in the dorms, with captive audiences, never had to worry about attracting (or offending) potential customers. So Tanstaafl, in the dearly departed Pierce, paid homage to Milton Friedman’s (AM’33) “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The Shoreland, just rehabbed into luxury rentals with one gig internet speed and a “pooch parlor,” no longer has a coffee shop, let alone one with the ultimate take-it-or-leave-it name: Fred.

Ten straight hours of studying is enough to make even the hardiest Hegelian flip his dialectic. So don’t keep it in. Head to Hutch Commons and scream out your frustrations with everyone else. That’s the idea behind the sporadic primal scream gathering. The best way to stifle a scream? Put an omelet in it. Such is the genius of the midnight breakfast, also sporadic, also in Hutch. Either way, second wind achieved.

From 1970 to 1984, the Lascivious Costume Ball existed as a fantasy mash-up of the Garden of Eden and the Playboy Mansion—albeit a fantasy with a 70/30 male/female ratio. A milder LCB was revived in 2008, just in time to enjoy the full effects of climate change in Chicago. Is that an extra pair of long johns under your toga, or are you just happy to see me? 


Spring: When a young student’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of graduating... but first you have to finish that BA paper.

At College students are going to misbehave. Students in the College are going to misbehave in creative, outlandish, and ingenious ways. So UChicago has dedicated a weekend to it, put it on a points system, and called it Scavenger Hunt. Unconfirmed rumors have the University warning everyone in a three-state radius and telling NORAD to stand down for the duration (the words “nuclear” and “reactor” have shown up on the list at least once). At Scav Hunt 2013’s kissing booth (above), there is no such thing as a free kiss.

The C-Bench has never been an ideal spot for reading Kant or quietly contemplating a change in major (or “concentration,” for those who once pondered a switch to Politics, Economics, Rhetoric, and Law). For moments like those, your best bet is Botany Pond. You never know what will scamper, swim, or waddle by. Just remember: local custom dictates that if you lock lips on the bridge, you’d better be ready to put a ring on it.   

The high school prom exists to create troublesome—even traumatic—memories. Even if you went, it never lives up to expectations but does leave a mark. Prom Dress Rugby, played annually during Alumni Weekend, lets members of the women’s rugby club question traditional notions of femininity while pounding out any prom frustrations long before they can metastasize into decades of unhealthy relationship choices and unnecessary therapy bills.   

Those who weren’t there will never get it. “You slept out to register for classes?” Yes, getting into Little Red Schoolhouse or Western Civ with Karl Weintraub, AB’49, AM’52, PhD’57, seemed important enough to endure rain, no showers, and Jethro Tull blasting nonstop from someone’s tent.

Metcalf Internships got off to a modest start: eight placements the first year (1997). The program, named for Harold “Jeff” Metcalf, AM’53, a former director of athletics and Chicago Booth dean of students with a knack for connecting College students with employers, has grown to 1,000 paid substantive internships in 2013–14. So what’s next for the Metcalf Interns—world domination? (They think it’s cute we have to ask.)

It’s either the worst sound you’ve ever heard—a goose and a swarm of bees fighting over a harmonica inside a vacuum cleaner?—or the most stirring. That’s the bagpipes. Thankfully the taste of most UChicagoans seems to fall into the latter camp, if the absence of earplugs and pained grimaces at Convocation is any measure. A June mainstay since 1990, bagpipes have recently become fashionable for fall, ensuring there’s nary a dry parent’s eye at the start of O-Week.