Reportage / 26 March 2019

Hell’s temperature

Postcard from concrete Ohio, volume 4

Four years ago I became famous in Bowling Green, Ohio. When the new writer in residence was asked how he liked it, he said, he liked it a lot. It looked like Bulgaria in the ‘80s.

Although I’ve never been to Bulgaria: the newer buildings on campus are testimonies to an unintentional brutalism – concrete, small windows, dark floors; grey, brown and the university color orange dominate. My office, with the fake-leather reclining chair and the brown woods, could be held by a party secretary in a small town. My classroom is devoid of windows, but has an AC that can’t be switched off. Forty percent of the United State’s energy is used up by buildings; the Green New Deal of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al. aims at targeting that too. Wherever you look, signs scream at you what to do and what not to do.

How beautiful, however, is the Midwest’s Bulgaria in the ‘80s during spring break! It’s become milder, the snow has melted. Birds are singing, in Carter Park young people aim Frisbees at baskets. Students have left the campus to squirrels and robins. The stall talk in restrooms told spring breakers how to behave whileon holidays: always leave someone behind on the beach to look after your belongings, hiding cell phones in sneakers doesn’t prevent theft; use sunscreen with factor 50 at least; consume alcoholic beverages responsibly, if at all; before sexual intercourse make sure with whom and why, use condoms. All of that offends my anti-authoritarian mind. Yet, if you have seen drunk male students with green hats and drunk female students with green blinking antennas on their heads celebrating eight days before St. Patrick’s Day on Main Street and in their yards, you might judge that pedagogical furor more mildly. The booze-up was called St. Practice Day.

St. Patrick’s Day fell during Spring Break. Now the Student Recreation Center’s hot tub doesn’t see students talking about exams or colleagues, or athletes chatting about their workout and diet, but retirees speaking about tax returns they’d wanted to file in January. Advantages and disadvantages of certain tax processing programs are weighed; Trump had promised to make everything easier, a man said, now there was only more paperwork to be done.

In the now orphaned campus cafeteria, a few weeks ago an idea was born that might make the world better, and us richer. The idea had popped out of the novel I’m finishing here. My girlfriend got in touch with a trademark lawyer. They exchanged a lot of emails. He didn’t want to know in advance what we wanted to protect.

The skies over Toledo were blue, most of the beautiful old red brick buildings were decayed, as we stepped into the elegant conference room of a law firm. We were sitting at a long, dignified wooden table, I laid a signed retainer agreement and a check onto it. Now the lawyer wanted to know what we wanted to protect legally. I opened a picture on my cell phone and edged it over the table. A smile hushed over the lawyer’s face. I’m already worried, he said.

The President of the United States could go after us and let all hell break loose. I looked at my girlfriend. We hadn’t spent one thought on that. The lawyer said he’d like to represent us. He’d know how to defend our case. Hell’s temperature in our case, however, would be measured in dollars. He wondered if our meek budget wasn’t better invested otherwise. When we said, after three quarters of an hour, that we’d think it all through, he didn’t want to take any money from us. He sighed as he made his way to his office.