October 30, 2008

Inside Risley's Castle

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Sunday, Oct. 26, 6 p.m.: “… I’m sorry?”
“They have so much sex in Risley, they have orgies like every night. Everybody knows that.”
I consider myself a pretty accepting person, but it was shocking that this sort of behavior was tolerated by Cornell authorities. I figure I should do some wiki-stalking before I spent a night surrounded by supposed sexual deviants. Here’s what I discover:
Prudence Risley Residential College for the Creative and Performing Arts, commonly known as Risley Hall, is a program house (actually more of a program castle) for students interested in immersing themselves in the arts. Known to many Cornell students for its quirks such as sword fights on its front lawn, Risley is undeniably a building of utter uniqueness. The architect, William H. Miller, designed the floor plan so that no two rooms are the same. The building is shaped in a way such that there are “half floors” and “lost halls,” sort of like in Being John Malkovitch. A.D. White requested that the Great Hall, Risley’s in-house dining hall, be an exact replica of Oxford’s Christ Church’s dining hall (where Harry Potter’s Hogwarts dining hall is filmed).
Thanks to the wonders of Google, I was also able to find websites from die-hard Risleyite alumni, including dictionaries of Risley lexicon. Now that I knew the background and could speak the language, I felt ready to step inside.
Monday, Oct. 27, 5:06 p.m.: After sending out 12 emails and only getting back three, I made my way over to the Riz and texted them that I had arrived. One text back. Fantastic. I wait for Jon Eckhaus ’12 to come down and be my tour guide for the day.
Jon meets me outside. We wander the halls for no more than 60 seconds before he runs into friends, “Rockwell” (Farhod Shahrezay ’10) and Ethan Cohen ’12.
“Hey guys, this is that reporter from the Sun. Want to talk to her?”
(Apparently at the Kommittee meeting the night before (the governing body for Risley) there was a discussion concerning my arrival, resulting in everybody and their brother knowing I was coming. So much for blending in.)
As we sit down, Ethan explains. “Risley has a surprisingly pervasive stigma as being the “weirdo” dorm and there are many myths of nightly orgies … the stigma is particularly apparent when I tell people that I live here and am consistently met with recoiling ”ohs” and, “so you must be one of those hippy, artsy freaks.”
“Most people (not everyone, but most) assume that I am not athletic and would never rush a frat; that I am a reclus[ive] hippy because I live in Risley … [but] I was the captain of both the varsity baseball and basketball teams in high school and several of my friends and I are rushing this spring.”
5:30 p.m.: I’d been sitting with Rockwell, Ethan and Jon for over 20 minutes, so I figure it safe to get to the heart of the subject.
“So … what’s up with the orgies?”
Laughter ensues. Rockwell enlightens me to the (often unspoken) tradition of Pool — complete with a constitution. Much like Fight Club, Pool’s rules are only revealed to attendees, except for the most important rule: “nudity optional,” according to Alan McNutt ’10. Late at night, a large kiddie pool is filled with water for Risleyites to eat, drink and hang out in. Although rumors abound as to what actually takes place inside, from the way Rockwell words it, it sounds like a PG-13 frat party. I’m a little disappointed in the lack of scandal.
6:00 p.m.: Dinner time. The infamous Mathis Jackson swipes us in — Mathis knows every person in Risley by name. We go through the assembly line. “You have to get the stir fry. It’s amazing,” Jon tells me. “No really, you just have to get the stir fry. It’s so good … seriously get the stir fry.”
6:06 p.m.: I sit down, sans stir fry. “Hey, you should really try Risley’s stir fry,” said Sonny Xu ’12. (If I didn’t know better, I’d think they drug the stir fry.)
As I flood the Risleyites with questions, Janine Beydoun ’12 points out that a freshman can“live next door to an upperclassmen [without any class year-related] caste sytem.” Janine’s from Queens and says she loves Risley because “it is like SoHo … full of eclectic people and you can have anyone from an artist to an engineer living side by side in appreciation of the arts.” She hopes to stay on as an R.A. the following year.
One current R.A., Julie Grimaldi ’10, hadn’t lived in the hall previously, but considers Risley’s welcoming atmosphere it’s main asset. “I remember my first time as an RA nervously going on rounds … a group of residents introduced themselves and then gave me a giant group hug.”
6:45 p.m.: After a long dinner, it’s time for the tour. We head up to the LEGOs Balcony, which is exactly what it sounds like. Risley has dedicated a little nook of a ledge to just playing with LEGOs.
We then head down to the shops, a set of art studios where students can do whatever crafts a Risleyite’s heart desires — from print (which Thomas Levine ’12, shop manager, shares was his initial attraction to the hall) to pottery to dark room. The stained glass shop door warns, “Do not enter barefoot!!!” I’d hate to know what prompted that sign.
Covering the walls are paintings and murals created by Risleyites throughout the years. Ranging in both painting quality and topic, many of the murals have that eccentric Risley spirit we tend to expect. Levine’s other favorite aspect of Risley is one such mural: a painting of Schroedinger’s Kat “Wanted Dead and Alive.”
7:06 p.m.: We met up with Kelton Minor ’12. Kelton, unfortunately stuck with the smallest room in Risley, has decked it out with gold foil and different colored lights that flicker, depending on the frequency of music that’s playing. It’s kind of like City Style’s two-for-one haircut and saki bomb — here, Kelton had a closet / night club.
7:16 p.m.: Up and down the stairs to check out the bay windows and towers. Jon stops mid-flight and pauses, clearly listening for something. Now I can hear it too. People are audibly moaning … a lot. Maybe people in Risley do have a lot of sex. [Editor’s note: You should’ve spent time in Dickson or Donlon.]
7:40 p.m.: The fire alarm goes off and the fire trucks are on their way for reasons unbeknownst to me. I take this as a sign that my job here is pretty much done.
While Risley can be a place of slight absurdities — from an old piano called the Donut Machine to a sculpture called the Baby-Making Machine the basement — at the end of the day, it’s a home.
Says Elaine Bushey, Risley’s residence hall director (and director of residential programs), “In nine years of running residence halls, this is one of the most vibrant and dedicated residence halls I’ve ever been involved in. It’s been an honor to be a part of this community.”
As Cohen sums up, “If you see someone walking around campus with bright pink or red hair, they could very well be a Risleyite. However, while there are eccentric people in Risley, there are eccentric people everywhere on campus and the people here lead diverse social and intellectual lives: there are just as many science, math and econ majors here as there are art and theater majors.
“Risley is more than a place to sleep. Regardless of its variety of individuals, it is a community and attracts people who want to be part of one. What is the difference between this notion and that of Greek organizations?”

Risley hosts a plethora of events, performances and workshops (including this weekend’s Haunted House in Collegetown). For more information, visit risley.org.