Of Teachers and Refrigerators

“Just as there are good and bad refrigerators, there are good and bad professors.”

 I read that in the New York Times. It was part of a student’s response to a “Room for Debate” column. But frankly, I don’t think that student has seen my refrigerator. In the first place, it is very old. It is very old because I have to live in an old apartment building where the landlord almost never modernizes. The landlord almost never modernizes because the rent is controlled and I have an open lease and the landlord wouldn’t make back his investment, according to modern accounting rules. And modern accounting rules are set up this way … but never mind, I was talking about my refrigerator.

 It is very old. I hope you have been paying attention and remember that. Because you were saying that there were good and bad refrigerators just as there are good and bad professors, as if all refrigerators were the same age, and all professors the same age too, coming from the same manufacturers, and all pretty much answerable to the same standards. You have to remember that my refrigerator is from another generation, and seems to have been built before most refrigerators came frost-free, or when frost-freeing was effective. In any case it frosts up, pretty quickly. After about a month there is an inch of snow on the top shelf on the freezer and along the sides of all the shelves. And every once in a while there is a little bit of melted water in the non-freezing refrigerator compartment. Eventually it drips onto the floor and plants a spot of mould on the linoleum. I don’t know why but maybe the refrigerator is trying to defrost itself and failing. Personally, I find that cute, although when you get down to the thing as a whole is pretty ugly – white with tiny steel handles. It is as if my refrigerator were itself a person, trying and failing, acquiring an individual persona. It almost makes me want to give the refrigerator a name. Mr Mould, maybe would do. Or Ugly Betty.

But the thing is, the refrigerator is also very small. It is small because my apartment is small and my kitchen is small, and both of them are small because, well, it is an old building and I am paying as much as I can afford in rent. If I could afford more in rent or afford to buy my own place – well, then I would own a different refrigerator, wouldn’t I? It is kind of sad, when you think about it. For really, my refrigerator isn’t really bad, for it is doing the best it can. It is just old and small and cheap and it has lasted for more years than I know yet one day soon it will break down past repair and, in effect, die; my being the one who owns it and complains about it is pretty much arbitrary.

And meanwhile, think of the smells it has to put up with! The garlic, the onions, the limp brown lettuce, the rotten mushrooms, the decaying cheese! It’s my fault, really. I don’t buy enough pre-packaged foods. I insist on fresh. And I let things go to waste. I almost always buy more than I can eat, out of fear that I am not buying enough. I mean, have you ever gotten up at three in the morning and went to a fridge and there was nothing to nosh on? And there’s this other problem. Apparently the refrigerator was built before the produce and cheese compartments were relatively air tight, so you could keep the cheese smells away from the apples, and the garlic away from the milk. I know that it doesn’t really bother my refrigerator that it has all these competing smells inside of it, for the refrigerator is not a person and it doesn’t have a nose. 

But it bothers me! I open up the fridge and it stinks! And I think to myself, if only I had a better refrigerator, a newer model, with more features, better bins, no frost, maybe an automatic ice-making function.  I worry, though, that you cannot blame my refrigerator for being what it is. After all, if I had gone onto law school and become a successful lawyer I would probably be living somewhere else and I would certainly have a better refrigerator with more features, in a larger apartment or maybe even a house with a yard. And my refrigerator would have a different owner, maybe with fewer fresh ingredients and fewer other sorts of demands placed upon it. Maybe it would have an owner that liked it. But instead I am a professor, and this is my life and this is my fridge, which has to put up with my peccadilloes and grumpiness, for now.        

 Is this good or bad? Well, if the student had attended one of my classes, he might have come upon a saying repeated in Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” And who am I to think bad things about my refrigerator? Before I moved in my apartment for years was occupied by an elderly single woman, who died at about ninety. What must she have thought of that refrigerator? It probably served her just fine. She probably didn’t even notice the rust on the bottom of the front door lining – did I mention the rust? She was alone, she was old, she didn’t eat very much, she didn’t have to keep too many things fresh. I suppose it must have been hard for her to go shopping: the closest supermarket is a ten minute-walk away, up and down a hill. She probably had friends who helped her. 

There is a sprite, elderly fellow in our building now, long since retired, who does odd jobs around the property just for the sake of having something to do. I bet he helped her out, although I have never asked him. I am not the nosy kind; for me it is a fine thing for people to keep their secrets to themselves. In any case, Christmas is coming on and my wife and I are having people over for a lavish, leisurely Italian-style Christmas dinner, and our fridge is absolutely stuffed. We have had to jimmy a white bag of butchers meat (eight slabs of osso buco) into the compartment where the vegetables are kept. I feel for the carrots, having to support all that animal weight, and soak up the animal smells. (Carrots are as alert to their environment as most living things – and sad to say, even if their leaves have been chopped off and they have been washed and bundled into a plastic bag, one on top of the other, the carrots are still alive.) I worry about the little items that get lost in the clutter, a jar of cornichons, a tube of wasabi. When I need them, how will I find them? They have been, well, marginalized, shoved off into corners and interstices among the more important products. In our house, mustard, cheese, butter and yoghurt have pride of place. Leftover ham has pride of place. The cornichons and wasabi will just have to make do with whatever space we can provide for them. Valuable though they are, I might add. Just because you’re marginal, that 
doesn’t mean that you don’t belong! Small as our refrigerator is, we will make room for you! And we will fetch you when your services are required!

Every now and then I daydream about having a big, luxurious modern kitchen, with an island in the middle of it just for cutting things up, topped with marble or hardwood, and a fine gas-run stove (we are stuck with a narrow electric model), and, of course, a big brushed-steel two-vertical-door refrigerator. I think about the opulence and the convenience. I think about the shiny surfaces, the glimmers of light. I think about the cornichons having just as much space as the mustard. Everything would be in its place, and every place would be the right kind of space. Inequality would be banished from the main storage facility for my food. Or actually, no: the most important ingredients, like milk and butter, would still be in the most reachable of places, high up, easy to see. Other ingredients would have their place, and fine places too, but still, they would not have pride of place. Anyone who opened up my refrigerator would know my priorities from the outset. No matter what kind of refrigerator I ever have, the same principles of order will still follow. It’s all about me, I guess, isn’t it?

Of course, if I have gone onto law school instead of pursuing a career first in bohemianism and then in education, the question would be moot. I would not only have a different refrigerator: I would have different priorities. Inevitably, you are the person you have made yourself into, and which circumstances have made you into, and when the making changes from either inside or outside, everything else changes along with it. But I like my life pretty much as it is, even if it comes with spots of mould on the floor, and with my carrots oppressed under the weight of a dead leg of veal. And I can’t imagine what it would be like to go to a showroom these days and go shopping for a new one.