THE GREAT KETCHUPPING OF 1998
by
Daniel John


Most of my 60 fellow students in Boston University's theater program were 30 years younger than I was. I knew from the day I introduced myself to the bright-eyed horde of 18-year-olds that I'd never learn anything if they looked up to me as a teacher or parent substitute, so I worked hard on lowering my status. I was more respectful of professors than they were, spontaneously goofy, more physically vigorous, and I talked only of our common experiences, avoiding references to my ancient personal history.

Until one day in sophomore year, when my professor asked me, “Will you talk for a few minutes on the '60s?” I was one of a dozen students in his history course on the last 100 years of theater. He wanted me to give them a sense of the context of the decade, and I was the only student born before 1978.

“The best way to tell you about the Sixties is to give you an example,” I began. “Last week, Boston University raised tuition by 7 percent. Did the administration ask students if that was okay?”

A baffled silence. “Without students this university could not exist,” I went on. “We're not buying a commodity here; we're being governed for four years of our lives. Why shouldn't we get some say in how it's run? No taxation without representation, right?”

The baffled silence turned uneasy. “In the Sixties, a 7 percent tuition increase handed down from above like a fiat from a dictator would have been met with uproar. Let me paint you a picture of what might have happened . . . late in the afternoon, when Commonwealth Avenue (a major artery running through the middle of campus), is clogged with rush-hour traffic, a dozen people dressed in white with smears of ketchup all over their clothing burst into the street chanting the words written on their signs: “BU KILL$! No Tuition Increase!” They run in front of cars and jump on and off the hoods of cars, squirting ketchup from squeeze bottles. A dozen people dressed in blue, with long black balloon billy clubs and “BU COP$” painted on their backs, give chase, screaming, “Pay up or die!” at the ketchup kids. They pound cars with their balloons, yelling, “Pay up or die!” at the drivers, too, to let them know what it's like to be a powerless student. Fender-benders, road rage, and rubber-neckers should tie up traffic for hours. The ketchuppers will be gone long before the police arrive, dispersed into different buildings on campus, discarding their costumes, and fading back into the student population. As Mao Tse-Tung said, ‘The guerilla is a fish who swims through the people like water.’”

A vague sense of alarm drifted through the room like an odor. I noticed more than one mouth was stuck on open. A few people glanced at the professor as if for reassurance.

“Now add media savvy to street theater: all TV networks, radio stations, and newspapers are alerted in advance by a call from the Heads-Up Committee for Ketchup On Fighting Fat Boston University, or HUCKOFF BU, for short. In case any reporters miss the event, a press release from HUCKOFF BU with a video of the fracas along with a sample squeeze bottle of ketchup will be on their desks the next morning. When reporters pull them away from their fat-cat cocktail parties, Boston University officials will likely blurt something that can be used against them later. That night the TV news will show the film of the event, referring to it by the title on our press release: ‘BU Red in the Face: The First Great Ketchupping of 1998.’ The next day—”

“—it sounds like you're really going to do this!” a student said loudly, her voice hoarse with fear.

Now it was my mouth hanging open. A 20-year-old female student in 1998 had just reacted the same way a 60-year-old male university administrator had in 1968. The hair on the back of my neck quivered. My imagination had just been taken hostage by a new Establishment. I looked at the witnesses to my seditious speech, bowed to the reality of the '90s, and said, in a slow, calming voice, “Of course I'm not going to do this. I'm talking about another university far, far away, in another galaxy a long, long time ago.”

Her face relaxed as she forgot everything I'd said.