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How to turn invisible and back again

senior column

It is truly amazing how many rooftops the average Duke student has access to, if only they’re possessed of a bobby pin, a good pair of climbing pants and a childish contempt for authority. Frankly, even one of the three will do.

Some of you know what I’m talking about already. Y’all: stop reading. Meet me up there. For the rest of you, unfortunate enough to have never been to a Duke rooftop (step one of turning invisible), hold on, and hand a friend your dangly earrings, keys, and Duke store lanyards. I’m going to tell you what they don’t want you to know. And we can’t have anything getting caught on the windowsill. 

First rule of rooftops: be careful by the edge. Second rule of rooftops: do not bring drunk friends. Third rule of rooftops: do not leave anything, do not take anything. Fourth rule of rooftops: do not get caught. Fifth rule of rooftops: it’s a verb, not a noun.

Ok, yeah, it’s true that ‘rooftops’ is a noun, not a verb. I know that! Don’t you think I know that? I even know it’s plural. Just pretend I am the wise old penguin at the end of a Disney movie. Heed my advice blissfully and uncritically.

Rule six of rooftops: never ask how to find a good rooftop. That’s like asking how to find a cool rock. The answer in both cases is to always be looking for one, and to be unafraid to get your hands all gross.

Seriously, it can get kind of icky. For some reason, the administration doesn’t want people on their beautiful gothic roofs (probably because the 90’s era ductwork up there ruins the illusion everything is a billion years old, (speaking of, did you know the Chapel’s brickwork gets smaller as you go up to maintain the illusion of height? And those stairs next to it were worn down by hand? Crazy!) but we don’t care about illusions, we’re trying to turn invisible) so they make sure to obfuscate rooftop paths behind all manner of cobwebs, crawlspaces and disused supply closets. Much like this paragraph, the resultant journey can be jarring. It might even take a few tries. 

The physical nature of finding a rooftop is predictably challenging—watch your elbows—but there’s also a psychological element. Security does not want you up there, and they care way more about student conduct than your sore elbows. Like, they do not care at all about your elbows. Stop bringing them up, it won’t help you.

And yet, beyond the grime and fear, there’s a joy to the search: through bathroom windows, up fire-escapes, beyond forgotten attics. I estimate I have been in 40% of West Campus’ unlocked storerooms. Most just contain mops. I am intimately familiar with a certain type of weird alcove that would smell of asbestos and mothballs if asbestos had a smell, so instead just smells like mothballs. But through that weird alcove? Sometimes, only sometimes, there’s a roof.

And what a variety! Every type of roof you could hope for! Big square roofs, tiny sloped roofs, roofs filled with rainwater half the time, romantic well-lit roofs with tables, poorly lit roofs with great Chapel views, gargoyle roofs, roofs you could almost reach but would need a grappling hook that’s taking two months to arrive because your friend ordered on a sketchy website, roofs that are really just paths to other, better roofs.

And sometimes, roofs that are perfect for looking. Roofs where you can gingerly sit down and look: at worn stonework, lights at dusk, people milling around. This may sound a bit creepy, but it isn’t. Unless you have perhaps a more well-adjusted outlook than me, in which case you may consider it to be a little creepy. 

Look long enough at Duke from the right vantage point, and you might get more than a view of a sunset distinguished by the Chapel, series of worn stone crests, or your friend’s oblivious head walking to class. You might turn invisible.

***

To be an editor is to be invisible. (This is the part of the column where I try to sell you on the idea that climbing on a rooftop is the same as being opinion editor of The Chronicle. Strap in, and kindly ignore any associations you may have between height and superiority. I didn’t fully think this metaphor through. I am definitely an incredibly humble person.)

An editorial job well done is one where the author shines, unencumbered by comma errors, ponderous tangents, or horrible social faux pas, which have all hopefully faded into the distance of Google docs’ track changes function. Their idea is honed, from notes in their phone to something polished, streamlined, and ideally really really clickable on Twitter. It won’t get them sued, it will engage with dialogue on campus, and it will represent not just themselves but the depth and breadth of discourse at this University. And the audience is as unaware of the invisible team behind the byline as the rich guy in Inception after he’s incepted.

Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Some authors, for example, really want the whole thing to be a social faux pas. Go figure. And it is truly painful not to be able to write a response to every take I think is limited, muddily conceived, or atrociously wrong on the basic foundation of reality. Invisibility has its cost.

But other times? Being invisible rocks. When you’re not in the spotlight yourself, you can get others in there. You can hire a class of columnists representative of the University. You can work to change the historically white, male institutions of the academy and newsroom. 

I can’t always speak my mind as directly as I did as a columnist, but I can work to make sure that others can. And I’ve been lucky enough for those others to be some of the most eloquent writers and thinkers I've encountered. They’ve written about gait, climate, stories in stone. Everything from the church to char siu

Ultimately, I’ve learned to love the invisible: the comma error you never read, the clunky title that never makes it to you, the paragraph forever relegated to the depths of google docs. There’s something nice about being out of sight. There’s something beautiful about the view.

***

And now it’s over. I’m visible again, just another Duke student with opinions. I’ve left the rooftop, and soon no one will be the wiser. 

I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past year ruthlessly bullying this university on everything from racial equity to trademark law. And now that it’s over, I hope you’ll indulge me in one last, guilty hot take: I love Duke.

I love the engineers who get upset when I pretend never to have been to e-quad, I love the biologists studying conch vision, I love the Econ 101 dropouts, the frazzled pubpol socialists. I love the spikeball players, the BC loungers, the professors, the staff. I love the Wayne corridor that always stinks, the magnolia in Kilgo, the service tunnel that leads to McDonald's. I love the Chapel! Pink and orange in the sunset, resplendent in the rain. On a good day, after a few drinks, I even get close to loving the neocons.

I love the gardens in spring, at night, at sunrise, in the afternoon. I love the willow oaks, the buttresses, the greenhouses behind BioSci. I love the tunnels. I love the warm cobblestones on my bare feet. I love my friends. 

Even though I’m going now, I’ve loved the view.

Mihir Bellamkonda is a Trintity senior. He served as the V. 116 Opinion editor after working as a managing editor and a columnist. He has, on various occasions, violated his own rules for rooftops.

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