Driving onto the campus was familiar but different. All the hippie shops were gone now replaced by popular chains, and many tall apartment buildings now lined portions of the street. There was no more Renaissance Fair where the cool vegetarian restaurant was located, no Goering's Books, no Flying Burrito Brothers, not even an In and Out Beverage with its drive-thru. Some things like Lillian's Music Store which is a restaurant and liquor bar where Harry Crews was a regular remain. Even with the changes, though, the town still seemed familiar.
You don't want to drive through town, though. That was true when I was there and it is even truer now. I crept along block to block as I circled the campus just to see. I was surprised when I got to a campus entrance and was able to enter without a guard shack and a guard. Indeed, I was able to drive around campus undeterred. And I did. The campus looked much the same though they have added many buildings. Still, it was hard to tell as they had used the same architectural style. I drove through campus and back into traffic which was a huge mistake. The second accident of my day had the road blocked. I sat for half an hour before I was able to crawl to a cross street. As I sat, I watched the kids. State school kids. Boys walked in bunches, girls in pairs, all in uniforms of baggy sweat pants or pajama bottoms, sweatshirts or hoodies, slippers or tennis shoes with socks, and uncoiffed hair. They looked nothing like the Country Club College kids. They looked like me, or rather, having been shaped by the environment, I looked like them. I giggled at the revelation. Where the Country Club kids looked like they fell out of the pages of Vanity Fair or Vogue, here there were a few extra pounds, a pretty face with a chin a bit too long or a hairline a bit high.
I found a parking place on the far side of campus and put on my walking shoes. At the last minute, I remembered to grab a camera bag, but that turned out to be useless. What was there to photograph? Buildings, scruffy kids? Well, there was the perfect sun shining off the tree tops and the sides of buildings. But I had no interest in that. I just wandered the campus feeling like, and here's the funny part, feeling like a student. It occurred to me that though I have taught in colleges and universities, I've never related as a faculty or admin. Nope. Whenever I am on a campus anywhere, I feel like a student. Have my whole career. I guess I've taken more classes, as many or more grad as undergrad hours, than anyone I know. Even presenting at conferences, I am there more to learn than to profess. I was good and respected, but I was never a research prof who taught three of four classes a year so that they could write and publish, and maybe that's why. While I was trying to park, I caught what was obviously a prof crossing at two crosswalks. He was dressed in a sharp leather car jacket of a neutral color with matching gloves and scarf. He was jaunty and grinned and waved as he quickly stepped in front of me. Yes, yes, that is how they are living in a town of a hundred thousand twenty year olds. It was not with him I related. I smiled and waved back, but I both admired and pitied him. Still, I was certain he was happy in his role.
Here there was the bell tower to which some myth I couldn't remember about virgins stood, and there was the long ramp to the football stadium where my roommate and I were the only ones skateboarding. I looked for the dumpy old photo lab where I spent so much time, but it was gone now. As I walked, I remembered the names of the halls and what I had done or not done there. The air was cold but dry so that it did not feel cold but cool, and when I saw people in shorts and sweatshirts, I wished I were wearing the same. I was feeling "the vibe," and when I stood or passed kids, they often smiled and nodded, sometimes mouthing "hi." It was strange, I thought, having lived so long with a colder, more guarded crowd. Maybe it was just that I don't live around so much unjaded youth so open to things, for whom everything is new and fun. Yea, yea. . . that is how I feel, too. My shitty paranoia was falling from me with each wintry step.
It was midafternoon when I realized I hadn't eaten anything. I walked to University Avenue where restaurants lined the streets. But it was kid food, mostly, that I wasn't interested in eating. I spied a street level Chick-Fil-A below a big student apartment complex. I like Chick-Fil-A. This would have to do.
I sat behind some girls who I think were on the women's basketball team. I could hear them talking. They were funny. It was all gossip and shit talk about other girls and boys they knew, mostly athletes I think. Across from me were four boys talking about much the same things. I was the only one in the place who wasn't twenty. I was feeling like I probably had homework to do before Monday.
When I was finished eating, I walked to the bathroom. Weird. It had a punch number lock on the door. I tried the handle, but it was locked. Then I boy walked out.
"You need to get in here?" he asked.
He held the door open for me and I said thanks.
"No problem, man."
I wondered about the locks. Was this part of the housing thing? Did you need to know the code? Probably, I thought. Some things were different for sure.
Back on the street, the afternoon was fading. My car was on the other side of a very large campus. If I was going to get a hotel room. . . . I thought about that. What would I do? I'd look for a place to eat, maybe walk a bit, then go back to my room. I wasn't going to be hanging out in some student bar. And in the morning when I woke at six, I would drink some shitty coffee and write, then. . . go for another walk? On a Sunday morning? I'd be walking the same streets seeing the same things. It seemed. . . repetitive. The sun would be setting soon. I decided to keep the $200+ in my pocket and make the drive home.
As I left campus, I drove back the way I used to bike to school, past the medicinal plant gardens, past Lake Alice where Gator Man got famous on 60 Minutes for swimming with the alligators. You can read about him here (link) (link). Gator Man was strange, a savant who got blown up in the war in Vietnam and became what was referred to as "shell shocked." He came to our house once asking my roommate and I to go Christmas caroling. Across the street from the lakes where a group of people sat along the dock were the gardens where my roommate, our girlfriends, and I kept four plots (link). Things were very familiar. They were similar if not the same (link).
As I drove off the last part of this massive campus, I turned on the road that went to my old place. Once a country road, it was now lined with apartments and off-campus housing. None of it, however, looked so very out of place. This was, by and large, still a college town.
When I got to the interstate, I turned up the ramp and saw that traffic was at a dead stop. WTF? I thought about stopping and backing back down the long ramp, but that seemed both dangerous and impractical, so I pulled up and joined the interstate parking lot. I asked Siri to map me out of this. She said that the interstate was closed and she gave me an alternative route. I sat, then moved a foot, then sat, then moved a foot. This went on for half an hour before I came to an overhead information sign that said the interstate was closed. A bit later, the police were blocking the road and directing traffic down an exit ramp. Slow. I had no idea where I was going, but Siri and Apple Maps had a plan. I went with it.
A bit later I was driving down a two lane state road with a 60mph speed limit. Where I had been dismayed at the approximately one hour added to my drive time (according to Siri), I was amazed. The road was lined with open fields, large lakes and ponds, tall pines and moss covered live oaks, and huge, expensive ranches, some with cattle, others with purebred horses. The sun was bright and golden and firing the wild grasses and tops of the trees, shadows falling like a million arrows across the highway. I saw a deer grazing on the side of the road, then a herd distant in the field, then more. Mile after mile of nothing but this, country I'd never seen nor dreamed. I came to a crossroads where stood a large white country club-style building called The Horse and Hound. I pictured tall, slim women in tight riding pants and black knee-high riding boots ordering martinis with elegant men of tremendous wealth. I was certain there were private airstrips where airplanes brought in provisions and luxuries--with tremendous envy.
After an hour of this, I was back on the interstate, and the road home was quick, but I got into town later than expected and needed something to eat, so. . . another Chick-Fil-A.
When I pulled into my driveway, two cats were waiting in the dark for dinner. Not being a "first me, then thee" sort of fellow, I dropped everything and got them food.
"Sorry girl, but you were originally going to go hungry on the coldest night of the year."
Then I made several trips to the car to unpack.
It is alway weird coming home after being gone, I think. I didn't want to sit down after sitting in the car half the day. What I wanted was a drink. I wanted a scotch more than I can remember wanting one before. I cursed myself, and opened a non-alcohol beer, and lit my last Cohiba. I put on my down jacket and sat on the deck. My phone was full of messages.
"Hope you're having a good time in Hog Town."
I wrote to tell Sky that I had not stayed the night. She has ties there, too, having graduated from the same alma mater.
"Gah!" she wrote. She was dismayed. I didn't try to explain. What could I say?
When I went to bed that night, I could still feel the road. Funny, that. The worst part of the trip had been fantastic, and I have my camera back better than it was when I bought it. It is cold here today, but I will take that big old Liberator out to make some pictures, and I will develop them to see if I am pleased. I will make a beef stew for my mother and me. And I will be back to the routine. For just a minute, though.
I think I have the travel bug now.