I hate dorm rooms. They possess very little architectural detail and are invariably far too small to accommodate the amalgamation of servants, monkeys, antiques and artwork that a gentleperson of leisure must have to ensure inspiration and motivation in an educational environment. However, when my editor here at the Indy invited me to spend $100 at the PTA Thrift Shops located in Chapel Hill and Carrboro to decorate a college dorm room, I couldn’t help but be amused and challenged by the task at hand.
After being kicked out of my first college, due in large part to the lack of imagination of certain school administrators, my mother stated that I was on my own. Because of my supposed irreverence and lack of direction, not only would I be responsible for my tuition, but indeed for all my expenses. An aesthete in the wilderness, a dreamer forced to face the harsh light of day, I found that style and vision were the only raw materials needed to make a beautiful life. Anywhere.
Being the prop manager for the drama department at the second of six schools I attended and was dismissed from assured a steady stream of beautiful accoutrements for my domicile. The faux marble pilasters that lined the walls, matched with white-painted Louis XV furnishings, lent an air of Versailles to my humble dorm abode. At my next school, the dorm atmosphere was more akin to the romantic rooms of Aubrey Beardsley or Oscar Wilde, due in no small part, I am certain, to the lovely furnishings showered on me by a companion.
No matter what your lot in life, the house-squeezed-into-a-12-foot-by-10-foot-space quality of dorm rooms can prove inspirational to anyone imaginative enough to peer beyond mere functionality.
strutted into the PTA like I owned the place–and with $100 you almost can. The patrons were mannerly and enthusiastic over the great buys crowding every corner. A woman in a blonde wig was trying on a leather miniskirt, much to the chagrin of the miniskirt. A young male in his mid-20s was putting on a sequined blouse that looked like it might have once belonged to either Little Richard or Prince, and across the room several gentlemen were fighting each other for polo shirts emblazoned with the logos of local country clubs. I also spied a few of the country club and Chapel Hill society ladies themselves wearing huge Jackie O. sunglasses in a futile attempt to be unnoticed in a thrift store venue. In fact, one of the ladies had just weeks before announced she was going to Paris on a shopping trip. Looks like she meant Paris of the Piedmont. (I thought there was something fishy about those last season Prada shoes of hers.)
Even though it’s been years since I’ve bought second-hand, (other than Sotheby’s, of course) I found myself jostling for position amid the colorful merchandise and multicultural shoppers. What to buy? A 1970s phonograph? With the guts removed and the turntable turned into a lid, it would make a perfect mini-bar for afternoon cocktails, and be completely undetectable to the prying eyes of RAs. Perhaps a few 1980s velvet ball gowns by Escada and Valentino? They could easily be chopped up and turned into stunning throw pillows to add an opulent effect to my dorm room. “What about artwork?” I wondered as I strolled through rooms filled with monstrous examples of earth-toned macrame and high-school canvases of clowns and horses. It would be so easy to purchase a bunch of plates here at the PTA for 10 cents apiece, break them up, and glue them to canvas and create an homage to artist-cum-film-director Julian Schnabel.
I strolled through the men’s suit section to check out the wares, thinking some new duds might add splash to a dorm room closet. Over the years I have learned to detect quality of material and construction with almost a sixth sense. With eyes closed, I ran my hand along the racks, only stopping when I felt 100 percent cashmere or silk, as these are the only fabrics that do not abrade my sensitive skin. With one fell swoop, I pulled a circa 1986 Armani Tux from the rack and simultaneously a Christian Dior formal shirt, both this humble writer’s perfect fit.
In the glorious housewares department, I found two matching champagne flutes for 25 cents each, one engraved “Larry” the other “Don.” A silver-plated ice bucket attracted my attention across the room and I pounced. “I was getting ready to look at that,” snapped a lady in a bandana printed halter top, and Daisy Dukes that allowed one to see the crack of dawn. “Was getting ready’ is the operative phrase dear,” I retorted. “You snooze, you lose, but perhaps that George Forman Lean Mean Grilling Machine is more your speed,”. I felt daggers from her eyes pierce my flesh as I strolled on by with a victor’s hauteur and the ice bucket in tow.
With Larry’s and Don’s throwaways and, ahem, sparkling cider on ice, college scholars can enhance their lifestyle education. For parents’ weekend make use of a $2 teapot I purchased–all in all a lovely example of Georgian sterling in the Adam style with fine fluting and seductive lines–to serve mum and daddy some of the finest dining hall Earl Grey.
I gingerly stepped into the bedding department and retrieved the portable black light from my pocket. I’ve seen 60 Minutes enough to know that bed linens, even in the finest establishments, hold perils not always visible to the naked eye. A lovely quilted red satin comforter looking clean and smelling of Febreze caught my attention, but the black light’s infallible glare showed more spots than a rubella outbreak in a pack of leopards. This comforter had seen lots of action, but would be seeing none of my own. I glanced at the embroidered nametag that appeared to spell “T. Fetzer.” I wonder if this could have belonged to … ? Before my mind could fathom such questions, a thrift-shop employee brought out a stack of fresh, clean, pure-white linens. They would be perfect for a stark and meditative, almost monastic room, and there were more than enough of them to cover the bed, the windows and drape all the tables to boot. The simpler the better, I thought. What does anyone do in a dorm room anyway, but shag or sober up from the last party? I was always claustrophobic in my dorm rooms and considered them nothing more than dressing rooms or mini-bars at best.
Living in a dorm is actually one of college’s best lessons. You learn that room service is not always available, that linoleum and cinderblock are hazardous and unforgiving materials to camouflage effectively, and that the other students on the hall have horrible taste in music and precious little personal hygiene training. You also learn that for $100 and a good eye, you can have your personal living space fitted out with the type of personal flair that spoiled doctors’ brats couldn’t get with a platinum American Express card, (though I have to admit they do have a lot of fun trying).