Porlock

 The new freshman dorm was named Chauncy, presumably after some relative of the person for whom half the streets in Cambridge are named. It was made of red brick and wrought iron that were subtly different from the brick and iron of the other buildings. This despite the many millions of dollars spent to assure that it would be identical. As had happened with every other building at Harvard, marking the generations as surely as rings in a tree.

The first crop of students to live in Chauncy observed that its air conditioning was comfortable, its water sweet, its curtains thick, its walls thicker, the chairs in its lounges just soft enough for relaxing and just hard enough for studying. It was a triumph of undergraduate engineering.

Its smoke alarms were also admirable. Insofar as they went off if someone lit up a cigarette. A smokeless cigarette. Across the river. Ten years in the future.

As a result not a week went by without the entire building being evacuated. The students would gather in front of the building, in their work clothes or their PJs or hastily wrapped in a bedsheet or towel. The alarm could barely be heard from outside the building. A flashing light over the main entrance was all that kept them at bay.

And the smokers would gather together downwind, and those interrupted mid-coitus would sit and cuddle and smolder, and the studiers would try to study, and the gamers would sit and thinking about their game, and the stoned would wander and the depressed would falter and the bored and lonely would work to not be anymore.

The administration made it clear they had no plans to correct this (alleged) flaw of design. Soon it became a part of hall life. Students would prepare for the inevitable alarm: people would shower with their bathrobes on the stall doors, people would love with their clothing placed neatly at the foot of the bed. Before long it ceased to be much of a burden. Just another bit of college life, a little tradition in a school that was little but.

For some enterprising undergraduates – of which Chauncy had as many as any other house – it was not enough to lift a burden. They sought to make it into a blessing. They kept a plastic box behind a growth of bushes, kept it filled with board games and cards and sets of dice. They brought their instruments outside with them. They grabbed bottles and glasses on their flight from the building, or art supplies, or notebooks and quill-pens for the conspicuous writing of poetry. People saw each other’s interests. They met new people, or met old friends anew. It had to be faced that, at some point, the number of romantic encounters the alarm had interrupted was passed by the number it had allowed to occur.

Some students formed study groups: the pre-med group, the pre-more-college group. Some students formed discussion groups entirely unrelated to their academics. They would pick up last alarm’s argument. Sometimes they would talk well after the disturbance had passed, well into the night. Some students organized midnight trips to local ice cream parlors, three dozen undergrads in their nightclothes out to get calories in good company.

Then they fixed the alarms.

There was not a student, whatever their study load or sleep schedule, who did not miss their nightly interruptions. They had adapted to Porlock, until he had become a friend. Some students talked about reverting the alarms to their old sensitivity. Some talked of pulling the fire alarm, or at least considering themselves invited to show a great disregard for the school’s ban on indoor smoking. Some students could only wonder what would have happened if, not just Chauncy, but every house on campus were to come equipped with such a system, and the whole campus could have had a break from work and isolation, out there, under the stars.

If only.

-harvard yard, 2011

 

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~ by davekov on 29 June 2011.

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