Wednesday, September 17, 2014

My God Damned Elite Education

The realization crystallized when the fellow came over to fix the refrigerator. Except to greet him at the door and let him in, I realized I couldn’t talk to him. Whatever Fessenden, Andover, Harvard, and a Yale doctorate in English literature have prepared me for, the process has also erected insurmountable barriers to relating humanely and empathically to a Whirlpool technician.

He began straightforwardly enough, asking, “So what’s the trouble?”

“Ice,” I said, wanting to be succinct. But then, “Not so much ice as the absence of ice when I press my glass against the thingy on the door where ice is supposed to come out.”

He looked bewildered. “So you’re not getting ice.”

“I’m getting it,” I struggled to put it in a way I thought he might understand. “But I am not getting it out of the chute or whatever it is on the front of the door. There was ice for a while in the big drawer-like thing on the inside of the refrigerator that you can pull all the way out, but nothing was coming out from the place on the door.”

“O.K.,” he said, looking troubled. “So the ice isn’t coming down. But you have ice in the bin?”

I was momentarily flummoxed by “bin.” But if “bin” was his term for the big plastic drawer-like thing that stored the ice inside the refrigerator, then I believed I could proceed. “There was ice in there for a while, but after I used up what there was, there was no more new ice. I have been going to the Seven Eleven for ice since it stopped coming out of the door.”

Seemingly impervious to what I had explained, he turned away from me and said, “I’ll have a look.” There followed an awkward silence while he wheeled the refrigerator out from the wall, opened the double doors and extracted the big drawer-like thing or “bin,” nosing around behind it with a flashlight, the beam of which seemed to come out of something like a ballpoint pen. For what seemed like ages he poked around the recess behind the bin with tools I could not see. Unable to stand there idly any longer, I said, “I have work in the other room. Let me know if you need me for anything.”

To this he grunted something hurtfully dismissive, which may have been “fine.”

In the quiet of my study, I tried to make sense of what had just happened, but there was no satisfying resolution. There was simply no bridge between the world I experienced and the names I assigned to the things within that world and the world of the Whirlpool man clinking about not fifteen yards from where I sat. He was approximately my age. It is conceivable that, like me, he could have grown up in Dedham, Massachusetts, though probably not in our neighborhood. He would more likely have lived in West Roxbury or Medford. But as toddlers we could have played, even become friends.

But then, not unlike putative earthlings drawn up into an alien spacecraft to be put to unfathomable uses known only to the abductors, I was enrolled in a succession of elite institutions that in the name of enlarging my understanding of the world would instead limit that understanding to what is no more than a rarefied freemasonry of class driven concepts and language. Thus, like my fellow graduates of the elite schools, I entered a world of khaki pants, ergonomic furniture, livable salaries, and paid sabbaticals under the unexamined assumption that it was the world, a world best understood by my fellow ivy leaguers—and least understood by the likes of a Whirlpool repair man.

Yet here I was in mid-life without ice. Or at least ice coming out of the refrigerator door. And there he was, just out of earshot, fixing it.

“Hello. Hello?” It was his way of summoning me back to the kitchen.

“Problem was the water line between the sink and the fridge was pinched shut. Something must’ve banged against it and made this—crimp.” He held up the damaged section of tubing. “So I replaced the line, and you’re all set.”

He was replacing his tools in their metal box, clearly preparing to leave. I would have to say something as he departed, but what? Would “thanks”—coming from me---be condescending, given the near certainty that he probably had not attended an undergraduate college at all, and almost certainly not a highly selective one. “Good job” would be even more hollow, as he was fully aware I would have no idea of what  constituted a “good” refrigerator repair.

In the event, I cringe at what I actually did manage to say. I had been eyeing his trousers, which were rugged looking and the color of baked yams. They had extra zippered pockets sown down along the legs. These extra pockets might reasonably be expected to hold tools and thus appropriate for an appliance repairman, but I had also seen similar zippered pockets in shorts and slacks sold by upscale retail clothiers like Banana Republic. A little hesitantly, I said, “Interesting pants.”

I will not soon forget the look he gave me in response. Not bewilderment, but an emphatic mock bewilderment, stating more strongly than any actual words: “Interesting pants? What the fuck?”

He left the bill for his services on the butcher block counter and as he went out the door said, “Have a nice day.”

And at that moment I would have traded my acceptance letters to every one of my elite schools not to have been lacerated by the irony of that valediction.