Connecticut College: Life was Elsewhere

Walking on the south side of campus.

It was a beautiful Monday morning in early September when I drove from Teaneck to New London, CT to visit Connecticut College, where I spent my freshman year.   A picture-perfect day for walking around the leafy campus taking in a world I tried to embrace and make my own 35 years previously.  I had previously returned about 25 years ago, for a stop a WCNI, the Connecticut College radio station, during one of the Whooping Cranes road trips up 95 to Boston and points in between.  It wasn’t very memorable – a quick jaunt to the radio station (which I registered had a complete makeover in the ten years I had been gone).  Aside from that quick visit, this was my first time back.

I’ve been to many college campuses throughout the years.  I teach at one (whose campus is probably the same size as CC, though without the endowment/budget/dorm living.  Still, it is a suburban campus).  I did college tours with my kids, and have spent time moving them in and out of Drexel University since the fall of 2008 (we’ll return to take Kevin back to Drexel in about a week).  I purposely chose early September to visit because it’s when the school year is new, when all the possibilities are in the air, where summer is still a part of everyone’s being, but where autumn, with it’s back-to-reality nibbling, is starting to settle on everyone’s skin.  I arrived onto the campus and slowly drove around the campus, looking at this somewhat familiar world through my windshield.  I wanted to park by the dorm I lived in as a freshman, knowing where it was but not remembering the name.  I worked my way, recognizing some buildings I knew from way back when, feeling ready to park the car and start exploring and photographing on foot.

Most kids enter their last year of high school in daze of not-knowing, of realizing that things are changing whether they want them to or not.  I was lucky enough to have entered my senior year of high school having gone through the same school suburban school district since I was in first grade.  Even though my folks split up and my mom got remarried and we moved, we stayed in the same general neighborhood.  So the faces I saw around me throughout elementary school were the same faces growing up with me in junior high and high school (obviously people moved away and new people came, but certainly not at a furious rate). But where do you go from here?  The school calendar forces you to change, to graduate, and even if you decide not to go to college (which was never a thought for me), even if you decide to stay home and work, the people you have known will have scattered.  There will be a core who will have remained, but most will have gone, and you’ll see new kids walking the halls of your high school where your people had been.  Ghosts start leading the charge, whether you leave or you don’t.  You can’t stay in high school forever.

My step-brother Jay was a sophomore in CC when I was a h.s. senior, and I went up to visit him a few times with my friend Mike.  Those times were tremendous.  The mid-late 70s was a time of the 18-year-old drinking age, so CC had a pub in the student union because

I found out that Connecticut College started in 1911; I assumed it was older.

everyone could drink.  Beer flowed in parties throughout the dorms.  And the campus was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  The thought came quickly to me through the beer, friendship, and step-brotherly love: I could go here.  Of course, this was the only campus I ever really experienced.  Didn’t put much deep thinking into it, only it felt right.  Don’t really remember any other school piquing my interest.  If I applied and got in, Jay would be at CC, and I found out that his older brother David would be the assistant crew coach (I had been rowing for my high school team my senior year, and I would row for CC in the fall of my freshman year of college).  There was a free-form radio station I could dj for, a coffee house to play guitar; it seemed right.  And as I settled into the spring of my senior year of high school, I had a serious girlfriend, Corey,  who would be going to Boston University, only two hours away by train (from the nearby Amtrak station in New London).

The day leading up and the drive to college are still memorable 35 years later.  The night before mom and Jack took me out to dinner to the San Marco restaurant on City Line Avenue, a place I had walked by throughout my entire life and had never been to.  The next day dad picked my up in his recently borrowed Lincoln Continental (from Joe Stafford’s Auto body; he possessed that car for a few years, or rather the car possessed him.)  We packed that car: crates of record albums, guitar, clothes and bedding, stereo, typewriter.  My entire life was cruising up 95, waiting for this next chapter to begin.  I was feeling awash with the excitement and potential of new opportunities, and dad had his own sense of bewilderment.  He had recently been renting a place in Santa Monica in Southern California, wondering if his law firm could establish a branch out there. Eileen had been spending a lot of time out there and the two of them were at a critical juncture in their relationship.  I remember the talking during the long car ride: Eileen wanted a baby, and he didn’t (he would have been …46,  she 31?).

We weren’t going to the move in the dorm on the same day of the drive (it was a five hours drive – now I think of that as an easy jaunt.  You leave in the morning and you get there.  But this wasn’t the case driving from Philly to New London.  We pulled

The Mohican Hotel. Opened in 1898 and at one point was one of the finest hotels in Connecticut. Dad and I stayed there after it bottomed out. In the 1980s it was converted into housing for the elderly (source: http://historicbuildingsct.com/?p=1805).

into the seedy Mohican Hotel in New London, and parked the Lincoln with all my stuff clearly visible right on the street.  Throughout the night I kept waking up, wondering if someone was breaking into the car at this very minute.  To this day, I am shocked that the car was still there and untouched the next morning.  That car looked like such an easy target.  Maybe because it was so badass with its white wall tires and gold trim that no low-rung wannabe criminal would fuck with it?  But the Mohican Hotel was its own badass.  Newspapers serving as window shades, if my memory serves me well. The next morning we cruised into the college and dad was truly amazed.  He talked about his own college years, living at home on Georges Lane in West Philadelphia where he grew up and commuting to Temple University.  This college, with all these young people walking around without any regard to  their youth and freedom was like visiting a foreign country.  Club Ed.

This must be the place. Though cosmetic renovations have happened, this is the entrance to the dorm I spent my freshman year.

This was my entryway into my college life.  I remember walking down the hall to a big living room that held a piano (!).  Windows against a wall looked out onto a field which was bordered by a dorm on the other side.  My dorm room was a triple, shared with John Ehrlich from Connecticut (who had the top bunk on top of me), and Lyons Bradley from Alabama who had the other bed.  We were quite the threesome.  Everyone else in the dorm was in a single or double, but the three of us – all very different, but friendly – worked it out.  In the spring semester, when a single opened up on the first floor, the college gave it to us, and rather than one of us moving into the single, we decided to use that as an

This parking lot shouldn’t be there! Behind the dorm were woods. Stepped into these woods at times at night and during the day – it felt like they went on forever. I lost my wallet in there during the first few days of school – how the hell did that happen??

auxiliary room – for studying, for when one of us wanted some privacy.  We truly worked as roommates.  I would play records, and Lyons would play his cassette tapes.  He had a little cassette player and a set of huge earphones that he placed on his head.  I remember him listening to nothing but Oscar Peterson.  To this day (and I listen to Oscar Peterson much more now than I ever had) I always think of Lyons when Oscar is playing.  Thanks Lyons.  I still think of friendships made, of playing my Yamaha guitar in the cinder block stairwells because the the echo (Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” comes to mind), playing the piano in the lobby when no one else was around (Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune” comes to mind) – intense friendships considering I was only there for a year, and I spent some weekends in Boston with Corey (and she spent some here).

The two windows all the way to the left on the third floor was the dorm room John, Lyons and I shared. It looked over the open quad (there were other dorms on the other side. Music was continually blasting out of dorm windows in the warm weather, an absence I felt walking around on a Monday afternoon 35 years later. The big stereo has gone the way of the record collection, relics of a different age.

What a line of students waiting to enter the Harris dining hall, which is part of the same complex as Johnson Hall.

The students lining up to get into lunch brought me back in a way I hadn’t expected, and affected my thoughts as I walked around the campus.  As a student 35 years ago, there was always a line to get into lunch and dinner, and Harris was the main dining hall on campus.  Waiting for meals seemed to be a highlight of our days because there was really a lack of much to do.  You took four classes per semester, which didn’t seem to eat up that much time during the day.  After class, before and after meals, you returned to your dorm room and hung out with anyone available, did some work, but there seemed to be a lot of waiting.  For me, I felt as if I were waiting for something to happen that wasn’t happening.  Most of my classmates seemed to feel  accustomed to this lifestyle; many had gone to private schools or boarding schools.  I was itching to do something more, to be somewhere else.  To paraphrase Tom Petty, the waiting was the hardest part.  Growing up outside of Philly spoiled me… there were record stores, book stores, hobby shops, concerts, great radio stations, my girlfriend, my high school friends.  At Connecticut College there was nothing.  As the months drifted by, I settled into a Connecticut College groove – sort of.  But I kept fighting it.

A drab building built in 1959 (see the commemorative marker on the corner)… on one hand yes, but this is where WCNI was (and still is). The building has been remodeled, but walking inside it felt the same. The large staircase up to the second floor which housed the radio station was still there.

A powerful interest to break the tedium: I started working at the WCNI and had an early Saturday morning show which I truly enjoyed. I’d show up for my shift early and pick out the records from the shelves on the wall (as well as the new record bin; I needed to play a few new releases per hour).

Notice the WCNI sign? The station used to be one floor above. It’s still there!

I’d sit in front of the console with a turntable on either side of me and feel one with the world. From years of listening to the radio and a high school internship at WYSP in Philly, a rock station, I was inspired to become a dj.  In Connecticut College, I was able to make this happen.  An people listened: from the college as well as the outside community (probably a dearth of other options).  I’d sub for other dj’s who couldn’t make their shifts. I sat at the console, both the dj and the engineer, a turntable to my right and a turntable to my left.  Cue up the music.  Play three new tracks from the new album bin per hour.  Speak into the mike (how awfully embarrassing it would be to hear extant tapes from my shows).  But dj-ing on WCNI gave me a purpose, and I felt an identity being part of the radio station.

I am a dj, I am what I play: Spinning the records circa 1977, taken by mom on a visit to the college (how devoted was she… getting up really early to take this shot during my early morning gig).

Back to the present: The library. I’d spend many hours there studying, writing, reading, and dreaming. It was so quiet and I’d be there usually by myself. I missed my old life and felt my new life didn’t seem to be centered here.

The music building at the other end of the campus from the dorm. Lyons used to come here a lot to use one of the studio rooms to practice his piano.

The front of the building which housed the auditorium. I took a film class there, which I remember better than any other class. I think of that often when I teach film classes, trying to get students to engage with films other than passively viewing them. Beautiful building, adjacent to the music building. Had one concert the year I was there: Livingston Taylor, brother of James. Livingston Taylor also played one night at Lower Merion during my senior year of high school. Urgh. Cemented the feeling that there wasn’t much happening here.

I remembered night-sledding on plastic lunch trays during the blizzard of 77 (I am so happy I am a fan of Nada Surf).  School was closed for two day, which was pretty wild because almost all the students lived in dorms and we were all there anyway.  The snow kept coming and coming and accumulating.  It happened all throughout the northeast, except we were in our own world in CC.  The night time sledding was awesome, and it seemed as if 50 kids took part in it.  Maybe we were all stoned, or most of us?  I remember it all as being otherworldly, and I found the spot on my visit.  By walking around the campus, by visiting places that at first blush did not seem important to my memory, I found that unexpected spot, and the memories came flooding back.  I had time: I walked to the arboretum located just outside one of the side gates to the college, and on this beautiful September afternoon I was in the midst of a vista that I last visited one snowy evening over a third of a century previously.  As I walked down the wide grassy lane bordered with shrubs, it hit me: this was where we sledded!  The hill was much gentler than I remembered, but it evened out and ended in a pond (I think the lurching over the snow that our lunch tray sleds had provided had petered out in plenty time before icy wet disaster would have happened).  Standing on that wide lane I felt it all – it was an exciting moment.

I only spent a year at Connecticut College.  And it wasn’t a “real” year but an academic year.  However, I lived in that school.  Lived away from Philly or Atlantic City for the first time in my life.  September through December, then home (I would work back home in the Drexel University bookstore during the ridiculous six-week winter break), then back February though May.  1977-1978.  That was it.  But powerful memories remain of friends, relationships, and that tremendous feeling that adulthood and life was beckoning, but it wasn’t to reach its essence on this beautiful campus.

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