A sordid deed

On graduating UPenn (1961), I picked up a grant to study for a year at Stanford. Not sure, but I think it might have led me to an M.A. if I’d sat it out.

Ratcheting west across America by train, I assumed I’d never return to the east coast (not sure what that reasoning was either). I looked at my watch and thought, “I’ve gained three hours in my life!” 

I chose the longest rail route, a broad sweep down through the South and up along the west coast. That way, I thought, I’d see the largest swath of the country.

The travel agent warned against the itinerary I’d chosen. I hadn’t studied the geology, etc. of the area I’d be traversing, but Ha! Young college grad – who listens?

Rumbling through the South, the route doesn’t offer much. And starting half way across Texas, you dribble through 1200 miles of desert until you hit Los Angeles. And with only a couple hours layover, there’s no Los Angeles to see (is there, anyway?).

I switched lines going north toward Paolo Alto but don’t recall much of that trip, though it had to have been better than baking through the unchanging rubble of desert.

No major campus today could be like Stanford in the early ’60s, when it was still OK for a major educational institution to be untidy, and for college living to be inexpensive.

Us gradders lived in a (barely) converted WWII naval barracks on the edge of the main campus. We each had a single narrow room separated  from its neighbor by a wall with the acoustical thickness of a Kleenex.

My slapdash bureau was painted gray, “U.S. Navy” stamped on the drawers. I had brought little inessential with me, except – sent along by Railway Express – my collection of human bones, including a hinged skull (to be explained some other time), and a set of antlers. I formed these all into an altar atop the bureau. 

Ah, Railway Express … that long-time mainstay of train travel was in its final days. At the delivery station, hundreds of disconnected items lay spewed across a vast floor. I had shipped my record turntable and associated items tied together with twine, unwrapped. No one had the least idea where anything in this jumble might be. I blundered across the floor until I found my stuff – except for the turntable base. Gone. In the dorm, I elevated the turntable on a couple 2×4 castoffs.

I’d received a $2800 scholarship, which in those days would scoot you through a full year of grad school (tuition, dorm, plus cash stipend). It came through the journalism department, where, in a hazy way, I wanted to be. But the J courses in the catalog looked remarkably boring. I took only one. For the rest, I registered for communications, history of film, and a study of Eastern religions.

I remember absolutely nothing of the J course. It wasn’t bad, it just … wasn’t

Communications was “taught” by an effete older fart with a grotesque smile whose major pastime was letching after the female grad students. His course (based on such flummery as a study comparing overseas editions of Reader’s Digest) was a sinkhole. For my final paper, I said as much. Across the margin (in red), he wrote, “I guess I have to give you an A for your observations and myself an F, so let’s settle on a C.” Sonofabitch.

The film and religion courses, though, were eye-openers. The film instructor – young, vital – made me see film history in a new light and also inspired me to write movie reviews for the student newspaper. After watching a double feature of Gigi and North by Northwest, I wrote a paper for class about the differing use of color.

Hitchcock, in Northwest, chose subtle greyed shades and smooth blending, never intrusive. Gigi, under Vincente Minelli, was a chromatic disaster, a slather of clashing blares, including a scene in which amiable old shithead Maurice Chevalier, in a cream-colored suit, visually absorbs into an arbor of white roses. (Maybe that was deliberate?)

The Eastern religion class was taught by a German named Spiegelberg who had lived in India and somehow looked like a Brahmin. A beautiful course.

In our basic-living dorms, we machine-washed our clothes and hung them to dry on clotheslines between two arms (fingers?) of the barracks. You could iron your shirt on a beat-up ironing board. OK, younger people, I can’t explain the why of this: I wore a beard – as I have, uninterrupted, since age 20 – scuffed pants with holes in the knees, and weird short-sleeved checked shirts. So help me, I ironed the shirts. 

I developed more friends than I might have expected, but only one whose name I remember (but which I won’t unleash here). The nephew of a renowned editor, he had schooled at Harvard and aided Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert in conducting their early experiments with LSD. Friend Joe (I shall call him) introduced me not only to the hallucinogenic culture (without the hallucinogens), but to Lawrence Durrell’s deliriously opulent Alexandria Quartet. Joe was into things in a way I could never be and still am not.

(Years later, he visited Philadelphia and I tooled him around the local countryside. He seemed non-plussed. He called after he returned to California to ask that I mail his umbrella back to him. I did, inside a cardboard tube. We haven’t corresponded in the three decades since. What do such cloud-ringed passings say?)

I spent much time at Stanford walking the dry gulches outside Paolo Alto. After a bit, I bought a bicycle, my first. One weekend I decided to pump down to Monterey, about 85 miles, trying, wobblingly, to read a map as I went. Somewhere above San Jose I banged over a curb and wrecked a tire. But my stupid luck kicked in again: I found a bike shop open nearby that could fix it – on a Sunday!

Further on, I veered off the accepted route onto a deadend gravel roundabout where I skidded, fell and ripped the skin off the palm of my right hand. A taciturn guy drifted out of the only nearby building and looked at me without speaking. I held up my hand, bloody. He walked to a spigot on a pipe sticking out of the ground and turned it on. He (or I – one of us) spoke a single word, but I couldn’t tell you what that word was.  I washed my hand and biked back to Palo Alto.

A month later, as I prepared to pack up my sullied aspirations and escape my mother (an intertwined tale of explanation, to be told later), I entertained the fantasy of biking back across the country to the east coast, giving back those three hours.

Instead, I did something that still disturbs me, though not as much as it should. I stood in the myriad lines for winter registration in the Stanford gym, knowing I would leave, and signed up for courses, paid for room and board I would not use – and pocketed the living stipend, in cash. 

Then I caught a Greyhound bus and fled.

It’s the only time in my life I’ve stolen so much as a nickel. How much? Maybe $350, but the amount doesn’t matter. When I returned to Philly, I walked around the city with the cash in my pocket which I slowly eked out to keep me alive.

Years later, I wrote to Stanford and asked what I owed (without explaining clearly what I’d done). They said it was the amount of the journalism scholarship for that term, around $900. I didn’t have it then, so couldn’t pay it. And still haven’t. At today’s college rates, I’d probably owe them all our savings.

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