Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows of Procter Hall, illuminating the vaulted and gargoyle-covered ceiling, the stone walls hung with portraits of solemn scholars, and the dull wood of the tables that lined the spacious chamber, where a small group of intense twenty-somethings sat discussing Froot Loops commercials.
“It seems like the most recent theme is the toucan fighting to get the Fruit Loops back,” said a man sporting spectacles and a crew cut, referring to a new ad in which the product’s cartoon mascot, Toucan Sam, is attacked by a green alien who steals a box of the sugary breakfast food.
“I don’t like the marshmallows, though,” mused another man after a pause, now speaking about the cereal itself. “They’re too hard. I’d like them if they were soft, fluffy marshmallows.”
Moments later, a woman wearing narrow, dark-framed glasses joined the group, setting a New York Times and a plate of whole wheat toast on the table.
“I’ve been eagerly anticipating your arrival,” a mild-mannered Australian guy told her by way of greeting, turning away from the Froot Loops conversation. “I’m thinking of enrolling in the course you’re taking — the professor wrote a textbook on time series econometrics that’s something of a bible in the field.”
The Princeton Graduate College Superfly Breakfast Club meets every Wednesday morning to socialize, engage in intellectual discussion, and, yes, eat breakfast. Named after an impressively perseverant insect that finally met its demise beneath an orange juice glass, the club makes a show of being organized — it boasts a president, vice president, secretary and treasurer — but is really just a bunch of grad students eating bagels together.
Still, the breakfasters’ mannerisms call to mind the formality of an organized club as often as they evoke the familiarity of a group of friends. This seems weird, but only until you realize that such a mixture of goofy adolescent chatter and self-consciously stiff scholasticism — such a melding of the inane and the über-intellectual — is part of the unique grad student sub-culture. There, beneath the vaulted stone ceilings, the stained glass windows sporting Latin phrases, the spiked gothic tower worthy of The Lord of the Rings — there, among the bespectacled economists and physicists who talk of cartoons and econometrics — lurks just a hint of the idiot savant.
The Daily Princetonian put it more simply: “Grad students,” it informed incoming undergrads in the 2004 freshman issue, “are people who are smart enough to translate Kant into fourteen languages, but not smart enough to tie their own shoes.”
At one point during the breakfast gathering, a guy with wet, tousled hair and a three-day beard sat down on the other side of the woman with the dark-rimmed glasses — which she had inexplicably taken off before beginning to peruse her newspaper — and asked her for a section to read.
She tugged out one sheet of the Times, what looked like the Styles Section. “You can have any part except this one, which I will be purloining,” she said.
“Purloining? What’s that mean?” the messy-haired man asked, vigorously poking his cereal with a spoon.
“Taking,” she told him.
Meanwhile, the man who preferred fluffy marshmallows — a skinny Canadian physics student who’s into observational cosmology, and who’s so young-looking he could easily pass for an undergrad — discussed Ph.D. general examinations with a round-faced man wearing a red vest.
They came to the subject of students who had failed their exams; the man in the red vest had a friend who’d suffered that misfortune.
The Canadian physics student shook his head.
“That,” he said, “would suck.”
Later, the table-wide conversation turned to the war in Iraq and the Middle East in general, and the guy with the messy hair and the three-day beard was suddenly speaking more rapidly and articulately on the region’s geopolitical situation than any CNN talking head.
“When a region is unstable, you have religion or theocracy as a kind of touchstone,” he said at near-tongue-twister speed, explaining his worry that Iraq would metamorphose into a fundamentalist Islamic state like Iran. “You force people to try to find their own identity when you try to impose yours on them.”
The woman with the glasses agreed, comparing the authoritarian style of some Mideast regimes to the behavior of Princeton Township, and saying both were acting defensively against aggressive superpowers.
“Princeton the town has to be strong and autocratic to keep Princeton the university from overflowing and taking over the town,” she said. “And it would in a heartbeat.”
Her tousle-haired tablemate nodded.
“Yeah, I think in general universities can be fairly myopic about that,” he said — said the guy who didn’t know what “purloin” meant — renewing his attack on his cereal bowl.