An insider’s guide to living off-campus

What a prospect, to live off-campus. On the one hand, you have all those difficult choices to make (what to cook? should I cook? how does one cook?), and on the other hand, you have all that freedom (again, what to cook?). The possibilities, I imagine, are daunting. I am writing a message to you in the dorms, who still eat in the dining hall, who still need a card to enter your building. You, who have never known a life without e-mail at your fingertips and voicemail at your ear, need to be initiated into the world of off-campus living. It isn’t all about elaborate dinner parties, or sitting around the fireplace and burning candles and incense while the hot-pot boils and the coffee-maker gurgles. It isn’t all about independence and cool-senior syndrome, choosing ripe tomatoes and baking oatmeal cookies. There are definite benefits to living in an apartment, but freedom comes at a price. There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail, and fail we do.

So what is it like? Why do we fail?

We cook.

That is the main difference between On and Off.

Every time we eat something, we have to wash the dish with our own hands. Shocking. It’s not anything like the mysterious brush and flume at Greylock, where food is swept away in a rush of brown water and a magical dance of gloved hands. Off campus, we function as Super Dining Hall Employees — we plan the menu, buy the food, chop it, cook it, eat it, and clean the dishes. We don’t have to conceal leftovers, engineering a metamorphosis from Roasted Turkey into Turkey Shortbread into Turkey Casserole into Turkey Noodle Soup. We just eat later what we can’t eat now, or scoop it into a mystery container until a later date. TBA, a frightening and risky proposition. When we notice a strange Tupperware bowl full of meatballs in the back corner, and we have no recollection of ever touching ground beef, we give biological specimens the benefit of the doubt.

Into the garbage they go. Which, of course, is no longer whisked away by someone else. You may not appreciate your custodians, but I am here to remind you how crucial they are. Stuff adds up. Stuff spoils. Stuff smells.

You may have a romantic kitchen idea of cute wallpaper with pastel geese, or checkered floors, or pantries stocked with saffron threads and strained clover honey. Perhaps such off-campus dwellings exist, somewhere in the land of the co-op. Our kitchen floor is dirty beige, slanted; we walk uphill to the bathroom. The oven and the refrigerator are propped up on pieces of plywood so the pots and pans don’t tip off the burners. When the fridge starts up, the motor is matched by a general dimming of lights throughout the apartment. Our kitchen table used to be a desk: it’s a long plank of wood, stained with rings from coffee and hot metal, with two metal file cabinets for ends. We can watch the inevitable downhill slide from the rust marks, a trail of reddish lines on linoleum. We put our recycling in the drawers, and I suppose we’ll carry it to Baxter when it begins to overflow. Our cabinets are filled with the accumulations of tenants past, rows of mugs and blue plastic cereal bowls, hot-pots and pitchers, all left behind in silence.

There are charms as well, something beyond makeshift furniture, beyond abandoned spoons. We decorate with stickers from fruits and vegetables, or dried flowers, and we have magnets and postcards on the door of our fridge. Ah yes, so homespun. Sometimes, we light candles during dinner, sipping from real wine glasses and eating from matching bowls, playing Joshua Redman or Bach. We make timpano, flan, gnocchi. We blanche, leaven, caramelize, dredge. You, too, could learn what these things are if you live in an apartment.

Most of the time we throw a meal together, ducking our heads into the cupboard to see what food is lying around, briefly skimming the New York Times crossword…and eventually realizing our lack of vocabulary. The New York Times is crucial for an off-campus feeling. With freedom comes obligations — to be cosmopolitan, informed. After all, I am living downtown. I’m a city girl now, and I have to act like one.

If you want to live in the center of Williamstown action, then my apartment is where it’s at. The world, at my doorstep, beckons me: the Pub, the Log, the coffee shop, the bakery, the post office, the movie theater, mere steps away. Often, I think I live in New York City, and I have to pinch myself when I see that the town terminates at the end of the block. The drivers push for parking spots when they can’t even parallel park; the beer trucks block the street and drop off precious cargo; the other students come to run errands.

The world at my doorstep, but never Security. There is no reason to hide contraband hot-pots with my unmentionables in the top drawer, or feel guilty about gift candles that I never even light. No one would care if I held a séance, engulfed in a cloud of sweet incense, or if I sacrificed goats by candlelight. When I want tea, my hot pot calls my name, unabashed.

The world may be at my doorstep, but it doesn’t often stop by and visit. Dorms may not give you as much privacy as an apartment, but I can tell you that privacy can become boring after a while. I’m glad that I can leave my toothpaste out and no one will use it, I appreciate the calm and quiet when I lay my head on my pillow. At the same time, I miss going to dinner in a gang, lingering at the dining hall with the inevitable frozen yogurt in hand, or listening to shouts from common rooms and laughs in stairwells. I kind of liked bumping into people, even if it was a strange guy in my bathroom in the middle of the night.

I miss having a washer and dryer in the building. I haul my cow-print laundry bag to the basement of Morgan when I want clean clothes, walking down the street with a fat load over my shoulder, bottle of Tide in hand, trying to look matter-of-fact. I’m Off.

I miss having a real desk, one that doesn’t teeter back and forth when I type on it, one that fits more than a book and a phone. I’m Off.

I have been given a seven-digit Directory branding with a prefix of 458, a numerical reminder each time I pick up the phone to dial. I’m Off.

I live on Spring Street, yet I have to park in Mission. Sigh. Yes, I’m Off.

If you want to learn how to cook by trial-and-error, to dice and grill and pickle, or if you want satisfy your tendency towards pyromaniacy, or if you merely have cravings to wash infinite mounds of dishes, you know where to go. You’re an urban at heart, you’re independent, you’re tired of dorm life. You’re ready. And you can’t say that you weren’t warned.

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