Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

Heading home on the 36 bus from Forest Hills last week I found a school notebook, crammed with tests and study sheets. I deliberated for a moment, discarded the idea that I could play no-see-um and foist responsibility on the MBTA. The poor girl would never get her stuff back.

I slipped it into my book bag and rode on. The Friday before, I lost a big, fat, fairly expensive textbook on the train. It was for an Ethics class. I fall upon the beneficence of my fellow man not to steal it, but it’s been a whole half a week and the lost and found at South Station has heard hide nor hair of it.

I remain optimistic. Some people do good actions because they think some universal law, say, “karma”, or divine will, evens out the good and the bad an individual does, that there is some measure of justice. Could I haggle with karma or God and hold off on returning the notebook until I get my textbook back?

What if I threw her notebook in the shredder and get a call tomorrow morning telling me my text was returned. Would the karma debit I accrued in the transaction be recorded in some cosmic bank, waiting to cancel out the times I helped my grandmother across the street when I was four? Written down in the Book of Life?

The reason I distrust how people often interpret justice is because there tends to be an implication that you need a reason to do good, “so that good will return to you”. Doesn’t great goodness expect nothing in return? I’ve noticed, though, that continued good actions tend to produce favorable outcomes regardless.

A song I like by Queen is “You’re My Best Friend.” It’s an upbeat song, Freddy Mercury sounds very happy to sing it. But I can’t help thinking: What if she, Freddy’s best friend, gets a new best friend? What if she just decides one day to stop returning his calls and generally disregards him from then on. Would she suffer from breaking their special bond?

How could she, though? She has a new best friend. Suppose that this is an even better friend than Freddy Mercury. He can no longer say, “I love the things that you do”, because she no longer is “the first one when things turn out bad”. Poor Fred.

It seems doubtful that there is some universal equation that calculates all deeds each individual does, and I remain silent as to whether some universal jurist decides our fate. But, one could say that Freddy’s friend shouldn’t just up and ditch him or that I should swamp some seventh-grader’s algebra homework in the Harbor. I don’t know that it is “how I was raised” that determines my actions, but I recognize that there are suitable and unsuitable courses to be taken.

I walked around the morning after mulling all this over, pondering our school. If you traveled back to 1972 and pulled aside the hack architects that slapped our school together and said, “Look, McKee, Berger, Mansueto. You might not care, personally, that it will cost the taxpayers of Massachusetts tens of millions of dollars over decades just to maintain the sand castle you built on Harbor Point. You’re New Yorkers, you probably figure, Forty thousand in bribes to two state senators, five million dollars, and you can build some of the ugliest and shoddiest buildings in an era of ugly and shoddy public construction in the city of Boston and tumble off into the clover.”

Their eyes might glow at the prospect. Ha: smash and grab. They’d wipe the lather off their chins, straighten their suits, and say ahem, the prospect was amenable to their interests. Who cares if thousands of students, when they look back on their college years, will remember perhaps firstly the drabness of the campus. The last generations of UMass Boston students before the move to Harbor Point have exciting stories about when the school formed part of the backdrop of numerous Vietnam protests on the Boston Common. The problem of a city university with an “urban mission” sequestered on a peninsula miles distant from downtown would not be so pressing if our surroundings were not so bleak. The school could be a secluded grove of academe for harried city people. Or, you know, a remote dungeon. Each are the ends of divergent action courses.

So, yes, the buildings are rotten. That’s old hat. What’s new and interesting is what will happen in the next ten to twenty-five years. A thought occurred to me a moment ago. The NBA’s Dallas Mavericks were just an atrocious basketball team for many years. UMB has never been an atrocious school, but I remember from visiting it in my youth how dismal and “inward-looking”, to use an apt phrase from a planning committee guidebook, it seemed. The Mavericks had some great players during their years of futility, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, James Donaldson, just like we have some great faculty members. But they never quite got it together. What was it like in their clubouse? There’s a vibe losing teams have just like winning teams, kind of a dingy vibe. The Mavs shrugged it off when Mark Cuban bought them. Maybe, hopefully, we can shrug ours off with the new plan and a new chancellor. A Dirk Nowitski wouldn’t hurt.

In addition to the excitement surrounding the $750 million dollar ten year plan, it should be noted that it will cost the state far more than the original $5 million it took to build our craggy little replica of Nova Scotia by the bay. Assuming the money is granted, the potential for mismanagement is far larger. An assurance that the funds for the second and third phases would be funded by “private fundraising and additional borrowing”, as the Herald reports, left me feeling a little sketched out. Who are they going to shake down to get that kind of scratch?

But then I noticed that the Globe, three days before the Herald on December 14th, reported “the five-campus UMass system approved in September a $2.9 billion budget for capital improvements, the largest allocation in university history, over the next five years. UMass-Boston would receive $381 million of that, although the money depends on state funding.”

Well, that is a lot of money, though the last six words seem sticky. When I was discussing ethics at the beginning of this article, I forgot to mention an important point. That is, despite whatever people think about how to arrive at “the right thing to do”, rational people can generally agree on what the right thing is.

I’m planning on giving the girl her notebook back and not dumping it. Isn’t that the right thing to do? I thought, I can drop it off at her school or she can come to my school if, say, she happens to live in Dorchester. I thought about my first impression of the school, and thought, would her first impression be what mine was like – of a cavern?

I imagined meeting her in the Campus Center, the way I meet a guest in the nice room of my house when the rest of it is a mess.

Imagine if, twenty-five years into the future, a similar situation ensues. The benevolent, handsome, sprightly and magnanimously altruistic, the dashing and splendid notebook finder of the future (sorry, I’m partial to my kind – oh, notebook finders ages hence!) offers to meet the anxious and forsaken student, eager to be reunited with her Latin declensions and advanced algebra (she seems like a smart kid, or at least the present one does).

Wouldn’t my ability to say “sure, meet me at school!” and for her to fall in love at first sight with the waterfront and the bright, inviting campus miles from her house – the result of the right thing done over a long time – produce a more pleasing outcome for all parties than that which befell McKee, Berger, and Mansueto, the corrupt state senators, and the taxpayers, students, and faculty that got fleeced? Good work shakes out, though we may not know how this happens.