Up in High Places
Fine Hall: Barad-dûr, but it’s nice at night. After dinner you and I go to the third floor lounge to study. We look at the pictures of graduate students. 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995. They all have funny hair but we agree that their glasses are stylish and 1991 wore the best jeans. We sit back down to do work but after five minutes we’re restless again in the room with brown carpeting, brown walls, and brown ceilings. “Do you want to check out the top floor?” I ask. We go up and try the door. Locked. We settle for the next floor down, and walk to the corners where we look out of narrow floor-to-ceiling windows. There are seven thousand students on campus but we don’t see anybody. The corner alcoves fit just two people.
Nassau and Prospect are dark rifts between the bubble and the borough. At first, it’s too dark to see the eating clubs. But then: “Look, there’s Cottage.” I point down. “You can tell it’s Cottage because it’s huge.” And this is true: Cottage is a Barbie mansion. Accent lighting, wedding cake trim and sturdy old bricks. I went there once, during Lawnparties, when anyone may wander through and browse the library—an Oxford mock-up filled with football bros. From above, Terrace looks like a Monopoly house, dark and over-loved. Washington is Mediterranean Avenue and Prospect is Boardwalk. Taxes? That’s $800 for sophomores. Would you like to buy a house? That’s $8,000 for seniors and juniors. Have an oyster and vodka and some more sinister drugs. Desensitization if you’re up for it: a lit cigarette extinguished on your tongue or fifty lashes with a wet philosophy book. Do not pass Go.
From this side we see huge swaths of space I’ve never set foot in: Jadwin, DeNunzio, the football stadium, the baseball field, the particle labs. From the top of Fine they still look like places I’m uninterested in exploring—the rest of campus has an orange glow at but these buildings glow white from the fluorescent lights. Together we went to the E-Quad a few times for Bridges, once when our lab group had to make cement in the basement. “I’m sure this will serve me well at some point in the future,” I mused as I shoveled sand and gravel into a plastic bucket. We walk over to the next alcove.
The chapel is a great empty barn, only good for intimate conversation. Next to it, we see East Pyne. If you go up to the third floor there’s a small room with black shoe marks on the white wall next to the windowsill. I’m not the only one to have clambered up and out. There’s hardly any room to stand—trip over the ledge and you’ll crash through the ceiling windows of Chancellor Green. Joseph Henry House is just below, too. A child grew up there a long time ago, and I can tell you which one was his bedroom window. He got married in the room where I have a seminar every Monday. I clambered back in because I was worried I’d fall, or my French professor would catch me, or both.
I’ve been on top of Little Tower twice, during Princeton Preview. I’ve tried to return several times but the trapdoor is always locked. Usually I’ll sit a minute on the cramped wooden steps underneath, fiddle with the lock, and inhale some dust. Then I’ll sit a minute or two more, chin in hand, knees up, because I’d rather inhale more dust than have to go back down unsuccessfully. If you find out where the key is, please bring me up there with you. I’ve also heard rumors that you can get up into Blair Tower. I’ve never been able to crack that one, but when I do, I’ll have a picnic up there someday and you can come. Holder Tower, up on a ridge, is the highest point on campus. If you’re ever shitfaced at two in the morning and you need to sober up, climb up here alone and let the wind mess up your hair, slap your face, and leave it red.
New South, called “Temple of Solomon” after a bowl, rises parallel to us. Fine’s zany cousin who hands out paychecks, packages, and poetry critiques. Like Fine, it only looks nice at night. Behind New South we see Cleveland Tower, the tallest, most distant, least frequented of them all. You and ten others dropped acid and went to the top. The clerk at the bottom didn’t even blink when she gave you the key to the stairwell. The platform was larger than expected, and you were sure you saw Grover’s ghost. The next day you attributed it to the acid, but he was there, judging you. Who cares about old, forgettable Republicans, so long as they build you towers where you can play.
We walk to the last alcove, where we look out and see no Princeton at all. There are a few lights, but mostly they belong to the cars marching up Washington like glowing ants. Home is in this darker, quieter direction, where there are no Barbie houses, Monopoly houses, Palmer houses, Prospect houses, or Henry houses. There are just some water towers on the darkened horizon. We came from there and soon we’ll be going back. You and I walk back downstairs, and sit down in the brown room with brown walls and brown carpeting. We still don’t want to do our work. For twenty minutes everything came back and now it’s gone again. If we’re lucky and get Wikipedia pages someday, our time at Princeton will be just a sentence. Our glasses will have been stylish and hopefully our jeans, too. Reader, let’s not think about that right now.