Close Quarters

Six 20-something Wildcats find group living in D.C. to be hectic, noisy and enriching.

by Janessa Goldbeck

Video: Six Wildcat Alumni Find Friendships at Face Manor — See more videos from Northwestern magazine.

It's 9 p.m. on a Monday, and humanitarian aid groups have just been kicked out of Darfur. I'm sitting on my bed at home on a conference call with my team at work. We need to prepare a plan of action.

From downstairs the electronic beeps and blips of a Mario Kart game mingle with the gleeful shouts of my roommates Joey and Mike, who are racing each other for what must be the 300th time.

Above the fray I can make out the creak of the front door opening and someone's heels — must be Sophie's — crossing the living room into the kitchen. She owes me rent. I make a mental note to get it from her when I get off the phone.

The whole house still smells like bacon from yesterday's brunch. "Who drank all my wine?" another roommate bellows to no one in particular. I cover my phone and step into the bathroom, where it's quieter, to finish the call.

It's not like I intended to move in after college with five other Northwestern Wildcats, each with his or her own equally messy life, an appreciation for cheap wine and a variety of personal quirks that range from endearing to downright strange.

But the idea snowballed. First I got a job in Washington, D.C., working for a nonprofit organization. Then two of my friends from Northwestern who also live in D.C., Mike Tong (WCAS07) and Kelly Dougherty (WCAS06), mentioned over drinks that they would like to live in a group house with a nice front stoop, if we could find one.

Next thing I knew my freshman year roommate, Sophie Miller (WCAS07), decided it was finally time to leave Chicago; a guy named Joey Rodriguez (WCAS07), whom Mike knew from college, quit his job as a prison guard in St. Louis to come work for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; and my old Willard Residential College floor mate Brynn Rubinstein (WCAS07) finally landed a great job in public health after months of waitressing.

We found a six-bedroom house in the Columbia Heights neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C., on Craigslist and moved in last July in the middle of a heat wave. The place, which was rambling and enormous and had crown molding — molding! — around the 20-foot-high ceilings, was christened "Face Manor" because of its size and the large carved face that hung on the exterior, above the front door. That first night we toasted the face with a bottle of champagne that our landlord had left in the fridge as a welcome present.

Three days later, wandering home from the bars, Joey was mugged. It was a nice house, but we could only afford it because it was in that kind of neighborhood.

The summer slipped by, a haze of weekend barbecues on the front lawn and camping trips in West Virginia punctuated by workdays spent attempting to be successful young professionals.

As the fall rolled in, our friends working on Barack Obama's (H06) presidential campaign in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia started to send us lists of voters. On random Wednesdays we would each invite a couple of friends over, and suddenly there would be 20 people with cell phones glued to their ears in the living room, cajoling voters in Orlando to vote for a Democrat, using fake Southern drawls: "Why do ah have an 8-4-7 area code? Um, wonduhful question, Eugenia, but back to the real question … are you happy with the direction this country has gone in the past eight years?"

On Nov. 4, D.C. went for Obama by 93 percent. Election night was like being on the inside of a firework. Everything exploded — the streets filled with dancers, drums and broken glass. Strangers hugged and wept openly. Even the police officers -— holding their arms spread wide to slow the human tide spilling into the streets — were grinning from ear to ear. We called our friends on the campaign in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia and screamed into our phones. Running to the White House in the light rain to join the thousands gathered outside, I slipped and ripped my tights. I texted my mom in California: "Something is stirring in America tonight!"

By December Brynn, Kelly and Sophie were hunkered down over their laptops, writing application essays for graduate school. Joey was dating a new girl — no surprises there — and Mike was torn between business school and a life in the art industry.

I was also in flux, having just ended my first serious relationship, one that had carried me through the last year of college and into my first year as a young adult.

We were all in transition, but to what? When you're a kid, there's high school and all its angst and new freedoms to look forward to. In high school you dream of college — going to awesome parties and becoming smarter than your parents. But after college the world is wonderfully — and terrifyingly — wide open. Over the next few months, as letters from graduate schools began to slip through our mail slot and the economy tanked and the genocide in Darfur raged on, the questions became sharper and ever more urgently into focus for each of us: Who am I and what am I doing here?

"No one ever tells you how complicated your early 20s are," Brynn says, one hand holding an old salsa jar that is functioning as a wine glass. She's sitting on the couch in the living room, legs propped up on the coffee table, using her other hand to thumb through work e-mails on her Blackberry. It's not a complaint but a statement of fact.

"It feels wrong to say it, when you look at all the people losing their jobs around us and you see all the people coming out of school right now who can't even find entry-level jobs," Brynn continues. "But there are so many things I want to do and so many places I want to live and so many different ways I could live. We're the luckiest because we have so many opportunities. But that almost makes it harder. I want to have a family and a successful career. I want five careers. And every choice I make now takes me closer to one thing and farther away from another."

The front door opens — it's Brynn's boyfriend, Adam, who's heading to law school in California at the end of the summer. She is still deciding between one graduate public health program in New York and another in Washington state, neither of which will make maintaining a serious relationship with a guy in California particularly easy. I slip off the couch and head upstairs to give them what passes for privacy in our house.

Our lease expires at the end of August, and when it does, Sophie will go off to Harvard, Kelly to Columbia, Mike to a new job in San Francisco, and Brynn … TBD. As for Joey, he's bored at the patent office but has a letter of inquiry in to the National Science Foundation. And although I live every day to do my job — I love it that much — I'm getting antsy, too. I've been in one place for almost two years now, which feels like a long time. But I guess it's not as long as the rest of my life will be, and I've still got a while to figure that out.

Janessa Goldbeck (J07) works for the Genocide Intervention Network in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization that empowers individuals and communities with the tools to prevent and stop genocide.