During my years of higher learning, I college-hopped. That is, I changed colleges aimlessly and often. I transferred twice, went to three different schools, and loved none of them better than the one which eventually refused to give me my diploma for a year over outstanding tuition fees.
I wasn’t angry about the delay. If they could have foreseen from the beginning the headaches their Bursar’s office would have with me, I doubt I would have ever gotten in.
My tuition went chronically unpaid. It wasn’t my fault; the college refused to give me financial aid and I relied on shady financing from an uncle of mine instead. I think he is a mobster but I dare not voice my suspicions out of the fear that they may be true. As is suspected mobsters’ presumable wont, he wasn’t terribly punctual with paying my bills, leaving me to take the full brunt of the timid collection attempts by the ladies from the Bursar’s office. Those ladies were the sweetest bunch of spinsters any side of Mississippi. My cheeks burn red today as I reluctantly confess to playing them for all they were worth with the oldest trick in the book—the Dumb Foreigner act.
I speak flawless American English. When surprised new acquaintances point this out, I usually joke about extensive KGB training. The truth is, I figured out the nuances of the accent after a couple of months in the country, and this knowledge has served me in good stead ever since. Every once in a while, however, it pays to revert to ze good old Russian veys. It is an incontrovertible truth in any country that people who come across a fellow with a thick foreign accent will immediately assume three things: that he is daffy, that he is ignorant, and that both these deficiencies can be overcome by talking to him very loudly. Eventually, when shouting fails to fill words with meaning, they will give up on him. Stupidity is useful when you want to be left alone.
A Bursar’s office clerk would call me up and leave a message saying that a problem arose with my account again and would I be so kind as to come in and discuss it. The messages always sounded hesitant and forlorn, like the caller wasn’t sure that she would be understood. Perhaps the greeting on my answering machine was to blame. It was unintelligible in any language.
In I’d come the next day and announce, magnificently rolling my r’s, that “I’m heer to tok about ze outstandink balance.”
“Oh yes, yes, have a seat,” the nervous lady behind the desk would say and shuffle the papers in front of her. She had a tic. Seeing me usually brought it out. “We show that you’re delinquent with your payments again.”
“I am … vot? Deli ..? Oh, leit, you mean I’m leit?”
“Yes, late,” she would affirm and nod vigorously, delighted by the communication breakthrough.
“I am very sorry,” I would apologize with my best earnest look. “My uncle, you know, he’s payink for ze my education. I do not know ven he supposed to give me money zis time. I understend it is a very inplezent situation. Zis is extremely inplezent for me, too, zis pozeetion. I speak to heem every time, and every time it heppens again. I just don’t know vot to do. I try to be on time viz zese payments but I just ken’t and … I just … he just … argh!”
Frustrated by an overwhelming inability to express my seething emotions in English, I would disintegrate into wild gesticulation and distraught mumbling in Russian. The lady across the desk would scrunch up her face in almost palpable anguish. She clearly felt sorry for me; it was heartbreaking. (My girlfriend once observed me in action and then called me a bastard. “I want to be able to get away with shit like this, too,” she added.)
“Sweetie,” the lady would say to me, “what we can do is let you put down some kind of a payment until your uncle helps you out, okay? We understand your situation and are willing to help so we’ll just take a small payment now. Okay?”
“Vould a hundred dollars do?” I’d ask, shame-faced and suppressing guilty laughter.
“Yes, dear, of course! As much as you can afford.”
At this I would brighten up and flash her a wide smile. Did I mention I have good teeth? Having put off financial ruin for another couple of months, I would return to my dorm room, light a blunt and study economics. Or read jokes about studying economics.
Do you know the number six reason to be an economist? When you’re standing in that unemployment line, you know exactly why you’re there.