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Intersecting Orbits

Is college the primary — or only — time we willingly embrace roommates not of our own choosing?

I recall a piece in the New York Times a few years ago that detailed a trend of roommate curation, whereby successful adults sought out compatible and complementary cohabitants with the intent of maximizing opportunity — for square footage, yes, in high-priced Gotham, but also for mutual cultural and culinary benefit. An art gallery curator, for example, interviewed potential roomies with chef aspirations, or literary connections. Designated roommate nights might feature shared cooking, wine tasting, and book-club conversation. Kind of a self-curated creative salon.

It was intriguing to think of adults, established and self-sufficient, seeking personalities not just to go halfsies on rent out of a necessity but for mutual cultural nourishment. The concept sort of upends the experience most of us have in college, where financial constraints and limited housing options were likely the last factors that led to shared quarters with one or more roommates that we didn't screen for deliberate compatability.

I know universities these days typically do pretty extensive surveys of their incoming classes to gauge backgrounds, preferences and needs. Roommate pairing isn't random. But when I went to college in the 1980s, most of my new university housing options each year had a high degree of randomness to the pairings. It was kind of spin the wheel of shared potential.

Some of my best bonding, especially freshman year in the dorms, came from luck of the draw. They became the friends with which I later shared university apartments with, filling two of three of the berths in a four-person unit. But it was the random mixes that provided some of the most memorable — and challenging, boundary-expanding.

The engineering major whose singular focus on his studies kept him from joining every late-night burger run but who left as a note when he moved out during graduation week saying he'd loved having us as roommates even if he never once went out with us, and wishing us a great summer vacation because he assured us that after studying his ass off for eight months, he was going to party like there was no tomorrow before he began his new job.

The skinhead anthropology major who turned us on to 2 a.m. drives to West Covina, home of the original In N Out, punk rock, and some of the most challenging conversations I'd ever had.

The music conductor who strode through the apartment most hours with headphones on and an orchestra baton in his hand. He'd pack us into his Volvo for runs up to Tower Music on Sunset at midnight, in search of new classical CDs. He was the first person I knew to actually purchase a Mac computer, ponying up some $3000 to by one of those Mac classic boxes, the ones with the 6-inch grayscale screens. This purchase was for a single music program he used, but he was cool enough to have also bought the game "Lode Runner" and to let us play it obsessively when he wasn't working.

The fratboy, who shared an apartment with three of us solely because it was close the Row, where he had pledged and whose nightly parties made a crash pad and staging area essential. He spoke in stereoyptical "dude-bro" accent and brought his laundry home, via his Benz, to Beverly Hills to be done by the family maid twice a week.

I doubt that any current-day roommate-matching software would have brought most of us together, or that if we'd seen such one another's profiles and preferences in a database we'd have picked each other as roommates. But I'm really glad I had the experiences of sharing daily interaction — challenging, line-crossing, mind-opening, unexpected — with each of them.

And, yeah, in a city with a vast array of personalities and cultural opportunities, I could envision seeking out grown-up, aspirational roommates to conjure a grown-up parallel to the random roommate draws of college.

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