The Harvard Rats

While his friends assured me his name was Chris, “Slade” was a man of carefully constructed parts.

“Slade?” I repeated as I shook his hand, wondering if I had gotten it right.

‘Slade,’ confirmed the thick beard, thick flannel, thick black-rimmed glasses and thin smile.

Outside Winning Coffee Co,, the unmatched bastion of the Harvard Rat, Slade was one of many unique individuals who looked just like him. Yellow and light-blue boxes of American Spirits were some of the only color to dot the peripheral view and conversation. “You realize, of course,” said the Evolved Emo Chick who sat across from Slade, very pleased with herself, “that most people react to his name like that.”

“I just didn’t hear him.”

“Yes, Slade has quiet speech,” she said.

Evolved Emo looked like she had barely survived an internal battle with outward identity and adolescence. Her hair was straight and black and mostly covered her glasses, which were identical to Slade’s. Her thick makeup was two or three shades paler than her arms and legs, giving her a sickly quality.

“Are you coming to the show tonight?” asked the third and meekest member of their crew. He didn’t have a beard, though it looked like he was trying. He had an ugly black hoodie on even in the blazing heat, perhaps balanced in some way I didn’t understand by his bike shorts.

He was helping himself to Evolved Emo’s cigarettes and she shot him a nasty look that he either missed or ignored.

“Is it going to be any good?” I asked.

“Local bands,” Evolved Emo said. “You know.”

I shook my head and watched her flick her cigarette and beam with anticipation.

“Well. Squish. Quill Pens. The Grind.” She looked at me intensely. “Fisters?”

The other two nodded knowingly at each name. I thought I saw a brief flash of fear from the little one who avoided Slade’s eye contact and toyed nervously with his long, clumpy hair.

“Are they new?” I asked.

They laughed.

“No way,” giggled Evolved Emo. “They’ve all been around for ages.”

“Well, it’ll be The Grind’s first house show,” Slade piped in.

“Well, sure,” she said. “But. I wouldn’t call them… new exactly.”

There was a silent battle of wits going on in the following empty seconds. Each considered what they knew or thought they knew about the bands and what the other might say.

The little one broke the tension himself.

“I don’t think people understand,” he said to me at last.

“Understand what?”

“Music,” he said. “What’s good. Why it’s good. It’s the last thing people expect, you know? It’s so much more than what people find out, you know? If it’s first, you gotta be there, you know?”

He waited.

“Am I supposed to know?” I asked.

This made him happier than anything else I said so far.

“No! Nobody does! That’s why it’s so great.”

“What if I did know?”

“It wouldn’t be the same,” Slade said.

“Why not? Why does it matter?”

“It gets too mainstream,” said Evolved Emo. “It’s all so fake.
Give me back my American Spirits.”

The little one handed them back and mumbled a small apology which she ignored.

“So the worst thing in the world is to be fake?”

“Well, not ever,” she said. “But yeah, it’s bad. It makes you mainstream, you know?”

“Well, you guys have had epiphanies before, right?” I asked.
“All the time, man,” replied Slade.

“So what happens if it turns out you’re what you hate? I find it to be the case that people hate defensively what they fear about themselves. Liars always think they’re being lied to. Thieves always think they’re being stolen from.”

I looked around to the blank stares. Somehow I wasn’t getting through.

“…You know?” I said.

This elicited nods from the round.

“Definitely, man,” Slade said.

Was there self-awareness here? From the fashion and the music and the outlook that all could be observed from the outside, was the bubble being observed from the inside?

These were conscious choices made with care. It’s hard and expensive work they did to look as bad as they do. None of it was an accident.

“So what is fake to you?” I asked. Evolved Emo was the first to react.

“Are you calling us mainstream?” she said suspiciously.

“No. I’m not calling you anything. I’m asking you to tell me about this relationship you have with ‘the outside.’ Everything you’re not and reject. It’s fake, right. So what makes it fake?”

“They lie to you,” Slade came in. “It’s just a big lie. They ask you be part of this big whole. But, yeah, it’s just fake. Can I bum another Spirit?”

“Get your own,” she spat.

“People can live in a lie a long time.” I said. “‘Never underestimate the power of denial.’”

I watched them consider this.

“You know.” I added.

They were being careful. The stigma of their lifestyle was certainly something they were aware of. Luckily there were places for them to go and find more music and opinions to reflect and absorb.

“It’s easy to be the deceiver when you know you have that power or even that that power exists.” I said. “You can make yourself anything you want. Do you accept that? Can you accept others that do the same?”

“We don’t have to!” said Slade evenly. “We see the real lies.
Everybody lies to everybody. Even themselves.”

“But do you have to?” I asked.

“Well, we don’t,” said Evolved Emo.

What was it that drove this need to be new and unique? I’ve always maintained that identity and insecurity were the two driving forces for the human social existence. You want to be special — to have a soul. When you sell your soul to gain a soul, what kind of paradoxical place to find yourself in? Are you there yet?

“Where’s it gonna be?” I asked. “The show?”

“Gold Street,” they all said in messy unison.

“Right.” I said, gathering to leave. “See you there.”

It was more or less what I expected. The house was not difficult to find. It boomed with light and sound of partying and muffled bass. The populous was a sea of people I had never met but faces that I had already seen pasted again and again.

It was a collection of unified oddity, but still I stuck out. In the mass of nonconformity, wouldn’t the best way to reach the ideal be by not being part of the larger group at all? Wouldn’t that make you the ultimate in the indie state? Or is that the sickest form of contradiction?

But I truly was the oddity. No raybans, no scarf, my pants fit me normally. I saw looks of confusion and horror as I pushed along the crowds that were looking for free beer.

No less than five minutes into the party, a single girl was drunk enough to approach me.

“Hi!” she grinned. “You’re new!”

“Naw.” I said. “I’ve been around for ages.”

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