One of my more poignant memories studying at the University of Texas came in the midst of one my most miserable semesters. While it is true that the campus itself is majestic in a unique way, young students walking across campus can eventually learn to ignore the fascinating architecture. This might seem incredulous when one sees beautiful stone, marble, and brick builds for the first time. But eventually like many constant noises, the building fade into the background. Perhaps this is because sleep exhaustion hits shortly after the first week. Perhaps it is the sweating until late October that comes with Texas weather. On this particular semester, I had five classes and two labs in an ever efficient seven different builds. I saw the full spectrum of money poured into architecture every day.
I was inclined to walking and wandering with my headphones all the time. Avoiding the excess of noise that occurred on campus was important to me. I realize now that I have a propensity for stress in loud places when my attention is not sufficiently diverted. I always had something important to do, and needed to block out noise.
One of those important class-lab combinations was a physics class. I believe this particular memory occurred in the midst of Physics 101 — which met at 8:30 am on Tuesday and Thursday. The class itself was quite spectacular. The professor would come in revving. He of course was a party man even in his professorship and bragged about getting drunk on his way to the Red River Shootout before even leaving the city limits. He would play loud classic rock in the mornings. He really was an interesting man and I enjoyed his class.
I did not enjoy the 7:30 pm lab that met once a week. I barely passed the lab that year. I was given a passing grade because I tried hard. I don’t remember trying hard, but I think the assistant was unwilling to see anyone fail. Of course, we also regularly saw him wearing the same clothes for 3 or 4 days straight, so perhaps he just misspoke. But I digress. The time of the lab was particularly distressing because it meant that I had to eat both lunch and dinner on campus. Of course, the options around campus were plentiful, but during this portion of my life, I was drinking more soda than water and routinely felt nauseated at the idea of eating food. A full day of school wears thin when you are not eating properly. Physics experiments that only rarely lined up with the lectures made matter even worse.
On one such lab day, I wandered my way up the drag to a fast food location. For those unfamiliar “the drag” is a portion of Congress to the immediate west of campus. It acts as the leftmost de facto border for much of campus. As such, the street is littered with food, churches, homeless people, and random stores. I got a majority of my tattoos on or near the drag. I got a couple piercings there during my college days too. It is a dirty hole that many affectionately love. Throughout the day and deep into the evening, students crawl over the entire drag crossing from the campus official into the unofficial run over of housing, food, and bookstores. It is a chaotic place. But with headphones on a walk up gives an impression of community and isolation.
The engineering and science portion of the school was more north on campus. But many of my classes were more centralized or south near MLK. A short trip up the drag was a nice difference from the middle of campus. Plus, it provided me the chance to decide on food. After my walk and picking an innocuous fast food joint, I ordered my food and sat in the far corner of the restaurant enjoying the silence. This particular restaurant was unique in that it was far enough north on the drag to have its own parking lot. The University has horrible parking (which was maybe at its worst while I was there), and on occasion students would attempt to park in the restaurant’s lot.
Towing companies made a killing, and me in my anguished and frustrated state enjoyed the sight of other people’s eventual misfortune. This time however, I sat with my back to the glass and did not watch the parade of cars parking only to be towed away. That is until one tow truck owner came in to make sure the car was in fact not validly parked — there were only two people in the restaurant after all. After confirming with me and the homeless guy across the restaurant, the truck driving went out and towed the car away. The car had actually only been there 5-10 minutes. I had personally seen the lady park the car and walk away with her backpack.
I did turn around to watch this particular tow feeling only mildly bad for the gal. I shook my head and turned back around to my food. And this is the moment that I will never forget. From across the restaurant, the homeless guy in the corner — grey unwashed beard and dirty clothes — shouted "these college students aren't smart like us." It took a moment for the comment to register me. Of course the gal had acted foolishly. But I did not recognize the import behind his “these” and “us.” The homeless man believed I was associated with him and not the college student getting towed.
In his defense, I had a beard that extended close to my chest. I also had hair that was quite disheveled for its length. Though my cleanliness has been reasonable throughout my life, it was not particularly great at this time. Arriving at school at 7:30 am also made it quite legitimate that I was not at my best close to 7 pm. Further, I am confident the hair itself had been unwashed for an extended period of time. Nonetheless, I sat a little stunned. I smiled and continued eating. Then I went to my physics lab.