The Brands That I Carried
Here is a list of some of the things that I thought would make me friends in college: the L maps my brother stole from a train, my newspaper print duvet cover, the Song of Myself book I’d carefully doodled and spread paint all over, the fake leather jacket I had, and the most perfectly beat-up pair of Chuck Taylors I owned.
Here is a list of some of the things I actually really liked that I did not think would make me friends in college: my well-worn copy of Paper Towns, a best-selling YA book by John Green, all of the Harry Potter books that I owned but labored to keep in pristine condition (so I could read them to my children someday), the faded Abercrombie hoodie I had to wear under the fake leather jacket to make the whole thing actually function as a coat, and the very practical pair of gym shoes my mom made me bring.
When I went to college, I was convinced it would always be fall. I’d be forever warming my chilly hands with endless cups of coffee. I’d wear dark jeans and crunch through leaves as I made witty jokes with friends. We’d make references to the trains in spain always running on time if we wanted to discuss dictatorships, and we’d quote Dorothy Parker if we wanted to discuss class structure. I’d know at least one person who had read Ulysses, but my friends, like me, wouldn’t find it brilliant, believing, as I did, that writing should be about clearing life up and not muddling it far further. We’d all think The Doors were cool and that the beat poets were too, but wouldn’t be so stuck in the sixties to not frequently make Buffy references. My college experience, I presumed, would be filled with people like me.
Not with people exactly like me, but people who were cut from the same cloth I was. People who had the same style that I did. That style came both from what I actually liked and what I desperately wanted to like. I pictured college (how could I not?) as a series of still lifes in a magazine. And I thought that we would all fit into the same spreads -- fingerless gloves, holey clothes, beat-up books, and all. All of these small purchases and small opinions would add up to a place where I fit in.
Style can be defined both by what you like and what you buy. No wonder that I was expecting my fellow students to have the same likes and style that I did. We had, after all, made the same purchasing decision about the single biggest experience we were ever going to consume.
The American college experience has moved from an educational in loco parentis experience to an experience that is packaged and available for purchase. Co-eds in J.D. Salinger’s generation went to schools that acted in place of their parents. Curfews as early as 10:00 were common, as were segregated dorms and ‘dorm mothers’ to watch over the students. Students were sometimes expelled for their morals and were entirely used to their freedom of speech being restricted, in the same way that no one expects unfettered free expression at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But, the Woodstock generation changed all of that. Students protested the former restrictions all across the country as the number of colleges grew. Now, there are over 4000 universities in the USA. In order to enroll enough students to stay open, universities had to work harder to attract students. Most did so by branding themselves. Colleges began to send brochures to students, promising a certain kind of education filled with certain kinds of people. University life was presented to me, exactly like I imagined it, as a series of still life photographs and sly references.
Personally, I was disappointed. Very quickly into freshman year I learned that just because all the students at my school had decided to come to that school didn’t mean we necessarily had much in common. Most of the students I encountered had very different reasons for their choices. There were other students here who had come to university, excited to rush a fraternity or sorority. It was an idea so foreign to me that I chuckled loudly and rudely at the first person to mention it. There were other students who had come here to dismantle a system of privilege while participating in it. Students who were excited to study to become the next President, and students whose plan was to make a million dollars, no questions asked.
There was a dizzying array of humans on this campus, I was somehow surprised to learn at 18. If I was going to get everything I wanted out of this college experience I was paying so much for, I needed more categories than just here and not here. I needed a better method of sorting than this one big brand we’d all bought into.
I started looking on people’s bookshelves. I got it into my head that if you had a book that I liked, we were destined to become friends. Of course I did. I’d grown up knowing mostly the same people in the same town. Whenever I was getting to know anyone, it was through a glowing blue screen.
And on TV shows, books matter. If someone is reading The Virgin Suicides, the audience is supposed to know that they are smart, a little edgy. If you like feminists, they probably are one. If not, they don’t have to be. When the Virgin Suicides boy meets the girl with a René Magritte tshirt on it, the audience can guess they’ll start to date before they even speak. Books become references become brands become people. And I needed to find my people.
The characters I saw on TV growing up were always surrounded by things. They had stuff on the walls and in their hands, in the cabinets of their kitchen, and on their own bodies. Television represents a fantasy and is best viewed as such. But where the fantasy comes closest to reality is when you get physical, when the characters carry around stuff. We draw conclusions about character from the things that they carry. And the people who sell us the things, whether they are books or posters or a college education, are hoping that we will draw the conclusions they want us to.
I had an understanding of what the type of person I wanted to be knew about and what they liked, woven together from what characters I liked appeared to know about. The fact that these walking plot projectiles didn’t ever actually discuss The Cure (Peyton from One Tree Hill) didn’t disturb my absolute understanding that the people I wanted to be friends with would like The Cure (Lucas from One Tree Hill).
College freshman all lay out a shiny collection of objects that represent both who they are and who they want to be at this institution. And just where you get the ideas of what those objects signal and why is immensely hard to pin down. But when I try, make believe people whisper to me more than real ones. I knew I needed to dress like Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You this and talk like Rory Gilmore if I wanted to make the friends I wanted to make. And that I needed to find friends who had books on their shelves that I wanted to like.
Of course, that’s not how I made friends.
I met a girl with Harry Potter on her bookshelf, right next to Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Tender is the Night, and I thought we’d be fast friends. Instead I found her pretentious and obnoxious and spent most of my time with her rolling my eyes as she said things to me like wow, I didn’t know that you drank? I met a boy who had George Orwell and Samuel Huntington and the same fascination with the Cold War that I did. He turned out to be a communist, uninterested in speaking to someone like me who was not. And I met people with amazing record collections, the coolest wall decorations, the most elegant bedspreads -- despite our similar styles, our looks, our brands, none became my people.
Instead my people turned out to have wildly different taste than I did and there turned out to be many of them. Some introduced me to ideas and styles and brands that I would love. Our tastes became more similar. Others never did and our tastes stayed different. We all turned into who we are and the brands and the books and the style I brought have never mattered less.