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Welcome to The Dungeon 

Basted days and nights in a 20th-century dormitory basement

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006
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We felt that we were coming into contact with something different, something that surrounded and interpenetrated us just as we overflowed into it. The remarkable thing was that we did not lose our own individuality. On the contrary . . .

—Hans Richter, Dada: Art?and Anti-Art(1964)

We were the dregs of humanity on the Dungeon floor, licking up each other’s vomit to get high.

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—Rum Raisin, poolside in Las Vegas, 2006

The University of California’s Los Angeles campus currently provides homes for more than 9,000 undergraduates in 15 residential communities. Six of these form De Neve Plaza, a cluster built on what was once the backyard of Dykstra Hall, UCLA’s first dormitory, the 10-story monolith that still stands at the plaza’s southern edge. The newer residence halls look like hotels. Some come wired for cable TV and high-speed Internet. Security’s tight.

But in 1980, just four residence halls — Hedrick, Rieber, Sproul and Dykstra — constituted the entirety of UCLA’s on-campus undergrad housing. Owing to their location, uphill from Gayley Avenue’s fraternity row, many rooms had views — some spectacular — of Bel Air, Westwood Village, even Santa Monica Bay. Dykstra Hall, completed in 1959 and named for student-housing crusader and former UCLA provost, professor and vice president Clarence Dykstra, was UCLA’s first dormitory. It was also the first coed dormitory in America.

Between receiving the letter congratulating me on having been selected for a space in Dykstra and my arrival and check-in at Dykstra’s front desk, I romanticized moonlit metropolitan landscapes through my future bedroom window. High-rise living. A deluxe apartment in the sky. Surrounded by 450 college girls. I was going to get so . . . educated.

“OH. THIS FLOOR?”

“No. Actually, this is the second floor. The first floor’s downstairs.”

“Oh. In the . . . there’s a . . . basement?”

“Sorry. Stairs are right over there, across from the elevators.”

I sign the papers, take my key and head downward, not singing the theme from The Jeffersons all the way.

At the bottom of the staircase stands a gangly, long-bearded man in his late 40s, mopping. We introduce ourselves. He’s Harold — people call him Weird Harold, I’ll soon learn, for reasons unrelated to the Bill Cosby character, all-powerful translator of Mushmouth’s Ubbi Dubbi. Beyond Weird Harold is a lounge. With sunlight. So, technically, the first floor isn’t all basement — one side faces the parking lot.

I’m a few days early. The place is empty and still. Weird Harold points the way to my room, 103, all the way at the end of the hall.

Sickly fluorescent lights buzz and flicker along the narrow corridor of pale putty walls and ancient linoleum. Room 103 is on the dark side. But when I unlock my new home, I feel instantly, inexplicably good. I sit on the bare mattress for a few minutes and breathe. There’s one large window, through which I can see the bottom of an ivy-covered hill, excavated specifically to provide fresh air to subterranean mammals.

No one else is around, so after emptying out my ’72 Toyota and loading up my new room, I venture eastward onto the semideserted campus. I’d come to UCLA a few times over the summer, to wander around, explore buildings, buy coffee out of vending machines. But now it’s real. Now I’m an official apprentice grown-up. On my own. Two months deep in post-virginal adolescence. Soon I’ll be drinking too much coffee, beer and hard liquor. Soon I’ll be . . . something else.

I return to Dykstra, buy a sandwich and a soft drink from a vending machine, and bring it back down to my new basement home. Taking a seat on one of the crappy gold couches in the lounge, I put my dinner and feet on a beat-up dark-brown coffee table and take in the décor. The walls are painted glossy black. Most of the east wall is covered by an enormous, disconcerting painting that I imagine must be the floor’s logo: an isosceles trapezoid of six silver prison bars, with two eerie yellow eyes peering out from between bars three and four. In perspective, monolithic red block letters spell out THE at the top and DUNGEON at the bottom.

It looks like a logo for some high school rock band or adolescent cult.

I hear voices down the hall.

My first-ever roommate, Beef, arrives on a Thursday afternoon in late September, 1980. His possessions are few — whatever he could fit into his bright-turquoise Datsun B-210, and a set of mannerisms that will soon come to be known as the Beef Attitude: Nothing fazes Beef.

Beef’s from San Diego. Beef reads the Racing Form, dabbles in horses. We bond over Joe Jackson records. We rent a minifridge with a freezer and stock it with cheap beer and Otter Pops, especially Louie Bloo Raspberry. We buy books and go exploring.

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