Charles Commons, the darker side you don’t see

By BRIDGET BAIRD HARKNESS | October 18, 2012

With its completion a mere six years ago, in 2006, Charles Commons presents itself as a sort of housing mecca for underclassmen. Freshmen make or break roommate relationships for the sole purpose of securing a high enough lottery number to attain entrance beyond the mechanically operated turnstiles. Sophomores yearn for late night companionship with any Commoner, seduced by the privacy that walls of a single bedroom can provide. Yet beneath the shining, freshly painted exterior lurks a darker, more sinister presence.

Younger generations of Hopkins students, beware. Not all Commons’ nights give way to well-rested skin that shines of gold. In fact, as a previous Commons resident I experienced a great deal of sleepless nights, set in motion by a particularly disturbing occurrence that happened sometime last October.

It all came about as the result of three sweltering months I spent sweating through a lime green shirt that read ‘JHU Housing and Dining: Summer Conference’ the summer after my freshman year. During this time, I came to know a security guard named Tom.

Tom would often come to the Charles Commons desk to tell me, and whoever else was working, his elaborate “life stories” (apparently he had turned down law school to become a HopCop). Often, his Baltimorean accent was so heavy and his stories so unlikely, that the only response that we could muster was to nod. He had large shoulders that sagged  in such a way beneath his oversized uniform that it made me think of the scenes in ghost movies where white sheets cover rooms of sagging furniture.

Unfortunately, as summer soon gave way to fall I chose to end my job with the housing and dining department. However,  a good friend of mine (we’ll call her Lana) still remained on the university pay roll. Often, on the nights that she worked the graveyard shift in commons, I would stop by on the way from the library to chat.

I particularly remember one day, in October, that this happened. I had been up late writing an essay and had gotten caught in one of those sudden but torrential downpours that tend to plague Baltimore in the fall. When I walked into the commons lobby, I saw that Lana was working. Accordingly, I made my way to the desk to debrief her on the latest edition of ‘my life is Hopkins but also in shambles’.

Lana was experiencing an unproductive night as well. Apparently Tom, driven indoors by the storm, had been lurking around the desk and telling his stories. The most bizarre of which, she informed me, had led to his leaving for his rounds with the promise of returning before her shift was over in order to show her a ghost. The ghost, he claimed, could only be seen at one in the morning — and it lived in the girls bathroom across from the kitchens.

Lana, more concerned for her decency than the danger she might suffer at the hands of the ghost, pleaded with me to stay until Tom returned. Partially intrigued, and wholly sleep deprived, I consented.

Tom arrived exactly five minutes before one (this is, I believe perhaps the only remotely compelling evidence presented to me to why he might have once been accepted into law school).

The three of us climbed the stairs in what I remember to be the closest thing to silence that I have ever heard in Commons. The absence of the building’s usual activity made the laughs of the turnstile security guards sound distorted as they echoed down the hall.

In hopes of avoiding entering the bathroom first, Lana and I fell strategically behind Tom. It was to no avail — he insisted that we enter the bathroom first, just in case some devastated drunk girl had taken to drunken sobbing in the stalls.

We established that the bathroom was empty, and then all three of us entered. Uncertain of what else to do, we stood there awkwardly for a second until the motion sensing lights clicked and covered our bodies in darkness. In the moments it took for my eyes to adjust, I kept tabs on my remaining senses. As a Hopkins student I am inclined to insist it was a trick of the mind, but for whatever reason the air in the room felt both thicker and colder than before.

I became aware of a familiar hissing sound — for some reason every single one of the automatic sinks had turned on at full blast. I am not sure, but I think it was their combined movement that then turned back on the motion sensing lights. As far as I could tell, neither Tom nor Lana had moved either. As if this wasn’t already enough, every single one of the toilets flushed.

Lana and I spent the entirely of the next week not sleeping and analyzing what had exactly happened in the Charles Commons building. My mother suggested that it might have been an elaborate prank. Even taken in a purely supernatural sense, I find the episode bewildering — why would a ghost haunt such a new building? And a bathroom at that? (And I know, the obvious parallels to Rowling’s Moaning Myrtle are suspicious.)

Really, the most haunting part of it is now, after a year, I still am not any closer to figuring it out. In one desperate attempt earlier this month, I tried to contact Tom, only to discover that he doesn’t work here anymore.

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