I went to my old university today.1 I wanted to use the library.
It was a strange experience. There were things about my time there I missed, but I didn’t miss my time there. There was too much wrong. Ways I didn’t fit.
I looked around. It was passing period, and there was a throng of students coming and going both ways. The pavement was nice, new construction. People were laughing and talking and introducing each other.
Was I wrong? Should I be missing this? There is still so much good here. So I asked myself what it was I saw, exactly. And I looked out.
I had just parked. There wasn’t enough parking on campus, and everyone knew it. There was so little parking that people were commonly very late to class because there were no spaces to be found. There were plans to build a new parking structure, but it wasn’t built. Other buildings came up instead.
It’s such a strange problem because it’s such an immediate barrier to entry. Can you visit? No. Can you attend? No. There’s no room. But parking is such a necessity on campus that people are willing to pay the exorbitant fees for a permit. $500/yr, sometimes more. And the passes were always oversold, so having one didn’t entitle you to a space, it just meant if you could park you wouldn’t have your car towed for your trouble.
I walked to the library. Where the path wasn’t concrete it was stone. Usually old stone steps, worn down by years of people coming and going. The metal in those corners had lost its shine. Those spaces were softer, somehow. And it was always like that in the alleys. If you knew the building layout you could pass through the alleys and find yourself in the middle of the next road.
For a span, those spaces were used by smokers. They would hide there, since the university banned smoking on-campus. Not just cigarettes, but chewing tobacco, vapes, or anything containing nicotine. The list was just broad enough that none of the health justifications ever fit it. It was never for health, though, it was so the school would look clean. Just another uniform code, bricks in the wall. And it helped that plenty of grants decided to mandate schools enforce such policies in order to be eligible for their money, of course.
And I as I think about those problems I can’t help but remember the rapes.
The university had restaurants on campus. Not real restaurants; it contracted out to a food service, which sublet their own little restaurants that ran as a state-granted monopoly.
That’s when I learned how to cook, I remember. The restaurants were terrible. Not just terrible as in food, but wildly unsafe. Food that was spoiled or rotten would regularly be served. There were several incidents where roaches were found in the kitchens.
And then there were the rapes.
The stores were managed by employees of the cartel, but the workers were mostly students. Students were supposed to be promoted, but never were. They were often international students, only allowed in the country under the condition they kept a steady job. And the cartel was the only job in town. Not just figuratively: F-1 visa holders are legally barred from seeking employment off-campus.
Students were raped by their managers. “If you want the job, you’ll do what it takes.” Sometimes the sexual harassment was lesser. Students went unpaid. When they were paid it was in scrip. Contracts were violated. Students were deported for trying to seek justice or safety.
There was an attempt at a unionisation. The cartel started pushing people out. Organizers found themselves stalked at night by police and arrested for crimes that hadn’t seemed to exist previously.
One of those managers – one known for sexually harassing women, and known to be a danger – wasn’t fired or disciplined for any of that. He was only fired a few years later, when he committed multiple homicides.
The university didn’t care. They cared that people knew about it, of course. They tried to keep people from talking about it, and had the police – the university has its own private police force that carries the full force of law, thanks to special government dispensation – clean the union away.
The student body government was supposed to vote on the contracts, but somehow that never happened. The outgoing government was told it was the next vote, and the incoming government was told it was the previous vote, and at the end of the day the cartel, even with all their crimes known and exposed, got a contract that would keep them in power over another three generations of students.
It was all the same. Grades were a racket. Class scheduling was racket. Housing was a racket (but of course, you know what landlords are like, except this landlord owned 100% of the homes you were allowed to use.) Tuition was a racket. Textbooks are a racket. Scammy startups shilled out money to use the campus as a testing ground for their new “robot uber for sandwiches” or whatever. Dining was just the most egregious. A difference of degree, not kind. Executives prioritizing money over humans in a more visible way than usual.
But plastered on all this same infrastructure I saw something else. Announcements, put together by teachers in word and taped up on windows. For student government hoping to make things better. I went inside. Not through the student union, or a rec center, or even one of the shiny new computer science buildings. I went through one of the old brownstone buildings; the ones used for everything when the university was young, but the big programs migrated away to their own centers until all that was left here were writing classes and offices of liberal arts teachers.
And the buildings were beautiful. All of them were. Full of desks and tables and walls and boards carefully arranged into spaces designed for humans to be in. Packed with tools and resources and ready to do so much good. Primed and overflowing with potential. It’s just that there was always… something. When you tried to do academia, when you tried to learn, or socialize, or live, there would always be something. Some little sabatouge, some job needlessly crippled, some requirement forcing people to do what was demanded and not what was needed. Some fear that at any moment to do the wrong thing would give the very ground you were walking on the chance it was waiting for, to strike and take and hurt.
I saw classrooms, where the good teachers taught good classes to tired students. A few people in the hallways. A couple at a table – this was an older building, so the chairs were soft and the tables were wooden – casually studying some paper. Students adjusting to the problems and having happy social lives even given the situation.
I had the mental image of greenery poking out and finding a way to grow in whatever soil there was. I was outside now. One of the laudable things I was seeing was not just fun, but people being able to handle circumstances and adjust to them. All that good and the potential I could see was still happening. Never at full potential, but even with life reduced to 20%-30% people were still trying to generate good. “The resiliency of the human spirit.”
And then I saw the new science building.
They had started the construction while I was there, but it was finished now. It was a massive, sophisticated thing. I knew what it was like inside, I saw their last new building. Fresh, and clean, with just enough space in the halls to organize a group of three or four people without blocking the halls. Enormous classrooms for the science lectures.
The science building sat on a lot of land. That grass, from the mental image. There used to be more grass; a few years prior the lot was a much smaller art building. People called it “the art barn”. It was a workshop, a studio space. Not enough room for classes. Over the course of four years the university tore down the art barn and laid the foundations for the science building.
The towering science building didn’t remind me of educational institutions overpriortizing the hard sciences at the expense of the arts. It reminded me of money. Capital. How much it cost to build the new thing, how much it cost to tear the old one down. How the science building was chosen for its utility and investment potential over additional parking infrastructure, or housing.
That money didn’t have to be spent on a building at all, of course; it could have been used to subsidize the actual costs students were baring, if those were real costs and not just revenue extortion schemes.
But that’s not what the money was for. That’s where it came from. All the nickels and dimes, all the overpriced textbooks, all the unmaintained housing utilities, all the money that wasn’t spent on health and safety, all the extortion; it went here. To this physical monument I could see and touch and feel. If it was a monument to something it was a monument to the conversion of human abuse to concrete. Everything else seemed to intertwine with problems, but – just due to my position in time, relative to the rest – this felt like the infrastructure and the problems culminating into something, together. Out of the whole school, the money went to the executives, not teacher or students or facilities, and they put it here. In a brand new building that, when I forced my eyes open like this, I saw as a gash in the sky.
And I thought about the laughter, the friendships, the social life. The people all around me I was looking over. The ping-pong tables, and the people playing smash in the student union. The people putting on nice clothes, and taking showers, and getting up in the morning, and paying attention in class. The human resiliency of it all.
It wasn’t helping.
I saw people who adapted and dealt with the societal problems around them, who weren’t brittle and didn’t break. That was good for them. It’s good not to be miserable.
But that tendency toward human happiness was being explicitly abused as a cushion by the few people and systems that were causing what should have been the misery. I looked and I saw on one side a population who was flexible enough that they could be pushed and pushed forever without breaking, and on the other a force that would push in one direction forever.
I don’t normally write like this. I normally dive into issues, and facts, and link sources and stories. No links today. This story isn’t about any of the particulars. It’s about walking through a place, and knowing about it. It’s about the curse that is the skill of being able to see and comprehend. And maybe it’s about why it’s hard for me to really want things.
As for facts? The fact is the library didn’t have what I needed today. I left with just this headful of words.
No, really, I sat down and wrote this in a single stream of consciousness. ↩