First, there was the atrophy of protective tissue: the walls of all the claustrophobic classrooms in the basement became thinner as plaster cracked and peeled to reveal rough patches of lath. Then there was the fever: suffocating heat from the boiler room congested the labyrinthine hallways. Then there was the bowel obstruction: ceiling pipes in each room, clogged by years of rusting, emitted a soft hum as water and sewage passed through.
But it took two floods, last September, for medical experts to deliver a diagnosis. Because after the water-stained tile flooring was removed and samples of the building material were extracted and analyzed, the Yale Environmental Health and Safety Department found the culprit: asbestos.
* * *
PEOPLE DON’T MUCH LIKE TALKING about the ill old HGS basement, and mostly nod indifferently when they’re asked about it. Even former friends of the basement wonder why it—in its current state of cockroach-infested beige corridors and motion-activated lighting that flickers before defecting—deserves the attention.
“There are better places to write about,” Diane Hovey, an executive assistant to the Graduate School’s Dean Pollard, says with a bemused laugh. “You really couldn’t find a nicer spot?”
When the Hall of Graduate Studies was first built, in 1932, all its levels had polished spaces for classes to meet. But over time, as more and more symptoms of the basement’s illness came to light—a typical asbestos-caused disease, medical experts say, can take over 40 years to present itself—fewer and fewer people wanted to associate with the bottom floor.
First to leave were the facilities staff: “The building is much nicer up there,” one facilities operations employee, tells me, pointing up the stairs with his back turned to the rest of the basement. He holds a mop that he’s just picked up off the ground, where it’d been haphazardly left. “So we spend more time maintaining those rooms.”
The Slavic department—who’d once held classes in the basement—left as well, after growing tired of their room with the carpet that had a fusty barn-like smell. “They moved on from the basement,” administrative assistant Sandra Foley says, “but they left the carpet in the room. We went down there once to try to remove the stench, but we couldn’t, so nobody uses that room anymore.”
Even students began to turn against the basement: against its “terrifying” laundry room, with moldy walls stained by smudges of white paint; against the signs (taped below the thermostats) that demand, in caps-lock, that students not set the temperature below 74 degrees, lest the air conditioner ice up.
“This building is old and being renovated,” Foley informs me. “It’ll be better for everyone when they do that.”
* * *
WELL, MAYBE NOT FOR EVERYONE. HASmik Tovmasyan and Sarab Al-Ani are professors in the Arabic department. They wear vibrant bright clothing and have faces that look as young as those of their students. They’ve kept their offices and classrooms in the HGS basement since they started teaching, and they’ve stuck with it through its diagnosis.
“At the beginning, I thought the basement was scary,” Tovmasyan says, chuckling. “But then I really started to like it. If you ignore the things that make it scary, it’s easier to take the whole class into an imaginary place down here because there are fewer people; it’s calmer.”
Al-Ani and Tovmasyan appreciate those sickly qualities that others prejudge: because the halls of the floor are so easy to get lost in, they can greet late students with an empathetic smile; because the rooms are cramped, they can justify limiting the size of their classes; because there are no windows in the rooms, they can ask students in their language classes, with honest curiosity, about the weather outside.
“I know I felt like a nomad when they made us move last year so they could remove the asbestos,” Al-Ani says. “I felt like I’d lost my home for that semester.”
“I took the year off last year,” Tovmasyan starts, nodding. “And I was missing everyone. Missing the four people in our department, of course, but missing the basement, too! Even missing the pipes.” She looks at Al-Ani, who’s staring back at her with a grin. “It’s like the film Sex in the City—where there are four girls, and then the fifth friend is New York, the city itself. The basement is the fifth character in our department’s little film here.”
* * *
MY GRANDMOTHER, IN OLD AGE, IS DIagnosed with a condition that causes her fingers to become discolored and paralyzed, curled in a pallid claw. And, at first, the whole family looks past it, rallies at her side. She seems still so young and so well and so alive.
But as she gets older and sicker—as she loses more weight and is put on feeding tubes—some members of my family begin to distance themselves from her. One relative can’t bear to watch my grandmother, desperate to taste flavors that her stomach can no longer swallow, chew her food before spitting it back out. Another finds it hard to read my grandmother’s twice-weekly letters, letters that she once had the strength to handwrite, but now instead types. As her state has deteriorated, this is all to say, many people have removed themselves. And I don’t need to tell you that this is tragic.
Consider this, though: my grandmother’s story and the basement’s story (which you probably consider to be less worrisomely tragic) are one and the same.
The asbestos has, technically, been removed from the basement’s pleura. The diseased walls are no longer contagious.
But if you stand in the basement, you will still see its thinning, feel its fever, and hear its bowel obstruction. You will still understand that it is ill. And you will have a choice. If you are like many of us, you will choose you to distance yourself. [e.g. “When will they paint over the discolored blots on the walls? When will they hire professionals to remove that old smelly carpet? When will they get around to buying a new air conditioner, one that doesn’t “ICE UP’?”] This distance is normal; it is a part of the story for most.
If you are like Al-Ani and Tovmasyan, though, you will grow even closer to the basement. For these ladies, our distance is not a part of the story. As the rest of us wait for the basement to be renovated, these two stay with it. They give to it laughter and use, and they take laughter and use from it, too. They are there for it, even in its illness, while we have abandoned it. And all of a sudden, it seems that it’s us—not the basement—who need the renovating.