The Scav Spirit: A University of Chicago dad gets a first-hand glimpse at a venerable school tradition

1. A copy of the 2006 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt List. [1 point].

2. The ditto machine you used to produce Item #1. [60 points]

That’s how the list for the 2006 University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt began, and that’s how far I got into the list before I fell in love with it. A ditto machine! I had forgotten they ever existed, and I had even used one on occasion, back when I was younger than today’s college students. What an idea that was, to send one’s fellow students scurrying in search of an outdated technology no one could possibly have thought to preserve. This was truly a scavenger hunt worthy of the name.

48. It was hard to study for midterms without an inspirational 80s montage. Film one. [19.81 points]
53. An alethiometer. [6 points]
58. A love letter from Jordan Catalano to Angela Chase. [4 points]
81. The Katamari Damacy theme song played Jean Baudin style. [30 points. 1 bonus point per string]

That last one sent my eleventh-grade son into fits of hilarity. What the hell was “Katamari Damacy”? Who was Jean Baudin? He had to explain it to me. We pored over the list together, both convinced that we were encountering genius. We puzzled through the jokes neither of us got at first pass. Some we couldn’t figure out. As the know-it-all parent of know-it-all kids, I had, of course, heard of the University of Chicago Scav Hunt before. Blah, blah, blah nuclear reactor. Who hadn’t? (An acquaintance once assured me that the nuclear reactor was no biggie. Fully half of his 1970 Bronx High School of Science graduating class would have been perfectly capable of building one.) But until my son began to think about colleges, it had never occurred to me that, like everything else, the list was probably online somewhere, and that it might provide some insight into life at the University of Chicago.

That it did, or seemed to. But it was so much more. The Scav Hunt list was bona fide folk art–unhomogenized, specific to its culture, a textual artifact of a particular tribe. And, at the same time, real art. To read it was to eavesdrop on a conversation with a tradition we could only infer from hearing one side. (That is, until we downloaded some more lists and studied them.) Like all great folk art, it was also in dialogue with the outside world. The list was about Scav Hunt lists, and about the University of Chicago–or some slice of it–but also about what was cool right then, and what its authors dimly remembered from third grade. It wasn’t “outsider art,” the solitary hallucinations of a borderline personality; it was intensely social, full of community.

And, of course, my son fell in love with it, and through it with the University of Chicago. He carried the list with him for days, showed it to all his friends, none of whom really understood why he thought it was so great. This list provided evidence that somewhere in the world there were scores of people exactly like him, with precisely his sense of humor, but better at it than he was, more experienced. He longed to meet them.

All of which explains what I was doing at 8am Sunday morning, standing in the middle of utter squalor. My son had crossed the bar between mere literary appreciation of Scav Hunt lists and immersion in das Scav an sich, and luck had given me an opportunity to drop in and witness some of it.

Proust wrote hundreds of pages about the sense of deception and disappointment he felt when the romantic places whose names had fed his imagination–Balbec, Venice–turned out to be just tinny, touristy towns. But at least he got to meet a beautiful, mysterious, distant boy there, whom he could fictionalize as Albertine, a beautiful, mysterious, distant jeune fille en fleur. The boys strewn around the Scav team headquarters I had just entered weren’t beautiful, mysterious, or distant. Or clean. They were running around barking orders at each other and plotting sleep-deprived revenge against the judges for some transitory offense.

“Maybe we could build a trebuchet and shoot a flaming cat through their window? I mean, without hurting the cat . . .”

The girls looked a lot better, but they weren’t mysterious or distant, either. Some of them were actually getting things done; others were skillfully engaged in geek-herding, getting their male teammates back on task, although a few were just sitting there blearily staring at things no one else could see. Geek-herding was an aspect of Scav Hunt I had to see to appreciate.

All of this took place in several rooms and a hallway that looked like news footage of some suburb in Tennessee after the freak tornado hit. Objects, scraps of objects, objects that were garbage, objects begun and abandoned, and random objects recognizable as tools covered every possible square inch of space, but blown there, not placed.

With only a few hours to go before Judgment, the outsized, optimistic ambition of the Scav List had encountered Reality, and Reality was winning. There weren’t going to be any trebuchets with flaming cats, and it was pretty unclear whether a number of items on the list were going to emerge in any form. There was a pretty great bust of Lincoln made out of pennies, and a fine, if short, Excalibur sword actually forged from carbon steel. But the University of Chicago’s preference for theory over practice was biting everyone in the ass. Not every piece of scrap wood would hold a nail; a lot of stuff almost worked, but not exactly. What was supposed to be a funicular looked pretty much like the junk from which it was assembled. A Macy’s parade-quality float was out of the question. It was turning out that if you added even a little extra weight to a helium balloon, it sank rather than rose.

Nevertheless, as bedraggled students and their objects filtered into Ida Noyes around 11am, art and beauty slowly emerged from the chaos. Ida Noyes resembled nothing so much as a weird souk, not least because the first item in the Showcase was supposed to be a Bedouin wedding. “I left the rice in my room, and we need a bunch of Bedouins now,” one man whined into his cell phone. (How did they do Scav before cell phones? At several points, it seemed like every single person in the room was talking to someone back somewhere else on a cell phone.) But if nothing quite matched its fantastic description on the list, it soon became apparent that everything had something–a good idea here, a bit of solid craftsmanship there, a really nice costume.

In the early hours of the morning, people had been spinning paranoid fantasies about double-crossing by rival teams. But as Judgment approached, the prevailing mood was one of frank appreciation for what others had done well. People cheered wildly as ten people from one team marched in with their 40-foot wicker phallus, even if one woman stage-muttered, “It’s crooked. I’m just saying.” The first Bedouin wedding team had managed to barbecue a whole lamb, which made a real contribution to everyone’s food problem. Doors were held open, good efforts were acknowledged. Little touches drew applause, as when one pseudo-Bedouin refused to proceed with his wedding until the male and female judges had separated themselves, like the wedding participants.

The judges, it turned out, were far less arrogant in person than on paper. They actively looked for what was good and cool in each item and performance; they encouraged the presenters. The general level of competitiveness resembled a game of Twister a lot more than the Superbowl. It wasn’t really about their pride at all. It was a lot more about people participating in each other’s play on the border between wild fantasy and stuff that didn’t quite work, about the kind of fun that survived its transportation to Hyde Park. There was lots of hugging and high-fiving, too. People were glad to see each other, especially the ones who had been to Kansas and Las Vegas in the process.

I had to leave long before the “45 minutes” of judging was finished. I never got to see most of the items I would have loved to see. It didn’t matter. The list stands on its own as a work of art–somewhere, I hope, there are a few eleventh-graders for whom the 2008 list will forever be the standard against which future lists are measured–and the actual execution of the list was clearly less important than the vast social enterprise in which all of the hunters had participated.

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