I think they're following me.
One week after their cartoon essay on the dickification of Adams Morgan, the writers of the Washington City Paper have stepped across the state line to rip College Park, Maryland a new one. Or to take a crack at the well-worn old one, anyway--it's hardly news to anyone who's gone to the University of Maryland that the town of College Park is, with a few notable exceptions, a cultural wasteland.
At some point during my Music City Captivity the DC area real estate boom hit College Park. A downtown (and by "downtown" I mean two blocks and one intersection) that had always been spotted with abandoned storefronts suddenly sprouted a half-dozen or more new stores between visits home--and every one of them was a fast casual restaraunt. College Park is a great place to buy a six-dollar burrito, and that's about it.
Unless you're looking to riot after a basketball game. Here's the best observation in the article:
Violence like this hasn't cropped up on campus or near it since the antiwar demonstrations of the '70s. Now it happens because Duke sucks.
And the second best, the City Paper plan for riot abatement:
Students are obviously bored. Try this: Make College Park worth not destroying.
Understand the second and you will understand College Park. Understand the first and you will be on the trail of something much larger and more dangerous to public life.
As with the Adams Morgan piece, though, the City Paper makes College Park sound like Dodge City because it allows for moodier journalism. And it's pretty damned easy to make a town look desolate when your photographer takes pictures of such distinctive local features as... a pay phone! And... clouds! Maybe the real problem is that College Park doesn't even offer anything interesting for wannabe noir journalists to feel disaffected from.
But I know that isn't true. Real noir is portable: it can follow you anywhere.
By sheer coincidence, I happened to read the City Paper article right after a trip to College Park and the university that impressed upon me the essential non-noirishness of the place. I was on the outlands of campus, walking to the gym to buy an alumni membership (Maryland will never be rid of me) when I remembered a similar day almost exactly three years ago. Early autumn, sunny, another desolate corner of another campus--my former employers. I had just encountered one of those logistical-bureaucratic breakdowns that roll right off you when you love your job and lodge under the skin when you don't. I don't remember why, but at that moment it seemed like the university couldn't perform any of the basic functions you'd expect an institution of higher education to be able to do. In my aggravated and probably overactive imagination the whole place was a scam perpetrated on students and staff alike, a long con that only called itself a university.
And that was when it hit me, caught in the midday glare of the sun belt: This is noir. You don't need gangsters and D.A.s and femmes fatales. You don't even need shadows or neon or stockings with seams. All you need, as Dave Fiore said so long ago, is existential estrangement, and maybe a corrupt society to be estranged from.
Like every other student past or present, I used to bitch about the bureaucracy at the University of Maryland, before I learned the difference between bureaucracies that deliver and bureaucracies that don't. On Thursday afternoon I was thrilled to be back in the hands of one that delivers. I was headed for my old gym, walking down an empty path with a wooded creek to one side and a titanic, completely deserted parking garage on the other.
And that was when it hit me: This is science fiction. Colossal high-modernist structures built by heuristic bureaucracies that have outlasted their makers. Radically discontinuous microworlds butting against one another. A solitary human figure in the interface, marking the differences between past and present as he wakes up from his slumber. Alienation, without the estrangement. Without the corruption and despair that makes for true noir and not the urban-weekly-goes-slumming-in-the-suburbs variety.
Ah, but it's all in the context. I could walk a hundred yards and find the gym, crowded with students and exactly as I remembered it (equally science fictional in its own panoptic way, but that's another story). I could go to downtown College Park at closing time and find all the homophobic alcoholics training for the day when they work up the nerve to go down to Adams Morgan and piss me off there. I could ignore the comic store I've been going to since high school, the bookstore that beats anything they have in certain cities of half a million people, and see only the fast casual places that have grown inside the record stores and coffee houses I used to love.
Yeah, College Park is a wasteland. But it's my wasteland.