Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


I believe that this is what’s known as irony.

File under: This One Time, At Mathcamp. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:34 pm.

Today, I got lost while trying to find the classroom where I’m scheduled to teach my class on navigation.

On the road again

File under: This One Time, At Mathcamp, Talking To Strangers. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 8:30 pm.

After a hectic week - job interviews, packing, last-minute glazing and firing pots, preparing my Mathcamp classes - though not nearly enough of that last one - I piled my hastily-filled suitcases onto a conveyor belt, and flew from my Pacific Northwest home to Boston - via Dallas, naturally. From there I hopped into a shuttle to M’s place in Cambridge, planning to drive up to camp in Maine the next day. The other passenger was a businessman, a cacophony of impressions: his suit was pressed but he arrived confused and unrefined, and hastily phoned his hotel from his cell phone, and called to confirm his reservation - were they sure they didn’t have it? He was Cheung with an e, did they check that?

The shuttle driver was a born-and-bred Bostoner, pointing out all of the landmarks as we rolled through the city, retrieving pertinent stories from an extensive mental archive. There was that woman from Iowa, nice person, but a small-town type, staying at the Hyatt. “‘Which one?’ I say to her, and she says, ‘The one in Bah-ston,’ and I say, ‘Well, there’s three in Bah-ston’ and I call the dispatcha, and he calls all the hotels, and we figgar it out eventually, and meanwhile I’m driving allaround the city’a Bah-ston because I got o-tha passenjahs, yanno?”

“I hope she gave a generous tip,” I said.

“Yeah,” he replied, “A dah-lah. But,” he added quickly, “I don’t cay about the money, as long as it’s done with gratitude, yanno?”

I tipped him 25% anyway.

Today the campers arrived, and the first batch that I handled piled into a fifteen-passenger van, headed by another Bostoner, a middle-aged man with a potbelly and wavy hair that had earned a hairbrush a place on the middle seat. At some minor provocation - a brief mention of my nationality, and the fact that my country had recently held a federal election - he unleashed a bevy of commentary on America, and war, and the international community, and the future. He was a man of strong beliefs, committed more to the adjective than to the noun. In the space of an hour he argued every position and its opposite with equal conviction: he thought that the Iraq war was just and necessary, and that Bush was doing an excellent job, and that we can’t ever trust the government, the filthy bastards, concerned with nothing but their corporate friends, and the media either, and that the US’ interest was in the Middle East really just because of the oil, and that’s just the way it is, and he’ll be voting Bush right back into office. He’d fought in Vietnam - enlisted, not drafted - and later came to believe that the American government had lied about the Communist threat to the country, but he didn’t seem to be terribly bothered by this. “My father fought in the war in Germany, and then I did, and I made my country a bit of a better place, and in the end, that’s all you can do.” I asked him whether or not, thirty years from now, Americans would be saying that today’s wars were founded on lies, and he replied emphatically that no. No. The government back then, they were liars, that was the difference.

From there, a tirade against the United Nations and every European country, especially Germany and France, especially France, if it weren’t for the US the French would be speaking German, and what do they do in return? And Kofi Annan, from Ghana, Ghana! where you can sell your daughter into prostitution [ed: is this true? or founded in reality?] to get out of serving time in jail? Criticizing the US?

By this point I’d decided to take this ride as an anthropological field study rather than as a debate, and mentioned idly that Ghana was the only country that contributed a full, well-trained, ethical, well-equipped battalion to Rwanda for the duration of the genocide, even as the United States undermined any intervention, and that surely they should get some points for that.

“Civil skirmish,” he said, “they happen all the time, nothing you can do about them.”

“Skirmish that left eight hundred thousand dead,” I said.

“Nothing you can do,” he repeated. “Nothing. And what’s there? No oil, no industry, nothing. We’re not going to go in.”

“A Canadian general commanded that mission,” I said, “and for months leading up to the genocide, and during, he made recommendations, requested support. Years later an inquiry was done into his recommendations, and it was concluded that had his recommendations been followed and his requests met - and they weren’t that expensive - the genocide would likely have been prevented outright, or at least largely minimized.”

He took his eyes off the road and turned to face me, extending his left index finger toward me. “Exactly,” he said.

A few hours later another driver took me to the bus station to pick up two more campers. This driver was twentyish, and blasted rap music over the speakers. As we pulled into the station, I asked if he’d mind changing the station, as I didn’t think that it was appropriate for our campers’ first experience with us to be in a van with background lyrics outlining in detail some vendetta against that bitch motherfucking ho who fucked up some homeboy’s shit.

“Yeah, of course,” said the driver, “I’m not going to play this with kids around.”