How to Read on the Bus

On the bus, my preferred way to sit is sideways. I had gotten the idea one summer afternoon after telling someone that I was never able to read in anything that lurched as much as a four-wheeled vehicle. I could do trains and planes, perhaps a boat too. But in the instant I focused on printed text in anything else,  I began to feel the lingering nausea that is unique to carsickness, the kind that lingers even after I spend minutes staring at a fixed point in the far-flung horizon. The friend, upon hearing this, nodded and agreed, “I could never read on a bus either, but when I have my back against the sides of the bus, I’m usually fine.”

I’m not sure whether it’s the placebo effect or something about the altered perspective of sideways sitting that keeps me feeling grounded. But in either case, it lets me be productive and curbs my people watching, which is no longer discrete in the narrow, air-conditioned, confines of a grumbling Metrobus.

The rules to successful bus ride reading are simple. The sideways seats on busses are often also the ones plastered with handicap signs. To avoid confrontation, you should always move when asked and always take the seats at the end of the rows. The former is mandated by law. The latter keeps the elderly from glaring because they have to dodge the corner of your bag and your outstretched elbow. Both let you read in peace. You will be left to your stories and your essays and your well-wrought prose.

***

“What are you reading?”

The man who asks me this peers over my shoulder. Today, I am reading The Black Book, and I explain that it is a Turkish novel about a man whose wife disappears.

“Oh, it’s a mystery!”

I think about the non-linear narrative and the current passage that I’m reading is actually about movie stars and newspapers in Istanbul. And then there’s the fact that the protagonist begins to impersonate his journalist friend, who also disappears as the same time as his wife. Which makes me think about doubles because two springs ago, I read The White Castle, written by the same author, for a class on magical realism that taught me that doubles are everywhere if you look closely enough.

“Yes, it’s a mystery,” I say. I smile and return to my book.

After a few minutes, I hear, “You must be a student.”

I look up again. “I actually just graduated.” And I explain that I went to the University of Chicago.

“So you’re from Chicago!”

“No, I’m actually from New Jersey.”

He ponders this for a moment. “What are you doing in DC?”

I describe how I’m interning for a small academic press and how I want to go into publishing.

“Go into what?”

“Publishing. Book publishing.”

He nods. I pull the stop cord and wish him a good day. At the National Museum of American History, I sit outside at a park bench to finish the chapter before seeing the Star-Spangled banner and a replica of Julia Child’s kitchen.

***

Once, an old woman carrying a shopping bag from a museum complimented me on the design printed on the front cover of my planner. I had taken it out to glance at the directions I had written inside.

“That’s very pretty.”

“Thank you!”

She tells me that she is now retired and spends her free evenings taking textile classes.

She then proceeds to ask, “Are you from Asia?”

“No. I’m from New Jersey.”

For the rest of the bus ride, she talks about her art classes and asks for my opinion of Japanese landscapes.

***

“What are you reading?”

The man who asks me this question on this particular afternoon also looks like a retiree. He is toothless, wearing a short-sleeved collar shirt, and he smells faintly of old beer.

Today, I’m reading Joan Didion’s “Slouching towards Bethlehem.” When he hears me talking about how Didion wrote about 1960s counterculture, he shakes his head. He mumbles, and although I can’t hear exactly he is saying, there is garbled disapproval about how writers “who were never there” have no right to be talking about the hippies.

“She was there actually. She talked to a bunch of people.” I gesture towards the book that is open in my lap.

He repeats the same thing again.

“Yeah, I guess.” I reply.

Satisfied that he has imparted some wisdom, he lets me read one sentence and then interrupts.

“Are you nineteen?”

I shake my head and correct him.

“Well, you look nineteen! I just had a birthday last week. I’m 78!”

Interested in more biographical details, he asks if I’m from Japan.

“Nope. New Jersey.”

“How about your parents?”

“They’re Chinese.”

“That’s great.” He stares off into space for a moment. I reread the same sentence when I hear, “Now, do you feel connected to Japan at all?”

After hearing my answer, he sighs and smiles sadly. I notice that he still has one tooth left. He mumbles something to the effect of “it’s so nice knowing what your roots are.” And for the next five minutes, he talks about how he is descended from slaves and talks about Civil Rights activists that I do not know about and shares his thoughts on Hilary Clinton. Will she be elected? Probably not.

I nod in what I hope is a sympathetic way. Through the bus window, I see the white dome of the Capitol Building.

***

When I hop on the 32 for the third time in a day, I notice that the bus is almost empty. Instead of sitting on the last sideways seat in the row, I pick a spot in the middle and feel indulgent. I read a few pages before I notice that there is a girl, maybe about three or four, and her father sitting across from me. She wears a beige striped dress and pink polka-dotted raincoat, her hair tied in a topknot, more stylish than I ever was as a preschooler. Her father is dressed in the uniform of a bus driver or some other kind of public transit official. He adjusts the brim of his Yankees cap as he hands an open bag of Mini-Oreos to the girl.

He has spread a paper bus schedule underneath his daughter to catch the stray cookie crumbs, of which there are many. His daughter pouts as he explains to her that her snack is the same as her mother’s. He points to the bus driver, who shouts something to placate her daughter. The girl eats a cookie but remains unconvinced that her Oreos are just as tasty.

I’ve lifted the page, and it hovers in mid-air, waiting to be turned, but I pretend to look out the window and watch the family out of the corner of my eye. I picture the bus driver parking the bus and leaving the door open. With her last trip behind her, she climbs out with her daughter holding her hand, as the man gathers the cookie fragments and crumples them into the crinkled paper map.

“Cross your legs. Like that girl over there.”

I look up and then back down, pretending that I was just taking a break from the printed page.

The man smiles and misinterprets my startled expression. “I’m sorry. I was using you as an example.”

I say it’s no problem and return to my book.

I almost reach the end of the section break when a sudden onslaught of people parade onto the bus. They linger at the fare box, which means that they are tourists, surprised that the buses do not make exact change and unsure of how far they want to go. Uninterested, I keep reading as the sideways seats around me fill with people. As the bus begins moving again, I glance at my new neighbors, and there are five of them, three men and two women. The men wear t-shirts, plaid shorts, and sneakers. The women wear sandals, stylish capri pants, and tunics in muted prints. They carry all the vitality and grace that old age can imbue and none of its back-breaking weariness. They sit close together. They are French. They are confused.

The man in the uniform asks them where they are going, but he speaks too fast for them to understand. He explains to them how they will reach a Metro station that can take them to Alexandria, where they are staying, and he also advises that it will be cheaper to use a Smartrip card and pulls one out of his wallet. The French tourists absorb the directions, but at the sight of the plastic card, they nod in the vacant, cheery way that conveys only a thankful incomprehension.

“Do you like DC? Do you like the museums? The museums?” he asks. These bemused French tourists intrigue him, and they lean in closer when again, they can’t make out his words.

The woman next to me, whose English is better than her friend’s, whispers, “Oui, le musée,” and later, “Le Maison Blanc.”

Her travel companion nods and lists the things he and his friends have seen in a thick accent. In his hand, he holds a travel book with L’États Unis printed in sans-serif font on the spine. The United States was a country so big, how could they fit all there was to see into a book slimmer than the travel guides  I used for France, a country a fraction of the size? I am half-tempted to ask if I could borrow their book to see what it said about DC or Chicago or New York.

The French tourists continue to chatter to themselves, and they peer out of the window when we reach Foggy Bottom. The woman next to me pulls out her travel guide and begins reading its description of the neighborhood. The way she pronounces “Foggy Bottom” emphasizes how dense English can sometimes sound. I listen along with her friends although I do not understand a word. There is a mention of George Washington. Or are they talking about the university? She says “Foggy Bottom” again. Foggy Bottom. The more I listen, the more I begin to understand that it is a ridiculous name.

It is only when they exit the bus, on M Street in Georgetown, that I remember that I am supposed to be reading a book. By the time I reach my own stop, I still have not made it to the section break.

***

One day, a guy wearing square-rimmed glasses and a green t-shirt steps onto the bus with an armful of books and a white tote bag tucked flat under his arm. The bus has just passed the Georgetown Public Library, and the man, still standing, begins to leaf through the cookbook he has just checked out. There is also another cookbook, a McSweeney’s compilation, and a DK Companion to Architecture in the pile that he holds against his chest.

His eyes never leave the page. The bus jostles as it winds up the steep hill on Wisconsin Avenue and jerks to a shuddering stop at each stoplight. When a seat next to him opens, he slides seamlessly into it, head still tilted down and eyes scanning a recipe for some kind of stew or soup.

When the bus reaches his stop, he stands and makes his way towards the front door, the volumes still nestled in the crook of his arm and the cookbook still held open as he steps down the stairs and onto the sidewalk. He looks right and then left at the intersection and crosses the street. Halfway across the crosswalk, he returns to his book. He continues to read, and I watch him until the bus pulls away, and there is nothing else to do but to pull out the battered paperback I picked up from the same library and read and read and read.

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A Walk Down Pennsylvania Avenue

One of the questions that has been floating in the back of my mind is why DC seems to lack a certain liveliness, a joie de vivre so to speak, that make other cities seem energetic and dynamic. Last week, while I was on yet another of my museum excursions after work, I decided to walk. The distance between the office and the Museum of American History is about a mile and a half. Because I was too impatient to wait for a bus that theoretically comes every fifteen minutes but only shows up every thirty, I decided to travel by foot. Even the weather was cooperating that afternoon. It was sunny, but the humidity had temporarily disappeared, and the temperatures floated down to a temperate high-70s. The locals were calling it a polar vortex; I tried my best not to laugh out loud.

The most direct path from Dupont Circle to the National Mall is Pennsylvania Avenue, which cuts a straight diagonal through the heart of the city. The beginnings of the evening’s rush hour brought people with government IDs and badges hanging on lanyards from their necks. As I approached the part of the avenue that passes the White House, tourists began to outnumber the men and women wearing suits and pencil skirts. Instead of badges, they had DSLR cameras.

It certainly wasn’t emptiness that gave the city its soulless feeling. There were plenty of pedestrians, but similar to the ones that I saw everyday in Dupont Circle, they seemed to be walking for the sole purpose of getting to Point A to Point B. Had Baudelaire lived in DC instead of nineteenth century Paris, he would be hard pressed to find anyone remotely resembling the flaneur who loves crowds and walks passionately through the bustling streets. I’ve never walked downtown at night, but I can imagine it deserted. The bureaucratic buildings, which already stare blankly on the brightest and busiest of days, could only become more anonymous without its inhabitants. There would be no restaurant goers, odd passerby gazing in wonder at the moon-lit office buildings, or night owls recounting their evenings as they wait for a bus or funnel into a metro station.

A few days later, I found an article on Facebook (posted by either The Atlantic or CityLab) explaining how Pennsylvania Avenue largely fails its purpose as DC’s grand boulevard. The article cites the absence of street-level attractions and retail, its inhospitable public gathering spaces, and its sheer size to explain why the thoroughfare is far from a “lively and engaging street.” It was gratifying and reassuring to receive a tiny confirmation that my discontents with DC were not solely a result of my own fickleness.

What the article mentions is not only confined to Pennsylvania Ave. I was waiting for a friend to meet me for dinner and drinks in Adams-Morgan. I had two options for sitting space: the bus stop where I had gotten off or these uncomfortable brick boxes. I couldn’t tell whether I was inhabiting an actual public plaza or an extension of the bank next door. Were the brick structures meant to serve as places to sit? If not, then why were they there in the first place? With the exception of Dupont Circle (the actual park that makes up the roundabout that gives the neighborhood its name), the small patches of green space that dot the city are mainly inhabited by the homeless, other shady characters, and the occasional weary local, who has nowhere else to sit. I miss the tiny parks in Manhattan, where people walked their dogs, took their children, ate food on their lunch breaks, and gossiped with their friends.

This is what surprises me everyday about DC. The city has all the trappings of a bustling metropolis. Its landscaping is impeccable. The buildings possess all the majesty and history you could ask for in a nation’s capital. Cultural institutions abound. The people form a colorful cast of characters–the young and seasoned professionals; the rich, famous, and the powerful; the bright-eyed students and interns; the parents who manage their fussy children on the bus; the tourists snapping pictures in Capitol Hill. Yet despite all this, everything fails to cohere. All these components seem to run parallel to each other. Rather than intertwining to form that living, breathing fabric that I’ve always loved about cities, they sit, blank and impassive.

First Impressions of Washington DC

I’ve been in DC for a little over 24 hours now, and from the brief amount of exploring that I’ve done so far, it’s quite scenic. It’s also quite different but first, a brief disclaimer. I’m mostly comparing DC to Chicago and New York (since those are the only two American cities that I’m reasonably familiar with). More importantly, I’ve only walked through Georgetown and Dupont Circle, so opinions are likely to change. With this in mind, here’s a brief list of the things I noticed.

  • There are hills here, the kind that blocks your view of the horizon if you’re standing too close to them. Although Manhattan means “land of many hills” in the Lenape language, you can power walk for blocks without any sign of an incline. And then there’s also Chicago. All this means that walking five blocks may not be the breezy stroll that you expect it to be.
  • There are also a lot of plants. Along the sidewalks and into the distance, there are saplings, expanses of grass, small patches of forest, flowering shrubs, flowering trees. It makes the tulips on the Mag Mile look like the work of amateur gardeners.
  • On the other hand, there are no skyscrapers, at least not from what I’ve seen so far. You can see the peak of the Washington Monument along the Georgetown Waterfront Park (which is also a dumping point for sewage overflow, according to the many signs posted along the pathway). The absence of skyscrapers makes the city feel residential, especially when some of the tallest buildings are luxury apartment complexes downtown. (Among the many things I miss about Chicago: being dwarfed by all those architectural marvels looming along the coast of Lake Michigan.) All this also makes me think of Paris, which has a similar restrictions on skyscraper construction. But despite this, it still has the feel of an urban center at all times of day.
  • There also aren’t that many crowds, which again, might be because I haven’t been to many places yet. However, I’d imagine that any crowds that I do encounter will consist mainly of tourists, but I’ll provide an update once I wander around the Capitol Hill. In addition to not having crowds, the people seemed very straightforward. What I mean by straightforward is this: I wandered around Dupont Circle during my lunch break and after work to check out the environment. I saw suit-wearing business people looking for food, a few people headed towards the local Trader Joe’s, some joggers, and a few families, and it was easy to figure out what everyone was doing. In contrast, when I had lunch in the parks near the Flatiron District in New York, there were always people that made you wonder. That’s not to say that people in DC are boring, but there’s an everyone-is-going-about-their-ordinary-lives feel to walking through the streets here.
  • The public transportation system so far annoys me rather than impresses me. Like many others cities, the Washington Metro uses an automated card that you can load online. The Smartrip card promises convenience, but everything takes up to three business days to activate or process, from my online account balance to the 7-day bus pass I bought yesterday and still cannot use. Transfers between buses are free, but anything involving the subway requires you to pay over 25 cents, which makes me miss the CTA a little. To be fair, New York has a similar system, but I’ve never really needed to use anything besides the Metro when I’ve been there. Monthly passes in DC are also very expensive, especially in comparison to the CTA and MTA; it requires me to be a little more deliberate about how I get places, and not thinking about those questions was always my favorite thing about buying a transit passes. There’s a kind of freedom in it.
  • Numbered streets run west to east instead of north to south, which I’ve constantly forgotten in spite of devoting part of my evening staring at Google Maps. Lettered streets are the ones that run north to south, but the letters run in descending order. I’ve backtracked several times today, trying to find my way home.
  • There are a lot of cool brick townhouses that are painted in pastel colors, and the sidewalks are sometimes made of brick too, especially in Georgetown. It makes for a picturesque walk through the neighborhood. I wonder if the landlords/homeowners color coordinate.

That’s all I got for now.

A Surprise Trip to the Shore

The back story: My brother wanted to go to Six Flags with a bunch of friends from Governor’s School. However, since Great Adventure is about an hour and a half drive from our humble town, my mother wouldn’t let him drive myself. And my mother, who didn’t want to be by herself for an entire afternoon, dragged me along for the ride.

“We can go to the Safari thing and see giraffes!” she said.

The Safari thing my mother was referring to is Safari Off Road Adventure, Six Flags’s attempt to lure nature enthusiasts to spend money at their theme park. Next to the roller coasters is a giant wildlife preserve where giraffes and other safari animals roam. While my favorite animals happen to be the ones that call the Serengeti home, I was unsure whether either I or the giraffes on-site would be very happy about frolicking the wilds of central New Jersey.

As luck would have it, Six Flags is also conveniently located in Ocean County, and some educated guessing will lead you to conclude that yes, Ocean County is located next to the ocean. A half hour after we drop my brother off, my mother and I arrive at the shores of Point Pleasant, armed with a new beach umbrella bought at an end-of-seasons sale (probably at K-Mart), towels, and a bottle of sunscreen that happened to have expired a few months ago but remains surprisingly effective.

Because we did not have a real address, it took a bit of navigational tomfoolery with the GPS to reach our destination. We wound up on Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, which features a small offering of amusement park rides, fried food, and ice cream.

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As you can see, it was a clear day. The sun was out, but the temperatures hovered near the low eighties. With the constant breeze, it almost felt chilly. (My preferred beach weather is sunny to the point where it’s a little uncomfortable but not impossible to step on the sand with bare feet.)

I didn’t really go swimming today either. The water actually was not that cold, but the surf was especially rough. No one else was doing anything besides wading in up to their knees, so I took it as a sign that venturing out further was not the best idea. Since it was a weekday, most of the beachgoers were kids with their grandparents/parents/babysitters. The sea-soaked children had a grand time running into the waves and flinging sand and saltwater as they sprinted past. The different caretakers were content to observe from a distance and got up occasionally to rescue their young charges when they were knocked over by a particularly strong tide. The people watching was not particularly exciting, except for one family who decided to feed the wildlife and attracted a swarm of laughing gulls to their blanket.

A laughing gull.
A laughing gull.

Instead, I spent a lot of time watching the ocean. Generally, nature is not really a point of interest for me, but I have an affinity for oceans and for waves in particular. I like how the water curls in on itself and all the foam that creeps towards the shore and the chilly saltiness of the spray. I like the surprising violence of the surf–how the sea slams into the land hard enough to make a sound and how it can knock you over if you’re not paying attention.

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Unfortunately, real beaches require a couple hours driving distance from DC, so I’ll have to spend another summer without the Atlantic Ocean within easy reach. But luckily, another nice thing about oceans is that they’ll always be there.

Some Observations on Social Media

It’s been almost a week since I’ve arrived home and exactly two weeks since I’ve been officially on winter break. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been doing a whole bunch of nothing. And by nothing, I mean sitting on my computer and wasting time.

In addition to the usual time-wasters, I’ve been visiting Pinterest more frequently than ever. At first, I was a little disoriented by their new layout changes, which only goes to show that I haven’t been keeping up with the Joneses when it comes to the Internet. However, once I got acclimated, I now spend chunks of my afternoon diving into the dark depths of “Woman’s Fashion.”

From my adventures in this distinguished category, I have discovered the following:

  • Things in vogue: riding boots, sweaters, chambray, sequins, infinity scarves.
  • Oxblood is apparently a color.
  • You’re not properly modeling clothing unless you’re looking demurely at the ground like this.

But mostly though, Pinterest just makes me want to go shopping and buy everything. If there’s one thing that will keep capitalism alive and strong, it is Pinterest.

The second thing that I’ve been wasting some time on is Twitter. Having been plagued by instances in which I think of something that I’d like to share with others but is too trivial for a Facebook updates, Twitter seems like a good solution. I can tweet my random, inconsequential thoughts without subjecting everyone else to my constant musings.

One thing that I haven’t quite gotten used to yet is using hashtags. It makes everything you write slightly silly. And it’s weird seeing posts from you all in a row and having my 140-character thoughts concentrated in one stream. It brings a new dimension to being able to talk about yourself.

Unattended Bags Are Still Scary

On every NJTransit train, there are posters that urge passengers to report anything suspicious that they see on the trains.

Apparently, I’m not one of these passengers. When catching a train at Penn Station, I’m always caught between wanting to sit down for the twelve minute ride to Secaucus and simply standing up at the doors. (These are among the banal questions that run through my head on a daily basis.) But on one particular Wednesday, the train was emptier than usual, which allowed me to snag an aisle seat without much thought. I settled in, gazed into space, and caught sight of a backpack on the seats across from me.

A shuffle of people passed and lingered. The bag was still there. I opened a book to pass the last five minutes that stretched between now and the scheduled departure time. Other passengers squeezed into the vacant seats, and my eyes flicked back to the backpack across from me.

The most vivid scenario that my brain concocted involved the train imploding in the Lincoln Tunnel. The Lincoln Tunnel, which is probably a marvelous feat of engineering and human ingenuity, creeps me out, mostly because it’s claustrophobic and burrows underneath a frightening amount of water.The thought of the train imploding as we cross the tunnel makes my hands sweat a little. I glance at the backpack again and try to return to my book.

Leave it to me to be so desperate for a seat during the ten minute ride from Penn Station to Secaucus that I sit across from a potential pipe bomb. I should have known better, and after letting myself succumb to my paranoia for a few seconds, I looked around me to see if anyone else noticed that anything was amiss. Business-casual everywhere. Ears stuffed with headphones. Eyes down at old newspapers and smartphones.

Then, as the doors began to close, a middle-aged man in a purple collared shirt comes waddling down the aisle. He grabs the unattended backpack by its handle and opens it to produce a tablet before sitting down. The train lurches forward.

Clearly, the only goal of this poster campaign is to strike fear in the hearts of paranoid people like me.

Today.

On my way to lunch, I’d witnessed the following: a parade of small Asian children, wearing the same green t-shirt and being shepherded across a busy intersection by frazzled adults; a guy do a flip on a pogo stick; a French bulldog that sounded inches away from heat exhaustion; and a flyer saying that scenes for White Collar will be filmed a few blocks from my office sometime over the next few days/week. You can’t say that Midtown isn’t exciting.

Today at the office was the one of those “I’m going to blast music through my headphones so no one bothers me as I write a 5-page paper/complete an entire problem set in one sitting” days, except I didn’t have any music to listen to and the things I do on a daily basis are much less thinking intensive. The entire day still had that isolated, narrowly concentrated feel to it though, and it took me until 3:30 to figure out why.

Normally, there’s a reasonable amount of ambient noise in the office. Someone is either chatting on the phone, asking the person next door about the status of a project, or having a mini-meeting about other important matters. On this particular Friday, the occasional murmurs of conversation were missing. It was quiet in a way that was more noticeable than the noises that the printer makes when it’s producing a 300+ page document. I became preternaturally aware of the clacking keyboards all around me. Everyone seemed to be typing something. I was probably typing something.

The subdued quiet seemed to exaggerate everything. Not only were noises louder, the sun seemed brighter, the room warmer (probably because the air conditioning wasn’t on). A basket for UPS packages on top of the cubicle cabinets appeared out of nowhere after I returned from lunch. (I can’t possibly be that unobservant.) I was also really tired. In keeping with my subconscious refusal to sleep at times that accommodate the normal workday, I fell off the eight hours of sleep every night wagon. This may have been a contributing factor. By the time 3:30 rolled around, I was ready to go home and couldn’t really sit still. I got up twice to get water I didn’t really want to drink and decided to take the mail out twenty minutes earlier than I normally did because all I wanted to do was walk around, jaywalk across busy intersections, and look dreamily at the passing storefronts.

Whether it was because I was tired or there were no ambient noises to distract me, I was also incredibly irritated at the computer today. It runs Windows 7 and has the latest version of Microsoft Office, so in theory, it’s all good to go, but for reasons that I have yet to discover, it runs at the pace of an arthritic dog and gets upset when there’s too many tabs open in Chrome. I’ve been dreadfully spoiled by my trusty MacBook Pro, which is the one item I will refuse to leave behind in the event of an airplane accident, tornado, fire, earthquake, or flood. This morning, when I was waiting for the computer to start up, I thought about how nice it was to simply open my laptop and have things instantly work. I decided that I waste about four minutes of my life waiting for my work email to load, which probably sums into a distressingly large number over the course of the summer. Then, if you add in the precious seconds caused by loading webpages, the loss in productivity is probably astonishing. I seriously considered whether I could bring my own laptop to work for about thirty seconds before realizing that I would have to carry it around. (As much as I love my computer, I hate carrying things more.)

At the end of the day, it seemed silly to get so annoyed at slow computers, but I wanted instant gratification when it comes to the Internet. Although a loading browser doesn’t impact my general day-to-day life in any real way, it feels like a demand for attention when I come face to face to it. Or more accurately, when I glare at it, which may be part of the problem. My tolerance for falling-under-the-standards technology is evidently much lower than I realized. I can wait an extra thirty minutes for a train to take me home, but a few seconds of lag as an image struggles to materialize, forget it.

So far, I’ve been trying to decide whether I might be less adept at dealing with technology than I thought or whether I’m just impatient. The photocopier perplexes me sometimes. The mail machine also requires a bit of thinking in order to get it to spit out the right postage. I had to ask, on two separate occasions, how to turn on a desktop computer. But I also know how to find personal information using a simple Google search. I have a thousand and one keyboard tricks. I own (too) many electronic devices.

I’m going to be self-indulgent and say I’m just impatient. Nothing that a good night’s sleep won’t cure.

Small Talk

I hate small talk. I’m also someone who has a higher than average tendency to choose pajamas over people, but think about it: If you had the choice, would you rather listen to me blather about the weather or watch an episode of Game of Thrones in your most comfortable pair of sweatpants? (Not that I’ve actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but I’ve been told it’s good.)

Despite my dislike for meaningless conversation, it’s a necessary skill, and over the past couple of years, I’ve gotten much better at it. I can avoid awkward silence for almost five minutes if I try really hard. My toolkit consists of questions like: “How are you?” “What’s your major?” “Does that mean you get to take this class? How do you like it?” “What year are you?” “Which house do you live?” etc. etc. etc.

Last week, I realized that there was a bit of an issue with my go-to list of questions. They’re great, except if you happend to have graduated college years ago and the memory of dorms now seems like a big blur. Long story short, I don’t think I really know how to talk to people older than me.

Of course, I know how to talk to my parents. I can do a job interview (sometimes really well too!). I’ve had twenty-second conversations with strangers at a bus stop, in line for a cash register, and other places where you usually bump into people. But if you threw me into a dinner party with people who aren’t really my age anymore, I’m not sure what I would do besides start off with a “How are liking this dinner party?” and hope they mention gardening or a tv show or their dog.

I learned recently that this might be a problem with our generation. In their May 30, 2013 issue, Time wrote a feature on the millennial generation. The tagline: “The New Greatest Generation…Why Millennial Will Save Us All.” I finally tracked down the issue with the full article (since only subscribers are allowed to read the whole piece online). The author quotes from Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, who states, “Never before in history have people been able to grow up and reach age 23 so dominated by peers. To develop intellectually you’ve got to relate to older people, older things.”

Normally, articles that generalize the failings of the generation make me tired. It seems inevitable that older generations criticize the newer ones. I’m sure that people were definitely convinced that society would collapse with hippies running around in the 1960s. But perhaps Bauerlein has a point. Most of what I talk about at least 9 months out of the year revolves around things I know would be relevant to people close to my age.

Maybe by the end of this summer, I’ll figure it out. I’ll also see if I can get started on A Game of Thrones.

Commuting

Commuting is terrible.

This is not exactly a new revelation. Last summer, I took the bus downtown, a trip that only took about a half-hour and had the hidden blessing of making me buy a 30-day CTA pass. Inching down State Street was sometimes excruciating, but I quickly mastered the art of being able to stand and read at the same time without falling down. I learned the rhythms of south-bound rush hour traffic and played the game of guessing who was a young professional who happened to live in Hyde Park and who was a UChicago student intern to pass the time when my eyes were too tired to read tiny print.

Commuting from the suburban wasteland that is northern New Jersey to Penn Station is another beast entirely. I take the train, which lets me skip a ride on the subway once I get into the city. In the mornings, I’m usually too tired to do anything but stare out the window. I love the views of the city on the El, but my train rides have reminded me that trees with their jewel green leaves are pretty in the sunlight. Yesterday, I saw a crane perched in the swampy marshlands that sprawl around Secaucus Junction, where everyone gets off to transfer somewhere. (I much rather see cranes than the raccoons and possums that make up Chicago’s urban safari.)

Still, pretty scenery does not make up for the fact that public transportation is now remarkably inconvenient and much more expensive. A roundtrip nowadays costs just under $20. I can no longer walk to the nearest train station or bus stop in New Jersey. And worst of all, after 6:30 pm or so, trains only depart towards the suburbs once every hour. I’ve been wasting a lot of time waiting for trains to take me home. I’ve been using it to read (old habits die hard), but I would rather just go home and eat dinner.

I have picked up a few other things about my adventures on NJ Transit:

  • If I ever get lost or forget to find out which train will actually take me to Penn Station, I just follow the harried looking people dressed in shirts and ties and closed-toe shoes. (They also typically carry newspapers and e-readers or type furiously on smartphones.)
  • I have yet to ride a train that has been eerily empty. Even at 8:30, there are people in work clothes filling the seats.
  • Train conductors have amazing memories. I want to discover the secret of their system. (How do they remember all those faces?)
  • Seriously, I can waste up to four hours getting from one place to another. Four hours!
  • No one likes sitting next to each other. There are three seats to the left of each aisle and two seats to the right. Once someone has occupied a seat, it’s as if they spread cooties on the rest of the others. Having ridden the 172 right before 10:30 classes on very rainy days, I find this all vaguely ridiculous.

While most train-waiting does lead to intense boredom, something intriguing did happen today. I arrived at Secaucus at about a quarter to 8, which left me about forty-five minutes to kill before the train headed in the direction of home was scheduled to leave. I sat down in one of the benches in the vestibule and opened my book (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, in case anyone was wondering) to read when I spotted a security guard hovering beside one of those yellow “Caution! Wet floor!” signs. The bench behind the sign was empty except for a black and white houndstooth purse. People, spotting the vacant bench from across the room, passed by, wanting to plant their tired bottoms onto the seat, but the security guard shooed everyone away and kept speaking into his walkie-talkie.

I was sitting on a bench connected to the one with the houndstooth purse. As all the posters and public service announcements have taught us, unattended bags that have been abandoned by their owners are always, always, always a cause for concern. I’m half-reading and half-wondering whether I should move to a different bench. If there was actually a bomb in that bag, I’d be in a very bad position. Concern about my mortality was fleeting because then I would have to move, which meant I would have to find a new bookmark for my book, and all the other benches were occupied, and besides, a guy who had just ordered pizza at the cafe had looked at the guard and handbag and proceeded to sit down at a table directly behind the possible bomb-filled purse anyway, so whatever this thing contained obviously couldn’t be that dangerous.

As I contemplated my possible course of (in)action, another guard arrived on the scene with a friendly labrador retriever. At this point, the people around me began to stare. The dog started sniffing around the bag, the benches, my ankles, the ankles of the people sitting next to me, pausing at a man munching a sandwich. After two minutes of this, the new guard gave a thumbs up to the one who was standing watch and shooing tired commuters away. He nodded, folded up the wet floor sign, picked up the houndstooth purse with as much daintiness as a slightly overweight security guard could muster, and the two walked away.

And just like that, people started drifting onto the empty bench. And like all the other world-weary passengers waiting to go home, I went back to my own business.

On Speaking English

I really think the Eiffel Tower is a little overrated, but I still insist on visiting to take pictures of it. For all it’s uselessness, it does make a pretty snapshot. After romping around on the Champ de Mars, I am making my way back to the RER C stop to head back to the Cité. Behind me, a British couple examine a map and call, “Excuse me!”

I turn around, and they ask, “Where is the nearest metro stop?” They speak in English and point to the map. I reply, giving them directions about how they should turn around right at the corner and walk two blocks down the street. It is sunny, and the man squints as I gesture ahead of me. They nod and smile. The woman folds their map.

The man smiles and says, “Thanks a lot.”

“No problem.”

As I am about to walk away, he tells me, “You speak very good English. Have you been learning for many years?”

I turn to face him. “I’m American.”

The man and woman blink. They look sheepish and astonished.

“I’m studying abroad for the fall, so yes, I hope I would speak pretty good English.”