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August 29, 2011 - 2:00pm


The start of classes on this campus means tens of thousands more people in town and much social confusion. Foot, bike, skateboard, scooter, and car traffic is both swarming and disorganized enough to be dangerous. That young driver down from Winnetka has been taught she can’t let pedestrians bluff her; those students talking excitedly as they saunter across the street aren’t about to be intimidated by dad’s Matador Red, two-ton, Lexus SUV. It’s the principle of the thing.

The annual infusion of students to any college town provides literal rejuvenation, “renewal of youth,” and it’s nice to think that university employees—like drill sergeants, McDonald’s store managers, and others who work with those eternally 18-22 years old—might stay mentally young as a result. The reality is that many who grow physically old serving students also get crotchety at their return.

My acquaintance Larry, who works at another Big Tin school, was incensed enough yesterday by an accumulation of rude behaviors that he called me to complain. He’d been standing in line at a supermarket near campus, waiting to pay for his Snickers bars, I guess, when an undergrad cut in line in front of him and leaned too close to pick up a shopping basket at Larry’s feet.

“I said loudly, right in his ear, ‘Excuse me!’” Larry told me. “He didn’t even acknowledge he’d heard me, let alone offer an apology. He got his basket and began to walk away, and then I saw he had a hint of a grin. So I shouted, ‘Well, excuse you!’”

“Good one,” I said.

“What?” Larry demanded. “Their parents don’t teach them manners, and they’re going to need to know how to co-exist with others in a civilized society. I was giving him something valuable,” he said pedagogically. “It doesn’t matter to me, but it’s the principle, you know?”

There’s been a lot of sudden shouting here too, both angry and joyful, that won’t happen after everyone’s settled into routines. A girl sat on the curb outside her dorm, weeping into her cell phone; I was worried, but judging by her words she was yelling at her boyfriend, who’d been left behind at home only 24 hours earlier and was already suspicious she’d met someone else. College makes a palimpsest of students’ former lives, and many will be overwritten entirely.

But it’s not the increased population and disrupted social patterns, the noise, rudeness and upset that get me every fall, since I can avoid most of those if I try. What takes me by surprise is the enormous quantity of junk and trash that emerges, material evidence of sudden change on the American landscape, which I expect only at the end of spring semesters. I don’t know if large numbers of students stay in their apartments through the summer, or if landlords leave things festering inside until leases are up at the end of August, but the old houses near campus look as if they’ve been turned inside-out, and their open doors and windows perfume the town with dankness and rot. The Victorian painted ladies start to look like Baby Jane instead.

The curbs are lined with pee-stained twin mattresses, broken bookshelves, desks, and other particleboard disposable furniture, kitchen chairs, chunks and crumbs of styrofoam, a rusty grill without a handle. Broken window panes, a half-sheet of drywall with hammer holes punched into it, old shoes singly and in pairs, a toilet that’s been dethroned. The junk rolls back from the street in piled-up waves, and flattens into the lawns like surf on a beach. Turkey vultures, new to our area, soar at treetop, riding thermals on six-foot wings and hoping to take a closer look. Squirrels, sated with crusts and rotten fruit, lie flattened on their bellies on low branches and fences with disturbing come-hither looks.

Maybe composting, rather than rejuvenation, is the right word, the piling-up of waste in order to start anew. Cardboard packing boxes from move-in also lie there at the curb and next to dumpsters, flattened in neat stacks, along with takeout boxes from the pizza it took to get them unpacked. New appliance boxes for a Cuckoo rice cooker, a Target floor lamp, a Pharaoh’s Bong. Used condoms and crushed beer cans. The unwrapped news of the day.

I stopped by the foreign language building on Thursday to see a friend and was trapped for nearly two hours by a tropical downpour. We’d been a long time without rain; even the hostas around the building were drooping and dusty. When I was finally able to leave, water was still pouring through overhead cracks in the long plywood tunnels meant to shield students at the doors from construction debris. Storm drains had been overwhelmed, the streets were flooded, and all the junk and garbage on the curbs was sodden and melting. Added to it now were broken branches and the high-water-mark jetsam of broken walnut shells, twigs, clumps of oak leaves that were flimsy squirrel nests, bottle caps, pieces of roofing shingles, student schedules, campus maps. Nature had provided the cleansing rain, but it would take man to clean up man’s mess.

Saturday it was fine and clear, and my family was finally able to go flying with a friend who owns a small plane he keeps in a hanger outside the next small town over. As the sun rose, thermals developed over the quilt of corn and soybeans, and the flights got progressively hotter and bumpier but were thrilling. We flew into airspace over our own town and got permission to orbit the quad and then our house so the kids could tell their friends. Things looked a lot less cluttered from 2400 feet.

On the return to the country airfield I was offered the stick for a minute, my first time at the controls of an airplane. I found it was much like piloting a boat; you have to look off in the distance to gauge your actual course since the sensations of movement are misleading. I aimed for a water tower on the horizon that stood near the landing strip but kept overcorrecting one way then the other, making the Piper yaw lightly back and forth, and I’d have to learn to maintain altitude another day. My younger son was starting to look a little queasy in the backseat, but I was rejuvenated; life at that moment was too ethereal to worry about the principles of the university town receding behind us in the haze.


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