Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Twenty Year Wind-up

When I was an undergrad back in the early 90's, I worked at a security desk at the library. It was a great job. For the princely sum of $4.35 an hour, I'd wear a smelly red sweater, sit by a door for four hour shifts and mostly gather wool, do homework and wait for the alarms to beep. It could be staggeringly dull at times, but I got a lot of homework done and there was very little supervision, perhaps because the powers that be thought it would be a great idea to have my boss work a day shift on the third floor, when I worked nights on the first.

If I were slacking off and doing questionable things, the only person with any sort of authority to do anything about it would have had to come in eight hours early and then hunt around until they found someone who cared enough to listen to him complain. And that never happened, not even once.

The entire three years I was there, I think I met my boss only three times. Maybe not even that often. I'd show up, prevent crime by my simple presence by the door and then collect an $80 paycheck at the end of the week for my 20 hours of work. It was great, definitely one of those "are they actually paying me to do this?" kind of jobs.

During slow periods, sometimes friends would wander by and we'd shoot the shit for a few hours. I'd trade barbs with my nemesis, Israt, who worked the copy desk on the second floor. He'd call me "Jason," who was a similar-looking dude who briefly worked at my job. I'd correct him and, for the rest of the time I worked there, he'd call me "Mike Jason," possibly out of malice, possibly out of stupidity or lack of giving a fuck. That guy was awful and probably good for another story since a chance encounter with him years later was one of the turning points that got me back into physical fitness. But I digress.

I'd talk to a lot of people to pass the time.

Mostly friends, people I knew outside of the job, other employees. A few girls, but not that many because I was painfully shy back then and would flee screaming from anybody above a certain level of pretty.

My favorite person to chat with was possibly also the most odd. It's been too long and his name has been lost to me in the mists of time, but he was a great guy: a skeletally-thin Seventh Day Adventist who'd worked every university along the east coast, it seemed. His name might have been John but don't quote me on that.

I never did figure out what department he was in, what degrees he had, what, even, he was doing at my university. I'm guessing it was history or comparative religion because that's where the real oddballs wind up in any university. Well, that and pure mathematics or physics. Drama majors will always put up their hands and claim the spotlight at this point, but for my money, the math departments are where the real weirdos live.

He didn't drive a car or even own a bike. Years later, occasionally, I'd still see him walking to and from campus, a cancer-ward, six-packs-a-day thin man with wispy hair marching along with a book bag. Anybody who saw him probably thought he was homeless, which wouldn't be a bad guess. There's really not a whole lot of difference between an associate professor, grad student or the like and a hobo. The insane raving is usually slightly more coherent with homeless people and their crash pads are usually a bit classier, but that's about it.

I don't recall offhand how we met, exactly, but we'd talk through an entire four hour shift sometimes. He was a pretty interesting guy with an unusually deep background in history and philosophy, but he never spoke down to you. If you said something that was obviously wrong, he'd correct you and tell you a story instead and usually by the end of the conversation, you might not exactly agree with him, but you'd respect him for his opinion and see where he was coming from.

I would occasionally miss classes because of our conversations. There were probably people who made a decent living out of smuggling books past the doors while I was engaged in conversation with this tall cartoon-like skeleton-man. They'd see us talking about history, me in my ridiculous red sweater, him correcting my many errors gently in his North Carolina drawl, load up half the Encyclopedia Britannica into a big red wagon and just leave, alarms probably binging merrily away and being ignored.

Anyway. We talked a lot. Interesting guy, great perspective. Even now, twenty years later, I get the occasional knowledge bomb where some offhand comment by him will come to mind, drift about for a few seconds and explode. I wish I could go back in time and chat with him with my current perspective.

One time we were discussing books. I'd just read about Project Gutenberg--this was probably back in '96 when the internet was first becoming a thing. Project Gutenberg was just getting started. They were probably, at that time, just finishing with their first hundred books or so. I thought it was great they were doing this, making books accessible to anybody with a network connection.

John nodded, looked a little amused, and we wound up talking about libraries. He was of the opinion that people tended to fetishize books. Treat them as things to be collected, like awards or badges or whatever, when what was important about them was the knowledge inside. Completely sailed over my head at the time, but years later, when I first started my current path into minimalism, I was mulling over how many, exactly, of my books I wanted to keep. And that conversation came back and I realized that I was treating my books as objects when the truth was, I only cared about the information inside.

Twenty years later, that's a hell of a lot of wind-up. Makes me wonder exactly what other truth-bombs that man laid in my head. I'd like to imagine that he's still alive somewhere out there, wandering the land like Kwai Chang Cane, blowing college students minds.

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