a river’s tale

I was by a river this week, among the detritus of a steel town. There is garish gentrification gobbling up the deserted warehouses and boarded-up shops. Amazon might come soon, they say.

I dislike the institution that defines this place, nearly as much as the priced out locals here do. It churns out expensive, mass degrees in various trendy specializations and the result is an utterly random distribution of skills and talent.

The group I came to visit was born of the vestigial remains of the old research center. They are classical folks, leery still of the deep ways we do things now. I had forgotten what it was to work with that bunch.

You leave wonderland behind. Then you go on to a sane, suburban life. Then you fall back right through the looking glass.

I do things that I used to do a lot, there is familiarity and ease, and there is common terminology and shared understanding of the problems. So far, there’s no having to deal with people who’ve never bothered to see how and why these things are usually done and go about reinventing the wheel inefficiently and brokenly because of some god-ordained authority, and try their hand at bullying and harassment when that stops being enough to get a high out of. It’s rather pleasant to have an old and familiar setting which doesn’t have all that, even if it is a hark back to an earlier time, even if it is just in a little bubble in a tumultuous sea of controversy.

There is drinking a lot, something I hadn’t been doing since my days of Japanese revelry. There are late nights and the old discussions about modeling stuff, a far cry from the if-else mindset that was pervasive with my previous job crowd. I met many old characters of my earlier days. I feel a bit protected and safe, comforting myself in the conclusion that there will be people to speak up for me if I am unlucky enough to attract the wrong sort of attention. Things aren’t pristine and sunny, but I hadn’t expected that.

The institution loomed over the city. I skulked about trying to avoid the edifice, until a postdoc came and grabbed me.

“No!” I muttered. “I don’t like stepping inside that factory.”

“It’s an university.”

I still have idealistic notions of what education should be, and I refuse to grace that travesty with my goodwill.

Later, I scowl and let him take me to his nice apartment overlooking the river. He still has the sofa he has been carrying around since our Atlanta days. I remember the exact configuration to make myself comfortable on that.

“I’ll cook,” he promises, and I find that he has done grocery shopping for ingredients to my Malabar Biriyani.

So I find myself cooking, though I glare at him until he starts chopping the lamb, and he complains, and it is like days of old, though we are missing the rest of our old group. We are deep in a discussion about Resnets when I realize that academia still hasn’t let me go, even though I left so long ago. We talk about steel and what it means in that city, and about flyover country, and about the yawning mundaneness this industry is going to collapse into. It isn’t as exciting anymore, but it seems to be still the most exciting job that pays that we are capable of. He is still waiting for that tenure track position he has interviewed for, but he admits that the industry is hard to resist. He is a horrible host, but he makes the best tea.

I meet old coworkers and friends, and we discuss the foibles of our lives over a great deal of alcohol. One of my mapping company friends is there and we discuss the cool stuff a Chinese lab has been doing in a pub that is a deactivated church.

A coworker takes me around, and I see the sights of this strange, new land. There are thin sheets of ice on the river, the trees stand bare, and there is no birdsong. Cars clog up the up-and-down streets, there is snow on the sidewalks, and people look at us suspiciously. There is graffiti everywhere, on gutted buildings, on a stack of broken tires right by the entrance to the office where it declares many determined fonts of Fuck You. It reminds me of San Francisco. This sea of change must be crippling and alarming for many, and a door of opportunities for some.

I arrive early to give a talk, and the polite security fellow thinks that I am cafe management staff. I don’t even bother to correct that sort of thing these days. When he sees the talk and gets what I am there for, he is graciously and endlessly apologetic, and we have a nice chat afterwards.

There isn’t enough sleep. So I am grumpy. I’ve needed to drink espressos, and that has made me grumpier. I like my caffeine weak and diluted.

A local shows me a commute-time shortcut, tells me to keep it secret. I feel like Frodo, and I nod solemnly.

The food is rich. I am fed with omlettes, breadbowls, cheese, potatoes, gnocchi, poutine, fish, and creamy onion soup, in various combinations, every day. I am a finicky eater when drunk, and a finickier one when sober, so I am pleasantly surprised when I really like the onion soup.

It’s not where I like going, I suppose, and the locals have started disliking this stuff more, but it’s something we’ll all have to get used to. The gig economy era is here to be around, for the rest of our days, until our middle class completely vanishes, and until then we have to find our places in it somehow.