Hindsight they say is 20/20. But really it’s not. Or let’s say it depends on what you are looking at or for. I have spent a long time looking and reviewing and contemplating to come to the conclusion—or sort of conclusion—that the persistent angst I felt at college was not entirely the result of my having no social skills, or being emotionally stunted, or being tortured by my inability to get rid of my virginity, like it was the plague or something, but at least partly from my just not fitting in.
I attended a relatively exclusive, tiny, liberal arts college that affluent middle class people sent their kids to. I was a poor white. That’s why I got all the free money I got to go there. I was like part of their quota for poor white people, and it was no skin off their nose because the government gave them money to help people like me. Naturally, I didn’t know or think of myself as a poor white person. I didn’t really notice even that only a tiny percentage of us worked in the student union and that alone put me in a different category.
That was part of the deal I got. The college made sure I got a job to cover my books and stuff like that. I didn’t mind, really. I worked 20-25 hours a week, and that was nothing. All I did was go to classes and study, so working in the student union was a break and good for a little exercise especially when I worked washing dishes. Sometimes I didn’t wash the dishes; sometimes I bused the tables after everybody ate.
Sometimes I worked the line tending the tea, the coffee, the milk and making sure the deserts didn’t run out. The soft drinks were out in the open so I didn’t have to mind those unless one ran out. I wore a sort of super-starched white smock, I guess it would be called, and a floppy version of a chefs hat. I didn’t like the hat thing at all, but was happy they didn’t make me wear a hair net.
So the sophisticates who were too good for soda pop, would look at me and say, “Tea, please.” And I would get a cup and a saucer and put hot water in the cup, naturally, and place a tea bag on the saucer and they would say, “Thank you.” And I would say, “You’re welcome.” And somebody would say, “Coffee please.” And I would do it all over again except I would put coffee in the cup rather than hot water, and so on for twenty minutes or so, till most of the stragglers came in. By that time, people were leaving and I would go out with a cart and start picking up the slop they had left behind. The amounts of wasted food I could not believe.
While most of my peers constantly complained about the dorm food, I didn’t. Well, I did so I could fit in, but really I liked it better than home food because a) there was a lot of it and b) there was more variety. Once I was eating with a group of guys and I said, “Damn. This is good.” And jabbing my fork at it, “What the fuck is it?” The guy across from me, the guy who later went to jail rather than be drafted, laughed and said, “Lamb.” The laugh was good natured; a laugh of recognition, or rather non-recognition, like, “Who the hell is this guy?”
I didn’t know anything about Chinese food either; I mean I knew of course that the Chinese ate food and that it was called Chinese food. But I hadn’t eaten any of it.