Making adjustments

Yesterday morning I visited State College, home of Penn State’s University Park campus. The leading headline visible in the newspaper kiosks all up and down the main street declared, City Not Ready For Residents. Classes started more than two weeks ago, but I imagine there are quite a few freshmen who still aren’t quite ready for State College, either. Quite apart from the strangeness of a new place – which some will find bewilderingly large, and others ridiculously small and lacking – is the virtually unchallenged practice of trying to make wildly disparate individuals conform to uniform requirements and lesson plans.

A couple hours earlier, I had been moved almost to tears by my parents’ description of a movie I had never seen. It was a foreign film, which meant that they probably got more out of it than if it had been in English, paradoxically enough. With subtitles, one doesn’t have to worry about missing any of the dialogue due to the characters speaking too rapidly or indistinctly. My father has mentioned that on the rare occasions when he gets to watch a movie at some motel with cable TV, he always turns on the closed captioning for that very reason. And of course when one replays a foreign movie in one’s head, all the characters speak in English, without even a trace of an accent. The words at the bottom of the screen, so essential to our comprehension, completely erase themselves in memory. Such captions might constitute a good example – so rare in our society – of a completely ergonomic tool.

Our friend L. recently told us about a small auditorium on campus where foreign and art films are sometimes shown. It’s fan-shaped, like most auditoriums, she said, but the weird thing is that every row has the very same number of seats. So people sitting right in front of the screen end up being crowded much too close together, and folks in the back rows find themselves sitting much too far apart – especially if they might have had any hanky-panky in mind. Think of all those pairs of frustrated hands trying to connect with each other in the dark, arms stretching awkwardly and maybe even a little painfully into the chasms between the seats.

I stopped into the CVS pharmacy to buy shampoo; it was my lucky day. A huge sign in the window announced a Semi-Annual BEAUTY SALE. If beauty could be bought and sold, I thought, just imagine how valuable ugliness would become! Then I thought: Prove that this isn’t already the case. “As soon as everyone in the world knows that the beautiful are beautiful,” says the Daodejing, “there is already ugliness.” It’s the ugliness that’s lucrative, ugliness that drives this bizarre, anti-ergonomic economy. I’ve seen aerial photos of the oil fields of Venezuela and the Niger Delta; they aren’t pretty.

The shampoo was on sale; it cost all of eighty-eight cents. Sure, it’s full of chemicals that have never been tested for their long-term effects on human beings, let alone on water quality, but I don’t have much money, and haircuts aren’t cheap. The shampoo should last close to six months if I’m careful and keep my hair short.

This was my first real visit to State College in several months. A new parking garage had just opened, right across the street from the old parking garage and two short blocks from the third major parking garage, which is a stone’s throw from a new, multi-level parking deck. If gas becomes too expensive for most of the students to drive cars, I wonder how many of them will suddenly rediscover how convenient it is to walk or ride a bike? If the predictions of peak oil theory are correct, these public monuments to private fantasies of independence will soon stand as empty as the shells of dead snails. At least the skateboarders, banned from the sidewalks, will have plenty of places to ride.

The new library downtown is almost finished. It sits rather comfortably on the new, expanded corner lot that has been created for it, and I was struck by the fact that it now no longer faces down toward the Penn State campus and its main artery, the elm-lined pair of sidewalks that lead straight to the university’s own, recently expanded library. Now it stands side-by-side with the three-year-old borough building, facing into the center of town as if to symbolize State College’s would-be independence from the behemoth university whose appendage it really still remains.

The main doors to the public library will take foot traffic in right about where an alley used to connect to the street. A large parking lot occupies most of the space where the Goodwill, Army-Navy store and bicycle repair shop used to be. Yesterday, workers were putting the final touches on the outside of the building, reaching up with paint rollers or leaning and twisting in with caulking guns. The landscaping appeared to be complete; the brand-new shrubs probably arrived already pruned. Twenty-foot trees had been planted in the new, faux-brick sidewalk.

My main reason for coming into town had actually been to visit the university library, which is also a fully public facility, complete with open stacks and no borrowing limits. Five years on and I’m still adjusting to the strangeness of its new wing and the novel arrangement of space and collections throughout the complex. They just redesigned the electronic catalogue in an effort to make it user-friendlier, and from what I could see, they succeeded. (“User-friendlier,” incidentally, is what MS Word’s Spelling and Grammar tool advises in favor of “more user-friendly,” which is what I had originally typed.) But finding my books in the oldest stack area wasn’t as easy as it used to be, because the locations are described in a more general fashion now, and one is expected to study a map on each level in order to figure out where to go.

I still take the stairs rather than the elevator in the section of the library that’s been the most thoroughly remodeled and, as they say in the plastic surgery business, enhanced. I was amused to see that the lounge areas around the stairs were plastered with signs: Cell-Phone Use Area. I suspect that every area designated for smoking when I was a student back in the mid-80s is now a Bantustan for cell-phone users, shielding the rest of us from the hazards of second-hand talk.

Halfway down one staircase, two large, galvanized steel pipes bisecting the landing a foot below the ceiling made me stop and eye all four walls with sudden astonishment. It’s strange how a glimpse of normally hidden infrastructure can sometimes make one feel as if the corner of a shroud or curtain had just been lifted.

I suppose that last image might mean more to someone from a strictly Muslim country. Here, instead of the chador, women wear dark glasses – men, too. I was struck by just how many people in town and on campus seem to feel a need to shield their eyes. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps part of the popularity of sunglasses owes to the freedom they give their wearers to stare uninhibitedly at each other’s bodies – that a mask of cool indifference quite possibly disguises a face of need.

One woman wearing mirrored lenses pushed a stroller, and I glanced down at its two-year-old occupant. Babies and toddlers are somehow exempt from anti-ogling rules; I guess it’s presumed they’re too young to have a fully developed sense of privacy or personal space. He sat up straight up in the carriage, looking all around at the things no one else could see. No city will ever be ready for residents like him.

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