This year is my second in the Bad Line. This is the line for the bad students who didn't pay their tuition. Freshman year it all worked out OK and sophomore year I registered by mail (a loophole). Last year I don't want to talk about, and right now it looks like a brand new adventure in excuses for not coming up with 30 grand and change.
Everybody starts out in the Good Line, waiting. In the Good Line there are cookies from the sympathetic staff and frantic hugs for people you forgot all summer. The floor is marble and the Tense-A-Barriers are clean and freshly sprung. Good Line liners-up have eager faces like you thought went out of style after grade-school cereal commercials, and the lady at the end says, "OK, you're all set," and off you go to get your picture taken.
Except not always. Here in the Bad Line we wonder if the Good Line sophomore in the long green dress has Gates-like money in the bank or if she only got her Perkins app. filled out on time, and more important, what she thinks of schlumps with T-shirts, hangovers, and two feet planted solid in the Bad Line.
We in the Bad Line have already talked to the OK-lady. But we didn't hear OK -- more like, "You need to go talk to the ladies against the wall." The OK-lady doesn't want to hear about the loans, the application deadline or the fight with Mom and Dad about the bookstore charge account. She doesn't mention shortfalls, debits, gaps, lacunae, debts, aporia or any of the other words they teach us here in college, because she's polite and because a kid behind me brought his father with him. Fathers needn't hear the problems of the ones who aren't their own. I'm not yet at the Ladies-by-the-Wall, but last year one of them made Sara cry, and asked me things I might not tell a doctor. "You'll have to provide this information every time there's a disbursement." Everybody's promising to pay in quiet voices. Everybody has a story. Heather's mother's looking for a job and finding nothing for a Ph.D. and no experience at 55. Miles knows he sent the money just before his parents moved in early August. Jacob was awake with me still drinking only hours ago. He has no story to tell the Ladies.
No one's saying much here. Everybody's looking at their feet. Lauren, who was gorgeous in my Dante class, is red-eyed in the corner waiting for the Man-Behind-the-Wall to check some numbers.
Rumors pass along the Good Line with the chatter. Word is that it's gonna take an hour to get our ID photos taken, but there's no commercial photographer or anything, so nothing about smiling for the Beanie Baby, none of that idiotic "Say Potatoes!!" cheer. We in the Bad Line listen glumly. This guy Eric is saying something to a girl about binary cultural structures in Lévi-Straussian theory and gesturing at us.
As the Bad Line approaches the Bad Table, where the Ladies-by-the-Wall sit, there are chairs to rest in for a moment. No one wants to lose his space in line and so we slide from chair to chair, pausing to hunch down and stare at the floor, or at the leaflet on the floor about the chance to rent a small refrigerator. Generations of high school seniors have dreamed about their own small refrigerator, dreamed about the hummus and the cream cheese and the Budweiser that will finally be their own, in their own refrigerator. Very few high school seniors realize that the previous renter will have scrubbed that fabled appliance with aggressively aromatic oven cleaner as the time of reckoning approached and the risk of losing the security deposit because of the spreading fungus became increasingly real. Very few suspect that the promising brown box with three pieces of glued-on magnetic poetry flatly stating "some dogs cruise" will exhale, when opened, the reek of the chem lab and will endow its contents, in the space of hours, with eau de burning-weapons-manufacturing-plant.
But the line has moved, and we kick our backpacks down a seat, and slide our bodies down a seat, and hunch again as the late-registering freshmen arrive with their fathers and mothers in full force at the large door and the tail end of the Good Line. Some of them will sit here yet, we think.
Jacob has grown excited. Desperately trying to throw off his bleary morning face, he launches into an Explanation. This line, he says (he likes the chairs), is not the Bad Line, just the Other Line, and that line over there, the Good Line, is Another Good Line where the other good kids wait. The lines for registering cars or buying groceries, waiting for the parkway tolls or mailing letters overseas are neither good nor bad, he says. So whence this privileging of competently, early, fully, well-paid bills?
There's nothing to say to a kid like this, and as the men's lacrosse team passes, shouting that they've got a game this afternoon but that they'll see the green-dress girl tonight, we slide down to the next chairs, edging closer to the table, looking at the floor.
One thing is true. This is the last year, the Last Bad Line. Things could be much worse. I'm pretty sure I only owe them in the hundreds, not the thousands. Thousands-owers are the ones who have to go Behind-the-Wall, and I'll be thinking of them next year, as I think about them now, but from a greater distance, in the Big Line for a fellowship, a job, a law-school slot, a chance to go to Spain. In the Big Line the chairs don't fold and the floor is not marble. In the Big Line all the other lines are fine, or even Good. And there are Explanations.