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September 19, 2010

Enter the Unicorns

An essay

Halloween night of my first year, I sat at a bus stop, fuming. I was dressed as Hester Prynne—a hideous blue velvet dress I had found at some costume shop, buckle shoes, and an ‘A’ fashioned from red masking tape stuck to my chest. It was getting late, and I had never been downtown on my own before, but I could not face going back to my dorm. I could not face the unicorns.

I’ve never been particularly good with fractions, but it seemed to me that with three girls in our small room, each of us ought to claim a third of the domain. But in the month and a half since we had moved in, it had become abundantly clear that three quarters of the space belonged to The Third Roommate. Or perhaps more accurately, it belonged to her stuff. Enter the unicorns. I don’t know if the drawings were produced because of her graphic arts classes or in spite of them, but there they were. A new one every day, it seemed, in various colors and media—unicorns going about their daily activities, sometimes wearing clothes, or eating birthday cake. They multiplied like no imaginary creature should, filling the limited space not already occupied by the detritus of her possessions and her indier-than-thou demeanor. Her desk was always covered in broken colored pencils, mugs half-filled with liquid and mold, crayons ground into waxy powder, pipe cleaners, X-Acto knives, and some horrible vodka. Like the desk of a deranged five-year-old. And the unicorns, God, the unicorns. I have nightmares.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, I’d love to have a roommate who draws unicorns all the time!” It could be great, and I have nothing against them generally, it’s just that these unicorns were a manifestation of The Third Roommate’s lack of a grasp on reality. Preposterous, horned reminders that she was utterly oblivious to the fact that the people she lived with might prefer a space sans mold and mythical creatures. So on Halloween, when she had dressed as (quelle surprise!) a unicorn, I fled. I was nervous. I grew up in a big city, but even so, the prospect of finding my way around a new city at night was daunting. The fact that I was dressed like some sort of community theater incarnation of a fictional 17th-century adulteress wasn’t helping my nerves. But the bus driver on the #6 didn’t even look twice at my getup. I got off at the first stop I recognized, the Art Institute, and walked. I just walked, for an hour or so, nodding at other passersby in costume, taking mental note of restaurants and stores I might revisit in the daylight. It was quiet, and bright, and it felt good to be anonymous and alone, and to know that somehow my anonymity was a kind of connection with everyone else on the street. I bought a coffee and asked a lady dressed as Xena, warrior princess, where to catch the bus home. I had found my haven, miles and miles of it. For the rest of the year, whenever the mess and the stress and the unicorns made me feel like I was living in some execrable, stifling, alternate reality, the city kept me sane. Even now, three years later, with a whole apartment to myself, there is still nothing that clears my head so quickly and effortlessly as a walk downtown.

There’s a reason our school’s slogan is not “UChicago: Keepin’ it Real.” And it’s for the same reason that the city is one of the University’s biggest assets. The environment of study and dialogue we have is a privilege, and it’s rare. But there doesn’t have to be a disconnect between the Life of the Mind and Real Life. Because here’s the thing: books are portable. You may be reading Aristotle like every other first-year, but you could read him in a coffee shop on State Street, or in the little garden next to the Art Institute. Take your Marx-Engels Reader to a diner in Belmont, or Buckingham Fountain, or anywhere along the lakefront. Take a break and see a show at the Steppenwolf, or a concert at the Aragon. Read on the Red Line; I’ll bet you’ll have at least one illuminating conversation with a stranger.When you’ve taken up residence in the academic world, after a while you start to think, maybe literary criticism is a marketable skill. Maybe I can change the world by inventing Chemical X or Theory Y. Or by, I suppose, drawing unicorns. And perhaps you can, but while you’re taking Human Being and Citizen, don’t forget to be a human being and a citizen, a citizen of a city that has a lot to offer. Keep studying, keep working, but also keep exploring. Keep it real.

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