The GusAt the risk of sounding creepy, I have to admit that I’ve been intermittently preoccupied with this person-- http://asecular.com/--for the last 20 years. It was around twenty years ago that he showed up at the cooperative dormitory I had just moved into during my freshman year of college. I don’t think he has any idea who I am, and I don’t actually know his real name. But I, and countless other people, know him as the Gus.
The Price of Freedom
The Gus had been expelled from the college for setting fire to his dorm room in 1989, but he returned to the co-op the following year anyway. He lived in the various service rooms around the kitchen, and spent his nights writing graffiti all over the walls of the basement bathroom. I was a little out of my depth at the co-op—I had grown up in a small working-class town with former bohemian parents who aspired to enter the middle class, but hadn’t quite gotten there. I was not sophisticated, and desperately wanted to hide this fact. The Gus strained the limits of my attempts at jaded indifference. His proposed design for the co-op t-shirt was: “Harkness: Our anal hairs follow us like tails.” Later, he wrote on the bathroom wall: “Doomed to purgatory is the soul who farts during cunnilingus, but Damned is the soul who farts during rimming.” I don’t think I even knew what rimming was.
But it wasn’t only the things he wrote, the Gus was just scary. He was handsome, but in a grotesque, comic-book way; his head seemed too big for his body, and it always drooped down to one side. I had trouble looking him in the eye.
One morning I went down to breakfast and found all 100 dining room chairs arranged in a column from floor to ceiling. A friend recently told me that the Gus had intended it to be a sculpture representing DNA. It was beautiful, but there was no place to eat. It was around this time that the college found out that Gus was living in the basement of the co-op. The school got a court order to prevent him from entering campus. Instead of scaring him away, however, this measure only encouraged the Gus to hole up in his basement graffiti bunker, leaving only at night. The few times he did venture out during the day, he put a brown paper bag over his head, with holes cut out for eyes. I remember seeing him like this, riding a bicycle through town. The Gus, it seemed, was capable of a deep-seated rethinking of reality.
From the very beginning, there was some tension over Gus’s presence at the co-op. He wasn’t paying, and some members weren’t happy about subsidizing his room and board. But he was popular, and had a growing group of followers who made him the center of our social universe. Those who were not part of this social group grew more discontented when it was reported that he had drunk an entire gallon of vanilla extract from the co-op’s kitchen, and pissed in the sink where we cleaned our pots. Still, the Gus had supporters—the most senior and influential members of the co-op defended him, and asked others to be patient and understanding of his limitations, addictions, and eccentricities.
This calculus began to change when the Gus drew a giant penis being castrated by an axe, with cartoonish drops extending out to show a bloody splatter. The graffito was right next to the kitchen door, and was laconically titled “Yikes!” Some of Gus’s friends were deeply disturbed by the drawing. They understood it as an indictment of the entire feminist, anti-racist, egalitarian ethos of our co-op, and it turned them against him.
With the “Yikes!” controversy, residents became increasingly polarized around the issue of the Gus. Co-op leaders accused him and his friends of engaging in anti-social, misogynist, and frat-like behavior. The Gus, in turn, dubbed the co-op’s two camps the Cows and the Sweets. The Cows were those members, like myself, who were too cowardly, conventional, and limited by political correctness to accept the radical freedom modeled in the behavior of the Sweets. The Sweets, in turn, stayed up all night drinking and smoking, wrote fantastically disturbing graffiti on the walls, and delighted in leaving large bowel movements to languish in the toilets of our communal bathrooms.
The Gus Controversy was a formative experience for me, all the more because of my relative naiveté. It demonstrated, in a concrete way, the relationship between freedom and responsibility, and the dangers and necessities of social limits. The Gus continued to be an occasional fixture of my remaining time at college. After I graduated, stories of the Gus became amusing reminders of the craziness of those years, and with some of my friends, “Yikes!” remained a sort of shorthand identifying anti-PC backlash.
The Gus Is Everywhere
Then there was a lull that lasted a number of years, when I knew and heard nothing of the Gus. It ended when I was living in Los Angeles; my close friend G. sent me a link to Gus’s online journal, something I had never heard of. The page she linked to had an entry from January 1990, and mentioned G. and I as bringing a number of less sophisticated freshmen from the conventional dorms across the Quad into the rarified circle of our co-op. In this passage, the Gus described a flirtation with one of these friends of mine, a very pretty blonde, in which he was strongly attracted to her but feigned indifference until she left, disheartened. He concluded: “There is something warm and beautiful and cruel and sublime and appealingly sad about being pursued by someone sexually whom you really do also want and not doing anything about it.” His behavior toward my friend, and his understanding of it, may have been strange, but it was also remarkably self-reflective. The Gus was clearly not who I thought he was.
I also learned from his journal that he had just moved to Los Angeles. A strange coincidence, I thought, but it quickly left my mind. I was finishing my doctorate, and soon after got my first academic job, in rural Virginia. During my first year in Virginia, I went to a college reunion. I was telling my friend S. where I lived. “Oh,” she said, “that’s where the Gus grew up. And he lived there again after school.”
This was interesting. Now I had lived in three of the same places as the Gus. I asked around Charlottesville, VA, and the Gus had indeed been a well-known character there for a number of years. I also met my husband in Charlottesville. Early in our relationship we went on a trip to New York, and he introduced me to some of his close friends. “You went to O. College?” my husband’s friend D. asked me when we met, “Did you know the Gus?” She had read about him years before in Salon—the article was about the (then) new phenomenon of online journals, and he was a pioneer of the form. She clicked on a few entries in his blog, which included explicit details of a sexual encounter he had with K., a woman in Michigan. A few days later, D. had drinks with a friend who was in town from Michigan. She complained to D. about the affair her friend K. was having with a man who posted the details of their relationship online. “Is his name Gus?” D. asked.
Of course it was.
The next day D. emailed the Gus and said, “Hi, you don't know me but I met K.'s friend, and the cat is out of the bag, you’d better tell K. you are telling the world about how you [performed various acts with her]...” Apparently, he did tell her, and they ended up having a relationship for a couple of years.
I told her some of my stories about the Gus, and she already knew a few of them because she had worked with W., a friend of mine from college. W. was not at all surprised to learn that the Gus was at the root of the whole online journal phenomenon. She recalled that the Gus wrote very personal journal entries, including details about other people, and then, during the summer, taped pages from the journal to empty drawers in the co-op dorm rooms, where they were found the following fall. She recalled that, “chaos ensued.”
Returning to Virginia, I ran into my future brother-in-law. He asked me about our trip to New York, and I told him about my conversation with D. “Oh yeah,” he said, “I knew the Gus too.”
It All Comes Home
A year or two later I was talking to my friend G. (who had first sent me the link to the Gus’s blog). We grew up in the same small town, and she had just returned from a visit to her mother. “You’ll never guess who I saw in a bar back home—the Gus!” She introduced herself, and he told her that he had recently married a woman who had gone to college with us, and they had bought a house in a small town upstate.
My sister lives in that same town, and it is only a few short miles from the house where I grew up. This meant that the Gus and I had now lived in four or five of the same places, some of them quite obscure. I wondered if we were unintentionally stalking one another. Were we supposed to meet again and become friends? Incidents of common connections with the Gus continued to multiply. With a new job, I had moved back to New York and began to visit my family more regularly. Would I see the Gus there—in the grocery store, at the gas station, eating in a restaurant?
It was at that point that I looked at his blog again. He is prolific, and writes long posts, often accompanied by photographs and video, nearly every day. Sometimes his posts are long-winded, slightly obsessive explanations of tech stuff. But mostly they are amusing, articulate, and self-reflective. The Gus is obviously a person worth knowing, but I am also unable to shake the image I have of him from 20 years ago. I doubt that we will ever know each other, and I guess that’s fine.