Last spring, I was surprised to learn that I am famous for something that happened 16 years ago. That’s what happens when you get mixed up with the KGB, I guess: Your exploits come back to haunt you. I’d had no idea that anyone was still talking about Operation Confuse-a-Bagger, much less that Shawn Knight’s retelling of the legend was on YouTube!
Then, just recently, I happened to look at Lynne Powell’s blog. She’s a good writer and had just won the LJ Idol competition, for which she wrote a number of great essays, like this one about running out . . . and this one about KGB and Operation Confuse-a-Bagger.
Both times, it was a shock to hear/read this story, in which I am a main character, told so differently from the way I recall it! I know, I know, there’s “the folk process” and the unreliability of people’s long-term memories and the fact that no one person was present for every part of the Operation, and of course Shawn had to trim the story for live performance and Lynne had to work it into the parameters of her competition. I don’t mean to say they did a bad job of telling this story. It’s just that it actually happened (according to my memory) somewhat differently than they said, and I think they left out (or got wrong) some of the funniest parts!
Obviously, the only way to get this story told right was to tell it myself! I got in touch with KGB and went on the Underground Tour (KGB’s annual guided tour of the Carnegie Mellon University campus) to tell the story in a duet with Shawn. It went pretty well, considering that we hadn’t, like, rehearsed or anything. We stuck to the part of the story he’d told before but got the facts straight this time. (He very graciously responded to most of my corrections by saying, “You’re right; I forgot about that.”)
But it’s still not the whole story, and that’s why I’m writing this.
No, no, not that KGB! This one. It’s everything Lynne said and more. It’s the place for geeks, all kinds of geeks, even people like me who might not seem like geeks because we have some fashion sense and don’t know C++ but who always felt like weirdos in our white-bread high schools, to get together and be ourselves and do some weird, silly stuff. It’s a big group of friends who take care of each other, with an electronic bulletin board where you can always find someone to take care of your houseplant for the summer (thanks, Mike!) or insist that all your troubles will seem smaller if you come over to his dorm right now for caramel ripple ice cream (thanks, Dale!) or send e-mails to your lonely dad when he has to work late on his 50th birthday (thanks, everybody!). It’s a group in which a shy person like myself can become actually sort of popular and get elected to office and find herself giving a weekly extemporaneous oral report in front of 50 people and loving it!
I was recording secretary. KGB refers to this officer as “rec sec” for short. I developed a habit of signing all messages regarding official business “—‘Becca recca secca” and I am known by that name to this day. Once in a while somebody will come up to me at a bus stop or someplace and say, “Hey, aren’t you ‘Becca? recca secca?” and, even if he/she is not wearing a trenchcoat or carrying a bag of tangerines, I know it must be a komrade.
Here’s how I joined KGB: During the Activities Fair held in the first week of my freshman year, I noticed two guys sitting behind a table with a lava lamp on it and a giant banner across the front reading, “DO NOT LICK.” I asked, “What is this?” and one of the guys replied, “We’re the KGB. Would you like some dental floss?” I took the floss. The other guy said, “Underground Tour. Friday, 8pm. Meet in Gray Matter. Dress inconspicuously.” I went on the tour, but before that I found my way to my first meeting by following the mysterious signs that said, simply, “THATAWAY” with an arrow. How could I resist? I joined that day.
Among the many nefarious projects of KGB was an endeavor to reach out to potential members by over-representing the weirdness available to them, should they choose to attend Carnegie Mellon. Several times a year, the university holds an event called Sleeping Bag Weekend, when high school seniors applying to Carnegie Mellon can come and sleep on the floor of a dorm room and spend a whole night and day experiencing campus life. These people are called Baggers. KGB’s aim was to Confuse them.
Operation Confuse-a-Bagger took place at least once before I started college. We repeated some of the same strategies that had been used before, as well as making up many of our own.
I offered to host because I didn’t have an uncool roommate to cope with; my roommate had moved in with her friend, but since her friend already had a roommate she couldn’t change her official address, so Housing didn’t assign me a new roommate. My friend Kevin suggested that he move into my room for the Operation and pretend to be my roommate. He brought his mini-fridge, which KGB members stocked entirely with single-serving containers of yogurt.
Part One: February 1992
My Bagger arrived. Her name was Nina. We chatted briefly. Then the door of Kevin’s closet opened, revealing a rack of all-black clothing and Shawn, who stepped out, said a quick hello, and departed the room.
“Who was that?”
“Oh, that’s Shawn. My roommate rents him the closet floor for study space. You see, Shawn’s roommate and his girlfriend can be kind of . . . loud . . . so Shawn needed a quiet place to study.” I opened the closet door to show Nina the cozy space, complete with cushion, small lamp, pencil jar, and physics textbook.
Then we set off to “meet my roommate and my boyfriend for dinner.” We went to the Tartan Grill dining room, and my boyfriend Arch arrived right on time, but my “roommate” did not. We waited and waited, while chatting with Nina about the many features of our university.
Finally I frowned at my watch and said, “Jeez, where is Kevin?”
Nina, puzzled, said, “Your roommate’s name is Kevin?”
“Yeah. Where the hell is he? We agreed to meet at 6:30!”
Arch started talking about Kevin’s difficulties with electrical engineering lab, dropping in male pronouns at every opportunity, while Nina looked more and more baffled. Finally Kevin appeared, with apologies, and after we’d all gotten our food we explained how my roommate had left and Kevin wasn’t getting along so well with his roommate (true) so he’d decided to move into my room. It was not until that very moment that I considered the possibility that my Bagger might not be comfortable with sleeping in the same room as a strange man! (That’s what six months in KGB will do to your sense of propriety.) Luckily, she didn’t object. Kevin, even when dressed all in black, was not a very threatening presence.
When we got back to my room after dinner, we sat down to do our homework but left the door open. People kept dropping by:
Jody came in, wearing a spiral-shaped pair of the lovely earrings she hand-made from wire. She politely asked if we had any yogurt. We told her to help herself. She ate the yogurt while chatting with the Bagger, then left.
Ann came in and took one m&m from the bowl on my dresser. She hugged Kevin and asked, “Are we still on for tomorrow night?” Kevin said, “Sure. I’ll meet you at seven.”
Mary came in and took one m&m from the bowl on my dresser and ate it as stealthily as one can. She was wearing an enormous black trenchcoat and a fedora pulled low over her eyes. She approached the Bagger, backed her into a corner, and whispered hoarsely, “Would you like to buy a Q?”
“Uhhh…you mean like the letter Q?”
“Oh yeah. Great price. Check it out.” Mary opened her trenchcoat and showed that there was a large Q, cut out of white paper, taped to the inside of it. She wiggled her eyebrows encouragingly.
Mary, crestfallen, fled from the room making sad snuffling sounds.
Shawn came in and took one m&m from the bowl on my dresser. He went into Kevin’s closet and shut the door.
Jody came in, wearing triangular wire earrings and murmuring, “Yogurt. I must have yogurt.” We told her she was welcome to it. She gulped down the yogurt and raced from the room.
Lynne came in and took one m&m from the bowl on my dresser. She leaned into Kevin’s lap, gave him a little kiss, and said, “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.” Kevin said, “Me too. I’ll see you at eight.”
Mike came in, took one m&m from the bowl on my dresser, and asked if Shawn was in his office. I said yes. Mike knocked on the closet door and then stood in the doorway arguing with Shawn about whether or not the Carnegie Mellon Necrophilia Society could qualify for Student Senate funding. They departed to “examine the evidence more closely.” (Actually, they were going to Shawn’s room, one floor above, which was serving as headquarters for all komrades involved in the Operation.)
Approximately fourteen people began dancing and head-banging in the hallway directly outside my room, playing Weird Al Yankovic’s “Dare to be Stupid” on a boom box.
Jody came in, wearing diamond-shaped wire earrings and looking crazed. She dashed to the refrigerator, grabbed two yogurts, opened them both, and sat down on my bed to get her fix.
The resident assistant asked the dancers to stop playing music in the hallway. They turned it off, and each stopped by my room for one m&m before departing.
Jody’s roommate Heather rushed into the room. “You told me you quit!!!” she wailed. Jody, quivering violently, protested, “I can stop anytime I want!” She quivered so hard that a blob of boysenberry yogurt fell onto my blanket. Heather cried, “You see!!! You have a problem!!! You’ve got to get help!!!” She dragged Jody away. Arch and I watched them go, looked at each other, shrugged, and each started eating a yogurt.
Mary came in, looking completely different as she was now dressed in a skin-tight sequined outfit. She tackled Kevin onto my bed (as I, cleaning up the yogurt, ducked to the floor), and kissed him passionately. “Oh, darling, I can hardly wait until tomorrow!” Kevin replied, “I know, but I just can’t see you until nine o’clock.” Mary, sighing with longing, paused for an m&m on her way out of the room.
Faye came in and took one m&m from the bowl on my dresser. She and I gossiped enthusiastically, referring to everyone by their computer network user IDs (rs87, fl0m, am4v, kc2z, and the like) instead of their names.
Fred came in and put a small handful of m&m’s into his mouth. Kevin and I leapt up and yelled, “What’s the matter with you?! How can you be so greedy and rude?!” Under cover of this uproar, Jody tiptoed in, filled her arms with yogurts, and tiptoed out. (She took the yogurts up to Shawn’s room to share with everybody.)
It was around this time that I realized I didn’t have the textbook I needed for the last homework assignment I had to do that night. I was an architecture major at the time and had left the book in my studio. I invited Nina to walk over with me and see what my studio was like. She agreed very readily–probably glad to get away from the craziness. The moment the elevator doors closed, she asked me, “Is Kevin gay?”
“What? No. Why?”
“Well, I just thought that would explain why Arch is willing to let you share a room with him.”
“Oh. No, Arch trusts Kevin. We’re all best friends. Anyway, Kevin has enough girlfriends to keep him busy.”
“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I guess he does.”
We walked over to my studio in Doherty Hall, which Nina noted had an ambiance eerily similar to that of the Wheeling, West Virginia, YWCA. In the studio, we found that my classmates were taking a study break and had formed the drawing tables into a catwalk, on which they were strutting to the tune of “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred. (This had absolutely no connection to Operation Confuse-a-Bagger. They just did things like that every once in a while.)
When we got back to my dorm room, the door was ajar, but the lights were off. Huh? I turned on the light and saw
a condom wrapper in the middle of the floor;
another on Kevin’s bed, next to my potted plant, which was tipped at an angle with its fronds all askew;
black clothing flung all over the room;
and Kevin lying in my bed, with the covers pulled up to his chest and his shoulders bare, sniveling miserably.
Before I could think what to say, Kevin moaned in his deepest, most miserable voice, “Liz was here. She…she had her way with me…and your plant. I…I’m…sorry! Ohh, why does this keep happening?!”
I didn’t even know anyone named Liz.
Nina excused herself to the restroom. I wondered if she would ever come back. I sat down next to Kevin and began saying chipper, reassuring things. He was playing it so well that it took me a minute to feel really certain that this was all part of the game! By the time Nina came back, Kevin was sitting up in bed regaining his self-esteem and eating yogurt, and I was checking my plant for damage. Finding none, I gathered up Kevin’s clothing for him. It turned out he was wearing underwear in my bed–thanks, dude.
Well, there were a few other silly shenanigans like the milder ones above, and then we went to sleep. In the morning, while Nina and I were taking showers, Kevin used my computer to create a document and send it to a printer. He told us he needed to pick it up on the way to breakfast. In the computer cluster, he took his document from the print tray and handed it to Nina. It was a certificate that said, I survived Operation Confuse-a-Bagger! Nina laughed and said, “I thought something was up!” She was impressed that we’d gone to so much trouble to make things silly for her.
Over breakfast, Kevin asked me, “Hey, is it okay if I don’t move back to my room tonight? I have to write this paper, and–”
Nina interrupted, “You’re moving back to your room? You mean, you’re not really Becca’s roommate?!” She had found that part so thoroughly convincing that she figured Kevin had been living in my room for months!
In fact, as it turned out, while Kevin was struggling with a typical CMU courseload (the kind where every time you can see light at the end of the tunnel, a different professor sticks another tunnel in front of you, so you never do get to relax) and so was I, we discovered that we really liked being roommates. Eventually we decided he might as well stay put for the rest of the semester. This meant we were prepared for
Part Two: April 1992
I received notification that I was to host another Sleeping Bag Weekend just a couple days in advance. Not only was I hosting, but I’d been double-bagged: Two Baggers would be staying with me! KGB knew just what to do.
The only problem was that I was supposed to work that night, 6pm-midnight, at my job in the kitchen of the Tartan Grill. I begged my boss to rearrange the schedule, but the best he could do was find someone to cover my first 4 hours; I still had to come in at 10:00 and stay through closing. Well, at least I wouldn’t miss the whole evening.
My Baggers arrived. Their names were Laura and Jennifer. Things proceeded much as before: We chatted; Shawn emerged from the closet; we went to dinner with Arch and Kevin, and Kevin was late on purpose this time, for effect; we entertained evening guests including the yogurt addict and Kevin’s many girlfriends. Something new this time was a repeatedly introduced topic of conversation–Which flavor of Kool-Aid best complements which flavor of ramen noodles?–which various groups of people discussed in the style of wine connoisseurs on a very tight budget. We prepared several samples and demanded the Baggers’ opinions.
I was disappointed when it was time to put on my Dining Service uniform and head for work. I left the Baggers in the capable hands of Kevin and Arch.
While I was out, the komrades up in Shawn’s room hatched a plan that never should have seen the light of day. I’m still not sure what was supposed to be funny about it. Exciting, yes. Possibility of getting several people in a lot of trouble, yes. Funny, no . . . except in what they did with it after it went wrong.
Drew was a short, skinny, bespectacled guy. Chris was a big guy with an intimidating leather jacket. The Baggers hadn’t seen either of them before.
Drew raced into my room, clutching his unzipped pants about his loins, slammed the door behind him, and screamed, “Chris caught me with his girlfriend! Help! Hide me!!!” Kevin prudently stuffed him into Shawn’s study space in the closet.
Chris slammed open my door–causing the mirror on the back of the door to fly off and smash against the wall–and bellowed, “Where is he?! I’m gonna kill him!!” He yanked Drew out of the closet, and in the ensuing struggle, a very realistic-looking fake gun fell out of his pocket.
Arch remarked helpfully, “I think that’s a real gun!” Chris grabbed it, waved it at Drew, and dragged him away to the stairwell (back to Shawn’s room) while the terrified Baggers gaped in horror.
Then the fire alarm went off. (This had nothing to do with KGB. The dorm fire alarms were always going off due to idiots trying to cook Rice-a-Roni in a popcorn popper and that sort of thing.)
Kevin and Arch attempted to lead the Baggers out of the building, but Jennifer was nearly paralyzed with fear, and Laura was shrieking about how outrageous it was that she should be subjected to such behavior and how she was going to call the housemother on us. (She was from a ritzy boarding school.) They finally got into the stairwell at just about the same time as the gang from Shawn’s room, who had delayed in hopes that the Baggers wouldn’t see all of them together.
Shawn found himself between Ann and Lynne, two of Kevin’s “dates”, so he flung an arm around each of them and gave the Baggers a big smile. They were Not Amused. Seeing Chris and the obviously-unharmed Drew standing right next to several other players from the evening’s escapades made it obvious that they’d been tricked.
Yet somehow, in the remaining hour or so before I got home, they all pulled together and devised a new plan: Operation Confuse-a-Becca.
I returned to find my dorm floor in silence and my door closed. Had they gone to bed already? I opened the door across carpet covered in broken glass. I had just time to see that Jennifer was pink-faced and shaking, apparently crying, and that Kevin and Arch were looking guilty and worried, before Laura flew at me screaming angry rhetorical questions: “How could you leave us alone in this terrible place? Guns! Fires! Sluts! Why would we even consider coming to school here? What were you thinking, leaving us with these awful men who did nothing to protect us? And you don’t even have housemothers?? What kind of place is this? How could your parents let you come here? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!?”
I managed to stammer a few questions about what had happened, and Arch and Kevin attempted some vague explanations–I understood that somebody had threatened somebody with a gun, that the fire alarm had gone off, and that there was some kind of sex scandal–but we all were being drowned out by Laura. She was so upset that I figured this gun thing (the only unusual piece of what I was hearing) must have been serious, and also I could see the broken glass; something terrible must have happened, but what, why, and was it really only part of Confuse-a-Bagger?? I don’t handle being yelled at very well, and just as I was reaching the point of collapse, my darling boyfriend brusquely brushed past me and disappeared down the hall, abandoning me!
“Why aren’t there any adults on this campus overnight?” Laura demanded in a particularly nasty voice, and I got defensive. I snapped, “We are adults, and what responsible adults”–pointed look at Kevin–“do in an emergency is call the police, and it just so happens we have an on-campus police force available all night!”
I reached for the phone just as it rang.
“Campus Security,” said a firm male voice.
“Oh, thank goodness! I just got home, and there’s been some sort of–”
“We heard a report of a conflict involving a deadly weapon.”
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but I think it was a joke, and–”
“A JOKE! I assure you, young lady, violations of the firearms code are no joke, and you will be held liable–”
“But I wasn’t even here! It wasn’t my idea!” (I felt I was blathering on autopilot while my brain argued, “This sounds like Tom!” and my other brain, or somebody, bleated, “Do you know what’ll happen if I say, ‘Knock it off, Tom,’ and it really is Campus Security?!”)
“DO NOT LEAVE YOUR ROOM. An officer will come to question you.” Click.
I turned, shaking, tears in my eyes, to see Laura watching me like a snake with its prey, Jennifer turning purple and quivering on what now appeared to be the verge of hysterical laughter, and Kevin inexplicably looking out the window. There was a loud banging on the door. I opened it.
“Campus Security!” said Tom. Behind him, all grinning, were Chris, Drew, Arch, Shawn, Ann, Lynne, and several other komrades. “Operation Confuse-a-Becca!” they chorused. They crowded into my room, celebrating the success of their plan. Somebody paid the Baggers’ dues for the next year’s KGB membership, should they choose to attend Carnegie Mellon.
I collapsed, and Arch caught me. He had left me in the middle of the crisis in order to run up to Shawn’s room and tell everybody to wrap it up quickly because I was not taking it well. He and Kevin helped me clean up the broken glass while everyone else was oblivious with glee over their great joke.
It was a long night. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have happened if someone had gotten hurt in the struggle or if Campus Security really had come to investigate. I couldn’t stop hearing the things that had been shouted at me by people who sounded like they meant them. I woke up shaking, over and over again.
Laura had been accepted into Princeton and probably went there.
Jennifer appeared at Carnegie Mellon in the fall but pretended not to recognize me or any other KGB folks.
Nina, the first Bagger, also came to Carnegie Mellon, and she did attend several KGB meetings, with a small group of her art-major friends in tow. It wasn’t really her kind of thing, but she gave us the old college try.
It took me a good several months to find the last part of this story amusing. It’s not that I can dish it out but can’t take it. It’s that there were two different kinds of Confusing: the silly, harmless, geeky kind that attempted to portray our campus life as slightly weirder than it actually was, and the kind where people run around a semi-public building tackling each other and waving realistic-looking weapons and WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING??? If the idea of staging an armed conflict for the Baggers had been discussed in advance, I would have objected based on the possible damage to my room, the odds of getting in trouble for it, and the fact that there’s just nothing funny about seeing what you believe to be a genuine fight between angry men with a weapon that could kill you by accident. I like to think that I would have objected, too, to any plan that involved anybody getting screamed at as if she were in a lot of trouble because of events that were out of her control. What’s funny about that?
In retrospect, though, it’s a great story! The best part is the twist, the point when Operation Confuse-a-Bagger ended and Operation Confuse-a-Becca began. That was genius. My friends knew when to quit, how to get two people they’d just met onto their side, and how to turn a failed plan into something exciting to fill the rest of the evening. Pretty cool. I must admit, if I had been there when Chris burst into the room, I probably would’ve jumped up and called a halt to it right then, which might be the safest course of action but would’ve totally blown the dramatic tension. So it all worked out for the best.
I still have the potted plant. Like me, she found the experience traumatic in some ways but ultimately came to believe that it had improved her character and given her an interesting story to tell.