Roomies by
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Prompted By Roommates

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Roomies -- sometimes it just works out right...

I had the same two roomies all four years in college, Bobby and Wylie.  We would joke that we were the standard Harvard triple: one East Coast Jew (moi), one West Coast Jew (Bobby) and one Inner City Black (Wylie).  Formulaic or not, we always got along just fine, though Bobby was a huge, huggy extrovert and Wylie a cool, laid back introvert.  Once Bobby realized that Wylie didn’t really want to talk to anyone, not even his bestest roomies, until the afternoon, and stopped taking it personally, it was just fine in Roommateville.  I was Mr. Adaptable through it all.

Our senior year, we teamed up with four of our closest buddies and got the suite of all suites: really three interconnected suites with seven bedrooms, three living rooms and  three bathrooms (en suite, la-di-dah).  And most of us had fairly steady girlfriends who were frequently there. Also, there was Carl.  He was one of my roomie’s old friends — though at some point we couldn’t remember which roomie, and I cannot to this day be sure — who was taking a semester, and then the whole year, off from Swarthmore and crashed in one of the living rooms. A brilliant guy, but highly nocturnal, fairly crazy and not to everyone’s taste (especially on the distaff side).  More than one female visitor was frightened nearly to death when, somehow forgetting about Carl, she headed to the bathroom in the middle of the night and found him in the living room, smoking (something), practicing card tricks by candlelight and grinning from ear to ear at the sight of some comely, partially dressed young lady frozen in terror in front of him.  A real Cheshire Cat scenario, though it usually ended up with one fairly pissed off girlfriend storming back to bed in not the friendliest of moods.

Mr. Adaptable here considered this senior year set up to be the perfect mix of community and privacy.  Or so I thought I thought.  In retrospect (so to speak), my decision to get a studio apartment by myself off campus the next year in law school might well have been informed by some inner misgivings about the previous arrangements.

The picture here — a forerunner of a selfie; remember those 10-second timers on SLR’s? and tripods? — was orchestrated by Camp Counselor Carl on an evening when we were all in the suite and feeling no pain. I am the blithering idiot in the top row with no eyes and wearing a Lowell House football jersey (I was a placekicker; another story).  Wylie is to my immediate right and Bobby is right below me. Carl is standing to my left, catching his breath after setting up the shoot.  The rest are our other roomies and other dear pals.  I cherish this picture, and this moment, as much as it horrifies my daughters, as well as my first wife.


Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: been there, funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    John, how fortunate that everything clicked for you (so to speak…LOVE the photo) and your roomies right away and you all roomed together throughout your college years. I love your description of all of you too and how you integrated others into the group (including wild man Carl – my husband wound up off-campus his senior year, so was frequently “OTC”…”on the couch” in his best buddies’ suite, since he didn’t have a car – so I understand when someone comes to stay) in a suite arrangement. You convey the sense of fun quite of well.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. Given all the angst that year — Vietnam/draft, senior theses, grad school applications/admissions/rejections, girlfriend woes — it is amazing that my recollection of it was that it was all so upbeat. But I don’t think this is a matter of looking back wearing rose colored glasses (we were more likely to wear those then, anyhow); we were a pretty happy lot.
      I also like the “OTC” reference; new to me. Given your theatrical background, you will appreciate that we typically compared Carl to The Man Who Came to Dinner.

  2. Suzy says:

    Your great story and photo brought back lots of memories! You are incredibly lucky that your assigned freshman roommates worked out as friends and roomies all four years! I wonder how many people can say that, at Harvard or anywhere. It’s probably because you really were, as you call yourself, “Mr. Adaptable.”

    Since I had the pleasure of living across the hall from your “suite of all suites” I had to check the box “been there” because it was literally true!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. You and Barbara were, of course, honorary members of our menagerie that year. But, as you noted at the end of your great story, it is probably best to have a little bit of distance from your roomies. That said, as you will recall, that was a pretty small hallway to be across from.

  3. John Zussman says:

    As Suzy said, it must be a rare treat when roommates stay together for four years. I find myself wondering when the housing office started putting mixed-race groups together and whether they work out any better or worse. You were very generous to include Carl and others; I’m not sure I would have had the patience for that, especially if he scared my girlfriend in the middle of the night!

  4. Kit says:

    I remember you guys! John, your sense of humor hasn’t changed in all these years. Thanks for such an enjoyable story. (And I’m impressed you got that picture—I know such things were possible way back when, but they were beyond my expertise.)

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