At 11 p.m. last Saturday night, a Harvard College administrator had to stop and wince. He was standing at the back of Redline with an undergraduate, two architects, and an FM reporter, which was weird enough, but not the problem.
The problem was an inch of amber-colored scotch.
“This is the strongest drink I’ve ever had,” he said.
Well, replied the older architect, 20 years his senior, strong was going to be necessary. They were about to go to a “Saved By the Bell”-themed party in Eliot House—and then, according to the night’s agenda, to a Pacific Northwest Club party in Quincy, then to the PfoHo Bell Tower, and then to the Kong, Grafton, and, finally, “late-night @ a super-sketchy Final Club.”
10.8.05 EMBEDDED CAMPUS RESEARCH, the agenda read, printed on official Harvard College stationery. Apparently, some research requires heavy drinking, and why not? The administrator and his entourage—who allowed FM to follow them Saturday in exchange for anonymity—are responsible for transforming Loker Commons into a permanent Harvard College Pub. They decide what it should look like and what social spaces it will provide, and they take the job very seriously. They have already examined blueprints, held focus groups, and investigated current trends in the material science of bar counters.
But talking about undergraduate social life only gets you so far. Saturday night, they were visiting the patient’s sick bed, because unless you watch him suffer, how can you pick the best remedy?
A STIFF DRINK
Of the 10 planned stops on the embedded research tour, in the end the group got to six: Phatt Boyz, Redline, Eliot, the Crimson, the Kong, and Grafton Street. They also improvised. For instance, on the way to Eliot House the older architect heard promising sounds emanating from the Advocate. He motioned to the administrator and everyone halted. Then the administrator walked to the door and tried to convince a bored-looking editor holding a list in one hand and a drink in another to let him in.
“We’ve had trouble with the administration before,” the editor said, puffing his chest and looking detached. “I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.”
Still determined, the administrator tried one more time. But the architect had had enough. Marching up to the door, he summoned a whisper loud enough for all to hear.
“It’s cool, I have some coke. We can just do it by ourselves over here,” said the architect, whose social-mapping skills are apparently just as good as his actual mapping ones. The quip did not change the Advocate gatekeeper’s mind. Earlier, the architect had marveled at Harvard students’ surprising conservatism; he was especially intrigued, he said, by final clubs and other exclusive social venues. The Advocate, the Crimson, the Lampoon, the final clubs, the administrator listed in response; these are the spaces to which the Harvard College Pub will provide an “inclusive” alternative. He had tried to get the architects into more of the clubs, calling final club presidents a week in advance to request invites. Many of the presidents, notoriously averse to dealing with the College, declined.
But some did not, and the group planned to visit at least one before the end of the night.
“I’ll need a really stiff drink before that,” said the architect, learning about the plan. “That’s where it becomes clear that I’m just this sleazy old man.”
“Welcome to my life,” said the administrator, who had a point.
He’s paid to do this—paid to make like a freshman girl and flirt his way into clubs. It’s more than a little creepy, but it’s maybe the single greatest hope for undergraduate social life this side of Phatt Boyz.
Though University President Lawrence H. Summers recently promised an earmark of “several million” dollars to help resuscitate social life, money alone cannot solve social life woes. Loker Commons cost $10 million to build in 1995; the Harvard College Pub will likely cost less but, if student leaders are right, return much more. For that, undergraduates will have a few administrators’ sketchiness to thank.
TO THE KONG!
Rejected by the Advocate, the group moved to Eliot House. In focus groups, the architects explained, students and alumni say they want the new Loker pub to display a classic Harvard aesthetic, with taxidermied animals mounted on dark wood walls. The Eliot House common room had a big-screen high-definition television, a bar, a large neon beer sign, and several girls dressed in ’80’s mod.
A few awkward moments later, the older architect was talking to one of these girls. “I’m so bored right now,” she told him, eyes fluttering upward as she spoke very close to his face. “It’s time to go. I am so bored. Are you coming to the Kong?”
The crowd in Eliot, like most crowds that night, was high on liquor and low on volume.
“Of course,” the architect said. “There has always been a kind of uneasiness about the preamble. You need to insert yourself at the key moment.”
On Saturday, the “key moment” seemed to be about 1:30 a.m., at the Kong, where crowds of undergrads sang along to the Counting Crows and sloshed their drinks on the architects.
“It’s not all about aesthetics,” the older architect observed as an impromptu couple grinded close behind him. “It’s about a feeling of warmth, comfort, of belonging.”
He smiled, looking more out of place and at the same time more satisfied than he had all night. He had not made it to the “super-sketchy final club” he was so curious to see, but he did not seem to care.