It has rightly been said that all great party spaces, like works of art, either establish a culture or dissolve one — that they cultivate, in other words, special parties. Among these cases the origins of Olde Club’s charismatic and authentic basement is one of the most unfathomable. From its structure — subterranean cocktail-mixer, bar, concert venue, and potential hookup zone all in one — to the hours of endless Saturday nights spent within Olde Club’s multifaceted embrace, everything transcends the norm.
“Yeah,” confirmed former Olde Club director, Cosmo Alto ’16, not without some irony. “They didn’t really let us know, formally, that renovations were going to happen.”
The first revealing observation is that this great special case of partying at the same time constitutes Swarthmore’s greatest unconscious and unintentional achievement of recent decades: “the frats” were an afterthought.
The conditions under which this partying was perpetuated were extremely unhealthy: an unusual academic rigor, extraordinarily endowed wealth and an awkward disposition. Swarthmore is not a model college in every respect, but everything about it, including Olde Club’s now defunct basement, is exemplary.
“So,” continued Alto, “Last year we heard word that an engineering student, who I’m not going to name, went in and actually checked the building against, like, building codes, and took a look around, and deduced that the building wasn’t actually safe.”
The outstanding educational achievement of our time is assigned a place in the heart of the impossible, at the center — and also at the point of indifference — of all dangers, and it marks this great realization of a “work of art” on campus, spanning several decades, as the last for a long time, precisely because the presence of the basement will not be felt until it is gone.
“It was made official that Olde Club was an unsafe space,” he continued, sighing. “They basically shut it down.”
The image of Olde Club’s basement is the highest physiognomic expression which the irresistibly growing discrepancy between campus culture and Saturday nights was able to assume. This is the tension and the lesson which justifies the attempt to evoke this image of Olde Club basement as a widow might write an obituary.
We know that in its lifetime Olde Club’s basement did not contain a student body as it actually was, but a sort of institutionalized anti-student body, with clumps of Haverford football players and Bryn Mawr ‘biddies’ (as they were remembered almost unconsciously by those I interviewed), who needed to escape the suffocating nature of the body on Saturday nights primarily by surrounding themselves as close as possible with — instead of the brains — that sweaty student body’s remnants, arms, legs, hands, eyes. And yet even this statement is imprecise and far too crude. Practically every Swarthmore student refused to be quoted in this article.
“I wasn’t happy, because Olde Club is one of my homes.” Somehow Cosmo was still smiling. “Olde Club was how — how I had fun, in a lot of ways. It’s not only that; it’s also my job. It’s very important to me. It’s like, how I pay for books, and how I pay for everything. So luckily, I worked over the summer so that wasn’t an issue. In years past it’s been like my income.” It was one of my homes, too.
Questions linger as to whether demand and therefore responsibility for Olde Club will ever be the same, after the transformation of DJ funding practices on campus. The important thing for the nostalgic ‘anti-student’ body is probably not what it experienced on the dance floor, but the weaving of its memories into the architecture of the basement itself, where students planned, reflected, mingled, leaning onto the graffiti like children onto their parents’ legs; where students descended from the dance floor/concert venue to hang their jackets, to smoke their cigarettes, to kick back Jell-O shots, to converse with people they otherwise never had the time to, and, most importantly, to breathe.
Or should one call the basement, rather, now, in its present closed-off, nailed shut, and disciplined for misbehaving state: a work of art in forgetting?
Is not the student body’s — at least the sophomores, juniors and seniors’ — present memories and living attachment to Olde Club’s basement much closer to an act of forgetting than what is usually called memory?
“We had this feeling,” said Cosmo, earnestly, entering the basement of forgetting, himself: “like, this was our space.” He still has the feeling of an intimate ownership, after all. The basement, it seems, isn’t gone.
But Olde Club’s basement, for all intents and purposes, is dead and buried behind hastily nailed plywood.
“We do not,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “always proclaim loudly the most important things we have to say.” Nor do we always privately share those “important things” with those mentors, professors, CAPS counselors, administrators, parents, superiors or our most intimate friends — that is, those who have been most devoted wingmen or women on the dance floors of desire. We use them more than we trust them.
If it is true that not only student bodies but also anti-student bodies have such a scelerotic — that is, such a devious and frivolous — way of communicating what is most their own to a passing acquaintance, dance floor or basement, then the true nature of Swarthmore College did not reveal itself to the disciplined inhabitants of McCabe, or the frats, among other social spaces, on a Saturday evening, but to a young, disinterested and transcendent Olde Club basement, the insignificant, abused, never-properly-cleaned walls, the single, perpetually-pissed-upon toilet on the staircase and the miserable basement doors, the experience of the basement which altogether snatched, in passing, the most astounding performances, not of Nirvana on April 20, 1990, but of generations of Swarthmore students — without fail.
This is not however to say there were not “a lot of positives that came from this,” as Cosmo would be quick to point out.
“They cleaned out the sound closet, which was just an utter fucking mess. Before it was absolutely tragic. There was broken equipment everywhere. There was dust and a pile of dead ladybugs. There was a collection of rusty knives. It was of those weird closets where, like, rituals had taken place. And you’re not sure how these things had accumulated. So they cleaned that all out.”
It’s just to say that there’s something missing now, after the war on what we came to know as night life. Something like a “ritual,” though this journalist’s only ritual is to produce truth once a week and all the gritty, disgusting emotions attached to it. As to Swarthmore College, or the student loans which make it possible, one becomes accustomed to what imprisons and limits their art. It took the nailing of planks of wood onto the stairway of Olde Club’s basement to make Swarthmore College ripe for a sort of aesthetic nostalgia.
Olde Club: “Where,” said one frequenter of Olde Club’s basement to me, “between the janky dried out cheese balls and the even jankier jungle juice, desire comes to die.”
To Dante this question might appear laughable, but to Swarthmore students: who knows better that acute, nostalgic attachment to a ring of hell?