On a steamy evening in early May, Sarah returns to Seneca House Co-op for Graduate Women to visit with current residents about life at a UT co-op. Sarah live at Seneca House in 1974 and 1975 while getting a graduate degree at the University of Texas and then again in 1983 when she went undercover and moved back in to gather material for the book that would become
The first change I notice is that where parking around the university was once difficult, it has become impossible. No wonder I haven’t returned in the years since I left 2309 Nueces. I find a spot far from the house and amble back through the West Campus neighborhood of century-old houses and towering pecan trees being rapidly crowded out by snazzy new condo developments. I pass the intersection of 24th and Nueces, site of a favorite old haunt, Les Amis, a sprouts and herbal tea emporium that I knew had been torn down some years back. What I hadn’t fully realized was that the counter-culture icon had been replaced by—altogether now—a Starbucks. It is a too-pointed reminder of the mourning for lost innocence quality that all such strolls down Memory Lane are prone to. I imagine that twenty-five years from now some current West Campus dweller will be recalling with misty fondness the golden Starbucks of his youth and lamenting its replacement with a drive-through Botox station.
An afternoon shower has turned the city into a steam bath. I recall the permanently wilted state I existed in while living at Seneca where a few ancient window units churned futilely against the heat and humidity. In fact I further recall, to my astonishment, that my room did not have one. Only someone who has lived in these latitudes can understand the significance of the AC issue.
As I approach the house, something seems very different. Before I can figure out what it might be, an attack of nerves hits as I realize what an essentially bizarre mission I am on. I try to imagine how I would have reacted when I was a resident of Seneca House to the invasion of a decidedly mom-looking suburbanite into my stronghold of bohemianism. I picture the group of high school seniors I spoke to the week before and decide that the giant “Whatever” expressions on the silent faces pretty well covers what I can expect.
On the porch I note the same assortment of dead and dying houseplants that festooned it when I was a resident. A new addition is a serious-looking lock with a security code keypad on the front door. Given the abandoned shopping carts, bundles of clothes hidden in the brush, and homeless men roaming the alleys, this seems a wise innovation.
I brace myself for the sauna and mildew factory of my memory, and knock. The first major surprise is that, after a worryingly long wait, an amiable young man wearing glasses and a yarmulke answers.
“You’re not the health inspector, are you?” he asks, nodding at my notepad where I’ve written the words “dead plants.” The dozen or so residents clumped around a long dining room table chuckle agreeably.
They’re joking, I realize with intense relief. I pretend to jot furiously. “Yes, I am and I’m shutting you down for a number of violations.”
I’m back. With one stupid joke, I’ve stepped over the threshold and back in time more than a quarter of a century. I’m momentarily disoriented by both this time travel experience and because the dining room is now where the living room used to be and the kitchen has been turned on its side and... Oh my God! Most peculiar of all, the house is cool. It’s delightfully, pleasantly cool with not the slightest hint of the mildew-cumin-incense odor that defined my Seneca experience.
The pleasant young people are staring at me. Deeply grateful for their surprising friendliness, I blurt out my strange errand. They don’t find it strange in the least. Everyone shifts over and I take a seat at the table.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Kavan Modi, 24, a graduate student in physics originally from India, asks.
“Are you hungry?” Liz Rivera-Dirks, 21, studying computer science, adds, indicating her plate splashed with the remnants of something that looks very much like vegetarian chili.
I assure them I’m fine and plunge in, noting the most obvious difference that had occurred to me when Adam, 27, an Israeli-American philosophy major had opened the door: “The house is co-ed.”
Tanisha--“I’m the only white Tanisha you’ll ever meet”--fills me in, the house went co-ed in ‘92 and they now have seven men and twelve women.
“The first summer I lived here,” I tell them in my best grizzled old-timer voice, “we had trouble filling up the house and let guys in. It was a disaster.”
“Lots of romantic turmoil,” I answer, telling about the Lothario from Venezuela who left a trail of broken hearts and unwashed pans in his wake but not about my sweetheart. How his summer at Seneca almost, but not quite, saved us. I glance at the stairway at whose top I spent far too much time huddled against a phone receiver, weeping, after I lost said sweetheart to the clutches of Scientology and he left for Los Angeles. Once embedded in that world he took up with an actress who dumped him for another actor who then dumped her and so on in a daisy chain of betrayal that extended right up to some of your better-looking Oscar winners. Let’s just say, if I’d only had the foresight to harbor a truly nasty STD, Penelope Cruz would be at her gynecologist’s right this moment.
“Everyone just sort of decided that guys upset things too much and that they didn’t carry their weight,” I say, glossing over the summer of the green toilets and sodden phone receiver. “So, how is the co-ed thing working out for you all?”
“I had a pretty crappy experience,” Chad Wood, 23, computer science, says. “I dated this girl then she started sleeping with this guy down the hall and I was stuck living with her.”
“It’s just difficult living with someone you’re in love with,” Kavan interjects.
“I would call it hell,” Chad maintains.
“When you’re in love with someone,” Kavan continues, “you tend to spend a lot of time with them and that’s not good for the group as a whole.” Such thoughts seem to come naturally to Kavan and it’s not surprising to learn that he is the Labor Czar, the person responsible for assigning jobs, making sure everyone does their chores and assessing fines when they don’t. I ask if they still have “Labor Holidays,” and everyone groans at the diabolical oxymoron.
“What did you used to do back in the day?” someone asks.
I like repping for my “back in the day” peeps and recount endless hours spent scraping mildewed windows with razor blades. Window work doesn’t figure into the picture much anymore. I comment on how good the house looks and learn that a fire five years ago led to major reconstruction including the blessed addition of central AC. The AC has had the added benefit of making Seneca the most popular of the Inter-Campus Council’s eight co-ops.
“What is room and board now?” I ask.
“Six hundred and two dollars.”
I’m surprised at how low the figure is since a plank in a labyrinthine university dorm can cost far more and private dorms will run two to three times that amount. I begin to look at my old co-op in a whole new light, the light shed by a parent’s brain sizzling away trying to figure out how to pay for college. Seneca House starts to seem like a place where my 13-year-old son might possibly, one day, be very happy.
“What about food?” I wonder. “Given that the house is so much more diverse than when I was here is that reflected in the food? What do you eat that might be out of the ordinary?”
They consider this and Liz answers, “Steamed buns.”
A sign from God. My son’s favorite food is exactly this Chinese delicacy of puffy dough and red bean paste or barbecued pork all in a handy microwaveable format.
“Mole, curry, Thai. Kavan makes a really good Mee Siam, Thai noodles with tomato and coconut milk sauce.”
This all sounds a vast improvement over the unpronounceable whole grains and other bulk food items perpetrated “in the day.” I recall an intense yearning from that time for a meal with identifiable components, something mass feeding does not lend itself to.
“The worst was peanut butter casserole,” Christy volunteers. “It had zucchini and other vegetables in this pool of oil.” There is a group shudder at the memory. Okay, so it’s not all steamed buns.
“Was the house always Seneca Falls Co-op?” Leela Ellison, who chose co-op living after a spell in an apartment with a manic-depressive roommate who never bathed, asks.
“Actually, the name changed while I was living here. When I first moved in it was Varsity House or something fairly dopey like that. A movement was started to change it and since the house was all-female at the time, a feminist slant was favored. Lilith House, Suffer Jet City, Sojourner Truth House. Though I do recall a contingent that lobbied heavily for Middle Earth. Eventually Seneca Falls House was chosen in honor of the first women’s right convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Somehow the Falls got dropped and the official sign read Seneca House.”
“So why did you call the book Alamo House?” Liz asks.
I laugh and answer truthfully, “That was the publisher’s decision. They pretty much gave me two choices: Magnolia House or Alamo House. There was a lot less awareness about Texas at that time, a sort of general crunching together of Texas and the South. Joking with my editor, trying to get him to see how wrong, how ‘Southern’ Magnolia House was, I said, ‘Why don’t you just call it Kudzu House?’ Unfortunately, the joke was lost on him. He was very disappointed when I informed him we don’t actually have kudzu in Austin. Of course, my hardcover publisher for The Mommy Club wanted to put a saguaro cactus on the cover of that book and wasn’t pleased when I informed her that saguaros only grow in some tiny area in Arizona. But tell me, do you still have the same problems we did with the fraternities?”
That is when, looking out the front window, I realize what is so very different: the twin fraternities--both evil--that used to squat across the street are gone. The entire block they occupied is vacant. A parking lot. I think of the beefy crews who tortured us with all-night parties, obscene epithets, and raids on the bamboo jungle that once surrounded the house. Apparently one house burned down and the other was put on a sort of permanent probation for hazing violations. Then, or so the story goes, according to Mr. R., 27, a Mexican-American law student wearing a t-shirt with the Hindu elephant god Ganesha on it, when the national chapter sent money to jolt the monster back to life, the officers absconded with funds and went on safari to Africa!
I love this unverified story and answer with one of my own recounting how when Alamo House was first published I received a call from the president of the national chapter of the house that the SUKs were based upon. (I add that I found it very telling that they were able to identify the house simply from the depredations mentioned in the novel.) At first I was slightly worried that they were going to sue me. But only slightly as they would have been dipping into some of the shallowest pockets imaginable. But no, the president had called to tell me that they were putting copies of my novel into every chapter across the country! As a cautionary tale!
“It’s different now,” the irrepressible Mr. R. assures me. “Every time we have a party that sorority back there, Pi Beta Phi, I think it is, calls the cops.”
“The Greeks are calling the cops on you!” I explode. This is too delicious.
“Oh, yeah.” They tell me about the mammoth blow-outs Seneca hosts: two, three bands, five kegs, open to all comers.
“This is so amazing,” I gasp. “There we were, all these timid graduate women just tortured mercilessly by these Greek thugs. The police would come over and trade secret handshakes with the guys and there didn’t seem to be anything we could do to retaliate. So, essentially, my novel is this big revenge fantasy. And now, here you are living my fantasy. The Greeks are calling the cops on Seneca House.”
Even as I am delighting in this better-than-fiction twist, Kavan, the Labor Czar, leaps out of his chair, bolts across the front room, and out the door. I worry that he might have deep hidden Greek attachments that I’ve offended. Instead, a moment later he comes back. He’d seen the homeless man who had been hanging out in the laundry room putting cleanliness next to scariness and run out to have issue a stern warning about spending his spin cycles elsewhere.
I take the opportunity to visit my old room upstairs with its current occupant, Suzanne Julian, 21, a particularly kind sociology major from San Antonio who wears her graciousness as lightly as the stud on her tongue. The room, a converted porch that once housed three and had the fiendish ability to amplify both noise and heat, is now a serene hideaway for one with gleaming new wood floors, leaky walls all nicely sheetrocked and plenty of blissful AC pouring in.
As I note and photograph the changes, Suzanne talks about how she moved in because of a desire to be involved with an “intentional community.” How she was excited about the commitment to cooperation and being respectful of everyone’s needs that participation in such a community implies.
This, too, seems the realization of a fantasy, this one implicit, in the book I wrote. The felicitous phrase “intentional community” rolls around my brain as I jot down a poem a former resident has written on a nearby door.
I say my good-byes and head back outside. The Austin evening has cooled. I bounce back to my car far perkier than when I’d left. The “dowdy dowager” I’d described in Alamo House seemed considerably spruced up in ways that go far beyond AC and new floors. Ready to forge her way through the new millennium or, at the very least, I hope, long enough to get my son through college.
Seneca Falls Co-op! Come in! Come in!