UC Berkeley has historically been very favorable toward re-entry students, which are students that are resuming their studies at the collegiate level after some form of hiatus.
Usually, re-entry students have worked blue-collar jobs or raised families. Some have overcome immense hardships which may be medical, financial, or legal in nature. As a re-entry student myself, I fall into a variety of categories in terms of my life before Cal. Most notably, I worked for a decade as a sushi chef at the Hollywood Japanese restaurant called Katsuya. My days were very long – my shifts lasted up to 14 hours and I often worked until midnight. Having now transitioned into a comparative literature major, I naturally came across David Foster Wallace’s fiction as well as his classic Gourmet magazine essay “Consider the Lobster.”
As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry, I have many memories of chaotic workplaces, hectic deadlines, and the precision with which fresh seafood must be prepared to ensure its palatability and safety for customers that often have little patience for even the slightest error. Yet reading through “Consider the Lobster,” I struggled to locate the experience of an individual who had actually worked among seafood. I comprehend the quandary that Foster Wallace raises, namely the fact that lobsters have nociceptors or pain receptors and that it could hypothetically be cruel to prepare them the way chefs in Maine have been preparing them for centuries. (i.e. boiling them alive.) At the same time, when I was preparing sushi at Katsuya, I did not have the luxury of giving a philosophy lecture in the kitchen or to my Hollywood customers. I find this disconnect between my experience in seafood and Foster Wallace’s essay about lobster ethics as emblematic of the re-entry student experience at Cal.
In terms of presenting high theory, Cal is indubitably elite but in terms of viewing its re-entry students as sentient beings that must live within the exigencies of reality, the administration might as well be giving a philosophy lecture. Cal re-entry students must traverse a housing crisis and a financial aid crisis that is akin to the worst horrors which Foster Wallace attributes to the lobster’s experience. Many students in Cal’s University Village have taken out loans to simply pay their rent. Many other re-entry students must take out even higher loans to live in non-university housing at even more exorbitant monthly rents. Naturally, re-entry students have nociceptors just like Foster Wallace’s fated Maine lobsters yet is the “capacity to suffer” of re-entry students being taken for granted by the University?
Re-entry students enrolled in Cal to escape careers where they were doomed to perform tasks like boiling lobsters, yet many of us are being burdened with so much debt that we may have to ethically compromise ourselves to survive in graduate school. By “ethically compromise,” I mean taking a part-time job as cruel and unusual as seafood waiter or chef. Perhaps Marie Antoinette had the answer to Foster Wallace’s moral maze in her order to “let them eat cake.” The housing crisis and financial aid crisis among re-entry students must be addressed by UC Berkeley unless, of course, they agree with Marie Antoinette’s solution to the problem.
When I was working extended shifts at Katsuya I used to read Haruki Murakami on my breaks. I enjoyed his stunning panoramas of Hokkaido and his metaphysical mysteries. His books were an escape for me from the exhausting physical labor and unflinching demand for perfection at a high-end restaurant. Michiko Kakutani, the former lead New York Times book critic, called Murakami’s stock protagonist “a passive, affectless sort of guy with a lowly job and even lower expectations,” but, despite this comment, I found that his protagonists elevated me from my job and heightened my expectations of the cosmos. Nevertheless, when I see the serpentine lines in Cal’s Financial Aid Department where re-entry students must wait to receive more loans to pay unpaid bills, I recall the labyrinths portrayed throughout Murakami’s Trilogy of the Rat. Only I cannot read Murakami while I wait for financial aid on campus because I am too overwhelmed by numbers. These numbers always involve shortfalls in income, an experience which many re-entry students would sympathize with. Cal wants us for our diversity of experience but, as re-entry students, we have lived in a world where logic and accuracy are paramount.
With bloated administrative salaries and suffocating grandiosity, Cal’s administration fits every negative characterization which Foster Wallace assigns to the Maine Lobster Festival. Consequently, I must admit I agree with Foster Wallace’s indictment of pomp and circumstance but I will never agree with his assessment of individuals that push out into that seawater, whether placid or turbulent, in the early hours of chilling, frost-filled mornings. I will never agree with his assessment of individuals that purchase seafood to feed their families or celebrate important life events. Lastly, I will never agree with his assessment of individuals that prepare and serve seafood after years of careful training designed to make sure both the food and customer are respected.
The suffering of the lobster is tragic but perhaps more attention should be paid to the suffering of humans at the hands of pomp and circumstance which, sadly enough, has invaded even the most prestigious research universities throughout the US.