Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Science, Everything is Automatic


more science

During my first consignment to Georgia State University as an M.F.A. student three years ago, my stroll from parking garage to class provided a scenic tour of two empty lots strewn with skull-sized chunks of broken concrete. From one of these has since evolved a ginormous glass-and-metal structure called the Science Building. I’m sure it has a prettier name than than, but as an aside, I’m amused by students commonly referring to campus buildings by their disciplines without the definitive article—as in “Where are you going next?” “Oh, I’m headed to Science,” or “I’m on my way to Law.” I most envy the ones who get to say “I have a class in Recreation.”

The designers of the science building conceptualized their work in the contemporary style, where all the insides are visible from the outside. Glass and metal, sharp angles and inverted shapes, all emphasize the nasty bits like foil-wrapped duct work and gray industrial boxes with blinky lights on them. It’s like seeing the black lines and garter straps of a hard-edged German streetwalker. I see London, I see France, I see Science’s underpants.

I followed a group of students into the ground-floor lobby, which looks like something out of a Bruce Willis movie. A young black kid sat at a big desk watching a bazillion security camera scenes and munching on a chicken biscuit—completely unaware that by scene two he’d be trying to shoot his way out of a broken elevator. One set of elevators sat behind a heavily guarded cardkey swipe entrance; elevators for Real Scientists, I imagine. These lifts must lead to the floor where they are decoding the gene marker for Lady Gaga appreciation.

Because I am turning into my mother, the first thing I thought when I entered this place I’d never been before was “oh, I have to pee.” I followed a student onto one of the commoners’ elevators. She looked at me and said “Three?” I said “yes,” like of course three—who wouldn’t be going to the third floor? All the cool kids go to Three. We stepped off on what was apparently the Chemistry floor (failed it in high school, even failed at cheating at it in high school) and I wandered around looking for a spot to mark.

The bathrooms in Science offer water-saving, energy-saving, automatic everything. This means the toilets automatically and repeatedly flush with the motion-sensitivity skills of a trained ninja. The soap dispensers automatically ignore you. The sinks automatically start to dribble a weak stream when you have finally given up waving your hands around in the invisible water like a crazy person. The dryers automatically shoot out a blast of air so violent it’s like drying your hands under the hot end of a shuttle launch.

Campus rumors hint at a construction of a Waffle House on the ground floor of this new building. Interesting, if true. In the meantime, Science continues to be a friend of a friend for me—we’re not entirely comfortable around each other. I’ll nod as I stroll by on my way to Literature.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Lawyers Get Free Pizza

Overheard in the law building on the first day of classes:

--Where'd you park?

--Over by that building with the gold dome.

--You mean the Capitol building?

--Dude, we have a Capitol building?

--Not GSU. It's like for the state.


--What class've you got next?

--Wrongful Convictions.

--Man, isn't that sad?

--Yeah, I might drop.


In the basement floor of the law school building, all the classroom doors are wood-paneled. Gold bars function as doorknobs, and students reach and yank the doors back with the same motion as starting a lawnmower. They must be heavy. All the halls are carpeted, muffling the click and clack of young women's heels. The students are in what we used to call "church clothes," although for them I guess it would be "I might have a job in a law office someday" clothes. They're still learning, clearly. The patent leather pumps show scuff marks; one man's pair of faded khakis sports a broken belt loop in the back.

Why do they get pizza? The future of our legal set stands around in the lobby, greeting each other with faux-formal handshakes and comparing schedules. One haggard looking administrative type person carts in stacks of pizza boxes, sets them on a folding table. The legal set is learning to be served by a staff of ignorable underlings. The room reeks of projected confidence and pepperoni.

Oldest Living Graduate Student Tells All

It only took three years of regular student loan payments and career instability to get me back on I-75 twice a week. That's right—I'm back in HotLanta, making that three block trek up the littered sidewalk from the parking garage to the old General Classroom Building that sits on the corner of Decatur and Central Ave with as much grace as a street worn and city wise homeless woman. It's Ph.D time, people.

You know I love school, dear reader; I love notebooks and colored pens and good handwriting days and class discussions so captivating that you leave as a group and move down the hall jammering on with some idea before any one of you realizes you're not all going the same direction, and there's an awkward laugh, and a "okay, see you next week." I love the deep, dark stacks of the back worlds of the library; books you have to tug at a little harder because they've been left on the shelf so long. I love undergraduates, with their student activities and impromptu games and confusion over how to "make it print" in the computer center.

I also love poking fun of all these things. So here we go.

For my first day, I decided to embark on this new investigation of the campus. Starting with the law school, I plan to hang out in each division of the university while I kill time between my own classes. I never got to know the rest of the campus last time I was at GSU, and I'm curious. Separation of the disciplines is a relatively new phenomenon; back in the day you just learned everything—science, math, Latin and Greek, etc. I'm curious about scienceland and businessworld—what other beings inhabit the halls of these strange planets? What separates them from my familiar literature geeks? Can I blend into these other environments, or is there some outward expression of my own literature-ness of which I am unaware?

I come back to these halls more jaded, with more to lose, and more dedicated than before. And my somewhat playful trek among other colleges only strengthens my commitment to my own discipline. Literature is the only discipline to study all disciplines—straightforward math abstracted in a poem, real science explored in a fictional world, the plot of history and the characters of law.

Speaking of characters…well, just keep checking back in.

Meet Walt

Check out this joker.

He’s got his brown corduroy jeans that for him qualify as “skinny jeans,” only a closer investigation reveals that they are only skin tight on him because they are at least two sizes too small —a thin crease line of a former hem circles his lower calf. Sitting in the classic angst pose of an elderly woman with severe spine curvature, his undersized gray shirt occasionally rides up three or four notches on his back; vertebrae punch his unsunned skin like childs’ fists. Under his wool driving cap we can imagine hair smooshed with product, made to look unwashed and carefully unconcerned. He aims for his look to project some state of maturation beyond the false Western notions of appearance and conformist society. Instead, he looks like a boy sent out by himself to the library, whose mom tousled his hair and teased him just this morning as he slurped at his bowl of cereal.

And wouldn’t his mom be so disappointed to catch him smoking? His Swisher Sweet cigarillo smoke wafts back towards his face and his eyes water. It could be grape flavored (they sell those), but grape may be too mainstream for our dear individualist. I bet it’s peach—his homage to a local industry and not a flavor commonly found in bubble gum. Peach smacks of more mature tastes.

And what of the book? I bet you can guess.

That’s right. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Democratic ideals, rebellion from the core of stifling society’s expectations, flirtation with homoeroticism and some lines about nature and shit, all wrapped up in a paperback edition with waterstains and a missing front cover, pointedly demonstrating the owner’s commitment to used book stores over fascist chains.

While he uses his props, the book and the little cigar, other undergrads migrate around the GSU courtyard in downtown Atlanta with their own sets of props: cell phones, laptops, plastic bottles of Coke or Dasani (never Pepsi—we’re within a mile of World of Coke). Girls with the thinnest of straps on tank tops or flip flops catch our boy’s eye and he takes a long drag, then returns to the same page he’s been reading for ten minutes. Overhead, on the building across the street, a crew of window washers works their pulley system of buckets and brushes up and down, yelling back and forth to the crew on the ground, working men sounding their own barbaric yawps.