Back in my salad days–also known as grad school–I got a windfall: my family bought me a sports car. It was a shiny silver sports car back when silver was a hot new color. The car looked just like a futuristic insect–all mandibles and antennae and exoskeleton–and it allowed me to upgrade the second-hand car that was my dreary graduate student life and enter into a glittering world where the hoi polloi gawked at me on the street.
I kid you not: for a month, I would rev my engine up to pretty girls and suddenly slow down–almost to a crawl–and give them a long, hard stare…and then speed up. I almost felt kind of like a movie star, styling and profiling.
Valets game me a look of recognition when I tossed them my keys. One of my friends visited LA for her mother’s funeral and during the long procession to the cemetery, she spurned all other cars–even those of family–to sit in my very own passenger seat and listen to Brasilian music blasting from my tricked out speakers.
There was one catch to my new change in station: I had to pay for my own insurance. This was no easy feat for a few reasons. First, my rates skyrocketed with the zoom of a flashy new car in my life. Second, I was dirt poor–ghetto fabulous–the condition of almost all idiots who decide to give up the money-making life and chase the dragon that is a Ph.D.
I had one resource at my disposal: the English department had a listserv–an e-mail notice that reported the events of the department (books published and awards received and promotions gotten); at the end, there was a list of odd jobs that would come available: editing, tutoring, researching, grading, babysitting, ghostwriting–that kind of stuff. Sometimes it was touch and go: a lot of the offers could be scams; nobody really vetted the list; any fool could call in a job. During my brief moments as a user of this list, I had already learned one hard-and-fast rule: you had to watch out for the people who wanted you to help them with their memoir. They were crazy and always stiffed you.
It was at this time that my eyes ran across an advertisement put up by a private party: a job doing some “research.” I called up and the man on the other line told me he was a detective. I would never meet him in real life, and he preferred it that way. “I represent another party who has engaged me to find someone qualified to handle a job of considerable delicacy–a job for someone with unusual skill sets.”
The man spoke just like those private dicks of pulp fiction: furtive and macho. I pictured him with a potbelly and a silk tie painted with the image of a hula girl. He had a voice that sounded like a leather shoe on a gravel drive way. He said things like “Are you at liberty to talk?”
Finally, he let the cat out of the bag: the so-called “research” involved looking at somebody–a Senator’s–doctoral dissertation and finding instances of plagiarism. “I represent a prominent doctor who is to testify before Congress and he will pay 50 dollars for each instance of plagiarism.” The detective let it slip that the doctor was a proponent of universal healthcare and needed this evidence in his back pocket so that he could feel empowered when he was to stand before a committee of some sort. “He guarantees that you will find at least a few thousand dollars worth of plagiarism.”
There were a lot of people out to get the doctor, people who worked for the Senator. They were hounds and he needed this evidence to keep them at bay. He wasn’t necessarily going to use it. He just wanted it at his disposal. My work for him–should I choose to accept it–was a gun in his pocket on a dark dreary night in a barren landscape of shadows.
My guess is that the detective was not being entirely straightforward. My guess is that that last part was just a flourish, like a piece of scrollwork on fake antiqued furniture–designed to convince some bleeding-heart liberal in a world class English department (some idiot like me who clearly did not much care for the cash money that was raining down on the rest of the nineties) to take the job for the good of mankind.
But the private dick didn’t really need to add icing to this cake. You see: Graduate students may make the decision to not really care about money but that decision was made a long time ago. And then when they find out they have no money–that they live a hand-to-mouth existence–they are like drug addicts at the prospect of an angry fix.
My mind reeled. 50 bucks a pop! I could easily find forty to fifty instances of plagiarism. If there was plagiarism, I was sure there was multiple instances of it. I was sure that I could get a few thousand dollars. “I’ll guarantee that you will make at least 800 dollars,” said the man with the hardboil potbelly voice–the man who voice was like a red silk tie with a hula girl painted with a meticulous hand. A few thousand dollars would not only pay for my car insurance for a year, but it could also finance a few dates!
“Sure.” I was all-in. That very day, a courier showed up at my house by the museum and delivered a copy of a thick dissertation–a dissertation that was so old, it had actually been typed. I drove my shiny new car to the sad South Campus Medical Library, with its plastic sculpture of kidneys standing sentry before the door. I checked out a hundred books from the bibliography listed at the back of the dissertation. Then, I rolled them out on a dolly.
I figured I would start off with the first hundred books and then come back for another hundred at a time. There was no use in overwhelming myself. And besides, I parked illegally in a little known spot that only gave me a 30 minute window of opportunity. I would wait until the meter maid finished her cigarette and then when she left, I knew I had exactly that amount of time to get what I needed before she returned from her ticketing circle around the perimeter of the campus. There was no way I could afford to pay the twenty bucks for my own parking, and I never thought to ask the man with the silk-tie tongue to front me the dough to get the job done.
Well, it was slow-going–almost like doing a puzzle. I set up a collapsible table in my dining room, facing the wall, with the stacks of books around me and started looking for patterns of plagiarism: key words, diagrams. Plagiarists are like criminals: they return to the same M.O. over and over again. If you know how to shimmy a window, you keep doing that. If you are a teller at a window who pockets the money and shorts the bank with a deft flick of the wrist, you keep doing what works.
And plagiarists, it is always true, always return to the scene of the crime. They keep using the same works to plagiarize in the same manner. This seems simple and straightforward in hindsight, but bear in mind that there is no manual for this kind of work–no book in the library about catching people who copy books in the library. I just had to operate with this theory and hope that this theory was true.
And this is what I did for hours at a time. The day disappeared before me like those exotic tropical flowers that shrink to the touch. Long shadows cast themselves in the little dining room and I would look up and realize that the street lights had come on, and I would walk over to the kitchen and pour myself a whiskey on the rocks.
Looking for something like plagiarism is a purely mechanical form of reading. Yes, you have to decide upon a conceptual framework for your “fishing expedition.” But once you do that, you are not really reading more than you are setting out the vast nets of your eyes to dredge from the deep all manner of oddities: the double-faced irregular footnote that lies like the flounder in the deep; the block quote that appears like a puffer fish at odd intervals to fix your eye like a sphinx.
This is a special kind of reading. It is almost a sloppy reading. But it is a controlled sloppy reading that all academics can do up to a certain point, but that literary critics are actually trained to do so that they can consume huge tracts of books that cover the real estate of vast stacks like the lost continents of the Paleolithic era.
One saving grace that kept my brain afloat was this: Every scholar has a workhorse in his bibliography and among the thousand odd books are a few that do the heavy lifting. This is the low hanging fruit.
I turned my attention especially to ferreting out the favorite works that the soon-to-be Senator returned to over and over again–the touchstones of his magnum opus. And I hoped and prayed that he didn’t do what I would do: omit the one work that he plagiarized from his official bibliography. If he did that, I wasn’t necessarily screwed–my plan took that into account–but it would mean that I would have to look at the bibliographies of other books…book which would open into other books, exponentially, a fun house of mirrors that reflected upon each other into the theoretical possibility of something you might call “infinity.” I hoped to God that the search would be easy and not hard, that the road would be a short one and I could find myself in the hard exoskeleton new-car loveliness of my little silver insect.
My new roommate would pass through with his visiting girlfriend. He was a fresh-faced Midwesterner. His fresh-faced Midwestern girlfriend, who was doing the Peace Corps thing in deepest darkest Africa, was visiting. “Hey there. It’s beautiful outside.” And I would think to myself about how sad and mis-spent the shriveled prune of my life was. The roommate had just started grad school and he still looked young, with the elasticity of new dewy skin. I suddenly remembered that it was Spring outside and that I had never bothered to notice.
When you are only half-reading and you are simply a human scanner, you can think a lot about how soul-crushing your life is, how you could still go to law school, how the condition of being human is the condition of intense loneliness–the condition of being one of a thousand dust motes floating through a room of long, darkening shadows. In my darkest moments, I thought about running off to Africa, of selling my car and helping a small village with their water problem…in the blissful company of my roommate’s Peace Corps girlfriend.
The Senator, it turns out, was not so sly or conniving as I am. He did indeed list the work that he plagiarized. And so my work itself took a full week. And it was probably three days before I started finding some clues. Here’s what you need to know about the mindset of this work: You get to looking and you don’t see anything and you hope to dear God that you will eventually see something but you know that something will only happen in a Eureka moment–not in drips and drabbles but in a terrible deluge. And then you wonder if that Eureka moment is just a rationalization to keep you working on a job that has no end, like the ceaseless meander of footsteps across the dunes of a midnight desert–the traces of a lost traveler.
I wanted to quit more than once, but once I started to see a pattern–favorite strategies, intellectual watering holes–I got to seeing what kind of cerebellum this Senator had in his noggin. You see: everybody has a favorite move–the jump shot, the right hook, the knee to the groin. Every move says something about its perpetrator. And there was something that was reckless about a man who would plagiarize in such a brash way.
This is a man who knew he would never get caught–a man who knew that even in the unlikely event that he did get caught, he would never ever be adequately punished. I could see his silhouette in the doorways of my mind: private school, doting parents, nannies, housekeeper. I was sure he went to one of those schools like Exeter, where they train up mediocrity among the gentleman class.
I met the good doctor–a skinny balding man–in his fancy office in the nice part of Encino where everything is made of a higher grade of stucco. He was a Persian man and reeked of as much wealth as he did, cologne. He went through my meticulously collated list of plagiarism instances–well over 50 documented cases–and told me he wouldn’t pay for the penny ante ones. Then, he said he might: “I won’t pay for it unless you put your findings down on department stationery and write up a letter.”
This was a dirty trick–forcing me to work a week, forcing me to drive an hour on the 101 freeway during rush hour traffic to spring this on me. I refused–not only because I was pissed but, also, because I foresaw all the crappy things I’d have to do: first, I’d have to steal the letterhead kept under lock and key by the departmental secretaries; second, I would have to participate in an unsavory lie in which I misrepresented my role as a department spokesperson of some sort to people whom I would never know. I wasn’t going to do something even vaguely unethical when I just spent a week uncovering something, well, something patently unethical.
Standing in that office with its smell of chemicals, I took my little stand and told the good doctor that I could not comply. And I knew that if didn’t take this stand now, I would be destined to not take any other stands in my life. With my luck, some private dick would hire an ass-hole like me to dig up some shittiness in a letter I wrote long ago during a time consigned to the dustbin of my history when I was desparate to be carried through the world with precision and speed like a quicksilver arrow shot into an endless horizon.
In the end, I got the money. I didn’t have to write the letter. I don’t know if the doctor was a doctor or if he was even going to testify before Congress. For all I know, this could have been an elaborate ruse. Hell, this could have been part of a blackmail scheme of some sort. At the time, I didn’t think about it much. I was too busy counting out the dough and zipping about the city in my fully paid for–and temporarily insured–sports car.
The doctor, the detective, the senator–they are all a distant memory: mere shadows on the wall of a dining room blackening with the greeting of an unforgiving evening. But now and again, I will think of that moment–one of the strangest moments of grad school–as the moment I learned a little bit about the grasping, self-centered, desperate tunnel vision of a certain kind of criminal mind: a mind that will stop at nothing to feed its lusts and get at what wants it wants.