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FIELD NOTES: Random Cohabitation

In July of 1980, I received an invitation in the mail. It was from someone named Rod Smith, who introduced himself as my residence hall advisor for the upcoming fall quarter at Ohio University. He invited me to a "small get-together" at his house in Perrysburg for the incoming first-year students on his floor. I'll give Rod credit for trying, but I was the only person on that floor within reasonable driving distance, and I wasn't going to miss a night of work to attend his party. In retrospect, that might have been shortsighted of me. Except for a couple of high-school buddies who roomed together, no one on the first floor of James Hall that September had met or even communicated with anyone else until we showed up a day or two before classes.

Apparently, that's not how it's done these days. I stumbled across a lengthy article from the Ohio University student newspaper, The Post, detailing how to go about selecting and vetting a roommate through social media. The outlined steps make complete sense, but they also resemble online stalking!

My first roommate at OU was a guy named Dave. He was from an urbanized suburb of Cleveland and projected himself as a streetwise "city kid." It was a bit of a pose, but everybody's got their thing. Although we were from different backgrounds and had very different outlooks on life, we got along pretty well. I introduced him to Neil Young, and he introduced me to Springsteen, Michael Stanley, and Southside Johnny. I remember when Springsteen's "The River" came out that October, he stood in line for hours to be the first in line to get it, then came back to the room and played it all the way through a couple of times.

Although Dave turned out to be a decent guy and a good roommate, I'm not sure whether I would have picked him (or him, me) if we'd been able to check each other out on Facebook beforehand. He would probably have looked at my profile and thought, "what a hick," and I would have seen his punk rock haircut and "hard to be a saint in the city" posts and thought, "there's trouble."

On the other hand, a familiar face or two would have gone a long way toward easing my transition to college life. I recall being excited to watch my father and sister pull away in the big red Caprice after dropping me off in Athens. Finally, on my own! I went down to the residence hall's TV room, where a group of new students was watching a college football game. After the game ended, I returned to my 12' by 12' cinder block room and realized I knew no one for a hundred miles in any direction.

I get that for some, that would have seemed like a tremendous opportunity; new people, new ideas, a fresh slate. I get that because it's precisely how I felt a couple of years later when I transferred to Bowling Green, but to me, at that moment, it felt ponderous and a little frightening. I hoped my roommate would show up that evening so I would at least have a living human being to talk to, but when the clock struck eight, I realized I was alone.

Athens, Ohio, is a mountain town, much like Boone is here, and temperatures in mid-September tend toward the cooler end of the thermometer, but not that weekend. It was hot and muggy, there was no air conditioning, and it hadn't occurred to me to bring a fan. I opened the room's single window as far as it would go, but there was no airflow, and the room quickly grew stifling.

As the evening faded into night, some sort of a Bacchanal party/ritual sacrifice started up in the hall, so I wasn't even comfortable going out to get a glass of cool water from the fountain. That was a very long night.

There are things about youth that old folks like me look back on with a mix of bemusement and fascination. The idea of randomly cohabiting with someone is one of those. Today's technology lets students find a roommate who shares their priorities, beliefs, and tastes, but maybe that's what's wrong with our world. Perhaps we lock ourselves in our little rooms with people who look, think, and act like we do and never hear that Southside Johnny song.


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