Chopped Salads and Doughnuts

For my last day at my internship, I was too lazy to make lunch for myself, so being the resourceful person that I am, I took this opportunity to sample a chopped salad. Apparently, it’s all the craze in the city, at least according to an article I read. Luckily for me, there was a Chop’t near the southwest corner of Madison Square Park.

I took a late lunch at around 2:30, and there were a couple of people in front of me: a middle-aged man with white hair around his temples and a suit and skinny women dressed in athletic clothing (probably Chop’t’s main demographic). The menu lets you tailor your own salad (or salad wrap). Everything is organic, of course, and there’s a seasonal menu, from which I ordered the Puebla Cobb. I think I spent about five minutes staring at the dressing choices. I haven’t done the math to see how many salad combinations are possible, but the number is certainly astronomically high.

There’s something to be said about watching the staff shred leaves of spinach and whole avocados into tiny little pieces. My salad had tortilla chips, which gave each bite a pleasant crunch. Plus, you do get every flavor in each bite. But here’s the thing: I don’t like salads for lunch very much. Although I’m sure it was very healthy and that I ate enough spinach to impress Popeye, this’ll be my first and last time eating the chopped kind.

On the flip side, in celebration of my last day, we had Dunkin’ Donuts at the office. For all I say about not eating processed, unhealthy food, those doughnuts taste like childhood, and I think I may be addicted to their artificially-colored frosting. (After elementary school slumber parties, our parents would always buy us these doughnuts for breakfast.) Ugh. I sound like a Mad Men episode.

I really have nothing else to say regarding this, but I was genuinely surprised how ingrained Dunkin’ Donuts is in my brain. It seemed significant at the time.

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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.

On Being a Messenger

It’s been one of those weeks when one of the major reasons why I’m glad I get to go to work is because of the temperature. A heat wave has been passing through the area, and on Friday, the thermometer told me that it was in the high 90s. With no air conditioning at home, the office is a cool and breezy paradise. As I am typing this, my arm is sliding down the edge of the dining room table, and my back is sticking to the back of the chair. The fan is moving the edge of the tablecloth in the kitchen, and from the corner of my eye, it looks like there is an creepy animal skulking in the house.

There’s no strict dress code at the office. It’s a weird hybrid of business casual and what I would normally wear on my way to class in spring quarter before it gets outrageously warm. I wear a lot of sundresses, pencil skirts, dressier sandals, and jeans. On Friday, I was wearing a dress, which was a good decision.

I spent a third of my day playing messenger. Sent to pick up a check from one office downtown and then a proof for a book cover from another office nine streets away, I braved the blazing sun, the oven that is known as the New York City subway, and rode on a train without air conditioning. But mostly, it was fun running errands. I generally like wandering through cities. I borrowed a coworker’s monthly transit pass and daydreamed a little about how awesome it would be to live in the city with unlimited access to public transportation. On my second trip back to the office with the cover proof in my hand, I thought of the opening of The Bell Jar’s opening. “It was a queer, sultry summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Rosenbergs were long dead, and unlike Esther, I did know what I was doing in New York, but whenever I think of glamorous internships in the city, the image of Sylvia Plath and guest editorships at the now-defunct Mademoiselle wander into my brain.

The problem with releasing me into the wild streets of New York is that I have a very poor sense of direction when it comes to this city. Maybe it’s because there isn’t any Lake Michigan to serve as my proverbial compass, but even though most of Manhattan functions on a grid system, I have to recalibrate my brain each time I emerge from the subway to figure out what direction I”m supposed to be walking in. But that’s neither here nor there. What I really learned on Friday is that learning how to work the subway system requires a certain degree of attention to detail.

Multiple lines often travel on the same track, which was something I paid attention to in London, but it took me a lot of backtracking to find my way back to Penn Station from the MoMA. If that weren’t tricky enough, you can’t just wander into any old subway entrance and hope that you can get on a train that will take you somewhere. On the contrary, I absentmindedly stood on the platform on a downtown bound train before realizing that I really wanted to go north, costing me a good fifteen minutes (?) as I waited for my borrowed MetroCard could be reused.

Just when I think I have things figured out, something else crops up. A few weeks ago, I was eating lunch at the pedestrian plaza next to the Flatiron Building. After walking the few blocks to get there, I parked myself on a green folding chair and looked up to see the Empire State Building looming in the distance. Sometimes, I wonder whether I should be more embarrassed.

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.

Fun Facts From Work

 

  • The Netherlands is below sea level.
  • The Semantic Web – it’s a thing.
  • Some Starbucks locations now serve beer and wine.
  • There is a prominent sociologist named Walter Reckless. He wrote about juvenile delinquency.
  • Margaret Wise Brown, author of such classics as Goodnight Moon, had a number of tumultuous love affairs, including one with Michael Strange.
  • The Pennsylvania system was a penal system based on the premise that solitary confinement fostered repentance and encouraged criminals to reform their ways. Prisoners were kept in isolation for their entire sentences, which did not always work out so well.
  • Baby rabbits are called kittens.
  • I kind of, maybe, perhaps have an inkling about the intricacies of the eurozone crisis.