It was a good question, set forth by consumer advocate Ralph Nader as he spoke before an embarrassingly empty hall at our conservative university. I was pretty conservative myself, and certainly no fan of the wildly liberal public avenger. But I had found the opportunity to hear such an iconic figure irresistible, even if most of my fellow students felt otherwise.
“There’s a world out there filled with problems and suffering and injustice,” Mr. Nader continued. “There’s a desperate need for crusaders, and you just want to get a job?”
The derision Mr. Nader injected into those last three words reverberated inside the echo chamber of my mind, etching upon my psyche an unequivocal contempt toward employment for the sake of mere employment.
It was 1981, during my junior year at the University of California, Davis, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do when I grew up. But during those closing moments of his address, Mr. Nader awakened within me the passionate desire to do something – anything – as long as it might make a difference, as long as it would truly matter.
And so I left the lecture hall that evening feeling like Archimedes, looking for my fulcrum to move the world. And my search led me to The House.
No other name could have better described it: here was an actual house – still thriving in the shadow of university office-buildings, lecture halls, and dormitories – with its modest front porch, unaffected wooden shingles, and single-pane windows opaque with dust around the corners. Its official designation was Temporary Building-16. But to everyone who worked there, and to anyone who patronized its services, TB-16 was simply called The House.
Fifteen or twenty years earlier, the thought had occurred to someone at Student Services to create an informal atmosphere where students could commiserate about the problems and stresses of college without having to endure the formality of an adviser, the social pressure of a dormitory, or the stigma of a psychologist. In the course of its various incarnations, the project acquired a director, instituted a thorough course of preparatory and continuous training, and acquired TB-16. The House opened its doors.
The front door led into a softly lit salon crowded with bedraggled couches and chairs. Thick shag carpeting sprouted up like untrimmed grass. There was a weathered coffee table, stacks of obscure magazines and remaindered books, and a perpetually growling hot water urn for coffee, tea, or cacao. In the back, two rooms stocked with oversized pillows and beanbag chairs provided enough comfort and privacy for even the most self-conscious visitor. And whenever school was in session, at any time, every day and every night, there were two student counselors on call trained in the rudiments of non-threatening Rogerian psychology.
Karen was the House director, a position she had taken over from her husband, Kennebec. His name was really Ken, but he had fallen in love with the Kennebec River and used its name as his own – at least in the company of friends and close acquaintances. Student Services had brought him in to assume the directorship “after The House’s last nude retreat,” in hope of imposing greater structure upon the fledgling peer counseling facility.
Not that Ken was all that conventional himself. His hobby was jumping freight trains, and he hadn’t thought it at all inappropriate to use this informal style of transportation for his own staff retreats. I nagged Ken every time I saw him to take me train-jumping, but he was settling into the routine of responsible middle age, and never found time to take a weekend off to travel as undeclared baggage.
So Ken, it’s your fault that I later became a hitchhiker and not a hobo.
Karen was a perfect boss, striking a magical balance between compulsive professionalism and California chill to produce a working atmosphere that was intensely laid back. Student clients – contacts, we called them – were sparse, usually no more than a couple a day. But business always surged around midterm and final exams, when the trickle of students looking for help to cope with homesickness and social pressures gave way to a steady stream of contacts all sharing the same problem: test anxiety.
Everyone at UC Davis knew about the article in the Wall Street Journal rating our university the second most competitive in the nation after Yale. How such a quality could be measured was never discussed; neither was the little-known datum that an administrative task force had determined that no such article had ever been published. It was, after all, a comforting rumor at a university where each year 600 students saw their hopes of medical school excised by the ruthless scalpel that was the bell curve. Counseling was a thriving concern.
But the rest of the time things were pretty slow and, predictably, we counselors mostly counseled one another. Test anxiety was not a common problem among our easy-going crowd. Relationships were usually the hottest topic, particularly after someone’s significant-other had transferred or graduated, thereby severing the union instantaneously or the transforming it into a long-distance relationship that limped sadly along for weeks or months before it died. About the time I arrived, incidents of post-romantic stress disorder began multiplying on account of Harold, who came across as the nerdiest of nerds and used his pitiful persona to seduce several female counselors.
Harold the Heartbreaker’s libidinous capers were particularly annoying to me, since I often picked up his girls on the rebound. I was cursed, however, by a rigid adherence to the chivalric code, drummed into me relentlessly by a father reincarnated from the court of King Arthur. Consequently, the process of endearing myself to any female colleague reflexively stirred in my subconscious a brotherly protectiveness that paralyzed me into amorous inaction. So I perpetually played Sir Galahad to Harold’s Lancelot, frustrated by my own virtue.
Matriculation provided as much fuel for counseling as did courtship. Many of us were liberal arts majors, suddenly dismayed by our own lack of foresight in preparing for the approaching end of our academic careers. There were also those who had to reconcile an unexpected change in plans, like Todd, who was set to marry his girlfriend the month after graduation and go on to fly Sabrejets for the U. S. Air Force. But Todd succumbed to the dreaded malady of senioritis, failed his French requirement, didn’t graduate, washed out of the Air Force and was subsequently dumped by his fiancée. He spent a lot of time hanging out at The House the last week of his senior year.
The truth was, we all spent a lot of time hanging out, either at The House itself or around campus with other House people. It was like belonging to a co-ed fraternity. And although there were fewer structured social events and less alcohol, our members constituted a remarkably empathetic and altruistic society, almost without exception. Perhaps it was simply that we were there because we wanted to help people. But whatever our reasons, most of us ended up helping ourselves most of all.
Lorenzo was our resident flower child, a wayward soul of the sixties who had missed the revolution by fifteen years. It had been his plan to live among the impoverished of India, thereby leaving his place in the middle class vacant for the world’s upwardly downtrodden. But all that ended when Joanne convinced him that he could better serve the poor by changing the world from a position of power, rather than adding to their burden by increasing their number. So Lorenzo abandoned his fantasy of becoming an untouchable in Calcutta and went on to business school instead.
Joanne also turned her own life around. Before joining The House she had overdosed on cocaine and nearly died. By her second year counseling she was leading workshops on drug abuse and alcoholism. The last time I saw her she had lost 50 pounds, looked stunning and vivacious, and was heading off to business school with Lorenzo.
Maybe the magic of The House wasn’t magic at all. Maybe it was just our introduction to a little old-fashioned responsibility, something we hadn’t been exposed to much as standard-bearers of the Me Generation. We had to be on call and on time for two hours a week and four half-day weekend shifts each trimester. We had to respond to all kinds of personalities and problems, listen attentively, analyze quickly, and guide each contact toward understanding his own dilemma and identifying a possible solution. We had to cover for one another, we had to interview applicants twice a year, we had to conceptualize, develop, structure, advertise, and facilitate programs.
These were not demands placed on the average undergraduate, and most of us discovered a pleasure and satisfaction we had never experienced before. This was especially true for Laura, who disappeared to answer the phone during a weekly staff meeting and spent the next half-hour talking a young man convinced that he was going to fail his exams out of committing suicide.
I could claim my own share of sophomoric crises, not the least of which loomed large halfway through my final trimester. I would be graduating with a degree in English, a love of writing and Shakespeare, a dream of changing the world, but with little practical skill or experience. I had been subsidized by my parents and swaddled in the cushy lifestyle of the ivory tower, neither of which had prepared me for independence or directed me toward any concrete goal.
Slowly, a vision began to coalesce. If I had always been taken care of, then it was time I began taking care of myself. If my daily regimen had always been outlined for me, then I would have to force myself to create my own. And if I had no sense of direction, then I would have to drift where the current carried me until I happened upon the way I wanted to go.
All of which added up to the unconventional plan of taking off, after graduation, with a backpack and a sleeping bag, to hitchhike across America.
“You’re kidding? You’re doing what? You’re not serious … are you?”
Those were the initial reactions from my non-House friends. But inside The House I received a different set of responses.
“Oh, okay. Yeah, I can see you doing something like that. You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
Of course, the response that really worried me was from my parents. I was still grappling with how to tell them my plans when I came home one day to find a postcard in my mailbox, the fulfillment of a recurring dream that had haunted me for weeks. The card pronounced the following indictment:
You are missing one unit from your requirements for graduation. Units required in college out of major: 12. Units you have fulfilling requirement: 11
Obviously there was some mistake. I had done the math repeatedly and knew that I had 13 units, one more than the minimum.
But the mistake had indeed been mine, for I had added into my count two units in Applied Behavioral Science, units I had received for volunteering at The House. The ABS department, however, was not part of the College of Letters and Sciences as one might suppose. Inexplicably, it was part of the College of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. Consequently, those two units were not applicable to this particular requirement.
My initial shock wore off within fifteen minutes, and I found myself galvanized, even excited, by this unexpected turn of events. Here was a problem I could handle. Here was a problem that was black and white, involving no feelings, no reactions, and no guilt trips.
I proceeded forthwith to the office of John Vohs, my Communications professor, to explain my situation and ask for an independent study project worth one unit. He assigned me a research project that he said should take about 20 hours. I completed it in six.
When I returned to his office, John looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, “How long have you been at this college?”
“Four and a half years,” I replied.
“I think you’ve done enough work. See you later.”
After a year’s worth of counseling, of training, of trying to solve other people’s problems, I was suddenly astonished at how capably I had handled my own. I called my parents that week and broke the news of my travel plans. They weren’t pleased, needless to say, but they didn’t turn suicidal, either. Instead of the car they were planning to buy me as a graduation gift, they bought me a pasta maker.
“So the sky didn’t fall when you told them,” observed Joanne, as we sat over donuts and coffee the week before going our separate ways.
“No. It wasn’t nearly as traumatic as I imagined it would be.”
“You know, hardly anyone believes you’re really going to go through with this trip of yours.”
“I know. That’s why I told everyone. I’ll be too embarrassed to back out now.”
Joanne laughed. “I’m so glad you’re you,” she said.
I smiled back, only faintly aware of what would become obvious to me later: that if not for Joanne, if not for Lorenzo and Laura and Harold and Karen and Kennebec, if not for everyone who helped transform an old, unremarkable building into The House – if not for all of them, I most certainly would not be me.
From this month’s issue of the Wagon Magazine.