Mysterious Ways by U2

I was going to go to Trent University. And maybe York University. They seemed reasonable. My guidance counsellor said I needed a third application. Because I was so into computers, he suggested the University of Waterloo. Sure, whatever.

(Many, many years later, I’m putting far more attention on my kids’ interest in post-secondary education. I won’t let them make a haphazard decision that could detrimentally affect the rest of their lives.)

At the time, in Ontario, you could only apply to three post-secondaries, and all had to be done through the Ontario government, via some dorky system to prevent overloading or some such nonsense. It’s changed since then (my nieces are now experiencing it), but the intent is the same – reduce the load on overloaded schools.

It wasn’t until I got my acceptance letters that I actually started to care. For the record, I was accepted to all three. But in the time from applying to the time the letters arrived, I had done a bit more due diligence and discovered that Waterloo seemed the better option, at least for Computer Science, which was where my interests lay. That I also got offered residence sealed the deal.

I still remember drop-off day. My parents took me on the 90 minute drive to the University of Waterloo, down University Avenue from the Conestoga Parkway, an extension of Highway 7 that came off the 401. It was a gong show of parents dropping off kids at Village 2, the westernmost residence on the south campus.

I found my room in South Quad on the second floor, the room number now lost to the distant past. From the parking loop on the south end of the building, I hauled my steamer trunk (because my mom thought I’d need it) and my assorted stuff (including my beloved Fisher multi-unit stereo system and speakers, and self-built computer) to my room on the west side of the building, on the second floor.

I met my roommate, Roger. He stood easily over a foot taller than me. I can’t remember if I immediately liked him, but very quickly we realized that we could get along, and that’s about the best one could hope for in a forced relationship. Our next door neighbours, Scott and Jon, were easily the best paired on the floor, but I still think Roger and I were solid.

My parents faded quickly into the background and let me settle in with a new life in university, a fact I don’t think really set in for a few weeks. I never had a crisis of being where I was – make no mistake, I was trapped in Waterloo, I had no car – and others in the onzaine had difficulty in their first few weeks. But I think I was lost in the adventure more than anything else … which might explain my marks in the first midterm.

Reality sank in about then.

We had some interesting characters on the floor. At one end was Ed, who would later become my roommate (with Roger) in a townhouse in 2nd year, along with Brian. Warren lived with Mike, both lovers of music, though Mike would frequently get the side-eye because he was a bit … reserved. Marshall was the youngest on the floor – he had the NO CHOH sticker until second year. I would work with Jason at Digital Equipment of Canada, in different cities, but both in the IT support group. Paul was the only gay person on the floor, and was excellent at stirring trouble. Dave was our floor Don, living in the corner, usually an instigator with “boat racing”, which I blissfully never participated in (basically, downing 8oz glasses of beer as fast as you could … no idea where the “boat” came into play).

Down the other side of the L-shaped hallway, where Roger, Jon, Scott and I lived, you also found Ron (and frequently his girlfriend, Nat), Dave (we had three Dave’s on the floor, this one in accounting, and a frequent participant in the Century Club). Oddly, I don’t remember most of the others, except for Barry.

Barry was, effectively, the floor nerd. Lovely guy, but he was the one who played D&D, ironed his underwear, and tucked his shirt into his sweatpants. (His roommate, Rich, wore a kilt once a week on his motorbike to attend the local Highland Reserve. I was the only one who managed to get him to say “skirt” instead of “kilt”.)

Two things I remember from Barry that changed my opinion of him completely. First, he was engaged in a “war” with his friends in East quad, pulling pranks on each other. One day, his friends duct-taped a hockey stick over the handle of his door (Rich was away) so that he couldn’t open it. We cut him loose.

But they came back, the next time layering pennies in between the duct tape, making it impossible to cut through. (Barry referred to it as Class 10 chainmail, or something like that.) That’s not to say we put much effort into it. We were “above” Barry, much to my present shame of how we regarded him. But we did eventually put a bit more effort into it. And while we were trying to unravel the many layers of duct tape … Barry appeared in the hallway.

This puzzled us, because he was supposed to be trapped in the room. But Barry had done something we hadn’t expected: he tied the bedsheets together, tied them to something (to be honest, I don’t know if I actually bothered to find out what he tied them to), and climbed out of his second floor window down to the ground. Like, standing ovation, folks. I don’t know I would have thought of that.

The second thing was one evening in mid-November. It was Power Hour, the one hour of the day when we were allowed to be as loud as we could. Break the equipment, sure, that’s on you. And Roger and I certainly did our part (but that’s another story). What surprised us was hearing the opening riff to U2’s Mysterious Ways.

It got Roger’s and my attention. We knew of the song, it had been on the radio for a couple of weeks in pre-release of the new U2 album, Achtung Baby. But none of us had bothered to go to the (somewhat) nearby HMV to pick up the album.

Except Barry. He had brought in one of the most expected albums of 1991, and he made sure we knew it.

Yeah, you could pass it off as a nerd trying to be cool. But there was something more than merely picking up the album. He could have just done that and left it there. But he played it, loud and proud. He was defiant.

It was my “don’t judge people by their cover” moment. Just because people tuck their shirts in doesn’t make them dorky or weird or stuck-up. They are. And embrace people for who they are, because that’s what makes us collectively better.