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New England college tour
Julie Abache (L) and Allison Riggio enjoy a few drinks at Kartabar Restaurant and Lounge late Friday night in Providence. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)

College circuit: A four-state, 24-hour dash to get the scoop on a half dozen campus towns

Email|Print| Text size + By David Maloof
Globe Correspondent / April 16, 2006

The quintessential New England college town is a village of cafes and bookstores, restaurants and bars, where earnest students and sage professors leave the college green to share downtown with the rest of us. But quintessence is just the fancy cousin of cliche, and with about 150 four-year colleges or universities in New England, I expect variations on that stale image as I head out to visit a half-dozen college towns in 24 hours.

Why 24 hours? Like a cramming college student, I want to learn as much as I can in the shortest time.

I begin with an 8:15 a.m. coffee stop in South Hadley (Mount Holyoke College), which has the usual college town businesses, but not (at this hour) any evidence of students. Enlightenment won't come soon enough, so best to move on.

I drive south to Middletown, Conn., home to Wesleyan University. Middletown -- what a great name for a college town, suggesting the center between heady academic life and grounded daily existence. The bulletin board at Brew Bakers, a Main Street cafe, seems to confirm this mix. I find postings on arts, politics, and commerce, the latter including ads for acupuncture and water heaters. But it's possible the bulletin board misleads.

''It's strange to hear Middletown referred to as a college town," says Ben Michael, a self-described ''townie" and general manager of WESU, Wesleyan's FM radio station. ''Our students have a hard time crossing Washington Street" into downtown's ''unfamiliar territory."

Michael says that one of the few places ''deemed a cool place to go" is Gatekeepers Tavern on Ferry Street, off Main -- ''one of the shadier parts of town." Students are lured there, he says, by ''super-cheap beer" and a different crowd.

I check out Gatekeepers, which at 11:30 a.m. has seven customers and a lingering cigarette smell. Soon after, I decline a sidewalk entrepreneur's pitch for $6 watches and learn how attempts at art have mixed results. Outside a bank, four men stop at a metal sculpture that looks like the offspring of a giant snail and a shovel.

''I'm trying to figure out what it is," says one of them. A young woman passing by calls out, ''It's art." ''They ought to label it," the man says.

I head down to New Haven, which, according to Michael, ''is much more of a college town," with its four schools -- Southern Connecticut State, Albertus Magnus, Gateway Community College, and Yale University, whose Phelps Gate halts me on the College Street sidewalk. I hadn't planned to step onto college soil, but I'm pulled in by the statue of Theodore Dwight Woolsey, Yale's president from 1846-71, who sits, looking pensive and a little peeved, his index finger holding his place in a book. I head to the door of Dwight Memorial Chapel, but stop at this sign: ''Authorized Yale personnel and their guests only." Michael had told me of Wesleyan's attempts to limit access by townies, and Yale seems to have a similar policy.

Instead I wander the neighborhood, eventually heading down an alley to the yellow door of the Bryn Mawr Book Shop. Inside, I am smacked by a musty aroma as strong as the one at Gatekeepers. I'm tempted to buy ''The Strange Lives of One Man" by Ely Culbertson only for the intriguing autograph to Eleanor S. Toby -- ''In the hopes of a better world (but not better Eleanors)" -- but I save the $6. (What buys a sketchy watch in Middletown gets an obscure book in New Haven.)

Large posters advertising arts events lure me inside Woolsey Hall. Seeing me studying a New Haven map, a woman points to two rooms I should check out. But a stern cashier stops me at the door to the first one, the Yale Commons Dining Hall. The sea of promising Ivy League youth threatens to drown me in regret over my modest accomplishments, so I escape to the other suggested room, which, of course, is locked. Through a space between the double doors, I see giant organ pipes that look like gargantuan fountain pens, and soon minor-key bass notes emerge as a young man, his head visible, works the keyboard. Outside Woolsey Hall, I see that sign again: ''Authorized Yale personnel and their guests only." I head down to Wall Street, where I eat a late lunch at Naples Pizza, noting that a college town offers access that a college may deny.

Next I learn that Willimantic, home of Eastern Connecticut State University, scores better on access than on choices. At 6 on this Friday evening, cars roar past the deserted Main Street sidewalks. Business is strong at two barber shops (Carlos and Sammy's), and the tables and bar are full at the Willimantic Brewing Co. and Main Street Cafe, but no one at these places looks like a student.

At Blarney's Cafe, a small bar on High Street, a band is setting up and some students have started their night. Jeff Drew, a sophomore from Waterford, tells me I have already seen what the downtown has to offer. ''It's a suitcase college. A lot of the kids go home on the weekend. UConn [in Storrs] is the fallback plan if there's nothing going on here," and there's also the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester.

But he adds that ''If you look hard enough at Eastern, you can find something." Like what? ''Parties . . . whatever."

Drew is vague on the ''whatever," while Meagan Galvin, the bartender and an Eastern junior, notes that the school's Dial-A-Ride service will bus students anywhere within 5 miles. That can mean a trip to Wal-Mart -- ''It's a big attraction to college kids," she says -- or to Willi Bowl in neighboring North Windham.

The friendliness at Blarney's aside, Willimantic could serve as strong motivation to do well in your studies so that you will have more choices in life than your college town offers.

I check out Willi Bowl, which is downright festive compared with the moribund downtown. Cosmic Bowl won't start until 10 but at 8:05 the alley is entertaining families, teens, and couples. On some tables, plastic buckets hold a crowd of small beer bottles. Cosmic Bowl, I learn from manager Jeff Wright, means black lights, disco balls, and laser lights. I wouldn't mind staying, but my 24 hours are ticking down, and I want to get to Providence, home to five colleges. Maybe 5 1/2: Providence and Rhode Island colleges, Johnson & Wales and Rhode Island School of Design, Brown, and a branch of the University of Rhode Island.

Brown's East Side neighborhood, specifically Thayer Street, is short on cars and heavy on pedestrians at 9:15. Ghazi Kassab, floor manager at Kartabar restaurant and lounge, says ''a lot of teachers come in for lunch," but that from dinner on, the customers are mainly international students. He calls Thayer Street ''the cosmopolitan street of Rhode Island."

''People come here and they can be whoever they want to be," he says. Sounds like a great slogan for a college.

Fantasy and pretense seem to be the themes on Thayer, where the Avon Cinema is showing ''Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." The Avon is a single-screen, reel-to-reel, downtown movie house that plays original stride music during intermissions. I ask assistant manager Henry Finch, the composer of the music, where he learned his art.

''I'm self-taught," he says, a college town irony if I ever heard one.

I cross the street for a quick meal at Johnny Rockets, a burger joint dressed up as a 1950s diner (and part of an international chain) whose inside is as bright as Kartabar is dim. After I order, the counter girl, whose name is Erin, gives me a nickel to play a jukebox song. Thayer Street, she says, draws students not only from Brown, but also from PC (where she is a student) and Johnson & Wales.

''I go to school on the other side of the city," she says, ''but I prefer it here."

As the night spins past 12 I begin the long trip to Keene, N.H., home to Keene State College. By now I have learned that college towns can mean exclusion, motivation, fantasy, and more. But as the sun rises over nearly deserted downtown Keene, I find my modest ideal. There are at least five places to get a cup of coffee within a 10-minute walk, and my journey ends brilliantly with one.

Contact David Maloof, a freelance writer in Belchertown, at dmaloof@earth link.net.

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