Gown in the Town

By Christian Huebner - Washington, DC, USA - Lent/Easter 2011



Each year in Oxford the Oxford Union, the student debating society, known for bringing in luminous speakers for the University's precocious hoi polloi, hosts an event called the "Town versus Gown Boxing Match." This is the night when swarms of non-University Oxfordians, living in the bleak neighborhoods on the periphery of the ancient, tourist friendly center, descend upon the pristine quadrangles of the Union to see their champions stick it to future PMs and MPs. The Town has pummeled the Gown -- a reference to the long black academic robes worn for formal occasions at the University -- for as many years in a row now as anyone can remember. The one-sided vehemence this record suggests is pretty well in line with the history of University/City relations. The most famous moment of turmoil in the city's past was the time in 1209 when a crowd of peasants, angered by the influx of bawdy young students into their village, killed several them in a riot. (Not even Hitler's air raids did this much damage to the city: he ordered the Luftwaffe to spare Oxford's spires during the Battle for Britain while he eyed in for the seat of a new Capital.) Though riots died out after a few centuries, the resentment that bred them did not.


A friend at my college who used to waitress at a restaurant patronized by the wealthier set of Oxford undergrads before she switched sides and entered University herself had a blunt assessment of student attitudes toward working-class Oxfordians: "They treated you like you were shit." She also complained about why Oxford, a city of more than 300,000, had the most deplorable shopping and entertainment for a city that size in all the UK. Since the University owns most of the City, she said, and it is in their interest to keep tourists and their quid, dollars, and yen close to the compact, college-laden center, attractions like shopping malls are kept out of the periphery where hypothetically there would be room for them. There weren't even good bowling alleys.


The year I spent in Oxford, I had my own moments bumping up against the rails of class barriers. During the Chaplain's Supper at Merton College, the evening held once each term for the choir and student Chapel leaders to enjoy an intimate 5 courses in a quiet private dining room, one of the wait staff spilled an entire bowl of soup over my shoulders. Whoever it was didn't say anything, so I didn't notice until a few minutes later when I spotted trickle of split pea mush running down the sleeve of my gown. I didn't mind really -- the whole thing was rather funny -- except that I knew it would cost me a good $25 to have my gown and suit coat cleaned. After dinner ended, I found the Chief Steward to tell her what had happened. I asked if Merton had a laundry service that I could use to spare the expense of cleaning -- perhaps the one the waiters used to clean their uniforms? "No," she said. A waitress nearby overheard me and added reflexively, "It wasn't me." Another server passing by muttered the same thing. This wasn't my point, of course, and it wouldn't have mattered to me if one of them had spilt the soup on me, but I got a clear message anyway: no one had spilled the soup and no one knew how to help cleaning it. I didn't even try asking for money to reimburse my bill.


A few days later, I stopped by Quality Cleaners on St. Aldate's Street to pick up my garments and got to chatting with the young woman working behind the counter. She asked if I'd seen the new Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro sequel, Meet the Fockers, just released in the UK. No, I said, but I loved Meet the Parents so I'd probably go see it soon. Was it any good? Yes, she said, it was brilliant. That makes sense, I said, I've always liked Robert DeNiro in a comic role.


The cordiality just withered. "Comic role," she repeated back to me, punctuating each word like it was some bit of bitter news, something grotesque she hadn't expected to find. She looked straight at me. "You must study."


"Ah, yeah," I said, not sure if I felt more ashamed of how she was staring at me or of how hard I was trying all of a sudden to sound colloquial.


"What do you study?" she asked. The lethargy in her eyes was menacing.


"Um, a lot of things," I said. Each word felt like one step further along the journey into the heart of her contempt. "Philosophy, politics, literature…" I intentionally left out saying "theology."


"Here," she said, handing me my receipt and reaching for my clothes.


"Thank you," I said. On my way out the door I said it again, "Thank you," but she was talking with another customer and didn't look up at me.


A couple of weeks later I rode my bike past the cleaners on another errand, this one even further from the town center, down by the coach station at Gloucester Green. My business was at a tiny shop across the street from where the buses lumbered out into the roundabout that slung them like dirty comets out across the countryside.


I had decided not to open a bank account in Britain. Credit cards and cash machines worked well enough for me and let me avoid a great deal of hassle. The only time this arrangement was difficult was when I received my paycheck from Merton College Chapel at the end of the first term -- five pounds for every Sunday of singing in the choir. I tried cashing it with the Bursar's Office at my college but they told me to try the banks. The banks told me to try opening a checking account with them or, failing that (here the teller's eyes narrowed), make a visit to The Money Store on George Street.


So there I was, my first time visiting one of those kinds of places. I leaned my bike up against a boarded window next door, thought better of it, wheeled it around into an alley around the corner and locked it to a pipe. Then, taking a deep breath of bus fumes, I stepped inside.


Yellow. When I came in yellow swallowed me up and soaked through me. It was a cramped space, bisected by a counter and double paned glass up to the ceiling with room for tellers on one side and customers on the other. At one end there was another small table set up with stacks of Western Union money order forms. Everything was yellow, the walls, the counter, the monogrammed polo shirts of the two employees, the letterhead of the wire forms, all bathed in the pale gold tint of neon lighting.


Of the dozen or so people in the room, only three were white -- myself and the two tellers behind the glass, one of whom was the only woman in the place. The rest were dark black men of all ages. Unlike me, they knew exactly what they were doing. Every few minutes when someone came in he went straight to the stack of Western Union forms, filled it out by rote and waited for his turn to slide it under the glass. "How much would you like to send, sir?" the teller would ask. The numbers varied. Fifty thousand or sometimes 80,000 from the younger men; 150,000 from some of the older ones. One heavyset man with a snowy beard and a dark leather jacket said 400,000. I couldn't hear which currency they meant or where the money was going. Perhaps it was all so familiar that no one needed to ask.


My turn at the counter came and all at once I felt ridiculous, completely misplaced. The teller seemed curious and amused.


"I need to cash a check," I said.


"From whom?" he asked.


"Merton College." I tried -- and failed -- to say it inconspicuously. Around the room, I could feel eyes turning toward me.


The teller asked me for ID and I slid him my University Card. "You're a student?" he asked loud enough for anyone in the room to hear. I nodded. "What's your address?"


"Harris Manchester College," I said.


"Harris Manchester," he said. "Where is that?"


I explained it to him, abandoning any last delusions of anonymity in the process.


"Could you say that again?" I swear I saw him smile at me. "Right then," he said, "I need to take your picture. Step back from the glass please." He reached around behind his computer and pulled out an early generation web cam, a beige orb with a dark glass eye, which he pressed up to the window.


I had never been in a police line up. I had never been fingerprinted for any of the wrong reasons. The one time in school when I was called to the principal's office it was to receive news that I'd won a college scholarship. I was totally unprepared for the scorn of institutional distrust. Standing there, still wrapped in my coat and scarf, looking back at the blank glass eye that would snatch my image and stow it in some petty database, I started to feel angry. Who was I to submit to having a picture extracted from me just so I could cash a fifty-pound check? I was authorized, recognized, recommended by countless numbers, institutions, and personal references.


Then I looked around me. All of the other men were pulling out laminated yellow Money Store ID cards with blurry pictures pasted in the upper right corner. All of them were waiting to slide these across the glass partition to have themselves verified. We were all strangers, after all -- even the man who wore the yellow polo shirt and nametag to prove that he too was here for a reason. None of our reasons could be stored in the database, and the pretense that they could be was what made me angry. But this anger did not belong to me alone. I settled down and braced myself to grumble for the camera.


He'd have to call Merton College to verify the check, the teller told me after he put the web cam away. What was the check for?


By that point, I'd been swimming in the strangeness of it all for long enough that this question was no longer embarrassing. Somewhere inside I even felt the tickle of a joke. "I sing in the choir," I said. "They pay me for Evensong."


He picked up the phone and repeated the whole story out loud again for the person on the other end at Merton, and also for anyone who'd arrived in the Money Store in the last few minutes. The College put him on hold while they checked their records -- the institutions, after all, had to verify their own kind as well. I waited. What else was there to do but savor the moment, the yellow walls and hidden faces, a choirboy out of his church?