Plumbing the Inner Soul
The University of Chicago, known for its wacky essay questions, this year let members of the freshman class dream up four topics to torture applicants. Christopher Wand of Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J., chose this question: ”In a pivotal scene of a recent American film, a videographer — a dark and mysterious teenage character — records a plastic bag blowing in the wind. He ruminates on the elusive nature of truth and beauty, and suggests that beauty is everywhere — often in the most unlikely places and in the quirky details of things. What is something that you love, because it reflects a kind of idiosyncratic beauty — the uneven features of a mutt you adopted at the pound, a drinking glass with an interesting flaw, the feather boa you found in the Wal-Mart parking lot? These things can reveal (or conceal) our identity; so describe something that tells us who you are (or aren’t).” Mr. Wand responded with the following:
I have, for the past several years, worn a subway token around my neck on a thin black cord. This coin has no great story attached, no humorous anecdote, no hair-raising tale of danger averted by a simple coin. It has stopped no bullets, derailed no trains, it hasn’t even gotten me back to Grand Central from the Met when I was out of cash. So a question I am asked quite often (mostly by myself though by a fair share of other people too) is, ”Why wear it?” or perhaps: ”What does it mean?”
My first impulse is to declare, as so many abstract artists have in recent years, ”It means what it is.” This is, of course, a cop-out. If that is the sole reason I wear this subway token, why not wear just anything around my neck? Certainly there must be some reason I wear a subway token. With all due respect to abstract artists, this response, brilliant when first uttered, quickly grows weary with repetition.
I suppose I must admit that one reason I wear it is as part of an elaborate gag. Whenever someone asks about it and I’m in a joking mood I begin to tell them that it is an ancient Tibetan coin inscribed with the ancient inscription ”Good for One Fare” (pronounced goud for oh-nay fahr-ay). Their faces always light up with fascination as I invite them to take a closer look. The look on their faces as they declare in surprise, ”It’s just a subway token!” is absolutely priceless. The moment as they realize the humor of the situation, just before they begin to laugh along with you, is positively sublime. When you pull it off just right it’s a beautiful thing — you really should try it some time. The occasional laugh, however, is more a happy side benefit of wearing a subway token than a real reason to wear one 24/7.
One reason I wear it is because it’s something familiar. It’s nice to know that I can always press my hand to my chest and feel the knot that holds it in place digging into my sternum. I have only two pieces of jewelry that I wear all the time, my subway token and my watch, and as I have something of a facility for losing watches, the subway token is the only article of clothing or jewelry that I’ve had for more than a year or two. I feel more comfortable with the familiar weight around my neck, the same way I feel more comfortable in my own clothes than in someone else’s.
Of course I inevitably get philosophical about my subway token, and when I do I always come up with two contradictory explanations. The first is a rehashing of the ”it means what it is” argument. This argument actually becomes quite viable if one is willing to do some reading in aesthetic theory. In Heideggerian terms, I’m rendering the subway token nonfunctional, and hence bringing it into the realm of consciousness. By taking it out of context I’m forcing people to look at it, changing it into something strange and beautiful, rather than commonplace and functional. Perhaps I am motivated by the same impulse that made Duchamp put a urinal on the wall of an art gallery.
The opposite explanation is that the subway token means something by meaning nothing; it is a small monument to meaninglessness. I am as paranoid as the next person, and like most of us I see patterns everywhere in the world, patterns which may or may not actually be there. Perhaps my subway token is a reminder not to ascribe the same amount of importance to the pattern that every time I drop a ball it falls to the ground as to the pattern that I do well on a test whenever I rub my lucky rabbit’s foot. Perhaps it’s a reminder that life is only so organized as to make us uncertain even of uncertainty.
Or maybe I just like the way it looks.
When Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., asked applicants for the fall semester to ”Comment on an experience that helped you discern or define a value that you hold,” Geofre Schoradt of Mount Vision, N.Y., modeled his essay on the college’s promotional fact sheet, far right. He also found common ground with Williams’s bovine mascot:
I know you’re busy, as much as I wish you weren’t this particular year. But, I’m probably not the only one to have figured out that Williams would be a great place to get an education and spend the next four years. With so many factors to consider, so many applications to read, and so many people to evaluate, it must get incredibly hectic for you. I know that my application is just one of a multitude that must get processed before the final decisions are reached. I appreciate all that you’re going through, so I won’t burden you with hundreds of words trying to convince you that I am right for Williams. I’m hoping the facts will speak for themselves.
Number of beef cows on my grandparents’ and parents’ adjoining farms.
Average number of times per week the cows decided to switch between my parents’ and grandparents’ farms.
Approximate number of cows that actually reach their intended destination.
Estimate of the number of miles per summer logged tracking errant cows.
Approximate number of tons of manure shoveled in my lifetime. I’m sure a college with a cow, purple or otherwise, for a mascot will appreciate the value of such a skill.
Year I will be entering college and my brother, Schuyler, will be entering kindergarten.
Number of TV film crews at Professor Edward’s anthro 101 class that I attended during my overnight visit. He discussed ancient Afghan cultures, which I would find interesting at any time, but it was particularly fascinating at this point in our history.
Miles from my house to my high school, driving time to school. (I’m an out-of-district tuition student at Cooperstown Central School.)
Number of historical artifacts in my room, including Trench Art lamps, helmets, swords, a shield and a morning star.
Number of books in my room, number of history books in my room, number of atlases in my room.
438, 114, 11
My ranking of the military history section in the Williams Library.
Number of World War II helmets cleaned and cataloged at New York State Historical Association, number of hours per week I volunteered there, number of weeks worked.
25, 3, 8
Value of living in the country when the leaves turn, the snow falls, the rains come and the cows wander.
Re-printed from the New York Times