Mondays I take a groggy, ill-lit train out of New York and teach a writing class at Wesleyan University, my alma mater, a weekly reminder that I am not a college student, by any stretch of the imagination, not by a long shot, no. I just turned 30 and still feel like I’m pretty much straight out of college, that my days slacking glumly around San Francisco and lollygagging around New York, while years in duration, only amount to a couple of new articles of clothing and a small jaded glaze around the eyes, maturity-wise. It ain’t so. My students are skinny little things and wear Guatemalan pants. They write things down on their hands. When they drive me to the train station they’re listening to music that, um, sounds like noise. My friends told me that I’d develop crushes on them, but something has happened to me, and I cannot have a crush on anyone who might not, 100 percent of the time, wear shoes when walking out of one building and down three tree-lined blocks to another building, no matter what the weather, no matter how difficult it is to find the shoes underneath the futon which my wife and I gave away— we gave it away—and, instead of giving our money to Amnesty International, bought a big bed, on a bed frame and everything, like grown-ups sleep in, and we did this without hesitation. I do not have crushes on these people. They say “good morning” when they arrive for class, because they have just woken up. The class begins at 1 p.m.
And the thing is this: I attended Wesleyan. I graduated during the decade that I still think of as happening now, although it isn’t. I watch one of my students walk in wearing a T-shirt so ripped that I wouldn’t use it to put furniture polish, which I own, on my table, which I did not take from a pile on a street corner, or even buy at a yard sale and throw in the back of a truck I borrowed from a guy in my ethnomusicology class, but simply purchased, at a store. I ask him what’s written on his T-shirt. He doesn’t know, and I remember, suddenly, a party I attended in college that got too hot. I was wearing, probably, a black turtleneck, and, if memory serves—and memory always serves when mortifying moments are on the menu—a pair of wire-rim glasses with clear glass in the frames. The party was held by a dance major, as all the best parties were. We were all dancing to music that would have sounded like noise to hopelessly square people in their 30s, had any been in attendance. It got too hot. I asked the dance major for something to wear instead of my turtleneck and he gave me a hopelessly ripped T-shirt with a poem painted on it. I wore the T-shirt home and kept it, because it was comfortable, ventilated, and cool. I remember how it looked, the hole in the armpit so gaping that I sometimes put my head through it when I overslept and had to run to my 1 p.m. class, throwing on my most comfortable T-shirt and a pair of shoes if I could find them; but get this, I never read the poem that was printed on the shirt I used to wear all the time, my cool shirt from the dance major’s party. It is astonishing to me, that I dared to do these things and scarcely thought of them as things at all, let alone dares. My students give me this nostalgia freely; they don’t need it. His shirt reads “PIKEY,” I think; the felt-tip ink has smudged a little.
It’s a nonfiction class, which is a blessing, because I have to read the stuff and sometimes it’s bad. Bad undergraduate fiction is derivative and pretentious; bad nonfiction is a gossip, and who doesn’t want to read that on the train back to New York? They write about everything, everything, with such wide-eyed joy that it’s an insult to call them unflinching—they don’t think to flinch, they don’t know that flinching will be desired of them, along with shoes. They come out. They hate their parents. They throw open each other’s dorm rooms and break up, down six beers, stay up all night talking about vegetarianism and masturbating, never thinking of the vivid mental images they might conjure up when they turn this all in. They’ve worked in sugar plantations and strip clubs. They’ve read Jack Kerouac nine times and never heard of Virginia Woolf. They’re in a glam-rock band and never heard of Roxy Music. They’re wealthy, but they’ve been thrown out of the house. Their friends are in prison, in the hospital, in magazines, 10 feet under, they don’t have any friends. They show up at my office and bring me paragraphs they wrote in the middle of the night. They bring me five versions of a 10-page paper and ask me which is the best one. They want to know how William Maxwell did that thing, how Joan Didion did that other thing, how they can write like David Foster Wallace but about love instead of a Caribbean cruise, like Elizabeth Gilbert but about a divorce instead of working in a bar. Over and over they say, “I want it to be good.”
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.