LeRoy Hanson’s basement apartment was a block from campus. You climbed a half-flight of steps from the street, entered the side door of the trim grey bungalow, and descended into another world, not quite what our proper Lutheran college probably had in mind for us.
It was a basement — no, a cellar without pretensions — hence “the hole.” Rooms were divided by board partitions that had once been painted institutional green. Over the years, however, black stains had soaked through the paint; any or all of the rooms might have been coal-bins at some time. Additional partitions had been provided by blankets nailed to ceiling joists — the shower and the octopus-like furnace had been thus draped for modesty. The linoleum on the concrete floor had been worn to scraps and trod with grime until it was all one dingy color.
The small, high windows let in just enough light to make the place seem gloomier by day than by night. The living-room’s window was south-facing, and on bright winter days, its shaft of sun, made visible by dust motes and cigarette smoke, would trace a rectangle of light across the floor from west to east as the day progressed.
The inhabitants were all bachelors, Norwegian farmer and otherwise, so housekeeping was a sometime thing. Furniture, when struck with the hand, gave off billows of dust. Books, magazines, sheet music, and compositions reached the angle of repose on every surface and began to cascade onto the floor. The quart jars that served as ashtrays were generally emptied only when they became intractable smudges. A plant once sprouted from the kitchen wall behind the trash can. It lived for some time and grew to surprising height, spindly, sickly, and pale. It was photographed, painted, and written about. The curious came from all over campus, and perhaps beyond to see this marvel. We named it Le Fleur de Mal.
I hope I have not presented a picture of unremitting squalor. Had we been asked, we might have admitted that there was a certain Dostoevskian gloom about the place, however, and I think we reveled in it.
None of this explains what made Hanson’s Hole the most important place in my undergraduate education. After all, crummy, substandard, overpriced little apartments are an enterprise that springs up around every campus, large or small.
But this crummy little cellar apartment was an institution, and unique of its kind, due in large measure to the people who lived there and who frequented the place.
LeRoy Hanson was older than the rest of us by several years. His brothers and sisters had all married and gone before he was born. So he got to stay home and work the farm. When his mother died, he sold the machinery, rented out the land, and enrolled at Augustana. He was 32.
He was a quiet man who had read and thought a great deal during his life of isolation on his little farm, near his little town, in his little church. He cultivated conversation but spoke little. Summers, he disappeared for weeks at a time into the Badlands, but during the academic term, he held court in his apartment. The Hole was probably the closest thing to Gertrude Stein’s salon that Sioux Falls ever knew. I am sure that was LeRoy’s intention.
His roommates were nearly as individualistic as he was, at least the ones who lasted. There was his cousin, Mark Gulickson, and Sam Wang who came from Hong Kong as a pre-seminary student, but within a semester changed his major to art. The last I heard of him, he was teaching photography at Clemson University. Mark and Sam both vied for the favor of tall, slim Sigrid Running, with the long, straight brown hair and enormous eyes of a blue so pale they seemed colorless grey. Mark followed her to Europe the summer after graduation and followed her all over the continent on his decrepit motorcycle that ate a valve every time he came close to catching up.
And there were those of us who did not live there, but frequented. Charlie Pedersen, guitarist and lutenist who lived in his car for a month in Berkeley because he had been accepted to an Andres Segovia workshop but had no money for lodging. Suave, urbane, consummately hip Jerry Aistrup, who knew Sam Francis and Robert Creely and Neal Cassady, who could lecture on art and jazz by the hour, who slowly orbited the country in his VW bus — New York, Sioux Falls, San Francisco, Sioux Falls, etc. The sisters Kinney, social work majors from Baltimore who spoke a barely comprehensible neighborhood dialect that sounded like lowland Scots with a barrier island drawl. Ratliff, who taught me more about the craft of poetry than anyone else ever has. Mary Overdahl, who followed Ratliff to San Francisco — but that was later when I was living in Reno. Ron Janssen, who introduced me to Pound’s Cantos. I recently came across one of his books: translations of Can Xue’s stories, Dialogues in Paradise. Bob Nelson, “Bobby Buddha,” who made his living playing poker and ghost writing research papers out of his head.
I think we all regarded ourselves as Boswells to Hanson’s Samuel Johnson.
The phonograph records in the apple crates: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan — the complete canons to that point; Respighi, Prokofiev, Gershwin; Bream playing Bach; poetry readings, Ferlinghetti with jazz accompaniment and Rexroth’s lament for Dylan Thomas.
The pictures on the walls: Andre Gide, casting a sidelong glance, peering slyly from the wall behind LeRoy’s Morris chair. Ezra Pound looking down from the ceiling. Art by lots of artists. Sam’s predominated — photos, oils, prints, and especially his ink-drawings over watercolor wash. There was one in particular — two people on a park bench, beneath a streetlamp, beneath a towering elm, all done in not more than a dozen strokes.
Shelves that grew heavier every autumn with agates and petrified wood. Plant presses. Shotguns, fishing tackle, and guitars in the corners.
Games that we played: pick a poem at random from The Norton Anthology, read it aloud, and see who can first identify it. Eventually, we had to find other anthologies with other selections. We tried the same thing with music, but the record supply was a real limitation. Nevertheless, at one time I got to know my Brandenburg Concertos pretty well.
It seems that for so many college students, academic pursuits are one thing, social activities are something unrelated. But if Hanson’s Hole was the scene of an occasional riotous party, it was always a place where art and literature and ideas were discussed. Small talk could not stay small for long in that crowd of raffish intellectuals and those of us who aspired to be intellectuals. It was a crummy apartment in a cellar, gloomy, musty, and dark. But at least as much as Augustana’s classrooms, at least as much as the library, it was to me, at that time in my life, a place of genuine enlightenment.