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"That college feeling"

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2004 - Spring


What student in her right mind would choose to live in a dorm for all four years of medical school? Ask Jenny Blair, who enjoyed a gym in the basement, a piano in the Harkness ballroom and snowball fights right outside the door.

Midtown, Hyde Park, Brookline. Match Day is upon us, and I am looking for a neighborhood in the cities whose hospitals I’ve applied to. Soon I will be looking for an apartment. Strange though it sounds, it will be hard to improve upon the one I have on the medical school campus.

Our class moved into Harkness Dormitory in August 2000, after renovations had polished it back to new. The doors swung smoothly. The floors were so clean that it felt like sacrilege the first time your bare feet felt the crunch of dirt on them. The low-pitched, constant whoosh of building ventilators coming from the courtyard—or the ripping decibels of motorcycles on the Frontage Road side—became our lullabies. We had sinks in our rooms, clean tiled bathrooms down the hall and windows generous enough to help the building shed its old nickname (“You don’t live in Darkness Hall, do you?” asked a smart aleck I met through an online dating service).

Though I’d known the freedom of apartment life during my years at Yale College, I initially opted for the dormitory for social reasons. Ask almost anyone who chooses Harkness and they’ll say the same thing, though they’ll mention the location and the in-house cafeteria and the relief of not needing to look for an apartment in a strange city. New Haven was no novelty to me; I could have picked out a porch-and-yard in the Grad Ghetto in the East Rock neighborhood or on Prospect Street with English and physics students as neighbors. But I wanted to start medical school with my very own class. So I wedged belongings from the three-bedroom shared apartment I’d occupied during a post-college year into a tiny room beside the elevator, on the eighth floor. It was small, but near everybody else, including students from the other health schools, and you couldn’t beat the commute—though that didn’t keep us from trotting down Cedar Street late for morning lectures, slinking into the back of Hope 110 with coffee in hand.

A room with a view

I nested quickly, decorating the door with photos from magazines and the obligatory message board, and coming to relish the view from my window: food-cart picnickers on the grass, day-care kids playing and always the stately Sterling Hall of Medicine, with odd windows lit at night. The eighth floor was all-female, and peaceful. The happenin’ floor was the ninth. It was there that we threw our parties; people strung black bags over the ceiling lights, and someone DJ’d with his own equipment and we all felt like college freshmen again, only much cooler. These days, first-year students use the ninth floor’s kitchen to get together for a weekly dinner they cook themselves.

But no one, it seems, wants that college feeling for long. My classmates, almost to a person, stopped living on the med school campus after their first year. The many perks—Tuesday-night Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (or, when we were first-years, Temptation Island), instant access to food carts, laundry machines, Ethernet, even the lack of any commute to Yale-New Haven Hospital (which can mean an extra half-hour of sleep during tough rotations)—don’t seem to overcome the stigma of a dormitory. Most people moved into high-rises two blocks away, or up to the Science Hill neighborhood, where they walk their dogs and jog past lawns, bushes and postdocs out with spouse and stroller. After four years, though, I’m one of the few die-hards still living here, though I switched to the apartment side of Harkness during second year. (Harkness Apartments is Harkness Dormitory’s endearingly scruffy neighbor. Positioned at right angles to the dormitory—the two buildings hug the courtyard—it is only four stories high, and its units are one-bedroom apartments instead of studio-style dorm rooms. Together they are Edward S. Harkness Hall.) Whether for reasons of convenience, aesthetics or sociability, Harkness has always lent my medical school experience something inimitable.

On the happenin' floor, communal meals

I wondered how other students felt about it. On a recent Sunday evening I revisited the ninth floor to check out the fabled communal meals. When I arrived, a dozen or so students were watching football on TV and eating a pepper-speckled Caesar salad from a big bowl. Two women hovered over great pots of chili on the stove. Empty cans and packages of guacamole littered the counter. A keg waited expectantly in a corner.

Eyeing the generous bowls of corn chips, I sat down beside a first-year named Brendan Jackson who, as it turned out, was a member of a mysterious sixth-floor Frat. “It’s very unofficial—Ru-Rah-Rigma,” he explained mysteriously. “There’s a fraternity on the sixth floor?” asked a classmate. (It’s an all-male floor.) “Yeah. Live on the sixth floor and you’re in.” Jackson is also the Harkness Dorm Liaison. He had recently been elected by his classmates, though he ran unopposed. His duties include presenting the dorm dwellers’ complaints to the Powers That Be. Complaints like what? “The water pressure!” he answered. “None of the TVs work except the one on the ninth floor,” put in a woman who was standing by. Maybe that’s how the ninth floor got so popular.

The home-cooked dinners began because the dining hall is closed on weekends. They were the brainchild of first-years Caryn St. Clair and Misaki Kiguchi. When I first saw Misaki, words like “brisk” and “efficient” came to mind. As students slipped into the lounge, she swung between kitchen and tables as if on a hinge, handing off bowls of chili topped with blue corn chips, purple onions, guacamole, sour cream and shredded cheese to one eater after another. The room grew happy and noisy, and soon people were wading through the crowd to the keg and helping themselves. I stretched like a cat and enjoyed the atmosphere.

Tired of eating at Subway every weekend, Misaki convened a group of students willing to take turns catering for each other. She makes up the schedule and e-mails it to everyone involved. When people who aren’t part of the circuit show up to mooch, she publicly assigns them a night to cater for the group, trusting in the potential wrath of 40 hungry classmates to exert the necessary social pressure. Dishes served in weeks past have included chicken Marsala, pancakes and caramel apples. As I chatted with the diners, an arm reached into our midst and set down a big pan of sliced blueberry cornbread. I took a piece, ate it, then took another. Though I was too afraid of being forced to cater for 40 people to sneak a bowl of chili, resistance to cornbread was futile.

Remembering what it was like trying to fit my complicated mess into one room, I asked the general assemblage if anyone had decorated really creatively. One of their number was pushed forward, protesting feebly. “You’ll see what can be done with a Harkness room,” they promised me. The student in question, willing but abashed, led me to his room and unlocked it.

This man had a gift. Red curtains, sleek pine bookshelves, delicate fabric lamps shaped like Platonic solids, a tidy futon, a patterned rug instead of the standard ratty Persian knockoff, a graceful easy chair. It was Urban Outfitters, it was Ikea, it was glorious. It even smelled good.

Yet even he is planning to leave, as is every current first-year I asked.

I stayed. I love living in Harkness. Friends walk by the window and wave for me to let them in, and I always know when impromptu snowball scrimmages are on. The basement gym is too close for excuses. I can walk downstairs with a folder of music and practice the piano in the ballroom. In late evening I can slip across the lawn to the computer lab or library—the lack of psychological distance between work and home life doesn’t bother me, for some reason. Here on the apartment side, the dormitory gods even provide free furniture. My couch and easy chair began life as seating for interviewees in the Office of Student Affairs. Tacit neighborly trades go on all the time, as when a bookshelf or night table turns up in a hallway and a day later is eased, skittering, into someone else’s room.

I prefer the apartments for a few reasons. For one thing, I’m not an elevator person. As anyone who has watched me can tell you, I tend to stride purposefully toward my destination. Elevators interrupt the vector. The Harkness elevators were particularly irksome because they were often out of order. This happened so often that I learned to build it into my day, leaving extra time to get up and down the stairs on days when the building was competing for a single elevator. Living on the eighth floor, it was just barely worth it to wait rather than take the stairs, but I never learned patience. Apologetic signs appeared on the elevator doors over and over again, and soon we all knew where the first-floor stairwell door was. When I moved into Harkness Apartments, I chose a second-floor unit. Suddenly it was possible to run home from the hospital and pick up a forgotten stethoscope or heat up some lunch.

A decided advantage to the apartment side of Harkness, indeed, is the kitchenette. Though I’m no chef, it can be hard to transition back to a meal plan after having lived in an apartment. The dormitory’s common-room kitchens come complete with sink, stove, microwave and freezer (“NOT A REFRIDGERATOR [sic],” a sign reminds us). But their public location creates a certain tension between the shared and the owned. Some people take their chances and leave things there. When I was a first-year, one student used to leave her carton of eggs out on a shelf. I doubt anyone stole an egg, but I remember slices gone missing from the loaves of bread I stored in the freezer. Annoyed, I piled breakfast fixings onto a cart every morning—pot, oatmeal, eggs, plate, fork, spatula—and wheeled it into the elevator to ride one floor up. Ding. But the dumpy little cart dampened any culinary ambitions I might have had after managing breakfast. Now that I have a kitchen of my own, I’ve upgraded to soups and stir-fries.

Like an old friend

It’s taken some practice, though. In contrast to the spanking-clean Harkness dorm rooms, the apartment side hasn’t been renovated. I like it that way; my apartment’s quirks are like an old friend’s. It’s the type of place where everything is covered with layers of paint—radiators, light switches, coat hooks. Every piece of furniture is an orphan. Several generations of curtain rods grace each window. The window in the bedroom is stuck slightly open year-round, while the bathroom door, if fully closed, traps guests inside (if I forget to warn them, I have to kick it open while they cower behind the sink). The oven reliably overshoots by 100 degrees, and the markings wore off the burner dials ages ago. But these are all part of the charm of the place, and I’ve mastered the workarounds. With vigilance and a thermometer, I can even wrest pie from the oven.

Do fourth-year medical students get “senioritis”? As part of final-semester lassitude, I spend a lot of time daydreaming about my next place, as well as reminiscing. I’ve lived in a lot of apartments. There was a New Haven summer sublet on Bishop Street, with hardwood floors that sloped and roaches so ubiquitous that I kept dishes buttoned into Tupperwares to keep them clean. There was a carpeted one in Ann Arbor, an easy walk from downtown, that smelled of the downstairs neighbor’s ferrets. At night a freight train hustled by, waking me, then soothing me back to sleep. There was a flat in Fort Lauderdale that huddled in a patch of downtown jungle. I remember wet heat, ants streaming across the windowsill to the spot of jelly on the counter, peacocks strolling outside. The year after graduating from Yale College, I lived in New Haven in a place memorable more for its roommates—a bread-baking astrophysicist, an Orthodox Jew who knew six languages and a geologist obsessed with bunnies and Renaissance Fairs—than for its physical plant. Then I was accepted to Yale Med. For four years, Harkness has welcomed me home, and I could hardly ask for better. YM

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