Construction on a grand scale is a ceaseless phenomenon, and a comprehensive hodgepodge of styles, architectural rages embodies the university. Roads duck and weave in peculiar patterns, some looping, some abruptly dead ending, rendering this college scene drastically skewed from the neat rows and identical buildings often associated with the customary campus. Sprawling at odd angles across an acreage larger than entire small towns, it has the look at feel of one, a melting pot of disparate energies and benign cross purposes.
Ramseyer Hall, at the southwest corner of High and Woodruff, resembles what I consider the consummate hall of higher learning, a faded red brick building reminiscent of a backwoods junior high school, stumbled upon in a bend of some winding country road. The kind of structure pitched in every Hollywood college movie as the average university building, though an endangered species here. Holding more in common with the junior high school building on E 16th Avenue, in fact, and visual evidence that OSU has exceeded its original intended grasp, extending into the city, encroaching upon and entangling within it, gobbling up entire blocks.
Visible from this High Street intersection, and for that matter virtually any vantage point, the twin octagonal white high rises of Lincoln and Morrill Tower, staring at one another like bucks scrapping over territory, form our ostensible intended destination as we make our way across this intricate landscape. Perched along the eastern bank of the dormant Olentangy River, we peg it a good thirty minutes west from where we currently stand, and the probable outer limits of our enthusiasm.
Downhill along Woodruff, a staggering array of skeletal future business buildings stand tall against the gathering night, and an eventual upscale hotel. Bottoming out near the massive Horseshoe, otherwise known as Ohio Stadium, where the Buckeye football squad and their fanatical fan base will hold court every Saturday this fall to the tune of a hundred thousand ticket holders, Woodruff becomes Woody Hayes Drive. Ahead, Woody Hayes will rise in the form of an overpass crossing the Olentangy, pass a softball field and a number of agricultural buildings before dipping into a tunnel beneath the roaring onslaught of state route 315 – all this, just to reach what’s known as west campus. But we’re not biting off such a maniacally titanic piece of sightseeing tonight, intent more upon a triangular shaped overview of this quadrant, touching on most of the major central signposts.
Hooking left, we flank the Ohio Stadium perimeter, across the stone sidewalk, each block inlaid with the names of what I take to be key financial contributors. Around the arena’s backside, the walkway elevates, and students are continually zipping past us on bicycles hellbent for the towers. A number of others coagulate in loquacious, high spirited packs along benches and knee high parapets, as ignorant of the vaguely uncomfortable cold as we are. In a caged catwalk, we cross Cannon Drive, zigging left and downhill through jungle thick foliage on a thin dirt trail which terminates in front of Drake Union. Grizzled, jaded veterans after little more than a month, Drake Union, with its pathetically modest bar and smattering of eateries, is already an exhausted destination, one we pass tonight with nary a wayward glance. Next door, crazed b-ballers fling the orange sphere around a series of fenced in courts, earning our admiration as we bend back along the second leg of our journey.
Beyond the Lincoln Tower, we traverse an extensive plot of grass, duck inside an all-night library Damon’s been itching to inspect. As he meanders within its interior, I stand along a bank of tables peopled intermittently with serious, silent students hunched over textbooks, and gaze in awe out the second story wall of windows, a solid sheet that eats up the building’s entire northern face. While not quite breathtaking, or picturesque in the classical sense of the term, the view I’m afforded wholly enthralls me, a maze of incongruous buildings, white and orange lights, random members of the collegiate army spotted walking below.
Our crooked gait leads us between a handful of unremarkable buildings, until we emerge upon Neil Avenue. Essentially the spine of campus, Neil is the lone north-south street running through its middle from one end to the other. Even so, its path is far from constant, or for that matter continuous, bending and jagging, in one spot terminating entirely at the majestic white stone structure of the main OSU library. More English country mansion than scholastic property, this library, named in honor of one William Oxley – whoever that is, or was – allows Neil to resume its idiosyncratic course on the other side, zigging north through more campus property, a slum like stretch of apartments and chopped up houses, ending eventually as a block of brick road.
We swing by Mirror Lake, the man made, stone lined pond as calm as the christening would imply. Around a small, rustic pavilion termed Browning Amphitheater, and southeast across another grassy expanse. Ahead, the strangest structure we’ve yet encountered, a building shaped roughly like the state of Pennsylvania, with one whole, cartoonishly elongated wing fanning out in a sharp triangular tip. Composed of seemingly every architectural element known to man, from limestone to metal sheets and girders to queerly shaped panels of glass placed apparently at random, this monstrosity is known as Drinko Hall. A great name for a bar, Drinko Hall, but here it’s the college of law.
Along with a natural disquiet stoked by warmer weather, this urgent thirst to both exercise and exorcize propels us forward. Damon and I take to roller blading around campus at two, three, four o’clock in the morning, predominantly the university itself, as its various parking garages, handicapped ramps, and off kilter architectural designs make an ideal template. A skateboarder’s dream, with its teeming oceans of asphalt, the Wexner Center one especially favored destination.
Or the afternoon where, intent upon a whirl around campus, I strap on the threadbare roller blades. In a plastic grocery sack, the remains of the paperback stash Damon’s dad donated, those I’m unlikely to read and hope to trade in. South along Summit, cracked, lopsided, riddled with holes, the sidewalks mold my trek into an off-road obstacle course. Near E 17th, a break appears in the rush hour deluge, as I puncture and cross the one way flood of cars.
17th slopes and curves with a breakneck slant, arcing headlong toward Indianola. Majestic estates hover high above the road, woven with foliage barriers spring has already resuscitated, scrubbed green. Once dignified manors sliced into tiny cubicles, the rampant epidemic, eyepopping nonetheless in their walls choked with ivy, their circular driveways and conic eaves. Negotiating this steep decline, dancing upon the street itself now, I build up more steam than expected and panic for a moment, the brakes of these skates ineffective as I hope to either slow down or crash with the lowest measure of danger. Instead I skid out into the middle of Indianola, an oasis mercifully devoid of vehicles this singular eerie instant.
Oncoming interceptors approach from both directions as though enemy linebackers. I scuttle over to the nearest sidewalk, forward to the spine of fraternity/sorority row. E 15th, nurturing an unbroken string of each, communal Greek houses despicable in their cookie cutter glory, as they taunt us with the implicit scripted rituals of their predetermined nights. Sand bottomed volleyball pits, halved by nets, front every third yard, and sunbathing beauties test credulity stretching out across just as many lawns, jump starting the season as they snap beach towels into shape along a corresponding number of roofs. Wearing their three lettered symbols like a coat of arms, supported by faux ivory columns, these fortresses boast more wings and stories than the White House.
15th dead ends into High, this district’s central intersection, its prime pedestrian nexus. A second Panini’s location resides on one corner with an enormous patio chock full of screaming drunken students, another mob visible inside through the two story plate glass facade. On the other corner, composed of irregularly shaped grey bricks, some jutting at random from the wall, Long’s Bookstore, where a time and temperature clock stretch high into the sky, unintentionally shaped just like a penis and its testicles. The Wexner Arts Center across the street, site of my last late night blading trip with Damon.
My shins are still cut up from that excursion, cruising with no booties in my skates. Paying for it tenfold now, in particular following the frantic slide down 17th, chafing the skin raw again, reopening the wounds. I’ve got three pairs of socks on each foot and kitchen sponges across both ankles, but these don’t reach the top of my skates, and the abrasion becomes ungodly.
Gliding up High, past a number of indigenous mom and pop restaurants, bohemian clothing stores, and too many record shops to count on my immediate right. Buzzing with bodies like an anthill gone berserk, aping the university labyrinth on the other side of High. Bicyclists whiz through this maelstrom, nosing between swarms, and an occasional bookworm sits crosslegged upon the cement walkway, oblivious as he studies his text. Or slouched against buildings in packs of two or three, hats backward and smoking cigarettes like the bums, though neither they nor the bums nor anyone else will elicit a comment from anyone, fading, all, into the background.
I find a pair of stores with broad signs marked BOOKS EXCHANGED but by this, I soon learn, they mean classroom varieties. Out of luck, I continue chewing up blocks to the north, clunk down the cool, dark recess of stairs to the consensual champion record store, Used Kids, for no reason other than a treasure hunter’s greed. Submerged a flight beneath the ground, this sunken galley, sublime. Before too long, I’ve made a purchase on cassette, digging as always how they stamp today’s date across the price tag with their name on it, preserving for posterity where and when you bought this thing.
With the ongoing itch of these scraped up legs, this bag full of books weighing me down like a cement life vest, I’m eager to complete the circuit home. Stomping more than skating, I pant my way up Woodruff’s gradual incline. Below and to my left, Iuka Park fans out like a high density jungle, where insects chirp and chant for supremacy, though held in check by the walls of housing on every side, the crooked eponymous street Iuka buried somewhere down there, meandering through the tangled brush like a river. The short, ancient bridge of Indianola, currently closed for repairs, dangling above the park with the daily threat of collapse and taking out an acre of wildlife in the process. Its current dormant state turning this four way intersection into a three, one Damon glides into at this moment with his truck.
“Hop in, man,” he says, “I’m picking Carrie up and some of her friends.”
Damon I must commend for keeping his affairs in order. He knows what he’s doing and doesn’t waste time, for one scant week after meeting the girl, he’s already made these nightlife arrangements with her. Bringing to those negotiations the same manic energy he shoulders everywhere, identical to his methodical sweep south down High, sex drive insatiable, a wayward glance for every female his eyes can absorb. Rubbernecking till the last possible instant, he whips a sharp right onto West 11th, as his gaze now lands upon the cassette clamped tightly in my hand.
“Used Kids, huh?” he says, “I don’t know if those guys are selling their tapes for drug money or what, but it sure is cheap as hell in there.”
Scattered across campus like pocket change on a coffee table, twenty high rise dormitories dot the western skyline. Here on 11th, however, a handful such buildings are planted in one neat row, identical, red brick towers stretching maybe fifteen stories vertical. Distinguishable only by the grey streetside plaques with names in bold faced black, Damon selects the correct one, and slips into its meager parking lot. As freshman students are discouraged from owning wheels, any vehicles belonging to them are stationed on distant asphalt oases elsewhere. Room remains only for deliveries and visitors, a tiny plot our ladies presently occupy.
We will pick up these girls and make an out-of-the way drive for beer, we will drive them back to our house for a drinking game with dice. We will split into separate factions with still others joining us, some bound for Maxwell’s Bar, some bound for a party on East 11th. At night’s end Damon and I will escort Carrie to her dormitory, just around the corner, past a bar named the Cornerstone. A double deck affair with glass on both sides that face the two streets, and a bustling patio section hemmed in by an intimidating ten foot wrought iron fence, the Cornerstone spills past fire code spec with bodies, their animated chatter propping up the night for a three block square radius. Past a thriving fried poultry enterprise dubbed Cluck-U-Chicken, past a lonely house sitting alone in the middle of a parking lot, converted, with minor modifications, into a swinging pizza stand named Catfish Biff’s.
Suffering under strict curfews, stringent bylaws, a clockwork rotation of upperclassman pricks squat upon chairs beside the dormitory’s front door. At this hour, the latest watchdog’s presence forces Carrie to enter alone, sign the dude’s log book, then slip around to a side door and admit the two of us. Her room’s located near the building’s apex, twelfth floor or so, yet after just two flights of stairs Damon’s already huffing and puffing – for this, he can thank his relatively newfound cigarette habit.
As Carrie lets us into her room, we find that Sarah’s already here, sitting with a book on one of the beds. They share this meager space, the two of them, a cubicle barely bigger than my bedroom, though made hospitable with their female touches, the naturalistic decor they’ve softened the edges with. Carrie throws a Rusted Root disc into her CD player, and as an exceptionally long drum solo spills across the speakers, engulfing this narrow compartment, both Damon and I, independent of one another, start piecing together the same conclusions. That what we’re dealing with here, most of all, sophisticated pretenses aside, is a giggling, idealistic tandem of modern day hippies, would be Deadheads, inhaling weed and dropping acid each summer en route to the nearest Phish show. Sure, in baggy, tattered jeans, and frilly, flowery blouses, they dress the part, but we’re not exactly the most observant cats when it comes to the nuances of a woman’s clothing.
I’m sitting upon Carrie’s bed, she and Damon on the floor, Sarah on her own bunk, melting in the soft warm light of a lamp in the corner as we shoot the breeze. Forget the crumbling abode on Summit, decomposing as we sneak beneath the trash atop the stairs; this feels like home, the only place for me, and I allow my fantasies to roam unencumbered. Days or weeks in the future, perhaps, stretching out in across this soft, springy bed with Sarah’s sweet aroma fleshing out the room, filling in the gaps where our faults and our passions, our hangups and our triumphs, fail to intersect, as spaces always lie between two people, two people can never truly mesh. But lying in this bed with arms around one another, as we allow the boundless hunger to connect with someone else span the gulf between us, the hallway’s bustle a soothing backdrop lulling us to sleep.
Soon, maybe, but not tonight. Before long Damon and I are on our way, tramping across the university’s dark heart, through a wide, central expanse of grass known as The Oval. Foot traffic still strong at this late hour but only a fraction of its daytime self, the clusters of students carousing around us numbered substantially fewer.
“Boy, if we could just get in good with this Carrie and her friends,” Damon muses, “you know there’s gonna be all kinds of girls running around that dorm. If we get to where we’re hanging out there a lot and they start to know us……”
“This dorm thing could be our ticket,” I agree.
As far as the other residence options surrounding this fine establishment of higher learning, we were always kind of fascinated by the fraternities ghettoized on Indianola between, say, 19th and 17th. As if earning blemished plots as payment for deviant conduct, a small clutch of them huddle together up here, away from the prizewinning tribe on 15th, lean on termite stilts. Lawns a topographical absurdity, covered in trash and torn to shreds – yeah, it’s safe to say we vibe with these folks. If ever the frat house type, nowhere else beyond this pockmarked avenue could we envision laying our heads. A faceless brethren viewed at three a.m. from afar, as we slog our way home from late night beers, routinely spotted on balconies, shouting insults across the street to one another. Launching projectiles, some occasionally aflame. South campus has its post football game riots every fall, featuring tear gas and rubber bullets, a burrito vendor wheeling his sidewalk wares around, even the occasional uprooted telephone pole. But by now it’s all become so predictable, committed by lunkhead zealots in scarlet and grey bodypaint who take their idiotic devotion too far. Whereas in this neck, they have front yard bonfires on a Wednesday for no reason at all. Stereos broadcasting around the clock into daybreak, signal stronger, sadly, carrying further, than the OSU radio station. Locating parallels between their unplanned atrocities and ours, we appreciate them all the more; however, if the frequent twirling red and blue beams indicate anything, there are others not so readily amused.
At Sullivant Hall, an austere grey building whose car sized bricks and wide, vertically imposing front steps befit flowing robes of justice and nobility, our nation’s capital, more so than university classroom, the OSU Association of Women stage their annual rally. An overnight candlelight vigil protesting any and all forms of violence, it transpires upon those same monumental steps the women have somehow scaled. The Wexner Center for the Arts showcases, for a number of weeks, a gigantic stuffed cat as its primary exhibit, its patchwork body winding throughout the funkily designed building’s plentiful rooms. In a far less capricious mood, as if overhearing one of Paul’s abundant sermons, elected officials announce they’re going to start targeting this panhandler plague with unprecedented aggression, beginning with the beggar swarms on campus.
Crew soccer games in the springtime, fine, and the OSU brass band, this galaxy’s largest, can practice here each fall as well, but rock shows alone redeem Ohio Stadium. Ostensibly one beautiful piece of architecture, this epic arena, as though lifted brick by brick from gladiatorial Rome, with its ivory hued stonework and overwhelming arches, its cloud scraping rim, systematically notched with holes for light and aesthetic appeal. Yet only the occasional touring juggernaut can rekindle the feverish spirituality of such ancient rituals this structure suggests, or so I believe. Certainly there is no magic in a quarter million boors wearing pomegranate jerseys each autumn Saturday, half filling the stadium past its spillover point, the other half grilling bratwurst and listening to bad 70s funk cover bands in the parking lot. Whereas even a thus far poorly reviewed, modestly attended U2 cross country jaunt, some bloated, techno laden postmodern extravaganza, can sweep into town tonight, and set this university humming with an almost religious fervor.
Forty four thousand tickets sold, and thousands more loiter, camping, carousing, able to clearly hear if not see, in this field behind the action, the empty expanse of land between an OSU library and the Lincoln and Morrill Towers. Another merry swarm, collegiate and younger, mostly, rules the campus streets, too, centering upon Lane and High, but fanning both outward and inward across virtually every spare scrap of land. This may not equal, quite, the open container free zone of a Saturday morning tailgate bonanza, which the cops have given up on policing entirely and close off the surrounding streets to accommodate, but it comes close. Between here and there I encounter a dozen front porches sagging with keg party saturation, densely packed and chirping above random U2 albums, cranked full tilt, or a local radio station broadcasting the same. Local band Silo the Huskie works the parked car cabal, meanwhile, sliding flyers beneath windshield wiper blades, advertising an after concert show they’re playing at the Short North venue Chelsea’s.
Home, bored, attempting to write something for hours in my disheartening dustbunnied bedroom, soundproof but for the muffled tv drone escaping Alan’s now closed door, I evacuate for round two, as the clock reads half past two. Discover that, without exception, the same houses reveling the last time around continue to do so, if sloppily, louder, but that High Street itself, stretching from roughly Hudson Avenue clear down into the Short North, is an absolute madhouse, wilder than any Thursday night, even in dreams. The Chelsea’s afterhours canceled, given up on by its queued hopefuls after an extended wait, so that by midnight, when the drunken owner staggers up with keys, only the furious Silo foursome remain outside, though stick around no longer than it takes to grab their equipment. No shortage of alternative venues await this howling horde, however, whereby even this all night convenience store I’m raiding for ice cream bears a shoulder to shoulder parking lot congregation, assembled for no discernible purpose, and with no other entertainment, unless their skateboards and boomboxes count, their rosy reenactments, across the street shout outs, one hit bowls and forties.
Back in the 1800s, High Street probably earns its name as a major avenue, riding up above the Olentangy River. These days its name implies a more drug riddled connotation, but the landscape has changed little since those archaic times, and the basic geography still stands. On the northern edge of campus, all the side streets branching west of High slope downhill toward the river, with Neil Avenue as the only road that intersects. A block away from and running parallel to High, Neil is the last turnoff before these side streets dead-end into the river, these side streets that mostly alternate as one ways, first in one direction, then the next one running the other. This river shapes campus, hemming in the university, defining its parameters, yet despite its prominent location no one ever thinks about the river. It’s not woven into the fabric of our lives, it’s not even something we look at, it’s just there. Leaving campus on the bridges of Lane Avenue or Dodridge or King we sometimes drive over the river, but that’s the extent of its meager pull.