The British rock band Pink Floyd, a staple of classic rock radio which had been around since the late 1960s, released an album last year, late in my senior year of high school, called The Division Bell. That would be their last album of new material, and their tour last summer and fall was their last tour together.
With increased attention focused on the band, their older material got played much more often on classic rock radio, and I went through a Pink Floyd phase that lasted for about two years. I had my CD of The Division Bell, as well as tapes I had made of a few other Pink Floyd CDs I had borrowed from a few friends in Building C. But during that time, much of my knowledge of Pink Floyd came from their Usenet community.
Usenet was the progenitor of the Internet forum, where people make posts to ask questions or share something and others reply to it. Unlike modern fora, though, Usenet only supported messages in monochrome text; no pictures, formatting, or emojis. I subscribed to a few groups once I got to UJ and started using Usenet, mostly groups for bands and sports teams that I liked. The Pink Floyd group was by far the most active of the ones I followed, and like many active communities throughout the history of the Internet, this group featured many people with strong opinions. There was much arguing on which of Pink Floyd’s songs and albums was the best. Bassist Roger Waters, who was the songwriting heart and soul of Pink Floyd during their heyday in the 1970s and provided lead vocals for many of the songs, had left the band in the mid-1980s, and there was much arguing about whether or not the two subsequent Pink Floyd albums recorded by the other band members were in fact to be considered legitimate Pink Floyd material.
Much of the activity on this Usenet forum, however, was related to a cryptic message that had been posted using an anonymous email address a few months before I started following the group. In June of 1994, someone using the name Publius posted a disjointed message saying that the Division Bell album contained a hidden meaning, and that there would be a reward for whomever solved the enigma. Two more Publius messages followed, and among them was a prediction that something would happen at a certain time at a Pink Floyd concert a few days later. At exactly the time predicted by Publius, the word “ENIGMA” appeared on a screen on stage, suggesting that whomever was writing these strange posts actually had a connection with the band. This led to a great deal of discussion and speculation about the true meaning of the lyrics and artwork for the album. Some of the theories behind the Publius Enigma were relatively ordinary, usually involving the band coming up with this idea to get people talking about the true meaning of the songs. Others came up with significantly more outlandish theories, with one user even suggesting that Pink Floyd had made contact with aliens, and that the reward would be getting to go with the band to the aliens’ home planet.
All of this got me a little obsessed with the possibility of secret messages in songs. Last week, I had made a tape of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, borrowing the CD from Aaron in the room next door to me, and I had pretty much listened to it at least once a day, sometimes more, ever since. The Wall was a rock opera telling the story of a rock star with a troubled past, building a metaphorical wall to isolate himself from the world and others, and eventually becoming a fascist dictator-like figure. It spawned a few hit songs in 1979 and 1980, including their most commercially successful song, “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2” (often known by its opening line, “we don’t need no education”). This was one of the first songs I ever remember recognizing when hearing it on the radio as a preschool-aged child, along with Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Supertramp’s “Take The Long Way Home.”
This was the first week of classes, and I was still getting used to my schedule. Today, Thursday, consisted only of a three hour chemistry lab in the morning. Our first lab today mostly consisted of lab safety procedures, with a very short experiment at the end so that the teacher assistant running the lab could demonstrate more procedures for us. Nothing too exciting. Nothing burned or blew up. The chemistry building, which in 1995 was just called the Chemistry Building rather than bearing the name of a significant individual in UJ’s history, was closer to the South Residential Area than any other building where I had ever had a class so far. Because of this, five minutes after my lab let out, I had already locked my bike, dropped off my backpack in my room, and started climbing the stairs to the dining hall.
I looked at the Asian girl with chin-length black hair climbing down the stairs and tried to remember why she looked familiar, whether or not I had actually met her, or if I had just seen her around the dining commons building. I remembered who she was just as we made eye contact: Tabitha, from Building B, who knew a bunch of people in my building because they were all part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. “Hi,” I said as we made eye contact.
“Hi,” Tabitha said as she passed me down the stairs. I didn’t know if she remembered me. Hard to tell.
After I got my food, I looked around for a place to sit. I knew exactly no one in the building, so I sat at a table by myself. I watched people walk past me as I ate alone. Friends laughing about something. Happy couples holding hands. A few other loners like me, but not many. Would I ever be part of a happy couple holding hands? There were times that I was at a table with friends laughing about something, but where were those people today? When I finished eating, I made a huge ice cream cone at the soft serve machine and brought it back to my room. On the way back, I saw Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis walking toward the dining commons as I headed back toward Building C.
“Hey, Greg,” Sarah said. “How are you?”
“Ok, I guess. Done with classes for the day.”
“Nice! See you later.”
I almost thought about turning around and eating lunch again just so I would have someone to talk to today. But that seemed a little creepy and desperate. I was feeling lonely, but there were still at least another ten hours of being awake today. Maybe people would be hanging out in the common room later tonight, or maybe I’d find someone to sit with at dinner.
I had math homework due tomorrow, and I worked on this in front of the computer screen while connected to IRC chat and listening to Pink Floyd’s The Wall yet again. Nothing interesting was happening; there were people in the chat room whom I had talked to before, but not any of the girls whom I had gotten flirty or sexually explicit with in the past. By 2:00, I had finished my math homework, and shortly afterward I got bored with the chat room.
I tried to take a nap, but thoughts that I could not silence kept running through my mind. I let my mind wander in a stream of consciousness. Another brick in the wall. Tear down the wall. Building my own wall. Being alone. Every day is the same. I go to class, I study, I waste my time in front of a computer screen. People talk to me, sure, but I’m not very social beyond talking. I never go on dates or to movies or out to eat or anything like that. Well, maybe occasionally, but today I wanted to do something and no one was around. Would I ever find my way and adjust to this new life? How long would this take?
I wished I had one more year at Plumdale High. I had grown so much last year. I was brave enough to do that skit in front of the whole school. I had people encouraging me, like Melissa Holmes and Lisa Swan and Jessica Halloran, even Catherine Yaras all the way from Austria. Jason Lambert and Stacey Orr and I dominated that debate in government class taking the conservative side. Stacey’s feminist views bothered me at first, but we agreed on a lot of other political issues, and we were friends for the most part by the time we graduated. I did some class competitions at lunch. We lost the overall class competition point total to the sophomores. They clearly cheated, or at least bent the rules, on the competition for best Homecoming float, and everyone who wasn’t a sophomore knew it. I was pissed off about that, and I hated the entire class of 1996. I worked hard on that float, and so did a lot of other people. But a month later, I met Annie Gambrell when I made that video for her group project, and she ended up being my only friend from the year that beat us. Annie was really cute, and a sweetheart too. She wrote a very encouraging and thoughtful message in the back of my yearbook last year, something I would expect to hear from a very close friend rather than someone I had only known for six months. But of course, Annie had a boyfriend, and even if she hadn’t, I probably didn’t have a chance with a popular girl like her.
I sat up. Nap time wasn’t happening. I turned the computer back on and spent the next few hours writing, putting my stream of consciousness to words. And not just any words. Rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. And not just any rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter; I also hid a secret message in my poem.
When we studied Shakespeare in high school , I had a hard time at first hearing iambic pentameter, because I was used to popular music that had four beats per line instead of Shakespeare’s five. But the form eventually grew on me. Sonnet 29 in particular has always been a favorite of mine. And the secret message in my poem was definitely inspired by the Publius Enigma. I envisioned this poem as the first in a series all telling a story around a common theme, much like how the songs in The Wall told a story around a common theme.
I got up to use the bathroom while I was writing, and I left the door open a crack in case anyone came by to say hi. I doubted anyone would, though. After an hour or so, I had my finished product.
However hard the lonely young man tries,
Each night he stagnates, tears come to his eyes.
Around him, people moving here and there,
Variety, in his life, very rare.
It’s not much like the past, with lots of friends,
Like those to whom his happy times he lends,
Yes, now he has friends too, but something’s gone;
In this place no one’s there to push him on,
No goofy acting role before his peers,
Friends care, but not like in his high school years,
Like helping him become one of their own.
Under their domination he had grown,
Each day becoming stronger than before.
New friends came knocking on his open door.
Come crashing down, great wall of ninety-six!
End all the hate! build bridges with those bricks!
Do videos! the memories will transcend;
Behold the liberal wonder, now a friend.
Yet suddenly, one happy summer night,
Pure happiness made everything seem right,
In fact, however, that night was the last;
Now all that happiness lies in the past,
Killed off by evil forces time has wrought;
Far, far away, his happiness is naught;
Long gone is all the friendship from before,
Once there, it’s hard to stop that upward soar.
Yet he believes that he might soar again;
Does anybody know exactly when?
“Greg?” I heard someone say from the hallway. Sarah poked her head in the door. “Is everything okay? You seemed kind of down when I saw you earlier.”
“I’m just having a bad day,” I said. “A lot of thoughts running around in my head.”
“Anything you need to talk about?”
“I feel alone, mostly.”
“You’re not alone. You have friends here.”
“Well, like, you guys are my friends, but I don’t really do stuff with you other than classes and living here. I’m not good at making plans with people. I didn’t really have friends back home until senior year, and I wasn’t the one making plans. I would just get invited to stuff. And, I’m not good with girls. I’ve never had a girlfriend.”
“Greg, just be yourself. I know a lot of people in this building care about you. I care about you. And we’re not out there having fun and doing stuff every night. Most of the time we’re studying.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“But I’ll try to make sure you feel included.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“You know some of us here are in a Bible study on Tuesdays. You’re always welcome to come to that.”
“By the way, was I interrupting anything? Are you studying?”
“No. I was… well, I was writing poetry about how I’ve been feeling.”
“Really? Can I read it?”
“Sure.” I didn’t feel like my poem was personal enough to hide from people, and I was curious about people’s reactions. I was also curious if she would find the secret message, or be curious about some of my oddly specific descriptions, like the Wall of Ninety-Six. She didn’t find the secret message, which was hidden in plain sight down the left side of the poem, reading the first letters of each line.
“That’s interesting,” Sarah said after she finished reading. “I like it.”
“I was thinking of writing a whole series of poems, kind of telling a story about this guy.”
“That’s a good idea. I didn’t know you wrote poetry.”
“I don’t really, at least not very often. But like I said, I was thinking about a lot of stuff earlier, and it just came out as poetry.”
“That’s really cool. Do you have anything else?”
“Well, I wrote another one a few days ago. A funny one. It’s actually a song parody.”
“I want to see it!”
I opened this file on my computer, which replaced Almost Extinct on the screen.
Amazing gas, how sweet the sound,
But oh, how bad the smell!
It kills your nose, makes trees fall down,
That’s how my old oak fell.
If there are lots of folks nearby
That you don’t want to see
Just cut the cheese, and they will fly,
The crowd will cease to be.
One man broke wind, his friend dropped dead,
They went for Murder One;
‘Twas just a heart attack, they said,
He walked, but it was fun.
Beware that wind from someone’s ass!
That pow’rful, putrid smell!
But if you want to smell the gas
Just eat at Taco Bell.
“That’s bad!” Sarah said, laughing. “And hilarious! Such a guy sense of humor.”
“I can’t help it. I grew up around fart jokes.”
Just then, the telephone rang. “Can you answer that?” I asked Sarah.
“It’s my mother. She’s the only person who ever calls me here. And I want to see her reaction when someone else answers.”
Sarah picked up the phone on the third ring. “Hello?” she said. She listened for a few seconds, and then laughed. “No, it’s not the wrong number. Greg is here,” she explained. She handed me the phone a few seconds later.
“Hello?” I said.
“Who was that?” Mom asked.
“Sarah. She was in here talking about something, and I just wanted to see your reaction when someone else answered the phone.”
“You got me. I was confused. I wondered, did I dial the wrong number? Did I forget Greg’s phone number?”
“I was just messing with you,” I said. I wouldn’t put it past Mom to forget my phone number, however. She tried to send me a package in 2008 that ended up getting returned to her after three weeks because she forgot my address. As I noticed Sarah gesturing as if she wanted to tell me something, I told Mom, “Hang on. Just a minute.”
“I’m going to let you go,” Sarah said quietly. “We’ll be going to the DC around 6 for dinner if you want to join us.”
“Okay,” I said. Sarah left and closed the door. “Sorry about that,” I said to Mom. “Sarah was telling me something. She just left.”
Mom and I continued talking for about 10 or 15 minutes. Most of the time Mom was telling me about work and people at church whom she knew and I didn’t. I told her a little bit about my new classes for winter quarter.
After I hung up with Mom, I started working on my chemistry lab report. It wasn’t due until next week, but I figured I may as well do it now while it was fresh in my mind. I was feeling a little bit better. It took me a long time to start being social in high school. I was still adjusting to the routine of being in college, and it might take a while here too. But I had some advantages here. In high school, I had never had a social life before, but since I started to have a social life at the end of high school, I knew a little more how social lives worked. And being in the IHP, living with people in my classes, I didn’t have to look very far to find friends, at least not as far as one would expect to look at a university with over twenty thousand students. Sarah was right. A lot of people in this building cared about me. Like Sarah and Krista and Taylor and Pete, with whom I had dinner at the dining commons that night. And they weren’t the only ones. There was also Liz and Ramon and Charlie and Caroline and Danielle and Rebekah and David and Keith and so many others, and having that many people who were becoming friends was not something to take lightly. I did not entirely realize at the time how fortunate I was to have an experience like this.
(Author’s note: These were actual poems I actually wrote in 1995. And I did continue the series that started with Almost Extinct, but I’m not going to share the rest here. It’s just weird.)