If the candles on the dome didn’t make it obvious: Random Hall is officially over-the-hill.
On Friday, Feb. 29, residents and alums gathered to celebrate the dorm’s 40th anniversary — which, by cosmic technicality, tallies up to only its tenth birthday.
Home to about 90 undergraduates, the decaying brownstone on Mass Ave. looks as decrepit as ever. Its tan bricks are discolored; its steps are crumbling. At night, harsh light from the gas station next door makes the dorm seem older than its 40 years.
Random was never the darling child of the administration. Originally temporary housing, it was reluctantly pressed into service as a dorm during the ’70s housing crunch. When it comes to repairs and maintenance, there is the feeling among residents that Random has always been passed over for its glamorous brethren on dorm row.
So for years, the pipes made vulgar noises, and the water was either freezing or scalding. The plumbing was so bad that once, it spilled sewage all over the first floor and basement. That same week, a chimney blockage forced a mass evacuation as bitter fumes flooded the dorm. In the ’90s, there were rumblings that Random would close for good.
Throughout these trials, the tight-knit community at Random Hall has prevailed.
Some say Randomites are the weirdos of the Institute, but that’s not quite it. Randomites are not weird so much as they are open and fascinated with each other, with life. For them, the dorm is an echo chamber for inside jokes and personal idiosyncrasies.
Random embodies the MIT of public imagination. Like a shag carpet, the dorm’s unabashedly, charmingly nerdy community accumulates all sorts of cultural detritus. Its corridors run rampant with vigorous — and to the outsider — bizarre customs: elaborate pranks, hacks to end all hacks, and endless Dungeons and Dragons marathons.
Year after year, newer residents gamely play along, until everyone has forgotten how the traditions began. Take boffing: nobody is exactly sure when or who first started it, but fighting with foam-PVC swords on the roof deck has become a fixture of Random life.
Residents of Random describe it as a “two-holed torus.” This is just as confusing as it sounds. Walking around and around the identical floors and narrow hallways brings on a strong, disorienting deja vu — and then vertigo when you stumble across one of the four plunging staircases.
The only way markers are the decorations on the walls: dinosaur comics, clams, giant women holding guns, games of chess and scrabble stuck to the wall by magnets, and quotes from Kesey and Kerouac. Random’s cultural inheritance lives in the building itself.
On Friday night, the celebration is at times nostalgic and exuberant.
In the second floor lounge, a crowd of over thirty sing the birthday dirge: “May the candles on your cake burn like cities in your wake / May your skills with sword and axe outshine those with sheep and yaks.” The cake is pink with a thick, shiny icing.
On the third floor, an impromptu dance studio. Three women in blue pleated miniskirts gyrating to a Japanese anime music video.
Pause. A misstep.
They start again, bouncing their hands to the grating Japanese pop.
Pause. Another mistake.
“Okay, stop moving and actually listen to the music for a while,” says an annoyed choreographer, a lanky man in a turtleneck.
Pockets of conversation crowd the building’s crannies as Randomites former and current swap stories of weird residents, pranks, and domestic wars. Legendary exploits are revisited — but so are stories about everyday hijinks.
Like about the resident who was so protective of his food that he labeled all his food with his initials — including his eggs, individually. Like about the time they dumped buckets of snow down the stairs, catching people in the head with a man-made avalanche. Like about when someone set a shaving cream trap that emptied a can of foam in the face of anyone foolhardy enough to step through the door.
There also some stories not told. Like the one about a girl on the fourth floor who set herself and nearly the entire dorm on fire six years ago.
From that tragedy, Random seems to have bounced back.
On the fourth floor, two Randomites are trying to make flaming popsicles, learning in the process that frozen booze does not, in fact, burn.
“I’m starting to doubt that this is even ethanol,” says one as he plunges a lighter repeatedly into a spoonful of solid alcohol.
“Let’s toss it on the stove to check,” the other one suggests. The kitchen is shiny and white, recently cleaned. The gas stove starts up with a CLICK! CLICK! and the chunk of milky white frozen booze ignites instantly. The flame leaps high and nearly singes an eyebrow.
“Yup that was ethanol!” she says.
“Let’s try that again,” he says.