Amherst Magazine

Zoo-Stalgia

By Catherine Newman ’90

145110030

When we tell the kids we’re having dinner at the Zoo, they are bewildered for only a second—The Bronx Zoo?—before they realize we’re talking about Snell Street, just down the road from where we live in Amherst. Oh, that Zoo! Where their parents fell in love during a full-moon party as college students a bazillion years ago. They know all the stories. Probably you do too: if you didn’t live there yourself, then your weirdest friends did, and maybe it was called Theta Xi or Humphries House if you’re less young, or, if you’re more young, the Zü, with its garage-bandy umlaut. However you spell it, it’s still the same 22-room brick house that’s so far from campus you can’t believe it’s even the same ZIP code—until you grow up and a realize that it’s, like, a block away. It’s still filled with the students who don’t frequent Tap, who wonder if they should have gone to Hampshire, who are most likely to read this magazine one day and groan about how much money everybody else appears to be making. It’s still a more-or-less-vegetarian co-op, where everyone takes turns cooking and cleaning. They still make Tofu Stroganoff and Tempeh Parmesan, and tonight our delightful young hosts serve us Seitan Pot Pie, which is made from wheat gluten and evokes Satan not incidentally.

For us, it’s all very back to the future. Despite our hunch that we inhabited a Zoo that was somehow more authentically itself and their hunch that they inhabit a Zü that is somehow more evolved, everything is almost comically the same: the same 50-pound boxes of granola and chocolate chips; the same wheels of brie and crates of butternut squash; the same blend of irony and sincerity coating everything like a fine, fragrant dust. It even smells the same: cumin and fruity shampoo and pinto beans and patchouli and youth. Oh, youth!

The students are so plummy and ripely perfect, and you only hope that they’re not missing the point—the fact of their fresh and bursting gorgeousness—even if they don’t have the exact chin or shoes or hair they wish they had. We, on the other hand, are happy representatives from the land of the grown-ups—and also like the stars of a cautionary film about aging. If the students had visible thought bubbles over their heads, Cool! would alternate constantly with Yikes!

We show the kids our old rooms, and our hosts say, “Wait—you guys met when you were both living here?” and you can see them taking mental stock of whomever they are currently dating. The stories we tell sound like countercultural fairy tales: Someone once made ham sandwiches for a vegetarian dinner! The band Phish played our full-moon parties before they were even anybody! It was the late ’80s, so we were all bisexual! I can feel the nostalgia we’re creating—the same nostalgia we once had for the undiminished era that preceded us, the black-and-white photos of which we studied as though they contained some kind of stoned, hirsute phenomenological lesson. It’s nostalgia in the true sense—for a kind of idealized past that never quite existed: I don’t remember all the terrible fried rice, all the regular old studying, all the house meetings about recycling, about which we tended to be in heated, but strangely long-winded, agreement. Instead I remember falling in love in the endless blue spring twilight of every endless day of our endless lives. We were young and righteous; we understood then, as they understand now, that life doesn’t get any better.

Only we were wrong about that. Humphries is, technically, a theme house, and the theme is pretending it’s a commune— the kind of commune where the food is paid for and the free-wheeling parties are cleaned up the next morning by a college-employed custodian. We were playing at something—but then, also, it was real. We were learning how to take care of each other, how to be part of something bigger than ourselves, how, in many ways, to be human. We’re nostalgic for what they have now—youth, idealism, the future spread out before them like it’s a glassy turquoise sea of possibility and they’re hopping into their well-stocked little sailboats. And we want what we had then, too: arriving at the dinner table late and rosy-cheeked, our hair a mess of damp tangles. But mostly we want this, what we have now, which is all of it together, somehow—community and lasting friendship, love and gratitude, and devotion expressed now, as we expressed it then, through huge and tenderly prepared meals. Meals that now even, sometimes, have bacon in them.

Newman, the academic department coordinator in Amherst’s Creative Writing Center, wrote the memoir Waiting for Birdy. She blogs at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.

Image © 2011 JMiguel Davilla c/o the ispot.com