From Oct. 7 to Oct. 11, I lived for free on campus. The rules I laid out for myself were as follows: give up my residence hall key, spend no money on food, attempt to not sleep in residential halls or colleges and tell no one about my situation. I acted as if my WildCARD had no meals on it. Needless to say, my week was difficult, awkward and at times comical.
I’m a bit nervous about this whole experiment. It’s a cold day despite the fact that the weather was decent two days ago. Walking to the El station for class, my friend looks at me and says that I look “grumpy.” I think I’m pretty grumpy all the time, so I don’t think too much of it.
Fast-forward to lunchtime: We walk into Allison Dining Hall. I say that I lost my WildCARD. “Can I have a guest meal?” My friend on the block plan can’t help me. As I begin to wonder whether everyone is on the block plan, my friend with 14 meals per week saves me. I’m also carrying around fresh undies, shirts and a blanket in a giant blue bag, which is more than half my size. I say it is “journalism equipment,” and no one questions the wrath of Medill.
For dinner, I go to a Peer Adviser reception, where there is free food and hot cider. As I leave, I try to take a tray of uneaten food so I don’t die of hunger that night, but the security guy doesn’t let me. It’s just broccoli, but he still confiscates my contraband.
Feeling rejected, I go to the McCormick Tribune Center to do work. I have a friend here who gives me crackers. Suddenly it’s 1 a.m. and I realize I’ve just been sitting here avoiding the cold. Where am I going to sleep? I feel my eyes start to flutter.
I awaken to the sound of breathing close by. It’s only the McTrib cleaning staff, but I’m frightened. They leave really quickly, and I look out the window. The sun is ready to rise and I realize I’ve spent the first night in an academic building. I follow another student - not creepily, I swear - into Allison, and she unlocks the door to the main lounge. I sit on the couch and do some reading.
Apparently I pass out at this point, according to a friend who saw me sleeping on the couch. I do not recall this, but I do recall going to lunch. I use a different friend’s guest meal— I’m trying to avoid asking the same people over and over again.
I edit a journalism story and attend some meetings. The time passes by quickly, and I realize I haven’t eaten dinner. I find a bag of nuts on the side of the street - unopened, thank goodness. I leave no nut uneaten.
I realize I didn’t shower the night before. That’s awkward, but at least I was saving water? I am on South Campus and I don’t want to hike to SPAC, so I use one of the McTrib bathrooms. I take some paper towels, douse them with water and rub only my arms, legs and face. There’s a group project crisis. I go to someone’s room to work on it, but it’s late and I start to doze off. I sleep on the foot of my friend’s bed, thinking about how the rest of this week is going to go.
I wake up to the realization that I am super gross. I leave my friend’s room and go to Allison to change. I end up half-naked in the third floor bathroom, looking at myself in the mirror. Someone is coming in, and to save myself from embarrassment, I shove my bag under a stall and trip over the toilet as my shoulder hits the wall. Ouch.
It’s time for my journalism class, which requires a trip to Edgewater. I have no motivation for this right now. I lug my giant bag to the Davis El stop. When I go through the turnstile, it gets stuck. It takes me a few tries to get through. All week, I’ve avoided explaining what’s in my bag. I’ve been saying it’s “journalism equipment,” but as journalists, these kids are not going to believe me. “It’s a bunch of sports balls,” I say. I like sports, but I wouldn’t lug a sports bag with me around town. No one questions me though, so I’m safe. The professor brings free doughnuts to class. I could not be more thankful.
Back on campus, I use another guest meal. My friends urge me to buy a new WildCARD. After lunch, as I carry my plate to the washing area, my bag slips and falls to my arm, sending the plate of food flying. My leftovers are on the ground, on my bag and on me.
For dinner, I ask a random girl at the check-in counter if she would be willing to give me a guest meal. She hesitates, but then says yes. Small acts of kindness make such a difference.
Kresge is closed. McTrib is closed. Where am I going to sleep? I find myself in a seminar room on the fifth floor of the library. I eventually hear, “The library is now closing.” I start to doze off when the door opens. I throw my bag under the table and launch myself under there too. A janitor takes the garbage out, turns off the light and I am alone once again. I get in a chair, try to hide myself and fall asleep.
I wake up at 8:10 a.m. The library opens at 8:30 a.m., so as soon as the building opens I run down the stairs and exit unscathed. I go to class and then trek all the way up north to shower at SPAC, which I’ve never done before. Everything goes well, although one kid judges me hard for trying to stuff my enormous bag in a locker.
My face is getting furry - I need to shave. I don’t have lunch, but I go to Norris to recuperate. Then I have a meeting up north again. Get at me, blue bag.
I go to my friends’ dorm and swipe some of their food - probably far more than they would have liked. My dinner is Cheetos and Doritos. At least I’ll have a bangin’ bod at the end of the week?
It’s late and I’m still hanging out with my friends up north. One of them lives off-campus and decides to leave.
I say that I want to visit his apartment because I haven’t done that yet. This is true, although the real reason is because I want to sleep there.
I get to his apartment, say hi to his roommates and quickly fall asleep on their couch. Last thought: How will I get back to campus for class?
I jolt awake, freaking out that I missed my 9 a.m. discussion section. I go to the door. One of my friend’s roommates taught me how to unlock it so I could leave, but I totally forget how, so I jiggle a couple knobs, make the loudest sounds possible and finally escape. I see a shuttle sign and it’s one of the buses that goes to campus. I get to Kresge and then realize that I’m 30 minutes early.
Later in the day, I go to cover an event for my job. I work for University Relations, so I sometimes film campus events. I go to the Block Museum for its preview of the Block Spot Lounge, a new hangout space for students. The event volunteers get free Jimmy John’s at the end of filming and I casually ask if I can have a sandwich. It works! I carry my sandwich to Norris and eat it alone on the staircase between the first and second floors.
I then go to another group meeting looking tired and disheveled. By the time dinner hits, I feel really bad asking for another guest meal, so I hide behind a crowd of people approaching the Allison counter. I sneak behind the wall at the right moment and get in. At least two people give me the up-down glare and walk away. As if I care. I just want food.
It’s time for A&O Fall Blowout. I really don’t want to miss it, so I slap myself in the face and say that I will have a good time.
I learned a lot about myself during my week of free living. I learned that I’m not as mean as I think I am. By Friday, I felt bad mooching off people - and this is coming from me, probably the biggest mooch ever. I also learned how hard it is to lie. I almost accidentally let my free living plans slip a few times.
Furthermore, I realized our perceptions of people are not always correct. If I saw someone I didn’t know lugging around a giant bag, half-asleep, unshaven and generally disheveled, I would probably be guilty of judging him or her. We tend to think we know everything, but newsflash: We don’t! When people looked at me in a you-are-weird sort of way, I thought, “You don’t know my life!” I think I might have said it out loud on multiple occasions, too.
After spending a week without room or board, I can say that my bed and the janky dining hall orange juice are my two best friends. We often take dorm rooms and dining hall food for granted when we should be thankful to have them at all. After sleeping in the library and literally eating food off the streets, I can honestly say I’ve never been more thankful for what I have in my life.