24 Hours In Elmira

ELMIRA, NEW YORK. August 23, 6:30 p.m.

I’m sitting on a bed in an improvised dorm room, in the V.I.P. wing of Tompkins Hall, at Elmira College.

Founded in 1855, this is a private, liberal arts college in the breathtaking Finger Lakes district, in upstate New York, a scenic locale that has been the inspiration of American literary notable Mark Twain.

But neither the rich history, nor the tranquil beauty of the place appears on the circle of my thoughts, even tangentially, at the present time.

My mind is spinning obsessively around a single loss: the loss of my comfy tech cocoon. I have no access to Internet. A TV set is conspicuous by its absence. There is no air conditioning. No telephone. No phone book. No map. There’s not even a tourist brochure.

And if I hadn’t carried along my Netbook, I’d have been deprived of a recording tool as well. I have a Mead notebook and a nice pen handy, but they don’t count in the 21st century, do they? My phone is my only window to the world.

The room is small and square, with thick, 1930s hardwood floors. Their antiquity shines through in the lack of any obvious synthetic gleam of factory-produced floor tiling. The furniture is austere. It also appears to be ancient because it is.

Tompkins Hall was built in 1926. Back then, it housed “upper-class” female students. Barring some essential structural renovation, the building hasn’t changed in the last 83 years of its existence.

It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a journalist, I know that the “National Register of Historic Places” is a prestigious designation. But I can’t pause to ruminate about trivia—even profound trivia—when the floodgates of my tears are about to burst.

The exterior of Tompkins Hall, no doubt, imparts an Old World flavor to its setting, but its interior is surprisingly shabby, with mottled faucets, a cracked ceiling, a dull, metallic lamp base, and a bathroom sink, smeared with rust.

As I raise my head from my keyboard, I see my own reflection, wearing a bitter expression on the mirror above a wooden vanity. Still lower, my gaze settles on its set of quadruple drawers, with their solid, spherical knobs.

A pair of Spartan armchairs, with gaping holes in the cane latticework of their armrests, accentuates the room’s hoariness. Two identical twin-sized beds, separated by a nightstand, occupy the place of pride. They’re fitted with slender, sinuous headrests and footrests.

The room smells stuffy. It’s not well-ventilated. The heavy, blanket-like matching bedcover and drapes trap the day’s internal heat, stultifying the atmosphere. Out of physical discomfort, I look around, opening and shutting the doors to what appear to be broom closets.

Behind one, I see a large, round fan, squatting on the floor. It could’ve well been the engine of a decommissioned World War II-era turboprop. I pick it up, and place it on the wide window ledge. I press down firmly on the “on” button, and a roaring blast of air hits my face. Despite its seeming ferocity, from its present perch, it doesn’t much churn the stagnant air.

The monotony of typing in the same position, without a break to grab a cup of coffee, tea, or ice-cream soda, is painfully frustrating. I slide off the bed, slip on my shoes, and walk down the dark corridor outside my room to explore the building’s innards. To be tossed without a warning into another era can be soul-wrenching.

An ornate door leads me to the student common room. It’s cavernous and smells old, like everything else here. A mix of sectionals, couches, and recliners are upholstered in bleeding purple velvet. For lighting, there are wall-mounted glass lanterns.

A chandelier, well past its prime, dangles limply from the center of an off-white ceiling. A stag’s antlers cranes out from the bare wall over the mantelpiece. A dusty piano completes the picture of a ghost town version of Hogwarts, opulence-free, and non-magical.

Nightfall is approaching. The campus, already quite from the summer lull, is turning in. A swarm of invisible crickets is rousing from its torpor. Accustomed to the Technicolor noise of New York City that I am, the silence of Elmira is deafening. The confiscation of my digital life solidifies the solitude.

Mercifully, it’s pleasantly shattered by the ringing of my phone.


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