Monday, August 1, 2011

Strange encounters - 2: The story of Jean-Paul Sartre and the free swipe to Late Night

Ten days ago, I wrote about how I was rudely interrupted at lunch by a girl (a complete stranger) who foisted her phone number - unsolicited - on my sudoku-deprived soul.

Writing about that encounter inspired me to write about a few more. Whereas the lunch incident was just plain bizarre, the one described in this post was pleasantly out of the norm. Coincidentally, this one happened in De Neve dining hall as well.

For years one of the major attractions of De Neve has been the availability of delicious fast food after hours i.e. from 9-midnight. This service, called late night, is enormously popular among starving (and not-so starving) UCLA students who flock there like moths to a light source, especially during finals week. Even apartment dwellers congregate here owing to the general cheapness of food.

One fine night my roommate and good friend JP and I walked up the hill from our apartment to avail ourselves of some burgers and curly fries with parmesan and a giant container of sprite. As we waited in line, I ignited a complicated philosophical debate. Around that time I was suffering through my "Sartre phase". Jean-Paul Sartre was a French post-WWII philosopher, public intellectual, litterateur, and an all-around badass who is arguably France's greatest gift to the thinking world. He provided a major boost to the philosophical movement of existentialism through his now seminal lecture "Existentialism is a humanism", and later through his numerous plays and novels and a largely unreadable opus "Being and nothingness."

In those days, I was valiantly wading through his book of collected essays and was naturally itching to discuss some of the stuff with someone. My closest target being JP (BTW I just realized my roommate and Sartre share initials, sort of), I took my aim.

I began by telling him how Sartre believed existence precedes essence and what I thought he meant by that statement. That led to me describing Sartre's argument that being (technically, being-for-itself, which is different from being-in-itself) gives rise to nothingness via a process of negation. Sartrelogists can correct me, but here is what I think this means: the process of negation is initiated by the act of questioning. The question "Is Barack Obama here?" will result in the answer "No, he is not." That is negation. Obama's lack of presence was a result of our expectations. 

By now JP was thoroughly bored and rattled. Being an all-around nice guy, however, he maintained a general air of politeness and offered counter arguments to the increasingly complicated and half-baked stuff I began spouting. He even suggested I get off Sartre (implying he was a drug) and get some fresh air. All out of infinite kindness for me, I am sure.

All this time this girl standing in front of us in line kept turning around to look at our animated visages so intently engaged in a discussion of very high caliber. JP felt (he admitted later) she seemed interested in joining our conversation. I felt she was probably a philosophy major who wanted to correct my woefully wrong interpretations and berate me for slinging mud on the good Sartre. In any case, she never spoke a word but continued shuffling around as our line inched forward.

JP and I took out our wallets to pay.

To my utter amazement, the girl in front of us turned around and (finally) said, "Oh that's ok. I have enough swipes. I will swipe you both in."
My being was pretty freaking incredulous. I shared a look with JP and said, "Are you sure? We don't want to intrude."
She confirmed she was pretty sure.

We gave our orders and parted ways. She sought an end table; JP and I picked up our food and left.

That night, nothingness bought us free dinner. Thank you, Jean-Paul.

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