It was a brilliant concept. In the late 1980s Workman published 10-Minute University, a book and recording which purported to “teach” only the things you’d need to remember from a typical four-year university experience. Presented by the world’s fastest talking man, John Moschitta, Jr., TMU shrunk learning down to bite-sized nuggets on topics from comparative literature to physics to football. It was hilarious. What I didn’t realize until now was that it was also sort of true. And I wondered, what did I actually remember about college? What did I learn?
Life, being what it is, keeps most of our heads clogged with the demands of the present. But the past is always there for us, patiently waiting to be remembered, reconsidered, and sometimes redefined.
My head bounces first to Pinball Pete’s. I walk through a nondescript door into a darkened room. It’s spangled with flashing lights and jangled with the clash of tinny music. I feed two single dollar bills into the coin changer for my daily quota of eight quarters. For a little while, or maybe longer if it’s a good day, I am the Frogger Queen, the Pac Man Champ. When I leave I wrap my arms around my books but I feel so great I wish I could just balance them on my head.
I’ve staked out a seat for the evening, end of the row with a little extra elbowroom. I need it: I’m a lefty. The ceilings are high, the lights are low and the silence is thick. We are all in this together, chins jutted out determinedly, all hunched over our books. The competition for seats here in the Grad is intense-get up at your peril or your rail back chair will be forever lost, your books and papers summarily dumped like your laundry, left in the dryer for a mere ten minutes after the cycle completes. But at some point I risk it anyway-I always do–for the lure of the instant coffee machine, a quarter for a cup of viscous black sludge, the most intense caffeine hit on the planet.
There I am, managing to curl up in a straight back booth at Drake’s. In front of me is a dented metal tray. It holds a grilled cinnamon roll and a tiny tin teapot filled with hot Russian Caravan. Sometimes there is instead a glass of limeade and a tuna sandwich, served on WonderBread and cut into perfect quarters. The penny candy wall is just across the way, glass jars filled with everything from nonpareils to malted milk balls, lemon drops to licorice. I am a licorice person. Bored looking girls wearing aqua-colored smock jackets plunge in with scoopers filling red and white striped bags to order. I never leave without one. Actually, I never want to leave.
When I was a little kid we were taught that Henry Ford invented the automobile. Or maybe that was just implied. I’ve never been sure. This may have been a Detroit thing, people here care for their cars so deeply that they identify themselves not just by the cars they drive but by the cars they drove. I am still misty-eyed at the thought of my ’71 cream colored, black roofed Cutlass Supreme. At any rate, I was a grown up before I realized, or was willing to accept, that Henry Ford did not actually invent cars but he did pioneer mass production.
That connection may in fact be what led Tom Monahan, who then ran Dominos, to install a genius oven in his pizza places. That oven ran on the Ford mass production system theory: a call would come in, one of us would take the order, the slip would be instantly transferred to the tosser who threw the dough up the air and stretched it onto a tray, tucking the order slip underneath, where it would be sent down the line to the saucer person, who then moved the pie over to the cheeser person, who would shove the pie to me. My job was to instantly decipher the hieroglyphics on the slip and add the toppings, the worst being sausage because it was sticky, meaning that I’d have to dunk my hands in the olives to moisten them enough to get the sausage on the pie fast enough. Then one quick turn and the pie would be placed on a conveyer belt that carried it through a superhot oven in a handful of minutes. It slid hot and done down a slide at the end, was folded directly into a waiting pizza box before being thrust into the arms of the delivery guy who drove like a bat out of hell to get it to someone’s front door. All in thirty minutes or less or it was free.
My college job. I was good at this.
I lived on the third floor in East Quad, an old dorm covered in ivy. No air conditioning. But open windows meant fresh air. And sometimes company.
One day I looked out and there was a squirrel sitting on the ledge. He didn’t move. Neither did I. I waited. So did he. We sat in silence for a bit. Finally I gently reached over and placed a cracker on the ledge. He picked it up with both paws and ate the whole thing right there. After nibbling through a few more crackers he looked at me as if to say thanks then scampered away. I thought that was that. It wasn’t. Melvin (if he and I were going to be together like this, he needed a name) returned the next day and every day after that. It became clear that he preferred peanut butter spread on his crackers and he was also fond of raisins.
End of the semester and I hated to leave him. So I left a note for whomever would be taking over my room with detailed instructions to watch out for Melvin and to leave peanut butter crackers for him if possible. I hoped for the best.
So I think you’ll agree I learned a great deal in college. My own 10-Minute University takeaway is this:
I to this day I know how to enjoy my own company. I revel in eating well. Sometimes I move fast—other times less so—but I know how to keep the rhythms of my life moving forward. I can be patient when I have to be. I detest sausage, I love licorice, I adore coffee.
Oh. And almost thirty years later, on a visit to my old school with my husband and sons, the tour guide proudly mentioned the most popular club on campus: The University of Michigan Squirrel Club with over four thousand members. Legend holds that the Squirrel Club, a group that meets on Sunday afternoons to feed peanuts to the squirrels of Ann Arbor, began in my dorm, East Quad, shortly after I left.
Photo credit: Jared R. Frank