By Andrew Ramirez
Four years ago, I almost went to Occidental College. I was trying to decide between a big school and a small school and ultimately decided in favor of big bad USC, not for reasons of prestige or faculty or tradition or whatever—the sheer number of blonds on beach cruisers being that as it may—but it was that Occidental just sounded too much like Accidental. Plus, when I tried to tell an uncle about it, he said: Occidental? I didn’t know you wanted to be a dentist.
But Oxy, as they call it, is actually a liberal arts college about two thousand students big. Quietly nestled up there in the verdant hills of Eagle Rock like a sleeping rabbit, it’s just north of USC but light years away from that whole downtown vibe. Urban LA crush gets traded for some of the easiest parking I’ve ever seen. The campus, about as wide as a couple football fields and as long as the line at the snack bar, is all trees and rolling slopes. Walking around, instead of a campus it’s more like a park packed with sleepy-eyed young people in sweatpants. And the free library printing aside, sometimes the students get free beer on the weekend, too.
So call it some kind of tiny liberal arts school fantasy, as I wait for that ketchup-and-mustard-colored (lo siento lo siento: cardinal and gold) diploma to arrive piping hot from Dornsife Letters, Arts and Sciences land. Time is short and in my last days as an undergrad, I want dig in to the what-could-have-beens.
Saturday night my buddy told me he has this other buddy who’s a drummer in Fidlar, a punk band playing at Occidental later that night. The cherry on top: there’s free beer, too. I don’t know how these things work out, but I jump like trout when it does.
But the next thing I know, this pot-bellied campus security man is barking at us like he has a gun. This is an Oxy student-only event, he said. And what’s in the bag?
Free beer doesn’t last forever and I’ve learned I’d rather not take my chances with that, so my buddy and I brought along a couple forties of Sol.
The security man poked his flashlight inside the bag, then kicked us out. In the parking lot we drank the Sols, leaning against a concrete barrier, a street lamp’s yellow light falling down on us. A little detective work proved that it was actually an Oxy student plus one event and my forward friend found us a couple Oxy undergrads waiting in line, looking lonesome.
A different security guard than the one who’d kicked us out snapped a pink bracelet on my wrist and herded me past a fence into an impromptu beer garden outside the Zoology building. Dodging looks from the other security guard, I started exchanging my drink tickets for half-cups of Sierra Nevada. Of course free booze helps, but figured I could have been happy at Oxy. The vibe, despite the low light, was bright and the two girls that plus-oned us were talking about going to Johnny’s after the show. I didn’t mind. They were nice and one of them, also a senior, mentioned being an English major.
Me too, I said.
What do you like to read?
Blah blah blah, I said. By blah blah blah.
He sounds familiar. Did he win an award or something last year?
National Book Award.
Wrong. National Critics Circle.
No really, I said. I’m trying to get more into novellas. I think it’s a cool form.
Her eyes brightened. So you speak Spanish?
My heart deflated. I considered different routes of getting out of this one. Realizing you’ve made a dumbass of yourself is bad, I do it all the time, but even more frustrating is standing around waiting for someone else to figure it out.
I swallowed my beer, waiting for it.
Staring and smiling, her eyes stayed bright. She kicked my leg. I was joking! Era una broma, Steinbeck!
The punk rocking headliners attacked the stage, slamming mike stands and stomping around, sweating in their jean jackets. The crowd made several attempts at forming a mosh pit but each try produced something only vaguely rough, as deadly as a private liberal arts college could go—sometimes banging around but for the most part, kindly bumping. The campus radio people rained K-OXY bottle opener key chains over the crowd.
After the show, the drummer invited my buddy and me to a party but after ten minutes of cruising around we agreed it didn’t exist and so we ended up at Johnny’s, sitting on a couch with three Oxy girls, pulling from two dollar beers and passing around half a glass of something red with ice in it.
I wish I had gone to USC, one of the Oxy girls said. It’s just that I know everybody here. You can’t do something without everybody knowing about it.
The other two girls knowingly smiled at her. Care to elaborate, Gwen?
My buddy leaned in, genuinely interested.
Well it’s just that, well, you know…She tapered off, deep red like the drink.
I like this place, I said.
Locals were mixed in with students. A guy in a leather jacket introduced himself to us as Izzy and proceeded to disappear into the crowd. It was one in the morning and the place was jammed. A group sat so near to us that I was using the back of someone for a seat back.
What’s USC like? the Oxy girls were asking.
I wish I would have gone to USC, one of them said. Instead I played it safe and went to Oxy.
My buddy was talking to the embarrassed girl. I was looking around. I didn’t get it. It wasn’t that big of a deal to me. USC wasn’t hard and Occidental wasn’t easy. I didn’t wish I did anything different. USC was just USC and Occidental was just Occidental. The whole big fish in a little pond, little fish in a big pond thing—I mean, if anything, USC was playing it safe to an extent. The size of the fish, after all, is relative. Depending on the size of your pond, it’s easier making excuses in a big pond than in a small one. Imagine having to come to terms with the fact that you were, after all, a little fish in a little pond? Going to USC among thousands of people allowed you to never have to deal with that potentially shitty truth. But these Oxy kids, they were fearless: they dealt with the bigness of their fish head on, and that was ballsy.
A drunk dude came up to our table. He was bearded and mid-thirties and wearing a blue pull-over hoodie. He went for one of the Oxy girls and she politely rejected him. He turned to me.
What about you, buddy? he said.
Twenty percent leaning, eighty percent falling, he came toward my lips with his. I pulled back and twisted my face to the right. He landed one right on my cheek.
Oh shit, I said. What the fuck is this?
He stepped back and shrugged. He was hammered but good-natured and his eyes were looking in two different directions. In some parts of Texas he’d have gotten stomped by a bunch of good ol’ boys in flannel. But me, I didn’t care, and my friend was smiling at me, saying: Welcome to Johnny’s
Ah shit. Nobody has to know, I said.
Wrong! the embarrassed girl said. At Occidental, everybody knows everybody.