Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Searching at Reed Reunion

Friday I went to Reed for my 30 year reunion.


I jumped into the car at more-or-less 5 AM and drove to Portland, beating most of the early morning commuters and pulling into Reed two hours later.  I think the last time I spent any time on the campus was 1992.  The parking lot had expanded, the laurel hedge that had provided caves of green between the campus and the local golf course was gone.  There was a new, modernish-looking building dominating the lot, which I later learned was a Performance Center.
The campus was opened in the early 1900's; the older brick buildings have griffins and owls and gargoyles carved above doorways and windows.  I would say the style is Gothic, or maybe some secular, American Neo-Gothic -- maybe pre-Arts-and-Crafts, with a romantic nod to Medievalism.   Originally, the plan was for long rows of brick crenelations to form square courtyards spanning the 150-some acreage of the college, but building didn't get that far.  The buildings tend to run east-west, with newer 50's and 60's glass and concrete box buildings appearing in the east, and 70's-90's buildings popping up in the west, near the parking lot I was parked in.

I straightened out my long, brightly-colored Dr. Who scarf and wandered around the Old Dorm Block and Commons area with the vague notion that I'd bump into one of my old classmates.  A tree in front of Doyle Dorm was missing the limb I used to sit on and read.  There was a large, white, empty tent in the middle of the quad between Old Dorm Block and the remodeled commons.  Another tree west of Elliot Hall that I used to sit in and read was gone altogether.   The quiet and emptiness and vaguely misplaced landscape was like being at Reed and not at the same time.

Reed sometimes is the back-drop for my dreams.  Typically, I fly around Elliot Hall, or I'm walking along the brick buildings of a dream mash-up of the Old Dorm Block (which I never lived in) and other vaguely collegiate buildings, trying to find something.  The sense of being in some kind of dreamscape was set by wandering around a mostly empty campus under partially-cloudy skies, and continued throughout the day.


Things picked up during check-in, because there were actual awake people in search of coffee (I had a thermos mug of tea).  I kept expecting to meet old classmates, but I didn't see anyone I recognized as I got breakfast.  Over the day, I continued to see folks who I mistook for classmates, but who, upon reflection, couldn't be that young, or if they did look sufficiently fifty-something, weren't.  There were a lot of older alumni -- which I should have expected, since it was a Friday morning and anyone under retirement age would be working -- so I felt like I was on some sort of Elderhostle Cruise.  My classmates either were on a field-trip, or driving in from their local homes.

I took a hike from the outdoor amphitheatre and headed east, toward the Art Building.  The Thesis Bridge had been replaced last time I visited (so I was expecting the new one), and the paths seemed farther away from The Lake than I recalled.  I passed a young woman going west with an umbrella.  The only traces of the old wide pipe you could cross the lake over were the remains of sinking wooden trestles.  I met another woman heading west; her dog seemed surprised by my scarf.   There were more wooden walkways, and the path seemed more maintained than it did in the 80's.  I followed it to the overgrown fens, where Crystal Creek runs through foliage and it's easy to pretend that Portland,  the Woodstock Neighborhood,  and even the buildings of Reed are in some distant realm.  

I continued east, and entered into a grove of trees.  Then I hit a Y in the path; this was odd, because there hadn't been a Y in the woods that I remembered.  I walked a little more east, and recognized a special tree.   Something was different; I took the other branch of the Y and came out at the Art Building (or, as we used to call it, the "'Is It Art Yet?' Building."  Working it out later, I realized the Y in the 80's had been at the edge of a meadow--but in the thirty years since I walked the path, the trees had grown over, advancing almost to the Art Building itself.  I peered into the room where we used to do calligraphy.

I went to the Library; the front is now a glassed in emergency exit, and the men's room with the Camel Cigarettes graffiti is ... a closet?  Even after visiting twenty-five years ago, I'm still weirded out by the conversion of the open-air courtyard where we once danced under a Renn Faire Full Moon into a sky-lighted periodical reading room.

I spent about a half hour doing calligraphy -- the person running the workshop hadn't heard about Deborah Gwartney, who had run calligraphy for about two years in the 80's -- and then went on a rare book collection tour.  Even though I had a brief stint as a student worker in the catalogue department, I never knew that the Reed Library had things like parchment that Pope Urbane had written on.  They also had a Renaissance song book that was monster-sized so that all the monks in a monastery could gather around it and sing.

Half against my will, I found myself in the Theses Tower, where I pulled out my thesis.  I'd forgotten the title was "'...To Get a Ten Cent Debt Off My Conscience:'  A Study in Posted Feedback."  It was about as campy as I remember.  I looked at photos of myself from thirty years ago -- I was wearing a dark jacket with a paisley lining and lots of buttons on my lapel.  I had to laugh a little because thirty years later I was wearing a dark jacket shot with purple threads, a purple satin lining, and a pink triangle pin and a silver lizard pin.

The first person I ran into that I knew was Professor Albyn Jones, my old statistics instructor, at lunch.  He's retiring soon; I remember when he first arrived at Reed and taught us all the S statistics package.  We had a nice chat, along with another alumna -- what struck me about her story was that after Reed she'd had a series of various jobs, the theme of which was, "And then I taught myself....."

After lunch, I ran into Professor Irena Swanson during her presentation of quilts (which are cool).  I was expecting the scarf to help people recognize me, but Irena said that she recognized me by my gait.  Now that I think about it, when I bumped into one of my old high school friends a few years ago, the first thing out of her mouth was, "Oh my, you still have the same mannerisms and gestures."  It's funny what stays the same.

After the talk, I went on a tour of the steam tunnel, which I'd never been in.  The graffiti was interesting, and we were encouraged to add our own.  I wrote "The cake is a lie!" on one of the pipes.

I did more traipsing around campus:  the mailroom had been moved to the opposite end of the commons building, and the bookstore had been moved.  The old spiral staircase was gone, too.  I wandered around to Elliot Hall; the old Terminal Ward was somebody's office, and my old thesis office was now an elevator shaft.  At Elliot Hall, I ran into Chris Lydgate and some other alumni.

Chris was the first person to recognize me from the scarf.  He's currently the editor of Reed Magazine.   We looked at more bits of Elliot Hall:  the shortened lecture hall on the second floor and the removed chalkboard replaced by a door (but the wooden dentals surrounding missing chalkboard's frame are still there).  I got the sense that we were reassuring each other that we remembered things the same way.  While I was speaking to Chris, I said, "The thing that this reunion has driven home to me is that the past has a physicality that we can't return to."

At dinner, other folks from my class appeared:  Suzi Abe, Stephan G, Dave Baxter, Jane Leu, and Irena gathered together.  Stephan pulled out an old photo album and someone, possibly, Suzi said, "We were just children."  And we were -- it was about then that I realized that I had been superimposing my 1980's memories of what people looked like over their current faces.  We fell into conversation with an ease that I hadn't expected, but should have given our shared time at Reed.  We wondered where folks not there were (I'd spent a lot of time with 1986 folks).  We commiserated about some of the nonexistent student counseling we got.  We had a lot of fun recalling old times.

And then it was time to go.  I had to drive back home and prepare for The Child's Birthday Party Nerf Gun Extravaganza.  I walked with my class to their evening Trivia Event, said good-bye, and did one last circuit of campus.

There was a special dinner going on the old Theatre Building, and the old black box theatre had been replaced with administrative offices.  The path following the creek below the building was gone, or at least not visible.  I took a new bridge over the lower canyon and looked for the lower meadows, but I couldn't see them.  I used to be able to walk along canyon trails from the Theatre Building to the Is-It-Art-Building, but I had a feeling that wasn't the case anymore.  The meadow where we'd feasted one Renn Faire was overgrown.   I walked through the cross-canyon dorms -- I'd lived in McKinley -- which were in various states of de- or re-construction.  The deck which had run outside my room was gone.

I crossed the new bridge spanning the middle of the canyon for one last look at Elliot Hall; its ruddy brick Neo-gothic rampart rose up in the early evening sky.  An irrational pulse of nostalgia welled up within me -- could I come back to Reed but... the only way to return to Reed would be as a student; as an employee of Reed, I'd A) have to apply and be hired by the college, B) move to Portland, and C) it wouldn't be community I'd had in the 1980's.   And it was the nerdy, wordy, crazy, autodidactic community that I wanted and have tried to re-find where ever I live.

I headed back to the parking lot.  Sounds from scattered parties and dinners under outdoor lights or from lounges joined the sounds of the evening.

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