The Beat: It was enough just to be there - Daniel Silliman

It's not like the house is gone. It's not like it's finally crumbled to the ground, burned down or been destroyed by one last college party.

But the two-story house is empty and the 11-year, six-generation tradition is over.

So, we call each other and we say, "The house is gone."

The thing started in 1996, when a couple of students at my alma mater, a little, liberal arts school in the middle of nowhere, in the hills and dales of Michigan, moved into 187 N. West Street and gave the place a name. They called it "The Beat."

By the time I arrived in 2001, it was generally believed the name was a tribute to the Beats, Jack Keroauc's Zen bums and road-trip freaks, Allen Ginsberg's angle-headed hipsters, who wandered in dawn streets looking for an angry fix.

I've been told by someone who was there at the start, though, that the name was supposed to be "Be At," as in "187 N. Main St. is the place to be at." There was a suspicious space in the middle of the word on the sign hanging in the front of the house, which might be construed to confirm that story. So, who knows?

I first found my way into the off-campus, college house at the end of my freshman year. One of the editors at the college paper said to come over. I went over and knocked on the front door. From inside, two guys watching "The Simpsons," yelled, "Why are you knocking?"

I would later learn this was the normal greeting to knocking, which was very confusing to pizza delivery people, census takers and Jehovah's Witnesses.

The rest of us, though, learned the policy: The house was open. You could wander in at 3 a.m., and sleep on the couch. You could watch curling on TV. You could be the most unpopular kid on campus. You could borrow the stove or the washing machine. The house was open and the house flag, which said, in Latin, "in sloth, victory," was hanging on the wall.

It's not like there weren't rules at The Beat. It's just that the rules were things like, "No drinking in a canoe on the roof," and, "At the end of every party, all house members must sing along to a ridiculous song," and, "Stray cats are to be taken in," and, "Guests ought not knock, but just enter," and "Manatees are to be respected."

We were the odd balls at the college. The only thing we had in common was an agreed upon aesthetic response to the very conservative and highly political place we called home for four or five years. A lot of times, the aesthetic was self destructive, anarchistic and apathetic, but it was also open, generous and empathetic.

We might play beer-bottle baseball in the basement, but we'd also help freshmen with their homework. We might steal an idiot's shoes, tie the laces together and throw them into a big tree, but we'd also listen for hours to an idiot who'd been dumped by his girlfriend.

If you'd asked me, then, why I went back, became a regular and eventually moved in, I would have said, because the house was cool.

I think, now, that is was precisely because the place wasn't cool. At The Beat, it didn't mater that I wasn't cool. They didn't want me to pay to join, like a fraternity. They didn't want me to agree with them, like in politics and religion. They didn't want me to take on a project, like in a club. It was enough to just be there.

My house mates liked to draw an invisible square in the air and say, "judgment free zone." Yeah, we were uncool, and we pretty regularly proved it.

One house mate, before I moved in, wrote tabloid-sytle stories about the house, with headlines like: "Portal to Hell Found in Beat Basement," "Alien Child Attacked by Withered Cactus," and "Microwave Heard Singing Guns N' Roses."

(That last one was actually true, since we were across the street from a radio station and every plugged in appliance with a speaker played classic rock.)

Another house mate started a comic strip, with all of us as characters. I was a fish who wore glasses.

But I got a note last week saying the house was gone. A changing housing policy, financial difficulties, a shifting student population and apathy killed The Beat.

It stands there still, on N. Main Street, but the purple flag's been furled, the open door's been locked.

But for those of us who lived there, it will be remembered as hilarious, ridiculous, welcoming and open to us uncool, confused, lonely and talkative students, who needed a place to go.

Daniel Silliman covers cops and courts for the Clayton News Daily. His column usually appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 ext. 254 or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.