Cooper Chronicles: I.18

(An ongoing series for the month of January, these are letters written to my family and friends during my college years in New York, when I discovered my love of writing.  Introduction here.)

“Most of the people who make it into history are hungry, driven, and not-so-nice.”

-Sue Gussow

after the most stressful week of my life, i prepared to flee home for the winter break.  penley kindly came with me to the bus station — i guess he saw that my psychological state was not-quite-stable — and waited the extra hour with me after i missed the 5:30 bus.  exhausted, we sat down on the surprisingly clean floor of the hallway and stared, zombie-like, at the passers by.  he looked from me to himself a few times, then went and got a paper cup and set it in front of us.  “i want to see how much we can make in an hour, just sitting here,” he explained.  i suppose with my hippie garb and philodendron plant, and his army fatigues, we looked like the kind of people who would be asking for a buck.  but my sense of spontaneity was almost completely depleted after finals week.

the line to the bus depleted into a mob after it left the organized waiting area, and when it started to move forward, i heard a loud exclamation behind me: “you can’t get in front of me!”  i jumped back, startled.  the man who had formerly been behind me brushed past, muttering to himself.  “you’s tryin’ to get in front of me.”  “i wasn’t trying to cut in front of you,” i assured him.  he eyed me suspiciously.  “well, you was movin’ mighty fast!”

i was a little nervous to learn that i would have to arrive at the bus station, in the seediest and most dangerous part of baltimore, at 11:00 at night.  a short, defenseless, free-spirited college girl whose only weapon appears to be a house plant in a plastic bag makes for an easy target.  “yes,” observed penley, “but you come from new york.”  true.  i guess that makes me officially hard- core.

I survived finals week, after all.

those of you who are college grads (or students) can certainly understand that i have very few memories of the last seven days.  they exist only as fragments: hurrying out of the studio at 7 AM to avoid the dean, who comes in every morning to make sure nobody has spent the night there; literature essays written in a stupefied state, dozing off between sentences; a different assortment of architecture students crashing at our apartment every night; “going to bed” referring to a one- hour nap; forgetting to eat breakfast and lunch, and around 7 p.m. wondering what that strange feeling in the stomach means; living off of strongly brewed tea and 4 AM “bagel runs.” 

i’m glad it’s over.  that’s all i can say.  at cooper, there are no tests, and most of the professors don’t give final exams.  that fact is deceptively simple, however.  it means that instead of spending two hours trying to recall terms and concepts onto a sheet of paper, you pin your work up on the wall and stand back while your professors tear it apart in front of the class.  whether they rip you to shreds or exalt you with never-ceasing praise is an (often arbitrary) act of judgement.  if your voice carries the wrong connotation, or you’ve failed to pick up the high-flown architectural jargon that they rely on so heavily, professor abraham can be the scariest man alive.  thankfully, he seems to like raquel and i a lot.  during our last crit, he said everything (including the negatives) with a huge grin plastered across his face.  it made me more than a little suspicious, but i guess blessings come in all sorts of disguises.

i had two final exams this week.  the first was architectural history: we had seven essays, written in class, about slides of historic buildings, and a paper written in advance.  not a bad load, really, but when it was squeezed into twenty-four hours’ time … well, you get the idea.  the second was a literature exam.  i’m proud to say i didn’t study a lick, and besides falling asleep at the end of every paragraph, i think i did all right.

there were other “final things,” too: our individual drawing crits, where the professor selected her favorite drawings for the end-of-the-year show, and a portfolio of work for descriptive geometry (including a carefully constructed lattice, our own design, which took about five hours longer to create than most of us had counted on.)  but the main thing to worry about, of course, was the final crit on thursday.  raquel and i worked feverishly to prepare, doing drawings, sketching, discussing, taking photographs that didn’t turn out, taking more, and generally stressing out.  by thursday we were an emotional heap of rubble, but we had a presentation that was “beautiful,” if a little too artistic for abraham’s taste.  “it’s more like dancing than architecture,” he explained.  we had taken black-and-white photographs of ourselves in dance clothing, then cut our bodies out of the background and manipulated them into strange positions in the cube.  it was great fun, and we decided that when this was over, we would use them for refrigerator magnets.  (we *didn’t* tell abraham that.)  most of the students did okay.  some were pretty severely reprimanded, and one group was told flatly to start over from the beginning.  my friend eliot, who knows more about cooper union’s policy and tradition than most of the faculty and staff there, estimates that one- third of the class will drop out over break.  i think that’s a little severe, but a few will almost certainly leave.

after the crit, abraham invited us all to his studio on Bond Street for a dinner party.  “you’re all twenty-one, right?” he joked.  it was a true European-style gathering — wine, cheese, grapes and homemade stew — and we were free to roam about the lofty space, with low drawing tables, stacks of books (including, for all you CMD fans, a copy of Architects’ First Source, which i was too shy to comment on) and a stereo system playing Billie Holliday.  (also included in his CD collection was a Rolling Stones album, which was just too weird to think about.)  attached to his desks were black table lamps that were lettered, suspiciously, in the same exact style as the lamps in the Cooper studio.  one wonders …

the semester is over.  one-tenth of my undergraduate career is behind me.  has it really happened so quickly?  i feel as if i didn’t learn a thing, but also that i learned much too much to even imagine.  now i look at the month before me — thirty days, nothing to do in them but what i want to do.  i’m going to work, but having a job (at least, at my level) is so different from being in school.  you can leave your work at the door, go home and relax and forget about it until tomorrow.  and other than that — well, i hope to get a lot of reading done.  and i *don’t* mean textbooks.

well, dear readers, i think it’s time to give the Chronicles a break.  i won’t be in the city for the next month, anyway, and we all know that there’s *no* possible writing material in catonsville. :) i shall resume when school does, and you can spend the next month in a safe haven from my random thoughts and long-winded histrionics.