I get questions.
My wife and I are in the middle of remodeling a 19th century victorian in Cambridge, MA (see http://rebuildingwheneverland.wordpress.com for that story). Folks ask things like “where did you two meet?”, “where did you learn to use all of these tools and do all of this building stuff?”, “what was life like at MIT?”
I am a putzen. MIT class of 2000. I lived at East Campus, specifically the hall known as “putz”, “PTZ”, “πTZ”, or Second West and this is an attempt to explain what that means.
Here’s a panoramic picture of H204, the room I lived in during most of college. This picture was taken the year after I graduated, after I had passed it on to the esteemed Mr. Ryan Williams (a.k.a. “breath”):
On August 21st 1996, I arrived from the snowbound hellscape that was my childhood home of Rochester, New York and walked into the student center at MIT in Cambridge, MA. Back then when you got to MIT you didn’t know where you were going to live and classes didn’t start for another two weeks. This was a wonderful time called “R/O” or Campus Rush / Orientation. All of the undergraduate dorms and frats (yes you could move right into a frat then as a freshman at MIT — this was before some unfortunate idiot drank himself to death in 1997 and ruined everything for everyone else) competed for the freshmen and we got to tour around, get free food, and pick where we’d live.
I had a “temp” room in a nice clean, ordinary boring dorm about a 20 minute walk from main campus. I immediately fell in love with a rough-and-tumble, less maintained, cheaper-to-live-in, dorm that was closer to classes called “MIT East Campus Alumni Memorial Housing” but more generally known as East Campus, or just EC. However, it was not my first choice for the housing lottery (or even my second). I didn’t think I was weird or quirky enough to live there, and honestly it’s a little bit intimidating for a 17 year old kid from the suburbs, not to mention a little bit dirty and grubby.
They build roller coasters in the courtyard. The walls are covered with hand-painted murals done by residents every year. Two of the ten “halls” allowed smoking (and still do). Several even let students bring cats! Students regularly build elaborate “lofts” in their room out of scrap wood, allowing them to sleep on an elevated platform while having more studying and living space underneath. They blow stuff up in the dorm courtyard on a semi-regular basis.
Here’s the EC “dorm rush” video from last year. Please note that pretty much none of the stuff in this video was done just for the video. This was filming of regular dorm activities like campus rush, spring picnic, fred fest, and regular everyday merriment:
Here’s an older one featuring an actual roller coaster and showing that really not much has changed in the past 10 years:
Fate ended up smiling upon me and I ended up getting assigned to East Campus in the housing lottery. A few days later, in the courtyard as all of us new residents were gathering around on the benches and tables out there, a group of 5 or 6 of us coalesced and started talking. We would all end up becoming friends for the next four years (some of us for life), and one of them would eventually become my wife.
But hang on, I haven’t even gotten to putz yet. For rush at MIT not only did we get to pick what dorm we lived in, once we got to EC we got to (and this is still the case) pick what hall we wanted to live in. This means that each of the 10 halls ends up with its own unique personality. As I mentioned earlier, some allow smoking, some allow cats. Some are quiet, some are more mechanically or technically oriented, some are more into sports (intramural or otherwise), etc. etc. East Campus is a dorm with two separate parallel buildings (east and west) with 5 floors each. Thus the floors are designated with the numbers 1-5 (by floor) and East or West (based on what parallel the floor is in).
I chose and ended up on Second West. For rush every year they line ⅓ of the hall with a tarp, put a bunch of mattresses on the end, get out a hose and some soap and do an indoor slip-n-slide. They did this 20 years ago when I was a wee frosh and they still do it today. Some traditions run deep. Second West is also known affectionately by its nickname “putz” or πtz (story of this nickname follows later).
Every year for the past 23 years (at least) on the Saturday or Sunday of the weekend before thanksgiving on 2nd West, something special happens. It’s called “putzgiving” and I’ve been there every year for the last 11 of them (while I’ve been back living in Boston). For the past 5 years I’ve made a turkey for it and helped to feed the roughly 60-80 current residents and alums that come back every year. It’s a fabulous delicious feast of food, camaraderie, and reminiscing. For the putzgiving celebrating the somewhat arbitrary “20th year of putz” back in 2012, Mark Feldmeier, one of the older alums (even older than me) gave a brief speech marking the occasion and touching a little bit upon what makes putz “different”:
Putz isn’t a frat, but it bears some communal characteristics similar to one. In fact, in the early days, the letters πTZ were put on signs and t-shirts to make fun of fraternities. A regular pastime of the hall during old-time frat rush was to go out and steal the signs of real fraternities and paint over them with πTZ in large letters. But as the Big Chicken (Mark) says in that video, over the past 20 years things have changed a lot but the community of putz remains. There’s a longevity to it, and it’s remarkably cool that people come back for events, get together out of town, form business together, write songs, go to each others weddings, or even get married and have children themselves.
What else is there to say?
Always mechanically and/or computationally oriented, putz has built robots, constructed many in-room lofts of varying construction quality, and in one case even chopped a huge hole in a room wall to put in a fish tank (which I think might still be there). In 1996 the oldest continually operating webcam sprung to life (https://intotheweeds.org/2012/11/22/a-look-back-in-time-golden-age-of-the-internet/). In 2000 a large music storage and playing linux webserver and sound system was built to allow for remote queueing, organization, and streaming of music into the hall’s lounges and bathrooms. In 2005, the Time Travelers Convention was held and even got mocked on SNL by Tina Fey. In both 2004 and 2014 Putz/East Campus teams won the annual MIT Mystery Hunt. Putz alums have been featured on Jeopardy (unfortunately losing) and Battlebots (also, unfortunately, losing) over the years as well. We also have putzen who have proudly served in the military, in the priesthood, and just about every field in between.
I’ll close this post with a bit of trivia. A message from Abe Farag explaining a bit about the origin and history of πTZ:
“…The 1994 class of 2nd west attracted some calm academic kids- Physics majors: Gunther, Rob, Joe, David C – who moved floors I think? (Oh my this was a long time ago)
But somehow in the 1995 class 2nd west attracted a cast of characters with some Spunk. I don’t know how that happened. Like the cosmos forming new stars out of the either. Maybe a masterpiece is easier to create on a blank palette then one already crowded with some message.
The 1996 rush was even fun & then with the 1996 class a flood gate of fun rolled in. I have no idea how “PTZ” started. I did play a lot of hack hockey & did poke fun a lot of our D-level game. I’m honored to think I might have started PTZ- but I don’t think it was me.
If I called us Putzes it was just to be silly. Not to start a club.
In early 1992 Gunther made a hall t-shirt that said “We’d make bad elves” which was a drawing of an elv that had built a 3 armed doll & santa hitting him. I think of that as a precursor of the feeling of us being Putzes if not the exact name. We were so lame that we made t-shirts of our IM teams that made fun of how lame we were. But I’m sure that Mark yelling was a big part of the ethos of Putz. YO Mark.
However the name bubbled up I think PTZ stuck because of the fun link to pseudo Frat & rush & because the feeling of not having an identity at the time – of being an outcast floor- which we were at the time.
I also think it was 1993 Rush that some Brave & BOLD Putzen went to the great Killian dome RUSH kickoff event with a PTZ sign & PTZ t-shirts & like pied pipers lead some incoming kids to ec. I think 1 tenet of PTZ is that Making Physical stuff leads to fun. That was a Pivotal moment for PTZ.
To all Yee Putz… enjoy the great legacy you are part of.
GO forth & Putz.