Editor’s note: This essay, first posted on June 20, is available as an audio read by the author at www.gametakes.com at this link.
By Steve Lowery
This marks the 29th year since I arrived at Cal State Long Beach, the start of five of the most uneventful years of my life.
In that time, nothing much happened except that one time, I got a really good parking space and that other time, an English professor punched me. That was about it.
And I guess, based on that, you’d have to say Cal State Long Beach was not much of a “college experience.” You might say, based on that, Cal State Long Beach was a “complete waste of time.” You might say, based on that, Cal State Long Beach was a “factory school that affords little to no contact with professors or fellow students and provides only the thinnest of cookie-cutter education that, at best . . .
Ooooooh, I think that guy is pulling out of his parking space! Sweeeeeeet!”
I was going to talk about my time at Cal State Long Beach — the memories, the friends —until I remembered I didn’t have many and that when I talked to others about their experiences at the school, what passed for memories was that there was a bar on campus and the snack shack on the lower portion of the campus had really good chili fries and, at one point in their careers, they had gotten a really good parking space.
And yet, it is undeniable that my time at Cal State Long Beach taught me the single most important and essential life-lesson: how to live. Yes, it is because of Cal State Long Beach that I am alive today. While it’s true that the life I lead is mostly bereft of depth and meaning, in large part because of what I did not receive in its classrooms, it was outside the classroom that Cal State Long Beach taught me what I needed to survive: avoiding human contact.
Heaven only knows how many freeway shootings I have not been the victim of because Cal State Long Beach taught me to keep my mouth shut. Heaven only knows how many times I’ve not been selected by a serial killer for ritualistic “changing” because I never, ever, make eye contact with anyone.
I’ll never know, of course, but what I do know is that I’m alive, and I owe it all to Cal State Long Beach, a big school with something like 30,000 students packed into 323 acres when I was there. That’s a good-sized city and, like any city, it has its share of the insane and the criminal, many of them teaching in the English Department. You learned quickly that you got around the school by minding your own business, dipping your head, casting your eyes to the ground. You never looked anyone in the eye. Not only was eye contact dangerous, it also had the potential of bringing you in contact with other Cal State Long Beach students and, really, what good was going to come out of that conversation? “I’ll put in a good word for you at Kinko’s?” Is Kinko’s even still a thing?
Human contact was bad, and nothing in the intervening years has dissuaded me from that lesson. No one had taken the time to tell or show me how to avoid it until I arrived at Cal State Long Beach where paranoia, apathy, and revulsion radiate from the nondescript glass buildings, stainless-steel sculptures and dead shark eyes of the English Department.
“Human contact is death. Human contact is death. Human cont … Hey, where all the women at?”
A sterling example: one morning, I am walking up from the lower to the upper campus to attend class, probably in a room with stadium seating. I have been walking for 10 or 15 minutes because this is a day that I did not get a good parking space. I still have 10 minutes of walking in front of me to get to a class with a burned-out professor who addresses students by “Uh, yeah, you,” and a big fat guy who sits next to me and immediately begins sucking on the back of his hand.
So, I’m walking up what is known as Hard Fact Hill, a grassy incline that has a tendency to get a little slick in the morning, making it not unusual for people to slip while scurrying up it. This morning, a guy who’d climbed almost to the top of the hill does just that, but he doesn’t just slip, he falls and begins to roll down the hill. Really, just like a cartoon; sliding and rolling head over heels, books and papers flying, it was hilarious in a very real, painful and humiliating way. But that’s beside the point. The point is that as the man rolled, his head slamming time and again against patches of hard-packed dirt, not a single person moved to help him. Not only that, most of them went out of their way to sidestep or step right over him.
The key aspect is that they, we, all did this without ever looking at the man. Without ever acknowledging his humanity, his circumstance, his being.
Talk about applying your education to the everyday world.
Was the man angry? Of course not. He would have not done the same for us.
Looking back on that morning, I realize that Cal State Long Beach not only taught us all how to eschew human contact, but how to sense it and casually dodge it. And because of this, I would hazard a guess that Cal State Long Beach grads are among the least murdered. Thank you, Cal State Long Beach. You may not teach “book smarts,” but you teach something else, something I like to call “not-getting-murdered smarts.”
And isn’t that what it’s all about? I have no idea. I went to school here.
Good luck and Fight On!