Walking through Smith Union one afternoon, I notice that a children’s summer camp has made its hub in the Smith Union Sail Room, pinning and draping sheets and tapestries across the furniture to create a soft geometry of caves and curtains. It was early August and I was one of a few hundred students on campus for the season. I was doing research for a favorite professor, cooking three meals a day, and exploring Maine on the weekends with a handful of close friends.
Later that day while walking across campus, I make eye contact with a camper who looks older than eight and younger than twelve and is wearing cherry red Chuck Taylors. He sits underneath a maple in the Quad, clutching his marker and notebook, and squinting at me in the afternoon sun.
The talk of the Quad is different in the summer, when the lines that separate Bowdoin and Brunswick, tourist and town resident, student and visiting scholar, become even more blurred.
Students from Upward Bound live in Ladd House and play Frisbee in the yard. At noon, Thorne Dining Hall is inundated by stringy middle schoolers in mid-calf socks fresh out of track camp. Osher Hall buzzes with the scales and the vibrato of teenagers at the Bowdoin International Music Festival Summer Study; ensembles bring their cellos and violins onto the grass.
Every Thursday night, a Portland theater company performs “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” with Assistant Professor of Theater Abigail Killeen starring as Lady Macbeth on the steps of the Art Museum. In the audience, young families and senior citizens picnic on blankets; without the clusters of college students that usually lay claim to the space, the scene reads like a negative blueprint of Quad life during the academic year.
Exchanging a hello with Red Sneaker Boy, I move toward the far end of the Quad. A gazebo-like concession stand is erected outside Pickard Theater, the home of Maine State Music Theater’s summer productions. The stand projects tinny show tunes from their current musical, “42nd Street.” Every day since June 2, the soundtracks from “Legally Blond,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “A Chorus Line” have spilled onto the Quad during matinee and evening show hours.
The performers are from California and New York, Kansas and Kentucky. A friend of mine who lives off campus tells me he often hears their post-show backyard gatherings, the rise and fall of their colorful stage-trained voices.
Walking toward the theater steps, I pass a Croc-coordinated family who clutch dripping ice cream cones. Cote’s Ice Cream is across Maine Street but only a minute’s walk from central campus, and I wonder how many of their customers eat cones while meandering through Bowdoin’s Quad.
Hannah and Leah O’Brien are the current owners of Cote’s—the young, blond end of a lineage stretching back 20 years to their grandparents, who first opened the store. They work full time from late April to early September with five part-time scoopers, dishing out 35 flavors of sorbet, frozen yogurt, and ice cream from Shain’s of Maine. The stand closes this Sunday, September 9, or “whenever the ice cream runs out.”
I think of summer campus tour guide Yimin Peng ’14, who is alphabetically eating—and blogging—her way through all of their ice cream flavors on her tumblr blog. She goes a few times a week after dinner, and rates each scoop on a scale of one to 10, ranging from: “I’ll eat it if someone pays me $50 to do so” (two) to “I think about this quite often” (nine). She gives the Grapenut flavor an eight and calls it “unassuming and simple…a humble ice cream.” It is the first review that truly makes me want to try the flavor.
Not every foray onto the Quad in the past few months has been this tranquil. One week in late July, I was sitting in the grass after work with three friends, our bikes toppled on the grass next to us. We saw a group of teenage boys in basketball shorts and muscle tees heading our way from the direction of Morrell Gym, but thought nothing of it until they were only a few yards away, staring at us. One of them stepped forward, picked up my friend’s bike, and without turning around, biked away while the others laughed.
Looking back on this incident, I’m not sure what I would have done differently. We called out a few times to them, but we didn’t yell, we didn’t give chase, and then we ignored them and continued sitting.
When one of the bike-snatcher’s friends came over to us a few minutes later, he was full of mock surprise that we’d let it happen—“You’re Bowdoin students, aren’t you?”—and he targeted my male friend, telling the rest of us we should “find a real man” to hang out with, someone who could “take care of us.” A few minutes after he left, we called Security, but my friend quickly found her bike propped behind Winthrop Hall, like a child’s toy quickly abandoned for bigger, shinier things.
Walking through Bowdoin’s Quad in the summer—Brunswick teenagers tanning on bright striped towels, students pleasure-reading in folding camping chairs, playgroups and dog groups and wide-eyed prospective student tour groups—I appreciate the space as more than just a hub for movement between classes and buildings.
During the school year, it is easy to think that the campus exists for my needs alone. Teachers might pursue individual research, but I can transgress to think of them as paper-graders, discussion-leaders. The dining halls exist to feed me lunch during my free hours. The paved pathways in the Quad are there to offer me a clean line from Kanbar to Searles.
Spending a summer at the College rattles this perspective. I hesitate to validate the idea of the “Bowdoin Bubble,” but something collapses between June and August, and I value the chaos and magic of this newly multi-dimensional place.