I was somewhere around Belleville, on the edge of the city, when the drugs began to take hold.
I take artistic license, for Kingston isn’t actually a city, and alcohol is barely a drug. But I channel Hunter S. when I can and I certainly felt like doing a bit of that now.
The arrival at the train station was vaguely familiar. I had made the same approach as a naive student, a more self-aware student, and once or twice as an intoxicated student on the cusp of insansity. I took a cab into the heart of the student ghetto; the driver was polite and chronically reticent. We did not share more than a polite hello, pay this, and have a good one – my kind of ride. This sort of right speech has always appealed to my inner Buddha, swim as he may upstream against a tide of liquid wrong action.
A wave of nostalgia flooded over me as I made this anodyne arrival. Thoughts careened between all the things I had done and seen here, and all of those that I hadn’t. Between the faces I’ll never remember and those I can’t (or won’t let myself) forget.
My accomadtion was a typical student house – both relatively shitty and reasonably livable – as any one that borders campus ought to be. I dropped my bags and settled atop the front steps of leprous bluegrey. Shielded by my Ray Bans and Red Sox cap I pulled out my half-read copy of The Rum Diary, settling firmly into this very distinctive and potentially destructive idiom that I had chosen.
During the school year this street – the aptly named University Avenue – bustles with a healthy mix of naive, aloof, ambitious, indifferent, narcissistic, and alcoholic individuals, each traversing his or her own bizarre path forward, maybe sideways, but rarely backwards. How else to describe those grasping at an undegratudate degree? To my anticapatory delight this July day provided me a retroactive respite from the stresses such a scene can make manifest, an imagined foil against my three years of lived reality near this same spot – the same, but not really, for no space is truly the same after three years of intervention by man or nature.
The occasional passerby, be they an attractive blonde or a shirtless bearded jogger, gave me comfort in the fact that some brave souls were keeping this space energized with illusions of its own purported usefulness all year round. Indeed doing so this time of year seemed to make more sense than the same act carried out by trekking over an ice-covered sidewalk with snow blowing and sticking to your facial hair. Who are these people? Those who gravitate to campus after the rest of us have unceremoniously fled, to home, to Europe, to the furthest ends of the earth, so long as it’s not here? Brave souls indeed.
After a delicious meal of brisket, a Root Beer Old Fashioned, and two pints of beer, I saw my favourite girl off and went to get drunk. I met up with a good friend, one of a group of brave souls residing here for the summer’s duration. He and I discussed life, copyright law, the absurdity of academia, the ineptitude of local law enforcement, and our fondly held collective memories. He assured me he was not (yet) working for CSIS, so I spared him my customary censure; his American lady friend also escaped that fate, narrowly avoiding a scathing critique about her country’s democracy and the lack thereof. Perhaps the right time to speak the truth is all the time, but occasionally it behooves you to maintain the drunkenly joyous equilibrium you have happened upon.
Satisfactorily drunk, my friend and I said our goodnights, and I proceeded on a loose retracing of some of my undergraduate (mis)steps. It struck me that as a student I had walked these paths in search of an awkward conformity, despising and yet adopting many elements of the ethos of the mob; the campus buildings represented that moral failing and all of its counterreactions. They were and continue to be the backdrop against which the paradox of trying to blend in and yet stand out as one goes along is played out over and over again. Revisiting this existence revealed its true, absurdly comical nature – for the vacuous scions and ingénues that often dominate this backdrop are irrelevant at best. Their impressions have no bearing on anything of value, especially all that is intangible in life, which is to say all that matters most to the soul.
In the stillness of the early morning these campus buildings appeared stoic, majestic, yet somehow circumspect. I realized these grey stone buildings were emitting something different now, something more imposing, more unsettling, and yet somehow liberating. Under the cresent moonlight and draped flawless by ivy, these buildings were just that: stone structures sitting quietly along deserted streets, free from the chaos that usually animates them, full of limitless potential. They were a testament to the many ways in which humans can choose to animate the world, its manmade structures and natural constructs alike, and the repeated ways in which they fail to do so compassionately and with benefit to the species as a whole. Yet the mere fact that how the world is animated is above all a choice, not a stricture imposed from beyond our reach and before our birth, gave me faith in the potential for change, in the myriad possibilities that lay in front of me to drive this change.
Despite that glimmer of hope, this line of inquiry then led me to a most harrowing realization: these buildings, this whole place is ostensibly set up solely to foster the departure of the adolescent intellect along infinite productive tangents. In actuality it is a tacit bubble, an enclosure in which groupthink trumps all. An enclosure in which you must censor what you say, what you do, what you think – lest you get hauled in front of some committee of unthinking student bureaucrats bent on correcting you, or worse, dragged unknowingly into the unseen court of public opinion that will brand you with all sorts of unsavoury titles. Kafka could write a book a day in such an environemnt.
On closer inspection these putative cathedrals of education and the grounds surrounding them amount to nothing more than redoubts of totalitarian thought control, be it coerced or self-imposed. But still I manage to snatch victory from the jaws of a crushing morale defeat, finding comfort in my aforementioned idiom as I sit atop the balcony of this most central student house, shirtless and with pen in my ear, drinking a stolen beer, at peace as the sun began to colour the sky.
No radical thinker has ever had much use for the university as elite institution anyway.