“These curbs are enormous!” It was autumn of 1999 and I was walking south on university avenue for the first time ever. I was still energized from my summer trip to Europe and I had a spring in my step. The day was infused with light and warmth. For some reason, I could not get over the size of the curbs on the side of the road. It was the first thing I had noticed about the university. Forget the ivy-kissed walls of the Reynolds Club or the airy tower above the seminary co-op; I was obsessed with the curbs. They had to be at least a foot high! I had no idea how a driver could ever expect to open his door after parking on this street. “This place is crazy,” I thought to myself.
After four years, I still think this place is crazy, but I’ve gotten used to the curbs. Early mornings in the spring of my first year I would stand poised atop these concrete cliffs, eventually making up my mind to jump, and then continue to Woodward dressed in my pajamas and intent on home fries. The walk to the dining hall provided a much-needed interlude between classes or finals, and these curbs made that interlude into much more of a death-defying affair. Would I survive the fall? At night the sinister side of the curbs comes out. They cast deep shadows, a harsh contrast to the desolate yet familiar light of the sodium streetlamps. Many an impromptu frisbee-golf player has been thwarted, in these same shadows, when he hears the telltale whap! of the rolling disc against the unforgiving wall.
As my four years here at the University of Chicago have unrolled before me, Hyde Park has become my playground, and I have become familiar with all its streets and – more importantly – its curbs. They’re not all abnormally large, unfortunately, although that would make for a strange and wonderful neighborhood, now that I think about it. Some of them are worn and have become remnants of a Hyde Park that has long since settled in the dust of past generations. Others are always being poured and repoured, taking part in a constantly evolving effort towards something intangible.
There’s the curb in front of the University Market, for one, possibly the most student-trod in the area. Countless nights have I stood on this curb with three or four of my friends, debating over our clouds of breath what restaurant to choose –“But the Florian’s so much farther away” – and hopping up and down to keep warm. This is the curb that harbors the most secret guilt, because the Streetwise men always stand here, in the snow and in the sun, trying to sell us their papers, and so often we refuse with a mumbled, “no thanks, not today.” This curb knows the feeling of urgency, a 4 a.m. jog to Kinko’s to get a large poster laminated, or to fax a final exam to a professor.
The curb at the center of the quads makes a perfect circle. In the middle of this circle there are outlets for the Christmas lights that enchant the campus during the winter nights. In the spring of my sophomore year I dragged my drums out to the middle of this circle, and a friend and I played jazz for the quads, a free music festival of sorts. People glanced up from their lunches, div school hummus sandwiches and C-shop shakes – only a dollar! The bare soles of my feet have slapped these curbs in the middle of January during the polar bear run. One of my few regrets after I leave here will be that I never had the guts to get completely naked.
There are yellow curbs all through Hyde Park, yellow for “loading zone,” yellow for “fire hydrant,” for “don’t park here.” These are the only curbs we see coming back late from dinner on the north side – invariably a type of food I’ve never heard of before – and a movie or a concert. My roommate drives and talks as the five of us look left, right for an open space. The yellow curbs might be the most forgiving in the neighborhood, because they know that we are not ready to go to sleep yet, and that we’re still full of electricity from the evening’s activities. Driving around suits us just fine. We pass another yellow curb.
And, of course, there are the curbs around Rockefeller chapel. I haven’t had the chance to get to know these curbs. A dizzy walk home from the Pub or a jog along 59th is the only time we have spent together so far. Soon, though, I and other graduates will shed tears on them with our friends and family. We’ll stand outside the chapel after the ceremony and the day will be infused with light and warmth. We will try to compress four years of feeling and experience into a brief goodbye to our peers, to our professors. I will be sure to walk once more down university avenue, in the middle of the street, flanked on either side by curbs and surrounded by my alma mater.