Marcia Aldrich
Houses of Detention

 

My parents thought of college as a witness protection program where I would be given a new identity. When they picked Wells for my college education, they said to themselves, It will be safe. Above all else, it will be safe. Inside its walls, I would be protected and stay out of trouble. The campus was remote and populated only by girls, a cloister buffered from the social and political turmoil that roiled cities and other campuses. At Wells, girls lived with girls in hallowed halls with curfews, and bells chimed us to dinner. Every weekday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., faculty and students convened in Macmillan Hall over tea poured from silver pots into real china teacups and stirred with decorative spoons. Freshly baked cookies lay invitingly on china plates. In the outside world, protestors clashed with police, cities burned, the winds and snows raged, while we inside Wells were cozy and cosseted.

But nothing keeps us safe from change. I would find trouble wherever I went.

***

On the weekend, boys from neighboring colleges rolled through Aurora—that’s what it was called—on the prowl for girls. The town was thick with them. Though well out of the cattle calls that were called mixers where my classmates lined up in their heels and the boys assessed them, I was vulnerable to being picked off by more sophisticated men—the faculty. For that temptation, I was unprepared. They were worldly and experienced, at least that is what I imagined. The girls around me thought I had my head screwed on tight, but only because they didn’t see that my guard was down with older men, who seemed to know what life was, who wouldn’t rush me or paw me, who would let me stand my ground.

The faculty of Wells was almost entirely male, and they were not harmless. Some were bedazzled by their sweet young students. The Department of English had one female member, who was reaching the end of her career. She fit the profile of the women teachers at my high school: never married and isolated from the professorial culture around her. I knew nothing of her private life—she taught her classes during the day and then went home to her lodgings, the former tearoom at the Jedediah Morgan house in Aurora.

The ingredients for affairs between faculty and students were complete. The faculty had freedom of movement and action. They lived on the isolated shore of remote Lake Cayuga or commuted from Ithaca, about thirty miles away. For the greater part of the day, students were alone with professors, our learned betters. When my sister attended Wells a decade before me, faculty-student relationships were curtailed by an unwritten understanding. But the sixties and seventies had washed away barriers of many kinds.

I hadn’t confided in a single person about my flirtation with G. I had been judged solitary, someone who prowled the campus alone, followed her own schedule, and did not require a companion. My established aloofness granted me freedom, and I wasn’t used to accounting for my whereabouts. An hour here and there with G. in his office late in the afternoon or evening slipped everyone’s notice. G. himself enjoyed an arrangement with his wife and family that seemed enviable. They didn’t expect all of his time. He was his own man, free to spend an evening away from home while his wife managed his large family and household. His office was his sanctuary—they didn’t intrude. If missing dinner caused difficulties, he didn’t mention them to me.

We flirted in plain sight. No one noticed, or no one cared. Maybe those who saw our friendship deemed it a simple case of the parental professor advising his young student. Or maybe the faculty turned a blind eye to what they intuited. Perhaps it was none of their business, the coin of the academic realm. The boundaries between professional role and personal feeling were blurred—an unadvertised perk of the job.

***

My first semester I signed up for Introduction to Economics, Introduction to Sociology, the required freshman English, a biology course to begin the science requirements, and French for the language. The most promising was the introduction to literary studies, a class of fifteen students in which we practiced our compositional skills. The college had put together a reading list for the course that injected relevance—that was the watchword—into the classroom. Here, Wells was in tune with a national trend. In other schools, the demand for relevance issued from students, but at Wells, the push came from the faculty. They thought they’d shake us up, make us think in ways we had never thought before.

The readings included Native Son by Richard Wright, Dutchman by Amiri Baraka, and Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, three studies of young black manhood, white women, and the violence that can ensue when they make contact. Dutchman, a stylized and charged drama, concerns a white woman who seduces a black male and authors his demise. She is an angel of death, preying upon susceptible men who step into her web on the subway. Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, kills a young white woman and is thus brought to his own end. Soul on Ice was written while Cleaver was serving a sentence in Folsom Prison for rape and assault. Published in 1968, it was not only new but incendiary. It describes white women as objects of black plunder rightly taken to compensate for a historic wrong—the rape of white women as a revolutionary act. At least, that is the theory Cleaver attributes to his younger self.

And what about us, the students? We were docile and meek, or perhaps overwhelmed. We entered strange, unsettling territory in these books, seeing ourselves portrayed as both the object of black men’s desire and the instrument of their degradation and death. Young white girls from largely sheltered homes, we read a memoir about black rage by a man who confessed to raping white women as a political act he felt entitled to. On the one hand, Wells presented itself as a sheltering educational institution, and yet, it wanted to let the real world of inequality in. Who were we? Were we privileged girls in need of shelter? Or were we willfully ignorant privileged girls who needed to be awakened from our dream of shelter? Something should have happened as we read Soul on Ice. We should have been confused about how the world saw us, we should have been all messed up, and yet the emotional effects were nullified. Having been portrayed as a bargaining chip in the war between the races, we walked out of the classroom and into the tearoom.

I floundered in my encounter with Soul on Ice; I couldn’t process the world it portrayed, so far from anything I had as yet experienced. I kept my turmoil to myself, having no outlet in or outside the class to voice it. Perhaps I did the best I could. Perhaps the professor did the best he could. I was an indifferent student my first semester, coasting on my rigorous high school training, and I drifted away during class, gazing out of the windows to watch the leaves swirl and fall. I couldn’t catch hold of anything in the classroom.

***

The previous year, Wells had switched to the 4-1-4 semester system, a new schedule popular with private colleges, another response to the demand for relevance. In the fall and spring we took four courses, although I took an overload in the fall, and between these two semesters had an interim experience, a single intensive course of three weeks in the winter. I signed up for a class taught by G. called Urban Confrontation, thinking I might encounter the real thing I was looking for. At the same time, I was hoping to spend more time with my professor, to make inroads there. My real subject of study was him, or the attraction between us, the forbidden. The name of the course suggested that we would experience the urban as a disturbance, not slip into it like hand in glove. We would have a bracing encounter with the real. We would leave our clean, safe, private college set in the isolated backwoods of upper New York and journey into the urban heart of darkness. Perhaps in New York City, some of my turmoil would sort itself out.

I had convinced my friend Joey to sign up for Urban Confrontation as well, and in January 1971, I put on my striped bell-bottom jeans, fringed buckskin jacket, and cowboy boots and climbed onto a chartered bus with Professor G., Joey, and the other students for the trip from Aurora to New York City, which took seven hours on the snowy roads. We were deposited at the YMCA on East Forty-Seventh Street near Grand Central, with easy access to subway lines. The Y rented out single rooms with shared bath facilities at budget rates. It was shabby and rundown, seedy, gritty, sour smelling—words that fit the surrounding environment as well.

I hauled my duffel bag to our assigned rooms on two of the higher floors, down narrow dark hallways running this way and that, lit by one red bulb, with green or gray linoleum floors—​​grime, if the color were rightly named—and gray walls I didn’t want to touch. My room was next to G.’s at the far end of one of the long halls. The other girls were housed one floor down, with a few scattered on our floor along one of the other halls. G. was the author of this design—he had concocted the chance for something to happen between us. Our rooms looked out onto a busy street always lit by neon signs, a few blinking on and off. A single bed, really a cot, ran the length of the room, directly to the left of the door. My head would rest a few inches from the doorknob. A narrow space, just wide enough to walk, separated the bed from the bank of windows and the radiator below them. The bed linens were scratchy and stiff, as were the gray army blanket and the flat pillow.

A distance of a few feet separated my doorway from G.’s room, where his narrow bed spanned the opposite side of the same wall as mine. Unpacking my bag, I could hear him shuffling around, hear him breathing if I tried hard to listen. His nearness and our distance from Aurora tightened my feelings and fantasies. Who would speak to the other first? Would I bump into him when I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth? Would he knock on my door to ask me how I was getting on?

He did knock on my door. It began, the something I was hoping would begin, or at least the tease of its possibility. He stood in the doorway, one arm resting on the doorjamb, handsome and ruddy in his dark shirt with western piping, his dark beard trimmed and dense, hair lighter and softer. I felt as if I were wearing an electrified skin that was now switched on, a costume for a restless dance of indecision. We talked about the bus trip, our schedule and New York, the YMCA. I looked at his room in turn. He tormented and thrilled me, playing the role of the forbidden.

My emotions were never of a piece, never one thing. And neither were his. Our choreography was one step forward and two steps back. Come here, and then, No we can’t. We can’t, but I want you. I don’t want to lose you or let anyone else have you, but I can’t have you. It was an affair of desires unfulfilled, of the thrills and pain of stepping close to one another, only to step back and resume our position. I was not so bold as to cross forbidden zones, and neither was he. We mirrored each other in our desires and caution and could not meet somewhere between.

These charged and stylized steps had no outward sign. A witness giving testimony to our dance that night would have said, He stood there, and they talked. And then she looked at his room, and they talked some more, and then she went back to her room and sat on the bed.

About that bed: we had been warned that the management was having no success in eradicating an infestation of bedbugs, which hid during the day in the seams of pillows and mattresses that were too expensive to throw out and replace. At night, the bugs came out to feed on human blood. The first night, I lay awake scratching, my skin crawling with something I couldn’t kill. In the morning, my sheets had smears of blood. During our week in New York, the feeling of being bitten never went away—the sojourn was a sleepless one, or intermittingly so.

We spent the days in New York visiting gritty places like the Women’s House of Detention, an educational field trip that briefly exposed us to women imprisoned for crimes like drug trafficking and burglary that we Wells girls congratulated ourselves we would never commit. Built in 1932 on West Tenth Street in the middle of Greenwich Village, the “House of D” had hosted famous inmates from Ethel Rosenberg to Angela Davis, but the bulk of the population now were prostitutes. The prison was on the verge of closure because of overcrowding, inadequate bathroom facilities, and assaults on inmates by the medical staff.

Picture a line of girls wearing their Bonwit Teller winter best being led by a bearded professor into a prison of mostly black women, some of whom had been punched in the mouth enough to lose their teeth. The inmates, many no older than we were, lay in cots in crowded cells, wearing faded garb. If they had any privacy before our inspection, we took it away. We knew we didn’t belong there, and the idea was to pass through as fast as possible and get back to who we were. Little had made us aware of our privileged status. Our protection had been so complete that we were the last to know where we stood on the economic spectrum, the gifts our fortunate births bestowed. Few of us had considered how others would see us. Even reading Soul on Ice hadn’t lifted our ignorance. Our place went unspoken, was unspeakable at Wells.

And yet, something of the truth had been absorbed, I felt. Where was I among these two groups of women on opposite sides of the bars? I didn’t want to inspect the inmates as if they were exhibits in a museum of degradation and disorder. I hung back, trying to make myself a straggler not associated with the other visitors. I wanted to hold myself apart from the well-dressed flock of girls who looked abashed. I tried to imagine myself detained in the House of D. I might go down a criminal road and be arrested. After all, I had been involved with a drug dealer, and I might get into political activities that would be unlawful. For my fellow classmates, such a fate was unimaginable.

But no matter how far I lagged behind them, nothing would change the side of the bars on which I stood.
I caught one woman’s eye as we hurried down a corridor. She was in a narrow cell, standing, half turned away, wiry with her prison outfit slack upon her frame, her hair coarse and unruly, her eyes acute. As I passed, she turned and looked at me. How old was she? She seemed to be in her mid-thirties but might have been fifteen years younger. Her eyes said to me, What are you looking at white girl. We are not related. You belong with those girls you come with.

After the outing to the House of D and a delightful lunch, the Wellsians would hit the art museums uptown in the afternoon, maybe do a little shopping or take a horse-and-buggy ride around Central Park. Back at the YMCA, girls tumbled out of taxis, struggling with bags from Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. At night, tickets had been purchased for Broadway plays.

***

After our first days in New York, my classmates began to skip some of the visits to sites that G. had arranged for us. On a midweek afternoon, Joey and I were the only two students who got ourselves out to the South Bronx to meet G. and observe a methadone clinic, a promising new effort to address the heroin epidemic in New York City. Nervous about finding the right train, we took the subway from Grand Central, reached the correct stop, and climbed the steps out of the station. At the top, we entered a destroyed world, harsh and repellent. The crumbled buildings with boarded-up doors and glassless ports were frightening. We walked on chipped and cratered sidewalks past abandoned cars, fractured bottles, littered needles, and mounded filth. We saw no one like ourselves. The sort of person we were had vanished from the crowds at the subway stations on the outbound journey.

Despite the desolation of the streets, the clinic itself was bustling. In Richard Nixon’s ten-point plan for reducing illegal drug use, announced in 1969, New York City had been cited as the worst case in the country. The Young Lords and the Black Panthers had converged to provide social services in Harlem and the South Bronx, as well as security for the treatment clinics. G. had arranged for a talk on heroin addiction and on methadone programs as a remedy. Because methadone dispensed through clinics was a new form of treatment, the professional staff and community volunteers knew they were engaged in a therapeutic and social experiment that would be intensely studied. They had brochures ready to hand out to visitors and talks prepared. The director had gone to some trouble to clear his schedule, and the three of us who showed up were embarrassed by our meager turnout.

The clinic was both familiar and unfamiliar—familiar in the sense that all such medical places need to buffer patients who must bide their time. The addicts checked in, found a chair to sit in, and selected a magazine to read or sat empty-handed in a slump. The walls were painted a sub-lucent color that was both calming and unnamable, but the room was roughly maintained, not prim like the doctor’s offices I was accustomed to. The staff was professional and competent, making steady efforts to repel the ruin outside the clinic walls and assist their patients. Most of the addicts were black men, though not all of them looked so battered as I expected. Inside the clinic proper, they gulped the liquid dose of methadone fast from a small paper cup and then threw it into a trash receptacle.

Amid the bustle of the clinic was a man in his thirties who seemed not to belong there but in another setting. A statuesque figure of great polish, he was immaculately draped in a full-length camel hair double-breasted coat and wore a superfly fedora with a peacock feather in the band. As we toured the space, he seemed the still center around which everything swirled, neither medical professional nor frazzled addict come for his daily cup of methadone. No one else who visited the clinic was doing well in life, but this person seemed to command his destiny. That’s what I saw—a striking man in charge.

After our brief tour, he approached us and introduced himself. His name was Rene. He was a community activist, we learned, who provided services to the clinic. He seemed to be there to check on its security needs and determine whether his organization was fulfilling its responsibilities. Joey and I explained ourselves and our visit, Wells College and the Urban Confrontation class. I felt a twinge of embarrassment at the absurdity of studying urban confrontation at a private girls college, but we presented ourselves as sincere, open, trying to learn, to encounter the real.

When you meet someone decidedly not like you, your nature is called into question. Rene was abundantly not like me, not like anyone I had ever seen, met, or known. He unsettled my very life. What was I doing at the clinic? What was I doing in college? How could I frame myself to this man? I looked utterly out of place, yet he seemed to know me, my type. I wasn’t an oddity he had never observed. His insight into me made our encounter unbalanced, because he was a figure I never before had met.

While Joey and I talked on with Rene, G. headed back to the YMCA to find out what had become of his other charges. The director of the clinic rejoined us, seeming concerned about what Rene was up to. It occurred to me that his motivations might be other than friendly curiosity about young visitors to a clinic that treated addiction. Yet he seemed legitimate in his service to the methadone program. I wondered whether he thought we had money to give to the cause. But it seemed unlikely he would so mistake us—I was a seventeen-year-old girl with wild hair held down by a bandana, wearing bell-bottoms and a buckskin jacket.

He asked if we wanted to continue our conversation at his apartment in Harlem, and we said yes. I was in New York City trying to learn something, to put myself in a position to learn. There were limits to what I might see if I stuck to a scripted plan. I needed to seize my opportunities. Besides, Joey and I had each other, and that emboldened us. So we followed Rene back to the subway station and took the train to Harlem.

At a stop en route, a woman accompanied by two young boys boarded our car. She knew Rene. In fact, she was his wife, or his ex-wife, or maybe just the mother of his children. She was a perfect match for him—beautiful, elegantly dressed, self-possessed. She betrayed no surprise that he should have two girls like Joey and me in tow. She no longer lived with him, Rene offered, and yet they seemed on friendly terms. I didn’t know what to make of it. All the divorces in my experience were acrimonious scandals. The woman and her sons got off the train before Rene’s stop, and we