Friday I sat with a friend in Union Square eating frozen yogurt and surrounded by NYU college students.
The NYU world is a strange world to me, bearing no resemblance to what I recognize as college life. I went to Wesleyan University, in Connecticut: a charming and small campus on a hill in a small and un-charming town. This was no quaint New England college town, but a run down community where the only clothing store was a discount Bob’s clothes in front of which a student had once been stabbed to death by a mental patient with a butter knife. I mention this incident not to take it lightly, or to use it to my written advantage in the form of shock value, but to paint an accurate though macabre picture of the feel of Middletown, CT. I once talked to a man on a plane who lived there and asked him what living in Middletown was like, hopefully revealing nothing of my own opinion through the tone of my voice (but perhaps not succeeding). He paused a beat, then said “your campus is nice.”
There are a few theories as to why there was no transfer of wealth from the college to the town. For one, there was minimal wealth at the college– for a private institution. Wesleyan had need-based admission– true need-based admission–and many of our students were barely scraping by, living off scholarship funds and money earned through work study. We also had a mandatory meal plan. The rationale was that our campus was so small that unless every student paid into a meal plan the costs would be too high for the rest. Whatever the reason, the result was that most students, like I, having already spent a few thousands of dollars on food for the semester did not have the inclination or the ability to spend any elsewhere.
Personally I was not there on scholarship, but the expense that going to an American private institution was costing me and my family was enormous. My father used to say that there were two groups of comfortable middle class parents in Toronto, those that drove new BMWs and Volvos and those that drove old beaten up broken-down cars with an American college sticker on the back window. His was 10 years old, with no air-conditioning, the heat stuck on, hand operated windows with a lever that liked to bite fingers, and a black and red Wesleyan sticker prominently displayed on the rear windshield. I-paid-(insert a ludicrous amount of money)-and-all-I-got-was-this-cheap -T-shirt T-shirts were not available. If they were, he would have worn one proudly. As it was he did wear the Wesleyan cuff links I bought him one Christmas. (These have now been tossed aside for the Stanford cuff links I bought him while in graduate school, which incidentally cost him nothing– and I only 39.99.)
The outcome of this was that in the summers I would intern in science laboratories, making $700-$1500 from my stipend, and this (with room and board already taken care of) would be the entirety of my spending money for the year. And so I watch the NYU students with fascination, admiration, some superiority, and amazement as they dine on sushi, drink $10 cocktails and purchase funky sunglasses in St. Mark’s Place.
Drawing in chalk on the ground, however, is a free night-time activity that I do fondly recognize from my college days. Perhaps some things are universal and chalk-drawing, for whatever it’s worth, is one of these.