My ability to get my required work done still sucked pretty hard because of my idiotic break-up, thoughts of that woman always distracting me, but I was pretty sure I had found some kind of purpose with the whole grad school idea taking root, and I mean, this Ex-girlfriend problem had to end sometime, right? Well, that’s what I’d heard, anyway. So I plowed on.
One of the courses I wanted was the 19th-Century British novel. Two things happened to me in that class. First up was meeting a professor who would prove to be one of the smartest and most entertaining I’d ever had.
Dr. Carmen, also a University of Wisconsin Ph.D., will always stand in my memory as the teacher who probably best mirrored my own sense of humor. A little wry. Somewhat dry. Leaning a bit toward the dark side.
The very first day when he broke down the history of the novel in English, including many Americans, he cracked me up pretty much all the way through. The comment I remember best all the way up until this day went something like, “It’s such a shame that Frank Norris died young, when you wish he’d written more, and then you have someone like Theodore Dreiser, who lived way too long.” So that’s the way the semester was going to go. Hey, anything to cheer me up.
The other thing that happened was that I met an M.A. candidate, Kelvin Masuno. As it would turn out, he – and his wife – and I would all head for Madison, he for his Ph.D. and I for my M.A. But more about them later.
Having decided to pursue my love of 18th-Century British literature at the next level, and because I had developed an interest in philosophy, I decided to try a British Empiricism course. I would take on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume in order to get a better grasp on the intellectual pulse of the day.
I think I’ve mentioned that smoking in class was still allowed in those days, although the transition to no smoking was moving on apace. I remember this classroom vividly. It was small, with five closely packed rows of chair-desks. On the floor, a line of wide masking tape ran all the way from one side of the room to the other, separating the last row from the other four. Handwritten along the tape, in black marsh pen, were the words
SMOKING ONLY ALLOWED IN LAST ROW
This was painstakingly printed over and over again along the full length of the tape. I could imagine someone, probably a pissed off custodian, carefully executing this project. There were also empty tuna can ashtrays on every one of the desks in this last row, these most assuredly placed by some pissed off custodian who had to deal with butts scattered helter-skelter and heel-ground into the linoleum. Sadly, by about the third week of class, the masking tape border wall had been pretty much obliterated by human and desk feet, but by then all of us smokers had been trained to dwell, Grendel-like, only in the shadows of the final row.
By the way, I hereby offer my most sincere apology to everyone in every class where I ever smoked. Thinking about it now, we were subjecting non-smokers to hideous classroom conditions, and while smoking may have in some way helped us grasp all the fine points of classroom ruminations, I’m sure the non-smokers were living an absolute hell, and I’m so sorry that I made it much harder, I’m sure, for them to learn.
There was this one class I took, I forget which, but it was held in a medium-sized auditorium in a building that no longer exists. This building had already moved into the transition stage to non-smoking, and posted just below all the air-conditioning exhaust vents – for some reason they were built into the wall rather than the ceiling – was a little sign. It said
MY APOLOGIES, BUT I’M UNABLE TO FULLY EXHAUST SMOKE OF ANY KIND. THANK YOU FOR YOUR UNDERSTANDING AND KOKUA
A bit esoteric, but I think, since we were all college students, we got the point.
The first day of class, the professor launched into the rules and regs as outlined on the syllabus, and at one point he stopped, pulled a cigar out of his shirt pocket, and proceeded to light up.
From somewhere far in the back, some brave small voice spoke out: “Excuse me, Sir, but do you see those signs by all the exhaust vents? What they mean is that there’s no smoking in here.”
The fluorescent light shining on the professor’s glasses as he stopped puffing and stared into the back obscured his eyes, but his tone was unmistakable: “Yes, thank you, I do happen to know what they mean. My apologies to the exhaust vents.”
The way he said it and if looks could kill. Ho, man, his voice cut like Death’s scythe through the place. There was not a peep more from the back, and the place proceeded to fill up with smoke. A few of the students joined him. Very shortly we all found out that the exhaust vents did not lie. By the time we left that day, we were barely able to read the chalkboard for the dense haze that hung in the room. Interestingly, that professor never smoked again in class, and neither did any of the students, all of us having caught the way the wind blew.
But back to my philosophy class. This prof was a minor laugh riot as well. Dr. Clifford, a visiting prof from San Francisco State, was small of stature. He reminded me of a kind of jolly little elf. He was always smiling, and he never lacked for a good joke. If you’re at all familiar with Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, you will appreciate how important having a sense of humor can be when you come up against the daunting density of those weighty minds, and Dr. Clifford was the perfect man to tackle this trio, always poking fun at the seriousness of some of their pronouncements, ever ready with a quip to wake the dead asleep in class. These were the non-smokers. We smokers — there were two of us — had to be wide-eyed all the while, no matter how ponderous the material, so as not to set the classroom afire.
Somewhere near the middle of the semester, Dr. Clifford came bouncing into class and said, “Guess what? I just received a letter from one of my Ph.D. students back home. He wrote his dissertation on Hume. He just got a job. He’s been hired to mow the grass in Golden Gate Park. So you see? You definitely can get a job with a Ph.D. in the humanities.”
Actually, you know, this was kind of depressing, probably even for him, but he laughed so much about it we did too.
As I say, there were only two of us, consigned to the last row in this class, both trying our best not to exhale plumes of smoke that could easily hit the front chalkboard were we not so polite as to carefully aim at the open windows along the side wall. It was this strategy that bought us to sit next to each other, holding down the two seats closest to the windows. We got to know each other quickly, and after only maybe two weeks into the class, he asked me and two of the non-smokers who sat right in front of us, if we’d like to form a study group.
Now I’m not big on study groups. Most of the ones I’ve joined have had less to do with studying than with socializing. And someone always ends up doing the bulk of the work. My idea of a study group is the one you see in The Paper Chase, where these Harvard wannabe lawyers, the ones who succeed, study as if their lives depended on it, in my mind sweating blood over the prep for each group session. And everyone contributes, damn it.
So I gave a shaky yes to the idea of a group, but as always when that suggestion came up, I was skeptical. The other two also agreed.
“Can all of you meet right after class?” he asked. We could. “Does meeting over beers at the Campus Center work for all of you?”
Oh crap, I thought, this is going to turn out to be one of those damn parties. But I walked with the three of them to the meeting place. And hey, he bought the first pitcher of beer. So I decided I’d at least give it a session or two.