I entered graduate school with the idea that I was someday going to be a successful professor of English, maybe somewhere pastoral. Someday I would wear a tweed jacket with suede patches. I would table classes in semi-circle at a table in the library basement. I would be a walking brain with a drinking problem and a wandering eye, and I would be the father of three dysfunctional children with names like Brecht, Ibsen, and Goronwy. I would be an acclaimed critic of the English language. This I imagined at all of 23.
We were told that all of the old professors from the New Critical age were going to retire right about the time that I was graduating of college. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was acting out of some kind of foresight. The thing I wanted to do seemed like the right thing to choose, even in the midst of another, earlier Bush economic downturn. The only trouble was that it was all an illusion; there were no vacancies opening, only ones disappearing altogether. The American economy had seen industrial jobs disappearing overseas for decades, and now it was time for academia to do the same. Only this time college courses would not be taught by Mexican or Bengali workers but by teaching assistants and adjuncts - a new reality I discovered when I became a graduate student at Temple University and a T.A. with a full teaching load earning less than minimum wage. That was a bad sign. Still, illusions die hard. I didn't give up right away on my dream. I did eventually, but not right away.
It started the night I listened to the Jets lose 24-3 to the 1-9 New England Patriots. I was brought to a low that a fairly well educated young person in his 20's is bound to experience. By this time, I had been told by a professor that I was basically an ignoramus, I had been trying to throw shoes at the mice that brazenly walked across my apartment, I had broken up with a girlfriend without any further prospects looming, and I had picked up my steroid-ridden roommate and his knuckle-dragging drunken friends at 2 am on South Street one too many times. I was liable to trust the power of dreams to endure the hard times, but losing to the hopeless Pats was the first time in my life that I decided that the thing with feathers was just a still life taxidermy filled with cotton. The best the Jets could do was a late Cary Blanchard field goal.
My attitude toward my own creative and academic graduate work was not unlike Jack Torrence's demented diligence in The Shining. I distinctly recall listening to the game on crackling AM while going through a shoe box full of letters, sorting through the vestiges of the last year and a half of my life. Do you remember letters? It's an e-mail, only you compose it on paper and put it in an envelope with the address of the recipient on the outside. There was once an intricate postal system funded by the United States Government that would ensure that your otherwise meaningless correspondence reached its destination. You'd keep letters, too. While waiting for the lifeless 3-8 Jets come to life against a fellow basement dweller, I discovered a small letter from a woman I had known only the year before while working in St. Louis. Do you remember the evening we spent together? I'm here if you need me.
I looked up and realized that never before had I ever really noticed how quickly the night came in late November. I had grown up in New York, yet I had somehow gotten through each winter without sensing the darkness in the soul that the winter night can sometime bring. As a boy on Long Island I had sometimes been mysteriously saddened by the speed with which winter twilight painted its mustard light against the roofs of the houses on the adjacent street, but I was usually running around and playing with friends too much to have thought of it as more than a momentary, passing twinge of sadness. But in my tiny, rodent-infested room in North Philadelphia, I felt as if I were gulping huge swallows of the darkness, feeling it draining my spirit like a bad drunken spell. It was depression, finally manifesting itself as an adult disease, a full-blown ailment passed down from generation to generation, waiting for its moment to strike. And it had. Had I missed something? Who was this woman? Had I even cared about her enough to write back? What kind of a person was I, anyway? Who the hell was I, anyway?
I'm glad I don't think about these things anymore; such thoughts are the property of the time. Lots of people avoid such things at 23, but the 20's can be a beguiling and unhappy sometimes. One thing that hasn't change is the capacity for a Jets' loss to make depression feel even worse. Whether they are 3-8 or 7-3, I fear a Jets loss as much for its effect on me as I do for the team's playoff prospects. This is at least one way of interpreting what it means to be a real fan. Your team's winning makes or breaks you. When the night fell heavily from the sky, and my research work was going nowhere, and I could hear the mice scratching away, preparing for their evening's sojourns, the Jets were down 24-0 going into the fourth quarter. It was a bad day.