Stewart “Stu” Closson was a thoroughly unremarkable student. Average attendance, middle-class background, nominal interest in extracurricular activities. His major interests were smoking weed and forgetting about the complexities of life. Or, when he was high, finding complexities in his lava lamp.Stu liked to sleep. He slept through class, weekends, air raids, and other life-threatening disasters that would wake Rip Van Winkle. He loved to sleep.
In fact, he slept for thirty years.
News around campus about the guy who had simply dozed off for three decades spread quickly. Closson had lived in stately Touton Hall, which once stood across from the Dental School and is now home to several varieties of maintenance trucks. When the building was in the process of being demolished, Stu, who was already years into his nap and was having a wicked dream about Sonny and Cher, rolled himself into his comforter so tight that those evacuating the furniture thought it was a rolled-up carpet. The carpet was relocated to one of the computer labs, where the sub-arctic temperatures put him nicely in stasis.
Sensing immense press coverage, President Steven Sample met with the young man and his parents, who were for the most part unconcerned about the whereabouts of their son for thirty years.
The Clossons sat calmly and with a surprising lack of anticipation. Mrs. Closson primped her bright red hair in a pocket mirror while her husband worked on a crossword puzzle
“Hey mom, hey dad,” was all Stu could think of.
“I suppose you want me to do your laundry,” Mrs. Closson said.
“I turned your bedroom into a study, so you can forget about living with us again,” said Mr. Closson.
“He never wrote us,” confided Mrs. Closson to Sample. “You can imagine the heartbreak a mother feels when their child abandons them. But after a few years, I got over it. We thought he joined the Army or something.”
“Um, how did you get to be President, Mr. Sample?” Stu asked, changing the subject. “I mean, I’ve never heard of you.”
Sample let out a boisterous laugh. “Ah, cryogenically frozen youth! Young man, I invented microwave touchpads. I’m also very good at begging for money. You see, the university isn’t about education anymore. It’s about donations. For example, if you were to donate 10 million dollars to the school, you could demolish the building or park of your choice! Especially Fagg Park. That name has got to go.”
Sample sensed Stu’s uneasiness with 1999 and patted him warmly on the back. “I’ll tell you what, Stewart,” he said. “Since I’m not about to destroy my public image by throwing you out of school, I’ll assign you a tour guide to let you get acclimated to your surroundings. How does that sound?”
“It sounds fine, I guess,” stammered Stu. “Do my units still count?”
“Oh, ho, ho, ho!” Sample’s belly erupted with laughter. It reminded Stu of Bill Cosby from “I Spy,” but a lot older and with a lot more geniality in his voice. Sample stopped, sniffed, and wiped a tear from his eye.
· · · · ·
I guess this is where I enter the equation.
I was walking by Sample’s office looking for someone who could help me figure out what I needed to do to graduate when Sample stepped out and gave me an icy, FÃ¼hrer-esque glare.
“Do you believe in my abilities to take this university to the next level of both education and surreal expectation in the 21st century?” he asked me in one breath.
“Not at all,” I replied.
He sighed. “Are you a student?”
“For at least another two months.”
“Good enough.” Sample closed his door and re-emerged seconds later with someone who looked like a “Mod Squad” extra. He was my age, but the clothes and retro haircut took me off guard. Who dressed like that nowadays?
“This is Stu Closson,” Sample said. “Do me a favor and show him around the campus, answer any questions he has, that sort of thing.”
“Is he some kind of Trustee scholar?” I asked.
Sample chuckled. “No.”
· · · · ·
The burning smell of atmosphere filled my lungs as I stepped outside of Bovard Auditorium. “Must be a stage 3 on the smog index today,” I said.
Stu followed closely behind me. As I looked across Trousdale Parkway and into Alumni Park, I saw the same scene I saw every day: a few lethargic people sleeping under a tree or reading a book. People occasionally entered Doheny Library.
To my right, Tommy Trojan and the Student Union were almost abandoned. A few Asian students hung out in front of the pharmacy. To my left, student DPS officers harassed a dozen members of the Mountain Biking Club for not having regulation handle bars on their bicycles.
Finally, Stu spoke. “Man, this is way different than what I’m used to seeing.”
“Oh, yeah?” I asked. “Where are you from?”
“Cool. I’m from San Jose.”
I spent the better part of an hour taking Stu to buildings that hadn’t existed in the late 1960s, such as Leavey Library and Pardee Tower. He was amazed that the Olympic Committee had permitted the World Games to be played right at USC, and that USC had in turn built a residential facility for the athletes. He laughed when I told him about the inordinate number of times the Alumni House had been moved for the sake of campus beautification.
The thing he was most impressed by, however, was Trojan Grounds.
“You mean to tell me,” he said, “that the main reason to have a social gathering is now coffee?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“We’ve really come a long way,” Stu said sarcastically. “It used to be intellectual stimulation that drew people together. Then it was war. You wouldn’t believe how many friends of mine could keep themselves up at night simply talking about the injustices of the war. Vietnam shaped the political landscape of this campus for years. If you were getting together with a big group of friends, it was either in support or dissent of the war. Now it’s a cup of joe.”
“I don’t really think people drink the coffee,” I said. “And it’s called espressos or lattes or mochachinos or something else ridiculous now. Coffee has been elevated to another level. Probably by the French.”
Stu chuckled slightly when we stopped at the impossibly flexed statue. “I remember the last time I walked by Student Union before I took my ‘nap.’ It was impossible to move more than a few inches at a time, there were so many people. It was a rally, for what, I don’t recall. They had them almost every day, it was so intense. If it wasn’t the war, it was Nixon, segregation, racism, feminism, equal rights, Diahann Carroll on ‘Julia’… there was a lot of activism to go around.”
“That must have been something,” I said. “Now that we’re on the eve of a new millenium, people on campus could care less about the world around them.”
“Are you serious?” Stu asked.
“Completely,” I said with a sigh. “Theoretically, the state of affairs in the United States is pretty good. Unemployment is low, and jobs are paying more on average than ever before. I guess you’re fortunate you slept through Jimmy Carter and 13% inflation. Well… Reagan, too. And Nixon. And OPEC.” I paused. “Geez, you passed over pretty much everything that’s been shitty about this century.”
“What happened to Nixon?” Stu asked.
“Oh, he resigned,” I said. “Almost went to prison. It was great. I’m sure a lot of your buddies were real happy to see Tricky Dick out of office.”
“What did he do?”
I was recalling one semester’s worth of American Government from high school. “He broke into the Watergate Hotel and was trying to screw with the Democrats. Well, not him personally. He lied for years, had tapes of his conversations too. He was going to do away with the Bill of Rights.”
Stu was stunned. “What’s the president like now?”
“Slick Willy?” Stu looked at me with the I’ve-been-asleep-for-thirty-years-so-don’t-confuse-me face. “Bill Clinton. He almost just got impeached himself for fooling around with a White House intern.”
“Did it become illegal to have an affair in the past three decades?” Stu asked.
“No, but he lied about it under oath and the partisan politics of the 90s dragged the whole thing into a big headache. I’d tell you more but I made a conscious effort to avoid information on the case.”
Stu sat and looked up at the sky. “The first President since Andrew Johnson gets impeached and you don’t even care? This is a milestone in political history and it’s as unimportant as the Super Bowl?!”
“Actually, I think the Super Bowl pretty much crushed the Senate hearings in the ratings. And it would be a milestone if the President was caught doing something really poisonous to our nation the way Nixon did. All Clinton did was party down with another woman and try and cover it up. Who wouldn’t do that? Unfortunately, the Republican Party is on a moral crusade to eliminate infidelity in Washington, D.C. That’s hypocrisy at work.”
“So now the office of the Presidency has become a worldwide joke?” Stu asked.
Stu reminisced. “In ’69, the President was an icon of strength. People believed in the office and respected it. Now a sexual indiscretion can bring the whole system to its knees.” He looked right into my eyes. “Please tell me that people care about their government.”
I hated to disappoint the guy, so I sat with him and patted him on the shoulder. We watched a dozen or so students pass us in abject silence before I answered. “I wish I could, Stu. You see, people are always interested in the bottom line, but it’s even more apparently so today. There’s no important wars being fought now, crime is low, job rates are up…”
“You told me.”
“So I did. But with this success, the citizenry has put primary focus on their own lives to see how much money can be made. Also, there simply isn’t any galvanizing forces to rally behind today. You said yourself that there was plenty to protest in the 1960s, and much of it was for legitimate causes. What happened at Kent State was a tragedy and it really brought the youth culture together. Vietnam, Nixon, it all had such a negative impact that it was almost impossible not to rebel against something.
“But what do we rebel against now?” I continued. “The President getting a blow job? Tuition hikes? The university doesn’t give a rat’s ass about our lives as long as we keep bringing money in. And causes are so numerous that they’ve split into competing interests. I’d like to see someone from Greenpeace come over and help out someone from Amnesty International. Nothing is altruistic anymore. Peace and prosperity can really take the fight out of you. Unless, of course, you’re Local 11.”
Stu was incensed. He stood up, patchwork clothes ruffling slightly in the breeze. He began to walk down Trousdale towards Mudd Hall of Philosophy. I ran to keep up with him.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I… I can’t believe this bullshit. I’m going to fight the apathy,” Stu said.
I stopped. “Wait a second. Did you ever protest anything when you were in school?” Stu stopped. I had hit a nerve. “I read the article about you! You were a slacker! And when you were talking about the rallies earlier, you were just walking by them! You didn’t do anything, and you’re deriding my generation for acting in their own interests? You slept for thirty years!”
Stu turned and looked at me sheepishly. “You’re right,” he said. “I didn’t do anything. Maybe if I had been an active, productive member of society in the past this nationwide apathy wouldn’t exist today. But hindsight is 20/20.”
I was sympathetic. “Just don’t wax nostalgic about how much better we were at fighting the forces of evil when you didn’t do any yourself. Hey, life is good now. Enjoy that, because that’s the most important thing. That, and making sure our tuition and housing fees don’t go up.”
“Is it pretty expensive to go here now?” Stu asked.
I nodded my head in agreement. “And Sample keeps jacking the price up with no visible increase in the level of education.”
Stu’s eyes widened, and a thin smile grew on his face. “I’ll grab some poster board and a Sharpie.”
I smiled and rolled my eyes. “Let me buy you some coffee first.”