When people ask what I'm going to school for—"Liberal Studies"—and why—"for the love of learning"—they are visibly suspicious. Must there be an ulterior motive behind wanting to learn? Is not the thirst for knowledge as old as mankind?
I don’t blame my fellow students for thinking me crazy. I feel bad for them. They’ve been taught all their lives to work hard in school so they could get paid the big bucks (as if making the big bucks was the end-all-be-all purpose of existence). Few have ever opened Walden, lived out of a van, or experienced (let alone seen) the poverty that one-fifth of the world lives in.
This is my second semester here and I’ve told less than ten people on campus about the van. I’ve decided that while I will still be discreet about my lodgings, I ought to begin sharing tales of my van more.
I bumped into Bill at the library. He’s an undergraduate senior in my travel writing class. We got to talking and I couldn’t help myself any longer. I gave him a virtual tour of the van with pictures on my computer. We laughed as I pointed out the coat hook, the laundry area, and even the fabled waste basket that I hurled in last April.
He invited me to go out to have drinks with a couple of his female friends that evening. Delighted to have the chance to spend the evening with someone other than the van (who I’m beginning to personify too much for my own good), I gleefully accepted.
Bill was trying to get with Alley—a cute blond who has a boyfriend on a different campus. Her friend Lydia came too, who also has a boyfriend.
Before we hit the bars, we went to my van so I could drop off some books and give him a tour. Not expecting company, I left the van in disarray with dirty gym clothes and cereal boxes scattered on the floor. Upon opening the side doors, a covey of smells escaped like spirits unleashed from a cursed ark.
“It doesn’t smell as bad as you’d think it would,” Bill observed.
We got kicked out of the first two bars because Lydia didn’t have her ID. We wound up in a classy-looking bar that played piano music while suit-and-tied couples ate fancy meals.
I was in my ratty Coldfoot, Alaska tee shirt and a pair of jeans whose origin is unbeknownst to me. Bill—also in disheveled attire—complained that the bar reminded him of the one in The Shining. It was true. Even the bartender was creepily amiable, politely responding to Bill’s insolent request for more “uppity music” and to lift the ban on smoking.
I didn’t care, though. Like a true traveler I took everything—the sights, smells, sounds and idiosyncrasies of my compatriots—in with a hearty gusto.
In our travel writing class we just read an essay by Tobias Smollett who traveled across Europe in the 1800's. Just imagine going on a trip with a curmudgeonly Grandpa Simpson and you’ll understand the kind of traveler Smollett was.
Upon traveling through France, Smollett notes:
“If there is no cleanliness among these people, much less shall we find decency… There are certain mortifying views of human natures, which undoubtedly ought to be concealed as much as possible, in order to prevent giving offence: and nothing can be more absurd than to plead the difference of custom in different countries, in defence of those usages which cannot fail giving disgust to the organs and senses of mankind.”
Yikes. He goes on to ridicule the French for things as trifling as hinges and locks.
I’ve determined to never become a Smollett. I wish to look upon the foreign—never with condescension—but with wide-eyed wonder. Each adversity ought to be treated as a noble challenge. New viewpoints and experiences will help me break apart the hardening clay that encrusts the idle of mind into their own little curmudgeonly worlds.
When we got to Bill’s apartment our class differences were evident. The apartment, with its 30-ft high ceilings, is located in a refurbished tobacco factory, which must cost at least $2,000 a month. Complete with a plasma screen TV, a PS3, and trendy decor, I realized I was in a home far different than the one I had to crouch into each evening.
Bill busted out some fancy wines. When I got out of his bathroom, I quickly noted how the party’s atmosphere had changed.
Bill stood in his boxers by the TV posing—like Costanza in front of a camera—while Lydia ineptly sketched his figure on a giant white sheet of canvas. Bill had his arms folded around the back of his head, and had his back arched as if he was stretching for a limbo. I was all giggles at this point but everyone else was deathly serious. Soon after, Bill got behind the canvas and with a charcoal pencil he feverishly drew Lydia who had stripped down to her bra and panties in a series of dark charcoal lines.
Lydia sprawled out on the floor and flipped off her bra unleashing a pair of jello-y, milky white breasts. Alley began stripping down and laid affectionately with her. I participated in this art scene by busting out my notebook and writing down everything I saw: empty wine bottles, ashtrays with cigarette stubs, two coeds writhing together on the floor with Tarkovsky's Solaris on in the background, a spartan student in the midst of wealth, and a celibate in the midst of what could soon be an all-out orgy.
Lydia delivered wet, (though tongue-less) kisses to Alley and I think if a few more glasses of wine were imbibed I could have watched a freak-fest unravel. Alas, things ended harmlessly with a game of Apples to Apples and me smilingly teetering back to the van, relishing in the afterglow of my open-minded travels.