Thursday, July 20, 2006


A perfect day, sunny but not too hot. I bought a sandwich, which they gave to me in a bag, and then I climbed a grassy embankment, and dodged across the five-lane road. There was a campus here that I'd always meant to visit. I knew they held community college classes; I'd considered brushing up my Spanish here. And there were offices of the University of Oregon System and a couple high-tech training institutes. Well and good. A campus, I thought. I'll sit in the shade, eat my lunch, and watch the students walk by.

There was a banked wall of lawn and then a moat of parking lot -- for which you needed a quarterly pass, I presumed to keep interlopers such as I from just drifting in -- which surrounded the campus on all sides. The lot was more than half full. But there were no students to be seen. Half a dozen very large buildings, inscrutable in their reflective, smoked-glass windows. Evidence of a couple hundred people having arrived, in the form of empty cars. But not a soul in sight.

I walked clear around the campus. In that time I saw exactly four human beings. Outside a job-training office a young woman sat on a bit of lawn, spreading sunblock on her bare legs. Outside a -- what? an industrial arts building? -- a stout young man hesitated, casting anxious surreptitious glances at me. Around by the System offices a tall woman walked briskly, talking into her cell-phone, also glancing sidewise at me, determined not to meet my eyes. And around the back, marked "staff parking" -- the servants' quarters, by the dumpsters -- an anomalous woman in heels and dark elegant suit strode past me, rummaging in her leather bag.

There was a shady bit of lawn. I did sit down and eat my sandwich. But a crawling horror of this place began to prickle around my neck. To walk from a sandwich shop to the campus -- my subversive scheme for visiting the campus even though I wasn't purchasing any education -- involved crossing pristine, never-trodden lawns (presumably soaked in weed-poison, to maintain that unearthly green purity), and then crossing the parking lots to arrive at the first sidewalks. No sidewalks led from the street into the campus. Why would they? Who would do such an outlandish thing as walk into the campus from the road?

I had thought that the place and its parking were designed to keep me out of some inner place, some courtyard where students laughed and played. I could understand this plan, even if I didn't approve of it, and planned to flout it.

But there was no inner place. There was no place at all, here. They were not keeping me out -- there was nothing to keep anyone out of. This was not a creation of over-controlling authority. It was the naturally occurring loneliness of the suburbs. Nobody had to encourage these people to dart from car to classroom, from classroom to car. They did this by instinct. I had pictured questioning, or at least flustering, authority; but I was the one getting flustered.

Back across the banked pristine lawn, the five-lane road, and down the banked pristine lawn on the other side, that walled off the mall parking lot. Into my beat-up van. I drove back to work -- driving in through yet another wall of poisoned grass, and into yet another moat of parking lot. Not a soul. This is how you do it, I thought to myself, not very coherently, as I parked. This is it. This is how you train people to drop bombs on civilians. If they're lonely enough they'll do anything.

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