It wasn't until late into my first semester at UC Berkeley that I found the thing that would simultaneously scare me shitless, and define my entire college career -- Cloyne Court Hotel.
What is Cloyne, you ask? Let's just put it this way, had Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters began their magic trip in New York, their cross-country destination would have been Cloyne Court Hotel.
Cloyne is the biggest cooperative (coop) living community/house in America, totally student run, complete with elected managers and Sunday night councils. Cook teams of six perform magic when they make dinner in the communal kitchen for all 150 residents (7:00 p.m. signals an aggressive fight for hippy slop that will make you feel like you are in an orphanage). Running a house of this size is an incredible feat that takes the efforts of everyone, which is why each person is assigned a weekly five hours of workshift to do anything from pot wash to garden duty to roof fixing to hot tub maintenance.
To me, the house was the definition of ultra liberal "Berkeley" -- hula hooping kids in a muraled circus house studying something like microbiology or physics on the side with some of the best professors in the world. It was straight out of the '60s, and though I was infinitely attracted to its culture of free spiritism and openness, it terrified me because it was the ultimate social machine, and I was the ultimate recluse.
That's why I knew I HAD to live there.
Before I knew it, a girl in dreads was showing me to my new bedroom in Cloyne, and there was no escaping my 149 new housemates and the challenge of having to fool them into believing I wasn't a total spaz.
People were constantly around, and going downstairs for a snack meant awkward conversations with at least five people, or worse, no awkward conversations and sitting alone. Ritualistic retreats to my bedroom for deep breaths and some Charles Shaw Two Buck Chuck became necessary for my mental health... not in an alcoholic way, but in a college way, ya know?
As the semester rolled on, I was amazed and annoyed by everyone's apparent ability to slip into cliques and transform their identities overnight from clean-cut white privileged kids to fit a house image of longhaired pseudo flower children, obsessed with composting and Kombucha. But I knew my judgment of this "hippy uniform" came from the frustration that I was unable to acclimate like they could, and that, in some ways, I would always be an outsider.
I refused to be defeated and continued the cycle of going downstairs to talk to people for a second, getting nervous, retreating to my room, wine, downstairs, nervous, back to my room, wine, deep breaths, downstairs, wine, retreat retreat retreat! Etcetera, etcetera etcetera.
My room, "my space," became my safe haven and reward for exchanging a sentence with someone, and lucky for me Cloyne had no rules against decorating your bedroom however the hell you wanted. Despite this freedom, however, most people's rooms involved some kind of tie-dye sheet on the ceiling, twinkle lights and a Bob Marley poster with a spider plant and Mason jar on the windowsill.
For me, coping manifested in facades that hid my debilitating social anxiety, but also in the spaces that I could create to physically hide in. This is why I decided (subconsciously at the time) that my bedroom would be different from the rest -- it would be a space of self-expression and triumph over the house and my insecurities.
In the midst of an often filthy massive place that sometimes smelled like urine, sometimes had rats, sometimes had hallways lined with dirty dishes, I created a "Versailles."
It started with cabernet red paint.
I enlisted housemates to help me cover the white walls with the royal color. Then someone offered to give me a massive "royal" mirror with an elaborate gold frame. When I saw the gold against the red, I knew I had to run with the theme. I started calling my room Versailles, and bought shimmery brown drapes for my windows and antique sconces with long white candles for the walls.
Soon my room had become a "thing," and people knew about it. They started giving me accessories for my palace. A gold crown, a music box with fake pearls (luxuriously) spilling out of it, a quill and ink set; I was even given a big upholstered chair that I called my throne. Pictures of old English kings in gold frames hung on my walls, fake yellow flowers, and the translucent paisley gold fabric over my closet was a nice touch.
Walking through a hallway littered with empty 40's from the night's party, to enter a room with a jug of red wine, flickering candles, and classical music made Versailles an experience.
My room, so drastically different from the rest of the house, was a blatant demonstration of my poor adaptive abilities, but my excellent coping skills. I felt comfortable in Versailles, and returning to it for a small hyperventilating sesh after some anxiety-ridden encounter was always helpful since the room reminded me of who I am, and my ability to carve out a space that is ironic and funny and me.
The real beauty of Versailles, however, was that its making required the contributions of many. I needed three people to help me paint. I needed that one guy to hang up my heavy mirror, I needed that girl to drive me to the antique store so I could get sconces, and I wanted that other girl to go to the Dollar Tree with me to pick out gold things.
The "coping mechanism" that was meant to hide me, exposed me fully, and before I knew it I had accidentally made friends with those that had helped me create Versailles. My room was a path to privacy and gateway to coming out, and when it got to the point where I was throwing Versailles-themed parties in this space that I had once considered to be an escape from people, I knew I had overcome the challenge of Cloyne Court Hotel.
So there ya have it. Everyone has good and bad things to say about Cloyne, but my experience of this infamous historic place was not defined by the naked hallway races, the baby oil wrestling in the kitchen, 100+ people food fights in the backyard, punk bands in the dungeon, head-to-toe mural covered walls and psychedelic experiences, dread locks, meditations and drum circles in the living room, yoga in the back, trampoline flips, howling on the roof, kitchen table dance parties, rainbow painted school buses, the most kale you have ever consumed or the pirate raids unleashed on neighboring houses.
Like most things in my life, my experience was not shaped by the thing itself, but by the coping mechanisms I had to develop to deal with it, and lucky for me, my coping mechanism turned me into a queen.