Archive for the ‘weirdly disappointed’ Category

Although a terrible breach of etiquette, I thought it appropriate that the call offering me the position at the Illustrious Institute came while I was in a library. It was the day before Thanksgiving; I’d picked up my niece after school and, in keeping with the tradition established when I picked her up from camp over the summer, we stopped by the local library on the way home and she ate the banana I’d brought along as a snack for myself.

Her mother had just joined us in the Children’s Room when my phone rang. I had a pretty good inkling who it would be : my references had reported back to me that they received calls checking up on me from a gentleman who sounded nice but awkwardly lacking in humor. I had met only one such person recently (who was somewhat smoother in person than on the phone), so when the call came in from an area code I recognized but a number I didn’t, I hoped that it would be following up on that meeting.

And it was. Hanging up, I received congratulations not just from my sister and niece, but from another woman who was in Children’s Room with us as well, who, it turned out, had also received a job offer that day after several months of unemployment. Which, I think, is one of the most unintentionally lovely uses of technology of my entire life : my having a phone in the library (and being rude enough to answer it) had created an opportunity for a stranger to share her good news with us, which I in turn shared along with my own, with everyone I could think of once my sister, niece and I returned to their house.

What I did not share was that, on the way to their house, we made a small detour to a local pharmacy. Through an interesting and/or bizarre quirk of scheduling, every time over the past 5 years that I’ve gone to my sister’s houseĀ  has turned out to be Special Lady Time, and, despite that consistency, I have never once arrived prepared with the proper tools to deal with the fallout of that particular situation. It’s practically a family joke at this point, albeit one we typically don’t share with outsiders. (Ooops.)

In any event, my phone rang again as we stood in our aisle at the pharmacy and, as I now recognized the entire number since the last call hadn’t come in that long before, I answered it with a bit of trepidation; it has rarely been my experience that people call back to follow up on good news with more good news. This call proved no exception : although I had been offered the correct job, through a paperwork snafu (so understandable on the day before a long long weekend), I had been offered the wrong salary; the position actually paid about 10% less than I had originally accepted. Remember : in this case, “originally” means “10 minutes before”.

I could, if I chose, take my time to consider this new offer. But, really, there was nothing to think about. The original offer had struck me as exceedingly generous – I’d had no idea what the salary range for the position was, as I had never applied for it; rather, my application for another position had actually been kept on file, so I was called when this position opened up, even though I had never seen it advertised. The actual offer that I got on that second call was in line with what I had been expecting. Plus, I was unemployed; the new wage, though less than the theoretical salary I had entertained thoughts of for 10 minutes, was much, much more than the actual salary I had been earning for the past 6 months, which was nothing. Of course I said yes.

Still, I was disappointed. Even though I knew that was irrational: I hadn’t lost anything, after all; I still had gotten the job, and the actual salary was perfectly reasonable and in line with my expectations. But, for a moment, a brief and shining 10 minutes, my expectations had been exceeded; I was excited at the prospect that things were going to be great. Now, I had to reconcile myself to the reality that they would merely be good, even as I knew I would have believed that goodness to be greatness had I never been offered and thus not considered anything else.

As I said, I kept that to myself. For the most part. I shared the news of my good fortune without caveat and enjoyed the reflected joy of friends at my success as though it had not been diluted for me either. But I’ve had occasion to think back to that second phone call several times over the past two years, as cracks have appeared and the gradual falling out of love increases in velocity as we get nearer and nearer to the earth. (I don’t, you know, know anything about physics. Although I would love to, if I didn’t have to learn it first.) Most recently when, after expressing what I thought was not an unreasonable concern that recent changes will negatively impact my career goals and desired timeline for the achievement of said goals, it was suggested to me that I could pretend to be happy. Which struck me as kind of funny. Because, for so much of the time, I thought I was.


The lovely piece written, I believe, by Zadie Smith aside, (published many years ago in McSweeney’s #6, and which, I have discovered, is not available anywhere online) there are probably few today who would argue in favor of the inherent majesty of bus travel. For, though it is true, as Ms. Smith points out – you’ll just have to trust me that she does – that when traveling via motor coach, one is elevated above the rest of the traffic through which one is being ferried, allowing one to let go of the care and worry of that traffic and be transported with ease through the hours of the early morning or late evening (both ideal times for bus travel), there are drawbacks to that form of travel that can be difficult to overlook : that, despite the lofty perch, one is in closer proximity to one’s fellow man than is generally desirable, closer than one would likely be were one anywhere else on the road; that one is still subject to the whims and vagaries of traffic, yet, having ceded the responsibility of driving, one is being piloted through that traffic by someone who, driving buses for a living notwithstanding, will never be as good a driver as oneself.

Yet, despite these inconveniences, or perhaps because of them, there are undeniable moments of triumph that can happen when traveling by bus. I experienced one such event in the summer of 2004, when I went to New York for the weekend to visit then-friend Naopi. This particular weekend was the weekend of the Republic National Convention (which is how I remember that it was 2004 : mnemonics, y’all!), which meant that New York City, normally somewhat desolate during the summer months as locals flee stuffy Manhattan for the shade of The Hamptons or Belize (if Gossip Girl is to be believed, and I think she probably is), was really, really empty on this particular weekend, as people hied away from, not just the summer heat, but the intrusive presence of Republicans.

And so it was that, albeit unwittingly and despite our strong(ish) ideological differences, the Grand Old Party did me a great favor that weekend : lo, it came to pass that, with the streets cleared other traffic, the bus on which I traveled went 40 blocks down 9th Avenue in Manhattan without having to stop for a single red light.

Those unaccustomed to bus travel may not recognize the profundity of this occurrence, but any seasoned bus traveler will tell you immediately that this type of unfettered movement through a city is, quite simply, miraculous. Because, whatever might befall you on the interstate portion of your travels, the traffic in the city is always worse : not just red lights, the city also features pedestrians, one-way streets, vehicles parking or backing up, and, in the specific case of NYC, a giant park in the middle filled with horse-drawn carriages that have to be navigated. To travel 40 blocks unimpeded by any of these obstacles is unheard of, and I, once I grasped the magnitude of what was happening, was elated by it. Was I disappointed when, on that 41st block, we had to stop? Slightly. But most of me wanted to rise from my seat in applause, for such an achievement is so rare that it can make even the hardest of cynics focus on the thing achieved (40 blocks!), rather than on what was not (41).

Let me interject here to confess that it may not have been exactly 40 uninterrupted blocks; that weekend bus trip, momentous as it was, was a long time ago, and a lot of things involving numbers and distance* have happened since then. However, if the exact number of blocks traveled that night was closer to 35, or possibly even 54, it was still impressive enough that, after debusing andĀ  greeting Naopi on the platform, I immediately shared with her this victory of travel and the tremendousness of my mood as a consequence. A seasoned bus traveler herself, Naopi’s spirits too were elevated; so swept away was she that, even later that night, when we arrived at their apartment, she immediately shared the wonder with The Big Boss Man.

The Big Boss Man, a.k.a. Naopi’s father – so called in deference to a fantastical letter he had received from an employee back in the day when he had been a small business owner; the hand-written letter had been addressed To My Big Boss Man!, and that its author was not a native speaker of English I guess in retrospect makes us kind of racist for turning that into an actual term of address; the body of the letter went on to explain that the wife of this non-native speaker was very unstable and so, should the employee ever be absent from work without explanation, especially for several days in a row, the police should be notified to inspect the garbage bags the wife always had with her, as she had most likely killed him and was now dragging at least portions if not all of his dismembered corpse around with her in the aforementionedĀ  bags. So, I guess, in addition to racist, that we all got years of enjoyment out of this letter makes us pretty callous as well. Unfortunately, neither Naopi nor The Big Boss Man could recall what ever became of the employee, so whether he was murdered or prospered or fell somewhere in between will always be a mystery – responded to the news (of the uninterrupted 40 blocks – that’s what we were talking about) with a wonderfully satisfied smile and pronounced “The lights on that street are timed beautifully.”

And with that, the crushing disappointment I did not feel idling at that 41st stop light suddenly fell upon me.

Even now, 8 years later, it’s difficult for me to admit just how deflated I was by that response. Because, for all that my presence as a passenger allowed me to be a witness to greatness, whatever success that bus experienced as it was piloted through the streets of New York actually had very little to do with me : I wasn’t driving the bus, after all. And, honestly, a bus traveling 40 blocks without having to stop is, in the grand scheme of things, not really all that impressive : it’s not winning more Olympic medals than anyone ever in history or walking on the moon’s face, and it is not a story that will resonate with anyone’s grandchildren. But on the bus, at night, when they’re not showing a movie and it’s too dark to read and e-readers haven’t been invented yet so shut up, jerk, and you’re excited to arrive at your destination and the only other thing happening on the bus is an unpleasant smell every time the bathroom door opens, an uninterrupted 40-block cruise down 9th Avenue is an epic event, for which credit belongs to the bus; I, even though just a passenger, was entitled to some share of it.

For The Big Boss Man, this was not the case. Although he, too, was aware that something had happened, for him it was not an amazing confluence of unrelated events – of boredom, long days, politics and summer travel – but rather the anticipated and entirely mundane result of civil engineering. Yet, in his celebration of the predictability of traffic signals, he not only stole credit from the bus, but gave lie to the very notion of credit itself; that, after all, was the way traffic was supposed to move down 9th Avenue : smoothly. That this was a singular event was no longer an achievement (40 blocks!), but instead highlighted the failure of every other bus trip I’d ever taken, now and forever besmirched by red lights that should have been been green.

Unintentional though that may have been, I always think of The Big Boss Man whenever someone, wittingly or un, attempts to crush a tiny victory. Even though, in some ways, I feel like I should have anticipated that response from him; after all, when he traveled from Boston to New York, or vice versa, he always took the train.

* I don’t know what exactly that image is, but it came up in a Google image search for “things involving numbers and travel”. And one thing you should probably know about me : I will always choose the link that includes ponies. And a pony fighting the evil unicorn from a barbershop duet? If that doesn’t say porcelainandporcupines to you, you should probably leave right now.

One of the most interesting things to come out of my working at Harvard was discovering that I lived right next door to one of my co-workers. Which should tell you something about the interest level of most happenings there; people’s eyes tend to widen in awe when you tell them that you work at Harvard – it never seems to occur to them that there are entry level jobs at Harvard too, and that they can be every bit as tedious as entry level jobs in a school they’ve never heard of.

Mary and I didn’t realize we were neighbors until after my first stint at Harvard – when I was a full-time temp – had ended, when, after completing one of the variety of errands with which I filled those happily unemployed summer days (unemployment only becoming sad when it stretches into winter), I passed her coming out of her house just as I was heading to mine. And even though we hadn’t really even been work friends – which I guess is obvious, since we’d never discussed where we lived in enough detail to discover the answer was “right next to you” – we had a good laugh at how we’d worked together for 6 weeks and only were discovering this now. And when I resumed my employment with Harvard a few weeks later – as a part-time term worker – whenever someone new asked me where I lived (which, now that I’m thinking about it, seemed like maybe it happened more than it needed to), I would always make sure to mention that my house was right next door to Mary’s.

Of course, Mary and I could only play the “we’re neighbors!” card so many times before it got old, and our work relationship usually consisted of greetings in the morning, farewells in the evenings, and not a whole lot in between. One day, however, Mary asked me a question:

“You know the woman who roller skates down our street every morning?”

I’m sure you can imagine how happy it would have made me to respond to that question in the affirmative, but instead I could only express disbelief that Mary, in all of our japes and jests about being neighbors, had never mentioned this before. I gathered what information I could, most importantly verifying that the skater was indeed a skater, wearing old-school white roller skates with 4 solid red wheels and a big red stopper (what some might call a brake) right under the toe, and not simply roller blades, which wouldn’t have been exciting at all. I also learned, after she followed up her claim of having seen the skater “every single day” of her life, with “not every day, but most days”, that Mary is given to hyperbole.

While I obviously kept an eye out for a roller skating woman in the weeks that followed that conversation, my interest in her tapered off as she repeatedly failed to appear, until I forgot about her. This week, however, I finally saw her. She was all that Mary had promised – a woman on white roller skates – but somehow, also, a little bit less.

In my imagination, a woman who roller skates to work – or wherever – would be the picture of joy. Because, obviously, she’s not doing it for the sport or the speed of it – if she were, she’d probably have chosen the less nostagically impressive but more aerodynamic roller blades. Or possibly a bicycle. Maybe, just maybe, a Segway. But to choose old-fashioned roller skates, the kind you wore when learning how to skate, when the safest way to stop was not with the toe brake but by slowly skating into a wall – it would be reasonable to conclude that such a person loves to skate.

However, the expression on this woman’s face was not that of one who loves to skate. Frankly, it’s difficult to look like you love anything when you’re going around in public with your mouth hanging open, whatever your mode of conveyance. Even had her mouth been closed, her expression would have still been. . . blank. Which is confusing. Is someone forcing her into these roller skates? Is she a Hans Christian Anderson story playing out right before our eyes? If not, if she’s merely skated so much that all the fun has been taken out of it, I may have to tell her that it’s all right to stop. Because her lack of joy in skating has robbed me of my rightful joy in seeing a grown woman roller skate. And I was really looking forward to being happy about that.

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