[posted 05.21.2005]


Everyone’s a secret nerd.
Everyone’s a closet lame.

— The Ramones

AS AN ASTUTE SEVENTH-GRADER once pointed out to me: If you call yourself cool, then you’re probably not.

So let’s not say I was cool. Let’s just say that in San Francisco I hung out with cool people. A pack of mixed nuts, my Bay Area friends gather in bars and coffee shops to read poetry to one another. They’re coved in tattoo homages to their favorite writers. They work straight jobs to pay the rent and hook each other up with free coffee and movie tickets. Lovers of the alternative and underground, they — we were a Bohemian wet dream of trannies, hipsters, queers, revolutionaries, punks and circus freaks. Needless to say, when I told my friends that I’d gotten into graduate school at MIT, their reactions were a mix of awe and apology. “Wow! That’s amazing. But do you, uh, know anyone else out there? Because I have a cousin who lives in Connecticut if you need someone to go to a bar with you….”

As I started orientation week, every part of me felt farther from home than she had ever been. At an ice cream social I met a guy who said he’d grown up in Orange County. Trying to make conversation, I mentioned that I had a good friend who had grown up there and knew the area. When he asked me where my friend went to school, his eyes grew wide. “Servite! No way! I went to Servite!” His fingers spread into jazz hands and punched the air to make sure I knew how thrilled he was. His head rolled in meandering semi-circles and spittle glistened on his chin as he asked my friend’s name. I answered, dodging the wet spray of his excitement. “Oh,” he said, his face dropping into another lazy circle, “I hated that guy. He pushed me down the stairs.” I tried but failed to suppress the huge grin that erupted from my throat. Feeling like an asshole, I looked around nervously for someone, anyone, to share in my amusement. No such luck. I had entered the world of the stair tumblers.

But over the week my luck in meeting people did improve. A group of about 10 of us had distilled ourselves from the more socially awkward. We eschewed salsa lessons for barhopping, movie nights for trips to the city. We drank ourselves into a fuzz of good humor before events and agreed that at a place like this, 7’s on the attractiveness scale had quickly become 10’s. They even laughed when I recounted my conversation with the stair tumbler. So as we headed over to the first orientation dance party, my spirits were high.

The notion of “cool” is at once ambiguous and ubiquitous. The music at the party was right, the people were upwardly mobile twentysomethings, beer was cheep and the air thick with sweat. Yet from the moment we reached the aptly named Dance Fusion III (for the salsa, swing and techno music that played in three separate rooms), we knew something was wrong.

The theme was Spider-Man, as indicated by the cardboard cutouts taped to the walls. The guy at the door handed out neon glow sticks on long pieces of string. The dance floor was filled with people dressed so poorly I had to wonder if some of the graduate housing hadn’t been equipped with mirrors. There were bad print dresses paired with matronly tennis shoes or, alternately, horrible lace socks slipped into plastic Snoopy flip-flops. The men wore slacks with T-shirts tucked firmly into their pants, sporting shark-tooth necklaces and greased comb-overs.

And then there were the Tevas. That sandal/sneaker is the most popular footwear on campus, considered appropriate for events ranging from the formal wine and cheese graduate reception to dinner and dancing on the Boston harbor cruise. As I scanned the floor, I realized Teva sandals-plus-socks was the look of choice for that evening as well. Many wore the glow sticks around their necks, wrists and ears. Some guys wore the neon wands dangling in front of their crotch, apparently as a siren call to girls who found this cheep party favor irresistible. One guy had opted for a light blue shirt of paint-on latex. Your guess is as good as mine….

Since men outnumber women three to one in the graduate program, groups of males lined the floor, watching with eyes conflicted, not wanting to be noticed and yet desperately wanting to reach out and touch another body. Those on the floor flailed with an uncoordinated glee that could make Phish hippies look like Fly Girls. Rhythm, like deodorant, was optional. They stomped their feet, shook their shoulders and clapped along (yes, clapped along) as 50 Cent reminded them that he was a Mutha F**kin’ P-I-M-P.

I doubled over in the corner, laughing. It was a good 15 minutes before I gathered my senses, and two shots of vodka.

A friend tried to be helpful. “Close your eyes and just dance,” he advised, dragging me to the dance floor. “None of your cool friends are here to see you.”

And somewhere, smushed between a gyrating synthetic organic chemist and nuclear engineer, it began to hit me: Anywhere else, this would have been just another silly dance party. But I wasn’t dancing with my seventh-grade class (a feeling somewhat validated by the DJ’s insistence on playing slow songs); this was a party with the world’s best nerds. The spastic body performing interpretive dance was actually a mechanical engineer with level 1 governmental clearance. The man pretending his empty plastic cup was a megaphone? An aerospace engineer with a NASA grant to build the next Mars rover. The sorority girl grinding to my left held two patents in silicone nanotechnology.

And this was their abandon.

When I had been completely saturated by dork sweat, a group of us walked down the Charles River to watch the sodium drop. We fell in line with about 400 freshmen, walking along the bike path on Memorial Drive. At the Longfellow Bridge we all counted down as a very large block of pure sodium was held above the river. A group one element, sodium needs only to lose a single electron to reach a more stable state. This means sodium in its pure form is highly unstable. The block was chucked over the bridge and landed in the river with the boom of a cannonball. It flamed and sputtered and sparked on the surface of the dirty river as the freshmen cheered.

Chucking francium into the river would have been more impressive, the cornrowed guy beside me complained. He and a friend proceeded to calculate just how big the splash from such an explosion might be. I smiled because, well, he was right and because none of my cool friends were around to see it.

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emily kagan is a boston-based science writer. her previous adventures include answering calls for the dead bird hotline, flirting with a career as a microbiologist and moonlighting as a jazz singer. she has been featured as a poet at the commonwealth club, the nuyorican, hbo?s def poetry jam, and other venues across the country.