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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.
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.