Wednesday, August 3, 2016

calling my father

The reason I moved into the dorms so late, arriving there a full month after classes had started in August 1996, was that, according to the arrangement my father had made with the international student office, I was supposed to stay with a local Rochester family for the first year of my college career.
We had corresponded with the family ahead of time. They picked me up from the airport and drove me around town before showing me to their daughter's room, available after their daughter went off to Cornell in Ithaca just a few days earlier. They introduced me to their son, a high school senior, the grandmother who lived in her own apartment in the same house, and two cats. Two days later, they gently asked me whether I was planning to buy a car. A car? I laughed. My father had just bought his first car a couple of years earlier; buying a car was a major life event that surely came after graduation, marriage, apartment, and children.
How was I going to get to RIT then? The family lived in Penfield; RIT was in Henrietta; to get from one to the other I would need to take a bus to downtown Rochester, and from there to the suburban mall, where RIT's shuttle made a stop every hour. In the best case scenario, the route would take me two and a half hours one way. By car, it would take twenty five minutes, but they were not prepared to drive me, back and forth, for the whole year.
What to do? I was raised on my grandparents' stories of overcoming difficulties. My grandmother who survived the Leningrad blockade told a story about how during the war, when the trams had stopped, she had to walk for over an hour in the snow to get to work and an hour back. That narrative was prescient in my mind, and yet I could not quite fathom spending five hours in the bus each day. With a sinking heart, I asked my host parents if they had the bus schedules.
Why don't you call your father and ask if he would agree for you to move into the dorms? my host father suggested. (My host parents had hosted international high school students before, and they knew to speak slowly and in full clauses.)
The idea of calling my father terrified me. I had only been away from home for three days and placing this international call so soon after my departure felt like a major failure. I knew that the call would instantly alarm my entire household. My grandparents were likely to pick up the receiver and wouldn't let me talk to my father directly until I told them first what was wrong. Once I did, their confusion and fear for me would know no bounds. The whole arrangement of staying with the host family had been made just so I wouldn't have to stay in the dorms. Staying with a family and out of the dorms had been the key point, how my parents could convince themselves and my grandparents to let me go away in the first place. My grandparents had had enough of communal living in their lives, and they were forever marred by the experience. In the American dorms, I would surely be exposed to drugs, sex, AIDs. No dorms for the precious child, never. Clearly, they had been justified in thinking it a mistake to let the girl go to the United States. What a wild place it was turning out to be!How was it possible that a major university in a major city had not a better bus service? Surely, the girl had misunderstood something. Surely she was too young and too clueless to fend for herself. My grandparents would prevail and that would be the end of my American adventure. Next thing I knew, I would be on the plane back to Petersburg. Would they let me stay for at least two full weeks?
My host father gently pushed the telephone receiver into my hand and dialed the international connection. The telephone rang. I don't remember who picked up first. My father got to the phone. As coherently as I could, I explained the situation. I remember hearing my grandparents voices in the background, asking, "How is she? How is she?"
"I don't know what to tell you," my father said. "I'm here, and you're there. Do what you think is best."
The conversation didn't go on much longer after that. International telephony was expensive, and the connections scratchy with static. I hung up the phone and turned to my host parents. The decision was mine to make. "Ok. I'm moving into the dorms."
"We'll help you buy everything you'll need," they said.
The actual move, however, took a month to execute. By the time I showed up in the residential facility office, it turned out that no rooms were immediately available. RIT didn't keep a very good track of the dorm spaces they'd assigned. They had rooms, they just didn't know which ones. At the time, something like 60% of incoming freshman class dropped out in the first quarter. I would have to wait until the administration figured out who was still there and who'd already left.
Freshmen who needed housing were temporarily placed in a hotel just off the property. I spent full two weeks with my host family; then, for the next two weeks, I moved into the hotel, sharing a room with a girl from Jamaica.

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