Monday, May 10, 2010

Back to ..."Normal Life?"

This picture was taken on campus of my alma mater, The University of Chicago. Inside this building, Rockefeller Chapel, around 10:00pm, Friday May 7th, Jane Goodall had just finished giving a speech. She had moved to the front vestibule. The area inside the vestibule was quiet, and reverent. Ms. Goodall sat and smiled patiently while she autographed books and had pictures taken. She was there for each and every one of her admirers who had attended, being let in from the outside at a controlled trickle. On the other side of these doors, beneath the vaulted neo-gothic ceiling was a throng of giddy fans waiting for Goodall. They lined all the way up to the altar.

Past them was a small group that looked a little out of place. For one thing, they were all wearing tuxedo-print t-shirts with green tentacles printed on the front and back. For another, they weren't that excited about Jane Goodall. They looked nervous.

I was one of these people.

I was standing there, looking at the line and hoping, when my friend Daniel, also in a tux t-shirt came up to us.

"Go out to the front."

We stared at him. And all started talking at once.

"What's there?"
"Who's there?"
"Do you mean they--"
"But its not 10:30 yet!"

"No," he said, "Just-- just go and look!"

I darted for a side door out of the chapel and ran with a couple others down the lit-from-the-bottom stone wall of the church to the grand front entrance, and stared.

Roughly a hundred people were limping their way to the front door, groaning and occasionally screaming. Their clothing was dirty rags, their faces were covered in blood and boils, and a few of them were missing limbs and chunks of flesh. The seething mass was inching closer to the heavy front doors of the church. The ones with Jane Goodall and several hundred fans sitting sedately and reverently on the other side.

This wasn't a zombie attack. This was a scheduling conflict. The world-famous primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace had simply had the bad fortune of being scheduled to speak at the same place as an event from the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt.

Now, on your average scavenger hunt, you'll have a list of, maybe, 30 items to be completed by teams of two or three. Items will be things like, a licence pate from Hawaii, or a photo of a red robin. It might last a few hours. But  the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt is not your average scavenger hunt. It lasts four days, is completed by teams of around 30-80+ people, and has over 250 items. This is one of them:
Item 161: May 7, 2010, 10:30 pm. A foul wind tosses decayed leaves in my face with almost willful malevolence as I trudge toward the Chapel. Its soaring belltower, once proud, now seems craven, afraid of the unhallowed Mass it will soon host. The sagging gambrel roofs of the campus architectures likewise cower as we approach, their weathered walls and ruined faces a mockery of the pustules and pockmarks that cover my companions. Shunned by the campus, denied by the hospitals, we march onward, determined to revel in our grisly condition. Our masks may do little to conceal our Afflictions, but in a fit of gallows humour we have decorated them gaily, and will throw a Masque in our dying hours. Each family has appointed its most wretched specimen a Seed of Corruption, whom we venerate with savage glee; their twisted countenances defy description by even a madman such as myself. When the clock strikes midnight I expect we shall all be dead, but until then we shall dance as though to tire Death himself.

So we had a mass of university students and alumni in costumes inspired by nine or ten awful diseases (plus one one team inexplicably dressed in World of Warcraft outfits) descending on Jane Goodall and her fans.

Now what kind of crazy people would write an item like that, you might ask. Well, they're the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt Organizing Committee, but nobody calls them that. We call them The Judges. a.k.a. The Cabal, a.k.a. Hot Side Hot. They're a group of lunatics that cobbles together this list and awards each teams the points they deserve for completing the items. I've been a member of this group for three years.

Having been out of town for over a year and a half, I didn't have any part in making this year's list, but I was able to come to Chicago in time to help organize and judge the hunt itself. We walked campus watching the insanity unfold as each dorm's team (plus a handful of independent teams) did things like freeclimb math buildings to perform "extreme partial differentiation," carry around people on their backs in teams of four, whacking balls with a ten-foot-long mallet as part of "human elephant polo", play "lean on me" on a hospital crutch like a flute, sneak into firehouses to film themselves yelling "Theater," and doing anything and everything they can to get their hands on an authentic Stradivarius violin, cello, or viola. All the while their workshops back on campus were frantically making six-foot-tall pennies, antigriddles, life-sized marionettes that imitated a dancer's movements, plasma in a mason jar, and a lot more besides.

A lot of my old friends who had also graduated came back for this year's Scav Hunt, and when they weren't concentrating on constructing a Jollyball exhibit, they would ask me how my trip was and what it was like being back. I'd tell them it was strange being surrounded by things that were so familiar, like the voice on the CTA trains and the old campus buildings. The things that really drove home that I was back. But that it was good to see everyone wearing bizarre captain's costumes, having roller-skate dance-offs in the quads, and running from giant foam monsters roaring to reclaim #1 foam hands, "just like in the old country."

Every once in a while, people would ask me how I deal with culture shock, and what I think the weirdest cultural experiences I've seen have been. It wasn't until, four hours after the midnight list release, judge headquarters received its fourth or fifth delivery from scav teams of a fully cooked and glazed ham, bone in, that I started thinking maybe it's because, sometimes, the weirdest place in the world is right at home. As the hams piled up in the refrigerator, kitchen counters and hallway in the wee hours of the morning, it's hard to think of any place to call normal, anyway.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Also, if you're curious about U(c) Scav Hunt, check out this year's list, the hunt's official website, and also a blog written by a few members of Hot Side Hot.

1 comment:

  1. As my time here has increased, I have come more and more to realize this must indeed have been your definition of normal during those four years. It was so good to see you - come back soon.