During my freshman year at Bard College I lived in one of the infamous wooden “ravine” dorms. They’re in heaven now. I mourn the fact that there will soon be precious few students left on campus who can remember what it was like to live in a dorm which stood on wooden stilts over a yawning chasm of forest dotted with defunct lounge furniture. However, I mourn this mostly the way the older generation resents that today’s youth don’t have to hike seven miles each way in the snow just to use the outhouse. Nor are they forced to pinpoint, with soul-shriveling accuracy, just exactly whose bed is making the dorm sway gently in counterclockwise circles.
My friends back home used to ridicule my recurring ‘falling’ dreams throughout that year. ‘It’s just stress. You’re not used to being away from home,” they told me. I knew better. They didn’t have to look out their window at an empty space where the dorm next to theirs once stood. The only ones who decided when the ravine dorm went down, were the ravine dorms. My dormmates and I discovered at one point that many of us had individually mapped-out out emergency escape plans in our heads, should the worst ever come to pass. “I plan to shimmy down the balcony,” I’d said. “No kidding. I’ll probably jump off the back porch. I think the lounge sofa is down somewhere in that area anyway.” We weren’t fooling ourselves. Our Emergency Exit signs read, “In Case of Fire— Hey! Look over There! Free Beer!”
I remember hearing sometime during that first memorable year that the ravine dorms had been built long ago as ‘temporary housing’, but somehow ended up hanging around and making the freshman uncomfortable for much longer than they should have, the way many Bard graduates do. I used to wonder about the idea of ‘temporary housing’, especially temporary ‘suspended thirty feet off a cold, rocky ground strewn with empty Corona bottles’ housing. To me, temporary meant, ‘might potentially kill you’, not to mention, ‘barely trickling showers’. As temporary as those dorms were, the college was reluctant to let them go.
What I still can’t quite wrap my mind around is the fact that after the creaking, ailing ravines were deemed unlivable-in for students, they were structurally fortified with a new coat of paint (no doubt it was some sort of advanced ‘load-bearing’ paint), filled with new furniture–and pianos–and turned into office space for music professors and practice space for their students. The message was quite clear: life is cheap in the music department.
Back in the day before new dorms were popping up angry faces when you use your outdoor voice in the library, I used to ponder the lengths to which my school would go to solve its housing crisis. I was fond of picturing a nervous, jumpy Resident Director escorting a new arrival and his parents through a dorm, stopping in front of a door and pausing just long enough to say, “Here’s your room. Bye now,” before disappearing around the corner before the student can try to open the door and discover that it’s been painted on.
When the trailers arrived my freshman year, I imagined the day when other types of vehicles would be also used as living quarters. “I live in Honda 103,” you’d say, if anyone asked. “You’re in the Buick triple? You’re lucky. All that legroom.” The trunk would be a single for an upperclassman. The back and front seats would each serve as doubles for incoming freshmen. I had it all worked out. Unfortunately, nobody ever asked me.