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April 1, 2001

A note on humor

The Johns Hopkins News-Letter

"Well … I guess it's not as good as Yale or Princeton. Certainly not in the humanities and social sciences." He nodded sagely, conceding the point. And he looked across the table at me seeking agreement, encouragement. He lifted his coke off his freshman chem book and stared into it for a moment. I helped him out. "D'you apply to Harvard and Yale?" I asked.

"Yeah—waiting list at Harvard," he looked up again, with a wry smile.

He was from my home town, you see, and I'd known his big sister and when he came to Hopkins, she said, he should give me a call. He'd called the day before and here he was buying me a coke in Levering Hall. He hadn't gotten to Levering much his first semester at Hopkins. Freshmen don't, generally.

You could tell he wanted to know about it. He looked around a lot. That was it, you see, he wanted to know but couldn't ask the questions and I wasn't sure I could tell him.

I knew, of course. Seniors do, generally. I knew all about Hopkins. But how would I tell him? I knew what I wondered when I was like him, sitting with a guy who my brother knew. I was worried then. I hoped that Brookings wasn't much better than SAIS. I felt guilty when the new Newsweek arrived in my box and I hadn't even opened last week's. I was shocked that I could do the schoolwork—it should have been impossible—I would have to do better next term.

So I bought that guy a coke and watched as he threw his notebook (one small one) onto the table as only a senior could. I set my armload down in a chair and I wanted to ask—I waited for him to tell me.

And now I knew how he felt. What could we say? Susan Boswell understands? Dr. Johnson is very concerned? The Hospital doesn't matter? Goucher chicks are afraid? Calvert Street is a jungle? Anuj Mittal can't get it up? BME is bad for you? Will Terrace feed you? Dr. Leslie is a teacher and Allen Grossman is very enthusiastic? The Beach is dead?

So I asked him, "How do you like Hopkins?"

"It's O.K., I guess. I've been thinking of transferring if I can get into Harvard but I haven't decided yet. It sort of depends whether these three guys and I can find a good place for next year." We'd been silent for a minute or more and he seemed glad to be talking again.

He met my eyes as he swung onto firmer ground. "I've got to get out of the dorms, you know? It's really a drag there. People are really going crazy."

I said I knew.

He looked up at the clock and started piling up his books. "Hey," he said, "do you know where I can buy some speed?" I told him I'd look around. He said he'd call me and then he left.

He wouldn't call; I knew that. I hadn't been any help at all. But honestly, what could I have done? He'd find out all right, I guess. But he'd be just as unable to tell you.

It made me laugh. I laughed for him and I laughed for me until the tears rolled down my face and everybody had looked.

I laughed for Bunting-Meyerhoff's immigrant faith … Leslie and his middle-class angst … the Barnstormers and their beautiful acts.

For the graduate wives and their cookbook cuisine. For Levering Hall and it's rusting machines.

For Bryant and Benn. For Amanda and Sara.

For Shaun, Harpriye, Hari, and Andrea. And I laughed for Zack Pack.

For Sharon Kugler and her relevant faith. For the Lower Quad and its now absent machine. For Gutting and Langbein, for Barakat and Short, and for the school which didn't seem to have time for them any more.

For lab manuals and calculators … for trade books and textbooks and notebooks and blue books … for the books the assistant professors are writing.

I laughed for DSAGA, for SAC, StuCo, the Standard, Mike Little, WGS, the Lax Team, Vox, the News-Letter, Hullabaloo and the old Blue Jays.

It's funny, you see, or it seemed so at the time. It's funny in its scope and frenzy, from a worried freshmen looking for speed to an anonymous donor giving us bricks.

Humor on the grand scale. Humor as only deadly serious men can produce. Humor … you see?

—with grateful thanks to the Hullabaloo staff of 1971

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