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Back to the Future February 25, 2012

Posted by The Typist in je me souviens, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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The campus toward Leon C. Simon was a vast meadow, covered in a cotton blanket of ground fog in which we left a wake as we walk home. As we passed the utility plant known as Stonehenge for the wall of interrupted standing concrete monoliths that surround it The Mad Scotsman would come out. We have no way of knowing if was actually Scottish. That’s just what we called him. We only know that on nights after our class in Twentieth Century poetry, perhaps after a night class of his own, he would play his bagpipes somewhere toward the building that houses the music department.

The meadow of 1978 is now a parking lot to serve the gleaming tower of the new Engineering Building and the campus of Ben Franklin High School. The walk south from the Liberal Arts Building toward St. Anthony Street is a maze of curving sidewalks, concrete plazas and a confusion of new buildings. Some of the sidewalks trace the goat paths students once wore into the grass, while other paths of memory are blocked by berms meant to discourage shortcuts.

I thought the greatest difference in going back to school after thirty years would be the age difference between the other students and myself. When they notice me at all, the conversations are not much different than they might have been decades ago. No one asks me why I am back in school. They bum a cigarette, complain about a disinterested professor, ask after a generic liberal arts class what my major is. In the mirror of their eyes I am as they are, just another student.

The sidewalks are no more full than I remember them but there must be more students or who is populating all of these new buildings? Perhaps they all scurry off to their cars and go somewhere else between classes. I notice the young woman with the interesting tattoos I sit next to in History of New Orleans sometimes scurries off toward her car after class, but I see her later in the new canyon between Liberal Arts and the new Mathematics Building. It has always been a commuter campus but other than the mobs in the lunch lines in the University Center I don’t know where they all are between classes.

The students and professors mostly accept me. I am not the only older student in the room. I am most unsettled by the new geography and I find myself spending time between classes in familiar haunts: the second floor of the UC, the patio in the center of the LA building, the library. The cafe I knew as The Cove is now The Sandbar, and the angular concrete walls that once flanked the entrance are gone, remembered only in a small display in the library lobby. I look for myself or someone I knew in the photographs but don’t find them.

The entry to The Sandbar is now a plaza with fountains and gas-fueled, lava-rock braziers amid the metal cafe tables. I avoid the building, mostly because I can’t stand to eat my homemade sandwich in a room filled with people eating Popeye’s Friend Chicking, one of the half-dozen fast food outlets that have moved on campus to complete with the cafeteria and the original Sandbar the counter service that was once the only choices.

I think about those long gone concrete walls at The Sandbar, and the concrete monoliths of the physical plant. I recently learned that Curtis and Davis, the architectural firm where my father spent most of his career, laid out the original plan for the campus in the early 1960s when it was opened. In the long-gone, berm-flanked concrete walls that gave to us–the second generation after The Bomb–the sensation of entering a fallout shelter, and in the monoliths as the center of campus, I see a touch of functional Brutalism that marked the work of Curtis and Davis. None of the people going in and out of the cafe or toward their cars remember the Rivergate or the other studies in undulating cement and sand in their french curve glory that marked the work my father did.

Do these children even know what a French curve is, or how to operate a slide rule? Everyone seems to have a tablet computer or a tiny netbook computer, and their backpacks are small. My messenger bag straings my back as I groan under the weight of the Riverside Chaucer and another class’ thick stack of tabbed printouts that fill a once inch binder. I have tried both the pack pack and shoulder slung arrangements and neither spares my back. So much paper, unless we have lately slung a case of copier paper we forget how much it weighs until you fill your bag with a ream of it. My son mocks me because I dutifully fill in three-by-five cards before a biology test. Why don’t you use Quizlet online, he asks? I tell him writing for me is a mnemonic aid, even while every professor posts Power Point slides of their lectures on the Moodle website I could just as easily study from.

Amid all this technology (and I have worked in IT. I am no luddite) I think I find comfort in a stack of blue-lined cards, a prop to help me adjust. Scantrons, the little sheets of circles to be colored in with a brace of No. 2 pencils, I remember only from scholastic aptitude tests, not classes. I find some comfort to see the stacks of blue books in the book store, and wonder if I can still manage to fill one legibly with my bad handwriting, a task that thirty years ago required a concerted effort but which in retrospect I think required me to slow down and focus on what I was writing.

I no longer walk out of my last class of the day in a direct line toward Leon C. Simon and St. Anthony. I could not if I wished to, but would have to thread the maze of new buildings. I left my car in that direction, not far from my old apartment at 6219 Wadsworth Street, but my son has taken it to NOCCA. Thirty years go I parked for free in the lot of the abandoned Pontchartrain Beach amusement park, but that is also gone, replaced by a university-affiliated technology park. I head instead for the familiar brick bus shelter across the empty approximation of a quadrangle north of the library to catch my bus home, glad to sling my messenger bag full of books (how can the onion skin of the thick Chaucer weigh so much?) onto the concrete benches.

I will probably drop my one night class when I return to work part-time. Moloch regrets their decision, and wants me back to help. I wish I could keep that class. I know the Mad Scotsman is long gone, but I often hear music students practicing in the new amphitheater behind the bus top. I long to walk some night through the swirling ground fog to meet my ride home, to the strains of some powerful instrument–a tenor saxophone perhaps–to sing me home through the dark.


1. Ernest Winters - February 25, 2012

Well at least you are out there swinging! Best of luck to you!


2. Sam - February 29, 2012

Beautiful piece. I tend to write notes out as well, although I’m finding that typing them is a worthy replacement for my memory. Just seeing the words helps, always has. I used to take such good notes, I sold them to other students and paid for my lunches that way: they paid for the nickel a page copy cost plus 2 bucks a page to me. Worked out well. My notes were impeccable.

As for the backpack vs messenger bag thing: I was just telling someone this a few weeks ago. I had gone to an Army surplus store and bought a huge WW2 vintage backpack. This thing was enormous. I was delighted as I could forego a purse AND backpack. I could put a jacket, sweater, books, personal items, everything I needed in that thing. However, my shoulder and back started hurting as I walked across the huge SF City College parking lot. I weighed the thing, and with my penchant for overly researching whatever topic I was working on, I had filled the thing with my text books, notebooks and all the wonderful books I’d gotten from the stacks. It weighed over 100 lbs. I realized that just cuz it COULD hold all that, it wasn’t necessarily the best idea.

Great piece. Really lovely. And onionskin weighs a lot because they put in so damn many pages.


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