Monday, March 12, 2007

magic meter

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Law school is depressing right now. It's a little past the middle of the semester, and the glow of new material has rubbed off. The weather has warmed up, briefly, which makes going to class doubly sad. This also means the classroom where I take Criminal Procedure on Monday and Tuesday afternoons is so hot you wonder seriously if you are going to pass out before 75 minutes is up. Today I fanned myself furiously and watched every minute tick by on the wall clock, feeling delirious.

Civil Procedure (on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons) is unwinding in an ever-more dizzying string of rules. The cases all turn on procedural glitches, each of which is assigned its own rule and subsection letter. Twelve-bee motions! Rule eleven charges! Pleading amendments (whose number, alas, I have forgotten already). I try to take notes as best as I can and not fall asleep, or daydream, or check my email, but some days it is so hard. Here I am again. Back where I started from. Stuck in a big classroom, feeling rebellious and stupid, trying to make myself stick with important minutia. The girl in the row in front of me is internet shopping. She is always internet shopping, or reading celebrity gossip. I found out that Anna-Nicole Smith had died because I was idly watching her surf one afternoon. I sometimes wonder how ADD girl does on exams, but I never feel superior in my note-taking. It is possible--very--that she does a lot better than me.

My legal writing teacher has taken a turn with the weather. Lately I've noticed a certain droopiness about her. She's usually nice, but has grown remote. Last week another guy and I walked in at the beginning of her class, papers in hand (they were due that day), but she had just started talking, which meant that we were officially late. I am usually never late to class, but for that day I was one or two minutes off. When I got my memo back I saw she had taken ten per cent off my grade for a late paper. Ten per cent. We broke the rules, and had to pay. The other guy told me he had gone to get a paper clip.

Statutory Interpretation is a little stale too, and even Con Law feels forced. I feel like I have too much personality, like I am too formed for the dormant norm that is supposed to be the awakening law student. I like to talk in class, then feel as if I've said too much. It's not what they were looking for. They wanted the application of principle A from the reading to illustrate hypothetical B. Duh. Stick to the program. Play by the rules. I feel like summer will never come. I feel like I will never be good at this. No one will hire me. I hate rules. I always have. Things will never get better, ever.

Mostly I feel like a freak, as usual. I can't decide whether or not to continue the shocking blonde hair I usually wear, because I am just so weary of being so different all the time. Old, slow, and queer in a sea of young heterosexuals who have never known anything much different from school, just like this. A few who have left and worked and come back, but most, just slogging on, going through the hoops. Traditional--some very conservative. Still their parents' children. Giggling, flirting, never running out of steam. Being exactly the A students they are supposed to be.

Some weekends I go home and GF and I just cling to each other. We sit near each other on the couch with our laptops, or drape over each other in bed with the newspaper. Sundays are especially hard. I put off going back until the sun sets and we are both a bundle of nerves. Then I get in the car and drive to the house I live in for now, the temporary house with too many roomates, with boys I have to share a bathroom with, and who I can hear snoring in the next room at night. I think for the thousandth time about moving but it seems so hard. Sometimes it's better to hearing snoring in the next room than have no one in the next room. Mostly I can't wait for spring break. I can't wait for summer. I can't wait for law school to be over, forever.

Then, last week, I find the magic parking meter.

I discover the meter one morning when I have to park a little farther away from the law school than usual. In a field of digital zeros flashing on and off for empty, this meter stands out. It is a solitary survivor. Its battered white half-moon dial is marked with lines in increments, like a protractor. All along its arc are numbers, signalling the hours from one to twelve. Instead of clock-radio digits, it has a black arrow that points to the numbers to show the time left.

It sits next to a chain-link fence that surrounds a cemetery. Meter 116. On the other side of the fence from the meter is a grave with a little angel on it. I notice the angel because it looks like the one we put on my mother's grave back home.

My mother believed in signs. When birds came back to nest in the back yard, she thought it meant something. When certain items she needed for the week coincidentally went on sale, it was because God was watching out for her. I used to ridicule her. I couldn't believe that God was sensitive enough to arrange for the precise groceries she needed to become magically available. Did He really have time to make sure vanilla extract was in the sale bin at the Star Market for the week of February 10th? She always went along with the teasing but I could tell a part her was dead serious. She really believed that God helped her make ends meet some weeks when it appeared impossible to feed all of us on what was available.

The first time I parked at meter 116, it was noon, and all the closer meters were filled. I noticed its difference from the meters around it, and noted, happily, that its arrow pointed just past the 1 on the dial. I put a quarter in and it jumped to the 3. Wonderful! Usually a quarter only bought twenty minutes. Maybe this meter was an hour per quarter.

When I came out two hours later to add money, though, the meter hadn't really moved. I wondered if it was stuck. I went back in to class, came out, and saw that it remained on the 3. I drove away, feeling the satisfaction of a bargain, but my curiosity was aroused. Was it broken? Would it stay that way? Had anybody else noticed it, besides me?

Sure enough, the next morning was early enough that the whole row of meters was empty. I pulled up to 116, still set at 3 hours. The sun was shining. The morning was new. Even though I had to go to class, I felt a bend in time. Not all rules were absolute. Not every system was monolithic. What luck!

I told my roommate about the magic meter when we drove to class one day. Sometimes I give him a ride to school in the morning. I thought maybe this time I should add some money to it, just in case the arrow fell slowly. I didn't want to impose too much on the universe, or take it for granted. He stood next to me and we both watched in horror as I put in a quarter and the turnhandle stuck for a moment on the yellow "violation" bubble. Oh, no. I wiggled it some more and it fell back down, leaving the arrow on 4. We both exhaled.

"Maybe you shouldn't mess with the luck of it," he murmured as we shuffled across the street. I nodded. It had been a close call. I had to learn respect for my gift horse.

Now I park at the meter every morning. I try not to hog it. I haven't changed my schedule to take advantage of its largess. I still come and go as I please, and sometimes in the afternoon, the spot is taken. I haven't noticed any consistency in the cars that park at it. I don't know if anyone has really put two and two together about its secret powers.

At some point, a parking person will notice. Some keen-eyed cruiser will remember that the arrow was at the same exact number the last time they drove by, and it will be finished. Or someone like me will dare the gods with an additional quarter, and the violation balloon won't snap back down this time. Then the meter will be officially broken, and they'll fix it, or worse, take it out and replace it with one of the soulless digital kindred that surround it.

Until then, it is the bright spot in my morning, like a bit of stolen sunshine. It is always a surprise when it is empty. It makes me happy every time I park at it for an hour, from 9am to 10. I drive slowly by the numbers, scanning the opposite side till I see 116. Empty! Ha! I swing around and pull in, facing away from the school, as if for a quick getaway. I lock up, check the meter dial, and shake my head with immense satisfaction. A free hour! What luck--again!

I walk inside, thinking about the simple pleasure of it. I know that it might seem silly--hokey, even--but in a universe that often takes without justice or kindness, my meter could very well be a sign that even when you are not looking for a bit of luck, even when you don't believe in it anymore, it can sometimes find you, in a tiny, dumb, immensely satisfying way.