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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A real special place

By Francis J. Connolly

"No ivy." That's all Carlo thought when he pulled up to 8 Prescott St. the first morning he came to Harvard, and he was upset. Carlo, who was from Jersey City and was in love with physics, Frankie Valli albums and Ali MacGraw, had come to Harvard because he wanted to like Ryan O'Neill in Love Story. But in Love Story all the buildings had ivy, not to mention wood panelling and fireplaces and young women like Ali MacGraw. His new "home" had none of that--hell, it didn't even have a name, only an address. It had taken Carlo a while to realize that 8 Prescott St. wasn't just the place you went to pick up the key to your real dorm, and when he finally figured it out he felt somehow cheated. If this was Harvard he might as well have gone to Rutgers.

Carlo wasn't used to such disappointments. Back home in Jersey City he had been a real hot shot, the greatest thing since canned beer. Physics, chemistry, math; Carlo's entire life had been a segies of equations in several variables, and he had never had any problems solving them. All that stood between and a life of designing fighter planes for Grumman Aircraft was a four-year stint at college. And so he came to Harvard to pick up some culture and a little polish and a pretty girlfriend. Carlo had no pretensions. But he set out to learn a few. And what better place to learn them than at Harvard, with its musty classrooms and its big-shot professors and its hordes of rich preppies who all wore alligator shirts and drank fine Scotch before going to class? Unfortunately, 8 Prescott St. was not a very good place to learn pretensions.

From the start, Carlo had a tough time adjusting to what struck him as a strangely proletarian Harvard. Not that he had no sympathy for the working class--Carlo's father was an electrician who worked for the union and made good money, but not good enough that he could throw it away on his son's snot-nosed college unless there was a damn good reasons. But there was a good reason. Carlo's father, a leathery-faced Sicilian immigrant named Luigi--call him Lou--wanted his son to grow up to be a cultured gentleman, to smoke cigars and read good books. Lou knew a lot about Harvard, he had seen the picture of the bell tower on the glossy catalogue cover, had read every Louis Auchincloss novel, so he was sure it was a classy place. And he was shelling out 7000 bills a year so his son could absorb a little of that class. Carlo knew all that, and figured at least the housing office could have given him a roommate who had gone to prep school.

No such luck. Carlo met his rommmate later that first night when he came back from the movie and found a pudgy kid with fuzzy hair and a New York accent sitting in his room playing poker with the people from down the hall. The kid was wearing a blue corduroy vest and a T-shirt from his neighborhood volunteer fire department, and he was drunk enough to be smoking a very cheap cigar without realizing it was burning a hole in the vest. The kid's name was Larry and he dad gone to a Catholic high school in Queens without hating it. To Carlo, who for the last seven years had managed to slip into the corner drug store every Sunday while his parents thought he was at Mass, anyone who liked Catholic school qualified as a certifiable madman. Even worse, the kid liked baseball and drank beer like a walking keg and though St. Paul's was a cathedral somewhere. No pretensions, no class. From Day One it was undeclared war.

Not that Carlo didn't try to fit in at first. Prescott St. was an all-male dorm, and natural selection took a heavy toll: either you learned to like beer and Monday Night football or you perished from sheer loneliness. So Carlo sipped his Budweiser and learned to hate Cosell, but all the time he wanted to be cruising up the social ladder after some debutante, wearing topsiders and down vest and talking like a Cabot. The problem was, he stood in the middle of the battleground.

On one side were Larry and the rest of the plebeians, who sat around in the proctor's room watching the game and who always cared who won. On the other side were the handful of full-blooded preppies, the ones who dropped in after the punch and only cared who won if they had a ten spot riding on the outcome. Carlo had no excuse to come in late and he had neither genuine enthusiasm nor money to bet, so he didn't fit in anywhere.

His proctor didn't help much, either. Carlo's proctor was a paunch, balding Deerfield grad named Nick who worked in the dean's office; he looked and sounded like Ed Mac-Mahon with a Boston Brahmin accent. Nick used to travel around the country and would lend his room to the preppies on weekends, who in turn used it to entertain young ladies of impeccable breeding and not-so-impeccable morals. Carlo felt very uneasy around Nick, and as Nick felt very uneasy around any outsider who knew what went on in his room over the weekend neither of them made much of an effort to communicate. Their meetings became like a Richard Nixon press conference: strained, formal and eventually, no longer operative.

The breaking point came in early February after Carlo had just finished acing his finals. Everyone else in the dorm, preppies and proles alike, had respected the sanctity of the Gentleman's C, so the kid from Jersey and his grade-point average were about as popular as Pharoah in the Moses household. It's not just that Carlo was a nurd. Sure, he had spent an entire summer doing medical research at some institute where they paid you per dozen rats you managed to infect with assorted communicable horrors, and said he actually enjoyed the stay at "cancer camp." (That story had something to do with it, of course. Pre-med fever ran as high in Prescott as in any other freshman dorm, and even the most casually ambitious protosurgeon could develop a hatred for someone who seemed more at home in a laboratory than the Bunsen burners.) More than that, though, it was Carlo's attitude: he couldn't stand the unsophisticated people like Larry who were supposed to be "his people," but he could never penetrate the curtain of nobles se oblige that the born-to-the-manor types put up. Even the crudest preppies--the hockey players who had gone post-graduate at Andover for a year, the ones who wore the old school but still used "very" and "fuckin" interchangeable--they never accepted him, either.

So after half the dorm went donw in flames on the Nat Sci 3 final while Carlo was calmly equating his way through Chem 10, hostilities broke out. One of the hockey players, a monster from South Boston who had really wanted to be a doctor but found it interfered with his slap shot, carried a particularly heavy load home from Father's Six one night and stopped in front of Carlo's door. "Fuckin' wonk, I'm gonna major in psychology now, so there," he announced. The opening salvo fired, he and everyone else whiled away the next four months by greeting Carlo with a familiar, but unusually inspired, assortment of applie-pie beds, shaving-cream beds, cold-pizza beds, and all the other ingenious tortures you can learn in six years of prep school. Carlo finally got the message. Chastened, he carted his sopcial pretensions back into his room and spent the rest of the semester alone with Einstein, Planck and the Four Seaons' Golden Vaults One and Two.

Fate hadn't finished with Carlo, though. That spring she tapped Bruce Collier on the shoulder, whispered in the housing czar's ear, and arranged to have Carlo exiled to Mather House for the next three years. Still none of the Love Story trappings and to top it off, he'd have to take a bus to civilization every morning. For Carlo, who took the news like someone who's just seen the doctor chuckle at the results of his V.D. test, it seemed like he never should have left Jersey City. Hell, he figured, "I could have lived at home and still not had such a long commute to the Science Center."

So when Carlo's parents came up to Boston to take him back to The Concrete State for the summer they were surprised they still had a son instead of the Brooks Brothers ad they were expecting. Carlo's mother, who had always had her doubts about Harvard and who never liked Ali MacGraw to begin with, put the proud-mother beam on to full candlepower. But Lou, who just put a second mortgage on the house and was working overtime and even moonlighted as a cabbie in the winter wasn't so happy. How come he had put out so much good money and still had a son who looked like his brother Tony's kid, who was a high school dropout and wrecked people's cars for the insurance when he needed extra cash?

He stayed confused after Carlo gave them a tour of the campus. Lou's taste in architecture was limited to red brick and lots of chimneys, and he had really loved the picture of the bell tower in the catalogue. He couldn't figure out why people thought it was so funny to spend a few million on a Science Center that looked like something the Inquiring Photographer might use. The Union dorms didn't do much for him either--the nicest building in the neighborhood, he concluded, was the Elk's Lodge across from Pennypacker. After meeting Larry, who was well into his fifth Budweiser since lunch, he wondered out loud that maybe the Elk's had a classier clientele.

But it was Mather House that ended the discussion. Lou had fought in World War II, and even if his side lost he still had a good eye for bunkers and pillboxes. The concrete flanks of firebase Mather looked painfully familiar, especially for the kind of money he was shelling out for the kid. Not a bell tower.

"Seven thousand dollars," was all Lou would say for the first half-hour. Mrs. Lou, a long-suffering woman who had spent her life finding silver linings for all her husband's clouds, went into a spiel about the nicer attributes of modern architecture and how, after all, Carlo was still at Harvard, surrounded by brilliant people living the life of the mind. Besides, she added, pointing out the charming bastion of ruggedly individualistic capitalism occupying the opposite street corner, there's a superette nearby so Carlo won't starve when he's up late studying.

Lou calmed down a bit and the three strolled over the superette for a can of soda. Inside, the usual crowd of truckdrivers was standing around mumbling strange things to the owner, a short Greek who wore sunglasses even when it rainzd and who smiled like Art Carney. The first thing Mrs. Jou noticed was that the truckers were all standing by the magazine rack, taking in the heavy-duty porno mags. The first thing Carlo noticed was the de luxe C.B. next to the rack into which one of the truckers was reading an excerpt from the Hustler letters column.

The owner greeted them with a full blast of Art Carney and C.B. talk: "Ten-four there, good buddies, can I help you? For sure, it's a hot one there."

"Seven thousand dollars," Lou replied.

"No sir, that's a negatory there, sir. But can I help you with it, good buddy?"

Carlo had engaged one of the truckers in a Consumer Report analysis of C.B. sets, but Mrs. Lou noticed his eye drifting over the magazine rack. She nudged Lou, who turned on the owner with a new line:

"You oughta be ashamed to have that shit in here. How come you got no good books in here?"

Lou was a peaceful man, but was guilty of a vicious ethnic stereotype: he looked like someone who broke the kneecaps of people with bad debts. The owner, a man with an obvious desire to die only of natural causes, became conciliatory:

"Aw gee, I'm sorry sir, those are just for me and my good buddies, sir. Not for boys from the College, no spr."

The truckers swallowed funny and Lou glared back, as Carlo realized he would have to go elsewhere forhhis future bouts with the munchies. The snickers worked their way into guffaws and Lou led his troupe out, steam shooting from both ears.

"Seven goddam thousand dollars for this?" Lou took in the whole scene with a sweep of his arm--the superette, the bunker, the parking lot where the '68 Olds sat piled high with Carlo's Advents and his homemade afghan and his old movie posters. "What's so goddam special about this place?"

Carlo had learned enough about the Harvard mystique to take offense at that one, Whaddaya mean what's special he shot back, moving into the type of diatribe they would have loved to hear up at Byerly Hall. You're looking at the oldest-collgein America with the finest-facultyanywhere and thebest-studentbodyaround. It's the people who are important he argued, slowing down a bit as he noticed the cords standing out in Lou's neck, which was purple. It doesn't matter where you live in Harvard, it's who you meet, it's hwat's you learn that's important, quoting what they had told him at the housing office when he had first gone down to complain. That's what's special, he said. People count, not buildings, and why couldn't his father realize that?

Lou looked over at the fortress walls on one side of the street and then glanced into the superette, where a crowd of Matherites was disucssing the relative virtues of that month's Raunch cover girl. The C.B. crackled and everybody laughed and the owner leaned over to point out the centerfold and Lou shivered like a man who just lost a lot of money betting on a very slow hogse with a very fast bokkie.

"Gee, that's too bad," Lou said, "'cause I could almost learn to like the concrete."

"Now for Chrissake, Dad," Crlo said, and immediately knew he had made amistake. In his family Lou was the only one allowed to take the Lord's Name in vain--it was like a franchise, Carlo knew and you can get in a lot of trouble by messing around with franchises. "I mean, for Pete's sake," he corrected, "it's not that bad. I mean, there are lots of good people here, too. They have these clubs where you can go and it's nice as hell, I mean heck, all you have to do is know somebody in there and then you get punched--that means invited, Ma--and they have dinners every week and everybody wears tuxedoes and they talk about important stuff, not that C.B. junk. And they have parties where lots of really good people come in from other schools, like Wellesley and Smith and it's a great way to get to know the kinda girls you'd want me to know, y'know?"

Carlo had them now, and he knew it. As soon as he started to talk about "the right kinda girls" Mrs. Lou had put on her lighthouse smile, and even Lou's neck grew a few shades lighter. Carlo's parents hadn't even let him see "Return of the Wild" when he was seven because the local Catholic newspaper said it had some questionable "female scenes" in it, so he knew how his parents thought about "the right kind."

"So anyway," he went on, moving in for the kill, "I know this guy, well actually the guy who used to sit next to me in Physics knows him, and he's almost imto the Fox Club, and he could probably get me in, too. I mean, I'd have to get to know him a lot better and everything, but my friend says he's a nice guy, and he knows a lot of people out at Wellesley, too. He's got a car and he goes out to visit his girlfriend every weekend--I mean, he only goes to see her for the days--and a lot of times he takes his friends from the club with him. So next year could be really great, y'know?"

As they walked back to the car Carlo felt a little like Rex Humbard, or Oral Roberts, or maybe Billy Graham. He glanced at his mother, who by now was beaming like the lady in the wheelchair who gets up and hollers "I Believe" every night at the Oral Roberts meeting, and at his father, who looked pretty well converted too. In fact, Lou looked like he'd been born-again, all fire and enthusiasm and eagerness to give all he owned for the cause.

"Yeah, I guess it is pretty special," Lou said as he got into the car for the trek back to Jersey City and a summer full of expectations. "A real special place."Tim Carlson, Mark Lennihan and P. Wayne Moore

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