Living in a college town has always seemed to be one of the more subtle and better-natured forms of masochism. In its positive and lighter sense this desire for pain manifests itself in the form of cheap, old movies, free umbrellas and unmatched gloves in any lost-and-found worth finding, saunas for the Nordics, free toilet paper for the light-fingered, and the Perkins Library world famous collection of necrobilia on the Dukes of Durham. Still, there is a darker side and while we all writhe to the beat of a different whip, it seems to have something to do with the sweet nausea of deja vu. Observing the ashen complexions as students stumble out from the psychic numbness of a particularly deadly session causes my own mind to drift gently back to my early college days at the University of Massachusetts. As a lower, middle-class haven from blue-collar backgrounds and futures it is, no doubt, a way of life so alien I will have to explain.
Imagine square mile after mile of flat, fertile soil ringed by the first ripples of mountains and given over to both the growing of tobacco and children who accept tobacco-growing as a worthwhile preoccupation. Blessed with geo- and demographics of that sort, the pervading pall of boredom and ennui that resulted was as natural as plant smut. Situated in the center of this lush wasteland, symbolically, if not in fact, was the most hideous collection of architectural aberrations ever spawned. A veritable monument to the marriage of nepotism and political patronage, U of M blossomed forth from a tiny cowpat state agricultural school to become the mighty repository of group consensus it is today. Imagine a year-round Republican convention lacking the good breeding to move every fourth year.
Massachusetts legislators, shrewd Yankee traders with wasp names like Volpe and Flynn, got exactly what they bid the state into debt for, a safe vacuum in which to inter the legion of small-time hoodlums, drug-store Indian act-alikes and ethnic minority subversive cum Sacco-Vanzetti look-alikes that infested the Commonwealth. Parents themselves (although, it is often asserted, many lacking parentage), they full well knew that these dreadful kinden, while no more or less mindless than in infancy, were several times larger, and, with bloodstreams percolating with the gland-juices of puberty, much more dangerous. So they farmed them out to the sticks for four years, college remaining a relatively cheap and honorable alternative to the state penitentiary. In short, let them do their dirty in someone else’s back yard.
Which, through a gentle tugging of the imagination, brings the matter round to Durham and why the larvae of upper, middle-class America end up at Duke, the par 4 with trees and a quad-dog-leg to the right of the academic country club. More to the point, why, once here and given the option of any number of beer joints, perhaps beginning and ending with the wet, flatulent raspberry called the Town Hall, do so many end up frequenting the Somethyme Restaurant?
Surely Mom and Dad Warbucks would belch forth corporate smoke if they knew that instead of engaging in the pretzel-pizza-pabst heave contests for distance and style, their homunculi were eating good food and conversing in near proximity to, and sometimes with, those hirsute relics that Spiro my Hero took such deadly aim at. Strangely, probably due to the permissiveness that pervades our land and weakens its fabric as do moths bellying up to a good Republican cloth coat, they do not. Homecoming Week finds a silver-maned parade of right honorables patiently awaiting the chance to sink their splendidly capped teeth into, gad — a beanburger. The cash register sings a happy song and money finds its way into the pockets of the employees who otherwise would be blood-sucking the juices out of pop’s corporate slush fund in the form of welfare checks. “Soybeans are good for your karma, dad,” and having sent his child to partake of the academic teat he is willing to put up with occasional bouts of colic.
What is going on? When I was a lad, testosterone just beginning to tickle my nether regions, the meeting of student and townie was a violent affair and usually confined to the parking lot of the local A & P. There, long into the night, stanza after stanza of the “Anvil Chorus” rung forth as tire iron and T square resounded off skull; local turkey and the flower of academia debating the subtle nuances of hay hook to beaker acid. Ah, sweet buzzard of youth, but who has time for the prattlings of an old man? To the present.
Allowing that driving ones Trans Am across town to enjoy a repast of organic veggies makes for a curious combination, then it is conceded that coaxing ones beat-up Volvo for the same purpose is but slightly less so. See? Reconciliation of personal vulgarity. Somethyme, in its two years, has tamed more than a few.
Owned by Dookie alumni and staffed by various ne’er-do-wells not given to depilitating faces, legs or pits, they have created an alternative to working in or eating at any of the numerous golden arches that dot the fair burg like carbuncles. More than that they have taken the gatherings of the tribes I so lamely remember out of the city parking lots, leaving those boulevards safe for the peddling of glassine bags and funny-lookin’ cigarettes.
They have even taken your razor cut and my ponytail and put them within striking range at the same table during rush hour. Such an arrested sense of humor should be working at the establishment across the street.
What are we to do? We have to talk, if only to reaffirm our secret suspicions that the other is decidedly prehensile. And are pleasantly pleased with our venture when we learn that the other is not, at least more so than suspected. By the end of such an encounter, liberally — no, to show my spirit, let us say, conservatively — oiled on wine unsullied by scab labor, I am willing to tempt the gods of ozone and risk skin cancer to concede you the right to psychic security that de-odorized armpits seem to offer. You, magnanimous to a fault, are delighted that I have entered the senile playgrounds of my second childhood while still young enough to enjoy it.