Sunday, May 3, 2009


[This is the first College story.]

Back in college, I knew this girl Mary. We had a weird thing going. Weird. That was one of her favorite words. I can still hear how she drawled out the "e" and that hard "r" in her midwestern accent. It's still with me even though it was a long time ago. Sometimes I say "weird" the way she would say it, but nobody knows that I am imitating somebody when I do it.

I should tell you right off the strangest thing about it. This gets right to the heart of the problem. There was something she did that nobody else ever did to me. The first time I saw Mary on any day, I got a shock. My heart skipped. It sounds like a corny song lyric but it really happened. Like a scare, like hearing an unexpected noise in a dark place. It was a little more happy than that. There she is! I still don't know what the hell that was. It was annoying. Because we didn't really get along.

One day when I was walking on campus between classes I saw Mary coming the other way. She was looking around as she walked and right about when she noticed me she stumbled on an uneven brick in the pavement and dropped the notebooks she was carrying. She stopped still and looked at me. I proceeded to drop my stuff too and looked back. We stood there like that while people walked by between us. Then she shook off the look we were giving each other, acted annoyed, picked up her things, and walked away without a word. That gave me an idea.

The next time I saw her I said we should do it again. We could
compare class schedules and agree on a time that we could just happen to meet— no cell phones in those days— and we could make it more elaborate. An ostensibly chance encounter, some kind of dropping stuff to get attention, some kind of weird interaction, and then, key thing, walk away as if nothing unusual had happened. She gave me The Look and said I was weird. I guess I enjoyed saying things like that, to get a rise out of her. I'm not sure what my motivation was sometimes. Our thing never made a lot of sense.

We worked together in the university library. That's how I met her. I was hired as a student worker, and first day in, I was assigned to do inventory with this girl. It was summer, and Mary was wearing a simple dress and sandals with a lot of straps. She had me at hello. The job was to go off to some section of shelves, and one of us would say call numbers from the shelflist, and the other would say whether the books were there, and they could be checked off on the list. Boring boring. We took turns doing each side of it. I had a nice day.

I learned how to shelve books, and check out books, and all the routine stuff you do in a library. It was a full time job in the summer. Along the way I learned that if Mary and I spent any time talking about things, we would soon reach a point where we had differing opinions, and it would all go downhill. The problem was that Mary was as smart as anything and let you know it, and I have always liked girls like that. It was awful.

Once summer was over, I did evening and weekend hours at the
library, whatever worked around my classes. Mary and I never took a class together, even though we were in the same year. That would have been interesting. I can only imagine what we'd have been like in class discussions. I always thought it was fascinating how much we disagreed, and she didn't.

I worked with Mary every week. I barely remember working with anyone else, but that cannot be right. They only needed two students at a time to run the place. It seems to me now as if we were picking each other's shifts. But maybe it was just that we both worked as many hours as we could, and there were only so many hours. Somehow we spent a lot of time together whether we liked it or not. Even now I can tell you what town Mary grew up in, her little sister's name, and what snack cake she asked for if I ran out to get us something.

The library, no longer a separate entity, was a combination of three small libraries that occupied the fourth floor of the Butler Library building. Its full name was Burgess-Carpenter and Classics. Mike, one of the older student workers, told a few of us one day that nineteenth century Columbia icon, Professor John W Burgess, had believed in the supremacy of the Anglo-Aryan people. The absurdity of this appealed to some of us and we wanted to get the dirt on the others too. Mike went on to become a radical historian and activist. We had a few communists around the place. It was still almost the sixties. Mike was at Columbia in 1968.

We found to our disappointment that George Rice Carpenter, a professor of Rhetoric in the decades around 1900, had been much appreciated by his students, and had written nothing more controversial than textbooks and a few biographies of well-known authors. In the library a handful of old books that no one read still had their original bindings with a bookplate inside the front cover featuring a halftone photograph of Carpenter. I wonder whether any of those are still around.

I was able to find some information on Homer G Classics that no one
else knew about. It's a little hazy to me now but I'll tell you what I can recall. Practically obligated by his name, he became a scholar of Greek and Latin. Like Carpenter he taught generations of students at Columbia. The Classics Library was formed under his guidance. Some say he invented the trot, a book with facing pages of original text and nearly literal translation, with notes, an aid to students, but he could have done no more than popularize it in America ; such things go back centuries. His few publications are even more obscure than Carpenter's. In retirement he finally admitted to a lifelong interest in mechanical engineering, only hinted at in his series of articles on Archimedes that were once in vogue. Manuscripts found after his death suggested that he planned to publish on more modern engineering topics, and possibly had already done so under a pseudonym.

The bunch of us typed up a sheet with brief vitae of the three. Mary
said my work on Classics was ridiculous. I expected nothing less. She never appreciated my writing. I think we conspirators followed up on our plan to make photocopies to distribute at the desk, but I cannot recall whether we did. I don't have one now, but maybe someone reading this does.

Was there anything more boring than doing inventory? Why, yes. There was. Shelf reading. You pull all the book spines to the shelf edge, push the bookends to get all the books standing straight, and while doing this you check that the books are filed in call number order. I shelf-read. Mary shelf-read. We all did. At least sometimes we could beg to work the same bookstack area and be close enough to call out strange titles as we found them and steal glances. There was a copy of Fleurs du Mal that had been rebound with the neatly stamped gold title Mal du Fleurs. Of course we did not bring it back to the office for correction. Mary just sighed deeply the second time I showed it to her. And the third. But this was comedy! With a capital K!

One day when we were not at work, I was in the big reading room attached to the Reference collection, taking notes from encyclopedias for some paper I had to write. I think it was the paper where my topic was the earliest railway. I wonder what class that was. I had discovered that the ancient Greeks built something to carry ships across the Isthmus of Corinth, and it would be the earliest, if you'll count a stone guideway as a railway. I was especially pleased that I had retained enough of my high school Greek to read parts of an article on it in a Greek encyclopedia, which had the longest account I could find. And what a cool bibliography item that was going to make, with the title handwritten in squiggly Greek letters amongst the typing. I was full of myself. (Today you can just Google it and before long you end up with this and this.)

I was writing away when I heard somebody drop something and looked up. Mary was in the doorway from Reference, and she had dropped a fat ringbinder and was now standing there looking at me. I was sitting at a reading table about fifty feet away across the big room. I stood up and brushed my notebook and pens to the floor and looked back at her. About half the students in the room were looking. She left the binder where it fell and took a step toward me, and I started walking toward her.

We kept our eyes locked and walked slowly straight toward each other. What the hell were we going to do when we met in the middle? We had never planned it out. We kept going until we stopped about a foot apart. Mary was as tall as I was, so we were eye to eye. She looked at me ; I looked at her. What was it going to be? She took a breath, pursed her lips and... maybe she meant to blow a sudden puff of air, contemptuously. But I felt spit hit my cheek. I don't know how I kept a straight face, but I paused for control, and spat back at her. Our faces remained expressionless. We both raised our left arms slowly and deliberately wiped the spit from our faces, and flicked it away, still looking in each other's eyes. She waited a beat and then turned her back to me. I turned around too. Glancing down I saw her start to walk away, so I did the same.

When I got back to my seat I bent over to pick up my stuff. I stole a glance toward the door. The walk toward each other had timed it perfectly for the walk back. She was just picking up her binder at the same time. She never looked back at me but just walked out the door. I resumed taking notes. We had gained the attention of the whole room by this time. A few students wandered in and wondered why everyone but me was looking around the room instead of reading.

We never did it again. But that one was good.

And it shows you what our relationship was.

[The next College story is Communists.]

Next time: Communists.

1 comment:

  1. That's it???

    What happened to Mary?

    Did you ever see her again?