Oberlin Blogs

Living with Strangers

May 17, 2011

Griff Radulski ’14

I don't know if you've ever lived with someone - I hadn't - but it's not what you're expecting. You will spend more time with your roommate than with any other person on campus.1 You will know how he2 organizes his desk and how he likes his coffee in the morning. You might get to know about his favorite authors, his favorite music and what he wants to do with his life. (It depends, first of all, on whether he can pick favorite authors and favorite music and whether he knows what he wants to do with his life, a decision many Obies make halfway through senior year. But you get the gist.)

You are not guaranteed to get along. You're not even guaranteed to talk to each other. But I can guarantee that living with someone else will challenge you and expand your horizons - especially if your roommate is anything like mine. The year is almost over now, and I'm feeling a little nostalgic. I'd like to tell you a little about him, and some of the other Obies I've come to respect and love. Alumni - you'll remember, fondly, friends like these. Prospies, I guarantee you you will make some. Maybe they won't be sweet, smart, Gleeky violinists or high-powered polisci majors with an ardent love for hymns, but they will be bizarre and wonderful and you will love them.

For now, here are mine.

I had already picked my side of the room when Whitman showed up. I was almost surprised to see him - he has no web presence, not even a Facebook, and I had started calling him Whitman, the Invisible Man. He was dressed entirely in black. We shook hands awkwardly and introduced our parents; then I headed for the hills.

I don't know if your first night sleeping in a room with a stranger will seem insurmountably awkward. Mine did, at least to me - I'm sure Whit didn't care either way. I've never moved, and until last August I had lived in a room stamped indelibly with the marks of all my past selves: the hole I dug in my wall with a pencil, the newspaper clippings about Green Day and Manny, the books I had grown up reading over and over again. Now I was living out of boxes with a complete stranger. He had brought a coffee maker and a box of books. I had brought a minifridge.

He's not needlessly smiley, and for most of first semester we hardly talked. But things worked out. Things usually do - even with roommates. Even random ones. I promise.
We're friends by now, and I could write you novels about Whitman. I live with him, after all. Whitman organizes his books by size, from Webster's Dictionary (our Scrabble authority) to Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle. He has a Dubya magnet on his whiteboard which was once surrounded by little hearts and a weak spot for horrible puns and jokes about cannibalism. He wore a three-piece suit on Suit Day. I took pictures.



Whitman is majoring in philosophy and history. He likes rain and long walks, preferably long walks in the rain. He prefers washing pots to standing around getting paid for nothing. It's widely agreed3 that he gives the best hugs. And if you bring him to Ginko Gallery and let him hold a kitten, his joy will astonish you.

My hallmates are also wonderful, and although I can't tell you about all of them, I will introduce you to my friend Peter, who once hit me with a rolling pin7 for hugging him, but is usually pretty easygoing. (Also, he warned me. It was only fair.)

Peter is double-majoring in computer science and something else, but I'm not allowed to tell you what that other thing is. That's because when I was asking him for permission to use the rolling pin story, I also asked if I could tell you all that Peter is double-majoring in computer science and biology and is ridiculously badass, and he told me I could say only one of those things.


Peter plays trombone and electric guitar, but also keeps a mean beat on a drumbox. He is one of countless musical Obies. Every fourth student4 is in the Con, but hundreds more play as a hobby, an obsession or a way to soothe the soul. As I write this, six Keepers are jamming with a visiting band, the Appleseed Collective, who are sleeping in our lounge this weekend. Peter is listening to Meryl relate the larynx story.5 Another musical friend of mine has a room directly above us, and although I can't hear her, I know she's practicing violin because I just went to offer her fresh Keep tasty things.

Her name is Brenna, and she's the sweet, smart, Gleeky violinist from above. We like to drink tea, watch internet TV and kvetch about life. (Separately. Glee time is Glee time.) Brenna's majoring in art history (so far) and maybe history, too. We do homework together often - sometimes that means actual homework, and sometimes I bring my laptop intending to study r- and k-selection and we end up going for ice cream. It's tragic, I know.

Brenna's roommate is named Sam, who might be angry if I tell you true things about her. She doesn't believe them. For instance, she's very sensitive about being compassionate. She is. But she'll deny it. She is also even more badass than Peter (sorry, Peter) and almost-but-not-quite-as droll. She is majoring in history and Russian. Sam plays guitar for me every Monday night and it takes her as long to write the first paragraph of a paper as it does to write the whole rest of the paper. Therefore, distracting her while she's trying to write the first paragraph is generally inadvisable and might cost you a limb.

That might make her feel a little better about being called compassionate.6

Whitman, Brenna and Sam. I think I had just insulted Whitman. Note Brenna's nothing-to-see-here-everything's-normal smile.

I can't fit in all fifty-one other Keepers, but there are a few quintessential Obies that you should "meet." Hannah, occasionally known as the Keep Mom, is a house massage therapist and head cook. She has a tradition of making birthday presents out of Free Box materials. She made Peter a (legless) Peter doll and Whitman a caterpillar.

Meryl is a double-degree student majoring in voice, which is why it's so fortunate that she sings while making us delicious bread. She is ridiculously sweet and friendly, even while stressing or suffering from mono. Rebecca, another double-degree vocal major, has been called "the most bubbly person in Oberlin" and sang a Haydn mass at my church last week to stunning effect.

Mary Claire and Annie L share a south-facing room, which is perfect, because they have lots of plants and are probably concerned about things like Vitamin D. They both care, busily and extravagantly. Mary Claire is an OSCA composter, Annie a head cook, and they are both incredible. Annie was a stag on stilts in the Big Parade, Mary Claire walking beside her:

Mary Claire to the left and Annie to the right are guiding the float along. As a bonus, Sal, the compost coordinator, is grinning and turning the wheels! The photo is © our own Ma'ayan Plaut.

Corey, who lives across the hall, co-taught Odigenous with Mary Claire last fall. (Erika Brandt and I inherited the course! Come check us out at the ExCo fair!) He was our spring semester HLEC and his enthusiasm is contagious. He and Whitman and I went on a nature walk in the rain yesterday, which was enjoyable and hilarious, even the part where we accidentally ate a poisonous plant. We were looking for endangered rock elm so we can save the Great South Woods. But we haven't managed to find any just yet.

Kitty, Cristina and Annie S should not have to share a sentence, although they share a room; but they are all very friendly and creative. Annie made her own calendar as part of her Winter Term study of time; she and Kitty were our house decorators last semester, for 15 minutes of credit each. Cristina makes heavenly granola and has a sarcastic streak shot through with good will. The first time we met outside Keep (mid-Spring), she was astonished. I clearly don't get out enough.

I promise I get out of Keep occasionally, despite Cristina's reaction, and my ECO friends and Lambda friends also deserve mention. However, that's another blog post entirely, because this entry is nominally about learning to live with - and love - total strangers. So I guess I'll conclude with a little unwarranted advice:

You might be looking a little sideways at your housemates come fall, with their strange accents (or lack thereof), weird clothes (or lack thereof) and proclivities for things like dining-room somersaults and edible-compost-rescuing. But take a chance. Introduce yourself, offer to help carry boxes, hold a heavy door. Cook with people, early and often. (This goes for co-opers and otherwise. Every dorm has a few kitchens as well as the requisite piano.) You might get unlucky in terms of hallmates, but chances are, you will have a wonderful year.

Yesterday, Whitman and I were crewing together with our friend Max. He was feeling a little uneasy about his living situation next year - he got into one of the better dorms on campus, but with "a random guy who seems a little strange."

"Don't worry," I told him. "That happened to me, and look how well it turned out."
"Hey!" said Whitman from the other room.
"The same thing happened to you," I pointed out.
"Well, yeah. But strange in a good way."
"And the same for me. You're strange in a good way, too."
That's how most Obies are, I think: strange, in a good way - quirky, lovable and willing to love you, too.

- -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- - -- -

[1]Don't worry - almost all of it will be while both of you are sleeping.
[2]For the sake of convenience. My apologies.
[3]I asked Peter and Brenna for confirmation as a rhetorical question and this turned into an in-depth discussion, but the eventual consensus was yes, Whitman gives the best hugs.
[4]The official count is 615 conservatory students and 2200 Oberlin students.
[5]I'm not sure you want to know. Maybe later, in an entry on Oberlin secrets. It has to do with formaldehyde. That's all.
[6]After I published this post, Sam, Brenna and I went to Pancake Fourthmeal where Whitman was working. There was a tragic lack of forks, and Brenna and I began attempting to eat our pancakes with chopstick-knives. A minute later, Sam walked up with three real forks.
"Where did you get them?" we asked.
"You don't want to know."
"Sometimes, you shouldn't ask questions. Because sometimes the answer is murder. And knowing the answer might make you an accomplice. So ... think about that."
I don't think I want to know, after all.
[7]"How hard did he hit you with a rolling-pin?" Whitman asked, sounding a little shocked. Maybe I should clarify that it was really a half-hearted hit. More of a tap.

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