A Demarest Recharge

Transformative experiences never happen when it’s convenient, or even when I want them. In 1988, I was an art student and had finished my freshman year at Rutgers. Instead of escaping my Reagan-Republican roommates by finding a place to live near a few friends, I found Demarest Hall.It was–and is–a community more than a dorm, and I probably could have formed some incredible friendships, as well as done some amazing art, if I had (instead of doing the sensible thing, transferring to a school with a well-regarded commercial art program) stayed there and gotten a useless degree in art.

Bugs are Cuter than Love

Demarest has a way of making creative people somehow better. In the year I was there, I found that my guitar playing was improving; I started learning pieces I would never have considered tackling. It probably helped that my roommate was a musician as well. I even tried learning “Root Beer Rag” on the out-of-tune piano in the main lounge. (My ears, sharper than my fingers, wouldn’t let me finish learning that one.)

I found that year that I had an interest in industrial sculpture, I first recorded music on a multitrack, and I drew my first comic pages (and stopped drawing them quickly when I realized they were terrible). I did a claymation film with a super-8 camera for my section project and organized an open mic.


There’s something wonderful about a place where people are constantly trying crazy things; the community, the spirit of Demarest made me want to do something, anything to participate in that feeling. The art room (then called the “rehearsal room”) is now covered with drawings layered over other drawings, some of them good, some terrible, some obscene, some profound.

Perhaps art is just that: trying new things, crazy things that nobody’s ever done before. The photo below this paragraph is of something that a nameless student drew on a light fixture. Sooner or later, Rutgers Housekeeping will “fix” that light, and that silly drawing will be gone forever. But someone’s silly drawing ended up making for a pretty kick-ass photo. (Auto-contrast in my camera has more to do with the kick-assedness of this than I do.) Sooner or later, random things come together and something beautiful happens.


At the moment, Bishop House, the traditional nemesis of Demarest’s way of life, is clamping down on the dorm more than it ever has before: More than half of the incoming students will have been randomly assigned, and one student leader we spoke to told us that they’re afraid the community is going to die. At the same time, the author and keeper of the site Demarest-in-Exile has announced that he’ll be taking down the site soon. (Against that day, here it is on the Wayback Machine.)

But all that this means is that Demarest is going to change, yet again. When I was there in 2006, the residents seemed utterly uninterested in me, an obviously older man. This time, we were asked about what year we lived there, and someone even asked us into her room to chat and gave us a tour of the new co-ed bathrooms. For Fred‘s sake, they have a fucking dorm historian now.


While I was listening to the stories people gave, something started to shift in my head. I walked over to the rehearsal room–sorry, now it’s the “art room”–and looked at the paintings and scribbles. I jotted down “Demarest–Way Station” in my journal and took some photos of the walls. Today, I’ve written the song “Way Station”, about wasted opportunities and human stubbornness. Is it the best thing I’ve ever written? Probably not, but I like it, and I’ve already recorded it. Names must be changed to protect the guilty, of course, but this is the first song I’ve written in three or four years.

There must be some way of capturing that feeling of experimental anarchism again. I’ve got paintings to paint and songs to write. Demarest has recharged me for the second time, and I have no intention of waiting twenty years for my next fix. I’m going to an art museum this week, and I’m going to do everything I can to help my give that Demarest spirit to my creative friends.

Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here, and even ask for a sample edit. He’s fascinated by places where language and music intersect, and he writes music and lyrics as often as possible.

4 thoughts on “A Demarest Recharge

  1. The Demarest-in-Exile website is still up, and I hope it stays there. I wish it could be updated, though who has the time?

    I had a former student who was living in Demarest two years ago, and it sounded like not much has changed except that the students are more sophisticated than we ever were, maybe because they grew up with the Internet, always knowing that their people were out there somewhere, or no more than a few clicks away. It isn’t water in the desert to them, the way it was to some of us.

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