This is the fourth installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, and Volume III is here. If I were a famous writer, these posts would comprise passages from previously unpublished letters or lectures that I’d bring out just to basically print my own money. But since I’m only a blogger, I’m providing similar such collections for free because I think they capture moments in time (in this case my latter college years) that I think are amusing and/or universal. All of these below are from letters written to a friend, in chronological order, and the setting is the Berkeley area.
October 1, 1990
I really like the old ladies in my apartment building. It’s an old, very elegant building in one of the best parts of Oakland, with radiators that hiss and click all the time because the landlord keeps it as warm as a sauna in all the units, for the old people. They spend most of the time indoors, since they’re really quite frail and possibly afraid of the cruel, harsh society outside. Their perception of reality is based on precious few data: if they only make it outside once a week, and happen to see something unpleasant, they may assume that’s what happens all the time.
Case in point: today I was on my bike cruising down College Ave toward home, and some old geezer pulled out of his driveway without looking. A redneck type in a big pickup truck had to slam on his brakes, and started cussing real loud. The old dude seemed unfazed, and after the truck got by, the old guy kept backing out, and almost clobbered a taxicab coming up the other way. I was almost sandwiched in the middle since I’d been trying to pass. So I started yelling, in vain of course because the old fellow probably forgot both his hearing aids, and as I escaped by hopping my bike up to the sidewalk in front of my apartment, one of my elderly neighbors was standing there watching the whole thing.
I was struck by her look of fear because until that moment, I myself hadn’t really perceived much danger (my foul language and evasive action having been entirely automatic). So she asked what happened, and I tried to play it down, but it’s obviously made a big impression. As we walked toward the building, she said, “My god, you could have been killed!” Since the front door into the building lobby is awfully heavy, I opened it for her, and she said, “Thank you! I was so close anyway but you’re really never safe until you’re home, you know?”
So I try to be as polite as possible to my neighbors, to help them live out their lives in a tranquil and pleasant fashion. This one old lady, Ruth, obviously loves having college age people around; she seems to hang out in the lobby a lot and strikes up conversations. Once I encountered her on the stairs while I was descending at about a hundred miles an hour, and she had to step quickly out of my way. I apologized and said “excuse me” and everything, and she said, “Don’t worry, I won’t mess with you,” but then, with a wink, added, “But if I were a few years younger, I sure would!”
Nov 2, 1990
I was trying to study Latin yesterday and it ultimately overloaded my brain. We’re having our second midterm Monday and I’m hoping not to eat shit like I did last time. We learn so much in there it’s not even funny. Well, we’re supposed to learn it, anyway. Recently the instructor said, “Okay, we’ve been going too slowly so now we have to speed up to catch up with the curriculum.” Yeah, right. We’ve already covered more in Latin 1 than I did in studying through French 6 at UC Santa Barbara.
Today the instructor gave us two entire pages of vocab and irregular verb formations (all tenses, and in both indicative and subjunctive) to memorize, along with three pages of exercises over this new structure. “This should only take you five minutes,” he says. Yeah, right … I’ve been at it two hours and I’m still not done. The other day we “learned” something even the instructor conceded was really difficult, and afterward he said, “You’re all very smart. It took me months to learn this.” I said, “And we get a day?” He replied, “Well, you’re Berkeley students.”
Dec 5, 1990
Thanksgiving with what’s left of my family was pretty fun, but I paid a price. On Saturday I drove straight through the night from Colorado to to Geoff’s place in San Luis Obispo and then had to take Greyhound back up to Oakland, and then I started on my research paper. This was at about 11:30 on Sunday night. I called my friend A— to see if she was still up; she was, as she’d just started on her paper too, for the same class. This paper was due the next day, and would be 80% of our grade … so this was pushing it even by our shameful standards.
I finished at about 8:00 the next morning, and rode to campus basically in a trance, after the back-to-back all-nighters. In class we broke into little discussion groups, and I fell asleep in mine, and I guess I must have started talking in my sleep because I woke up and everybody was laughing. This one girl was just shrieking with laughter and couldn’t be calmed down. The professor came over saying, “Hey, what’s going on here?” and everybody was laughing except me. I looked at the professor and shrugged: no, I have no idea what’s come over my group.
June 4, 1991
So this dipshit college kid comes into the bike shop with a broken front quick release skewer and asks how much for a new one. I tell him $9.95, and he rolls his eyes and asks if I think he can glue it back together. I tell him no fucking way, but he says he’ll try it anyway. I tell him to be careful since his front wheel is going to roll off, and that I’ll see him a little later. I should’ve clamped his head in the vise.
September 10, 1991
I’ve finally got my health back after a bad bout of strep throat. But I still have this one queer symptom: I can’t open my jaws more than an inch because of the residual swelling down there. So I’m eating a bit more slowly lately. Like I had to eat this roast beef sandwich the other day, at which point I could only open my mouth about a centimeter, which was kind of embarrassing. A friend had me over for lunch and it turns out she lives in a sorority house now, where all the meals are prepared for you, so all I had to choose from to eat was the roast beef sandwich or a salad (which, as you know, is ideal for rabbits but not guys like us). So I’m there dipping this roast beef sandwich in the “au jus” and kind of smashing it into my lips and sucking it through the gap. Real suave.
I just got home from class. I was sitting in there listening to the professor reading her notes, and it sounded something like this:
It is easy to see to what species of entities Ullmann’s description does apply. Certain entities exist the full meaning of which can be said to be equal to the totality of their sensory appearances. For an ideal perception, entirely devoid of complications resulting from the interference of the imagination, the meaning could only refer to a totality of sensory appearances.
This comes out in my notes something like this:
Ullmann has some sensory perception thing devoid of complications from imagination interfering with sensory oh fuck this shit.
November 25, 1991
I went for a mountain bike ride in the morning before work yesterday. I wanted to leave early enough to have time, upon my return, to shower, eat, et cetera, so I didn’t invite my roommate Eric along. You see, by the time he shaved, shat, pumped up, put on his clothes, and filed a report with the bureau, the morning would be gone. The only flaw in my solo attempt is that Eric always carries the spare tube, patch kit, pump, and other survivalist gear. They would have been handy today. Imagine that the ride is basically a loop, of diameter d. The bike shop is exactly d away from where I had what we in the research and development program call a “happy accident.” A rock placed by the powers that be in a strategic location began an experiment in Reduced Inflation and Pressure (RIP) of the front tire. This led me to some impromptu analysis of the handling characteristics of a standard mountain bicycle with a front tire having absolutely no inflation. On the standard dirt sections, I noticed a remarkable change in the tracking of the front wheel. It wasn’t until the single track, however, that I experienced the most dramatic ramifications of the Handling Enhancement Characteristic Kinesthesia (HECK), a sudden increase in the muscular toning of the upper body due to special bicycle control requirements. Especially on rocks and large branches, the new technology provided a Divergent Arrangement of Multiple Navigations (DAMN). Because the feel was so dramatically different, I found it necessary to actually reduce my speed, although I expect that a little practice will see the RIP being a great improvement. A thirty second shower saw me open the bike shop only ten minutes late this morning. Happily, and amazingly, my American-made Sun Metal rim sustained no damage whatsoever!
April 20, 1992
I got this Chinese fortune cookie fortune that said, “His heart was yours from the moment he met you.” How much happier I would be with that forecast if I were a chick. If I were superstitious I reckon I’d lose some sleep. The newer Square Wheel location on University Avenue, where I work about half the time, is next to a Chinese restaurant, and another fortune literally blew in the door. It read, “To you maybe too greatness, especially love adventures.” It’s the best fortune I’ve ever gotten. But so far it hasn’t come true.
I just love it when things are lost in translation. My mom bought this “Electronic Mosquito Repeller” mail-order, and it has the greatest instruction manual. I offer you this excerpt:
Mosquitoes frequently infect you place in Summer, especially at night, They are externely irritating as they disturbed our sleep and the most annoying of all is the difficulty in getting rid of the itch & soreness. After, ordinary mosquito increase or “Electrified Mosquito Killer” are used. However the odour is unbearable and the abuse of some of them may become dangerous. . . . According to the research of insect ecology, most of biting mosquitoes are female ones in spawning period. A Spawning female mosquito is very disgusted at the approaching of male mosquito. Therefore, the trequency of Repel It’ is made to imitate the sound signal of male mosquitoes to repell female mosquitoes away.
Under the heading “Applications” are six pictures of possible uses of the Mosquito Repeller. They are: Sleeping, Camping, Dating, Hunting, Livestock Farm, Farming. Where the manufacturer got these ideas is beyond me. Dating? I can’t get over that. Yeah, when I go on a date, my biggest concern is how to keep those damned mosquitoes away. The picture shows this young couple sitting on a park bench, with the guy in the process of putting his arm around the girl, about to bust a move. The Repeller is sitting on the bench with little cartoon lines to indicate its sound. My mom sent back the thing back because the noise was unbearable. I wish she’d given it to me instead, since I could have used it for my dating. Of course, if female humans are anything like mosquitoes, and become “very disgusted at the approaching of male,” I hardly think it would help.
October 8, 1992
I’ve got a midterm in my Milton class tomorrow. As far as I’m concerned, Milton is a zit on the face of English literature. (Here I’m paraphrasing Turgenev, who was referring to Dostoyevsky, another writer I’ll be reading at length this semester.) If you ever have to write a paper on Milton, you can start it off with that quote from me. Footnote it by saying, “Dana Albert, Letter of October 8 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 1.” Whether or not you note the Turgenev origin is between you and your god. But actually, it’s probably best not to malign Milton, because you can usually presume that a grad student who is a T.A. for a Milton course really likes him … so you better brown-nose a little bit. Here, for example, is the first paragraph to my last paper:
When I first approached Milton’s “Sonnet 7” I found it a confusing, ambiguous mess given to complicated phrasing, difficult metaphors, and pronouns without antecedents. However, on second analysis, I find Milton to be the dopest, flyest, O.G. pimp hustler gangster player hard core motherfucker who ever lived.