Saturday, March 05, 2005

No Free Lunch

In the autumn of 1988, I was enjoying what was to be my final year living stateside. No longer commuting from Stanford, I was living in Berkeley and focusing on my doctoral research after some four years of knocking about intellectually. During that time of searching, I must have audited about every undergraduate history course that Berkeley offered, along with a few in sociology, religious studies, political science, and whatnot. I had finally stumbled across an idea on John's Gospel and Gnosticism, and that had given me direction.

To support my studies, I worked at two jobs. One was as a Teaching Assistant for a course with the odd title "Subject A." Informally, it was known as "Bonehead English," which was not quite politically correct but also not really accurate, either. I taught freshman students how to compose essays that argued for an explicitly stated thesis using basic logic and supportive evidence. This was my real job.

My other job was a sinecure. Near the top of Stephens Hall was a large lounge with a high ceiling, perhaps 25 feet up, from which hung two enormous chandeliers that would sway threateningly at the slightest Bay Area quake. We called the place Stephens Lounge, and two or three other graduate students and I were employed to keep it stocked with cookies, tea, and coffee -- at a price. No free lunch, remember? Anyone wanting cookies and a drink had to drop some small change into a styrofoam cup. We didn't police our patrons carefully, but most people must have been honest, for we always had enough money to purchase more supplies.

I loved the job. I needed only show up, make coffee, and settle down with my books for peaceful hours of study. As I said, a sinecure.

One of my co-workers was John Gerring, who now teaches at Boston University. I no longer recall if he or I had the idea, but we decided to pretend that the lounge was short on funds and now needed to charge for its various services, not just for the cookies and drinks.

But what services? There were none.

There was, however, the enormous, well-thumbed Webster's Dictionary positioned on its own proud podium and used by about everyone.

We decided to charge for words. I made a sign showing the prices. Nouns were more expensive than verbs, and abstract nouns were the most expensive. If I recall correctly, a verb was 10 cents, a noun 15 cents, and an abstract noun 30 cents, but you could get two non-abstract nouns for 25 cents.

We taped our sign and waited . . .

Nothing happened. We received some smiles but no extra small change.

Time passed. The sign was forgotten. Peace reigned supreme.

Until one day, late in the afternoon, as I sat in the lounge grading midterm essays . . . . So intent was I on my reading and marking that only gradually did it dawn on me that something was odd in the room.

I looked up, my pen still in my hand, uncapped, hovering over some unfortunate student's essay. Immediately to my left, and pacing to and fro, was a very filthy, very disturbed young man. The entire lounge had stopped all activity, attention focused on him. With all eyes following his movements, he briskly strode over to the dictionary and there began paging quickly through it, flipping great chunks of pages over as if they were blocks, letting them plop down again as though into mud, a few of the pages splashing up from the impact.

A young man asleep in the couch next to me awoke disturbed, rubbed his eyes, looked at the crazy from the street, then stared at me in astonishment. The insane fellow at the dictionary continued his research, mumbling audibly, incoherently . . . threateningly? By now, all eyes had turned to me, imploring that I do something, something please to get rid of this guy.

Not violently, you understand, for this was Berkeley -- no physical force allowed! At Berkeley, we'd much rather ignore, hoping that our problem would recognize that it is a problem -- holding ourselves indefinitely in this subjunctive mood.

But this problem insisted on remaining, and everyone realized it. I had to do something. But what?

Then, I smiled, remembering the sign. I got up, walked over to the gentleman, and -- pointing to our sign -- softly explained: "Um . . . excuse me, but if you're going to use our dictionary, you have to pay."

He glanced at me briefly, nodded, then returned to his preoccupation.

Unrelenting, I continued, "You see -- it's 10 cents per verb and 15 cents for a noun, but there's a special on two basic nouns for a quarter."

He looked up, concentrating now upon the notice.

"And," I added, "abstractions cost 30 cents each, no reductions or discounts on those."

He now looked directly at me, as though trying to gauge my honesty. I half-expected him to blurt out -- "But that's crazy!"

Instead, he asked, "Where do I pay?"

I turned, pointing across the room, and explained, "At the coffee machine -- there's a styrofoam cup with change. The honor system."

He walked over to the coffee table, stared at the cup for a moment, then looked at me again. "Does the coffee also cost money?"

"Yes," I said, "The tea and cookies, too."

He ruminated upon all this for a few moments, then turned to leave, apparently dissatisfied with our selection.

"Sure that you don't want any words?" I asked softly, as he walked away.

He didn't hear, though, but simply vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared . . .

5 Comments:

At 3:33 AM, Blogger Dave in L.A. said...

Thanks for that stroll down memory lane. Stephens lounge was my favorite place to hole up on campus, a few years before you were there. I'd even forgotten the name of the building, but your description brings it back vividly. Our biggest problem was diplomatically steering new cookie providers toward our favorites.

 
At 4:01 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Wow, how did you happen to find my post -- were you doing a search for "Stephens Lounge"?

(I guess not since you had forgotten the name of the building.)

By the way, I had also worked in the lounge earlier than 1988. I worked there in 1985-86, prior to an excursion to Switzerland, then again from late 1987 to mid-1989.

(And I was studying in the lounge already in 1984, before I started working there.)

So, our times may have overlapped.

Jeffery Hodges

 
At 3:29 PM, Blogger Dave in L.A. said...

I just found your site today by following Marmot's plug. Since I've been posting somewhat frequently on the North Korean situation, I'm always looking for new sources, especially local ones. A few Asia blogs have linked to my posts, and so I thought I'd better raise my game a bit with some local insights. I saw your item on Stephens Hall in my initial browse, just scanning to see the kinds of things you write about. I added your RSS feed, and will be a regular reader.

I was at Cal for the last two years of undergrad (econ) from 77-79, and back for my MBA in 80-82. I'd found the Stephens lounge as an undergrad, and it was a great refuge from my social circle, many of whom weren't particularly studious. Your description really took me back.

Best regards,

Dave Sheridan

 
At 8:52 AM, Blogger Len said...

I am writing this from Stephens Lounge, which as of late spring '05 has wireless internet access. I was just doing what I usually do here - procrastinating - when I decided to search for information on the history of this place that I've been frequenting throughout my six years as an English grad student at Berkeley. Your story - which was excellent, by the way - popped up on a google search. The old red well-worn dictionary still stands there. A sign was posted a little while ago to discourage the homeless from sleeping here, after a few incidents last year with a woman who was inoffensive except for the fact that she kept talking to herself for hours, disturbing everyone.

Well, there was another reason for my google search. The eeeeevil Graduate Dean proposed converting the lounge into an administrative meeting space in April. Thankfully, there was an outpouring of resistance from grad students. Many of us wrote letters attesting to the fact that we depend on this space for doing our dissertation-writing (or, in my case, for well-caffeinated procrastinating). After doing my search, I was heartened to read that the lounge has been used for these purposes by grad students for a long time. Your story (and the other commentator) demonstrate that it's not just recent students who have recognized the continuing value of this space. We are all hoping that the expropriation of grad students does not come to pass. I think that our letters to the Dean made a difference; we'll see.

I don't know if you will ever read your old comments, like this one, but I thought I would thank you for your terrific story.

 
At 10:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Len,

What a surprise to hear directly from Stephens Lounge! You write well yourself, so maybe you should start a blog:

Live From Stephens Lounge!

Yes, I do read new comments on old blogposts -- I've set up my blog to send them to my email address.

Good luck with your graduate work. It's a long, hard slog headed for who knows what . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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