We Were Only Freshmen 

Each autumn, before a single class is held, all University of Chicago freshmen spend an entire week in orientation. I passed much of the first day standing in line. At the front of one long line, a smiling upperclassman handed me a canvas bag. Inside the bag were pencils and coupons and class schedules and the like, a silver whistle to blow in case you were attacked, and information on the fabulous jobs we could all expect upon graduation.

Also in the bag was a magnet with the number of a suicide hot line printed across the front. You were supposed to hang the magnet in your dorm room, somewhere close to the phone, and call the number whenever you got the itch to kill yourself. Apparently University of Chicago students were always itching to kill themselves. During my four years at the college, three classmates did just that.

The first to go was a boy named Axel. He killed himself with drugs. Just the other day I ran across his photo in my old University of Chicago freshman portrait directory. The small, black-and-white book showed every freshman's name, home address, and photograph. Axel was from La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego. In his photo he wears an open-necked shirt and a happy, sun-soaked grin. He has bushy hair. I imagine his parents took the photo during his high school graduation.

The portrait directory, by the way, came packed in the same canvas bag. Some students thought that like the magnet, it was included to prevent suicides. The theory was that a book of student faces would somehow improve our social lives, and then, with everybody busy on Friday nights, no one would have time to kill themselves. The university was at least partly right. The portrait directory did improve the social lives of pretty girls. Older boys would steal the freshman directories and invite the best-looking girls to dance at their loud parties.

I noticed Axel the first day of orientation. He didn't look like anyone from my high school, or for that matter anyone else at college. He wore a tattered wool three-piece suit and leather-soled shoes. He also carried a guitar. Later, in my sophomore German class, I saw a photo of a traveling carpenter who looked like Axel. Since he himself was of German descent, I suspect his resemblance to a Zimmermangeselle was not accidental. But I never had the chance to ask him. By sophomore year, he was gone.

After the first day, I didn't see Axel much. Orientation week was full of activities, but he skipped most of them. He didn't join us on the dorm-sponsored trip to Nike Town, and he didn't attend house meetings. I don't even remember seeing him during the evening boat tour of the Chicago River. Sometime that week, though, I did manage my first words with him. We spoke at the freshman swim test.

The freshman swim test takes place in the basement of the university gymnasium. Any student failing the test had to complete a swimming class before graduating. Many kids looked nervous, but I doubt they were concerned with passing. Most, in fact, passed easily. The real worry was being seen half naked in a swimsuit. One girl I knew cried later because she had worn a pink bikini while other girls had chosen more modest swimwear. I actually enjoyed the swimming test. I sat in the corner and watched the girls. I flexed my muscles. And as I waited my turn, I spotted Axel in the pool.

Axel was beautiful in the water. He swam like a seal. The tester took one look at him, checked the "pass" box on his clipboard, and yanked him out of the pool. Afterward I approached Axel. His baggy swim trunks clung to his skinny body, and his hair hung in wet ringlets around his neck. He was bent over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath.

"How did you do?" I asked.

He looked up at me.

"I hauled ass," he said.

In addition to swimming, the University of Chicago also tested every student's physical fitness. During orientation week all freshmen gathered in the gymnasium for an afternoon of running, stretching, and sit-ups. Each of these exercises was graded, and the combined score supposedly revealed your total level of fitness. Then, depending upon your score, the gym coach assigned you between zero and three quarters of physical education. One quarter was the best deal. That quarter could be spent ballroom dancing, and the ballroom dance class was filled with girls. This made it the unathletic boy's best chance of finding a date.

On my way to the physical fitness test, I bumped into Axel. I introduced myself, and we shook hands. Then we chitchatted for a couple blocks. Mostly we talked bad about the upcoming test. Axel was carrying a bottle of grape soda, and when we reached the gym, he took a swig, screwed the cap back on, and hid the bottle behind a bush. Then we split up. I headed to the locker room and changed into a pair of mesh shorts. I did some stretching, walked upstairs, and found Axel leaning against a wall. He hadn't changed clothes.

The first test was running a mile. The gym coach instructed everyone to choose a partner and count each other's laps. I grabbed Axel, and we agreed that I should run first. For ten minutes I ran around the track, and each time I turned the corner, Axel smiled and waved. When I was done, he removed his vest, stripped down to his undershirt, and rolled up his pants. He shot off like a bolt. When the gym coach saw him speed by in his leather-soled shoes, he just shook his head. Axel started strong, but by the sixth lap he was winded. On the seventh lap he started walking, and soon after, time ran out. You needed eight laps to pass. I could have lied, but I reported to the gym coach that Axel had only run seven. I don't know why I was such a jerk back then.

At the end of the day, Axel and I left the gym together. He retrieved his bottle of grape soda from behind the bush and took a long drink. Then he lit a cigarette, and together we headed back toward the dorm. Again, we talked bad about the test, but we also discussed books. Axel mumbled a lot, so I didn't catch everything he said.

As we neared the dorm, he asked if I wanted to keep walking to the lake. I did. Together we strolled a couple blocks farther and stopped at the edge of Lake Shore Drive. Axel took a quick look both ways and stepped into traffic. He dodged a few cars, jumped the median, and then sprinted across the remaining four lanes. Axel waved to me from across the road, but I was afraid to follow. He waved again, and I finally jumped into traffic and joined him.

When we reached Lake Michigan, Axel said, "Sometimes you need something you can't see the other side of." I agreed. We sat down on the rocks and considered the lake. Axel smoked another cigarette. Then we stood up and walked back to the dorm. On the way, he stopped along the sidewalk to kick a pigeon. He lost his balance and the pigeon flew into the air. When it landed, it squawked and called Axel names. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. And though I hate to admit it now, I was still trying to impress people by kicking pigeons well into my junior year.

While most colleges begin in late August, the University of Chicago holds off until early October. This means that Chicago freshmen must pass a last, lonely month at home before starting school. While high school friends are off meeting people and drinking beer, Chicago freshmen spend September finding ways to kill time. Many hole up in their bedrooms and worry.

When the school year finally does begin, it's divided into three 11-week quarters. This gives freshmen only the briefest dose of college before they return home again for winter break. That first Christmas I told my high school friends about Axel. He went over big. They had all met some oddballs at college, but Axel ruled the roost. What I neglected to tell them, though, was that our friendship had lasted no longer than a soap bubble. By Thanksgiving Axel and I had become strangers.

Soon after our walk to the lake, I started to plagiarize Axel's look. I began by buying a felt fedora. He actually wore derbies, but the difference was lost on me. I took to wearing the fedora while shooting pool in our dorm lounge, and then, confusing romantic notions of poker and pocket billiards, I matched my new hat with a pair of sunglasses so no one could see my eyes.

I was wearing the felt fedora and sunglasses and shooting pool when I next saw Axel. I called over and invited him to join my friends and me for a game. He removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Then he took a cigarette from his pocket and started to smoke. He looked like a champion billiards player. He looked so good, in fact, that I paired up with him and placed a sizable bet on the game's outcome. And he did not disappoint. He played a beautiful game of pool while drawing from his cigarette and chalking his cue. When it came to actually striking the ball, though, he stunk. On one missed shot, he even went so far as to rip the felt. We lost badly, and after the game I realized Axel was drunk.

A few weeks later, our dorm hosted a fund-raising talent show. A girl sang, some guys dressed up in drag, and someone read poetry. Then, toward the end of the evening, Axel pulled his guitar and harmonica onstage. I hushed my new friends and told them to watch. Onstage I hoped to see the real Axel. I expected his mumbling would give way to beautiful, evocative poetry. But he was drunk again. For 15 long, uncomfortable minutes he stammered and strummed and banged his feet. People left, and someone finally asked him to step down.

Things only went downhill from there. One day our resident heads called a house meeting because someone had emptied a fire extinguisher into the stairwell. To make matters worse, that same person had then scrawled dirty words on the wall with brown shoe polish. Everyone knew it was Axel, and not just because he was the only one who shined his shoes.

Soon after, a story spread through our house that Axel had almost been beaten up at a school concert. He had shown up drunk and pushed himself to the front of the crowd. Then he had started dancing, raising his arms in the air and throwing his skinny body against the other students. Some fraternity boys took offense at Axel's two-step and started to push him around. Luckily some dorm folks stepped in and ushered him home. When I heard this story I grinned. I was still too smitten with Axel's drunken adventures to worry, too busy forging my new wardrobe to care. And though I suspected he drank too much, I wasn't going to say anything. I had no interest in stopping his drinking. If anything, I wanted to match it.

Axel seemed to have some friends in the dorm, but most students didn't really like him. He didn't have much use for them and I suspect not a whole lot of use for me. As the quarter moved on we spoke less and less, and finally, one night I gave up on him. It happened in the hallway outside my dorm room. I was sitting on the floor and talking to my neighbor when Axel got off the elevator and came down the hall. I said hello, but he was too drunk to notice. He stepped over my legs, shouted to himself, and ripped a message board off my neighbor's door. Then, honest to God, he kicked his heels. As he walked away, my neighbor looked down and scratched her head.

The last time I remember seeing Axel was in the spring. That quarter I had been noticing him around the dorm less and less, and when I did see him, I avoided him. Then late one night I found him sitting on a windowsill in the dorm lobby. He was shivering. His eyes were dark, and he looked terribly skinny. Worst of all, he wasn't even wearing his fabulous clothes. He had on an old T-shirt and a mesh baseball cap. I wanted to ask him if he was OK. I wanted to ask him if he needed help. In the end I did nothing. I was too scared he'd tell me to go away.

That first summer after freshman year, I went home to California and worked at an electronics store. I sold televisions and car stereos, and each day I wore a tie to work. Axel also spent that summer in California, only a couple hundred miles south of me in San Diego. I'm not sure if he also worked a summer job, just that at some point during the summer, everything went wrong. One day while I was selling televisions or driving to work or, most likely, home in bed, Axel was busy dying.

I didn't learn about it until I returned to school that fall. On the first day back, a girl named Raisin told me. I was standing outside her room with a few friends when she asked if we had heard the news. Axel had died, she said. We asked for details, but she only knew it involved drugs. No one said very much. Mostly we looked down and shook our heads. And that was it. I don't remember an official response from the university, and if anyone from the dorm tried gathering us together for a talk, I missed it. The news simply spread from student to student. And after that first day, his death was rarely mentioned again.

I spoke to one of my friends the other day, and he reminded me that when we first met in college, I always wanted to wrestle. This is embarrassing, but it's true. And I also should admit that I used to get a big kick out of putting people in the fireman's carry. Once I put my friend Henry over my shoulder and hauled him all the way from the gymnasium to the dorm. This was because Henry had twisted his ankle. Henry was always twisting his ankle.

It didn't occur to me back then, but I was probably just looking for a way to touch people. This is not nearly as creepy as it sounds. Finding myself separated from an affectionate family for the first time, I avoided sitting in my dorm room unhappy and lonely by going into the lobby, slinging a friend over my shoulder, and taking him for a spin. Afterward I'd feel better, and I think my friends would too.

I never put Axel in the fireman's carry, and I certainly never tried to wrestle him. I don't think he would have appreciated either. Axel had come to the University of Chicago twice as smart as me, and he had long before developed a more sophisticated approach to dealing with problems. He drank. And when that didn't work, he tried drugs.

Of course, I'm only guessing that's what happened. I hardly knew Axel. And addiction is far too knotty a subject to simply say that he abused alcohol and drugs because he was unhappy. One of my first thoughts after learning of his death, though, was to blame the University of Chicago. Back when I was a freshman, an upperclassman had warned me that I should expect at least one student death each year. He said the university literally drained the life from its students. It sounded ridiculous, but for each of my first three years, his warning proved true. And this raises a good question. Could the University of Chicago have had anything to do with Axel's death?

When Axel and I arrived at the University of Chicago in the autumn of 1994, two T-shirts competed in popularity. One showed the U. of C. placing dead last behind Oral Roberts University on a list of best party schools. The other read "The University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die." Perhaps not coincidentally, that same autumn the university president and provost appointed the Task Force on the Quality of Student Experience. Made up of faculty, staff, students, and trustees, the task force examined "the full range of factors contributing to student life" and in 1996 published their findings in The University of Chicago Record. In typical U. of C. language, the resulting report admits that student interviews indicate "non-trivial shortcomings in the undergraduate experience."

According to the task force, one of the most conspicuous of these shortcomings was the university's intense academic pressure. In interview after interview, students deemed the workload too large and the time given to complete it too short. They also noted that the grade inflation enjoyed at other top universities had somehow skipped the University of Chicago. And if the academic pressure weren't bad enough, the task force also noted that students suffered a lousy social life characterized by a "sense of isolation." Because housing is spread throughout Hyde Park, students struggled to meet kids from other dorms. And it's my own observation that despite living in one of the world's great cities, many students found that the weather, lack of transportation, and a fear of crime confined them to a small campus that offered few social outlets.

The task force's report concludes with a list of recommendations to improve the student experience, and to its credit, the university has implemented many of them. The administration has eased the core curriculum, renovated the student center, improved access to downtown and the north side, and built an Olympic-size skating rink. A walk on the campus today will show that the improvements continue. Current projects include more landscaping and the construction of a new athletic center. I'm not sure if students are happier, but they certainly have more to do.

While the task force capably examined and offered solutions to the university's most obvious shortcomings, they may have missed an important factor in evaluating the student experience. Not only was Axel's University of Chicago an academic pressure cooker with few valves for social relief, it was also filled with the sort of strange, misfit students least equipped for that kind of stress. Moreover, I don't think this situation was entirely accidental. The school actually seemed to recruit oddballs.

When I first requested information about the University of Chicago back in high school, the admissions department responded with a 20-minute promotional video. Early in the video a student references a guitar and explains, "People at the University of Chicago...there's one string that's a little tighter than the other ones. Or a little looser." Subsequent scenes show a solitary trombonist playing on a park bench and a girl who admits to sometimes spending Friday nights "in an intimate relationship" with her Karl Marx. And there was this quote from film director and U. of C. alumnus Mike Nichols in the student prospectus: "Everybody was strange at the University of Chicago! It was Paradise!"

While oddball students undeniably added to the university's charm, educating and housing them in an environment that could unhinge even the most well-adjusted kids was probably a bad idea. Perhaps the university administration now agrees. I recently took a look at current prospective student materials, and the recruitment focus has shifted. For one thing, Mike Nichols's quote is no longer featured. In fact, the closest I could find to his sentiment was the rather bland "Chicago's students are distinct in every way possible." Also missing are the loosely strung kids of the promotional video. Today's Web-based movie instead spotlights only the remarkably well-adjusted. One featured student "started a community theater program, founded and published a student magazine, and directed videos." Another graduated high school as a "basketball team captain, winner of a state-level arts competition, and published poet."

Over the years, intense academic pressure and a lousy social life may have been a cruel combination to many University of Chicago students. For some misfits and oddballs, the combination may have even proven fatal. I'm pretty sure, however, Axel wasn't one of them. For one thing, he didn't seem to care much about grades. And I also don't think he suffered much socially. After all, if a pale, mumbling kid partial to wool three-piece suits could fit in anywhere, it was Hyde Park. After growing up in San Diego, Axel probably felt he had found heaven. And in the end, perhaps this was the problem.

At the University of Chicago, Axel surely enjoyed unprecedented big city freedom. Despite his sometimes adult mannerisms, he was still very much a teenager, and like most teenagers, he experimented. If the recklessness of dodging traffic thrilled him, so did the danger of excessive drinking and drug taking. And if anything, he probably experimented more than most. I guess it shouldn't be surprising then that Axel eventually pushed it too far, and that he died from what probably was just a stupid accident. If so, that only makes his death worse. That stupid accident cost Axel the chance to eventually pull his life together, and it cost everyone at the University of Chicago three more years of Axel. And between the intense academic pressure and lousy social life, sometimes someone like Axel was the best thing we had.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.

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