Off Campus is a social experiment of student writers paying it forward. CuseTonight.com and the Syracuse New Times are partnering on this project by asking local university and college students to write an article with one standing rule that states: “You can only write about off campus experiences.”
Once we receive an article, we ask the writer to pass the torch to another student to complete the next installment.
The last moments of fall hang in the air.
The icy claws of winter can already be felt creeping towards us. But for now, we ignore the impending months of frostbitten noses at bus stops and the immoral lack of snow days. For now, as my fellow students and I trek from class to class, from library to dining hall we enjoy the coat-less moments and pumpkin flavored lattes.
I sit on a slab of cement enjoying the autumn air, waiting for the bus to deliver my friend. I swing my legs to the bass of my Pandora station that is pulsing Regina Spector’s voice through my headphones. A bag of heavenly Chipotle chicken salad is propped besides me.
A growing trend on the Syracuse University campus is exchanging monetary value for Chipotle value. So instead of students lamenting about textbook prices saying “My biology textbook was two hundred dollars!”, one might instead overhear a defeated student mourn, “My Russian literature books cost me eleven Chipotles!“. So adhering to the cultural norms of my demographic, instead of paying Brooke gas money for providing my means of transportation for an off-campus excursion, I instead use the currency of a chicken salad topped with mild salsa, corn and extra sour cream.
The goal of this escapade is to find a bookstore on James Street I remember meandering into years ago when my family and I were visiting friends in the area. In the eyes of twelve-year-old Heather, this place seemed to expand forever. Tittering piles of Vogue and Life magazines sat in heaps. Shelves spilt with thousands of books, including all the classics along with other intriguing books like “How to be a cow doctor” or “Men: Do we really need them?”. Crates of albums, stacks of antique postcards and boxes of posters were scattered throughout the store. I recall wandering through an endless maze that just kept leading me to new collections of 29 cent VHSs or new shelves of sci-fi series.
After Brooke arrives and I surprise her with copious amount of Mexican-styled fast food, we hop into her 2006 Jeep Larado, pull out of the parking lot and away from the Syracuse campus and our adventure has begun. As we zigzag through one-way streets and onto the highway, our conversation topics flitter from recent break-ups and last night’s party gossip to the debated ethics of using rats in lab experiments.
Google maps navigates us onto James Street and we park the car in front of the first bookstore we see, Books End. As we approach the front door, I search for some sign of familiarity. We open the door and walk in. I lean towards Brooke.
“This isn’t it,” I whisper. But we can’t just turn around and leave because the graying old man behind the front desk has already greeted us with a warm smile. If we walked out now it would be as if we were rejecting this senior citizen’s hospitality. So we continue past the front desk and proceed to act like average costumers, when really we are women on a mission.
Even though I’m not here to shop, books are my weakness and soon I have a stack of books cradled in my arms. I beg Brooke to talk me out of buying them and she picks one that she’ll let me purchase. If I were allowed to buy every book I fell in love with, my impoverished college days of scavenging for free food at special events and shopping exclusively at Salvation Army would become lifelong realities.
I buy my book from the chum behind the counter. He knows what he’s doing, that mastermind, with his old man charisma. Brooke and I head back to the car and our search continues. As we chat about our aching bodies, which are smarting from the amount of dancing we demanded from them at a Halloween party last night, I see it from the corner of my eye. I stop talking mid-sentence. Books and Melodies a sign reads.
“Brooke,” I screech, “that’s it!” My heart starts beating faster, pounding in my ears. What if it’s not as I remember it? What if I have built it up in my head? What if it’s just like any other bookstore? I can already taste the disappointment.
We park the car and walk up to the front door. I feel the world spinning below my feet. I survey the building nonchalantly and casually assure Brooke that this is the one. I remind myself to breath. We open the door, walk in and pause at the threshold.
I immediately transform into a small child who has just woken up on a Christmas morning. I squeal and begin rushing through the rows, picking up every book, picture, poster and magazine within my reach to show Brooke, just like a child showing their mother their new stuffed animal or set of Legos.
Although the place isn’t as massive as I remember and the endless rows aren’t so unending, I’m still amazed at how big the store is. Each room is filled with new books that I want to read and pictures I want to frame.
Brooke, who is as much of a book-lover as I am, appreciates the serendipity of this moment. We relish the new literature we discover and discuss with nostalgia the old favorites we find. Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, stares at me like a long lost friend. Jo March, from Little Women, glances from a shelf. Elizabeth Bennet smiles from a copy of Pride and Prejudice. Caddie Woodlawn poses fiercely on the cover of a battered paperback.
Brooke and I continue exploring the mounds of books together. We call to each other across the aisles every time we find one that we are especially excited about. Abruptly, I stop flipping through the pages of a Native American art book.
“I remember there being a basement,” I shout to Brooke who is two shelves away from me. We immediately start wandering down the rows looking for it. Soon we stumble upon grey, stone stairs that descend into an earthy smelling room. We tiptoe down the steps and peer into the doorway. Brooke gasps. “Albums,” she breathes in an awed and hushed voice. Crates and crates of albums are organized on tables. We begin flipping through them, exclaiming excitedly the familiar ones that we find. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Abba, the Doors, Janis Joplin.
The doorbell rings as we leave, Carole King and America albums tucked under my arm. We are relieved to find the car without a ticket, even though we didn’t feed the meter. We start the car, still jittery from the excitement of seeing all our old friends and discovering new ones. We begin the voyage back to campus, to a Biology test tomorrow and a paper due Monday.
Heather Rounds is currently a sophomore at Syracuse University majoring in journalism and Middle Eastern studies. Her hometown is Oswego, New York. She writes for Syracuse University on-campus publications like Jerk magazine and the Daily Orange. Heather will be studying abroad in Jordan next semester and she hopes to eventually be a foreign correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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