Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bureaucratic Bamboozle

The University of Otago, the staple insititution of my hometown, regularly sells off old computers at bargain prices. Not long ago, my father, ever shrewd, took advantage of this scheme and decided to buy one – at $150 for a desktop, how could you resist?

Even shrewder, he enlisted me as the courier. Fair enough; I’m in my early 20s and live with him and my mother rent-free. What’s more, I was unemployed at the time, so I certainly wasn't otherwise engaged. So I set off one afternoon with my task clear: meet him, collect cash, then go to the university and pick up the computer. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than an hour.

I met him and got the money with no drama. Upon my arrival at the university, though, I realized that I’d forgotten where I was supposed to go. Hardly a big issue for a problem-solver like myself; my father, knowing my propensity for not listening when people are talking to me, had emailed me my instructions, so it was just a matter of going to the library and using my old student ID to log onto the internet.

ITS Teaching and Learning Centre was my destination, and the fact that I’d never heard of this place was no hindrance. It was just a matter of a few minutes’ browsing around the university website, and my destination was clear: 444 Great King St.

I drove a few laps in my parents’ van, trying in vain to find this place. 442 and 446 were both extremely well-marked, with enormous signs dictating their street number, street name, and building purpose. The fact that 444 was not labeled thus – or at all – should probably have served as a warning, but hindsight is always 20/20. At the time, I happily tracked it down through process of elimination, and walked up to the front door.

Again, a warning sign missed. The front door wasn’t just locked, it didn’t even have a handle. I scratched my head, examined the area around it for secret levers or buttons, and found nothing. Intrigued, I started skulking around, looking for alternative entrances.

As I did so, I took in what kind of building I was trying to infiltrate. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before, and a marked contrast to the rest of the university, which is designed in a very modern style, with large doors, high ceilings, and lots of glass.

This building, by contrast, had tiny windows, a good ten metres off the ground, and the walls were incredibly thick rock-solid concrete. It was built like a bunker, perhaps designed as a sort of panic building for the university’s staff if an invasion were to occur, a keep for throngs of dowdy bureaucrats and bewildered academics to retreat to in case the oft-publicised drunken disorder and rioting by students got really out of hand. Or maybe it was just a computer building. Sometimes my imagination gets away from me.

The actual entrance was - obviously – in the back, next to a dumpster. But, again, it wasn’t a standard door. It was two, in fact, with one leading outside, a small room, and then one leading into the building, like an airlock. The door to the outside was unlocked, but the door leading in was not.

Next to the interior door, there was a phone. Next to that, a list of names and extensions, and next to that a sign instructing me to use the phone to ring the relevant person; he or she would then let me in.

It was here that I started to suspect that perhaps I was in the wrong place, because my instructions had said to go to the reception desk, and I felt certain that the door-phone system would have been mentioned.

My fruitless perusal of the list was interrupted by “can I help you?” I looked up and had to stop myself from gasping in surprise. An IT analyst had, ninja-like, emerged from the building and somehow positioned himself behind me. His appearance was not conventional. In his mid forties, he was wearing a worn-out heavy metal t-shirt and pants that looked like they had never seen the inside of a washing machine. But what was really striking was his hair – completely shaved except for a long Mohawk that extended halfway down his back. It would be safe to say that I was surprised.

I explained my predicament, and he laughed long and loud, telling me that I was in “the complete wrong place.” (As if that wasn’t obvious.) “You need,” he said, as he rolled a cigarette “to go to the ISB. You know, over there.” He gestured vaguely towards the rest of the university. Then he walked away, which indicated to me that the conversation was over, even though I had no idea what the ISB was; the closest thing I could think of was Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but that was IBS, not ISB. Although if this unclear acronym talk continued, IBS definitely wasn’t out of the question.

I never got his name. Probably Godot.

Back to the library. I browsed an enormous list of acronyms, finally finding the ITS (Information Technology Services) building. Surely, I thought, this is the one – where else would one buy a computer? It wasn't the ISB, like Godot had said, but I assumed I had misheard.

So off I walked, my confidence boosting with each step, and positively skyrocketing when I entered a much friendlier-looking building to see a cash register. This must be it!

I waited for five or ten minutes before a flustered-looking woman emerged from the back room. I explained my predicament, and she, of course, shook her head.

“You need to be at the ISB,” she told me, pushing my blood pressure up a few points.

“Where,” I asked through gritted teeth, inwardly counting to ten and reminding myself that my troubles were not this woman’s fault “is that?”

“By National Bank, on Albany St.”

Thank. God. Finally, concrete directions. As I cut through the library, I didn’t have quite the spring in my step that I’d had before but I did have a feeling of relief that my ordeal was finally over.

Arriving at the bank, I poked around it, thinking that the ISB must be some tiny hamlet attached to it, from whence computers are distributed.

Nothing. Not a single thing. It was just a bank, whose connection to the university began and ended with proximity. I sighed and went to cross the street to the library again, with the intention of using their computers for the third time. As I stood at the light, feeling distinctly sorry for myself, I glanced at my destination. Like the buildings flanking the bunker, there was an enormous sign on the library, one that I had never taken notice of until now.

I sharply breathed in as all the pieces fell into place. Loath to use a common word when an uncommon acronym will do the job, the official name for the library is the Information Services Building. ISB. The building that I’d gone through over and over again all afternoon had been my destination all along.

But no reason to despair! My journey was over! I was successful in my quest! I walked into the ISB, into the Teaching and Learning Centre, and triumphantly puffed out my chest and said “I would like to buy a computer!”

The woman behind her desk took her headphones out and said “what?”

Chagrined, I repeated myself in more hushed tones. The woman blinked, pontificated, and said, thank God, “ you’ve come to the right place, let me check your name off on the list.” Going through each name excruciatingly slowly, she finally found mine. "That will be $168.50."

“What.” Not even a question. Just a flat statement of disbelief. My father had, as you will recall, only given me $150.

Her eyes crinkled in the beginnings of a sad smile. “GST.”



  1. Wow that's quite an adventure.. I wonder what that other building was..

  2. I looked into it. It's like...the heart of the university. Every single piece of iinformation is kept there. Hence the bunker.

  3. Having just visited with your mom for a few days, its good to see she has passed her sense of direction along the genetic line. Good luck in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. When you get sent to pick up dinner.