The other day I went up to Odessa College during the afternoon to see my former professor and current friend David Newman. It wasn’t that long ago I walked those halls for my own edification, but already so much has changed that I spent most of my time thinking, “Well I don’t remember that being there.”
In any case, not many students were on campus at the time, and the experience reminded me of one of the things I miss most about school: being there when very few or no one else is.
My mother is an elementary school teacher and probably cares about her job too much. Not probably; she does. Which is a fine thing when your child is her student, but when I was a student, I was also her child and stuck at school for three to four hours after most people went home and she kept working. It was like detention, or would have been if not for the TV in the room and a school district that apparently splurged for a premium cable package (better than we had at home).
And of course, I enjoyed it. There was a serenity in the empty classrooms and halls, in the bigness and the empty and the quiet of the after-hours.
Where once had been full and noisy and bursting with youthful energy, now only the echo of a few heeled-footsteps, now only the hum of a vacuum down the hall, now darkness everywhere but my room, now silence but for me.
It wasn’t just that it was these things. A mausoleum is eerie. It was never full of life and never meant for anything but quiet. And being out in nature is just natural, no matter how otherwise empty it is.
No, it’s the contrasts and the starkness between what was and is that breeds a feeling of exceptionalism.
In America, there’s a peculiar kind of popular apocalyptic yearning that’s also entirely secular.
In the religious post-apocalypse, there’s the new heavens and earth, and a hell, but the secular post-apocalypse happens in an entirely familiar place. It’s not enough that the world be destroyed; it must be destroyed and left mostly intact. The few surviving people get to play around in the ruins without any law or order to ruin their fun.
Plagues, zombies, nuclear fallout, environmental catastrophe – fine, good. But a disaster that wipes out everything and makes it unrecognizable is no use at all. We want that “Vanilla Sky” moment in Times Square, to scale crumbling skyscrapers, covered in vines like in “By the Waters of Babylon,” to get to look at kitsch as artifacts, like in “Wall-E.”
The West Texas city of Royalty used to be something and is rapidly unbecoming to rust and grass. In 50 years, it won’t even be a ghost town. On a larger scale, area cities can all see something of their own (hopefully distant) futures in Royalty’s present. Without oil or water, what’s to stay around for?
I got a glimpse of empty Odessa once, late one evening when I wandered around for a while in the smaller bank building downtown. The front doors were unlocked, but all the lights were off and no one else, so far as I could tell, was there. Quite rare.
For several minutes, I enjoyed the experience of moving about the various floors and up the stairs, so very busy during the day, but empty then.
And it was mine. I was the last man on earth, and I had time now. It was delightful.
For about half an hour.
Then I went back to my car and drove to Whataburger and civilization.