Chapter 1 School Days
My name is Dallas Larson and I live in Vancouver, B.C. I never officially went to college. I just dropped in on a regular basis and listened to the professors and lecturers. It wasn't easy, but security in the early 1980's wasn't anything like it is today. I had no problem buying used text books and, as a result, I got a very well rounded and varied education at very low cost. For two years I never took an exam, but I tested myself regularly to make sure I understood the course.
I got away with it because I looked and acted like a student. I wore the clothes of a student, ate with the students at the cafeteria, and drank with them in the student union pub while still making myself generally invisible to my classmates. I scrupulously avoided making myself known to the staff or administration. In the end, I got what I wanted, but not the way I expected.
I wondered from time to time how many others on the campus were like me, stealing our education from the system. I don't know what would have happened to me if I had been caught, but I couldn't imagine they'd throw me in jail. I'm sure I'd be banned from the campus and maybe some other sort of punishment. Maybe they'd sue for the lost tuition. But on the whole, I didn't really feel very threatened and, the more I attended, the less worried I was about being discovered.
Why was I doing this? Simple. Because I could and because I needed to. I had good reason to want a decent education. I was two years out of high school and it was two years since my parents had died. The left me with an insurance policy, and a mortgage that represented thirty percent of the value of our house. They also left two fairly new cars that were almost paid for. An eighteen foot boat that my father used for fishing and two sets of golf clubs completed the package. I had a sister who was married and lived three thousand miles away and didn't like me very much.
Our lawyer, now the executor of my parents' estate, listed our inheritance and presented us with the details. Darlene, my sister, didn't want anything but cash and a car. She wasn't listening to the executor/lawyer, while I took his counsel to heart.
"If you let her have the cash," he advised, "the property will appreciate and you will have a place to live. There will still be some money left over to keep you going for a while. In addition, you will get one of the cars and the boat and the contents of the house. That will make you more than even, in my view."
I accepted his opinion and the estate was settled quickly to my sister's satisfaction. But that left me with a particular problem. What to do with the rest of my life. I was on my own and, while I had a roof over my head and a car to get me from here to there, I wasn't exactly home free and laughing. I had to give this a major think. I wasn't interested in being a wage slave for the rest of my life. The result led me to consider being an unofficial day student at the University of British Columbia.
But first, I needed a better job. Something that would allow me to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. Something that would allow me time during the day to attend classes. I reasoned that a job on afternoon or graveyard shift would be the most practical.
I searched the newspaper for just such a job and found one in a most fortuitous place. A twenty-four-hour restaurant chain needed an assistant manager and I applied for the job. I had no qualifications or experience, but I thought I might be able to satisfy the people that I was completely capable of doing the job. It would be a case of being able to lie convincingly and assure them that they would be very lucky to have me on their staff. To my utter amazement, it worked.
Within the first month, I knew what I needed to know about running the night shift at the restaurant. It wasn't complicated and it wasn't arduous. I found it quite interesting, in fact. The people who came into the place from eleven o'clock onward were quite different from the day people. Some were insomniacs, some were drunk, some were what I termed "night people," and some were just ordinary folks who happened to be out late and needed a cup of coffee or something to eat.
The only difficulty was with the staff. They worked for slightly above minimum wage plus tips. The wait staff got the tips, but were expected to share with the kitchen and clean-up staff. It didn't always work that way. I spent a good deal of my time refereeing arguments about who owed how much to whom. On top of that, I was aware that few if any of the staff ever reported their tips on their tax forms at year-end.
While it never came back on them while I was there, I know that the federal taxman was making spot checks on some of the upscale restaurants to catch the cheaters. I often posted news stories of these investigations in the hopes that some of our people would get the message. I think some of them tried to reform, but fell back to their old ways when nothing happened that would threaten them. Invariably, the newspaper editorials suggested Revenue Canada would be better served going after the really big crooks in the investment and banking community. They were far bigger fish and far more infuriating to the populace than some underpaid serving girl.
I spent two years auditing classes at the university. I really enjoyed it since I didn't have the typical time or performance pressure most students felt. I was able to get my hands on some previous exams from the courses I was attending and would give myself a test to see how I was doing. I was pleased that I was learning and retaining that knowledge. I was unfocussed for the first year, but I discovered I had some favorites and spent more time with them in my second year.
My first choice was psychology. I was fascinated with the study of human nature. Who we are and why do we do what we do? My fascination was rewarded with almost error-free results when I self-tested. At the end of the first semester, I began to think of how I could put this knowledge to good use. I carefully studied the various psychology course outlines and chose two that interested me. That was when I found myself in danger of being discovered.
As the courses became more specific and the topics narrowed, the class sizes diminished accordingly. Now, instead of amphitheatres, I was attempting to hide in much smaller surroundings. Classes of less than fifty were much more common, and in one case, I doubt thirty would show up on any given day. I supposed I could brazen it out, but it might bring an end to my illegitimate attendance. I thought about how to manage the situation and came up with nothing that wasn't risky.
I decided to try a two-fold strategy. I would attend two different schedules of the same course. One day at one class, a different class on another day. It wasn't a perfect solution because it was unlikely both courses would follow the same path at the same time. The second part was much bolder. I would no longer sit at the back of the class, trying to be invisible. I decided to sit in the very front row, hiding in plain sight. I noticed that the lecturers usually looked over the top of the heads of the front two or three rows, addressing himself largely to the back of the classroom.
Once again, luck was with me. Two different lecturers for the same course was the thing that saved me. I didn't always sit in the front row and I didn't always sit in the center. I would alternate locations so that I wouldn't be memorable, either as being there or being absent. It worked. Once or twice I caught one or the other lecturer looking my way, but at no time was I questioned or challenged.
I survived the second year without detection, but I was in a quandary as to what I might get away with in third year. In the meantime, I had another problem to deal with. Carl Villano, my boss at the restaurant, had noticed how much better the night shift was running and wanted to promote me to day shift at another restaurant. That wouldn't work for me, so I gratefully declined his offer. Since he was offering more money, he was baffled that I didn't jump at the opportunity.
"I go to college during the day, Carl. This job pays my way."
"I didn't know that. So, you have ambition and you have talent, despite the fact that you've never worked in a restaurant of any kind before this," he said with a sly smile.
"You knew? I mean ... you knew when you hired me?" I asked, amazed that he hadn't fired me for lying on my application and my interview.
"It wasn't hard to check your references. It takes balls to pull that off, Dal. I thought you were worth taking a chance. None of the others I interviewed had any interest other than how much it paid. You wanted to talk about the job and what to expect."
We sat looking at each other for a moment or two.
"Okay, what happens next?" I asked.
"You can take your courses by correspondence. We'll support you. We want bright, energetic people in our organization. You keep your course work up and we'll foot the bill."
"Uh, well, there is another problem. I'm not officially a student. I've been auditing classes for the last two years, so they don't have any record of me. I'd have to start all over again."
Carl laughed out loud. "Dal, you've got balls of brass. You fake your way into this job and you fake your way through college. How far have you got?"
"I'm pretty confident I have enough credits for third year. I self-test."
"Well I'll be damned," Carl said, shaking his head. "Now what the hell can we do to prove you're qualified?" he asked, more to himself I thought.
I shrugged. I hadn't thought about it.
"I just want to learn, not to have some piece of paper that said I had passed some test," I explained. "I just want to know as much as I can about the things that interest me."
"Uh huh. So what interests you?" he asked.
"Psychology, mostly. Chemistry and Physics too. I like to read, so I find books at the used book store about all kinds of subjects to see if they are interesting."
"How come they haven't caught you?" he asked.
Again, I shrugged. "Not sure. Maybe because I figured out how to be sort of invisible. Switching classes, sitting right in front at the lectures, not making friends with any of the other students. No one takes attendance. It's getting harder, though. Smaller classes and more direct involvement. Labs are a real problem. I'm not on anyone's list, so I can't get into any of the group labs."
"Let me think about this, Dal. I don't want you to quit ... either your job or your education. But I think we need to find a way to make you legitimate."
I had perfected my shrug. "Okay ... go ahead. School's out for the regular students. There may be some summer classes I can audit. I'll cool it for a while if you want."
"Good idea. If they catch you, they'll never give you a chance. That's what you want, isn't it ... a chance?"
"I guess," I said, indecisively.
"Dal, you wouldn't have risked what you have if you didn't care. You want to learn and you want to get something out of it for your efforts. I assume you couldn't afford to register and go to UBC on your own, so you decided to do it your way."
"I could have gone if I'd taken out student loans, sold the family house and still worked at a part time job," I said in a desultory manner.
Carl nodded with a grim look. "Yeah. That would have been a huge sacrifice ending with no home or a boatload of debt, wouldn't it? I can understand why you did what you did, but you need to get something worthwhile from it. Let me see what I can find out."
"Okay, Carl. Thanks for caring. But it doesn't solve your problem, does it? You still need a manager for South Vancouver."
"There's no rush. I have the assistant manager in there now and he can hold the fort while we figure out how to get your future settled."
"Thanks, Carl. No matter what happens, you're a good boss and I'm really glad you took a chance on me. If it comes down to it and I have to choose between the job and college, I'll probably choose the job."
He nodded and smiled. "Let's see if we can't figure out a way to get you the best of both."
The answer was simple. I would register at one of the correspondence colleges and simply demonstrate that I was capable of advanced studies. I wasn't prepared to fake documents about my previous education, so I would test to demonstrate I was qualified. It sounded like a reasonable plan. It wasn't that easy. It seemed that most colleges wanted some evidence of my previous college experience and I was unable to provide any legitimate proof.
So, in the end, I registered at the independent Northern University of the Sierras. The fees were well within Carl's budget and a fraction of what UBC would have cost. I could continue my education at a more convenient pace. In addition, I could give up my night-shift duties and take on day responsibilities. I was very grateful to Carl and I let him know.
I moved to the new location and quickly discovered that it was not the same job as the graveyard shift in the other location. For one thing, it was a lot busier. For another, we had more staff, and thus more hands-on management responsibilities and more problem solving. The customer base was different as well. Many more people in the restaurant at any one time and a very different mix. More children, families, seniors, and business people. Lunch, in particular, was really hairy.
It took me a month to acclimatize myself to the new surroundings. In the meantime, I was using my free time in the evening and weekends preparing to test my way into some of the advanced programs. I didn't lie about my university experience, I just demonstrated that I could meet the requirements for the courses I wanted to take. I chose a fairly light load to begin with, making sure I didn't put too big a demand on my off hours.
Typical of restaurants, it was a feast or famine existence. Early morning breakfast, the lunch rush, and then the dinner crowd. In between, very little activity, but that was just as well. It gave us a chance to catch up on restocking the supplies, emptying the dishwashers, cleaning the kitchen work surfaces and washrooms, and mopping the floors. It doesn't sound very romantic, and it wasn't. But it was a good job that paid me well and gave me the satisfaction of having some control over what was going on. At the ripe old age of twenty-three, that was unusual.
In late September, I was manning the host station at the restaurant in relief of the young woman who was on a break. I was concentrating on straightening out the menus when I was aware of two people waiting to be seated.
"Hi, welcome. Would you prefer a table or a booth?" I asked.
A very attractive dark-haired young lady spoke up.
"A booth, please." She looked at me carefully as she spoke. "Do I know you?"
"I don't think so," I said with a smile, "I'd surely remember you."
"I'm sure I've seen you before. It will come to me," she said as I led the two to a vacant booth.
I thought no more about it as I continued to seat customers and help with others wishing to pay. When the regular hostess returned, I moved away from the front and toured the seating area, making sure everyone was happy with their service and the food. It was early afternoon and most of the lunch crowd was now gone.
When I approached the booth where the young lady who thought she recognized me was seated, she spoke up once more.
"I remember now. Psychology 203, Ms. Witherspoon's class. I don't ever recall hearing your name," she said with a curious look.
"I was there," I admitted, "but not every class. I sat in front mostly."
"I'm Francesca Mariani," she smiled, holding out her hand.
I took it politely and replied, "Dal Larson."
"This is my friend, Bonnie Marsh." I got a nod of acknowledgement from the very attractive blonde woman.
"Are you finished school now?" Francesca asked.
"No. I'm taking the remainder of my courses by correspondence. It allows me to hold this job."
"Oh, of course," she said knowingly. "Do you have a lot of student debt?"
I shook my head. "No. None at all."
"I'm sorry ... I shouldn't pry. I'm too nosey for my own good," she said shyly.
"No problem. It's a strange story. It would take some time to explain." I was fishing to see if she might be interested in hearing it. She bit.
"I'd like to hear it." She wrote a phone number on the back of the bill, smiling up at me as she did so. "Call me."
"Count on it," I grinned.
Francesca's friend sat silently, but not without an expression of surprise and humour. I looked the two of them over as they prepared to leave. They had split the bill and both left a modest tip. Pretty much typical of two women out for a late lunch. I liked what I saw. The name told me Francesca was probably of Italian heritage, if I couldn't guess from the olive complexion, dark hair and dark brown eyes. She was fairly slim, but still displayed a nice shape. She was tall, perhaps five-nine or ten. They walked out together, only Bonnie looking back at me with a smile while I got a nice long look at a retreating dark beauty. Yes indeed, I would certainly be calling her.