30 March 2009

Ghosts Don't Blush

Today I went someplace I haven't been in many years--ten, to be specific.

I'd gone to the New York City College of Technology to take out a book. The college is part of the City University of New York, as is York College, the college in which I teach. It's possible to have a book sent from one college to another, but that takes three or four days. I didn't feel like waiting, and I did feel like taking a ride.

I taught at NYCCT for five years, from 1994 until 1999. Back then, it was called New York City Technical College. And, well, you know that I, too, was called a different name in those days.

Nobody in the college seemed to recognize me. I didn't see anybody I knew. There may very well be nobody there I knew from the old days: Most of the full-time faculty members weren't very far from retirement and, I hope, the adjuncts have moved on to bigger and better things. And, naturally, none of the students I taught would be there now.

The weird thing was that, having spent five years in that place, I felt very little upon returning today. I did have one particular feeling: that of hostility and alienation. Except, it wasn't my own hostility or isolation that I was feeling, and I didn't feel that any of the hostility was directed toward me.

It seems that nobody's happy there. The only students who seemed to be having any fun at all were the ones gathered in group acting, well, as young people do when they're in groups of like-minded peers: Guys were watching girls; the girls were talking about boyfriends and families and such. But in walking the halls, I felt I was in one of the most emotionally as well as physically claustrophobic places I have ever seen.

You enter through one of two doors, then, after showing your ID to one of the security guards, push through a turnstile and walk up a narrow flight of stairs to the eleveators. Those stairs are the only ones leading to the elevators, and ascending visitors and descending students are squeezed into it. Think of the most clogged subway station you've ever entered or exited: It's a bit worse when you enter the campus.

Once I got to the right floor, I got lost. Now you know how bad my sense of direction is and that my memory for direction is worse! I knew that the library was on the fourth floor; what I'd forgotten is that you have to go through a passageway that connects the campus's main building to another campus building, then enter through a doorway leads you into the library, which is part of the main building you've just exited.

They're the sort of buildings someone designed as a monument to himself. But I'd bet there's not a single person there who could tell you who designed those buildings. I can't.

I must say that the library staffers were helpful. And, the woman who checked out my book was friendly, especially considering that she had a fairly tense encounter with the guy who stood in front of me on the line. I suspect that she doesn't get treated very well: She's probably a few years younger than I am and very overweight. She seemed to have some sort of disease or disability and I sensed, somehow, that her weight was at least in part a result of it.

After exiting the library, I saw a sort of spiral staircase that I wouldn't call a spiral staircase because it was constructed from materials acquired from a Stalinist building supply store. But it descended under a skylight that seemed, if only in that spot and moment, to hold the claustrophobicness and grunginess of that place at bay. I felt rather graceful and even rather attractive: I think almost anybody would in that light.

A young man who leaned against a window ledge must have sensed it. He was talking on his cell phone and lifted his eyes toward me. He continued to look my way. I didn't mind: The light accentuated his tall frame and the warm glow of his cafe au lait complexion. He smiled, I smiled back; I don't know which of us smiled first.

On the way out, I wished the Latina security guard--whom I saw for the first time upon entering the building and will probably never see again--a very nice day. And she returned my wish. She probably doesn't encounter that very often.

Then I pedalled along a block of Jay Street to a side street that led to the Polytechnic University campus and the Metro Tech center. When I was teaching at Tech, I was living in Park Slope and I used to ride my bike through that passage and into the streets around the Fulton Mall just about every day. Not much seemed to have changed, and I get the sense that most of the people there are gone at about 6:30 every evening, as they were in those days.

Again, as on the Tech campus, I felt no flood of memories. In fact, I didn't even feel a trickle of them. It's only now that I'm recalling those days in that place. I was in better physical shape than I was even in high school: I could, and did, ride circles around guys who were a decade or more younger than I was. And, I remember now a party in the building in which I was living: I won a game of Animal Twister played against people who were ten to fifteen years younger than I was. I had my first cat named Charlie; during that time I would adopt a pretty calico I named Candice. I used to go to France for a couple of weeks every summer; I would ride my bike through one part of the country or another and end my trip by spending a few days with friends who lived in and around Paris.

Not a bad life, right? But I was just as unhappy as I had ever been: In fact, that may well have been the unhappiest time in my life. During that time, I got into my last fistfights for reasons even less consequential than those any teenaged boy might have. And one of the reasons why I could leave those male cyclists in the dust was that I hated them simply because they were men; I exempted only a handful of males--Bruce being foremost among them--from my blanket condemnation of the sex. One woman I dated during that time used to call me--affectionately at first--a "male lesbian" because of my attitudes towards men.

Then it was off to York to teach a freshman composition class. They're a nice group of people; neither as lively as one freshman class I taught last semester nor as contentious as another. After class, I got to talking with Mark, a playwright who teaches there, about one thing and another. Then he mentioned something I had all but forgotten about.

"Those photos you showed me haunted me. I've never seen anything that had such an impact on me."

He was referring to some of my "before" photos. In all of them, I wore a beard. Each of them were taken at different times by people who, to my knowledge, had never met each other. But they all had a common denominator far more important than the beard: "You were so angry in all of them. I've never seen such anger," he said. "If I'd seen you then, I definitely would have crossed the street."

That, from someone who fought in the Tet Offensive!

Now, he says, "You're about as different from that as anybody can be. I tell people about you, without mentioning your name. I never understood why someone would make the change you're making until I saw those photos." After a pause, he said "I don't think anything has ever taught me more than seeing those photos and seeing you now."

He made me blush. And we all know that ghosts don't blush.