Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The German Department

Guten tag, meiner mann! Wie gehts? Nicht sehr gut? Ach, das tut mir leid.

All right, enough of that shit. Or scheiss. (Looks like the transfer into blogger knocked out my ess-tset symbol.)

Sometimes it behooves me to admit my German heritage. Look at my surname. That’s German. I imagine somewhere along the line, some German dude got off the boat at Ellis Island, and whoever processed him dropped the “c” from “Repscher” because it didn’t cut it in the English language, and there you go. My lineage is a foggy blur, even at the level of my grandparents, which I write down to my parents and people of their generation being strangely tight-lipped about the past. A majority of my lineage is apparently Scotts-Irish. But my name aint McRepsher. I have to admit to having German heritage.

Why does that bother me? The Nazi thing doesn’t bother me so much. Shit happened. My father and his brothers fought against the Nazis in World War II. Just about every country goes off the rails, sooner or later. The 1930s into the 1940s was Germany and Japan’s turn. Nothing against Japanese folks either, although these cultures are a lot more similar than you’d think. I once tutored a beautiful Japanese girl (whom I eventually went nuts over and had to find another tutor for), and what I noticed about her was how incredibly driven and disciplined she was. I love seeing that in other cultures, ditto toughness, which is why I’ve never met an Israeli (probably met about a dozen) I didn’t like. (Say what you want about their situation, but those have got to be among the toughest, no-bullshit people on earth.)

I guess it bothers me because Germans have got to be some of the most uncool people I’ve met. Usually very intelligent, but with a deeply odd (some might say non-existent) sense of humor. Possibly the whitest people on earth. "Anal" is the word I’m looking for. Think Kraftwerk. (Then again, Kraftwerk lampooned their stiffness and made some fun music – the first time I heard “Autobahn” I laughed my ass off, with them.) “Constricted” is another. I can see these qualities in myself, too, which I write down to being part German, although you’ll find plenty of stiffness in Irish and Scottish culture.

Even the German teacher in high school, Mrs. Kratz, got a bad rap. She was a nice person; we got along very well. But she had the reputation for being short-tempered with kids, which, in retrospect, means she wasn’t hard enough, because I would have been beating the same wayward kids with a gravel-filled whiffle ball bat for their indiscretions. Instead of calling her Fraulein Kratz, wise asses would call her Fur-lined Crotch. She didn’t deserve it.

My junior year in college, when I had to get a part-time job during the week to make my meager rent and have enough left over for records and beer, I checked out the intra-campus job boards an quickly came across an ad for the German Department. Typing and organizational skills. Check. Knowledge of German language. Check. I had taken my full allotment of German classes, was done with my second language, so I was ready. One catch: while working there, I had to speak German all the time.

When I showed up, the staff was so desperate to have anyone help, as the language barrier noted in the bulletin had scared away most candidates, that I got the job on the spot. As it turned out, I had the German language skills of about a fifth grader, which suited their purposes fine. I often caught minor grammatical errors on tests, which were geared towards kids with even more rudimentary language skills than mine. (The language stipulation was placed by the department head, Dr. Schultz, a basically friendly, smart professor who did have that steely German edge to his personality.)

The office consisted of a woman, Teresa, the head secretary (who was in her early 30s), her boss, Inge, an older German woman who was Dr. Schultz’s assistant, and Dr. Schultz, with two other students who spoke broken German like I did. That was the main office, with an entire hall filled with professors of varying position (most full/tenured) and a bullpen for the numerous grad students who handled teaching the basic language courses. We were to help the professors when we could, which would amount to mimeographing tests and typing up dissertations and manuscripts. But the main gig was to help out Teresa with whatever fire needed putting out. She was a high-strung woman, driving in every day from Lock Haven (a long ride), who had married a guy roughly my age and was dealing with him like a son, to go along with her son from a previous marriage. We got along pretty well, but most days found her in front of Burrowes Building, smoking like a Turk from dealing with anal German professors and various pieces of malfunctioning office equipment, which, I imagine, is par for the course for any university liberal arts department.

This was where I found out how organized I was, which went over like gangbusters with my teutonic supervisors. Man, I was and am still organized. Laugh all you want, but having your shit together on that front is a worthwhile trait. And I could type about 90 words per minute, which only got faster once word processors rolled around. I got real familiar with the mimeograph machine, squirting the blue ink (which smelled sweet, like the paste we used in art class) onto the roller, pasting the carbon copy with the neat lines and lettering intact onto the roller, then letting her rip, be it the electric machine or the shitty hand-crank one we’d use when the electric one invariably broke down. I recall how the sheets used to come out moist and heavy with ink. Copy machines? They surely must have existed at the time, but not in our departmental budget.

It was a good gig: about 20 hours a week, enough money to tide me over, and I found myself speaking fluent German after a few months. You pick it when everyone around you speaks the language. Professors are strange birds. German professors, even stranger. Dr. Schultz was obsessed with B. Traven, elusive author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Who was apparently German.

A tidbit from Wikipedia: “This persona was uncovered by the investigations of Mexican journalist Luis Spota, who discovered a bank account in Acapulco in the name of B. Traven, operated by an innkeeper locally known as Traven Torsvan, nicknamed El Gringo. His history was traced to 1925 when he first emerges in Mexico; like Croves, he was a member of a number of archaeological expeditions and he had shown great concern with the welfare of the Indian population.”

El Gringo! The enigmatic foreigner in panama hat, hankie tied around neck, reading a dusty Bible by his pack mule in the desert, Pancho, fetch my canteen, there’s a stream on the other side of that canyon. Who are you, mystery man? Or some such shit. For me, it meant typing endless, dull-as-dry-dogshit dissertations by various professors in the department on B. Traven and his influence on culture, which amounted to a cool movie with Humphrey Bogart to me. It would have been torture, save it made me king of the word processor. Again, computers existed at this time, I know they did, but not in our department budget. They had a Lanier word processor which seemed like hot stuff, just as good as the blank-faced DisplayWrite 4 programs we were using at the newspaper across the lawn. The good part about typing up this morose crap was it kept me off in the isolated room with the Lanier, i.e., more peaceful than the always buzzing main office.

My only issue with college professors was that I couldn’t make the connection between their middling salaries and their comparatively wealthy lifestyles. I used to get rides from Dr. Gerhart, a genuinely nice guy, out to the student parking lot on the edge of campus … in his Mercedes. This guy was a full professor, but couldn’t have been making more than $50K a year. A Mercedes? Of course, I later learned the dirty little secret of not just colleges, but many nonprofit industries: they’re heavily populated by good-hearted people who come from money. That was usually the difference between a guy like Dr. Gerhart living in a beautiful house a few miles off campus, and some adjunct professor from my socio-economic background, with a pregnant wife living in the barracks-like campus housing project.

Otherwise, I dealt with these people pretty well, which was excellent training for handling insane corporate types, although that surely wasn’t my motive in taking the job. And I often think if those professors could see me now, they’d be disappointed in that I was doing such basic “day job” work. They see kids at that age all the time, which is like walking around in a dream world, populated by a never-ending stream of people who aren’t really anything yet, but want to be a lot of things. And I imagine seeing anyone at that age is like seeing a person’s ideals worn on the outside of his body – everything’s an ideal at that point, untested for the most part.

On the other hand, they’d be glad to see I’ve maintained some of those ideals, especially regarding my sense of personal freedom, no mean feat in the shitty corporate environments I’ve maneuvered through, although I find the concept of championing that to people who quietly go through life dealing winning hands from a stacked deck many of us never get … like confessing my sins to a pedophile priest. Give me a paid-off mortgage on a beautiful home in a wealthy neighborhood, and I’d be knowing and benevolent, too, as I worked my way through the low-paying rungs of academia to that rainbow of tenure, which looks like planned obsolescence to me.

I dealt much more with the grad students, most of whom were German. My favorite was Tomas, a way out-of-the-closet guy from Hamburg who was in love with American trash culture. Every day, he’d bring in something he’d found – Pop Tarts, Elvis Presley t-shirts, a can of Pringles potato chips, G.I. Joes, and ask for an explanation, as they probably didn’t have militarily-themed dolls called Stormtrooper Sigmund in Germany. When I explained the concept of Pop Tarts, he asked, “Aber Wilhem, what food group is this?” I didn’t really know. I still don’t. Is there a special block for pure chemical shit in the food-group pyramid? Every explanation would have him howling with laughter over the idiot savant nature of so much of our cultural flotsam.

Tomas was at loggerheads with his office mate, Heinrich, an extremely anal guy from the Black Forest who was married to another grad student, an American girl named Jenny, who was fag-hag crazy for Tomas. I’ve never been to The Black Forest. Or Hamburg. But I gathered from the way Tomas treated Heinrich, that he perceived The Black Forest to be the German equivalent of the rural Deep South, and Heinrich the kind of guy who probably had a spike-topped German army helmet he wore when line-danced to country music in his apartment. I take it Hamburg was a pretty wild, urbane town by Tomas’ estimation.

They fought like Germans: steely glances and mildly deprecating one liners that never erupted into blow outs. I don’t know if it was fair to say Heinrich had an issue with gay guys. He probably had more of an issue with his wife being best friends with a gay guy, who was wildly effusive, out-going, emotional … the exact opposite of Heinrich’s icy demeanor. I keep picturing these people as being much older than I was, but they couldn’t have been more than mid-20s at the time, still kids themselves. There was another girl whose name I can’t recall who was just this lovely, wan girl from Berlin, pale almost-blue skin, long, straight blonde hair, blue eyes – just that classic Aryan beauty. Shy in a good way, didn’t fully grasp how beautiful she was. Could barely speak English, so I spent a lot of time breaking her in on slang and speech patterns. I never grasped this about foreign languages, but they’re often just as different in rhythm as they are in things like verb tenses and gender. She would often listen to me speak English, and I could see her turn her head away to hear just the tone of voice, how the words flowed, so she could copy it herself.

The days rolled by in the department, the clacking of typewriters, phones ringing, the crank/squirt/crank/squirt of the mimeo machine. Inge was always laughing her ass off. It seemed like with Germans, there was no in between. They were either soulful, beer stein-swinging partiers, or stern/stiff disciplinarians. I imagine any German recognizes both qualities in his demeanor and probably leans more towards one than the other. They were good people to work with overall, fair-minded, nearly everyone extremely bright, I guess you’d say civilized in a way I appreciated. Even the extremely uptight professors weren’t abusive in their stiffness, like I’ve seen so many corporate folks in America be. There was a sort of quiet humanity underneath the cool exterior. One guy in particular, Dr. Schroeder, would send fear into grad students with his appraisals of their skills. By the same token, when they needed help, he’d be the first one they went to because they knew he’d be fair and attentive with them.

I ended up doing probably the most germanic thing of my life while working there. The department had a library that was hardly ever used. More a research library that staff would take books out of, but rarely sit there and read them. It was a nice little room, too, a few windows, quiet, away from the din of the main offices and cubicles. I had to go back there a lot to re-file books and magazines.

It was late in my tenure there, probably just after I had graduated, but had chosen to hang out for the summer semester, something I’d never done, and just relax. Take a few months off to enjoy the town in lazy summer mode, spend time down at the local record store talking about The Replacements and old soul music with the guys who owned the place. Get tan on the lawn. Run seven miles along the golf course every morning. And support myself by doing 30 hours a week in the German Department, one last time.

It was a slow summer, a long goodbye of sorts. Most of my friends weren’t around, a few were, so we’d hang out a lot, getting drunk and listening to records. At work, there was hardly anything to do, and the professors would only check in once or twice a week to keep in touch. I don’t know what overtook me, but I recall one sun-dappled afternoon in July, going back to the library, making sure the coast was clear, then lying down behind the main desk, dropping my pants to my ankles, and masturbating, probably with thoughts of the gentle Berlin girl swirling in my head.

If I’d actually fucked the Berlin girl in the library, that would have been a very French thing to do. As it was, I jacked off, and this was a very German thing to do. I put myself at risk, to make a horse’s ass of myself, as opposed to going all out and getting caught in an act that would have been way beyond the pale, but at least understandable in terms of the risk and reward. Picture Hitler on the Russian front: this was my Stalingrad.

I don’t know what I was thinking. But it somehow seemed like a fitting send off. I try to think what I’d do now if I worked in a place, went down to the library, and walked in on a summer intern masturbating on the floor. I’d probably ask him which part of The Black Forest his ancestors came from.

No comments: