Who the hell is Paolo?

For now, he’s a room. A lot of what I can tell you about Paolo’s Room is recollection and rumor. It remains a mystery even to those fortunate few who have been there. In the room’s post-Paolo life, its marble walls have seen sex, stealing, sleep, sandwiches, booze, and Dada. It has been claimed, filled, reclaimed, emptied, and abandoned.

Here is what I know:

In 2009, during their freshman year, Michael and Austin climbed to third floor of the Yale office complex at 305 Crown St. They walked past empty Yale offices and bathrooms strewn with dead cockroaches: disappointing. But it was Michael’s birthday, March 18th, 3/18. So they pushed open the unlocked door to Room 318.

The room was tiny, no more than five by eight feet. It had once been a bathroom, but shelving now covered the showerheads and a rug hid the tiled floor. Rickety bookcases groaned with Italian literature and criticism. Then they saw rows of filing cabinets and storage boxes. They flung them open and ran their fingers through the three-decade detritus of an odd and arresting life.

There were Paolo’s old bank statements and phone bills, his passport, his social security card. There were dusty love letters from girlfriends and diaries written in German, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. There were tire receipts and $30 in cash. There was a note from Harold Bloom and a 1968 Playboy. There was a pack of Pan Am ticket stubs, a set of menus for East Texas restaurants, and a binder full of theatre programs from the 1970s. There was an old iMac, loaded with the files of a long-dead poetry review.

“It was a man’s life,” Austin told me. “It was a whole picture of a person.” Paolo was the room’s ancestral spirit: a first name and figurehead. “It took us over a year to start figuring him out,” Michael said. Valesio was Paolo’s last name, they learned, and he had been a professor at Yale for a quarter-century. In 2005, he left New Haven and left a lot behind.

“Let me show you a man’s life,” Austin would say. And the gang grew: to Michael, Austin, Cyprien, Danika, Vanya, and guests. Some of them stole stuff. In the evenings, they brought food, drinks and dates, and talked late into the night. The room’s explorers pegged Paolo as “a traveler, someone sentimental, a bit of a pack-rat.” He had done everything and been everywhere — but outside of his room, Paolo was no one.

The group christened themselves ‘The Paulisti.’ “We pasted the wall with shitty Dada poems and art,” recalled Cyprien. They spent hours writing the word “minchia” — which in Italian denotes the male reproductive organ — on a hundred sticky notes. After a few drinks, they scribbled a manifesto on the door: “We are the Paulisti,” it read. “We are here. We will Paulisti.”

At the beginning of that summer, Vanya remained in New Haven with nowhere to stay. Paolo had the answer. Vanya and Danika dragged a mattress all the way from campus, up the three flights of stairs, and crammed it in. They slept there together for several days — and I’ll leave it at that. (They are now dating.) “Anyone could be a Paulisti,” said Austin. But not for long.

Last spring, Michael cited one of Paolo’s books in an essay. The Italian Department caught wind and locked the room. “I was so pissed when they closed it,” said Austin. “It was magical and a little voyeuristic … This man’s personality oozed through all of it.”

Paolo didn’t know about any of this — until I told him.

Paolo’s accent is light, and his mood diffident. He’s one of those people who doesn’t speak in sentences, but perfectly formed paragraphs. “The room was kind of an appendix, a space apart for my books,” he told me as he sat in the late-afternoon oranges of his new Columbia office. “They belonged to a past chapter of my life.” His real office at Yale had been housed in the Italian department on Wall Street.

It’s easy to think that drunken Yalies had invented the myth of Paolo’s Room. But get him started, and Paolo begins to sound a lot like a Paulisti. “I myself am a writer, so I tend to invest places with particular meanings,” Paolo told me. “It was, in a way, picturesque: rather dusty, and kind of eerie. I liked the atmosphere; it was an odd, strange building.”

Soon before Paolo left Yale, vandals broke in. “They found nothing to steal,” he told me. “But I was very worried. I ran into the office thinking they had taken my books.” And so, last summer, Paolo finally moved his belongings out of the room for good. Now they sit at home, surrounding him. “I kind of miss that place … It was mysterious, an image of old Yale, a walk out of my usual surroundings: less genteel but more interesting. In that sense, I miss it.”

Paolo told me that he couldn’t remember keeping any personal bric-a-brac — passports, Playboys, or love letters — in the office. It’s remarkable that he could forget leaving so much of himself behind. But in the canon of Paolo’s Room, forgotten fragments and unanswered questions are gospel. When Paolo visited campus last year for a futurism conference, Danika told me that “we saw him, but he didn’t see us.” There are only two known photos that show the room in use, taken by a tipsy guest and filed away in an album titled “Paolo.”

Walk into Room 318 today and you won’t find anything mysterious. It has been emptied and scrubbed clean. Now, Paolo’s is a barren room in a great hallway of barren rooms, sucking up surplus air-conditioning and fluorescent light. In the abandoned office next door, there sits a bronze bookend statuette of a bearded man, prying open a treasure chest.

Though I never saw its contents, I may now know more about Paolo’s Room than anybody else in the world. Ann DeLauro, the Italian Department’s administrative coordinator, had her own suspicions. “Someone was using it for his or her own purpose,” she told me. “I thought perhaps it was you.”