Remember When Roommates Were Random?

I came across an article the other day, “When Roommates Were Random,” that discussed the recent trend of finding one’s college roommate on the Internet.  Apparently, the moment that high school seniors get accepted to their school of choice, or safety school if they harbored illusions about their own talents, they go onto Facebook and websites dedicated to finding the perfect college roommates.

So now an incoming freshman can match up with another freshman who is not only the same level of neatness, but also someone who keeps the same study hours, who likes the same color schemes, who feels the same way about politics, religion, and the Star Wars prequels.  If you are going to be living on campus, you can find someone who is so much like you that it is well-past midterms when you realize that the reason your roommate gets up and goes to bed at the same exact you do is because you are looking into a mirror.

The housing application I filled out before freshman year asked me two questions: Did I smoke, and was I neat?  I truthfully answered “no” to both questions.

“Great,” I thought, “now they’ll definitely match me up with someone who is just like me.”

The next thing I knew I was standing in front of the dorms on the far side of campus, my new home for the next nine months assuming I didn’t flunk out first semester, which television and movies had told me could happen.  My parents stood beside me, wondering if I was going to be as messy at college as I was at home, and when my roommate was going to show up.  The only thing we knew about him was his name, that he was from Kansas, and that he was getting to campus a few days before me..

A young man who looked exactly my age rode up on a bicycle.  He had brown hair and a healthy look about him.  A very All-American look.  He braked near a bike rack, and I walked over to him and introduced myself.  As we got to know each other, I learned that he ran cross country, and that he ran ten miles at practice every day.  He learned that I had once bought a BB gun to shoot squirrels in my backyard.  Freshman year began, and with cross country practice, the evidence I generally ever saw of my roommate was the growing pile of trash in his corner of the room.

We had been given a small gray wastebasket upon arrival where we could toss our rough drafts of papers or literature from campus groups promising to make us activists.  These wastebasket could be emptied in a larger bin on the floor, but it was all the way at the end of the hallway, and generally I would tolerate a bit more garbage in my life rather than leave my desk and computer and Internet, which I had never used before college, and which, I was discovering, had a lot of interesting things on it.  Since my roommate ran ten or twelve miles a day I figured he would be a lot more comfortable with getting out of his chair than I was, but he too didn’t seem much in a rush to empty his wastebasket.

I don’t know when exactly the garbage in my wastebasket began to peek out over the rim like an iceberg in the North Atlantic.  One day I noticed that I wasn’t so much tossing the garbage in the wastebasket as carefully balancing it atop older layers of garbage.  And that I had been doing so for some time.  I realized what I was doing and was disgusted with myself, and reached a point where I was either going to change direction and throw out the trash, or press on into unchartered territory.  Then I looked over at my roommate and saw that he was doing the same thing, but in sneakers and wrist bands.  “If he’s not doing it, then I’m not doing it either,” I said.  I wasn’t about to upset the karmic applecart in the room.

By Halloween our garbage piles had reached ghoulish proportions.  Mine was already beyond the top of my computer monitor, and by merely scanning the midsection of the mound I could review the last few weeks of my life.  It was a kind of journal, and by turning my head I could do the same with my roommate’s garbage.

I imagined that one day anthropologists would use the empty cans of Dr. Pepper to date my roommate and I and make groundbreaking conclusions about how males aged 18-to-21 lived at the turn of the second millennium.  They would note the matching sets of Nutty Bar wrappers at isolevels of garbage, and conclude that humans were much more do the same thing and conclude that my roommate and I had been eating Nutty Bars at around the same time (assuming a constant rate of Nutty Bar consumption), and the discovery of only one box of Nutty Bars, peeking out from a sub-pile of orientation materials and promissory notes, would lead them to conclude that we had shared the Nutty Bars, giving birth to a new theory of altruism between males aged 18-to-21.  As I let a crumpled napkin flutter down atop the pile, I swelled with pride at my contribution to science.

By Thanksgiving our efforts at balancing in the air were no longer having an effect, and the goal had tacitly become one of containment on the ground.  Our respective monuments had reached a critical mass where the peak could go no higher, and any new additions tumbled down the mountainside to a final resting place by my feet and chair legs.  The ground pile, being shorter, spread in area more quickly.  It was ivy spreading across the floor, around our chair legs, into the bedrooms.  I considered entering it in a student-run art show, but I let the entry form get buried under a family of Little Debbie’s wrappers.

We were too superstitious to clean up the garbage during finals.  That December morning we were both returning to our respective homes for the colossal holiday break, we stood before our respective piles, holding our luggage, and I could tell my roommate was thinking the same thing I was: Is it sanitary to let this garbage dump sit around all break?  For a moment we almost did something about it.  But I think we realized that the thing that had brought us together in the truest tradition of dormitory life—a world-class indifference to filth—we wanted to continue into spring semester.

So we left the room as it was, shook hands, and went off to spend a few weeks in the care of people who would pick up after us.

11 thoughts on “Remember When Roommates Were Random?

  1. All the great things in life come from bad roommates! My freshman roommate was great, until she ended up with the wrong guy from across the hall and things went downhill fast. I will leave out the details. To simplify matters, and have some piece and quiet, I ended up moving in with her boyfriend’s roommate, much to the delight of both my parents and my boyfriend. And rooming with someone of the male sex turned out to be all you make it out to be: piles of garbage and one late-night conversation from our beds across the room from each other about whether the squeaking sound coming from the empty pizza boxes was a mouse or a beaver. I’m not sure why beaver was one of the options we discussed; it’s possible we had eaten too much pizza.

  2. Awesome piece, you little piggy you! And how lucky that you ended up with a Piggy #2 who didn’t want to strangle you in your sleep. Can you imagine if you had been paired with someone with OCD. He would have wanted to kill you.

    My first year roomie was from Northport, Long Island. Wait, I didn’t do that right. She was from Nawth Pawt, Lawngi Lund. She was a soccer player and she had been on campus a full week before I showed up. He had moved in. When I showed up, she decided I had better clothes and that my closet was her closet. I didn’t dig it.

    At awl.

    Still, there was much to be said for these random pairings. And while we aren’t in contact at all anymore — (I have no idea where she landed. In fact, I don’t know what happened to her after sophomore year.) — it was fun meeting an alien cyborg who got up at 6 am to blow dry her hair each morning. But I was really happy to get a single the following year.

    1. Thanks Renee. I guess I never considered the possibility of having to room with someone who did not appreciate the beauty of accumulated garbage. Isn’t a messy desk the sign of genius? Nice work on the Long Island transliteration. I’ve seen “Lawn Guyland” but yours puts an interesting spin on it. And I used to get my hair cut in Northport.

  3. Funny…. I can just picture the trash pit growing day by day, higher and higher. What is is about guys living in a mess, or being clean freaks; there doesn’t seem to be any “in-between”, if I remember correctly.

    My first year and a 1/2, I lived with my best friend from junior high and high school. Now we know that we were risking our friendship, as living together could have destroyed it, but we were fortunate to make it work. I give most of the credit to her; I tend to speak my mind, placing my foot in mouth – all the way to my knee cap. Lucky me; she still likes me!! In fact, we’re still the best of buds. Oh, and we roomed together our last year, as well – geez!

    College was one of the best times of my life, as not only did I learn about the subjects on my schedule, but the people in my life – and a lot about myself. That being the best sociology/psychology class ever offered.

    1. Yes, living with another person is a great lesson in patience and compromise. I definitely learned more from the people at college than I did from the professors. But that might have been because I was too busy looking at the other students instead of listening to the lectures, which were usually boring and not what I was in the mood for at the particular time.

  4. Wow, and here I was thinking that I missed out because I had an off-campus apartment to myself all through college! Okay, I lied. I knew even then how lucky I was. I got to hang out with my friends in the dorm and share in the fun, and then I could go home to my own private little sanctuary. I have to thank my mother for this boon. See, being an immigrant, she learned everything she needed to know about American college life from “Animal House”, so she insisted that I not live on campus to avoid all the bad influences.

    The roommate experiences came later in grad school, but by then, we were choosing each other so it mostly worked out fine. It wasn’t until my second year in Istanbul that I dealt with assigned roommates (the school housed all their teachers in school apartments). Luckily I only had to deal with that for one year and only one of the women I had to live with was a nightmare. She remains the only person I’ve ever known who could make a kitchen dirtier after she cleaned.

    1. That’s funny – I always thought Animal House was a fairly accurate depiction of the American fraternity house. I saw it once and fell in love.

      Your mother probably had the right idea, though. Dorms offer a lot of advantages, but the environment for sustained focus is not one of them.

  5. I didn’t realize the roommate finders were so precise these days, but I guess it makes sense. The randomness was fun though. I remember coming back to school after Thanksgiving break. My roommate had left some nasty spitters in the room that combined with closed windows and cranked heat to produce a horrific smell in our tiny abode. Those were the days.

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