When I went to my 25th college reunion at the University of Pennsylvania last weekend, it was impossible not to compare NOW to THEN.
Let’s start with the photos on everyone’s name badge, which featured their graduation picture from 1988. I had a square coiffure of blonde hair in which my face was perfectly centered, like the cream filling on a yellow Tastykake. I’d blame my friends for not telling me this, but they were having their own issues with spiky bangs and home peroxide treatments. The university staffer whose job it was to print those badges for all the classes at reunion, stretching back to the Old Guard, assured me that the Class of 1988 photos were in a category by themselves. “That HAIR!” she said, shaking her head.
The campus was chock-a-block with new buildings and silver signs that were bigger than my freshman year roommate, each proclaiming the name of the donor to whom we owed thanks for yet another new pile of red bricks. Each represented an evolution in university life and an architect’s success in squeezing just one more building into a expanding footprint in West Philadelphia.
I got choked up once, when I was walking down Locust Walk, the main pedestrian thoroughfare that bisects campus. I noticed a white-haired older man—far too well-dressed to be straight—standing still, smiling widely as he watched something. I followed his line of sight to see two young male students strolling down Locust Walk, holding hands. An out gay couple was a rarity in my time; I can’t imagine what kind of unicorn it was during his era.
I mean, our fight song, circa 1901, includes the words, “So tonight, let’s all be gay,” and twenty-five years ago that line was always punctuated by an effeminate flop of the right wrist and an uncomfortable chuckle. But when we sang the fight song Saturday night and my hand reflexively shot out on that line, it seemed small-minded and embarrassing to flop my wrist. I had to do something with the hand that was dangling in the air so I waved it vaguely around, like I was conducting an invisible orchestra. The fact that a fraternity on Locust Walk, the kind of place where being called “gay” led to punch-throwing back in the Eighties, is now the campus’ LGBT student center, seems like karmic payback of the best kind.
But the starkest sign of change came on the dance floor.
I danced in college. A lot. I was often the first person onto a party dance floor and only left it because someone suggested that we hop into a cab and cruise into Center City Philly…to go dancing.
So at the Reunion party Saturday night, with the DJ off to a slow start, I felt compelled to make a few song requests that would appeal to my generation. Our class had unearthed a time capsule earlier in the day and pulled out the Mixtape, below; I just picked a few songs off the list. A small group of us hit the dance floor and, as happens, a few more people joined, and a few more. We did Da Butt, we made sure to Push It, And We Danced just like the Hooters sang.
All weekend I hung out with a classmate named Gerard, his charming husband Peter, and their sweet kids. Gerard insisted that we knew each other well back in the day, but I had a very hard time placing this successful, nice family man who kept saying, “Remember? I had a white Mohawk and wore a kilt?” He sounded like someone I would have been friends with. But with no photo on his name badge, I could not picture Younger Gerard for the life of me.
Until the DJ cued up the Violent Femmes. Gerard and I were dancing near each other, and we locked eyes, and in that moment I saw Gerard at twenty years old, and I was twenty years old. And I knew we were going to slam dance. Without hesitation, we flew towards each other’s right shoulders, full of the joyous fury that used to lessen the anxiety of being young and unsure of ourselves.
Note to self: slam dancing in your forties is different than doing it in your twenties.
Gerard emailed me the next day and said, “All I can remember is your black and white dress coming at my head at the speed of light.” We hit so hard that his expensive executive eyeglass frames skittered across the floor, barely missing the heels of the super drunk guy lurching around the dance floor all night. As for me, while Gerard dove onto the floor in search of his glasses, I massaged my bruised shoulder and wondered if I’d blown out my knee. I spent the rest of the night dancing in place, and all of the next day moved my right leg with both hands, like it was a prosthetic limb.
Even so, it wasn’t the slam dancing where the THEN and the NOW came together in the most meaningful way.
It was afterward, laughing with Gerard and his husband about our lame slam dance attempt and talking about our kids, when it sunk in. So simple, so profound. Every student on campus, gay and straight, can realistically hope to achieve the same things I wanted back in college: a meaningful career, a spouse, children.
And a much better yearbook photo.