After a week of work I decided to celebrate by riding my new bike around the entire perimeter of campus. In front of the economics building I was cursed out by a hurried-looking, pimple-faced girl. Allegedly I was taking too long in the roundabout. I broke free and headed down Jane Stanford Way, passing the main fountain with its high jets of water and the Hoover tower to my left. Imaginably, during non-COVID times this main road would be flooded with bikes and swarming people. But today the excavators and temporary metal construction plates reigned supreme, and I heard the constant rattling of some jackhammer in the distance.
One of Stanford's signature buildings was also shrouded in a mess of scaffolding and black netting. A few days ago I saw workers scrubbing away at its grooved sandstone bricks. Today, however, they were gone. What I saw instead when I passed the "oval" were tourists, trudging up the stone steps to Memorial Court. Tourists scrambling to read the museumesque signage on the walkways, tourists lounging on the massive curvaceous field of carefully-tended grass that looked more like a bullet than an oval. Recently they removed the NOT OPEN FOR PUBLIC USE signs and everyone was streaming in.
Admittedly I was one of these tourists once. I clutched our family DSLR and became trigger-happy at the trio of Mexican fan palms that towered above the whole quad, dwarfed perhaps only by the crosses of the Memorial Church. I stood in awe at the Burghers of Calais and their larger-than-life bronze contours. But now I was on a bicycle, three keys and a student ID around my neck. I saw age-bent mothers and fathers with romping toddlers and prospective students. They too circled the Burghers and walked, heads panning side-to-side, down shaded arcades to the main quad. They congregated in front of the church and gawked at the time capsules.
Then I realized how odd it was to have the roles switched so suddenly. On multiple occasions I have been approached by gaunt-faced fathers with their daughters and sons clutching at their bladders. All the public restrooms are closed, they say, and the little ones really need to pee. This desperation I can truly understand. On our first visit I remember flagging down the first person with an ID card and asking where to find food. But all the same, I couldn't help thinking about the bizarreness of it all. Stanford University, yes, but also Stanford the amusement park? This past monday I tried dipping my toes into a fountain and reading my book, only to be aggressively splashed by the kids playing in the shallow water. I tried a different fountain but then I was approached by yet another kid who ranted about pickled carrots. And the tourists and the cafes, and the tourists and their cameras, and the tourists and their funny poses in front of buildings that I pass every day without too much thought. My badge turns me into a tour guide, an insider.
I continued. All the way to the end of Stanford Way, where it merged onto the multilane Campus Drive. I passed the bulges of baby palm trees, like oversized pineapples with ambitious leaves, passed the Educational Farm, the tennis courts. To my left was the Stanford Golf course and I could hear the twang of drivers before I saw the people. I merged with traffic on Junipero Sierra Blvd, and I saw finally Lake Lagunita, a lake that wasn't a lake but a depression of soil and grass. It once had water, but there was never enough rain to sustain it. I was going to stay in the surrounding dorms in the winter, before a rise in COVID cases canceled everything.
I attempted to merge again onto Campus Drive but a neon-jacketed woman from Stanford Security stopped me. There was a burst underground water pipe down the road, she said. Everything was flooded. And so I made my way back up Sierra, past the golf course and the tennis courts, over the multi-ton slabs of steel that covered deep underground construction trenches, past the exposed kinks of chained piping, its labels warning of the death and destruction that could result from a closed sprinkler valve.
I came back to the Oval to watch the people. I shrugged off my bike next to a golden-varnished bench. I watched as an elderly Chinese grandmother methodically scanned one of those explanatory signs erected on Stanford's 125th anniversary. Her grandkids bounced around at her feet, but her gaze was steady. I peered over her shoulder and read the text with her. Something about the founding of Stanford and the intentions of the soaring arches. Behind me I heard the chaos of more children playing on the bullet-oval, and a couple passed by with rolled-up black yoga mats.
Every night at 1:04am the sprinklers outside my window turn on and I hear the hiss and puffs of trapped air in the pipes. In the morning I see fast-decaying puddles on the sidewalk. Then I'm on my way to something new, something next. Something new, something next. The bathrooms are behind the post office; two large green porta-potties. You can't miss them.