They say you don’t truly find yourself until you’re in college. Somewhere between the beer pong, the impulsive hook-ups, and the frat parties, you’re supposed to learn something essential about who you are. It’s like your adult identity is hidden there, tangled in your dorm sheets with a bunch of Dorito crumbs, marijuana stems, and condom wrappers just waiting for your moment of epiphany.
Well, my college experience wasn’t like that at all. I don’t do much of anything the traditional way. I can’t even fuck things up the way I am supposed to. I had been told a hundred times to go away to school and experience the metamorphic rebirth of dorm life. But I’m an Italian kid from Staten Island. We’re not really raised to fly free of the nest. I was programmed to return to base weekly for Carbohydrate-overload and emotional ventilation.
That’s why I was so proud of myself after high school when I was able, with considerable effort, to move out of the parental house and into an attic apartment over the two-family building my uncle owned. This meant I could give up the dangerous past-time of sneaking into my girlfriend’s house when her parents were asleep. It also meant that I was, most mornings, standing at the front of the Staten Island ferry, watching Manhattan rise into the sky before me.
If you were standing right there, you might not have even noticed me—just another lanky malcontent with a black hood over his headphones. A closer look might have revealed the way my hair twisted angrily around my eyes, or perhaps that my arm was encased in plaster. You probably wouldn’t take notice of the flannel shirt, the Doc Martin boots, or the chain wallet, all of which were standard issue in September 1993. I probably looked like a lost soul drowning in my own apathy, but nothing could have been further from the truth. I had an ax to grind with the world. My chosen field of conquest: academia.
A month before, I had never left the island without my parents. But now I had the subway map memorized and was busily exploring my new environment. It felt like I had reached the next stage in the greatest video game ever created. And then there was college itself—a very different kind of game. I was enthralled with the never ending discussions, reading, and synthesis. I loved sitting down among a random selection of bright students from all over the world, whether outside Bobst library or in a humanities elective.
No topic was obscure enough. Quantum mechanics, game theory, queer theory, classical economics—I wanted to know, argue and be able to dismantle and rebuild all of them. I particularly enjoyed the inevitable discussion of cultural relativism—all too eager to take on the role of representative white-boy from the suburbs who was enlightened enough to admit his privilege. I lived for the debate—for that moment when the clumsy, impractical words sufficed to surmount the crux of an argument. It was all just another game to me. But it wasn’t only about winning. I would happily surrender just to feel the fractions of divergent thought come together into a recognizable whole—the group giving rise to a hard-won consensus. For me, that was the highest form of art.
I double-majored in philosophy and computer science and almost fit in a minor in psychology. I wanted to understand the world at the deepest level and master its most essential truths. And then I wanted to break it all down into what could be measured, cataloged, diagramed, and, ultimately, programmed. I wasn’t really there to appreciate the poetry of life. I was there to create an Artificial Intelligence—so that one day the AI could appreciate the poetry of life.
I knew that this was a childish dream—hell, it was my childish dream—just a fancier version of the second-grade assignment in which I wrote that I wanted to build an R2D2 so that “I would all ways [sic] have a friend.” I suspected that this would not be the identity I found for myself in college. It would just be what I daydreamed about while I worked on something much less interesting. At best, it would be a side project that I kept hidden in the shadows. As it turns out, however, the shadowlands of academia are a bustling place. There is a lot going on just out of view. All you need is someone to teach you how to see in the dark. And, nearly as soon as I showed up, I found just that. They called themselves the Brown Ale Collective.