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Surreal Security, Part Two

From Haven To Jail

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As I was passing through airport-world recently dealing with its shoe fetish and other invasive absurdities committed in the name of national "security," (see "The Airport Gulag," Dec. 3) I thought about how great it would be to finally reach my alma mater where, when I was a student, very few restrictions of the outside world applied. Life there is on a higher plane, I told myself as I tried to stroll with dignity in my stocking feet through one of those intimidating electronic archways.

The college doesn't have a metal detector at its main gate, yet, and when I finally got there my cab was able to drive onto campus without being stopped, searched, or otherwise harassed, in marked contrast to the airport shenanigans. As soon as I started wandering around campus it soon hit me in the face, however, that colleges have joined airports as places where the word "security" has taken on the same sacred sheen and power that "Jesus" has among Baptists, and that excessive controlling goes on in its name as well as His.

My first hint was the alien sight of a white, golf-cart-like tram with SECURITY spelled out in big dark letters on its side rumbling down a path. I couldn't remember Security riding in anything that noticeable in my day. Actually, I have very few memories of Security at all, except for an old guy or two in a blue cap shuffling around. They were an almost non-existent presence then, but now they were hot-dogging it in a vehicle that let them quickly penetrate all corners of campus, with that word that might as well have been POLICE writ large.

When I mounted the steps of my old dorm and confidently tugged on the door handle, the fact that it was actually locked almost knocked me back. The dorms used to be wide open 24/7, making possible spontaneous late-night drop-ins and hoppings in-and-out of beds that didn't require a card.

That's when I saw the futuristic-looking panel with its hostile winking red light, so out of place on the doorway's century-old stone carving. Since it demanded the swiping of an I.D. card, I had to loiter around the entrance of my former home like a pamphlet-passing Jehovah's Witness until a student came along and kindly let me in.

My former dorm had recently been renovated, and the student offered to show me around. I was glad to see they'd preserved the formal parlor, although the glass doors that replaced the original wooden sliding ones made it look like a department store window display. I was puzzling over why they'd put in glass when it struck me that it was probably so Security could see inside even if the doors were closed and check to make sure kids weren't smoking or snorting anything in there or fornicating on the gold brocade sofa.

My impression that student life is systematically being converted into a fish bowl was confirmed by the student's account, delivered in a low tone as if the parlor might be bugged, of how there are now "building guards" who patrol the dorms from 11 at night until 7 in the morning and report any infractions to "house advisors," essentially paid residents planted among the kids to help rat them out.

The only thing we used to have were "house fellows," junior faculty condemned to live in the dorms who stayed off in their wings, trying to ignore us as much as we wholeheartedly ignored them. Anyone patrolling the halls would have tripped over bodies, clothing optional, sitting on the floor around the hookah while taking a break from the nitrous oxide tank gleaming in full view in the doorway of somebody's room.

When my student friend lowered her voice to a whisper to confide that people place rolled towels at the bottom of their doors when they dare to smoke pot so the guards won't smell it and report them to the advisors, also known as "administrators on call," (as if life requires round-the-clock administration), a chill passed over me. It seemed like time had been rolled back, instead of forward.

That night I stopped in the campus bar and guess who was there on duty: Security. The old watering hole used to have student bouncers, but apparently the administration decided that a policing presence was needed there as well as in the dorms. I wonder how the kiddies will ever turn into adults if they're always under the watchful eyes of one.

Walking back to my room I noticed that the paths at night are now bathed in a cold, chemical light, and that former foot trails have been widened to accommodate the roaming Security carts. In college, more than at any other time, you need the cover of dark and wild spaces to grow in, but not much of either is left at my alma mater.

When I departed the next day my cab passed a new-looking building on the edge of campus. Big letters along its front announced, you guessed it, SECURITY. At the airport on the way home, I walked under the electronic arch without dignity.

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