It was my second week in this college and someone called down the hall, “Who are you?”
I blinked twice. She was wearing a knee-length denim skirt and a ¾ sleeve shirt. Ah. A fellow alien.
We swapped names. We actually knew each other vaguely from before; I’d networked to her through Facebook, but we’d never spoken or met. “I was wondering-because there aren’t that many people in skirts around here,” she explained.
She was right. Besides me and her, there were exactly two other skirts in the entire college.
To other Jews and to people who know about religious Jews, the skirt is a dead giveaway. I remember once when a bunch of us visited the USS WASP during Fleet Week; we got so many comments from people who just wanted to show off that they recognized that we were Jewish, that we eventually decided to behave.
But here in a technical college, Jews are a rare breed, religious ones still rarer. We’re talking about a college that schedules all extracurricular activities for Friday night, is careful to keep things vegetarian for the Indians, and is draped in red the week of Chinese New Year, but only stocks three kosher sandwiches in the cafeteria on odd days of the week. In a nerd college where you’re very likely to find guys with their bottle-green pants cinched high on their waists, the skirt probably strikes most as just another non-fashion statement.
But for those of us in the know, it’s a secret code.
That was how I found my second compatriot. I stepped into the elevator and noticed a long skirt. The wearer noticed the length of mine at the same time. “Oh!” we both said, and turned to look at each other. To observers, it must have looked like two friends bumping into each other. To listeners, it must have seemed exceedingly weird. “What’s your name? What are you studying? How long have you been here?” we swapped stats like people who just discovered that they should be long-lost friends.
The Bagel Effect, someone once called it. You gotta love it.
I take the elevator down from lab at around 7pm every Wednesday. Around the same time, a faculty husband is taking it to his wife’s office. Generally exhausted after three hours of collecting erroneous data, I would never pay him an ounce of mind if he hadn’t once eyed my hemline and asked, “Mah nishma?” My drooping eyelids snapped open and we held an amicable conversation for the 20 seconds it took to reach his floor. Now we greet each other whenever our timing coincides again.
An interesting way to find friends, but hey, whatever works.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the code breaks down. There’s a woman in one of the offices who wears skirts just past her knees. Even more likely, she often wears skirt-suits that you can find in Boro Park. And yet not once has she so much as glanced my way as I passed. Is she a fellow alien, or an odd dresser from some other planet entirely? I don’t know.