My nephew is graduating high school and going to Indiana University to study computer science in the fall, which has set off all sorts of nostalgia triggers for me, as I think about when I made the same journey 247 years ago. My sister updates me on various registration and orientation events and visits and whatnot, asking questions on what dorms are better and where you’re supposed to eat lunch on campus and everything else. I love talking about this, although most of this has changed. Computer science is now in a new modern building that’s built where part of my freshman dorm was, and every restaurant and store I remember has closed or changed names ten times. But the bones are still the same. Kirkwood is still Kirkwood, even though Garcia’s, Spaceport, most of the record stores, and even McDonald’s are long gone.
I was shopping for various graduation gifts, and one of them he wanted was a laptop backpack, which is my forté, given that I buy a new bag about six times a year (in the Before Times, anyway) and I’ve got travel coming up and I’m probably due again. But that got me thinking about my backpack I had for my entire IU journey, as pictured above. There’s a story behind it, of course, and I’ve probably told it nine times, so buckle up for #10.
* * *
OK, so when I was a freshman (and this still happens, apparently) there’s a series of events leading up to matriculation, culminating with class registration. That takes place in the summer, maybe in July. This is a bit of an evil trick by IU, because what happens is you go there and they reserve blocks of typical freshman classes, like all the hundred-level math, English, and foreign language classes. They run a special registration and hold your hand and you get all the classes and time slots you want, and it’s easy-peasey. Then when you have to register in the winter for the next semester, you find out that the entire process is horrible, and registration dates are based on how many credits you’ve completed, so you’re dead last in line, and every good class is taken and you end up with an 8am basket weaving class.
Anyway. I had to go down to Bloomington for this thing, and it’s usually a parent/child event, where your folks take you there, and they go to various orientation things that convince them it’s a good investment and their child is safe and whatever, while the new student goes through registration, takes any assessment tests to test out of foreign language or learn how much math they really know, and sits through some orientation things where guidance counselors tell you how important it is to study. Also, some people in specialized programs met with advisors, and music students did their auditioning.
I did not go there with a parent. Every time I write anything about my parents on here, I get in trouble about it, even though I have lived on my own for almost twice as long as I lived with them, so I’ll shut up about it, except to say I had to figure out how to go there by myself. I was 18 and had a car, so whatever.
IU had a deal for registration where they opened up Foster dorm like a hotel, and you could rent a room for some ridiculous amount, like eight bucks a day including food. So even though I had a day and a half of stuff to do, I rented a room on the top floor of Foster-Harper for the entire week. My plan was to drive down the four hours and change, get the registration over with on the first day, and then just hang out all week.
One thing that really stuck in my head about this visit is that it was the only time I had my old Camaro in Bloomington. The Camaro era and the Bloomington era had no overlap, except for that one week. Those are two heavy nostalgia eras, and it’s bizarre to me to think about driving around the IU campus and going to College Mall in that old car. It’s like thinking about Helen Keller and Jimi Hendrix hanging out together. (Technically possible, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen.) It was a bizarre colliding-of-worlds that really stuck in my head.
I loved that week. Bloomington in the summer is always awesome, and I got to explore all those record stores and restaurants and booksellers and everything else off campus, plus wander around the big limestone buildings and wonder what it would be like in a matter of weeks when this place would be my home. If I could re-live any part of my life to experience it again for the first time, I think it would be that week.
I met a lot of music majors during the stay in Foster, because they were all auditioning. That was great, because people come from all over the country to go to IU’s music school, so I was staying up late every night, sitting on the rooftop deck of this nine-story building overlooking the entire campus from the north. I met musicians from places I’d never been, from Boston and Vermont and California and Washington, and we’d stay up there in the cool summer air and wait until midnight when they would turn off the main library outside lights. I didn’t know if all of college would be like this, but I hoped it would be.
(And oddly enough, I had a brief but spectacular relationship with someone who lived on the same floor in Harper a few years later. Another colliding of worlds, and some late nights there, but I was too busy to watch the library lights.)
* * *
So during that visit, I was super amped to buy my books at the bookstore in the student union. I don’t know why, but I really wanted everything in hand and ready to roll for August. (I was the opposite later on, especially when those book costs added up. I remember taking this SPEA class on public management in 1993 and never buying the book.)
I went there with this new friend named Susan, from Dyer, Indiana. (It was always important to find out where people were from, and figure out where that was. “Oh, you’re from Auburn? Isn’t that right down the road from Kendallville? They have that speedway.”) I had my schedule, and could buy like half my books. And while I was at the store, I bought some other IU paraphernalia, like some notebooks and pens, and a backpack.
The backpack was this gray thing, with an IU logo on the front. It was made by Caribou, a company in Chico, CA that made bags for L.L. Bean and others. It was a bit of a knockoff of the JanSport bags that were popular in the 80s, made of 100% nylon. It had a single main compartment with a wraparound zipper, a smaller front zippered pocket, and a pair of very non-ergonomic, barely-adjustable shoulder straps with like a millimeter of padding in them.
Like I said, I used this backpack for the entire time I was at IU. It held maybe four or five textbooks, plus whatever I could cram in the front pocket. That usually held the cassettes I needed to get through the day in my walkman. I usually wore this slung on one shoulder, unless I was on a bike. It was one of my trademark items, as stupid as that sounds. I always had three things with me: my leather jacket, my walkman, and this backpack.
It’s odd to look at it now, compared to modern bags. It’s so small, with no organizational compartments or sleeves or dividers. This was the pre-laptop era, and it was meant to carry books, a few pencils, and nothing more. There were none of the creature comforts that backpacks developed in the 90s and beyond. There were no ergonomics to the straps; there wasn’t a side sling or any other handles; the bottom was not weatherproofed; there were no cell phone pockets or cord management solutions. There wasn’t a side pocket for a water bottle, because this was before we were told to always carry water, and before most people drank 300 ounces of soda a day. It’s so simplistic, and it’s amazing I used it for so long without complaint. It’s even more amazing it still exists.
I can’t think of the last time I actually used this bag. There was a gap of a half-decade between when I went to school and when I had to start carrying a laptop everywhere. By then, I was in New York, and messenger bags were a thing, so I moved on to one of those. I still have it for some reason, probably because I can’t throw it out. I have a lot of stuff like that.
* * *
Also, a spoiler alert. Another reason I am in this fit of nostalgia is I’m going back to school, starting this week. All virtual, so no backpack needed. More details on this later, although this might also mean my already scarce posting might get worse.