‘The first windstorm, and they blow right over. It’s like the roots are in nothing. Just made up, artificial landscape.’ This from Bruce, fellow first-year university student, speaking of the effects of desert breezes on recently planted saplings at the University of California, Riverside. He had a point, and I knew what he meant, but something in his rancor struck me personally. It may have been artificial, Southern California, but it was home. We were either walking somewhere, or Bruce had been walking somewhere. But I must have seen the same thing, more or less, young trees fresh from the nursery, blown over. Bruce, a graduate of Berkeley High, found Riverside unpleasantly new, insubstantial and deserving of the earliest possible exit. Still, there was a war on. There was a draft. One had to be careful about exit strategies. One had to be careful period.
Within a year and a half I would come around to Bruce’s point of view, at least regarding an exit from Riverside to Berkeley. But not now. For the time being I was making friends. Making women was constantly on my mind, but how to achieve this eluded me. I wanted to be liked, included, a friend. I wanted to keep up with courses enough not to be drafted. It did not matter all that much what I studied. This was people time.
Bruce shouldn’t have wasted his breath on the campus landscapers’ foolish choice of trees. Just check out the residence halls. Was mine called Aberdeen Hall? That seems right. I know that the women were housed in Lothian Hall, or some of them. Why the Scottish names? Actually, the question barely occurred to me. The campus motif, invented by someone or other, was ‘the Highlands.’ The sports teams, perhaps just the football team, was ‘the Highlanders.’ I had neither traveled enough, nor cared enough, to put two and two together and consider that the Upper Sonoran transition zone occupied by the campus was a hell of a long way from the Firth of Forth. The annual rainfall was probably not much more than 10 or 12 inches.
Not only was the natural landscape brown and baked, but its features bore authentic desert names. Box Springs Mountain comprised the actual ‘highlands’ that loomed above the campus and tilted its acreage gently upward. I have no idea how the name arose. The mountain in no way resembled a box spring. More likely, someone dumped a box spring on one of its slopes. Could there have been a natural spring, water oozing out of something box shaped? Actually, there was. Teamsters found some watering hole up there, put a wooden box around the thing, and so named the mountain. But this is today’s information from the web. Then, the mountain and its name both seemed irrelevant. Which in retrospect is too bad. Anything that is more than 3000 feet high deserves respect. I probably dismissed it for the ‘Big C’ on the campus side of the mountain below the summit, ugly University-of-California braggadocio. Ah, the intolerance of callow youth.
It was actually quite pleasant to be out of my father’s house and living with students. But the university was an institution, and so deserved a certain dose of contempt. Not to mention rebellion. This took infinite forms. Bob, one of my dorm buddies, had a dramatic way of sneezing and feigning surprise as he opened his hand to reveal a mass of the nightly green Jell-O. I found a way of tormenting the Resident Assistant assigned to my floor, mostly through attitude. It didn’t take much to annoy him. Laughing at the wrong things. Being too cynical, a penchant often communicated by the way I rolled my eyes during the occasional floor meeting. Late adolescent impatience with rules and orderliness, this wasn’t much of a rebellion, but for now, it was all I could muster.
My residence halls, whatever they were called, funneled occupants through a lobby, then sent them up opposite hallways. Here, on opposite sides of the split, is where the residents lived. The latter were middle-aged, gray-haired women. Each had an apartment. In the evenings, the resident for my dormitory block often had her door open. She sat watching television, never looking terribly involved, tacitly suggesting that one might enter and join her. The residents could occasionally be glimpsed in the cafeteria, maneuvering trays, sitting together at the same table. Were there two of them or four? I think four. Their function was unclear. But in retrospect it was more than that. It was half intriguing, half disturbing.
I gave it a wide berth, the open door where the little old lady sat before her television as students wandered to and from their rooms. Even saying hello smacked of…well, it was hard to say. Kissing up to old women? Hanging out with grandmothers? I was 18 years old, after all, and striving for cool. I mean by the end of my first year I was actually smoking dope. And how cool was that? Old ladies, my God. They had been planted there much like the trees from another ecosystem. Nothing to do but breeze by and mentally puzzle over the phenomenon of old women supposedly overseeing hundreds of undergraduate guys. If that was what they did. What did they do? I mean, you could see them, sometimes laden with a vast keyring, wandering to and from the front desk. In fact, they were sometimes behind the lobby’s front desk, not really servicing the counter, but doing some sort of work in the background. Whatever.
The Riverside campus was miles from the town. And the town was miles from anything very interesting. Aside from a couple of cinemas, the town of Riverside offered very little to students. So life focused on the campus and events around it. And sometimes that focus got blurred. Which is to say, there wasn’t always much to do. I recall wandering home one night from hanging out at The Barn, an older woodsy building which has cousins at other western campuses. This particular barn serving as a hamburger source during the day, an attempted coffee house in the evenings. The quasi-bohemian guitar strummings were the object of much eye rolling among my crowd. Still, The Barn wasn’t to be denounced too strenuously in view of the alternatives. Of which there were none. And on one particular night I even found the place closed. My friends were…where? Was there a party I didn’t know about? Something in one of the off-campus neighborhoods? I set out across the campus, heading back to the only logical destination. My dorm room. The circular drive in front of the residence halls beckoned like a hotel, bright lights, cars coming and going. It all seemed sad.
So did the graduate student manning the front desk. He was reading and receptioning at the same time. The sign with movable plastic letters now and then announcing a change in mealtimes or a plumbing repair…was blank. There was no news. There was no reason to linger. I headed up the hallway and saw the usual tableau, the old woman-resident with her door open watching television. ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘would you like to come in?’
What had I done? Stared her way a little too long. And now I was stuck, wandering in across her threshold to an empty chair, beside her in a small living room. Revealing that the patio area I had noticed between the residence blocks was hers. The layout of everything being clearer, but my presence even more uncomfortable. I sat down. She was watching Lawrence Welk. Wonderful, wonderful. She smiled at me. The idea, apparently well practiced, was that she w
as watching TV, yet she wasn’t. Would I like a sweet? She handed me a bowl. I took a chocolate. I thanked her. What on earth was I doing here? Why wasn’t I out shtupping women? Maybe I was really meant to be here, making nicey nice with someone old and non-shtupable. Dry as crêpe paper. She smiled at me again. Normally not at a loss for conversation, something about this situation silenced me completely. What if someone walking down the corridor saw me in here hanging out with this old lady? I had to get out. Good night, I said, not waiting for her reply. Had I hurt her feelings? I wondered about this, leaping up the stairs to the third floor. Should I wonder about it? Was I supposed to take care of her? Or she of me? When would I have a life? And if it was a life, how would I know?