I feel like I’m becoming a fake person. (That’s what I said to my friend who was standing next to me as we waited for our names to be called. We were in the middle of the “Great Hall,” both of us were looking up the stairs to where the officers were sorting out the next round.) Like, I feel like I’m making a version of myself up for them and then measuring myself by it.
After a moment she responded. Really? But I mean like, they’re just conversations.
Which, now that I think of it, is an interesting question. Is there a substantive difference in the conversations we have during bicker versus in those everyday encounters? Aren’t we always trying to come up with a version of ourselves that another person might like? On one hand, obviously not. Normal conversations don’t begin with standing in a “Great Hall” of a mansion, in a crowd of people wearing very expensive-looking sweaters either talking to one another or just staring up at the landing, waiting for someone to come down the stairs holding a piece of paper and call their name over the din.
It’s the lighting here, I think, I’d said earlier. It doesn’t feel like a real place.
Normal conversations don’t involve a bored, tired upperclassman going through the “list of questions they just like asking everyone” which “are not meant to be intimidating or scary or anything like that” and don’t involve a tired (but probably more stressed than bored) sophomore weighing as carefully as they can manage before a response.
But those aren’t the ones I’m thinking about, the ones I’m worrying about. Those suck, everyone knows that—unimaginative, inexplicably stressful. I’m talking about the few bicker chats with plausible deniability, that could be, for all intents and purposes, except for maybe a quiet lingering psychological effect, be a normal conversation.
So where are you from? one of my bickers asked.
And that’s where it begins: The first question, the first identification. I didn’t have this figured in my early “conversations.” In the second of ten, my bicker asked me to give a broad overview of what I did on campus.
I write, I guess.
What kind of stuff do you write? (Silence.) Any specific clubs on campus, or…?
Um a few places I guess. And edit a bit.
By the second day I had it figured out: poet, playwright, sometime theater director. Yes. Yes. I know, I know, it is kinda a weird thing to be serious about. But I am. Really. All sorts of stuff, but usually about where I’m from. New Mexico, do you know much about it?
It was only afterwards that I wondered if boxing my identity up like this for something sinister I ostensibly don’t care about might be a little problematic. But I did it in the next round anyway.
I didn’t think I’d see you here, I said to an acquaintance who was waiting in the “Great Hall.”
Have to say the same for you.
I didn’t expect to see myself! I responded, then walked to the other end of the room.
Which made me wonder, again, why am I here? Why was I standing in the “Great Hall” of Ivy? Isn’t it inexplicable that I’m here, a person who has repeatedly stated in public and private that the Eating Clubs are, if not dangerous, then certainly idiotic institutions. That it makes me slightly ill to think of my classmates spending their parents’ money to sit, eat, and eventually throw loud disgusting sticky ragers in mansions just off campus. That I cannot imagine myself sitting as a college student at a table with a tablecloth and candelabras being served by an adult whose job it is to dress up and serve me food on a regular Tuesday afternoon.
And yet here I am.
I won’t get in, I always clarify to people. And if I did, which I won’t, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.
Then why are you bickering?
For the vibes. Or, alternatively: For the fun of it.
Is it fun? On the first day, I thought it was. I’d walked over alone. There was a friend I was trying to meet, but something got confused over text—was he already there, or way behind me? So I stood leaning against the tree in front of Ivy for a few seconds ostensibly checking my phone but really looking around to see if I knew/recognized anyone until I realized a bunch of members—right?—were looking down through the window so I decided to head inside.
I opened the door. There was a crowd. I’d expected just a few. It was loud. Officers were on the landing wearing green and gold ties. The color of the air was odd, saturated, like I was in a movie or had stepped back in time.
I found my friend a few minutes later. We (the “bickerees”) had been instructed to write our name on a piece of paper and pass it up the stairs where they were sorted, mysteriously.
This is hilarious, said my friend.
It’s so preppy.
We were both smiling.
After a long time waiting at the back of a crowd for my name to be called I had my first of ten conversations. It wasn’t bad. The waiting, I mean. I didn’t really talk to anyone; insofar as there were groups, there were groups and they stuck to themselves. Mostly the kinds of people I expected: Rich and white. But it wasn’t all white people, which slightly reassured me, even though the only Ivy member I know isn’t white and I basically am.
Yeah. I mean— What’s the last name.
I can’t pronounce it. VIE-o-RIH…
He told me that the crypt—this underground library which was surprisingly bright and green-tinted—was his favorite place in the club, where he got all of his work done. We sat down and had what felt like a conversation about machine translation. When about twenty or so minutes had passed he said something like, we could talk about this all day but. Which worried me slightly because I figured the longer these things went on probably intuitively the better for me, but this was before I conceptualized that I would need to do ten of these things and they had to do twenty. So back to waiting.
The day proceeded like this. There was something eminently pleasing about selling myself to strangers. Not only in spite but because the conversations were artificial. A game I felt like I could win.
My third bicker told me to not tell anyone about her spot: We snuck up to a nook on the second floor, by the library. We took cookies and pretzels on the way up, sat propped against the wall, talked about home, childhood pets.
You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a massive dog person, you know.
I don’t think I’m hiding it. It’s just something that doesn’t come up very often.
People might like it.
After my third, I ducked out. A group project meeting in, like two minutes. So sorry. But, great to meet you. As I walked out into the clear, normal-colored air I sent my friend a text:
bicker is so much fun
I couldn’t sleep that night. For no good reason. Because—the idea goes as follows—I don’t care about this. I’m doing this for fun, I’m doing it to meet people. I don’t care if I get in or whatever both because I don’t care what these upperclassmen think of me (or what anyone thinks of me) and because I certainly don’t care about getting into their little club.
Then why can’t I stop thinking about it?
The second day was less fun. Evening. Club even more full of people. Louder, have to lean in to even hear what people are saying. Experienced the phenomenon of “Double Bicker”— that was fun. Fumbled a question about “my favorite conspiracy theory”— that was fun.
Ten minutes each. Five in a row. Could barely tell the difference between one and the next.
Last day went in with considerably less enthusiasm. Ivy was empty, only four people waiting.
This is great, my bickerer said as we sat in a recessed window, watching two games of pool play out in front of us. The sight lines were incredible: I could see all the way to dining room, people milling about in soft, candle-colored light. You get to see what Ivy’s actually like.
And I had what seemed to be, what could have conceivably been, a regular conversation with an interesting person. The threads of bickerstress had, at least momentarily, detached.
Towards the end, he said something like you know, I try to tell everyone who bickers here to have a sign-in club that they really like.
I said something very quickly like oh yeah. I don’t really care how this goes.
That’s good, that’s good. He nodded slowly. I think that’s a perspective not everyone has.
Not much later I left. It was over.
But for the next few days I couldn’t get Ivy out of my head.
The night I signed up for bicker, I called my mom in New Mexico and told her something like, I’m worrying that I’m fundamentally veering off who I thought I was as a person. That this means I’m bad.
Of course you aren’t.
It’s just such a dumb thing to do. It doesn’t matter. Like, why am I doing this?
I think I would do it. Just to give it a try. Just to see what it’s like.
It’s not like bickering Ivy is something that’s permanently inscribed upon my conscience. (Well, unless you believe in that kind of thing. In which case it sorta is.)
I remember one of my bickers saying that she felt weird about the whole being served thing initially, but I got here and it really wasn’t that bad.
Because, on one hand, it really isn’t all that materially different from what happens in the other eating clubs, or for that matter the dining halls. It’s still being a college student getting food brought to them on a platter, proverbial or real, so that we can focus that precious attention on our studies. Or whatever. The only difference (I’ve sometimes thought) is that Ivy’s way of doing things has an aesthetic of ickiness, classism, elitism. That’s its biggest problem. But isn’t it also the biggest draw, vis-à-vis the dining halls, or the other clubs? It’s pretty. It makes you feel like you’re in a movie, or in a different time. Not in a place where normal things happen and normal people live.
At the end of the day, I realized eventually, there’s only one thing separating each and every person bickering from the other people on this campus. I’m sure there’s a lot of other stuff, wealth, legacy, international, frat, status, whatever. I, for the record, have none of those things.
The only thing I did have in common with everyone there was a willingness to bicker Ivy. I guess that’s also the only thing being a member would guarantee. That everyone you’ll eat with for the next two years was willing to make the same one-time, maybe-probably-elitist decision that you were. The rest is—to a certain degree—just dumb luck.
After my second night of bicker, I checked in with a friend who was not bickering. The plan went, I was going to try this dumb thing but we were both going to sign into Terrace.
Are you going to rank Ivy first?
I don’t know. I might just put Terrace.
What’s the point of bickering Ivy if you don’t rank it first?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
Well, enough time has passed and I know exactly why: Because if you bicker and rank a sign-in club first, that means you really did just bicker for fun, and you really don’t care what people think of you. Or it means that bicker worked correctly, and after having a taste of the club, you realize that the atmosphere it creates just isn’t for you, and you would be happier elsewhere.
That or it’s a defense mechanism. Running away from what could happen, good or bad.
In the end, I decided to make the decision with the most interesting potential consequences. I ranked Ivy first.
I got hosed.
I was mad at myself when I realized I was disappointed. Against all my best intentions, I’d bought into the process. It had ceased being something dumb and fun, became something I cared about, despite the fact that the “prize” at the other end was deeply ambivalent at best. On the other hand, no surprises here. Just bicker working as intended. If you go through with it you’re already devoting time and mental space to the club, seeing how pretty it is, seeing what people are like there, imagining—whether you want to or not—who you might be in their shoes.
Never mind the fact that only a few of my bicker conversations felt genuine. Nothing against my bicker-ers; the process is set up to sharpen the everyday problem of artificiality. It’s impossible to know whether the person I’m speaking with actually likes me or if they’re just nodding along so the conversation moves forward and they can go on with their day. Exacerbated by the fact that bicker is purely transactional, on both ends. How can bickerees be trusted when they may very well only be feigning interest so they have a better chance at getting into the club? And members are contractually obligated to pass judgment, carefully perpetuating the policy of exclusion which benefitted them in the first place.
So yeah. Bicker sucks. No surprises there, either.
What still doesn’t make sense to me—what I still can’t wrap my head around—is why I enjoyed bicker. Why knowing what I know now, after getting almost nothing out of the process but moderate disappointment and a few awkward encounters with the people who bickered me, I would absolutely do it again. Is there really little enough to do around here that ritualized social stratification (as Professor Jeff Nunokawa termed it) feels like a valid weekend activity? Or might bicker be salvageable? Can talking to people with the idea of best intentions in mind be enough to overcome legitimate qualifications?
I wish I had the rhetoric to resolve bicker, to form a coherent meaning or message from it. I can’t. But I met a few interesting people. I experienced something I never thought I would experience. Maybe that’s enough.