A supposedly feasible thing I’ll never do again
Don’t come to college for the answers; the questions have them outnumbered. From the mundane “How can an omnipotent, benevolent God permit evil to exist?” to the pressing “How will I convince employers to hire me with only a degree in linguistics to my name?” to the existential “Will I die if I shotgun my ninth beer in the last 20 minutes?” There seem to be more questions in a day than heartbeats.
Two weeks ago, as I was walking home after a late night in Olin Library, an entirely new question pounced. “Could I live entirely on Danforth campus?” I wondered. It would save a lot of time. No more trudging back and forth between the dorms and classrooms. No more diets of ramen, peas or microwaved dishes topped with suspicious cheeses. No more pillowcases to wash every two weeks and no more walks to the dumpster hauling too many days’ worth of refuse. The more I considered it, the more I liked the idea. I would live simply, with few possessions entirely contained in my backpack. This asceticism, I believed, might even produce a spiritual epiphany that the material attachments of dorm life normally prohibit.
As it turns out, living for even five days on the Danforth Campus nearly killed me. I had to cheat just to scrape a few hours of sleep every night, and I’m still not sure which memories were real or imagined. I thought the experience would have some mystical property, an answer to a question I hadn’t discovered yet. Instead, I returned to my dorm a broken and sad correspondent.
Should you consider living in the library or any other building on campus, whether out of desperation during midterm season or on some hokey spiritual quest, arrest this delusion. Sustained stays in Olin should be avoided. Take the experiences of this wearied journalist as a warning, and heed this cautionary tale.
I started by drawing up a set of rules:
- I must not return to my dorm between 9:30 a.m. Sunday and 2:00 a.m. Friday (the hours of continuous operation of Olin Library).
- I must sleep only in Olin Library, not in Whispers.
- I must maintain a normal hygiene regimen.
- I must carry my supplies for the week at all times.
I packed some necessities:
- A one-liter Nalgene with toiletries like my toothbrush and razor. The Nalgene also doubled as a water bottle.
- 2 bandanas. I used these mostly as blindfolds because the lights in Olin never go out. But they also were packed to tame loose, unruly hair or support an arm in case of a fractured clavicle.
- 2 pairs of jeans
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 fleece jacket. Had a freak October blizzard hit St. Louis, I’d have been screwed.
- Plenty of epicurean underwear. There’s no better comfort during a week of roughing it than high-thread-count cotton swaddling your nethers.
- All my class materials for the week.
It was the first day, and my excitement was palpable. I left my dorm a little earlier than scheduled, leaving a note on the door to my room. “Dear friends,” it said, “I am living this week in Olin Library for a Student Life man vs. wild feature. I think I have my phone if you need to contact me.” I’m pretty sure that if a court ever committed me to psychiatric care, this note would be damning evidence for the prosecution.
As soon as I hit my first set of stairs, between the Knight Center and the Law School, the first flaw in my plan became pretty clear. I was trying to hoist a week’s worth of supplies, clothes and school materials in a backpack designed to hold a computer, some notebooks, a paperback and maybe a few pencils. Halfway up, the shoulder straps began to dig into my shoulders. I remembered how difficult packing everything had been 20 minutes earlier—would I have to repeat this circus publicly every time I needed some paper for class? Take out each pair of boxers for my English class to observe whenever I had to retrieve the day’s reading? Not to mention, carrying all this stuff would probably deform my vertebral column by Wednesday.
I reached the Student Life office, where I would spend the rest of the day in meetings and editing articles. My fellow editors and I agreed that stowing some effects in the Student Life office would not directly violate the spirit of my mission. This was the first of the rules I would compromise. I left extra books and clothes in the StudLife office, which became a base of operations of sorts for the week. Student Life production lasts way into the night, usually well into the following morning. My first night living on Danforth Campus was technically completed in the StudLife office.
At a little past 2 a.m., I walked with a considerably lighter backpack to Olin Library. I settled into the northwest corner of the ground floor. There I made my camp. I pulled together two chairs and an ottoman—the plush ones with synthetic leather upholstery. I had chosen this corner of the library due to its general obscurity. The only books shelved there are heavy tomes of general reference, which are outdated thanks to Wikipedia. The only people I might disturb, I thought as I settled in next to the “World Book” encyclopedias, would be third-graders on a class field trip from the ’80s. This was some relief, as I was worried about talking, burping or passing gas in my sleep, thus annoying other late-night patrons of the library.
A security guard nudged my chair shortly after 4 a.m. “Excuse me,” he said. “There’s no sleeping in the library past 2 a.m. You’ll have to go to the cafe.” I was too tired to argue, and he was exceedingly polite for such a late hour, so I consented and retreated to Whispers. I slept fitfully for about an hour until the morning cleaning crew began clearing out Sunday’s trash; it’s amazing how much we let the people whom too many of us ignore clean up.
I couldn’t sleep well with the sounds of custodians hard at work. I tossed and turned until the sun rose. I decided to head to the StudLife office and crash on the couch there. It violated another rule, but it was either sleep in the StudLife office or don’t sleep at all. As I left Whispers, some runners passed me, and I hated them for being in better shape than me.
I think I made it to my classes Monday. I don’t really remember. The effects of sleep deprivation are largely dissociative, and the barrier between conscious and subconscious perforates. I concluded that to make it through the rest of the week, I would have to replace my blood’s hemoglobin with caffeine. This might get unhealthy.
I woke up in the StudLife office after a good three and half hours on the couch, which measures only five feet long. Showering in the Danforth University Center was an unexpected pleasure. My first class was at 1 p.m., so I decided I would nap in the chairs of the Level B stacks until then. This was a mistake.
I’m neurotic. Borderline paranoid. I make Alvy Singer look as chill as Cheech and Chong. Turns out the worst place to sleep for a sleep-deprived, almost hallucinating nutcase like me is anywhere in public. As soon as the blindfold fell over my eyes, anxieties piled up. Would someone steal my backpack? I could definitely hear my alarm, right? If an axe-wielding maniac burst out of the elevator, would I hear him in time? I spent more time worrying than sleeping, and the last thing I remember fretting about was whether or not the last person who sat in this chair had washed his jeans recently.
Classes were easy enough to get through after improvising an espresso IV line. Necessity is the mother of invention, and decaffeinated desperation is the greatest necessity of all.
Another night in the StudLife office. This week’s quest of spiritual enlightenment through self-denial by now had mutated into a matter of survival. I retreated to the library after class and finally snoozed for a while, but only after inventing a half-dozen gruesome ways to be murdered in the B stacks. I returned to StudLife for production night, which went smoothly despite my insistence that “Washington University” requires at least two K’s and an F. I was determined to spend at least one full night in the library, and this was my last chance. Around 2 a.m., I returned to Olin.
My blood sugar was now perilously low despite my efforts to treat Coca-Cola as a precious bodily fluid. My food supplies were nearly exhausted, so I fashioned a spear from some broken glass, a table leg and my left shoelace. I planned to hunt varmints: mice, squirrels, freshmen. By this point, I couldn’t distinguish reality from my thought-dreams (remember: the effects of sleep deprivation are dissociative and quasi-hallucinogenic). I still haven’t found the spear, so it may just be a relic of my subconscious, but I’m worried it’s hidden somewhere on Olin’s third floor.
The. Last. Day.
Classes went fine, courtesy of a breakfast of saturated fatty acids and complex saccharine chains. I somehow survived additional StudLife meetings, though I found many jokes disproportionately funny. Watching a video game model of Greg Jennings run with a broken leg and evade Darren Sharper might as well have been the funniest thing I’d ever seen. My colleagues probably believed I was recovering from a near-overdose of a general anesthetic.
My last bit of energy, which I have borrowed from the final years of my life, was spent staring at my watch in Whispers. At 2 a.m., I breathed heavily and began a long walk back to my dorm. I have no class on Fridays. For the weekend, I hibernated soundly.
It turns out that a bed to sleep in is no luxury. A few hours of twisting on library furniture or undersized couches can’t substitute for even a power-nap on a cushioned set of springs framed at twin extra-large. By the time I recovered late Sunday afternoon, many of my notes from the previous week made little or no sense. If ever questions about the extent of your endurance and their mystical spiritual qualities arise, resist the temptation. A mattress may be a material attachment, but it’s also the one answer I need for college life.