San Diego It's 3:00 a.m. Sleep is beyond reach. You don't have cable; you have four channels, not counting those in Spanish. You've got an infomercial, Smokey and the Bandit III, news, and PBS - a show about collecting porcelain salt and pepper shakers. Wait, what's this?
Text is scrolling vertically across the screen on Channel 35. In the corner of a shot of UCSD's campus is the logo for UCSD-TV. Hypnotic music, vaguely oriental, threatens to soothe your insomnia-ravaged nerves back to sleep, but you start to read the text moving slowly from the bottom to the top in a rising parade of white phosphor dots:
"Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends." - Woody Allen
"Mustard's no good without roast beef." - Chico Marx
"The wages of sin are unreported." - Unknown
"History abhors determinism but cannot tolerate chance." - Bernard DeVoto
"Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it." - Christopher Morley
You're intrigued. You try finding themes in the quotes, and you convince yourself for several minutes that you can. But your eyes quickly tire and you space out on the music while wisdom, humor, and biblical advice rises like slow smoke on the tube. Focus in again as the music changes to traditional Irish ballads...
"A lifetime is more than sufficiently long for people to get what there is of it wrong." - Unknown
"Happiness is not the end of life; character is." - Henry Ward Beecher
"People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
You're apprehending another theme here, but just as it forms in your untrustworthy mind, it turns to gibberish. You might as well be reading, "And Lo, verily shall he cast his shoe out over the washpot rather than induce vomiting, he that hath no eggplant nor a wife of the seven-headed lemur."
Who is behind this bombardment of brilliance and inanity? A diminutive and cheerful man armed with computers, CDs, and a brand new transmitter on Mount Soledad.
"I guess you'd call it The Quotations Show," says director of on-air operations, Steve Anderson, in his campus control room. He is surrounded by stacks of videotaped UCSD-TV programming. "I never thought of a name for it." He looks to his public relations person, Edie Munk, who shrugs. TV monitors, banks of keyboards, control panels, and promotional CDs are everywhere. A huge wall clock dominates the small studio, one of many in an area on campus known as "the penitentiary," according to Munk. The appellation is a reflection of the prisonlike architecture in the neighborhood of the visual arts building.
"It's a pretty long show," says 37-year-old Anderson, a former literature major at the same campus where he now works. "It runs from midnight to 4:00 p.m. the next day. On cable it runs from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m." On the monitor behind Anderson a show broadcasts as he speaks. Over a video loop of fish swimming at the Birch Aquarium pond to Vietnamese music, quotes ascend at a stately progression. "We run background tapes from 4:00 to 5:00 for the cable show. From midnight to 4:00 it's just photo backgrounds.
"I do them myself, the tapes and photos. See, that's the anchovy tank on right now. I just set up the video camera and let it run until we have this hour of fish going around." Anderson is grinning. His thin hair, glasses, and smile give him the appearance of an aesthetic leprechaun. "This is it. This is my living," he gestures around the office and control room.
"He runs the channel!" Munk declares, turning to Anderson. "What time do you get here?"
"I get here about 3:00."
"And you work till...?" Munk prompts.
"He runs what's on the air, among many other things." Munk is nothing if not supportive. "He's a very special person," she adds. Anderson wears an aw-shucks look.
Behind Anderson and Munk, videotapes bear strange titles: Insect Sex, The Fifth Dimension, Dick Tracy, Ocean Sex, Message to Time and Space, History of the Breast, and Performance Anxiety.
"We're funded," Anderson explains, "through the Chancellor's discretionary fund. It's money that is donated to the university. So it's not funding from the state."
"Or the students," Munk is quick to add. (The station is also supported by members and underwriters.)
"My main job is to keep tapes on the air," Anderson says. "I get these quotes off the Internet. I surf around the Web and it's amazing. Over the years people have gathered these quotes, added to them. Giant collections of proverbs, axioms, sayings. A lot of quotations are questionable as to their attribution. A quote might be attributed to miscellaneous when in fact it comes from the Bible. Unfortunately I don't have time to do the research, so pretty much anything goes. Even anti-education quotations. Like - and I forget who said this - 'A university is a great place to accumulate learning because no one really takes any out.' Something like that. But there is no censoring short of outright obscenities."
The Quotations Show reaches from Oceanside to the border, says Anderson. "We had a call from someone near lax on the viewer response line. They must have had a huge antenna." Munk interjects the factoid that they put out "...well over 200 hours of programming a year."
Anderson gets his music directly from record companies. Not much overhead there. Many musical selections are taken from promotional discs issued by German-based Celestial Harmonies, a new-age and jazz label. Anderson splays out CDs he uses on the show. Meanwhile, the eye is drawn to the upwardly mobile quotes on the monitors.
"Logic enables one to be wrong with authority." - Dr. Who
"Money can't buy happiness. It can, however, rent it." - Anonymous
"Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it." - Buddha
Epictetus, William Blake, Matthew, Mark, Emerson, Gandhi, Cicero, Einstein ("The only real valuable thing is intuition") and Napoleon ("Imagination rules the world"). The more you read, the more you want to contribute your own favorites. ("What is sleep but an eight-hour peep show of infantile erotica?" - J.G. Ballard) Or make up your own and submit it as "Unknown."
It's 4:30 a.m. and you've had these quotes wash over you for two hours; they all blur and blend together, meaningless, spiced now by lack of sleep, a mild hangover, and a Dadaesque conversation with your girlfriend the night before.
"The human heart is as unruly as the wind from the jalapeno and the brushstroke of the Nile. Though neither will use your toothbrush nor purchase lottery tickets with your cigarette money and then wear your favorite shirt to a bris."
John Oliver Hobbes, Mark Twain, Chekov, Jung, Malcolm Forbes, Goethe - the sum total of human literary wisdom appears and disappears too quickly to digest. The cumulative effect? No one who ever lived understood a goddamned thing but invented language as a prestidigitative diversion from idiocy and mortality.
Anderson allows that after a while, you could be reading anything. He smiles and nods at this revelation like a Zen master who just kicked his student in the butt and asked, "You get it now?"
"My favorites are the really absurd ones," says Anderson. "One is from Groucho Marx. He said something like, 'Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.' "
You're sitting in your apartment in that hour before twilight convincing yourself this makes sense. After a while, as the music washes over you, you realize, God help you, it does.