Karina began her lecture on Notes from the Underground by showing her students a map of St. Petersburg, explaining the importance of location to the U.M.’s rant about the most “rational” and “intentional” city on earth, the most “abstract” and “premeditated”. Which historically was not accurate as far earlier than 1703 had men completed cities that were first drafted by city planners, the ancient Greeks weren’t even the first to go beyond the paths created by cattle trails, let alone the Russians some 2100 years later. She talked about a city prone to flooding, mosquitoes, the smell of damp and decay; a city built by Italian architects that was on the same latitude as Anchorage; a city of pastel colors that had to be constantly repainted because the pastels fit a sunny Italian city but not a freezing northern city from the outskirts of which on some miraculous winter nights one could see the Northern Lights.
“I understand now why he calls the city premeditated, but why abstract?” asked Norman, a middle aged student from Puerto Rico, who sat at a desk at the corner of the classroom.
“Abstract, because no other city is physically so alienating to its inhabitants, they are ultimately always distanced from the city because its outward appearance of pastel pinks, baby blues, milky greens, and mild yellows of the Italianate architecture does not match the atmosphere of dread, mold, and bone shattering chill that pervades not only the climate but the souls of the denizens of St. Petersburg,” replied Karina. “So what did you guys think of this character, the Underground Man? Do you like him, hate him, couldn’t care less?” Karina stared out at the unresponsive faces of her students and thought about a way to make the text appeal to them.
“I hate him,” said AnnMarie, “why do we have to read about him again? He’s neurotic, he hates himself and the people around him.”
“He doesn’t have anything going for him,” said Claudia, “everyone hates him, he doesn’t have any friends.”
“He’s antisocial, and paranoid,” said Mirabelle.
“Great, those are all really good thoughts, I might argue something slightly different here, but I’m happy that you had such a visceral reaction to him, because people either hate him or love him. Either you passionately identify with this kind of neurotic” Jew she was going to say even though she knew perfectly well that Dostoyevsky was a confirmed anti-Semite and that the furthest thing from his mind, in delineating the Underground Man was painting a portrait of a Jew, yet what was the Underground Man if not an anxietal 19th century version of a Woody Allen personage, “deeply self-loathing person or you abhor him, however you feel, I dare you to feel indifferent to him.”
She stood up from her desk and walked around the semi-circle, trying to gage their energy.
“Well what do we know about him? We know that he’s a civil servant right? Who is a civil servant, what does a civil servant do?”
“They work for the government or the city, civil servants are postal workers, garbage collectors, workers at the mayor’s office,” answered one of her students, although with a dubious look as if to ask well what did this have to do with her?
“Thank you Jenelle, yes that’s exactly it; civil servants work for any type of state, city, or federal government. But the kind of a civil servant that the Underground Man is: is marginally different from these that you’ve mentioned. Our Underground Man is a paper pusher, meaning he is the type that sits in an office, behind a desk, and answers petitions.” She sat behind her desk and acted out the Underground Man, looking grim, she looked her students up and down. “Michael, imagine that you’ve come to this office because you need me to stamp a paper for you, a paper that certifies that your child was born recently, and that your family has now two male children and therefore you can receive an additional acre of land from the state.”
Michael, a very tall young man in a baseball hat, a goatee, and two small diamond-like earrings in his ears, approached Karina’s desk. “Now Michael, pretend that you are asking me for help, so take out a sheet of paper and ask me for help.” The whole class snickered; they were either finally getting into the game or felt gleeful at the miserable picture that Michael presented. The latter looked deeply uncomfortable, with his hands in his pockets, he approached the desk and took out a sheet of paper. “Excuse me” he said, “I, ugh, need this paper stamped. I…just had one more child and need this form certified.” Everyone laughed.
Karina, meanwhile, got into the role of the Underground Man. She looked Michael up and down, curled her lip and pointed her finger to the nearest chair, as if to say, that he had to wait his turn. Michael was about to back up and sit down at the desk that had been pointed to him, but he didn’t really know what to do so he tried again, and asked the same question, and Karina curled her lip yet again even more forcefully and with more flair. She then let the lip unfurl like a hammer and sickle on a flag during the May Day parade, while looking the poor student up and down. Poor Michael stuffed the paper in his back pocket and retreated to his seat. “You will wait your turn young man, what do you think this is a restaurant? You think you can come here and get served right away. Wait your turn, wait your turn, you all must wait your turn,” said Karina, assuming a deeply unpleasant voice, and singling different students out with her pointed finger and her grimace, “because we have rules here, and if you need to get something done you must abide by the rules, our rules, harrumph…” She drove her pointed index finger into the desk, punctuating her words with the forceful motion of her hand. Maybe the harrumph was overdoing it. But the class at least was enjoying her performance.
“Anyway, this might not be the most important aspect to the character of the Underground Man, but it’s important to impress upon you that he is the kind of person who technically does not have any power, but his power lies in sitting behind the desk and making miserable the people who find themselves on the other side of the desk. But why is he so miserable, and why does he need to ignore those poor people who petition for something? One of the reasons is that in 19th century Russia there is no class mobility, and so he feels that he has no choice but to make those around him uncomfortable with their own situation because, the power that he wields sitting in his chair in the office is the only power he will wield in his life, he will never be anything or anyone, no one will ever listen to him or take him seriously anywhere but in that civil service post where people come to ask him for help. This is one of the reasons that Dostoyevsky tells us what he did to the poor petitioners who came to U.M., deep down he want to be virtuous, he wants to be righteous, but his knowledge and understanding of virtuousness and righteousness knocks head on into a society that is unjust, immoral, corrupt, and where everyone is obsequious, and so one of the points of the novella is to show us a person who perfectly understands the way this society works, and understands that it’s not right but can do nothing about it and while railing at hypocrisy becomes a hypocrite himself.”
Karina had just finished teaching two classes in a row. She walked out of her building, turned on a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, and raised the IPhone speakers to her ear. She knew that she didn’t look particularly professorial, walking around campus with the phone raised horizontally and the speakers pressed to her ear, as if she had a hearing problem, but she had misplaced all her headphones, and was addicted to NPR and any free moment snatched from teaching or writing was a moment for listening to another interview, or book review. Anyway, at the moment she was too cheap to buy new ones. On an adjunct salary she had to count her pennies.
“Hey Prof, how you doing?” Said one of her students, Duke, from a previous semester, who then proceeded to enclose her in a bear hug. “Hey Prof, you look whacked. Don’t you have headphones?” She started to explain that she had misplaced them, but he wasn’t listening. “Hey, I can’t let you walk around campus like this with the speaker in your ear. You’re my favorite Prof, that’s embarrassing. Shit, (oh I’m sorry), you know what I’m going to do is get you a pair of headphones, a good pair of headphones. What kind do you like? The IPhone headphones?” Karina proceeded to say no a few times, but Duke wouldn’t let her go, and so she finally acceded that a pair of headphones would be great, (anything so he would let her keep going on the planned route towards the Human Resources building.) She had to go by the Human Resources department to ask them for a copy of her transcript.
She was applying to jobs again this year, and the internet based service that she was using to send transcripts and recommendation letters to prospective employers recommended that an official copy of a transcript be photographed and scanned into the website. But a new transcript cost $20 to order, and she didn’t want to waste the money on it. The HR department at this college had her official transcript. She thought that if she went by the HR they’d let her photograph the transcript using her phone, then she could just upload it directly to her applications.
She went into the building, showed the guard her ID card, and went through the turnstile. This protective device was instituted at a lot of the CUNY’s. The office of the HR was empty, except for the secretary who looked like one of the students. She had long hair down her back, and elongated Almond-Retto nails, the tips of the nail were sculpted into a lethal dagger like shape that could seriously damage your arteries or your carotid vein should the wielder of this aesthetic weapon choose to mark you as their target. The secretary pounded away at her keyboard, although it was hard to understand how any pounding could be done with nails the length of a cruise ship.
“Hi, I wanted to ask if I could get a copy of my transcript and ask a question about the payments that I am getting this semester.”
“Hi, yes, please sign in, write your question into the log book and I will call the HR representative, Ashley Tart to speak with you. She should be out in a few minutes.”
Karina signed into the logbook. And then went and sat on the couch. The secretary sat at a desk in the center of the waiting room, the desk was surrounded by glass enclosures, in each one there sat or stood an employee of Human Resources. Instead of walking over to the woman who could fulfill Karina’s demands, the secretary called her on the phone. Through the glass subdivision Karina was able to see the matreshka doll figure of the fourty year-old HR woman who stood at her desk looking at something on her computer screen; her straight hair was in a ponytail and fell in an abrupt curve to her back. She wore camel pants which hugged her pear like hips, belted to create an illusion of a waist, and a beige rayon blouse tucked into the pants. She picked up the phone, and after a moment looked out at Karina, satisfied she murmured something into the phone, sat down, and began to type on her keyboard. Karina couldn’t see whether her nails were also on crack but upon hearing the furious pounding produced by the combination of nail and thumb on the keyboard, she imagined that the nails were purple with multiple layers of sparkles, stars, and hearts.
The secretary turned to Karina and murmured, “She said that she’ll be with you in a few moments.”
Meanwhile, Karina took out a magazine and started to read. Now that she had so little time, what with the baby, and teaching, and applying for tenure track jobs, every minute of her time was regulated. When she walked somewhere she listened to NPR or a class on ITunes University; when she was outside of the house she read only the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, or The New York Times. When she was in the house, and the baby was asleep she allowed herself to read a book or in fact multiple books, that way if she was ever stuck she could always move on to something that moved quicker and read the slow one in pieces. She had stopped watching movies; there was absolutely no time for that now she was so seriously dedicated to finding a tenure track job.
Ten minutes passed, Karina was happy for the chance to be forced to wait, obviously there was nothing else she could constructively do with her time now but wait and read. So she waited, and she read. There were numerous articles in the New York Review of Books that excited her, it was almost like an immersion course in multiple cultures and literature courses at once, her Goodreads list of “To Read Books” continued to grow in almost double digits, yet she had calculated that it was physically impossible for her to read more than 50 books a year, if at least half of them were 500 to 800 pages. That way if she had fifty good years still ahead of her to read then she’d only read another 2500 books which seemed quite paltry. And of course the time that she spent reading magazines and book reviews cut into the precious reading time of books.
Karina finished an article about weapons being supplied to the latest Middle East civil war, and another article on an obscure 1940s writer from Slovakia whose work had just been rediscovered, and a third on rape in the juvenile detention system of the US. She thought that it was time to check on her progress in the waiting room. She looked towards the glass cubicle that the HR lady inhabited but the latter was busy with something on her screen. Karina looked at the clock; she had been there for fifteen minutes.
She went up to the secretary and trying to be her most polite self, “I’m sorry, would you be so kind as to ask her again, you see the only thing I need is to ask her one question and to photograph my transcript it shouldn’t be too time consuming, I don’t have that much time.”
“Yes, let me try her again for you” said the secretary. She dialed her again and Karina again sat down to wait. The HR woman did not look up this time, but brusquely answered the secretary’s question and hung up.
Turning towards Karina the secretary murmured “she said she’ll be right out.”
Karina continued to stare towards the office thinking that she’d shame the HR lady into coming out and responding to her petition. The latter looked lazily at her computer, moving her mouse to and from, clicking on it, and staring intensely at its celluloid haze. She scratched the nape of her neck, took out a pencil and sharpened it, hunched over the screen and attempted to penetrate its inscrutable glare. There was no progress. She then took out a nail file and began filing her nails over the keyboard. Another five minutes passed and Karina went back to reading the NYRB, she read a few more articles one on the series of documentaries about Russian dissidents: Khodorkovsky, Navalny, and the Pussy Riot Girls; another about the razing of favelas in Rio and Sao Paulo in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympics. Emerging from her own reading induced stupor she noticed that forty minutes had passed since she first came into the office. Of course involuntary reading time was great but she didn’t have that much free time to spare. She went back up to the secretary.
“Hi, can you please see if you can ask her to come out, I’ve been here for forty minutes, I don’t think this should take that long.”
“Yes, of course, I’m sorry ma’am, thank you for waiting. Let me call her again.” The secretary picked up the phone, her hands voluptuously hugging the receiver in order not to damage the distal phalanges covered with keratin and painted with noxious nitrocellulose and other compounds including the carcinogenic ferrocyanide.
“Ms. Tart said she’ll be right out,” answered the secretary replacing the receiver.
“Now Ms. Sandler how can I help you?” asked the latter in a radically different tone than she had used with the purveyor of fine leather.
“I would like to photograph my transcript, you have an official copy here in the office and I would like a copy of it.”
“I can copy it for you on the copy machine,” said Ms. Tart.
“Yes, you see I don’t want it to be photocopied on the copy machine, I simply want to photograph it with my phone.”
“No, I won’t be able to do that but I can photocopy it on the copy machine.”
“Yes, you’ve already said that, but you see I don’t need for it to be photocopied on the copy machine, when it’s photocopied it says copy on it, if I photograph it that allows the copy to maintain its colors and it doesn’t say copy on it.”
“Yes, well like I said I can’t do that, I can photocopy it.”
“I see; you won’t let me photograph it.”
“Yes, I won’t let you photograph it.”
“And may I ask why that is?” Karina asked, her eyebrows were beginning to rise, her back to straighten, and her stomach to tighten, while her whole figure assumed a position that she thought meant that she would not be agreeable, she rose at least a few inches in height, in her mind towering over the grounded and inflated form of the HR rep.
“Because it’s not allowed” said Ms. Tart, looking towards the series of rooms to her left as if to point out that her management did not allow it.
“It’s not allowed? Is this written down somewhere, that a person whose transcript it is cannot photograph their own transcript?”
“Yes it’s written down.”
“Well may I see it? The instructions for this order that is,” Karina attempted to maintain her calm but she could not remember the last time she had been so agitated, the last time that bile directed at humanity was just waiting to spew out, when the boiling lava of disgust would cover Tart and the secretary and their whole office.
“No you may not.”
Karina was about to protest but the door of the waiting room opened. A well-dressed man in a dark brown suit, a leather messenger bag slung over his shoulder, and new, soft dark ochre Italian loafers, entered the waiting room. Karina guessed this was another professor, a tenured one, judging by the quality of the loafers and the soft leather of the bag.
Seeing him, Ms. Tart’s figure transformed, her chest expanded and grew if possibly even larger, she stood even taller in her heels, a pleasant blush crept into her cheeks, it was as if her entire personage had inhaled the aroma of roses and hyacinths, she floated on air.
“Dr. Green, what can I do for you?” she cooed, like a happy hen awaiting insemination by a plucky and colorful rooster. He had some concerns about his paycheck as well, would she be able to see him? “Oh Dr. Green, of course, we are happy to do anything we can to make your visit with HR as pleasant as it can be. Please follow me. ”
Before he could answer Karina intervened, “Excuse me, but I’ve been waiting for forty minutes, I’ll take up only a few minutes of your time and then you can go back to Dr. Green.”
“Yes, but you see Ms. Sandler, Dr. Green had actually come before you, and then stepped out, I thought we were finished?” When Karina made further motion to protest, Ms. Tart dripping solicitude replied ever so sweetly, “I’m sorry but you have to wait.” Karina wanted to protest that she wasn’t Ms. Sandler, that she was in fact Dr. Sandler, but there was no time, Dr. Green’s elbow had disappeared somewhere under the weight of Alicia Tart’s large, smooth hand, as she steered him towards her cubicle, and the next minute they were ensconced in her office. There was nothing to do but wait longer. In the office she could see Ms. Tart leaning over poor Mr. Green as she helped him sort through different documents; it was an obvious seduction scene as the latter, made use of the plenitude of her forms to entice Dr. Green into enjoying his visit to the HR, and to make sure to come back again. Oh what wouldn’t Karina have done at the moment to morph into an intriguing man, and get Tart to let her photograph her transcript.
More time passed, she was finally starting to feel the bile rise from the lower part of her abdomen, make its way through her esophagus and finally lodge in her throat. This was so unfair, if she was a man and if she had nice leather loafers, and tenure no one would dare treat her this way. This was of course the way contingent workers were treated everywhere.
Yet Karina knew that she couldn’t leave, she had an application due this week for a very good position, and she needed that transcript, she would have to ignore her pride. After an interminable period of time, and after reading some three other articles about out of control inflation in Argentina, a translation of four works by a Ukrainian writer of literary esoterica, and the cholera epidemic in Haiti, there was movement in the glass enclosure, and Dr. Green filed out followed by the happy and glowing Alicia Tart.
“Come again Dr. Green, we’re always happy to see you, and thank you for the flowers,” said Ms. Tart in a voice that dripped caramel.
As soon as Dr. Green was out of hearing range, Tart’s voice changed from liquid to solid, now it resembled the sound of steel. “Now Ms. Sandler, how can I help you, you’re really making it very difficult for me to work today.”
“I would like a copy of my transcript or a document that shows me why you can’t allow me to photograph it.”
“I W-O-N’-T G-I-V-E It to you!!!! Do you understand? If this is all please go bother somebody else”, replied Tart. Karina entered into a state of anaphylactic shock, she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had been so rude to her.
“Do you enjoy torturing everyone who comes to ask you for something? You are making up these arbitrary rules, after keeping me waiting for over an hour. I mean, where do you think you are, is this a doctor’s office, are you a physician to keep me waiting for an hour? And by the way I have a PhD and you can’t speak to me as if I were some menial, some cleaning lady, you can address me as Dr. Sandler, just like you addressed the man who came in here. Tell me is this typical to keep professors or female professors waiting for an hour while you file your nails and flirt with every man who comes in here? I mean sure you’re biological clock is ticking, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be a woman hater.”
“I wasn’t keeping you waiting on purpose. Whatever would make you think that Dr. Sandler?” Said Tart with a shipping container worth of sarcasm. “But we are very busy here in HR, I was filling out the information for payments, so that you and other ADJUNCTS,” she made the word sound as if it were floating free in space, disconnected from all the other words spilling out of her mouth, “can be paid on time, and if you don’t have anything further to ask me then…”
Karina thought that if she explained that she needed the transcript to apply for jobs, then maybe Tart would take pity on her, but she didn’t want her condescension, she didn’t want to lower herself to the level of having to explain anything to Tart.
In her mind she cursed with every available adjective the engorged plenitude of Ms. Tart, her pear like behind, her gigantic pear like behind, her drooping upper arms, her neck contorted with multiple layers and folds, the seat of her fertility hidden under numerous stratums of lard.
She walked out of the office, her hands shaking, attempting to control the Niagara that was about to burst through her tear ducts. She had another class to teach, her final lecture on Dostoyevsky of the day. Damn it, she’d still have to pay $20 bucks for that stupid transcript.
“So why does U.M. finally reject Liza the prostitute? Because although, he is an intellectual who reads books, and attempts to eschew shallow and callow society, while being simultaneously drawn and repulsed by it, and even though he understands the merits of virtue, he cannot help becoming the person that society conditioned him to be. He cannot stop himself from behaving towards Liza in the same way that society has behaved towards him. When others revile him, he projects onto her the heavy toll that his environment has exacted of him.” Karina triumphantly ended her lecture and looked around the room to see if anyone was as swept up by her diarrhea of words as she was.
One of the young women in the room did not look like anyone that Karina had seen before, usually the chair was taken by an African American woman with a thick, short, dark bob and bangs, but today the woman in the seat had voluptuous, curly hair cascading down her back. There was nothing she hated more than when students brought their friends to class without consulting with her.
Still upset by the treatment she’d received in HR she abruptly said to the girl: “Excuse me, are you in this class?” The other students immediately quieted down. Whereas usually her students, giggled, and whispered to each other like the silly thirteen year olds with upturned noses, at the house of Syetochkin, the U.M.’s boss; with her comment, and the dripping irritation in her voice Karina had managed to silence the entire room, and halt the discreet clicking of fingers on their IPhones underneath the desks.
“Yes, I always sit here,” replied the young woman, looking slightly uncomfortable and puzzled.
“And why is it that I have never seen you before?” Asked Karina, with rancor in her voice, “are you visiting a friend in this classroom, because if you are I would really like to be consulted first before someone just sits in on my class. Frankly if this is not where you should be, I think you need to leave.” She said, her voice raised, her nerves pinched, her inflection unpleasant, and shrewish to her own ears.
“I don’t know, I’m always here, I’m Tricia Jones.”
Karina stared and stared into the face in front of her but could not place this face in the roster of faces that she’d held before her for the first month of the semester. She knew the name of course but couldn’t believe this was the same student, she had the worrying suspicion that the student had sent a friend to sit in for her while she was out doing something else, to make sure that she didn’t get marked absent and have the ten percent attendance grade taken off.
“She always sits in this seat, her hair is just different today,” said Geena, a student with bright blue hair and multiple body piercings, one Karina could never mistake for another.
And then she saw it, of course this was Tricia, the hair was a weave, and because Karina did not understand the concept of weaves, the fact that for a whole month a student had a short bob and all of a sudden appeared with a beautiful, head of lustrous, curly hair, of course being mad at the HR woman, and at the whole race of functionaries who usurped their power in convenient situations, Karina herself had stooped to the same level, and worse she knew that her unrecognition of the hair as a weave would confirm some of her student’s worst ideas about her. That she was a racist, yet another white Prof. who couldn’t tell one person of color from another.
Last Updated 9 months ago