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The Great Urksby: Princeton Revisited

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NEW YORK (MainStreet)—I recently returned for my fifth-year college reunion at Princeton for what, as this GQ piece clarifies, is one of the most raucous and grandiose events of its kind – a four-day pilgrimage attracting some 20,000 people, with alums dressing in goofy orange and black as if a container of Halloween has spilled over the edenic gothic campus in springtime.

Makeshift bars infiltrate Princeton's quads and courtyards, compartmentalized by fences and tents to preempt enforcement of open container laws. The rites culminate in Saturday's P-rade, where generations of Princetonians march through the campus's main artery, with the oldest conveyed in festooned golf carts and the youngest chugging beer and champagne.

What starts as a hajj to Central Jersey quickly becomes a jihad to propriety.

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Personally, I returned to congregate with old friends I do not have the opportunity to see (mostly the result of geographical constraints), introduce my wife to the atmosphere and people who constituted a formative period in my life, and revel in the traditions that distinguish this institution from others of its ilk.

Yet I happened to be returning in a $300,000 vehicle. By way of explanation, I had updated my Facebook status:

"Tomorrow at my fifth-year college reunion, I will be driving a Rolls-Royce Ghost EWB. It's obviously not the luck of the draw in the press fleet schedule; it's because I'm a kajillionaire."

 

The post garnered 52 "likes" and the attendant ego boost (ahem, a doff of my cap). Once I was on campus, the fleeting social media mention of the mysterious Rolls attracted further attention from former classmates. Of course, my sardonic boasting was clear from the outset: it's common knowledge among my friends and those in my social networks that my time covering the auto industry has lent me the opportunity to drive a number of fancy vehicles without the means to afford them. I hadn't, by express design, coordinated the dates to drive this iconic luxury car on my reunion weekend, but given the circumstances, I began to consider the undercurrents of appraising success that pervade any reunion.

Of course much of those assessments come through lives chronicled on Facebook as opposed to indistinguishable orange and black uniformity once physically convened. Reunions serve as check-in points for others where we can relativize our state in life against peers of the same pedigree. We take the temperature of fortunes earned or imminent, of houses bought, of spouses married, of children sired or birthed.

The sizing up that happens is probably in a slightly decaffeinated form among my cohort, given that my class graduated from college in 2008, walking the plank directly into the Great Recession. There are inevitably more of us who endured long periods of unemployment, others who reluctantly turned to grad school as a matter of necessity to accrue more debt. There are, to be sure, lawyers and doctors, folks working at top companies and thriving in their respective fields, book authors, TV show stars, creatives and those who have sold their start-ups for big money.

My return to what F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise called " the pleasantest country club in America" in a Rolls got me thinking on our value systems, our exhibitionist tendencies(in a voyeuristic social network world), the airs we put on. It called to mind what my elementary school teachers used to admonish: personality is how you act around others, but character is how you are when no one is watching. Given my recent rereading of The Great Gatsby ahead of watching the Baz Luhrmann interpretation, I had fresh in my mind a person overly concerned with his reputation, with how he is perceived. The faux and jocular luxury I returned with that may have inspired awe in others had it been genuine proved to me a simple fact: I would have felt uncomfortable ostentating my assets or success were my material accumlation such that I owned a Rolls. But I wanted to capture the sheer absurdity (and tragedy) of a character who was a little less MainStreet than I. And so, in teaming up with filmmaker Eli Obus, the satire The Great Urksby was born.

--Written for MainStreet by Ross Kenneth Urken

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