When I was at college, back in the Pleistocene era, I always wondered what happened to my small college town outside of Boston when I wasn't there. Lots of people would hang out on campus over the summer, and I stayed around during Thanksgiving break -- it was way too far to fly back to Los Angeles, my home base, in those days. But winter break intrigued me. Four weeks of cold and snow between mid-December and mid-January. Did the town just stop being -- what? -- a town?
My first post-interview trip to Oberlin, after I was offered and accepted the job here, happened during Spring break. I had been living in New York City for 17 years, and I arrived to what seemed to me an empty shell of a town. Where was everyone? Was this what the aftermath of a neutron bomb would look like (remember those?) -- no damage, but no people either?
I've grown to enjoy those periods when the students are away, not because I don't like having the students around, but because the town of Oberlin seems very calm, very peaceful, very Ozzie-and-Harriet-1950s. Oberlin doesn't stop being a town, but it becomes something of a different kind of place. Most of my favorite restaurants, Black River, the Feve, Agave, etc., all have posted their shortened holiday hours. Not much traffic on the sidewalks on College Street after 8:00 PM. It's positively hushed in the morning, makes you want to whisper. Gibson's, of course, remains open (every day except Christmas, leaving us New York Times addicts with no recourse but to read the paper on-line). But, even more than usual, the town revolves around that which is special (if simple) about Oberlin. Walking into Gibson's to buy my paper, I noticed a group of four tourists with cameras in full battle mode, recklessly snapping away as they crossed College St. (don't worry, no cars in sight), towards Tappan Square. Some aspect of Oberlin's architecture caught their fancy? A small demonstration beginning to gather at the crossroads? No -- Oberlin's famous albino squirrels romping around a tree.
The bitter cold has given way to a very premature warm spell. Lying on the floor in yoga this morning, we could smell the spring float in, just for a bit. It will get cold again, and the little town of Oberlin will continue to enjoy its well earned moment of rest at least for another few days.