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The Stairwell: Student Journalism Part 2

[Periodically I am going to post articles by my Georgetown students. This was one of our first assignments, to write a descriptive sketch. Students could describe anything, and Rob Anderson picked a library stairwell.]

Campus stairwell at night

By Rob Anderson

Every ten seconds or so a heavy metal door clicks open as someone rushes in or out of the library's only stairwell. The maroon door, with a three-foot "2" painted on it in a bubbly-yet-dignified font, pauses as if to savor the moment before it starts to swing back, slowly at first, then a little bit faster. The momentum builds until, boom!, the door slams shut, ricocheting sound waves off the ceramic-tiled walls, up three floors, down two and back.

The air inside the enclosed chamber is stale and still. It's frigid, almost cold enough to see the breath of one overachieving climber as she huffs up the stairs carrying a swollen backpack. The lights shine a putrid yellow, like those in an emergency room's waiting area, bouncing rays off the curling buffed-silver railings that run along both sides of the stairs. Although the linoleum-tiled floors have been scrubbed recently--the smell of a tropical fruit detergent hangs in the air--fresh sludge from a wintry mixture of melted snow, salt and dirt smudges the ground.

Somewhere in the stairwell, a fan, or a heating vent maybe, blasts away, vibrating through the enclosed space like wind howling against a child's bedroom window at midnight. Like a faint and far off thunderclap, the door high above on the fifth floor cracks shut, and the sound of shuffling shoes pats down like rain.

Hardly anyone over the age of 25 enters-- a Latino man with deep bags under his eyes is the only obvious exception. He descends ten safety-tread-lined steps, holding a slate-colored rag and an opaque bottle with a red spray top, and walks across one of the twenty-foot landings that separate each flight of stairs. As he passes, a whiff of spicy cologne, like that worn by the mâitre'd of a fancy restaurant, or maybe an usher at a theater, floats in his wake.

As he opens the door marked "1", a blond pony-tailed young woman, 20 maybe, bounds past him. She smiles as she looks down at her cell phone, although no one gets reception in this cement-bunker of a hallway. She sports a snow-white wool winter hat with a tennis-ball-sized puffball, and a pair of blue and green plaid flannel pajama pants. Ironically, it's the young man she passes on her way up the stairs wearing a charcoal-gray suit and a black tie who looks more out of place in this late-night campus haunt.

No one stops to rest. And why would they? This space is a passageway, a place to transition from one task to the next: there is a paper to write, a friend waiting at the cafeteria, a deadline to hit, a deadline missed, a book to find, a quiet study-spot waiting, a pocketed cigarette, unlit.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 21, 2005; 9:39 AM ET
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