February 05, 2009

Our college cafeteria doesn’t have Gatorade or even Powerade. In the soda machines in the Dining Hall next to Pepsi and Sierra Mist where at a normal, not-retarded school you’d see Gatorade, or maybe Powerade, we have this drink called Nerve-Ade. Not a joke. Nerve-Ade. Like it was created in a time when they didn’t really understand medicine but they placed a lot of emphasis on the health of your nerves and having the word “nerve” in the name of your product was a selling point. Not like today, where it’s old-fashioned at best and gross at worst.


One time in the Dining Hall I was sitting with Max and Terry who both worked at the paper at the time (Terry doesn’t work at the paper anymore, after our sponsor Dr. Erlenmacher told him a cartoon depicting the school’s nine central buildings as leaves on a pot plant could in no way be rationalized as “promoting a sensible drug policy” and he put an iMac through a window). Max said something funny and Terry and I both laughed and I looked up and saw a girl sitting alone at a table very far away, and she laughed, too. She was looking at us and laughing along with us. There’s no way she could’ve heard what we were talking about, and even if she had, it was a private joke about our TA Freshman year, and she wasn’t in our hall Freshman year and the TA graduated after that, so there was no way she could’ve gotten the joke. She was not unattractive but it was really weird, weird enough to make her not attractive.

The nice thing about working for the paper is you can say “I work for the paper.” It’s not like another extracurricular where you’d have to say, you know, “I’m in the journalism club,” or anything like that.


It might honestly be kind of cool if the Nerve-Ade logo was really old-fashioned, like all curly-cued like the label on a strange old patent medicine, but it’s not. It’s like they realized their product was named something very uncool so they did a logo redesign, but they did the logo redesign during a very uncool time for commercial graphic design overall, like the late seventies or something, so what they ended up getting is this blocky shitty thing. It’s like something you’d see on a poster promoting physical activity on the wall in your elementary school nurses’ office, the kind of thing you can’t imagine was ever new, but always sun-faded and yellowed, soaking up every bit of nicotine for as long as it was okay for people to smoke indoors.

There are things that are raw nerves for me that don’t seem to bother other people, and I don’t understand how they’re not bothered. Graphic design is one of those things. If you’re anything like me and you saw the front page layout of our paper (The Sumner Sentinel) on an average day, your eyes would explode and you would ask me how I could stand to have my work published underneath a banner like that, and I’d say that the only thing that keeps me going is the thought that someday I might be editor-in-chief and I could institute a total look-and-feel overhaul. Because right now our paper looks like something the paperclip from Microsoft Word generates automatically while the computer is off. It’s disgusting, and you can blame Andrew Barstow, last year’s editor-in-chief, for coming up with it, and this year’s editor-in-chief, Jennifer Trang, for keeping it alive, and you can blame the entire student population for not screaming with rage every time they take one of them out of the orange wire racks that are in front of most of the school's buildings, and then storming the paper’s office with the papers rolled up and lit like torches, chanting “WE DESERVE BETTER!”

Honestly, they probably don’t deserve better. They clearly don’t even care. No one realizes how lazy everything around them is, how ever poster advertising every poorly-attended activity with a cliché factory-issued font and a godawful drop-shadow is an insult.

If I could talk to the design team at Nerve-Ade, I would tell them that’s not cool to be modern in a time where what’s modern is shit.


A couple weeks after that girl did that weird thing in the dining hall, my scholarship got all fucked up and I had to go down to the Bursars’ Office and straighten it out. It’s sort of embarrassing but at the end of high school I won a scholarship called the Iowa Poetry Prize (don’t ask me why it’s called that, it’s given out by an organization in Syracuse and I go to school in Michigan. But it is for poetry, which I guess is the embarrassing part) and they had been forgetting to send funds to my school and now I had to go to the Bursar with a bunch of copies of letters or I was going to get kicked out of school next quarter.

There was no one waiting ahead of me in the office, but they still had all these stanchions you had to go through, like there was usually a line thirty kids strong that needed organizing, and each Bursar’s Office employee had their own window through which they interacted with students, like tellers at a bank in a Western. I went through the empty roped-off maze and up to the window and a fat woman named Elise helped my college experience not end halfway through Sophomore year. I was pretty surprised how easy the whole thing was considering how much I’d been dreading it and putting it off.

As I was leaving, entering the revolving glass door and going back out into the cold, somebody entered the revolving door from the other side, coming into the Bursar’s Office, and it was the girl from the dining hall. She had a purple knit hat pulled down really low and she was about a head shorter than me. She pushed her way in and I pushed my way out and the door made that whooshing noise, along with some scraping from sidewalk salt being dragged in on people’s boots and getting caught in the cracks of the door. She noticed me and smiled.

Later in the office I told Terry and Max about it and we all agreed she was stalking me. Terry said “Is Tamra home?” and we all laughed. It was a reference to The Strangers, a movie we’d all seen on DVD a couple weeks before that and liked, where a whole string of really grisly murders starts with a creepy girl showing up at this house in the woods and asking if Tamra is home. Max had given it three and a half stars in the paper, while Amber, the girl who Jennifer assigned to do movie reviews opposite Max’s to give a more “balanced viewpoint,” gave it only two.


“So, you know how they have Nerve-Ade in the Dining Hall soda machines instead of, like, Gatorade?”

“No.”

My pitch for a story about the no-doubt strange, hilarious, or at the very least depressing reasons our school is the only place in the world you can get Nerve-Ade is five seconds old and already doomed. Everyone at the paper is sitting a big square table in the middle of the office for the weekly pitch meeting. Jennifer and all the page editors are seated around the table itself and everyone else is sitting on the swiveling wheelie chairs that are in front of all the computers that ring the room. All of us have our chairs swiveled in towards the table. Mark LoSaro the sports editor’s head is blocking my eye contact with Jennifer so I have to lean slightly to the left so I can see her while she tries to makes me look stupid.

“Seriously?”

“I’ve lived off campus since Sophomore year,” Jennifer says. “I haven’t been the Dining Hall since, probably…I don’t know…”

“Well, anyway. They do, right, and like, why?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, that’s what the story would be about.”

“Okay, I mean, it seems kind of esoteric. I don’t know if it warrants a story per se.”

“That’s what I would go find out.”

“I don’t know if we can designate any space for it this week, just based on that. But if you feel like you want to do some research on your own, and you want to submit a column…”

This is exactly what I was afraid of, and exactly why I knew I should’ve done all my research beforehand, so I could come in here with an actual story to pitch, rather than just trusting that Jennifer and I notice the same things and think the same things are weird. And I was going to do it, too. This morning, the cafeteria worker replenishing the plates at the salad bar, I asked him who I would talk to about who provides the Dining Hall’s beverages, and he gestured half-heartedly to a box where you can drop comment cards, which people mostly fill with drawings of dicks and comment cards that are folded and stuck together with peanut butter, and I said, “No, what if I actually wanted to ASK somebody,” and he told me I could see his boss Alan Treadwell, and I asked where I could find him, and he said his office was "through there," and gestured to the kitchen. And right then somebody came out of the kitchen, and the door swung and there was a strong gust of dishwater-and-hot-dog smell, and I had to get to class soon anyway, so I told myself I’d come back later.

And I had googled Nerve-Ade the night before and it doesn’t have a website but it was listed as an offering of a couple of Midwestern beverage distributors, which I actually didn’t like. I was hoping it would either have an old busted website that only amplified the mystery, or no web presence at all.

So I came into the meeting with nothing and now that I say it out loud I can feel how it’s a long way between me seeing something and it immediately raising a million questions (like did the founder of the college engage in a pact with a classmate of his from Harvard who was doing all these quasi-legal experiments trying to perfect humanity, and the founder authorized him to use the student population as a four-thousand-kid subject group, although when the school was founded it probably wasn’t four thousand kids, and Nerve-Ade is the last remnant of that secret twisted pact, and every time we want to drink Gatorade or its closest equivalent to wash down our dry, plastic-y pizza slices and taco salad bar, we’re being flooded with chemicals that were thought to be healthy back when they thought mercury, in moderation, was good for you?), and me describing it to other people, and not having answers to any of those questions. I can see so clearly how this could lead somewhere cool and all anybody else hears is “I want to take away column inches for all of your articles so I can write one about urine-colored liquid none of us have thought about since Freshman year, if we ever thought about it at all.”

And I am not writing this as a column for Editorials. Besides the kids who have their designated weekly columns, (Yujin’s sex-advice column, Paul and Mina’s thing where they review a restaurant in town, which shouldn’t still be running because they had officially reviewed every restaurant in town a semester ago) anyone in school has an equal shot at getting a column published, whether or not they actually work for the paper, and Jennifer almost always gives it to an anti-homophobia broadside written by her roommate, or an anti-famine broadside written by her roommate.

“…I’ll definitely take a look at it, okay?”

“Okay,” I say. If Terry would here he’d be sketching a cartoon of Jennifer as a SS commandant, and even though he’s honestly not a great artist and he’d have to tell me it was supposed to be Jennifer when he showed it to me after the meeting, although the Nazi costume would be extremely and almost creepily accurate for how bad of an artist he is, it would probably make me feel a little better. But the window in Dr. Erlenmacher’s office just got replaced today, and Terry has been off of the paper for two weeks now.

At the end of the meeting Jennifer teams me up with Aaron Beanman to work on a story about diminishing alumni donations. I stay in the office until late, working on a flier for a gig by Max’s band, Various Karates, on Friday in the Student Union, that I told him I would have done two days ago. When I finish, it’s dark outside.


I’m walking across the grass that was, in the cartoon that got Terry kicked off the paper, the dead center of the pot leaf, when I see the girl from the Dining Hall and the Bursar's Office. I’m not sure she sees me. She passes right in front of me in a direction I’m not heading. It’s really cold outside and I think about not doing it but then I remember the hot-dog-and-dishwater smell and how I let it put me off of my goal. I turn down the concrete path and kind of run after her.

“Hey! Excuse me.”

She turns, looking a little scared, which puts me more in my head than I already am. Then she sees it's me and she smiles.

“Yes?”

“Hey, uhm, hi.”

“Hi.”

“I’m Jesse.”

“Hi, I’m Amy.”

I reach out to shake her hand. She shakes my hand. She’s wearing fingerless gloves. I’m not wearing any gloves.

“Would you, uhm…would you mind answering some questions really quickly? For an article in the Sentinel?

“Uhm, yea! Totally.”

I pull my reporter’s notebook out of my back right pocket for the second time in my college career.

“Cool. Cool. Uhm, are you aware that alumni donations, donation from alumni are diminishing?”

“No. Should I be?”

“Ha! No. I wasn’t until I got assigned this article. So, after you graduate, do you imagine yourself donating to the school?”

“Uh…honestly? I guess…it depends on if I’m making money or not? It might not be for a while.”

MIGHT…NOT…BE…FOR…A…WHILE. My pen is one of those stupid white Bic ones and it’s not wanting to work in the cold and I hope she can’t see that I’m only getting half of what she says down in actual ink. The rest is just indentations in the lined paper.

“Cool…and your name, so I can attribute the quotes?”

“Sure. Amy…the normal way. And then Fullerton. F-U-L-L-E-R-T-O-N.”

“And you’re a…what year are you?”

“Sophomore.”

“Sophomore. Cool. Got it. Thanks!”

“No problem! It was nice to meet you.” She starts to turn around.

“Oh, also—” She stops turning around. I say: “I’ve actually, seen you around, a couple times? And I was wondering…they’re showing ‘Evil Dead 2’ in town this weekend. It’s, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, it’s pretty funny. Anyway, I was wondering if maybe you would want to go?”

“Oh,” she says. “Like a date?”

It is shocking to hear the word said out loud here in the cold but I’m honestly glad she brought it up because I’ve been burned in that date-not-a-date place a bunch of times. Most of them in high school. For whatever reason, I haven’t been on many dates in college, or things I would even have a chance to be under the mistaken impression were dates.

“Uh…I guess?”

“Oh. Jesse! That’s actually really sweet of you. But I sort of have a boyfriend?” She says “boyfriend” like the sentence was a question. But it was a statement.

“Oh. Oh, cool, so. No worries.”

“But thanks! Seriously. That sounds like fun. So…”

“Thanks! No, no problem. See you around.”

“Yes! I’ll be looking for that article!”

She turns and goes the way she was going and I turn back and go the way I was going originally. I reach the circular parking lot at the center of campus. I am breathing hard even though I’ve only been walking. I would take out my headphones and put them on, if only to cover my ears which are probably getting all red from the wind, but I left them in my dorm room plugged into my laptop this morning.

Then, right on the main road that cuts through the middle of campus, Sumner Drive, the Nerve-Ade truck drives by. An actual big-rig, the truck itself kind of older and faded orange, but the trailer all white with that perfect, awful late-seventies NERVE-ADE logo on the side.

I think about running after the truck. This is my chance. It’s either going to the Dining Hall to unload, in which case I’ll have plenty of time to interrogate the driver, or back to the Nerve-Ade factory, which, though I might have to hail a cab and say “follow that truck!,” is almost a bigger coup. I’ll prove Jennifer and everyone wrong with an article that will demand to be published. Paul and Mina’s faux-review of the only pizza place in town that's actually a thinly veiled ranking of the hottest people on the lacrosse team, Jennifer’s roommate’s takedown of prejudice against gay famine-stricken populations, my own expose on diminishing alumni donations featuring a money quote from Sophomore Amy Fullerton, it will all have to wait for next week.

Where does she get off having a boyfriend? If she has a boyfriend, what is she doing alone all the time? That’s supposed to be our signal to each other, the aloneness. And how come she’s still eating in the Dining Hall? She’s a Sophomore. Jennifer Trang was off campus eating at home with her roommates by Sophomore year.

I think about running after the truck, but I don’t. It’s cold outside, and everyone is dumb.


A gentle reminder: everything on this page in italics is fiction, including the above. Thanks for reading.

Posted by DC at February 5, 2009 11:05 AM
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