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The Four-Year Path to a Quincy Suite

Quincy senior roommates SAMUEL GRAHAM-FELSEN ’03 (left), CHRISTOPHER ROMA-AGVANIAN ’02-’03 (center) and KIERAN FITZGERALD ’03 reflect on their years at Harvard.
Quincy senior roommates SAMUEL GRAHAM-FELSEN ’03 (left), CHRISTOPHER ROMA-AGVANIAN ’02-’03 (center) and KIERAN FITZGERALD ’03 reflect on their years at Harvard.
By Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writer

A witty Californian future politician who revolutionized the Quincy Grille. An often-elusive lover of theater and Irish verse. A soft-spoken director and musician from Ohio. A die-hard Celtics fan who hopes to right injustice through documentary film. A thrill-seeking Bostonian who spent a summer investigating the patterns of Dominican migration. A government concentrator who wants to understand race relations. An aspiring human rights lawyer from England. A musician with a passion for linguistics who makes sushi and memorizes Beatles trivia.

This is the story of eight seniors—Justin A. Erlich ’03, Kieran Fitzgerald ’03, Anthony J. Gabriele ’03, Samuel Graham-Felsen ’03 Christopher Roma-Agvanian ’02-’03, Aaron R.S. Rudenstine ’03, Daniel J. Stewart ’03 and Nicholas Z. Topjian ’03

These roommates have created their own lingo, briefly owned a balcony hot tub and lobbied successfully for the wall connecting their suites to be knocked down and replaced with a door. Their collected stories span the globe—from riding camelback together in Morocco, to sitting on top of a speeding bus in Haiti to living in a 300-year-old hut in Japan.

They met as first-years through a series of coincidences. Sam, Daniel and Justin all lived in Canaday. Chris and Sam grew up together. Kieran, Anthony and Nick lived together in Mower, and Kieran met Aaron during the First-Year Outdoor Program.

At first glance, they do not necessarily appear compatible. Justin favors shorts and tank tops, for instance, while Daniel tends toward khakis, leather shoes and sweaters. Kieran often wears a tweed cap and Chris might sport two earrings and a Red Sox jersey.

The work for a photography project covers Anthony’s walls. Aaron’s walls feature photographs of his trip to Nepal, and his own photos of a birthday trip to Foxwoods. Tatami mats cover the floor of Nick’s single, while Sam’s bookshelf includes Marx and Howard Zinn.

From the housing preference form they filled out more than four years ago, these eight have moved beyond differences and disagreements to find friendship in shared humor, politics and intellectual aspirations.

“Everyone does have their own interests, but it’s the overlap that keeps us connected,” Aaron says.

‘Such A Reality’

It’s Thursday afternoon. The senior talent show is scheduled for 8 p.m., and the roommates just got an e-mail telling them that their band, called “The Joke,” is on the program.

Nick, Kieran and Anthony started playing guitar together the night they moved into their Mower triple four years ago. Kieran had grown up playing classical piano, but Nick taught him how to play the guitar.

Their musical tastes intersected in what Anthony describes as a “folksy rock” and soon a room ritual evolved—a nighttime order of Tommy’s pizza followed by hours of guitar-playing.

“It was the most lounge-like social epicenter I’ve seen here,” Kieran says of his first-year suite. “Ultimately, it was a way for all of us to relate. Everyone else had to deal with conversation, but we had music.”

They named their band “Silas,” after a high school friend of Kieran’s. They always wanted to find another name, Kieran says, but none of the options—which included “The Well-Hungarians”—stuck.

While the band didn’t last beyond sophomore year, as Anthony and Kieran became gradually busier with their work in Harvard theater, music continued to tie this group together.

Nick later taught both Aaron and Sam how to play the guitar, and the roommates recently bought Sam a guitar for his birthday. They pitched in to buy Nick a guitar, too, a beautiful green “dream guitar” he’d had his eye on for years. They presented it to him at a surprise 21st birthday party in a New York club.

“Music just brings so much light to the room,” Sam says.

They planned to have a farewell concert—perhaps on the roof of the Quincy library—but on this Thursday they haven’t started practicing and Sam can’t believe they’ll be playing later that night.

He runs upstairs to collapse on one of the many common room couches, picks a basketball off the floor and begins tossing it.

“This is such a reality,” he exclaims.

That’s one of the roommates’ typical phrases, part of a dialect that started in Sam and Chris’s hometown of Jamaica Plain and has evolved in Quincy House.

Chris was originally in the Class of 2002—he hosted Sam as a prefrosh, and jokingly claims himself responsible for his childhood friend’s decision to come to Harvard—but took a year off to travel to Spain and the Dominican Republic.

When he returned, Chris transferred from Pforzheimer House to Sam’s rooming group in Quincy. For Chris, who was used to traveling to the river to see his friends, living in a large group has been a welcome change.

“In Pfoho, I didn’t really have a crew,” he says. “In this room, I can come back and ask, ‘what do you guys want to do?’ It feels much more like a home when I come into my room.”

Part of that feeling of home is the ever-changing lingo that Chris and Sam brought from Jamaica Plain to Harvard. The word “such” is an important piece. Statements like “He’s such a guy,” or “He’s such a kid,” or “This is such a reality” pepper the room’s speech.

“It’s kind of hard to explain and you have to use it in context,” Chris says. The word “such” is “mildly negative, and it has everything to do with intonation.”

Each word has its own, often inexplicable, evolution.

For instance, the roommates use the word “face,” meaning roughly, “to fight.” Originally, “fizz” was the way to say “to fight.” But one of Chris’s friends from Spain tried to use the lingo and mispronounced “fizz” as “face.” This amused Chris so much that “fizz” became “face.”

Few of these words have official parts of speech and many of them are somewhat interchangeable.

The roommates also often insert the letters “ier” into a word. This is particularly useful in curses, Justin notes—like “fierck,” for instance—because it softens statements that could otherwise sound harsh or hurtful.

The roommates have each adopted the lingo to different degrees. Nick, who loves linguistics, is academically interested in the dialect’s evolution. Kieran, an English concentrator, refuses to allow the slang into his speech. Aaron and Justin, in contrast, have seen the terms slip into their vocabulary.

It’s even contagious to regular room visitors. Anthony says he notices his girlfriend describing people as “such a kid.” He can imagine himself in three years, seeing something crazy and exclaiming, “That’s such a thing.”

This sort of language brings the roommates together, Sam says: “It really does make the group, in a way, its own nation-state with its own identity.”

Tearing Down the Walls

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the roommates sprawl across the four grey, red, white and yellow couches in the Quincy 305 common room.

The roommates relate their first impressions of each other and their voices crescendo. Insults fly, punctuated by laughter and clapping at the beginning of favorite stories.

Quincy 305 connects to an adjoining common room in 303 through white wooden doors. On the far side of 303, there’s a blue face painted on the wall. Anthony just started painting one day and his impromptu work took the form of a face.

Behind the bar, in the corner, hangs a Communist Party flag that Sam and Kieran bought on their trip to Russia the summer after sophomore year.

Each common room opens onto the balcony, which holds a grill and a few green and purple plastic chairs.

When the roommates chose these rooms last spring, a wall separated the two and they were connected only by the balcony.

With dreams of a massive, eight-person common room, the roommates began to lobby their House masters to tear the wall down and replace it with a door. Justin wrote a three-page proposal. Anthony was in town for the summer and spent time writing e-mails and scheduling meetings.

“We pretty much showed them how it would work in their budget,” Anthony remembers.

Quincy House Master Robert P. Kirshner ’70 agreed, and the wall was torn down over winter break.

“They did their homework,” Kirshner says. “They were relentless in a nice way. What’s amazing is that they were able to effect change.”

The roughly $2,000 job ended during spring break, when the hole in the wall became a set of white wooden doors.

“We were pretty shocked that it happened,” Justin admits.

Part of the reason it happened at all, Justin and Kirshner agree, was that Justin had already proven himself when he undertook to revitalize the Quincy House Grille two years ago.

“Justin is a very imaginative guy who has a lot of ideas—some of them good—about what we could do in Quincy House,” Kirshner says.

When Justin took over management of the Grille in the fall of his junior year, he revamped the menu to include smoothies, breakfast food and fresh-baked cookies. With a surround-sound speaker system, burger-joint style booths and live student performances, the Grille—with Justin at its helm—became a popular hang-out.

All the roommates have been involved in the Grille, either as employees or as sounding boards for Justin’s ideas.

“One of the things that made the Grille really fun to do was having my friends involved,” Justin says.

The Hot Tub on the Balcony

For Anthony, the way they all lobbied for the door is typical of their style—they take an idea, no matter how outlandish, and follow it through.

It’s a style that nearly got them in trouble earlier this year, when they decided that their balcony would be perfect for a hot tub.

As they begin to tell the hot tub story, the voices boom into laughter. “Oh, that’s classic,” one shouts.

When the group decided to get the tub this October, Justin researched the options and they made the purchase—contributing $80 each—from a Leverett House resident who kept the illicit luxury in his room.

But as they began to brainstorm a list of rules for the tub, the roommates faced a fundamental disagreement between those who believed the hot tub should be for their use only, and those who believed the tub should be advertised and shared.

Soon after the purchase, Chris had a group of friends over. They woke up some of the neighbors, and the roommates feared that the secret was out.

The next day, Chris says, his inbox was flooded with angry e-mails from roommates reprimanding him for breaking the hot tub ground rules. They immediately held a heated room meeting.

As the roommates tell the story now, months later, a few of them laugh about the intensity of Aaron and Justin’s reactions.

They were “just livid,” Chris remembers.

“I told them how I felt, and they might make fun of me for the rest of my life, but it’s based on a firm foundation of friendship and love,” Aaron says. “On top of that, people are always getting angry at each other, and forgiving a week later.”

Soon after, around a friend’s birthday, another group piled into the tub. The water level rose and waves began to cascade off the balcony. A tutor noticed the water and appeared at the door—the hot tub had been discovered.

The roommates dismantled the tub, hoping to find time to resurrect it later in the year. But the weather got colder, and the hot tub is still in pieces—one half of it remains on the balcony, the other lies in the common room corner.

From Quincy to Siberia

As their tales move beyond hot tubs and House life, the backdrop to their stories jumps from one exotic locale to the next.

It was their first group trip—sophomore spring break in Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, Mexico—that brought the eight together.

Justin, Daniel and Sam had blocked together, as had Kieran, Nick, Anthony and Aaron. They all ended up in Quincy House, but while Aaron and Justin knew each other, the others had not moved beyond being casual acquaintances.

Then, Justin decided to organize a spring break trip for the group. They rented a house in Mexico and got to know each other outside of the campus confines.

“That spring break was just the pinnacle,” Sam says. His first-year circle of friends had been limited, particularly in comparison to high school, when he hung out on the weekends with a group of 10 to 15 other friends. On spring break sophomore year, Sam saw the potential for a similar group at Harvard.

“Everyone got excited at the idea that we had this crew forming,” Justin remembers.

The roommates aren’t sure when it happened, exactly, but they link their decision to live together to the friendships that solidified during the Mexico trip.

“When you get out of Harvard and interact socially with people, I find the dynamic much more pure,” Justin continues. “It takes you out of being college friends, and you’re just friends.”

Fueled by his love of travel, Kieran invited Sam along on a trip to Russia the summer after sophomore year. Kieran, an English concentrator, sought to study literature that comes out of oppressed countries, while Sam had a more political interest in understanding the previously communist nation. Kieran introduced Sam to Dostoevksy, while Sam encouraged Kieran to read Marx.

Nick, meanwhile, was spending the summer in Japan, and Sam and Kieran had planned to take the Trans-Siberian railroad to meet him there. Aaron would also fly into Japan, and the four had a joke that they would meet in front of the Tokyo Museum on August 12 at precisely 1 p.m.

When the meeting in Japan did finally happen, only three could make it. The day that Kieran and Sam were waiting to buy train tickets in Moscow, Sam learned that a close friend’s father had died. He returned home for the funeral, leaving Kieran to travel through Siberia alone to meet their roommates.

In the four-day trip through Siberia, Kieran befriended a German backpacker going to work with children in Mongolia and managed to escape from a man he believed to be a member of the Russian mob. He then boarded a train to Mongolia, followed by a 35-hour bus ride through the Gobi desert to Beijing. In this bus, which Kieran describes as the “modern equivalent of a slave galley,” the passengers lay in four-level bunks. They slept with their hands shielding their faces to keep their noses from slamming against the higher bunk when the bus hit a bump. From Beijing, Kieran had hoped to take a boat to Japan, but a monsoon foiled that plan. He flew in by plane instead, and landed in the midst of violent wind.

Throughout Kieran’s ordeal, Nick remembers that he and Aaron kept phoning their friend but could only get through for brief exchanges.

“We’d just hear, ‘I’m coming by plane, or boat,’ then static and a click,” Nick says.

When the roommates finally met in Japan, they traveled together to an island called Shikoku, where they spent six days living in a 300-year-old peasant hut and working the land.

As Nick describes the trip, he decides that he wants to show the pictures in his album.

Before Nick can enter his room, however, he slips off his sneakers. His single is designed to resemble a traditional Japanese room—tatami mats carpet the floor, a bamboo roll-up shade covers his bookshelf, a tea set sits in the corner. He has no bed and no standard-issue desk, chair or bureau. Instead, his laptop rests on a small wooden table low to the ground, and he takes a futon mattress out of his closet each night.

Back in high school, Nick’s interest in linguistics led him to Japan in eleventh grade for a six-week homestay. There, he grew fascinated with the culture as well. Since, he has studied with a sushi chef in New York—a skill that he brought to the Quincy Grille last year in his role as “Chef Niku,” rolling eel and California rolls at the weekly sushi nights.

“When I get into things, I just get into them really passionately,” Nick says.

Evidence of passions is on the walls of each of the eight roommates’ singles. For Justin, it’s colorful paintings he bought during a summer in Haiti. For Chris, it’s posters from Valencia, Spain, where his family is from.

While Chris spent countless childhood summers in Spain, he got to know the country more intimately during his year off in Spain and the Dominican Republic. That year, he also made a brief stop in Morocco, driving one day to the edge of the desert and vowing to return—which he did this past summer, this time with Sam. They drove to the spot where the road ended and rode on camels through the desert.

The roommates say that their travels—which include a road trip to Anthony’s family home in Ohio, regular weekends at Kieran’s house in New Hampshire and Bastille Day in Paris—have deepened their friendships and broadened their views of each other.

“You just find that you’re a different person when you’re not here,” Kieran says, gesturing from his seat on the Quincy balcony to the surrounding campus. “Certain parts of you are just more accessible, more alive.”

Challenging Values

As they’ve journeyed the world together, the roommates have found a shared sense of social justice. But each of the eight envisions different means to righting the injustices they’ve perceived in their travels.

Justin hopes to become politically active in his home state of California. Daniel will pursue a degree in human rights at the London School of Economics next year, planning to become a human rights lawyer. In the short run, Kieran will travel to Arizona and New Mexico to write short stories based on Native American folk tales, and wants eventually to be involved in cinema or writing. Anthony will continue to work in theater and film. Sam wants to travel the globe as a documentary filmmaker. Nick will continue on to graduate school to nourish his love of East Asian studies and linguistics. Aaron wants to merge his interest in politics and journalism. Chris will spend next year working with a nonprofit in Cuba.

These differences are often present in the roommates’ frequent disagreements.

“You can think of our room as four different married couples that have been constantly changing, with divorces, and bitterness,” Kieran says.

Sam breaks the group into two camps—the roommates who are more idealistic and those who are more comfortable to work within an established framework.

This divide manifests itself in anything from small disagreements about wearing a funky-colored rather than a dark blue tie, to larger decisions like choosing to be a politician instead of a documentary filmmaker.

Sam came to Harvard on the heels of a trip to Kenya with a group of high school students working to build a house. On his first-year housing preference form, he remembers, he indicated that he planned to center his college years around political activism.

He expected to be like his father, Michael D. Felsen ’71, who protested outside University Hall during the 1969 takeover. Sam grew up with stories of his father’s refusal to walk across the stage at his own Commencement and his subsequent move to a commune. As a labor lawyer, he came to the Yard to advise members of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM) before their own three-week-long occupation of Massachusetts Hall in the spring of 2001.

Sam attended a few PSLM meetings as a first-year, but it just didn’t feel right—everyone knew each other already, he remembers, and they all seemed to take themselves so seriously.

Sam describes a photograph of his father and his best college friend on their own graduation three decades ago, standing outside Adams with black armbands.

“I feel sort of guilty that I didn’t continue that tradition,” he says. But he’s had time for other things, like his social studies classes and simply enjoying himself. His first-year friends from Canaday, Daniel and Justin, have helped with that.

And in the room of eight, each perspective has enriched the other, Sam says, forcing the roommates to justify their beliefs and assumptions.

“I espouse all these values, but don’t necessarily keep them all—and Justin can point that out better than anyone,” he says. This “hypocrisy” might take the form of criticizing materialism but then springing for a pair of expensive sneakers.

The clashes and compromises have been “important,” Sam says. “In graduating, they can be a little more open-minded, and I can be less flimsy in my values.”

Saying Goodbye

Daniel compares his experience to that of his twin brother, now a senior at Cambridge University back home in England.

He had debated going to school with his brother, but chose Harvard over Cambridge out of what he describes as a “melodramatic” notion that this college would be more exciting.

When Daniel’s brother came to visit, he was surprised by the roommates’ long discussions and debates, because at Cambridge most of his friends spent their free time drinking heavily at the pubs.

On one of these evenings this fall, Aaron remembers, the roommates were sitting on their balcony sharing drinks, casual jibes and jokes.

They hadn’t talked about the impending war in Iraq before, but it was on Aaron’s mind. So he asked his roommates’ opinions. Conversation lingered on until 4 a.m., touching on questions of what it means to be patriotic—for instance, they asked, does patriotism mean feeling happy when Iraqi soldiers die?

“I’ll never forget that,” Aaron says. “I brought it up and they were able to embrace the conversation. It made for a very fulfilling night.”

As the roommates prepare to leave Harvard, they say they will miss these conversations, interspersed as they often are with joking, semi-insulting nicknames and, of course, the Jamaica Plain dialect.

Sam and Nick, who each took a semester off, are returning to campus in the fall for his final term of studies, and Anthony plans to live with them. In the spring, Kieran and Sam plan to intern together in Atlanta at the Southern Center for Human Rights. They hope to turn their experience into a documentary film on the injustices of state-appointed legal representation.

Their trajectories might intersect, but these roommates know that the dynamic of their relationships will never be the same after graduation.

“I’m going to miss long, late-night talks with Kieran on the roof of Old Quincy,” Sam says. “I’ll miss our extended three-hour-long jokes, Aaron’s pumping-up speeches and energy, Nick’s bizarre personality and Dan’s sense of humor.”

He continues, “I could be friends with any one of these guys for the rest of my life.”

—Staff writer Daniela J. Lamas can be reached at lamas@post.harvard.edu.

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