Part VIII of W. H. Auden’s “The Quest.”
Part VIII of W. H. Auden’s “The Quest.”
I remember learning to use the card catalog in grade school in the 1980’s. It was intimidating for a young kid. The teacher made a big deal out of it, and those long, light brown wooden cabinets looked positively monolithic. They looked as though they were holding difficult math problems in their uniform, ordered little drawers, in the same manner as the mute Sphinx might hold impossible riddles.
And I still remember how surprised I was at how easy it was. You only had to remember one of three things: author, subject or title. And the alphabet took care of the rest. Every kid knew the alphabet. It was a bizarrely empowering experience for a young, nascent nerd.
No, we didn’t have the Internet. Hell, we didn’t even have the Internet for research purposes when I was in college. I remember driving with Tom (the other most befuddled member of Mary Washington College’s psychology program) an hour and a half to Charlottesville to research our term papers at the University of Virginia. That was a long drive.
This is a shot of me and my alum Dave at the site of the “Lost Colony of Roanoke” during Spring Break 1994. A bunch of the seniors at Mary Washington College’s New Hall trekked down to North Carolina’s Outer Banks that year; this is one of the places we stopped along the way.
Dear God, that was one of the most enjoyable trips of my life.
What the hell were Dave and I doing below? Performing a skit? I can’t remember. I was a really, really weird kid, and Dave was also pretty out there.
Pitt Street in Fredricksburg is looking terrific — the area seems far more gentrified and better maintained than when I lived there during the summer of 1991, after my freshman year at Mary Washington College.
There were always a few college kids living on Pitt back in the day — either just during the summer or for the entire year, attracted by the dirt-cheap rents just north of downtown. You sort of got what you paid for, though; back then, we thought of it as “Pits Street.”
I had my first place (outside of my freshman dorm room) at 304 Pitt Street — that’s the little grey house on the left in the next two photos. I sublet it from another drama student at MWC. (He was an upperclassman who coached me a little on my acting, despite the fact that I wasn’t very good.) Tim was a gigantic guy, and former military. He’d been in some kind of special forces, and the other guys explained to me that he was too tough to care much about the size or quality of the accommodations. “To Tim, a two-by-four is a bed,” one of them explained me.
So the “place” in question wasn’t fancy. It hardly qualified as a room. It was actually just a walk-in closet with a window; I slept on a futon because a mattress wouldn’t fit. But the price was right — rent was just $150 a month, with utilities included. My part-time job was right on Caroline Street. (I played the role of “the tavern-keeper’s son” at The Rising Sun Tavern, a living-history museum.) And right up Princess Anne Street was the comic shop I’ve written about here before — this was the place with the singularly horrid woman who visibly hated every customer who walked in.
I had sooooo little money that summer. Meals occasionally consisted solely of those butter cookies that sold for 99-cents-a-package at the nearby Fas-Mart. (This wasn’t an entirely unhappy circumstance — those things were so good, they were addictive.) I spent a lot of time listening to Depeche Mode on cassette; any song from the “Some Great Reward” album will always take me back to Pitt Street. When I started dating one of the “tavern wenches” at work, our dates always had to cost little or nothing. And I spent a lot of time watching “Star Trek” on VHS tapes from the Fredericksburg Library.
My housemates were Mike and Paul, who were upperclassmen. Mike was a tall, soft-spoken Fairfax native who appeared to endlessly ponder things. Paul was a likable, irreverent metal-head who loved to make fun of me. (Hey, I deserved it, after working hard for a year at Bushnell Hall seeking the Most Obnoxious Resident Award.) My complete dependence on Fas-Mart was an endless source of amusement for him. (I didn’t have a car, and the Giant Supermarket was along Route 1 on the other side of town.) He laughed the hardest when I demonstrated my ignorance of metal. He actually fell over once when I read his Queensryche poster and pronounced their name as “Queensearch.”
Mike and Paul had a friend named Stefan who occasionally stopped by the house. Stefan was unique. He always appeared confused by life, and he always arrived with news of some strange new misfortune that had befallen him. He once showed up at our door, for example, looking like a victim of a nuclear reactor meltdown — his thick black hair had been brutally shorn away into a mottled “crew cut.” (He’d tried to save money by giving himself a haircut, not realizing how difficult that was to do correctly.) Later that summer he stopped by with news of a near-death experience. (This time, he’d electrocuted himself trying to change a broken light-bulb while the lamp was still plugged in.)
There was no shortage of drug activity in that part of Fredericksburg in the early 1990’s. Some girls up the street from where I lived grew a man-sized marijuana “tree” right in their living room. Another guy who was well known in the neighborhood offered the dubious service of delivering acid to anyone’s door.
A Fredericksburg native on the other side of the street was known for howling at the sky from his front porch. This was during the day; the moon had nothing to do with it. I was told he was issuing some sort of recurring, primal challenge to some other local who had threatened him. He was at least not acting out of paranoia … one morning his adversary indeed appeared at the edge of his yard, brandishing a baseball bat. The Howling Man fortified his position on the porch by returning with a lengthy kitchen knife.
Nobody called the police. The guys in my house at least had an excuse — we didn’t have a phone. Cell phones just weren’t a thing in 1991, and we lacked either the money or the organizational skills to set up a landline (probably both).
I remember being concerned about the Howling Man after Mike told me about the extended stalemate. (It had occurred when I was at work, pretending to be a colonist in charge of the tavern wenches.) Our neighbor had always been nice to me. I’d given him some milk after he asked for it one morning, and he’d given me an ostentatious bow, kneeling before me on one knee and bowing his head, like a knight would do before a king. He had plenty of decorum, he just saved it for those who were deserving.
Looking south down Princess Anne Street toward the downtown area. The Irish Brigade used to be all the way down and at left. (I’ve been told that various restaurants close and re-open at the address, and … that the site of Mother’s Pub was also rebranded as the “new” Irish Brigade for a while? But by different owners?) That’s just confusing.
Just a little farther down on Princess Anne is the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church. My girlfriend during the summer of 1991 sang in the Maranatha choir there.
Looking north on Princess Anne Street, toward Hardee’s, and where Fas-Mart and the comic shop used to be.
Does anyone else remember this grey house on Pitt Street, between Princess Anne and Caroline? (That extension with the latticed porch hadn’t been built yet in the 1990’s.) I think the house number is 209. It became a big party house in 1993 and 1994 … I was at a party with a bunch of New Hall people during my senior year, I think, when the cops arrived. I remember the house emptied out in an instant.
I myself slid down the outside of the house via the gutter from the second floor. (Seriously, people, when I went through my Spider-Man phase, I was really into climbing things.) I did something weird to the joint in my right thumb — it didn’t hurt much, but, to this day, my thumb still makes a clicking noise whenever I bend it.
Nothing says “gentrification” like seeing an upscale “Red Dragon Brewery” where a creepy, vacant building used to be. Way to go, Fredericksburg.
Heading south toward Caroline Street.
Looking south on Caroline from Pitt.
Looking back up Pitt from Caroline.
The entrance to Kenmore Park/Memorial Park on Washington Avenue. The obelisk itself is the grave of Mary Washington, George Washington’s mother; right behind it is the Gordon Family Cemetery. Although George’s father died when he was just 11 years old, his mother saw him ascend the presidency. She died in 1789.
Looking east from the park’s entrance, you can see First Christian Church, on the intersection of Washington Avenue and Pitt Street.
Washington Avenue looking south.
Gordon Family Cemetery. The Gordons lived at Kenmore; the gravestones date from 1826 to 1872.
If you were a Mary Washington College student returning from a party downtown in the 1990’s, you could pass the cemetery on your way back to campus at night. I saw a group of high school kids inside the cemetery one night; they scattered in a panic when they realized I’d noticed them. (To my knowledge, no Mary Wash kids were involved in shenanigans like that here.) I believe it is illegal to enter a cemetery like this at night … and I have it on good authority that Southern cops take such an offense very, very seriously.
Behind the cemetery is Meditation Rock. This was an occasional destination for college students out for a walk. Shortly after I arrived at Mary Washington in 1990 from New York, a patient group of upperclassmen “adopted” me and kindly resolved to keep me out of trouble. (One of them is still my “big brother” today.) This is one of the first places they showed me when they gave me a tour of the town.
Am I a weird guy if I suggest that images of Meditation Rock can have Freudian undercurrents? Is that wrong? There is a whole “Picnic at Hanging Rock” vibe here. (The sad thing is, I was actually studying Freud at about the time I first saw it, and it never occurred to me then.) The juxtaposition with the nearby images associated with death and godliness is aesthetically striking.
The Kenmore Apartments are still across Kenmore Avenue on the other side of the park.
Pictured are Willard Hall, The Fountain, Woodard Campus Center and New Hall.
My cell phone’s battery died as my Alumbud and I reached the northern end of Mary Washington College’s campus earlier this month. Hence, there are no pictures of the truly massive Simpson Library/Hurley Convergence Center. (I swear to you, that entire complex is about the size of the goddam S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier.)
Willard Hall and The Fountain.
Woodard Campus Center. I don’t remember calling it that when I went to school here in the early 1990’s. Wasn’t it just “The Student Center?”
The student mailboxes.
Inside Woodard. The Eagle’s Nest would be down and to the left. Upstairs was where the fall and spring formals were held. Those were significant social events back in the day.
I thought this was nice — I’m guessing it’s probably a product of the campus-wide remodeling project. And it has the college’s correct name! Beyond it is Seacobeck Dining Hall.
The renovated outdoor deck, another apparent feature of the remodeling project. I much prefer the unenclosed split-level deck that I remember.
New Hall, old man. My battery failed also before I could get pictures of the nearby light pole and the Fredericksburg municipal water tower, both of which I climbed on a dare, back in 1994 when I went through my “Spider-Man” phase while residing here. (That’s my senior year dorm room window behind me.)
Pictured is Bushnell Hall at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I lived here during the 1990-91 school year. It was a freshman dorm then; I don’t know if that’s still the case.
I arrived here just before my 18th birthday; this was the first place I ever lived away from home. I have never admitted it until this moment, but I was terrified watching my mother’s car pull away after I unloaded the last of my things. That terror lasted … two hours? Three? After my first dinner with the other Bushnell kids at Seacobeck Dining Hall, Mary Washington College felt goddam perfect. I never wanted to leave.
My dorm room was on the bottom floor, second from the right in the picture below. It was a suite — there were two rooms connected by a small bathroom. And there were six 18-year-old boys living there — yes, that means three to a room. Good lord, those were close quarters. We were awakened twice a week by the BEEP-BEEP-BEEP of the garbage truck reversing to empty a dumpster outside our window. And this was in a room without air conditioning, in Virginia, where teenagers were experiencing college-level academic stresses for the first time. I helpfully eased tensions in the suite by playing Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth” 3,043 times. The other five guys LOVED that.
There were even good-natured jabs connected with the North and the South. I habitually and dryly referred to one of my suitemates as “South Virginia;” he addressed me just as dryly as “Long Island Piece of Shit,” (or just “L.I.P.S.,” for short). He also took to calling me “Urban Spillover,” an appellation he derived from one of Dr. Bowen’s “Geography of North America” classes that mentioned Long Island. For some reason, the latter nickname absolutely felt more pejorative.
Seeing those double white doors beside my room below, and that steep hill in the following photos, will always remind me of my 18th birthday. A group of first-floor guys and fourth-floor girls had gathered inside that door just after moving in during the August of 1990, before classes started. A polite debate stirred there about whether opening those doors would set off the fire alarm. (They were clearly marked “Fire Doors” by an electric sign but … the LIGHT wasn’t on in the sign. And surely the administration wouldn’t require the guys on my floor to walk up an entire flight to the lobby just to exit the building, right?)
Without a word of warning, one of the first-floor guys spontaneously decided to test this theory by just blasting right through it. (No, it WASN’T me.)
The fire alarm went off. Everyone panicked. The guys and girls all shot down the hill outside Bushnell after the guy who’d triggered the alarm, and we all ran … right off campus. We didn’t stop running until we’d reached somewhere along William Street, I think.
But not all of us escaped without injury. One of my roommates was a tall, burly guy from right there in Fredericksburg, and he slipped in the sand and loose gravel that characterized that hill during that long ago August. I still remember that dull, loud, discordant thump-and-rattle as his body hit the slope, while my own lungs were pounding. When we reached the spot along William Street where our panic finally subsided, we all turned and gaped at his wound. One of his legs had become a sepia Monet of sand-encrusted blood. There were still pebbles clinging there, I’m sure of it.
He took it like a trooper. I guess … he just walked it off. And we walked around the ENTIRE town. We were scared to return to campus, what with images of arrest and expulsion dancing in our teenage minds. (We all might have overreacted a little.) So we went on a truly lengthy hot summer trek that circled all of the historic downtown area. (I think we wound up at Carl’s Ice Cream on Princess Anne Street at some point.)
That was really when I saw the City of Fredericksburg for the first time. I remember thinking that the South seemed like some other world — or maybe the same world, but 100 years ago. And I don’t mean that in any negative sense. It genuinely confused me that this town was called a “city,” but it just seemed idyllic and old fashioned and beautiful. I’m not sure if the average Fredericksburg resident realizes this, but their city indeed makes an impression on newcomers.
Somewhere along the way, I finally let it slip that the day was my birthday; I think heat exhaustion influenced my usual reticence on the subject. A couple of the girls stole away to a card store on Caroline Street, I think, and bought a card for me. My new friends all signed it for me upon our eventual return to Bushnell Hall that day (which was thankfully not occasioned by even a mention of the fire doors). I went to bed that night thinking that my new friends were a pretty decent group.
Anyway — more on my roommate’s injury … he was a bit of an eccentric guy, and one of his eccentricities was that he did not like to go to the Campus Health Center. He cleaned his long leg scrape himself, and then … bandaged it with duct tape. That’s right — duct tape. He’d apparently brought some along with him as an incoming freshman, just in case of an emergency. You can’t say it was a needless precaution — here he was, using it in lieu of bandages.
He walked around campus like that for a while. He looked a lot he was wearing part of an extremely low-budget “Robocop” Halloween costume. I honestly don’t know what transpired when it came time to remove the duct tape, and I’m not sure I want to.
You can’t make this stuff up.
This the dorm’s south side. If you face Bushnell looking north, the southern cap of the rectangular campus will be at your back. Today, it is is one the last places of the main campus’ 234 acres that remains undeveloped.
I’m not sure if there is any connection here, but there is a large mound of dirt among the trees and ivy that was rumored to be the remains of a Civil War fortification. It makes sense — that hill commands a view of the city; that’s why I used to go there to have my once-a-day Newport menthol cigarettes around dusk. And in the Nineteenth Century, before William Street’s more modern buildings were erected, I’ll bet you could see Marye’s Heights and the key sections of Sunken Road where the Battle of Fredericksburg raged.
I chatted with a girl on the steps of Bushnell once who told me she’d spoken with the ghost of a Civil War soldier. She actually carried on a brief conversation with him. She re-enacted the exchange after a some urging from me, but I wound up giving her story little credence. I didn’t exactly believe in ghosts, and she sounded like an actress confused about a role. (I wasn’t sure why her Confederate soldier would speak with a British accent.)