Friday, September 23, 2005

It's fall, therefore it must be Freak Season

So those of you who know me IRL also know that when I lived in the sprawling Big City, I was a veritable Freak Magnet, attracting the strange and the bizarre denizens of that metropolis on a regular basis, even when I was keeping my head down, minding my own business. Some of you even witnessed it and can attest to the fact that I generally did not call it upon myself – well, except for when I was doing loud chimp impressions in public, but then the only kind of person I attracted was a homeless guy who laughed his ass off.

Lately, since moving to this humble Rust Belt Town, my Freak Magnet has seem on the fritz. Either that or these parts are just too normal, too corn-fed for freaks to survive. There were a couple of freaky students my first semester and the woman who suddenly yelled at me in the library, “You! You look young!” but that’s been it. But fear not – though rare, the Midwestern variety of freak does indeed exist and members of this freakdom do apparently feel the inexorable pull of my Freak Magnet, especially on this campus!

The other day, on one of those lovely, confusing days when the weather says, “I feel like moving on to fall, but I’m just not ready to leave summer behind,” I was making the pleasant walk from the campus library to my office, across the shady central quad and into the interior courtyards of the collegiate gothic signature building of campus, where my office resides. (I have gargoyles outside of my office windows – how perfect is that?!) This building is one of those slightly confusing, sprawling structures built on a hill, so that on one side you enter on the first floor and on the other, you enter on the third floor. But on the back side, which I was entering, it also has two second floor courtyards which can be reached either from inside the building or from exterior, grand, arch-covered, stone staircases. Rather than enter the building on the first floor, in nice weather I like to walk up one of those staircases and across the courtyard that my office overlooks, because it’s just so pleasant and pretty, and for a moment I can pretend I’m at one of the posh universities that the architecture is imitating. (That is, until I get inside, where everything is drab, worn, and purely utilitarian. Still, it’s cool that this is a historic WPA building. I also like the fact that the grand front and main entrance face the main road, and thus the city, rather than being turned inwards towards the campus. That says something about the vision of the university. But I digress.)

Anyway, as I was walking toward one of the staircases, I noticed a man standing stock still in the center of the “up” side, looking out towards the quad. Though smokers often stand there in lousy weather between classes, it was a lovely day. Plus, I knew immediately from his stillness that something was up, so I took the other side of the staircase, putting the iron railing in between us. “Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact,” I kept repeating to myself. But just as I thought I’d passed him without incident, I heard, “Excuse me – do you have a class in this building?”

Crap. He knows. He felt the Freak Magnet. And I don't think he's a nice freak.

I know his question sounds innocuous enough, but the tone was indeterminable because his English was heavily accented. So I couldn’t tell if he was being aggressive (in the sense of “Hey! Excuse me!”) or just awkward in his use of what could be a polite interruption. So, despite my better judgment and my long experience I stopped and faced him and said, “I’m sorry, what did you ask me?” I figured maybe this would give him time to rephrase, because frankly, I wasn’t sure why he wanted to know if I had a class in the building. Was he lost and looking for someone knowledgeable to give him directions? But why would he be lost in what was the fourth or fifth week of school? I was confused and I probably showed it.

My confusion just made him more frustrated and, now it was clear, aggressive. “I want to know,” he said pointedly, “if you have a class is this building or…or…something.” OK, I thought, he thinks I’m a student and because I’m female and smaller (he was a big dude) he can bully me, so I’m going to pull rank. “I have an office in this building, but why do you need to know?”

“What? What?” Now he was really thrown off whatever game he was playing. “An office,” I repeated. “I’m a professor.” He didn’t quite look horrified at his mistake, but he did seem mollified a bit at least enough to explain why he had accosted me. But then he revealed his true freak colors.

“Well, well, you see,” he stammered, “I’m trying to figure out why people keep interrupting me. I’m, I’m just trying to have some privacy here and people won’t leave me alone. Why won’t they leave me alone, can you tell me?”

“Um, well,” I said as I began to walk calmly and steadily away so I wouldn’t startle the freak, “you are standing on public property in the middle of a main thoroughfare into the central building on campus. I suggest you try a bathroom stall.”

And on that note, I got the hell away.

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