Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

College smell

If I had to pick a smell to describe my first week of college, it would probably be bleach. Not straight-up chlorine though – that crystallized blue powder stuff that’s in a blue box and you pour into the machine, regardless of color. The cheap cardboard box split apart when I pushed my thumb into the spout thingee, and I had to pour the remaining powder into a bag. For weeks, the only thing I could smell was the pleasant chemical odor of a laundry room, and that’s the smell that always transports me back.

18 years ago, I loaded my crap into my dad’s truck and we drove south to my new home. The whole back-to-school thing always held a certain allure to me: brand new bluer than blue Wrangler jeans, the new Trapper Keeper, a collection of pens, pencils, erasers, and whatever else I could con my mom into getting me at G.L. Perry. Later, after years of the same classroom, the same teacher, and the same 30 like-aged kids, I got to pick classes, and see new people as the periods progressed in the day. Later, I looked forward to the new crop of freshmen, and more specifically the new crop of freshwomen, hoping maybe one of them wouldn’t think I was a doofus. (No dice. And this was before being a doofus was cool. Dressing like Beck back then would certainly get your ass kicked.)

But college was an entirely different beast. First, my parents generally didn’t give a shit about what I did or didn’t have for school after about the fifth or sixth grade. But suddenly, it was like they were sending me off to war. They read checklists and compared notes with other parents, and actually studied those stupid lists that dorms sent containing what you might or might not need. I got a microwave and a little fridge. All types of foodstuffs and laundry supplies and showering equipment and personal care products got socked away, like I was planning a voyage to the New World in a leaky boat.

So I had all of these gadgets and supplies. And don’t get me wrong, these were not all-out kits designed to last me forever. When I say personal care products, I mean a three-pack of Dial, a bottle of Prell, and a tube of Crest, not the complete Bliss for Men catalog. And a lot of it was cool, but I also found that I didn’t need a lot of it, and could have used other stuff more. For example, I didn’t need food, because I lived in the dorms, and we had a meal plan. I probably should have brought a TV. I guess a computer cost more than a semester of tuition back then, so that would be too much. Also asking mom to pack the 100-count thing of Trojans would not have been a great idea. (Actually, buying the 100-pack would have guaranteed that I never got laid, ever, and that everyone else on my floor would scamper over when the third base coach was waving them in so they could “borrow” one. Not that you’d want the borrowed condom back. I mean, unless you’re into that sort of thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that I guess.)

The big thing that made those first few weeks magic was that everything was completely new. Not only had I always lived under the reins of a parent, but that also sets a precedent for the general paradigm of your life. You wake up in your parents’ house; you go to school; you come home for a minute; you go to a part-time job; you sleep at your parents house; repeat for four years. When I got to college, there was no structure, no predefined pattern. You stayed up all night, you got up super early, you had cereal for dinner, you went to a girl’s place to “study”, whatever. It seems trivial to think about it, but it was like throwing a bunch of Amish into a battle in Vietnam.

It’s no secret that I completely fucked up on this structure shift. (Probably the only thing beneficial that came out of this was that I hunted down a copy of _Slaughterhouse 5_ from the main library, because someone told me I would dig it, and I read the whole thing in a night and planted a little seed in my brain to come back later and write.) But the first few weeks of it were pure magic: going for walks at midnight after studying, hanging out in other peoples’ dorms, sitting in the grass outside of the union reading. And everyone was new, different. It was commonplace to get in an elevator and ask someone else their major or their hometown. I can’t imagine doing that in real life, but in the first month I met people from hundreds of cities. There were lots of people from Indianapolis, but I’d meet freshmen from North Manchester and South Bend and New Albany and Shelbyville and Paioli and Terre Haute. I eventually learned enough geography that I could usually figure out where a town was without thinking. (“Munster? That’s next to Hammond, right? A guy in my Spanish class is from there.”)

Back to gear: when we moved into the dorm, there was a “welcome pack” for each person in your room. It consisted of a bunch of trial sizes, like shampoo, razors, and Advil. It also contained both a NyQuil and a Scope, and allegedly if you drank both real fast, you’d cop a mighty buzz. But this was the beginning of the era when companies found it really profitable to prey on college students, and this collection of stuff was the first step in that direction. We also got a lot of desks in the union with people from Bank One and the credit union and of course all of the credit card people, and they lured in freshmen for that first dip into the world of plastic. I know that know this sector is huge, and every possible company is out there ready to tattoo their logo on your forehead when you come in as a freshman. But in my four years of high school, the most we ever got were DARE book covers and maybe pencils from the National Guard, so that freshman blitz was like a goldmine to me.

I forget where I was going with this, other than to think a little about 1989. Oh shit, I remember! The bleach was actually detergent – Cheer. Blue box, I think they only sell the boxes in laundromats these days, and the liquid in the store. But if you find a box in the store, rip it open and take a deep whiff, and that’s September, 1989 for me.