This is a piece I wrote on New Years Day as a gift for Wesleyan’s newspaper, the Argus, of which I was the editor in chief thirty-five years ago.
by Jennifer Finney Boylan
We put the Argus to bed about 4 AM, and then the editor said, “Chinatown,” and off we went. A little later I was eating hot and sour soup in New York City. The editor was happy because he was quitting. Almost everyone was quitting, leaving me in charge of the paper. That would have been fine, except for the one hitch which of course was that I didn’t know the first thing about anything.
I’d come to the Argus late— fall of my senior year, September 1979. I couldn’t have found an inverted pyramid if I’d been standing on my head in the deserts of Egypt. I wrote a clever column that autumn though, full of riffs on whatever was going on around campus, packed with sweet little heartbroken jokes. After a while I tried my hand at news stories, too. It was harder than it looked.
In the end I tricked a bunch of my friends, mostly Hermes writers, into working on the Argus with me. It was a heavy trip, man. Bluegrass and Irish bands played, more or less at random, in the editors office as we assembled the paper— an endless, physical process in those days before computers. The managing editor, whom I loved, emitted farts as the result of his all-soy-sauce diet that could knock out a large dog. We drew with markers all over the walls of the office— which then was on the corner of High Street, across from Alpha Delt. A guy named John Moynihan used to jump through the windows now and again wearing full pirate gear, pressing a cutlass to our throats and saying, “Arg.”
In some ways, that experience at the Argus was like my Wesleyan experience in a nutshell. In addition to my own fledgling scholarship as an English major—which wasn’t much—the main thing I took away from campus was a sense that having an imagination could almost save me in the years ahead. There were times, as the Irish band played and the air filled with farts and John Moynihan made the Sports editor “walk the plank,” that I thought the world beyond Middletown would be just like this: that somehow I would, in years to come, be part of a community of creative, sarcastic souls, that our pizzazz and stink would somehow change the culture and make America itself a slightly less terrible place.
But of course, there would never be a place exactly like that again, just as there would never be a place like Wesleyan 1980, either. Whatever piss and vinegar we managed to create was the result of a small group of souls at that time, in that place. This is probably just as it should be— each generation of Wesleyan students reinvents the place according to its own lights, and anyone who spends her time lamenting the past is probably missing the opportunity to celebrate the future.
Even then it was not unusual to hear people lament that the golden days had passed, that things had been so much cooler in some earlier Wesleyan era. Usually people who said such things were referring to spring of 1970, when the Grateful Dead had played a free concert on Foss Hill— but I knew a few administrators who clearly felt that the college had peaked in the late fifties and had gone all to hell since then. Years later, when I returned to campus to teach a course, my students, upon learning that I’d graduated in 1980, lamented that they hadn’t been around when things were really hopping’. What could I do, except try to remind them that the golden age always lies ahead?
Now, thirty-five years later, I still often think of those young writers with whom I decamped for Chinatown that night. One of us became a guiding force behind the San Francisco Bay Guardian; another worked for the Wall Street Journal. A third wrote a bestselling memoir. John Moynihan joined the merchant marines, sailed around the world, made films, and died young.
As for me, I came out as transgender and somehow, in spite of that complex unveiling, managed to survive. There were a lot of things that contributed to my being able at last to give voice to the things I had long felt in my heart, but one of the most important was having been part of Wesleyan, a place where, on a good day, you could almost believe that creativity, and love, and sheer cussedness itself, could help a person prevail.
When we got back from Chinatown that morning, I sat down on the front steps of Eclectic with a cup of coffee and watched the campus come to life. Someone was ringing bells in South College. I could not then imagine the world that was to come, but I felt as if something good was coming, that I had, at long last, become part of something larger than myself.
John Moynihan walked past me, wearing his hat with the skull and crossbones.
“Arg,” he said.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, 1980, is Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, a trustee of the Kinsey Institute, and a Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times. In 1980 she was editor-in-chief of the Wesleyan Argus.