Thursday, May 15, 2008

Changing Light Bulbs, Part Two: Leonardo


Later in the school year - it's now December, 1968, and we're still at Washington University in St. Louis - they hired another student to be my assistant light bulb-changer. I was still a Junior Electrician. He was the Juniorer Electrician. His name was Leonardo and he was a tall, good-looking Italian from Chicago with curly black hair. He was involved in student government, which was called Student Union, and he had an eye-catching girlfriend who was built like Sophia Lauren. One day Masters and Johnson, the sex researchers, had given a lecture on campus to an overflowing crowd in Graham Chapel, an odd setting for a sex talk, and then opened the floor to questions. Julia, Leonardo's girlfriend, had taken the mic and asked "Just what is this thing you call an orgasm, anyway?" Leonardo had to live with that.

I trained him in fluorescents - the entire two-minute course of study. Then while we worked, we debated campus politics, which seemed meaningless to me in the context of war and assassination and race riots, and I asked Leonardo what they did in Student Union. What was there to govern? "Not much," he said. "That's why I'm working on an initiative to get all the elected members to be paid a salary."

I asked, "If you don't do anything, why should you be paid?"

"If we got paid," he said, "we might be motivated to do something."

Meanwhile campus politics were roiling entirely outside the realm of Student Union. At the Campus Police Station the black students held a sit-in. They had some legitimate grievances about their treatment by the campus police. A few white students belonging to SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) tried to join the sit-in; but their leader, a guy named Tommy, was considered even by other members of the SDS to be at best a clown and at worst a flaming asshole who was tolerated, ironically, because he had a lot of money. The black students sized him up and said No thank you. So the white students marched into the Chancellor's Office, starting with about a dozen radicals and growing to about 300 people occupying the office, the reception area, a conference room and spilling out into the hallway while Chancellor Eliot remained at his desk, smoking his pipe, talking and listening. The black students came over and again asked the white students to leave because they were shifting focus away from the black students' grievances. The white students expressed sympathy but refused to leave, saying they had grievances of their own. So there were two sit-ins taking place on campus: the black students, focused, disciplined, and angry, plus the white students, chaotic, partying, and trying madly to figure out what their grievances were. ROTC, for one thing. ROTC should be abolished. Okay, what else?

Leonardo was there, but the campus radicals didn't trust him or even consider him relevant. Tommy the flaming asshole was there, but the SDS had very little support, even among the radicals. A bevy of freshmen girls were there looking for a party. Some professors dropped by, hoping to engage in a dialog. A number of moderates and even conservatives were there as well, watching to make sure one unhinged student wouldn’t start smashing things and ruin the mellow vibe. Of the 300 people, more than two-thirds were observers, including myself.

There were three telephones in the receptionist's office, and students started calling friends and family back home saying "Hey, guess what, I'm calling you from the Chancellor's Office." In return, they learned that they had made the television network news. A chubby guy delivered pizza. Somebody offered a slice of pepperoni to Chancellor Eliot, who declined. A few of the radicals began debating among themselves as to whether they should hold the Chancellor as a hostage and how they should go about it. After a while somebody pointed out that while they were debating, the Chancellor had put on his coat and departed.

I had to respect Chancellor Eliot. He never called for the police. He never provoked a riot. He listened, he talked, he dodged and wove. He was a shrewd judge of character.

The sit-in continued throughout the night with people chatting, sleeping, strumming guitars. I forget how it ended for the white students, whether anything was negotiated or won or lost, but I do remember that the day after the occupation ended, Leonardo and I were working. It must have been a Saturday.

I had the DX47 key. This was a master key that the maintenance department would issue me at the beginning of my shift and that I had to return at the end of the shift. The DX47 key opened almost every door on campus. The few doors it couldn't open included the nuclear reactor, the ROTC building, and the cashier's office. The fact that they let me walk around all day carrying this key seems so incredible that I have to question my sanity - or theirs. I once opened the Dean's office, found the file of my student records, and probably could have altered my grades. At the time, altering grades didn't interest me - or even occur to me. But on this Saturday, it occurred to both myself and Leonardo that the DX47 key might open the Chancellor's office.

And it did. Brookings was deserted that day. They'd sent all the workers home early during the sit-in, and nobody had returned yet. The students had made an effort to clean up after themselves. The paper cups, pizza boxes and Budweiser bottles were gone. The scent of marijuana remained. There was a fresh coffee stain on the carpet. Leonardo said, "I sat there. Eliot sat there, at his desk. He kept tapping his fingers and looking at his watch. He was smoking a pipe."

Leonardo picked up an envelope that was lying on top of the desk. On the back in pencil was written "This is getting boring."

"He said that." Leonardo put the envelope in his pocket as a souvenir. "I guess he wrote it down, waiting for us to shut up long enough to get a word in."

I thought of this friend I'd made, an older man who was a personal friend of the Chancellor and was taking one of my classes. To put it kindly, this man was a crank. Most people avoided him. He was well-known around St. Louis. He had actually run for Congress as a Democrat, a suicidal race in a solidly Republican district. My friend maintained that political rallies, speeches, demonstrations, parades - they were all an aphrodisiac. He said speeches and rallies got everybody excited but they never accomplished anything, never had any follow-up because afterwards, everybody went home and got laid.

I asked Leonardo, "What happened at the end of the sit-in?"

"I don't know," Leonardo said. "I went off with Julia."

Teasing, I asked, "She find out what an orgasm is?"

Leonardo looked surprised. "How'd you know?" he said.

There was a bulb burned out, so before we left the Chancellor's Office, we changed it. Then we moved on.

(Photo credit: all of the photos are from the December 9, 1968 edition of Student Life, the Washington University campus newspaper. None of the people in the photos are depicted in this story.)

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