I have been meaning to start to write some autobiographical posts and, maybe it has something to do with being trapped inside during this snowstorm, maybe something else, but I started thinking about my first semester at San Francisco State University.
It was 20 years ago, way back in January of 1997, and I was living and working at a mortuary and crematorium slash chapel and funeral home while I was also attending community college at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. I had started Cuesta College in August of 1994 and had gone from hitchhiking to school everyday while working here and there to driving my Nisan Pulsar to school every day while living and working at the mortuary. I found out about this place through a person I met at school and thought it was a good chance to live rent free while making some money. Boy was I wrong! I had lived at the mortuary for at least a year, though to be honest I cannot remember how long I lived there, or how many bodies I came into contact with. There are some memorable ones, and the rest is a bit of a blur. That was a dramatic time and at some point I will try to write something about my time in the mortuary, but even though it has now been over 20 years it still haunts me and I don’t think I’m ready to relive that time.
At any rate in January of 1997 my time at the mortuary, at Cuesta, and indeed in the Central Coast of California, were drawing to an end. I was getting ready to move to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University, where I had been accepted as a transfer student. I’ll get to that but first I had to deal with an old court case that had unexpectedly threatened to hold me back. A while back when I had first started at Cuesta I had been in a fight with someone who had gone on to press charges against me. I did not realize this until I was pulled over for an unrelated incident and found out that there was a warrant for my arrest. To make a somewhat long story short I had hit someone in the head with a 40 ounce bottle of Old English. The judge in the case was worried about the nature of the incident. The use of the bottle made him want to convict me of assault with a deadly weapon. They told me that I could make a plea to aggravated assault and that if I did not take the deal it could go to trial and I would face worse; up to five years in jail. I was familiar with this routine from my time in Juvy and stood my ground. I must have gone to court three times before the judge gave me community service for disturbing the peace. It was a very odd feeling to be literally on the verge of moving to pursue a college degree and then facing the possibility of being dragged back into my old patterns of activities and ending up arrested and in jail, this time as an adult. It was very frightening but it also served to remind me why I was going to school. I did not want to be that kind of person anymore and I had seen a glimpse of the kind of person that I could become. After completing my community service me and the guys at the Mortuary took one last snow boarding trip. It was the day of Super Bowl 31, Sunday January 26th 1997 and we had the mountain all to ourselves. Classes were set to begin Wednesday January 29th and my plan was to put my stuff into storage and drive up the day before classes started. I thought I could stay in a hotel for a week or so while looking for a place to live. I had not pre-arranged any place but I thought it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Boy was I wrong!
My first semester I was taking five classes, which I had registered for already. I had been to SF a few times in recent years to see bands (like P-Funk, Luna, and Free Tibet concerts) and for Jerry Garcia’s memorial in Golden Gate Park (it’s a long story!). The only time I went to SF specifically because of SFSU was to go to the orientation which must have taken place in late 1996. At any rate my first semester had a nice mix of class. I was taking a second year english course (we read a lot of short stories and some Shakespear), a physics class on Space, Time, the Universe, and Relativity, a linguistics course introducing one to the study of language, a philosophical analysis course, and a philosophy of language class taught by Kent Bach. This was a very heavy load and I had a lot going on. It was harder having a car in San Francisco than I thought and I ended up staying in a residential hotel located in the Tenderloin district, which was pretty far away from the SFSU campus. This was a pretty seedy place where there was one bathroom located on the floor that was shared by all of the tenets and where you could find used condoms in the hallway. Classy all the way. Parking around SFSU was tough and so I started taking public transportation and leaving my car. Especially after it stopped starting. It was eventually towed and I found out it would cost more to get it back than it actually cost to purchase it. So I let it go.
Those early weeks were tough. I was there all alone in the city and thrown head over heels into very deep philosophical waters. I remember one night sitting in my residential hotel reading Austin on performative utterances and feeling like I was in way over my head. The philosophy of language class was a mixed seminar that combined an undergraduate class along with a graduate seminar in the same room. I did not realize this at first. Anyway, as I was reading Austin, the distinction between locutionary act, what is said, and illocutionary act, what speech act is performed, seemed clear to me. However, I could not understand what the perlocutionary act was supposed to be. In particular I remember reading the example given over and over. It was ‘don’t do that’ or something, and it was offered as an example of someone protesting against doing the thing in question. The perlocutionary act was listed as ‘he pulled me up, checked me’ and I had no idea what this meant. Looking back on it now it seems like this was an example of the way in which the language used was just not familiar to me. Another example was from Russell’s paper On Denoting. He tells the story about George IV inquiring whether Scott was the author of Waverley. At the time this made no sense to me, though I think I understood the point being made. Years later I learned the whole story (in a class with Nathan Salmon) and then I realized it is a good example!
I eventually ran out of my financial aid money and so could not afford to stay in the residential hotel. The housing market in SF in the late 90s was very tough. I didn’t know it at the time but people were asking professors if they would let students stay with them! I was out looking for a place every chance I got but I also had a lot of work to do for school and I found it easy to get lost in what I was learning. Once I ran out of money and had my car towed I did not know what to do. The semester was not even half way over and I had no where to live and no money. I took to hanging around on campus and staying in the library. They had a 24 hour study area and computer lab and people slept there occasionally. One night I hid in the library until they locked it down just to get a few hours sleep straight. I remember one day, after about three or four days of this, a fellow student in my english lit class approached me and asked if I knew where to get any heroin. I said I didn’t and did not use the stuff. They replied that they could tell when someone was strung out by the dark circles under their eyes. I laughed and said that was because I was living in the 24 hour study section of the library!
I had no food and no money for food but I found out I could get a voucher to help with lunch and I applied for a couple of those. Once those ran out I took to ordering food and standing in line to pay for it but since it was so busy it was easy to slip out of line and just start eating. That worked a couple of times until one of the cooks one day came over to me and said that he had seen what I had done and that he would let it go this time but next time he wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t pull that stunt again. I forget exactly how it happened but somehow I found out about the dormitories on campus, and especially the residential food hall. I went to inquire about the possibility of getting into the dorms but they said they were full. It was, after all, halfway through the semester! I was bummed but I scoped out the food hall and discovered that there was a back entrance that went in through the kitchen and into the dining hall. I went in desperate and hungry. People were working but no one payed any attention to me. I walked cautiously through the kitchen into the dining hall, grabbed a tray and just stood for a second admiring all of the food. It was basically exactly like a Sizzler all you can eat buffet. It was then that I first heard the Spice Girls song ‘if you wanna be my lover’. It was played on a loop on a TV they had in there.
I soon found out that they had an opening in one of the dorm rooms but that I could not move in until after Spring Break. That was great news! All I had to do was to hang in until then. I decided I would head back to San Luis Obispo and crash with friends during spring break. I could come back to SF afterwards and be in the dorms. I did not want to stay in the mortuary so I ended up staying with an old friend that played in a band with one of my band mates from the past. We played Resident Evil and took it easy and it was nice being back. I was planning on taking the bus from San Luis to SF but the bus made a pit stop somewhere along the 101 and I got out to use the bathroom. I must have been in there too long because when I came out the bus had left. My backpack was on the bus with my books for the semester. I figured I would have to hitchhike back to SF but somehow ended up hitchhiking back to San Luis.
While I was in San Luis I found out that all of my stuff which I had put into storage had been sold. They told me that they had tried to contact me and when they couldn’t they auctioned off the stuff they could and trashed the rest. I couldn’t really blame them, I had signed something saying this would happen and I had been hard to contact being homeless and all. This included not only all of my clothes, my photo albums, music collection, personal keepsakes, artwork from my mother, and furniture but also my drum set and all of my books from my time at Cuesta College. At first I was really depressed. I ended up staying there for another week, thereby missing a week of classes, and I did seriously think about not going back. But I did. They even had my books for the semester and backpack at the Greyhound bus station in SF! Not bad.
So there I was, 25 years old and living in a dormitory with a bunch of people who had already known each other for half of the semester. To make matters worse I soon found out that the reason there had suddenly been a room available was because no one wanted to be roommates with Doug (not his/her real name). Doug had apparently been the major source for a school newspaper article on campus drug use. He had named names and there had been a crackdown as a result. Needless to say he was not liked in the residential hall. For my own part I was surprised by how much like living in a group home and being in juvenile hall this experience was.
I finished the semester and did pretty well. Even more surprisingly I can see now that I learned a lot during that semester and that some of the ideas I had stuck with me and ended up becoming part of later projects (see the preface to my dissertation for more on this). The summer of 1997 was pretty memorable as well. Hopefully I’ll get to that next time!