The author visits UCLA
In the fall of 1978 I entered as a freshman at USC’s Department of Electrical Engineering. Having matriculated with barely an honor from my Jesuit prep school, I was unprepared for what was next. It was the stacks of Doheny, the main library on campus. The stacks were a low-ceilinged claustrophobic warren of arcane books shot through with the most vulgar graffiti I have ever witnessed, including that of the public bathrooms at Venice Beach.
Some come here to sit and think Others come to shit and stink I just come to scratch my balls And read the writing on the walls
It was difficult for little old me to reconcile the immense wealth of USC’s endowment and its prestigious reputation with the base crudity of its students’ dirty minds. Moreover, these were the stacks, where the presumably most studious of those minds came to find the answers to life’s most enduring questions. Like any freshman, I got an immediate boner thinking I might find a dirty minded Hermione Granger somewhere in a poorly lit corner. The possibilities were stupefying.
UCLA was the alternative I was bullied out of considering owing to the weepy partisanship of my favorite teacher, Miss M, a diehard USC Trojan. I had attended the National Youth Summer Sports Program several years in a row at UCLA’s Westwood campus. I met both Donna de Varona (and taught her how to do the Funky Chicken) and Bobby Bonds who were both coaches. I learned some judo, some volleyball and some long jump over those years. I also learned that I couldn’t do a kip or a giant on the high bar. Then again I was only 10. But like most underprivileged kids, I was somewhat awestruck that I could attend that university. By the time my PSAT came back, I was so inured to that glory that I didn’t even bother to apply, primarily because it meant I would have to take the SAT and the ACT. Since USC was The University, and I was certain I would get in, I ignored the opportunity and failed to take the test. I also assumed that I would get a 3.2 GPA which pretty much guaranteed UC admission in those days without requiring a standardized test. I had no idea how much things could change.
After several decades, many of the memories of UCLA remain, mostly of that Fishbone concert in Ackerman Union, the time I met Bruce Sterling at an ACM meeting, a talk with Martin Amis & Christopher Hitchens at Royce Hall and my refusal to be bothered to find out what the buzz surrounding Laurie Anderson was all about. I’ve got a lot of nerve. I wound up taking my kids several times to the Festival of Books which, ironically moved from UCLA to USC over the years. But I think my favorite memory was of the ‘Waffle Iron’ building and the laser demonstration that blasted through a steel plate back when that kind of drama was acceptable during the public Open House. None of that served my weary feet over the weekend when I was trusting Google Maps to direct me to the Charles E. Young Research Library. It gave me 3 different locations, seriously. Is this someone’s idea of a joke?
I don’t know why I expected the Young (on North Charles E. Young Drive) to have a quirky, magical and introspective librarian like something out of a Murakami novel. There was nothing like a large desk in the foyer where such a creature would preside. Instead there were glass doors, security magnetometers and a uniformed guard wearing a mask that did not mask his bored expression. No one greeted me except large stylized fonts and arrows. It felt more like a wide tiled entrance to a sleek modern train station than a library. There were scanning checkout machines with a barebones UI. Three functions, one of which read barcodes on books and the others on library cards. The third one was not help. I walked away in silence. To the left was a glassed in reading room. At my 10 o’clock were clutches of semi-futuristic looking circular sofa pods sparsely populated with quiet students many of whom were logo’d up in the familiar Bruin blue and gold. I sat for a moment, adjusted myself and observed.
As I stood and headed further northwest in the building, I followed the tracks of a few students who walked by and moved to the opposite direction. They must be coming from somewhere so going to where they left should put me somewhere other than lost. That way I found the bathrooms, made use of the one with the triangular sign and finished gaining my composure. Did I mention that I had to pee all during the 45 minutes it took me to find this place? Coming to my senses I realized that the bathrooms as well as the elevators will be vertically aligned. All disorientation fell away and I found my way to the bank of 3 lifts and info map. In section E on the 4th floor I would find the History section and so I mashed the button.
Standing on the social distancing logo in the elevator which recommends a maximum of four passengers in stark defiance to the engineering certification the car must surely have, I rode up alone. On the fourth floor I recognized the enhanced silence of grey steel shelves atop the linoleum floor and beneath the fluorescent lighting squares of plastic diffusers in the hung ceiling. 3/4 of a lap around this simple grid and I found section E, and suddenly I wanted desperately to place myself at a maximum distance from cloistered students. There were only two in the northeast corner of the building along the north wall in the wooden desks. I placed my bag directly in the middle desk leaving a good 10 yards between us. Beneath my arm were history books, artifacts of the prior century. I was on a quest to find facts about slavery among American Indians. I felt like Elmer Fudd, being very quiet. I didn’t want anyone asking me what’s up doc.
Muriel H. Wright. E87 045W9. A guide to the Indian Tribes of Oklahoma. (Norman 1951)
Rennard Strickland. E78 045584. The Indians in Oklahoma. (U of OK Press, 1980) 0-8061-1675-9.
They have thick waxy library archive bindings with simple block letters. Going through my father’s books I learned that prior to 1970, there were no ISBN, only Library of Congress identification codes. Prior to 1950 or somewhere thereabouts, there are few or no codes at all. This didn’t come as quite a shock to me, this evolution. For the billions of books, the Library of Congress codes were too short. We didn’t know so much would be published. With the internet we’ve hacked IPv4 beyond technical reason and I find it hard to believe the fine folks at Spectrum, formerly Charter Communication has made use of IPv6 which was the fix. Who knows which direction Dewey Decimal went to give rise to E78 and such prefixes. They are, no doubt, unique to the UCLA library system.
I found enough verbiage in those two books to relieve the suffocating stress I felt in reading a more recently published volume on the Comanche. I’m happy to report that I still don’t know what to think of Chief Quanah Parker or his system of government but I might have found a new obscure hobby.
You see I have ventured outside of my comfort zone to discover a familiar feel of comfort and belonging that emanates from the Tudor gothic buildings and courtyards of UCLA. I experienced that smug feeling of hiding my prurient hungers alone in a corner of a collection of a million books. It makes me feel very small, but oh what clarity I can get from the index cards and notes that sit before me. I’m not interested in the trade of African slaves, but the trade in kidnapped men, women and children from other tribes. I want to know how common that was in the days before even Dewey, how necessary in the days before steam engines, how fungible and reinvented in a world that didn’t know itself. This knowledge may ultimately be useless, but my proximity to it is not. If I have an endless stream of students hiking through an endless maze of books, I can always narrate if I have their attention. I’m preparing myself for an argument I might carry out one day in the future.
If you went to The Strand in NYC, you knew those who worked there were masters in that NYC way legends are made. Every publication on every shelf is a labor of love they could point you to. Hundreds of thousands of them. At the funeral last week, the speaker told us that we die twice; once in the body and again finally when no one remembers to speak our name. Those old volumes without the waxy bindings get lost. Even those on the dozen carts to be returned to the shelves are a fraction of the collection. Nobody is ever going to learn all of that. Sorry baby, that Pareto’s rules. Nobody is ever going to learn all of that. Not even if every lion ate every hunter and retold every history.
So I’m ignorant, and so I will remain. But I’m still curious about Comanche jurisprudence and warfare. I ‘m still fascinated by the possibility of wisdom despite the impossibility of consistent and complete practical philosophy. What fragments we hold onto matters. So universities matter in that they institutionally comfort the mind and provide more answers that we could possibly digest in several lifetimes. If they continue.
Here’s the other thing, an outside thing. It has to do with the fall of the Soviet Union as a functionally consistent system of governance, restrained as it was by the reduced capacity for educating its masses.
Russia does not have enough educated people to lead it properly. It has no deep bench for its meritocracy. I connect this with Iraq and the folly of Debaathification in this moment, and the general dumbing down of American culture in my lifetime, such as I am capable of seeing. We may have had a King of Pop, but we never will have a Miles Davis of Pop. So Russia is vulnerable for sad, demonstrable reasons. It must gangster its way forward, shark its way forward. It’s the only way it knows how. That is to say I find Peter Zeihan’s conjecture of educational depletion to be a compelling argument.
In the midst of USC’s old stacks were graffiti. I’m sure they’ve cleaned it up. Still I cannot forget that even in that graffiti, there was wisdom despite the proper use of the stacks.
Those who write on bathroom walls Roll their shit it little balls Those who read those words of wit Eat those little balls of shit
There are many things we will never know about the Comanche. There are many things we will never know about the war in Europe. There will always be too much to learn and never enough time to apply that learning. Yet curiosity will eventually find its object if institutional memory persists, even hacked up institutional memory. We need to keep both ends up with some sense of integrity, and always remember what Lenny Bruce told us about censorship.
There’s a difference between a big piece of art with a little shit in the middle and a big piece of shit with a little art in the middle. One of them is a big piece of art…