Thursday, November 19, 2009

Back when I was cool...

In the overall course of my life, I have very seldom been "cool". As a youth, my interests were geeky, and my fashion sense was... idiosyncratic. I was reasonably athletic, but I had a deep aversion to team sports. I read books - all the time - and I was generally very quiet.

So I wasn't really a target for teasing - not much, anyway - and I did have friends. But to a lot of people, I was sort of invisible. (In eight grade, I had a girl look at me and say, "I remember you. You're the one who was always sitting in the back of the class, reading those huge books." My reaction was something like, Yes, we've had classes together for years, and you're just now figuring out who I am? She was right about the books, though - one of the teachers had given me his old D'n'D manuals, and those things were huge.)

Occasionally, though, I did get a chance to be cool. When I did, I savored it. And every once in a while, I like to dust off those memories and take a look at them.

This one actually took place in graduate school. I was getting ready to graduate, and I'd dropped by the Registrar's office for... I don't remember. Something I needed.

Now, the Registrar himself was an older man, tall and a little gangly. He was quite friendly, and extremely willing to help. His secretary, by contrast, was the dragon guarding the castle gate: unfriendly, unhelpful, and always trying to send people elsewhere. At the time, I thought her presence was the result of some sort of law of Conservation of Bureaucracy: a counterbalance for his essential helpfulness. Looking back, I think she was probably just trying to make sure that he could get some of his own work done.

So I approached her desk with some trepidation, and was relieved to find it empty. Not entirely relieved, because it was really empty - there was nobody there at all. Now, the Registrar's office was set up with the secretary's desk out front, separated from the public by a middlin' tall counter. If you were standing at the counter, the desk was in front of you, and the door to the Registrar's office was behind the counter, on your right.

So, I kind of leaned over the counter and looked back into the main office. The Registrar wasn't there either, but there was a trio of undergrads, holding papers and deep in conversation. I was so relieved at not having to deal with the Dragon that I decided not to interrupt them - at least, not immediately.

While I'm standing there waiting, there comes a very loud POP! A wall of thick, grey smoke starts curling up from behind the screen of the monitor on the secretary's desk. This, clearly, calls for immediate action, so I lean around the counter again, and call in through the doorway: "Pardon me, but your computer's on fire."

A nicely dressed young man comes out of the office and takes his place behind the counter. He has clearly failed to notice the smoke. He asks: "What can I do for you?"

Well, what could I say? I smiled, met his eyes, and said: "No, really. I wasn't kidding. Your computer's on fire." And I gesture at the desk behind him.

He turns around and sort of freaks out: startles visibly, and then rushes over to the desk and starts scrambling around on his knees, looking for the power cord under the desk.

I decide that this is getting out of hand. I'm not sure just how much of a fire hazard the thing really is, but it can't be doing any good to leave it sitting there smoking. So I come around the counter, grab the power cable at the back of the monitor, and pull it out. The smoke stops, and the kid stands back up, looking relieved.

I stepped back around the counter, and he got me whatever it was I needed. While he was doing that, the other two came out and stood around the monitor, probably trying to figure out what to do with it. I took my whatever, and rode off into the sunset.

And that, my children, is one of the very few times when I was actually cool.

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