August 16, 2013
During my brief sojourn in Rochester, Vermont last April, I drove across Route 125 from Hancock to Middlebury. As I passed the Bread Loaf campus, I was somewhat taken aback to see that the Inn (the main building) appeared to up on stilts, and large Caterpillar diggers had dredged wide tracks in what had been the south lawn. When I arrived on Tuesday, I was pleased to see that the Inn was still standing, now atop a new foundation, and the lawn, although a bit more ragged and weedy than usual, was once again green.
Although much of the campus remains familiar — familiar even to those of my memories that date from my time at the School of English in the 1970s — there have been some changes, and most of those are improvements. The “butt-numbing chairs” in the Little Theater (I think the phrase comes from Rebecca Mead’s savage 2001 New Yorker piece about Bread Loaf that still rankles even with people who weren’t there then) are still in place, but there are snazzy new chairs in the classrooms, and even some table desks to go with them. The phone booth behind the laundry hut remains, but the pay phone has been replaced by an ordinary wall phone. Cornwall Cottage is no longer an infirmary, and there will not be a nurse on campus at all. Instead, a well-equipped self-service first-aid cart is in the hallway of the Inn beside the first floor bathrooms. It has nonprescription pain relievers, antihistamines, ointments, bandages, splints, crutches, a handy illustrated first aid guide, and the number of the town hospital writ large on a poster. And condoms. A whole drawer of condoms, replacing the bucket of such that used to be on the shelf above the ironing board in the laundry hut.
The library now has window air conditioning units. One of them is beside the fireplace. Both the AC unit and a fire were going full blast today. The outside temperature was 66 degrees. The AC unit was set for 62. I found a small sign, wrinkled and sticky with tape, on the floor. THIS AC UNIT MUST REMAIN ON AT ALL TIMES. It had probably blown off in the gale force wind that was emanating from the unit. The constant-on order probably has something to do with controlling humidity.
The best change of all, though, is that there is now a handrail on the entire right side of the Barn stairway — the right side if you are descending. For all the years that I have been coming to the Writers’ Conference, that side has had a handrail only on the top portion and the lower portion, but not on the turn onto the lower portion. For all I know, the handrail was incomplete when I was here in the 70s as well, but I didn’t notice it because I didn’t need it then.
I need it now. The steps are steep, and because of my greater trochanter bursitis, I descend stairs slowly, and need the handrail for balance. When I encountered the gap at the turn, I would cross the stairway to be able to hold the rail on that side. One day in 2011, a Fellow reprimanded me for walking down the wrong side of the stairway. “Traffic should be on the right side,” he said to me, quite sharply. “You’re in the way.”
I will admit that I was descending the stairs at a busy time, just when workshops ended, and I might have used better judgment and waited until traffic had cleared. But I was as eager as anyone else to get to the bathroom, and then on to lunch — workshopping raises an appetite — and I guess I just didn’t think.
I was startled and embarrassed by the rebuke. This man was a returning Fellow, quite an accomplishment. A few years before, during his first stint as a Fellow, he and I had fallen into conversation at lunch. We had several pleasant conversations over the next few days. That year I left the conference for forty-eight hours to attend my mother-in-law’s funeral. When I returned, there was a note of condolence in my mailbox from him, although I didn’t know how he’d learned of my circumstances. After the reproach in 2011, I was careful to avoid the stairway when others might be using it. And to avoid that writer as well.
So I’m happy for the new chairs, the new tables, and the new handrail. I’m moving a little more easily than I have in recent years — somehow, this summer has been good for me in that regard — but I still need to steady myself when going down more than two or three steps.
When I culled some books this spring, I put the Fellow’s novel in the giveaway pile. It wasn’t signed, and although I had enjoyed reading it, I knew I would never read it again. He hasn’t published a second book, nor a new story since 2008. He teaches at a large university where tuition alone is $47,000 (and change) a year. Maybe he directs traffic on stairwells there too.