Ode to Sheila

Stephen G. Bloom on his mystical encounter with the most powerful person on his campus.

March 16, 2005

I've been waiting forever for Sheila to call. I've never met her, but Sheila's the most powerful person at the university where I work. She is to the university president what Stanley Fish is to an adjunct rhetoric instructor with a basement office outside a Dumpster.

We at the University of Iowa pray to Sheila the Almighty daily. Tenure might protect us in the classroom, but outside we are vulnerable to all kinds of calamity. That's where Sheila comes in.

My current ordeal began when my workplace, the journalism school, moved to a new building. For six years, the school had been housed in a termite-infested dungeon where the closest bathroom was two floors down.  I knew the elevator repairman by name. Winged creatures of many varieties took refuge in my office, including a bat that did not leave.

The only good thing about the old journalism building was its parking lot. I had a spot 100 feet from the basement door.

Sheila, you may have guessed, is the parking-lot-assignment queen at the university, which, despite what readers in Chicago or Los Angeles might think, is not located in a cornfield. Parking here, as at Loyola and Harvard and Wayne State, is as sought-after as 50-yard-line seats at the Iowa-Michigan game.

But the new journalism building is across campus, for God's sake! And a parking lot spot anywhere near the new building takes a professor emeritus to die. Stories circulate that faculty members have resorted to sending Hermes scarves and Stuart Weitzman pumps to Sheila as inducements to bump up their names on the waiting list. I like to think that Sheila is beyond such enticements, though.  When you're as powerful as she is, what tangible item could be so enticing?

Lot 3 is the sought-after prize for hundreds of my colleagues. So valuable is the slotted real estate in Lot 3 that entry privileges come with a gate. Occupants used to use an actual key to get in, but as a nod to the computer age, now they get those magical cards that, waved in front of a sensor, cause the gate to rise. The thought of swinging my mud-splotched chariot toward the gate, which would majestically rise as I cruise to a coveted stall, is nirvana.

Moving up on the wait list for Lot 3 is determined by a logarithmic formula developed by former cryptographers for the OSS. It's based on a complex formula of logarithms that include multiple determinates, including the number of years at the university and whether you are staff or faculty. In a blow to academic elitism, openings are alternated between staff and faculty; faculty rank has nothing to do with the selection process.

So what did I have to lose?  Everyone who wins at Powerball buys a lottery ticket however small the odds of getting all five numbers. Same with the track. So, I completed the on-line application form for Lot 3, hoping like the guys at OTB hope that their horses will win the trifecta.

So it'd cost me $40 a month. At least when I speak up at faculty senate meetings, my colleagues would listen.

One recent day, as I trekked toward my distant lot braving gusting winds, I wondered how many years it would take before I truly arrived. It is important to note that I tried not to personalize resentment toward Sheila. Bad karma does not move your name up the list.

When I checked my office phone messages and email, there were the usual urgent messages: "I need a signed ad slip for Advanced Forms of Deconstruction and if I don't get in, I'm going to the dean"; "The scholarship committee will not meet as planned"; "Catalogue copy for the new minor in mass communications was due today, so where is it, bozo?"

I was about to hang up, when the machine indicated there was one last message. Like a shaft of golden light from the heavens, it was Sheila's voice, as dulcet-sounding as I had dreamed it would be, a combination of power and calm. Her message advised me that a spot in Lot 3 had miraculously opened and it was all mine. Maybe a professor emeritus had gone off life support the previous evening, maybe a fitness-fanatic administrator had flipped the bird to the nation's dependence on fossil fuel and bought a bike. A gift is a gift.

But Sheila left a warning: To secure the spot, I must call back within 24 hours. I frantically punched in Sheila's number. Alas, the Parking and Transportation Office had closed.

I slept very little that night. I knew Sheila would keep her word, but I still fretted. Whoever caused the vacancy might change his or her mind. Long-lost family members might surface and raise objections about the do-not-resuscitate order.

As soon as I got up that morning, I called Sheila. "Come over and we'll give you your key to Lot 3," she said cheerfully.

What a job this Sheila has -- a combination of long distance operator for the Nobel Prize Committee, captain of the Publishers Weekly Clearing House Team and the good people at MTV's West Coast Customs.

Unable to believe what I was hearing, I was momentarily speechless. Sheila, I think, was shocked by my silence. She's used to shrieks, sobs, incoherent blabbering.

"You are still interested?" she asked, sounding almost hurt.

"Yes," I said, my heart pounding. "Yes, yes, yes, yes!"

Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa and author of "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America" and "Inside the Writer's Mind: Writing Narrative Journalism."


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