Feigning Individualism While Eluding Reality in ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”

Entering college can make for a complicated experience that often times produces more anxiety than pleasure. For students that have earned the opportunity to leave their hometowns, they enter into a world of great unknowns and even greater — expectations  making friends, choosing classes, entering social circles, and creating a bountiful future for oneself. The weight of it all can bear heavy upon the shoulders of the beholder. For those transplants, foreigners within a new land, it means that they must leave all of their comfort – friends, family, and location – behind and either integrate themselves or recreate themselves on a campus that they will now call home.

Merging yourself into a newfound culture and society can prove difficult while insulating your individualism. The unfortunate truth is that in retaining the preservation of the self that we prescribe unto ourselves, we tend to construct a wall between that which we view as harmful towards our personal character. Similarly, out of shame for the self that we know, we may also raise an ornate mask to deflect the pain and sorrow that follows judgement. Whether protecting what we hold dear or concealing our character, it is an escape from reality.

ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is an excellent insight on the self-enforced escapism from identity, authority, sexuality, and death. Through Dina, a black, female from Baltimore entering her freshman year of undergraduate school at Yale University,  Packer portrays the personal and social impairment that comes with the inability to accept one’s own identity. Dina’s failure to escape individualism — becoming both a social pariah and enigma — illuminates that the acceptance of reality is the only path towards actualizing individuality.

Upon arriving at Yale, Dina begins forcing a wall between herself and her fellow incoming classmates. Rather than simply taking note of the cringeworthiness that are ice-breaker games and the discomfort that comes with entering a prestigious, majority-white ivy league university as an African American, she utilizes these events and themes as means of separation. While playing a get-to-know-one-another game in which students describe themselves with a pertinent noun, Dina finds something critical in the response of each student. When her turn comes along, she describes herself as a “revolver,” an object that is notoriously dangerous used to scare away, incapacitate, or by extreme measures, kill, those that put the holder in a life-or-death situation. With this answer, she sends a message to her fellow students and counselors that getting to close to her would be dangerous for them. Rather than coming across through affable terms, even if they are forced and feigning interest, Dina decides to portray herself as a confrontational person. By pushing potential friends/acquaintances away through intimidation, she manages to reinforce her introverted habits and further excuses the ability to realize her own identity.

Dina creates constant struggles with authority figures throughout the story. Rather than allowing herself to play out the charade of interacting with authoritative figures in her life — counselors, psychiatrists, deans, etc. — she instead decides to continue acting confrontational, disobedient, and childish. Rather than acting along with the ice-breaker in the beginning of the story, she decides to present a violent sense of self — an attempt to foil the plans of the counselor by creating an uncomfortable atmosphere among the group. Afterwards, while she continues exhibiting conflicting behavior as well as nearly failing some classes, female counselors begin stopping by her dorm room. In an attempt to halt their unexcused entrances into her room, Dina begins sitting naked in front of the door, a grotesque display of childish behavior and an attempt to continue evading public interactions (following her “revolver” comment, she was given a single-dorm room). Rather than conforming to the freshman college lifestyle or the relationship defined between a minor character and an authoritative figure, she removes herself from the situation and enjoys her form of individualism — that of solitude and non-conformity.

Continuing with her preference for non-conformity, individualism, and isolation, Dina feels a disassociation with her African American community at Yale. One of the first examples is her perspective on the other black student in her freshman orientation group, one that she views as wholly different from herself: he is wearing an Exeter t-shirt (Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, NH) and for his “Good one, good one” comments matched with an outstretched smile and affirming head-bobbing in response to other student’s ice-breaker answers. Dina’s perception of this classmate is less someone she can identify with — someone else that understands her racial struggle in a majority white community — and more as an Uncle Tom, feigning whiteness to fit in to the group. She further mocks and chides a fellow black student that attempts to talk to her, insinuating that he will not graduate whereas she will. This is revealed in more depth when she recounts her experience while buying groceries back in Baltimore, interacting with the handsome boy with good shoes: rather than accepting the offer, she declines due to the shame she feels for herself, her family, and her background. Rather than choosing to confront her reality and interact with other students, Dina decides to create an escape from her identity. Ashamed of her status — an impoverished black female student attending an Ivy League university — she decides to continue secluding herself from others, hiding herself away in her room and repelling the one community she shares an identity with.

Due to Dina’s confrontational, isolationist personality, she has but a nonexistent social life — the majority of her time spent eating ramen while tucked away in her room. The only friend that Dina has while at Yale is that of a girl named Heidi. A relationship that begins as one with friendly, petty quarrels and conversations, it soon grows into a teeming, yet physically unresolved, romance. However, as important as Heidi is to Dina, going so far as to say that she loves her, she puts a wall up between the two of them. Even after Heidi comes “out of the closet,” opening herself to the campus’ LGBT community, Dina continues to remove herself. Rather than free herself and equally present herself as Heidi had, allowing herself to become individualistic (releasing herself from the grips of the past abuse from her father and the subsequent hatred for men she has fostered), she pushes the opportunity away, another that would mark her as a minority within the Yale community. For this reason, she once again decides to escape from her reality and fails to foster any sense of individuality and identity.

By living a life constructed of one lie attached to another, escaping her reality through the denial of the person she is, Dina’s acceptance and tenure at Yale prove futile. Finally, she returns to Baltimore a failure — having failed her classes, neglected a potential lover, ignored the minority communities that would have supported her, and ultimately betrayed her history — wherein she is unable to recognize that which makes her individualistic while further denying herself of any form of identity. Rather than accepting reality— her race, gender and sexuality — she neglects the possibility for love, happiness, and genuine comfort in life. Like the boy with the nice shoes, Dina pushes away her final opportunity acceptance in refusing to attend Heidi’s mother’s funeral. In refusing to accept the identities and experiences of others, Dina similarly refuses any hope for a personable, individualistic future, failing no one else but herself in the end.

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