From the Cheap Seats: A new neighborhood

It was over thirty years ago. There I was, at the corner of El Camino and Embarcadero, with a large box, an overstuffed suitcase, and one of those footlocker trunks. It is difficult to describe how totally out of place I was.

Let's back up a bit. For some reason lost to the ages, the Stanford Law School Admissions Committee, proving that even such a distinguished group can make the occasional drastic mistake, had found a spot for a hick who had spent his time growing up in places like Rock Springs, Wyoming; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Thief River Falls, Minnesota; and Dickinson, North Dakota. Lovely spots, every one of them, and near and dear to me. But nothing like Palo Alto.

Back then, we started law school classes in late August. There were no greeting committees sent to SFO for new law students. Looking at a campus map, I figured that, even with three huge pieces of "luggage" (back then, we just smiled at the people at the airline ticket counter and they put them on the plane), I could walk from the bus stop on El Camino to Crothers Hall (which is smack dab in the middle of campus, across the street from Stern).

That egregious error of scale was understandable if you had my experience of college campuses. Without really thinking about it, I guess I figured that the distance from the edge to the middle of campus at my new school would be only a bit more than it was on my previous campuses (which I now know to be tiny). A couple of blocks. Maybe three. A cheapskate to the core and broke, too, I figured I could save money by paying bus fare, then lugging all of my worldly possessions to the dorm.

When the bus dumped me just outside the campus, I quickly realized how wrong I was. Oh. My. God. This new campus was huge. I could not even see the dorm from where I stood, though it was obviously going to be a long trek.

Unable to come up with an alternative, I figured I better start moving. I worked my way down the street, using a leapfrog technique. Carry the suitcase a ways, then drop it. Pick up the box and haul it ten feet in front of the suitcase. Drag the trunk ten feet in front of the box. Repeat the entire process. It was one slow process.

If there has ever been a more pathetic introduction to The Farm, I want to hear about it. Indeed, the sheer patheticism (if there is such a word) of the process ultimately saved me. After about an hour, a car stopped. The passenger turned out to be a (two days hence) future law student who is one of my best friends to this day. He and his dad helped me put my stuff in the car and gave me a ride to Crothers.

It was not that I did not like the place. To the contrary, I loved it. It was magical. Like nothing I had seen before. Indeed, that is the point. Though Stanford in my first few months there was enchanting, it was also unlike anything I had experienced before. At first, I did not fit in.

As I met new classmates, the natural first question was "Where did you go to college?" The usual responses were "Harvard," "Cornell," "Stanford," "Yale," ‘Swarthmore," and the like. [And one of the guys from Stanford was a teammate of Jim Plunkett, for heaven's sake. Can you imagine that? I had watched that guy on television in the Rose Bowl!] My "Dickinson State" response to the ubiquitous question hardly fit the bill, even without a full disclosure answer that would have included "and Northland Community College."

My new buddies spoke a language that was unfamiliar to me. The first time someone told me I was "a real mensch," I figured I was being insulted.

In about February, after hearing the term over and over, I finally asked a friend, "What in hell is a ‘Beemer'?" When the answer "a BMW" came, I decided to ask the follow-up question without waiting another five months: "So what in the hell is a BMW?" [I kid you not. I had never heard of, and to the best of my knowledge had never seen, a BMW.] None of my buddies had one, mind you, but they seemed to talk about them a lot.

Perhaps a conversation among my buddies as we planned a party in the Crothers pub best summarized my fish out of water feeling. The issue on the table was how much money each of was going to throw into the pot for booze and food. Someone suggested thirty bucks, I think. Thirty bucks seemed like a lot to me, so I suggested that twenty each would be enough. One of the guys pushing for thirty said that would only buy us bad beer and cheap food. "So what? It's a college party. Nobody cares," was my response.

My obviously higher-class buddy turned to me and said, "Guppy [my nickname then], with all due respect, relying on you to decide how much to spend would be like relying on some guy who grew up shopping for clothes at K-Mart and eating Spam and Velveeta cheese sandwiches on Wonder Bread."

He meant it as an analogy, a way to spice up his point, not literally. And he was just trying to make a point, perhaps a bit overly aggressively as first year law students are prone to do, so don't hold it against him. [He is actually a hell of a guy, also a close friend to this day.]

But I had no response to that argument. I did indeed shop for clothes at K-Mart. [Still do, every once in a while.] One of our family's treasures was Spam and Velveeta sandwiches. We probably used the generic store bread, not Wonder Bread, so he got one detail wrong. And he forgot to mention the sliced onions that Mom put on top of the Velveeta. But he pretty much nailed it.

After a while, of course, my new neighborhood started to become familiar to me. At a certain point, it started to feel like home. It still does, on those rare occasions when I can get back, though it will always retain a touch of magic for me. I will never quite believe that I got to be part of a place as special as Stanford.

So, you are asking, is there a point to this? Simply this: We are in a new neighborhood. This "BCS" stuff has meaning for us. On the fourth week of the season. Whodathunkit?

This new neighborhood is wonderful. We are breathing rarified air many of us thought we would never experience. For my part, I have prided myself on never knowing a whit about how the BCS standings worked, because it had no application to my team. I am no frontrunner, and I am proud of that.

Like Stanford was for me 31 years ago, this new neighborhood is a place many of us could not even imagine. Wonderful, yes. But strange, too.

Because we are new here, we are not sure exactly how to act. Are we allowed to feel uneasy when our team wins by more than three touchdowns? Do we have permission to believe our guys can overcome the loss of their best defender and still hunt for the big prize? When our quarterback is good, instead of great, what are we supposed to feel?

And what about this weekend? What is a Stanford fan to do? In the old neighborhood, we would work on the lawn or play golf or go fishing. In the new neighborhood, we want to watch the new neighbors, hoping one of them has a house fire. [Nobody hurt, of course. Just property damage. Severe property damage.] Can Arkansas beat Alabama? Can Mizzou take down Oklahoma? Any chance West Virginia could take LSU? Maybe Wyoming could beat Nebraska, so we can root for Nebraska to beat Wisconsin next week. [Okay, I admit it. Nobody thinks that could happen. The new neighborhood is not that crazy. But I happen to know a small group of Stanford fans who will be hoping against hope for that result.] Either Texas A&M or Oklahoma State has to lose this weekend, so that is good.

Wait a minute. Dare we even think like that? Will not the woofing gods punish us for hubris? What are the appropriate sacrifices to them, before we are allowed to care about highly-ranked teams getting beat?

Don't look to me for answers. I have no idea what goes on in this new neighborhood. It is fun to be here, but I know nothing about the culture.

I will offer this piece of advice. Whatever path you choose, enjoy the new digs. We have no idea how long we will be in this new neighborhood before they kick us out. Might be next week. Might be a month, or two, or even (dare we dream?) three and a half. In our wildest dreams, it could be almost a year.

Whenever that happens, it will hurt like hell. [We have never been to this particular neighborhood before, but it reminds me a bit of one we visited a few years back, until we get kicked out on an awful Saturday in Seattle.] Most likely, this will not end well. That is not disrespect for our team, but simple math. There are quite a few neighbors here, but only one of them will be here in three and a half months. Everybody else will be dealing with the charred wreckage of their old house they loved so much.

So I say all of us should enjoy the scenery while it lasts. We might get back to this neighborhood some day, but we might not. Even if we do, though, this is the only time it will be our first time here. There is something special about the first time. Let's milk it for everything it is worth.

We have earned it.


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