A work trip to your college town is always an excuse to live ignorantly, so after a series of alarming decisions, I found myself two and a half White Claws deep in the soupy Austin, Texas, heat, standing in front of my old college apartment. I knocked three times, and the earth stood still. The door creaked open revealing a dude in a Longhorns shirt and mesh basketball shorts — the societal uniform for every male at the University of Texas, and therefore an uncanny reflection of the culture I used to inhabit.
The delirious swagger that had led me to this point — as a blithe alumni enjoying an impromptu homecoming — immediately drained from my body. I inquired about a few unfamiliar posters on the wall, and quickly ran out of things to talk about. The student wisely sensed the venomous combination of inebriation and wistfulness before him, so he stood firmly in the doorframe to mark the boundaries. We weren’t going to share a drink. He wasn’t going to listen to my entirely clichéd war stories that occurred in that apartment between the years of 2011 and 2013. Never have I felt quite so old and lame, as I thanked him for his time, and retreated in the opposite direction.
I spent the rest of the summer licking my wounds. I never thought I’d be this guy. College nostalgia is, in many ways, more pathetic than the high school kind. I saw these dudes on football weekends: graying Gen-X males in boat shoes and khaki shorts, swarming the campus perimeter bars, doing their best to recapture the feverish ego death that was slowly sanded off by decades of marriage, fatherhood and work. Making an uninvited visit to a dorm room is, in many ways, the final stage of a sickness that is first incubated the day you order an alma mater hoodie at the age of 29.
Fortunately, as I quickly found out, I wasn’t alone. On a recent episode of the Ringer’s Ryen Russillo Podcast — truly one of the most archetypically male media commodities on the internet — former NFL defensive end Chris Long recounted a recent evening of debauchery in Charlottesville, the home of his Virginia Cavaliers. “Me and my old roommate rolled up to our old apartment, we said, ‘Hey, let’s see who lives here now,’ which is always a bad idea,” said Long. “There’s a second-year engineering student there, getting out of his car… I try to be the diplomatic one, I say, ‘Hey listen, we used to live here. Is the downstairs room still blue?’ He says, ‘No, no it’s not.’”
“You wanted to relive it, you wanted to smell the old smells,” added Rusillo. “We did it once. The guys were like, ‘Yeah go ahead, fine, have a beer on our couch. Is this awesome?’ And we felt so pathetic.”
I worked in college radio and wrote music reviews for the local alt-weekly. Chris Long is among the most famous Virginia football players in school history. We come from very different scholastic contexts, and despite that, we can find common ground in being kinda drunk and disturbing the peace at a legendary address in our personal histories.
The same is true for many, many others, too. One guy tells me that he remembers banging his fingers against a keypad lock in the middle of the night, desperately trying to punch in the code he knew by heart to an old college pad. (The code had been changed since he moved out, but he still tried.) My favorite anecdote, however, belongs to Gabe, a 30-year-old multimedia producer whom I was friendly with in school. He lived in a duplex with four friends that sat across a set of railway tracks from one of Austin’s finest dive bars. He explains that he still frequented that bar in post-grad life, so inevitably, he found a weekend where his curiosity got the best of him.
“It wasn’t until I hit the doorbell that I started thinking critically about what I was doing or what I’d say,” he tells me. Nobody answered, which he says was probably for the best. Instead, he took a moment on the porch to marinate in the chaos of his era and bear witness to the evidence that a slightly younger tribe of college students was enjoying its own brand of debauchery on his burial grounds.
“When I felt confident nobody was coming to the door — or coming home — I took a little stroll around the rest of the house. It was kind of a mixed bag of nostalgia, honestly, thinking back to all the antics we’d gotten up to there,” he says. “The porch steps where I’d left out a box of deli meat to attract possums and raccoons for domestication. The tree where our friend projectile vomited, 30 seconds after arriving at our house and immediately chugging a beer. The fence line where another friend had hurled into the neighbor’s yard what remained of a pumpkin pie after five months of coalescing in a forgotten kitchen cabinet.”
Honestly, Gabe was lucky. Unlike me, he wasn’t forced to experience the withering stare of a resident undergrad, the kind that will send you into a cataclysmic spiral, as you consider how there will always be people younger and cooler than you, which was never a problem when you, yourself, were in college.
On the other side of things, Gavin Jenkins, a 39-year-old writer in Pittsburgh, actually had it way worse than me. One night, during a seismic blackout not long after graduation, he made a phone call to the landline connected to his ancestral campus townhouse, and left a “long, rambling answering machine message.” Jenkins completely forgot about it until a couple of months later, when he was on campus talking to a group of people. He told them where he used to live, and his worst nightmare came to life: “A woman in the group cut me off and said, ‘Oh my God, I live at that address. You’re the guy who left a message!’”
“My first thought was, ‘What? No.’ Then part of it came back to me. I felt so embarrassed. I wanted to run away. She said, ‘My roommates and I played it so many times. We laughed so hard, thank you so much,’” Jenkins continues. “The other people in the group started to demand to know what I’d said on this answering machine. I stood there in horror as she imitated me. Their answering machine didn’t have a limit to how long the message could be, so apparently I rambled drunkenly for quite a bit. She said it was funny and her and her roommates enjoyed it. But I was mortified listening to her recap what I’d said. I forget all the details, but I remember she said I described which bedroom ceiling panel I removed to hide weed, and where in the stairwell railing I’d carved my name.”
Today, Jenkins tells me that he looks back at that time as one of the darker chapters of his life. He was unceremoniously thrown into the working world, and processed that trauma by glorifying his undergraduate years. “I wasn’t adjusting to adulthood properly,” he says. “I think wishing I was back in college was just how I projected that problem.”
One dumb phone call isn’t a crime, of course, but it should be noted that intruding on a former apartment, no matter how sentimental you might be, isn’t the most tactful thing you can do to the current inhabitants.
Colton Kidd, a 32-year-old graphic designer in Texas, tells me about a night 10 years ago when he and his friends were playing Halo at 2:30 in the morning. “Suddenly, a figure appeared in the open doorway, casting a long shadow as he blocked the outside lights. Somebody pressed pause on the game, and we all turned to look at the intruder. It was a man in his late 20s who looked like he could barely stumble around under his own power. He had a big vacant expression and slurred that he used to live in our house when he was in college,” Kidd remembers. “We all exchanged glances about what a weird turn this was. Even though we were all drunk and very friendly guys, this was somehow a breach in decorum. The guy was waxing semi-poetic about his experiences in the house. He then said he really missed the house, and would we please let him crash there that night ‘like old times’?”
Kidd and his friends turned him down, and the stranger nodded and walked away back into the darkness. It was a frightening experience. Just because you lived off-campus for a few years doesn’t mean you have a birthright to turn up whenever you’re feeling pensive. Still, Kidd is broadly sympathetic to the stranger’s motivation. “It seems obvious to me that a lot of guys would romanticize that part of their lives — before the pressure of careers, marital expectations, child-rearing and maintaining good friendships while the weight of the world is on your shoulders,” he explains. “I could totally see that motivating someone to revisit that point in their lives in a very physical way — while drunk — by returning to where they used to live.”
There’s obviously no way to prove this scientifically, but the campus reconnaissance missions on which Gabe, Jenkins and I have embarked do seem to be a uniquely male trend. I’ve never heard of a woman returning to her college haunts as a way to offer penance, and generally, I think the type of forlorn, misty-eyed myth-making about college being the best time of your life is most often proselytized by sad, stodgy dads. Women certainly reminisce on their untethered glory years, but rarely, I gather, do they miss it enough to trespass onto private property. “You’re probably right that it’s a male-centric phenomenon,” Gabe agrees. “I was actually asking around in my social circle, and while the men kind of nodded in various understanding ways, the women furrowed their brows and had physically adverse reactions to the idea. I think it’s a coming-of-age thing for a lot of guys.”
I’m speaking solely for myself here, but if I were to put words to whatever impulse pulled me back to that condo on San Gabriel Street, I’d describe the feeling as grief. In the years after college, I’ve grown into a smarter, more confident and less panicky person; I’ve accumulated enough trauma to know how rarely things actually matter. If only I could have informed the 19-year-old version of myself how quickly collegiate anxiety atrophies away, and how many more lives I had yet to live, I would’ve been such a happier kid. Essentially, then, I wanted to apologize to him for all the stress he went through, and thank him for the things he taught me — at the address where he still remains.
“Even though I acted like a maniac sometimes in that house, and did stupid things, and made stupid decisions, that growth catapulted me toward the wiser, more mature self I am now in a way that I didn’t experience anywhere else. A lot of that is probably because of the people I was living with, and the regulars that would always wander through the front door and sleep on the couch. But when you package all that stuff up, there’s a photo of that one house on the label,” Gabe concludes. “I’m not sure that I’d want to change any of the broad strokes. I feel an inner peace that, in my own way, I left a mark on a place.”