I first heard about Tripolar on Labor Day 2008, a couple months after I’d moved to Los Angeles and maybe a month before I started classes at UCLA. Stedman, Vlad, and I were at Whole Foods picking out some steaks to grill. While Vlad went to go look for buffalo, Stedman asked me if I’d met ‘Tripolar’ yet.
“No I haven’t. Who’s that?”
“Oh my God you have to meet him. He seriously lives in the Math building. He’ll go to random lectures and seminars and just ask the weirdest questions. Like things that at first sound like he knows what he’s talking about, but then he keeps asking more questions and you realize the dude’s just batshit insane.”
“Haha no way. What kind of questions?”
“He’ll like try to tell the speaker about this research he’s working on, like the nine-pointed circle problem, only the speaker doesn’t realize that that’s not a thing, it’s just some crazy name the dude made up. Usually they just let him go for a while until the seminar organizer gets it across that they can just ignore the guy. He’s so hilarious. He’ll talk to you for hours on end about tripolar coordinates…hence the name.”
“And so he lives in the math building now? I’ve never heard of tripolar coordinate.”
“He’s homeless and the building’s always unlocked so he stays there a lot. I’ve found him asleep on the couch in the SMC more than once. And yeah, tripolar coordinates don’t exist. They’re something he made up in his head.”
This was hilarious. The UCLA Math department had its own homeless guy? My mind was already racing, making plans for how to make Tripolar part of my life. I was going to be his best friend. I was going to co-author a paper with him on his nine-pointed circle problem and send it to one of those journals that doesn’t peer review thoroughly. I was going to have a Tripolar number of 1. That idea didn’t last long—the reality of grad school work set in and this became just another ambitious idea that never came to fruition—but I often wondered who Tripolar was and what he was like.
* * *
Over the next two years, I never met Tripolar, but I’d hear snippets about him. My friend Rachel told me he’d sit in on classes or lectures sometimes, and never missed a department party or lecture that served alcohol. Somebody thought he’d been in a Masters program at Stanford in physics…before he went nuts and dropped out.
Then one day, I was at a big Public Lecture hosted by the math research center on campus. Someone gave a really good talk on probability and the environment, or something, and filled the lecture hall with students, faculty, and all kinds of visitors form the community. After the talk, there was a reception in the hallway with really good desserts and an open bar. I noticed Rachel in the corner talking to a weathered, granola-ish professor-type in his 40s, beer in hand, clad in biker shorts and sandals. She saw me and seemed unusually interested in pulling me into the conversation.
I said hi to Rachel and the granola guy started asking me if I knew much about theoretical physics. As Rachel slinked away, he proceeded to explain how physics makes so much more sense if you think of everything in terms of quaternions. After about a minute of this I asked if he came to a lot of these.
“I do, it’s great but it’s hard to talk to people when you’re dressed up like some kind of homeless guy.”
“So are you a professor here?”
He looked at me a little funny and replied, “No, actually, I’m a homeless guy.” HOLY CRAP I MET TRIPOLAR. I talked to him a little more until he finished his beer and went to get a glass of wine.
I’d probably seen him a few times around the math building before that, but now that I recognized him I’d see him every couple months. He poked his head into my PDEs class one day. The next quarter I saw him in an applied math colloquium (no questions about tripolar coordinates.) That April, while in a catered lunch lab meeting, the door opened a crack and Tripolar popped his head in. We all held our breath as he looked at the food, looked at us, looked at the food again, then muttered, “Wrong room” as he backed out.
“Oh thank God” my advisor gasped as the door shut.
The whole time I was a UCLA student, Tripolar was sort of a running joke—not accepted but never turned away, politely ignored as much as possible, left to be him just like anybody else was. He didn’t really stick out, unless you knew who he was—half of the UCLA Math Professors looked one, maybe two, steps away from homeless themselves.
Last week I was on campus again for another public lecture. I never came in to campus on a daily basis, but I come less often now since I’m (mostly) graduated and (supposedly) moved on. The public lecture was very good, on Facebook and social dynamics. And there was the requisite reception in the evening, with appetizers, pastries, beer, and wine. I got there early to beat the rush, helped myself to all sorts of unhealthy treats and water (I don’t drink), and chatted with an old professor of mine about my pending job offers before I got up to go. As I walked toward the exit, I noticed some UCLA Police Officers in the building, which seemed odd.
Outside the reception, a bald man in a dress shirt was barking at two campus cops and pointing towards a man sitting on a bench. “This individual is not welcome here, we want him out and away from this building…he’s intoxicated and being a nuisance.” In response from the bench: “I have EVERY RIGHT to be here, this is a PUBLIC LECTURE and I’m a MEMBER of the PUBLIC…” It was Tripolar, getting evicted from the open-bar reception and cast off into the California night.
This isn’t a post about caring for the homeless, or anything like that. I walked to my car instead of eavesdropping any further. I’m sure Tripolar will be back on campus. He’ll be fine. But you know what? Tripolar, as strange and infrequent a visitor he was, was part of my UCLA experience. If he’s getting kicked out of IPAM talks, it’s not the same campus it was five years ago. I’m not offended, any more than I am than when anything else changes in my routine. But it’s another sign that it’s time to go, another part of UCLA that just isn’t the same.