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Harvard--The Movie

By Dan S. Aibel

Lumbering through an empty, rain-soaked, wind-swept Yard on my way to thesis orals last Mondays morning, my new shoes drenched, my umbrella upturned and my body shuddering in fear, there was one thought I couldn't get out of my mind: Brendan Frasier never faced anything like this.

Still, by Friday it's all a distant memory: I've handed in my last paper. I've taken my last exam. My four-year academic adventure is, alas, complete.

And since my ground-breaking, career-making interview with reclusive filmmaker Terrence F. Malick '65-'66 seems to have fallen through--he hasn't returned my letters--I decide to return to the Yard, looking to scare up some trouble.

My plan is somewhat nebulous: I'm hoping to pigeonhole a well-known faculty member or maybe latch onto a tour group. Something like that. Something very Yardish.

So I plant myself just next to Widener at about two o'clock. It's an incredible day--warm, clear and arid--and the place is hopping with people. There are frisbee-throwers, half-naked loungers and scores of tourists.

Sooner than later, one group catches my eye. It's a cluster of about a dozen people. They're nodding attentively as a man speaks to them in Spanish.

Try as I might to make out what he's saying. I can't pick up so much as a word. But luckily, he begins translating; apparently, there's an English-only couple in his group. And although I'm having trouble wading through his thick accent, I'm almost sure I hear him say something about swimming tests and ice cream.

The group starts toward University Hall, leaving a camcorder-toting woman behind. Like thousands of cinematographers before her, she's struggling to find a way to convey the massiveness of the library. And as her shot pans through my body, it strikes me that I've played supporting roles in literally dozens of these Cambridge video diaries. Just how many home movies, how many photo albums have I stumbled into, I wonder.

There's no time to think, though, because the group is quickly receding into the blurry background of my visual field. So I dart into action, slipping behind the far side of University Hall in hopes of heading them off at the John Harvard statue. And sure enough, by the time I get there they've already joined another smattering of tourist in front of Cambridge's answer to the Mona Lisa.

But just after I park myself on the steps of University Hall, staking out the tourists from the statue's right side, a strange scene begins to unfold: I spot a curious-looking old man on the approach. He's wearing a disheveled shirt and tie under a new-looking waterproof jacket, lugging a plastic bag full of garbage satchel-style over his shoulder and holding a half-dozen copies of the Gazette in his other hand. He's plodding steadily toward the statue and as he makes his way past it--get a load of this--he salutes.

It's only a matter of seconds until the old man catches me staring and this sends him in my direction. "He had the vision," he announces by way of explanation, gesticulating toward the statue. Hoping to mollify him I agree, for the first time noticing that his mouth is desperately low on teeth. But it's too late, because he's already spotted my Cambridge University T-shirt, and this gives him the appropriate lead-in to a whole series of remarks: He tells me he's almost certain John Harvard was a Cambridge man, and then surprises me by navigating through the entire story of Mr. Harvard's immortalizing donation to a tiny Massachusetts college.

He asks where I'm from, and, incredibly, in no time at all we're knee-deep in small talk. Soon it becomes apparent that he thinks I'm a tourist, but it's not worth interrupting the flow of our conversation to correct his impression.

Somehow we drift into a captivating if zany discourse on the obscure matter of New York State electoral politics. It's a subject he's particularly interested in, for some reason, and I'm more than happy to share what little information I've gleaned about the key state-wide races. After I give him my "New Yorker" perspective on the power struggle between Gov. George Pataki and Lieutenant Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross, he notes with satisfaction that my summary gels with the impression he got from reading about the controversy in The New York Times.

But that's the same place I've been getting my information.

Finally, he's said his piece, and is ready to leave. Before he goes, he welcomes me to Harvard and says he hopes I enjoy my stay. "It's a great place," he assures me as he moves out, throwing the bag of garbage back over his shoulder. "I'm sure it is," I yell after him, not certain whether he's still within earshot.

Dan S. Aibel '98 is a philosophy concentrator in Kirkland House. This is his final column.

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