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A FAT LADY at Revere Beach needs to get off the ground. She should take a ride on the Ferris Wheel. She won't though: it is far away behind a fence and she would have to struggle through the crowd and they would all stare at her. She might not even know it's there.
Instead she sits alone among a hundred people crammed onto a tiny square of land. Her environment is noisy, yellow, hard, and smells of hotdogs. The most important part of her existence is her body. Is this like the way we live?
Radcliffe dorms are not unlike Revere Beach for people who live there without wanting to. There is the same uncontrollable carnival of the senses in both. Hemmed into twelve square feet of space or less, constantly under the eyes of roommates and wandering acquaintances, subjected to a level of noise that has killed hamsters, girls who live in the brick dorms are so existentially stunted that they only point to parietal rules and the lack of "intellectual conversation" as reasons for doing away with dorms. But these complaints are abstractions on the periphery: the experience itself is too overwhelming to talk about. Not until they get off campus can people really understand why some of their friends go crazy.
Some have said the physical world of dorms is made for moles. The visual environment is constricting. Single rooms are laid out on either side of long hallways covered with travel posters and yellowing cartoons. Most rooms are divided among two occupants, two radios and a record player. Everything is horizontal except the people, but they are what we are trying to get away from. People are everywhere, just hanging around. The sense of being under observation is so strong it sometimes seems the hallways are tunnels hung with rolling eyeballs. There are no free distances for the eyes and no space for the body. The confinement imposed by rules and restrictions is paralleled on the physical level by the sheer lack of room and privacy.
Don't Scream, Eat!
But while the girl who lives on the third floor of Moors must remain relatively still as she sits with her roommate or creeps from room to room and space to space, things and people converge around her. Possessions flow from person to person getting broken and lost as they move, a letter comes from abroad and has its stamp ripped off before the addressee sees it, daily events like meals and the arrival of Gordon linen march blindly on, compulsory dorm meetings are held, toilets flushed, people talk. The individual girl has no control over events or time, can start or stop nothing, feels no responsiveness from her world. The stage has no exits.
Studying, the activity that this world wants her to want to do, might be a way of climbing out into some sort of fresh air and freedom. But the interruptions and the noise that make dorm life what it is make studying impossible. The constant noise creates a constant non-transcendant now and here. The roar of meals, the music other people use as futile anodynes for the same conditions, the telephones, the feet, the piano in the lower regions, the voices and the plumbing make the space she is sitting in come alive as a huge, swaying, indifferent body.
Even her own contributions to the noise level are beyond her control. People, especially female people, deal with the tension caused by having so many together in such close quarters by talking. The only way to get back at them all is to talk at them. Nicely. Everyone must be nice. There are eight girls in these rooms. Patty and Sally, who are nice, Jane and Tina, they're nice. Sandy and Betty and Linda and Mary, also nice. When one of them gets tired of being nice and would like to play a record very loudly and perhaps scream, she can't. It wouldn't be nice.
Instead of screaming there is eating. The typical freshman gains fifteen pounds in her first year of dorm life. Girls coming home after dates roam the kitchens looking for snacks. People eat ravenously at dinner as they discuss how fat they are getting and how bad the food is. By over-eating people repeat the vicious circle operating in all parts of dorm life: poor conditions cause strains which are temporarily relieved by aggravating the conditions.
THAT MAKES up for the frustrations of living with so many people are the friendships we make, the catalogues tell us. The conservative from Minnesota exchanges views with the communist from New York.... Actually the conservative from Minnesota is hating the communist from New York for taking her hair curlers. Usually girls band together in groups of four or five that eat together and try to ignore everyone else, but things are fluid enough so that everyone has some casual friendships (casual in the sense of chance). Few are aware of it, but it is these casual friendships that are one of the millstones around the Cliffie's neck. Watch out for casual friends? Your casual friend is the girl who tells you she is about to start piano lessons or the girl who shows you the new boots she's bought, the girl you hear has just gotten an A on her anthropology paper or the girl who had four dates in one day. You don't play the piano, you don't have new boots, you don't get. As on your papers, you don't have four dates in a day. But you are a Cliffie and you have synthetic mind and you fuse all these friends into one Other who does better and has more. It's a rat race, but the rats are on a treadmill and the cheese is imaginary.
Competitiveness and the making of comparisons are diseases of the imagination that come from being surrounded by people you see in bits and hear about in pieces. You can't look too long at anyone in a dorm: you have to keep circulating. You have to avoid real participation in the other people's lives: the way you do it is by talking. One would think that among all the talking going on in a Radcliffe dorm there must by the laws of probability be some of the stuff called intellectual conservation, though no one's really sure what that is. But much of the talk is out of control, a thing detached from the individuals engaging in it, the meaningless result of universal pressure. As such, the talk itself is distorted. It is jacked up from the level of simple things like intellectual matters to opinions about other people, a level of such complication that talk is helpless.
Come Into My Parlor
It's a tough situation. Everyone has a few friends, good friends, but they keep each other up all night talking about problems that are the same as everyone else's. There's a lot of repetition, a lot of things people do despite themselves. Certain aspects of life such as male female relationships, are made artificial. People are much more anxious than they have to be. Living in an institution makes people put their time and interests in compartments, and nowhere is this more true than in the rules about male visitors.
Dorms are discouraging places for boys to visit. They have to be stared at by 100 girls to get to see one. All the apparatus of bells, pink slips, tags, and signing in for parietals makes it a Special Occasion every time a boy comes, when everyone would be happier if it could be Just Dropping By. Girls are supposed to yell "Man on" when they bring their visitors upstairs and put a sign on the door after they have evacuated their roommate. The leering suppositions underlying these procedures put the focus on just what the authorities are presumably trying to plaster over.
Girls themselves are under a spotlight when they go out or have visitors. In each dorm there is a cadre of people who hang around the bells desk, serving their own purposes but also observing all the comings and goings. Everyone knows who everyone else spends time with and talks about it in the interest of friendship. Some girls pick their dates for their friends rather than themselves. Girls who don't go out at all feel miserable and inferior. They are instantly typed.
BUT THE THING dorms are interested in most of all is studying. Everyone is willy-nilly identified is a student and thrown into a schedule that has a relentless momentum of its own. There is no sense for the individual when she wakes up in the morning that she has a day to do with as she wishes. Studying is not a free and personal thing but a compulsory activity by which an atom holds its place in the mass. Everyone studies all the time and worries whether everyone else isn't studying better, another imaginary cheese mistake. "Are you working again?" people ask each other in deprecation. It worries them to see others working, especially if they seem to be enjoying it.
What happens is that the conditions of the dorm limit people's ability to make their own choices. The individual is subordinated to the rules, to the pressures of friends, to the harrassment of the crowd. The worrying about work is a sign that the individual can't find out, much less fulfill, her potentialities. Instead, she adopts the common standard and resorts to comparisons to measure her own worth. Her initiative is cut off. She needs friends to an artifically-heightened degree, and the reliance on friends promotes conformity and excessive hunting for security. The groups of friends that spring up are defensive units, mechanisms for keeping out the threats of existence. Their cost is resistance to new and unexpected alternatives. Awareness gets lost and apathy takes over. Guilt-the feeling of not doing what one could be doing-pervades everything. Energy is diverted from action to depression, and talk flips back and forth on two-way switches.
Here is an actual conversation overheard at lunch and at breakfast the next day:
Two round girls with identical meals sit down at lunchtime.
"It's tuna. I love tuna," the first says.
"They should have tuna twice a week."
"Oh no-we forgot to take our pills this morning."
"I'm going to start my paper right after lunch."
"You're too conscientious."
"Did you see Steve today"
"Yes. I saw him when he came out of class and I said hi and he said hi and we walked together all the way to Mass Ave. and he didn't say anything and I didn't say anything. It was awful. I don't know what to do.
"We'd better do our exercises."
"Yes. We forgot Wednesday."
The next morning they sit down with a piece of bread and cheese each.
"I'm ravished." says the first.
"Me too. This cheese is so appetizing."
"He probably doesn't like you because you're too fat."
"We just have to keep on exercising. We forgot on Wednesday."
"I don't know how long I can go on this way."
Everyone is in the same predicament. It is hard to take responsibility for one's own existence without privacy and without time. It is hard to use even the freedom one does have, for it is hard to realize it is there. The noise of the dorm fills up the spaces and presses in on the people living there, sounds, words, commands-the voice of the public consciousness. The constricted space of plural living is a sign or sorrow. Free, open space is needed for the fortuitous and the unforeseen to occur, for the emotionally neutral and the amplitude of life everyone has a right to expect.
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