Tales of the University Splendide and the University Superius

With deepest appreciation to Ludwig Belmelmans

Once up a time a person started a university. Of course, it wasn’t a great university at first, but it did manage to stay open and, eventually, that which remains extant is accorded a certain amount of respect. And the university improved, not all at once, but in dribs and drabs, a scholar here, a good book there. Over the decades it became a good school, then a great school. Then it became a premier institution of higher learning and you were quite proud if you or your child were granted admittance. Then, like the Velveteen Rabbit, like a Greek god thrown up into the night sky to be outlined in stars – it became mythic.

Pourtant, the main door to the main building of the University Splendide is usually broken, copier machines from the 1970s lurk in the offices, water leaks from ceiling pipes and Nobel Prize winners hold up the lines at coffee counters because they can’t decide what they want to drink. Assistant professors develop alarming tics as they wait to be advised whether to try for tenure, to see if 30 odd years of pressure, strain, studying and work will garner them promotion and keep them at the University Splendide or if they will be damned to intellectual exile of Arizona, Florida, Ohio, or Maine. Down the long, dark corridors, graduate students slouch, faces turned quickly to the side to avoid eye contact. No student princes falling in love with barmaids and singing “Gaudeamus Igitur” but teenagers old before their time gnawing their fingernails at 2am in computer labs.

One of the oddest facts about the splendid university is its location. You might think such largess of learning would either choose to be born in, or would transform its environs into, a haven of light and learning. Malehusement, it is entirely surrounded by the still-fighting fragments of Cromwell’s army. Heads decidedly round, frocks decidedly plain, with a religious horror of frivolity or gaiety; the sort of people who would much rather spend $25 on a large platter of stale bagels and grainy apples than a rich, moist coffee cake.

The University Splendide is located quite close to another educational institute of merit: the University Superius. They are connected by a bus which tootles down the road. It is clean, environmentally-friendly, slow, and has a working air-conditioner. The cosseted passengers enjoy a barely perceptible forward motion, not enough to slosh their $12 espressos or their kopi luwak brewed at home and transported in glass-lined, space-age thermos. If you are “associated with” either university, it’s free; if you aren’t, tickets cost $5 per ride and are only available at a few (not advertised) locations. You can’t pay the driver in cash. Cash is vulgar.

Cash will get you on the public bus. 90 cents in change (or you can cram a dollar into the little slot, but don’t be thinking you’re getting a dime back). You can wave a transfer slip, even one that’s past its date stamp because sometimes the drivers, as with people who only put in three quarters, will let you slid. It depends on their mood and your attitude. But the instant you pay, grab something because once the driver has finished growling at the boarding passengers, he or she transmogrifies into Mario Andretti. The air-conditioning may or may not work (the higher the temperature, the lower the chance), but by heavens, that gas pedal is doing just fine. Or maybe it’s just stuck to the floor, who can tell? Hang onto your Dunkin’ Doughnuts iced coffees because we are aiming for warp speed.

The University Splendide bus breaks for pedestrians, ambulances, bikers, cars which want to change lanes, trains and little old ladies ten feet from the curb who look like they might be thinking of crossing the street. The public bus might break for the Second Coming, but other than that it’s every vehicle for themselves. I’ve seen a driver cut off a school bus.

Buses are supposed to stop at the train tracks. The University Splendide drivers dutifully come to a complete stop, open the door, assiduously look down the tracks and then head on their dilatory way. Public bus drivers wave their hands in the general direction of the door pull, shoot a quick glance in the general direction of the tracks and rev the engine. Got to love them.

University Splendide passengers arrive twenty minutes late but fresh, relaxed, cool and secure in knowing that no event will never start without them. Public passengers arrive ten minutes early, sweaty, and with someone’s iced coffee dumped over their laps from the conjunction of bus wheel and pothole at 40 miles an hour.

Although they are neatly-turned out, University Splendide passengers also arrive with a wide array of nervous tics. University Splendide students and professors’ lives are very smooth on the outside, but all that free and lovely transportation access doesn’t translate into an easy life. The first time I rode the University Splendide bus I noticed a well-dressed woman grab a section of her hair, pull it sharply, take another section, pull, grab, pull, grab, over and over. The man sitting next to me took a small sip of coffee, set his cup on his knee, took another sip, set it down, as if moving by automation.

There is a lot of quiet distress on the University Splendide bus: a man endlessly rechecks his watch, a woman chews at her cuticles, a man crosses his legs back and forth without ceasing, a woman spends 10 minutes smoothing out her skirt, a man gnaws on his thumb. No one laughs, no one chats, no one looks at the passing shops.

On the public bus, you might run into a guy having a conversation with his shoes or a woman screaming into her cell phone about who was screwing who last night but otherwise, it’s fairly normal. People cross themselves as the bus careens through a red light, but otherwise, we all sit quietly.

Shops near the University Splendide close right at 5pm. You get off the bus and it’s a ghost town. If you need something practical, you need to buy it during practical hours (that means, send a minion to but it for you). If it isn’t practical, then perhaps you need to rethink your lifestyle. To take one tiny example: you cannot buy Waterman or Mont Blanc ink refills anywhere near the University Splendide. I am not talking fuchsia ink for a hand-rubbed ivory, coral, peach pit and ormolu pen but a little tube of blue ink for a not very expensive pen. Assuming ink refills had hides or hairs, neither hide nor hair of a refill is to be found within spitting distance of the University Splendide.

Now you might not think this was something to get worked up about but let me tell you. In Paris there are 817 stores within three blocks of the Sorbonne which sell refills and with every tube of ink you buy, you get a free chocolate croissant, still warm from the oven. By Moscow university they sell them for one kopeck (two rubles) on street corners; in Finland all the university bookstores sell cute little reindeer with Waterman refills as legs; in Sweden they roll them up in cinnamon-sugar lefse. Thai universities keep flocks of Buddhist monks on retainer solely to walk around campus and give out lotus blossoms, pen refills, and blessings. You cannot order espresso within hailing distance of an Italian university without getting a Waterman ink refill placed neatly on your saucer. In Cambridge, England street urchins sneak around and slip Mont Blanc pen ink refills into your bookbag when you are not looking but you can’t get one for love or money within five miles of the University Superius. Not that I have an opinion on this abhorrent oversight.

And, of course, the University Splendide is a TECHNOLOGY institute, hence everyone uses (mutually incompatible) calendar software programs which they download onto cell phones. No one ever touches a pen until they drop their phones, get them wet, lose them, let the battery run out and/ or accidentally overwrite the info. Then they have to find a plebe to borrow a pen from.

Going to a public university is like going to the YMCA with 29 other people to learn how to swim. The locker room smells funny, the towels are rough, the water is cold. You have a different instructor every day and some of them are horrible but some are very nice. You make some close friends and hate some of your classmates. You and your fellow newbies struggle along; some really take off, some hang on the edge a lot. But you remember this real loser, a friend’s cousin, who passed the class and if that twit could make it, you can too. A few stop coming to class, but the ones who keeping showing up, no matter how lousy to begin with, all pass. Two even go on to join the swim team. A few keep in touch over the years, but mainly you all go separate ways and your groups fits into a perfect curve in terms of life happiness. None of you are ever going to drown if someone throws you in the deep end.

Going to a University Splendide is like going to learn to swim with 4 other people. Your classes are held in an Art Deco, gently-heated, indoor pool with piped-in music. You get pre-swim massages and after-swim hot fudge sundaes. You have three instructors who are genuinely interested in how you do and offer lots of praise and encouragement. One of your group of five will end up an Olympic gold-medalist and then revolutionize cement manufacturing; one will coast his entire life off the contacts he made in swimming class; one will be healthy, normal, intelligent; one will fail out of the class causing traumatic blockage which will eventually lead to despair, depression and a life-long tendency towards fringe religions, pharmaceuticals, sitar music and bad haircuts. One will get eaten by sharks. As this distribution is well-known before you start the class, you spend a fair amount of time worrying if you will be the shark-food or the gold medalist. You and your classmates have a 50% chance of survival if someone ever picked you up and flung you into the deep end of a pool.