On halloween night, I went with a small group of friends to explore a place we only knew as the stuff of urban legends. Some said it was haunted by sad and lonely souls; others said you had to sign your life away to enter. The air was chilly. The winding path was cracked. No one else was around, and the lights of the nearby seminary flickered their warning. We joked that this was how horror movies started and about how we were obviously the group that goes missing in the beginning to drive the plot forward. Without warning, the path ended, and the tower of the Graduate College loomed above our heads, announcing that we had arrived.
None of us knew exactly where the Debasement Bar was, besides that it was in the basement. So we descended into the unknown, where we listened for howls to point us in the right direction. One friend tried to separate from the group to go to the bathroom, but we wouldn’t let her. Rookie horror-movie mistake.
As we traversed down the stairs, the cramped, gray hallway suddenly opened up into a large common space filled with pool tables and couches. At the other end of the common area was the D-Bar itself. I had emailed ahead of time to ask that an exception be made in their strict guest policy. Usually, nonmembers needed a member to put them on a list. I explained to firstname.lastname@example.org that, as undergrads, we didn’t know a single grad student, let alone a member. The D-Bar organizers had been happy to oblige.
While the others put away their coats, I walked over to the lone grad student checking IDs, thinking I would have to explain that we weren’t grad students — but he beat me to the punch. “You’re Lillian from the email, right?” he said, before looking over at my group. “You and your friends are all over 21?” He had known we were different with just a glance. Were we so obviously undergraduates?
Our undergraduate-ness continued to make itself clear once we entered the bar. “Where are your costumes?” one of the emcees asked as we signed up for the Halloween Pub Quiz. He was dressed as Sandy the Frankenstorm, complete with neck bolts. We had planned on being “Princeton grad students,” but clearly, we weren’t fooling anybody. Even our humor was tastelessly undergrad. We were given the challenge of coming up with a team name, the best of which would win a pitcher of beer at halftime. We thought we were shoo-ins with “The Jack-Off-O-Lanterns,” though “The Trick-or-Teats” were throwing some heat. Instead, “The Ghost of Cesar Romero’s Mustache” won. Only after some extensive Wikipedia-ing do I now understand the joke. We even lost the chug-off.
That entire night, we didn’t talk to anyone else in the bar. Instead, we ended up clustered around the trash can, sipping the first beers we had ever paid for on Princeton’s campus. It was like we were the kids picked last for kickball or the heel of bread that no one eats. Or grad students at an eating club. All of a sudden, everyone around us started booing. “What happened?” I asked. “A question started with, ‘When he graduated from Princeton,’ ” my friend whispered.
I had walked into the D-Bar expecting the horrors of social awkwardness, but I suddenly wondered whether we were the monsters. We had always been told that grad students were strange and sketchy, that they crept around eating clubs searching for young flesh. And yet all the grad students around us were behaving like normal people at a bar. We were the weird ones, drinking by the trash can and avoiding eye contact.
On the long walk back, we joked about how we had bombed the pub quiz because we weren’t old enough to get the questions, but we were all shaken. It turned out awkwardness is not essential to grad students. “Well, at least we’re young,” one friend crowed. And we all laughed until it was quiet again. Because yes, we are young, but for how long? For how long?