Ground Zero at Lowell
THE CUISINE never was the main attraction of the Lowell House dining hall, what with the quivering green jello and the baked fish you could smell at M-entryway 100 yards away. But now the lunchroom has a new highlight to rival its glorious chandelier. The Lowell House bells have come to the dining hall, and with a vengeance
Annnh! Annnh! Annnh! The repeating pierce of shrill fire alarms has become a staple for Lowellians at all hours. In the wee hours of the morning they catapult you from bed, ending sweet dreams with an abruptness Freud never could have explained. At breakfast they jar your attention from your Raisin-Bran, startling you into sudden alertness more effectively than the strongest black coffee. These aren't the lyric chimes of the famed House bells. They are Harvard's reminder to Lowellians that, mid way through October, construction still continues on the half century old structure. And they are not too subtle.
Annnh! Annnh! Annnh! These aren't the sort of bells meant for your ears Nosirree. These bells assault the sinuses, a far more vulnerable site. After 60 seconds of feeling your nasal passages clear in unison with the alarms, it comes down to a choice between leaving your room and having your vocal cords returned to A-minor.
The culprit is the Walsh Bros. Co., signed on by Harvard to retool Lowell and Winthrop Houses, which were secretly falling to pieces. Somehow, Walsh's fire alarms, installed in mid-summer, have managed to be triggered by just about anything--footsteps, sneezes, running water, sunrise. The one thing these smoke alarms don't seem sensitive to, oddly enough, is fire. One student tells of accidentally failing to open his fireplace flue, seeing his room fill up with smoke, and never hearing a peep out of his detector.
Meanwhile, several Sundays ago, the Lowell fire alarms inexplicably went off eight times, including three at 8:15 a.m., 9:15 a.m., and 10:30 a.m. Had your ears been able to screen out the ringing of the alarms, you could have heard a collective "ugggh" resound throughout the House. At 8:15, everyone came spilling out bleary-eyed, at 9:15, noticeably fewer Lowellians bothered to obey the command; and at 10:30, a mere handful of compulsive law-obeys left their beds. A sociological observation: unpublicized couples, sheepish upon making a rumpled co-appearance after the first fire alarm, almost never re-emerge at the next ringing.
But public embarrassment is the least of the problem. One night last week I was preparing for bed when--Annnh! Annnh! Annnh!--the day's requisite alarm went off. No big deal, I figured, and continued brushing my teeth. After five minutes. I called the House superintendent's office and was assured the problem would soon be taken care of.
But the clanging persisted, and 10 minutes later I put in another call, which was answered by a different person. "That's not showing up on the screen!" she exclaimed when told of the alarm. "You'd better get out of there fast!" There was no fire, of course, but someday we Lowellians are all going to be burnt to a collective crisp. Remember the boy who cried "Wolf"?
One gropes for analogies. A big alarm clock? No comparison. A Concorde jet taking off next door? Not jangling enough. The only suitable comparison is with the one thing some of us has ever experienced. The day Ronnie drops the bomb and civil defense alarms go off across the country. Lowellians are going to roll over in the sack, mutter, "just another goddamn alarm," pull their pillows over their ears and hold their bedmates extra close. Then again, that's probably the best way to go.