Down and Out in Aldrich Park

I set out to do something crazy: sleep on campus for a week of classes. Not in any study center or building, I mean truly getting to the heart of UC Irvine. The ring within the ring: Aldrich Park.

The park was one of the deciding factors in my decision to come to UCI. I thought that I would be frequenting its grassy knolls to eat my lunch.

I should have known that this dream would never quite be realized. Hope of that peaceful lunch break was crumpled like a culture night flier. I would soon realize that peaceful times in the park are too often interrupted. The park turned into an antagonist, a bug-ridden patch of muddy grass more symbolic of being late to class than any kind of tranquil rest.

I was determined to prove myself still somehow connected to this campus.

The conditions were simple. I was to sleep in the park, each night pitching a tent where I wouldn’t be found. To discourage imitators, I’ll refrain from revealing the exact spot I used, save to say that it is at the approximate geographic center of the campus, a place known colloquially as the Hole. In my backpack, the essentials: my laptop, a few notebooks, a camera, some spare clothes, a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant. I’d still have to go to classes, obviously, and take all of my belongings in tow.

The one absolutely forbidden act, however, was to return back to my apartment. To call me homeless would be a distinct misnomer, as I was not homeless at all. I instead proposed to make our campus my home for four days. My neighbors the trees, my landlord the sky under which I slept.

Monday, the first of my four nights, was spent in perpetual fear. Though I had plans to get my tent up at a reasonable hour, a fear of being caught kept me from letting my friends go home without me. At 3:50 a.m., we had converged at the Hole, and, after my tent was put together, my friends were ready to set off. I bid them goodbye amongst jokes about a Chinese Jon Krakauer and that my spot, surrounded by spiraling prickled torch aloe bushes, looked like Narnia. The sound of a van roving around the inner ring, waiting to catch vagrant students like myself, cautioned them to leave.

“Good luck,” said Phuc, friend and staff photographer.

“Goodnight,” came a voice from the dark.

I was then alone, kept awake by arbitrary nighttime noise, ghosts of wind rattling the leaves of my paranoia. Every rustle became a threat. What if the police caught me? What if I had accidentally stumbled upon another man’s claim? What if I was staying in the nest of a family of raccoons? The answers to these questions were only returned to me as a garbage truck groaning in the distance.

“I’m kinda scared,” I wrote in my notebook under the faint light of my cell phone, afraid that the intensity of a flashlight might attract attention from the outside. “Being alone is terrifying.”

When I was finally able to drift off into sleep, it was more due to exhaustion than peace. I woke up at 8:05 a.m. the next morning, having slept little. As I began packing up, a hummingbird flitted in front of me and then sped off. Unbelievable, I thought, that something so sickeningly dreamlike would actually occur. I thought of Christopher McCandless, of Yeats’ cabin on the lake isle Innisfree amongst the bee-loud glade. Then I packed up and searched for a bathroom to brush my teeth.

Though I wasn’t permitted back in my own apartment, I was allowed to take a shower at the ARC’s locker room. The towels they provide are scratchy, but after sleeping outside, soap and a hot shower were the antidotes to the manic distress of panicking every time I heard the smallest noise.

The second night, I began to feel more comfortable. I set up earlier in the night, even though I was apprehensive about what life would be like hours before the last study center closed. I stood outside my spot in the bushes, and stared out at the anonymous spotted lights and listened hard at what noise still consumed the 1:46 a.m. stillness before me: someone blasting that song, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” on repeat; students still shuffling back and forth between their studies; random skittering; the occasional voice echoing from afar.

In my tent, I heard someone close by starting to play acoustic guitar and sing covers; the initial shock notwithstanding, I fell asleep listening to the kid crooning “Hallelujah” and felt the closest thing to true relaxation I had felt since I had slept in a bed.

It didn’t last long. At 6:40 a.m. I opened my eyes to what seemed like torrential downpour. No, I thought, the weather report hadn’t mentioned rain. Then I realized where the water was coming from –– a sprinkler that I hadn’t noticed, right next to where I was sleeping. Truly grateful for the tent, I rolled over and waited for the water to stop careening off the bright-orange top.

Outside, maintenance workers stared as I strolled past them with bed head and muddy jeans. They must have known I was there, I thought, but the paranoia didn’t linger.

Terror reigned that night –– having once again set up early, I became privy to a few unsettling details of the night. The path to my spot in the park was littered with upturned trash cans, promises of  unrest in the park. In my tent, I heard the howling and crashing of a gang of students, probably drunk, tearing up the park around me. I contemplated what I would do if one of them stumbled upon my campsite. Or worse –– what if their presence in the park alerted the police? Sleep-deprived and ragged, I began to see the park as my antagonist. I forgot the rose-tinted afternoon and the hummingbird. I wanted out. This place was going to kill me.

I was afflicted by a mania of space. Though I had made the park my home, I felt utterly rejected by it. After my classes, it never came natural for me to return to anywhere that was mine. I lost a sense of privacy, always changing and brushing my teeth in public bathrooms, taking showers in public showers. I was as a child living in an inherited mansion, a place grand yet seemingly menacing and haunted by the ghosts of my murdered comfort. I moved through these days, and the proceeding night, with a glazed-over misery.

Though we so often think Aldrich as symbolic of relaxation, it had become something else for me entirely: something to be conquered, the underbelly in the center of the campus. It is the place we feel we can dominate, having climbed trees or stayed in tents.

But in the symbiosis between student and campus, our park is no more conquerable than the Science Library or Engineering Gateway. It’s strange, I realize, to write about the school as if it were a living entity, able to accept or reject people as it sees fit. That said, I also lived there for four nights, and I can say pretty readily that it is as alive as any other sense of place. It not only lives with the wind rushing through its trees and animating shadows cast by lampposts, but with the students as well. Even in the middle of the night people will still be out playing guitar or smoking weed, drunk and knocking over trash cans. People will come back and forth, shuttling themselves out of the Gateway Study Center at its 3 a.m. closing time. The garbage trucks will always rumble in at 4 a.m. to gobble up their dumpster bounty.

What I wanted to get out of this project was a more intense connection to the campus. And I did get that, in a certain way. The give and take, the relationship I had with the campus  – these were all intensified ten-fold by my stay in the park. I found it alive, breathing even, as I became lost on its prickled belly.

I once overheard a conversation on Ring Road, late at night, between two girls who were fed up by our school. “I fucking hate UCI,” one said. “I don’t care who hears me. I fucking hate everything about this place.”

But then, one of my nights in the park, a few freshman friends visited. They were talking about how they were staying in Irvine for the summer because they actually liked Irvine.

“I could go home and get a job,” one said. “That wouldn’t be a problem. But I’ve spent eighteen years at home. I like it here. I honestly enjoy this more than being back home.”

The morning after my last night, I packed up my tent for the last time and tried to decide who I was. Was I the former, the student antagonized by academic pressures and the facade of relaxation in a menacing park? Or was I the latter, the one who was able to move past the panic and paranoia and see the open aired relaxation for what it was truly meant to be?

Carrying my tent and sleeping bag through the park for the last time, it was hard not to stop and listen to the Friday morning air calling out a hymn. Not the kind you hear in church, but an ambient shuffle: the sound of students walking through gravel.