Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part three; find the table of contents here.
It would not be until a few years later, in Mexico, that I learned to distrust cab drivers.
When I first went to Washington, D.C., I'd never ridden in a taxi, period. Later, when Sweetie and I went to Mexico, I would take my second taxi ride, the one that would teach me to distrust taxis.
I would learn, in Mexico, to distrust taxis and taxi drivers simply because I learned on the way to Mexico to distrust travel agents. Sweetie and I went to Mexico in 1998 as a Christmas present to her, the Christmas present being all-inclusive trip to a resort in Puerto Vallarta for the two of us in the first week of January that year. Things got off to a bad start when we arrived at the Milwaukee airport to find out that contrary to what the travel agent had told us, we did need more than just a photo ID, we needed a notarized statement of one sort or the other -- a problem that plagued about 15 other people in our group, and a problem that was solved when someone phoned a notary public, who came to the airport at 4 a.m. and notarized a bunch of hasty, hand-written statements affirming that we were Americans or something.
The notary charged us $50 each for that service, and to this day I am convinced that the notary is related to the travel agent, or I would be convinced of that except that the travel agent was clearly too inept to have worked out a clever scheme like that, since the travel agent could not successfully pack our ticket packets.
She had given me the ticket packets and assured me that "everything you need is in here," everything I needed apparently not including the bus voucher for the tour bus that would take us to our hotel once we arrived in Mexico, a country where we knew nobody and did not speak the language beyond the two most-necessary Spanish phrases I had memorized in high school:
"Dos cervezas mas, por favor."
"Donde esta el cuarto de bano?"
I also knew this one: Hable despacio, por favor, which means "Speak more slowly, please," a phrase that is of dubious utility because no matter how slowly the person would speak, I still would not understand Spanish, a fact that must have been apparent on my face because when I tried to get on the bus to take our group to the hotel, a man stopped me and said something in Spanish. I mentally flicked through the three phrases I knew, decided I did not at that moment need a beer or the bathroom, and said "Hable despacio por favor," and he said, more slowly, but in English: "You need a voucher to get on this bus."
So I took out our ticket packets, which I'd kept in my carry-on bag throughout the trip, the carry-on I'd had to keep on my lap because we were seated in the last row of the plane and I hadn't been able to find a place to put it and I couldn't put it on the seats next to me because one of those seats had Sweetie in it and another had a guy who was reading Playboy magazine...
... right there in the open! He had sat down next to me, and when the plane took off, he'd opened up his own carry-on and pulled out a couple of magazines, the first of which was Playboy, and he'd proceeded to spend 30 or 40 minutes of the flight flipping through various nude and semi-nude pictorials, something I would have found far more entertaining if (a) Sweetie wasn't sitting right next to me and (b) it wasn't so creepy to be looking at naked women over someone's shoulder...
And I fumbled through the ticket packets, taking out one multi-colored slip of paper after another and showing it to Mr. Hable Despacio and having him shake his head at each one, until it became clear that we didn't have a bus voucher at all. I asked him how we were supposed to get to the hotel, and he pointed at a row of taxis outside the little airport.
So we loaded our stuff into a taxi, and asked the driver to take us to the hotel, which he did, and he charged us $22 for the ride.
"Man, things are expensive in Mexico," I said to Sweetie as we went to check in (me hoping desperately that we didn't need a hotel voucher or something, since so far we had not had any of the paperwork necessary, really, to take this trip) and I'd set aside $25 for the cab ride back to the airport at the end of the week, $25 I wouldn't need because when we did take the cab ride back to the airport at the end of the week, that cabdriver, a new guy and one who was not inclined to take advantage of Americans, told me it was only $2 for the drive from the hotel to the airport.
But that was still four years in the future as I dragged my luggage rack with my cardboard box and backpack and suitcase on it through Union Station in Washington, D.C., in January, wandering around bewildered while I tried to figure out where I was and where it was I was supposed to go.
Up until the moment I'd gotten off the train in Union Station, in fact, I had not given a single moment's thought to what I'd do when I got to Washington. I was, I suppose, very naive about traveling because all of my traveling up until that point had been done with my parents doing all the arrangements. So although I was 25 years old, and had been a fair number of places, I'd never made the arrangements to go to those places myself; as far as I was concerned, people announced that they were going somewhere, then they went there and all the things were ready for them. Maps were mapped, hotels were reserved, attractions were located, tickets were purchased, and it all happened magically so that all I had to do was load my books and walkman and cassette tapes up and then I'd be taken to the exact place I needed to go.
That, combined with the fact that 80% of my life had been spent in a town of less than 10,000 people, a town where the big attractions were either the skating rink or "Rudy The Llama" behind the A&W drive-in -- Rudy was a live llama that lived in a pen up by the A&W drive-in, when A&W still had drive-ins and Hartland, the town I grew up in still had an A&W. Rudy was right between the A&W and the "Red Owl" grocery stores, and we used to go periodically to have root-beer floats and pet Rudy, heeding the warnings from my mom not to stay too long or get Rudy mad because llamas can spit really far, so we'd go and try to pet Rudy and feed him grass through the fence and secretly hope that he'd spit, but not on us.
When you grow up and live in a town that small, finding your way around is not a problem; it's hard to get lost riding your bike to the ice cream shop to play "Centipede."
The other 20% of my life I'd lived in Milwaukee, but even in Milwaukee I'd not gotten out a whole lot: I went from my apartment to the Subway and the movie theater I worked at, or from my apartment to the college campus, or from my apartment to the used book store where one summer I bought and read every book Anne Tyler and Kurt Vonnegut had ever written -- that was a pretty depressing summer, after the fact, as those two writers are not what you'd call upbeat-- and I hadn't gone and done much else in Milwaukee, at all. As far as I could tell from my experience, Milwaukee had about three businesses and a college campus and a bus line to get to them.
So stepping off the train and into Union Station was both a thrill and a surprise and an instant education, one that was necessary because I didn't even know how to get from the train part of the station all the way up to the street, and because Union Station once I got away from the train part of the station was not just a train station like I was used to-- "used to" being a relative term, since at that point Union Station was only the third train station I'd seen in my life, the first two being Milwaukee's and Chicago's, but given how new and scary and bewildering everything else was already, I felt like I had to be an expert in something, so I decided to be an expert in train stations, with Union Station being my third, and using my newfound expertise, I decided that Union Station was confusing.
I also decided, then and there, to quit smoking. That might not seem to be the best time to make such a major decision, but I made it anyway. I had my cigarettes and lighter in my pocket, and I was tugging my cart and looking for a place where I coul have a cigarette, and I decided that when I finished that pack of cigarettes, I was not going to ever smoke again.
I'd been smoking for about 8 years at that point and had never seriously tried to quit. That was the first time I would decide that smoking was over for me.
Spoiler Alert: It wasn't the last. It wasn't even the last time I'd decide to quit smoking that week. But it was the first, and that was kind of a big step for me.
The reason, I think, that I first decided to quit smoking then and there, and that I then decided to feel really good about that, was to exert a little control over things that were clearly getting out of hand in my life. Just a few hours earlier, less than a day earlier, I'd been living in my L-shaped apartment with my cheap furniture, my $5 VCR, my jobs at a sub shop and movie theater, and my hamster named after an evil genius political scientist, and things had been reasonably comfortable. Not great. Not even good. But comfortable: I knew what each day would bring.
Now, I didn't even know where to drag my cardboard box and people were rushing around me and they were selling t-shirts 4-for-$10 and the loudspeaker kept saying unintelligible things that I would then wonder if they might apply to me and I smelt chili fries and got hungry and for just a second I forgot, entirely, where I was even supposed to be staying for this semester in Washington and forgot what internship had been lined up for me and was looking for a place to have a cigarette and maybe get a diet soda...
... and I needed to wrestle something back from the world, take a little control over things and show all those people who knew where they were going, who knew where they worked, who knew where the damn exit was, show all them that I, too, could be a master of my own destiny and take charge of my fate, so I would quit smoking.
I don't know how that was going to prove anything to anyone else, especially because if I'd quit smoking right then and there, nobody that I ran into over the next few months would even know that I'd ever smoked, which would sort of moot the point . If I'd done it, if I'd quit smoking, doing it right then and there would have forced me to keep telling people that I no longer smoked -- so I'd have to do this awkward thing where I would keep telling people that I used to smoke, but I didn't anymore, I'd quit smoking, because what good is taking charge of your life in the face of a hectic and incomprehensible new city by quitting smoking if nobody knows that you've quit smoking? (What good, beyond the whole not-dying-of-lung-cancer thing, I suppose.)
Having decided that I was going to quit smoking, I then felt better and more decisive and more in control and found an exit and went outside, where I promptly lit up a cigarette and looked around this new city where I was going to be staying -- if I could remember where -- and working -- if I could remember where -- and quitting smoking -- just as soon as I finished this pack -- and I took in the sounds and sights of Washington, D.C., for a few minutes, while I had two cigarettes.
There were taxis sitting nearby and one of the cabdrivers looked at my luggage and looked at me and said "Need to go somewhere?"
"Yes," I told him, and wracked my brains for where it was I needed to go. He waited. "Trinity College," I remembered and told him. He helped me load up my cardboard box. I kept hold of my backpack and he put the suitcase in the trunk.
I briefly worried that he wouldn't give my box and suitcase back to me.
Then I started to get in, and I had to think back to movies and TV shows to remember that I was supposed to ride in the back of the cab, which made me feel both important (because important people ride in cabs) and awkward (because it made me feel like I was trying to show the cabdriver that I was more important than him and I worried that he'd think I thought I was some sort of bigshot when clearly I wasn't. It just seemed to me that people whose luggage includes cardboard boxes shouldn't be putting on airs by climbing into the backseat of the cab.)
"Ever been to DC before?" he asked me. He probably gathered that I was kind of new here, I thought later, because I was looking around and peering out the cab windows and also because I'd taken out my camera and was holding it up and trying to snap pictures.
"No," I told him, unnecessarily.
"Let me show you around a bit," he said, and he proceeded to drive me around the city and take me past the White House, and past Congress, and past other important and notable sights, all while he told me what they were and a little bit about them and pointed out where the National Mall was and how big it was...
... and I at the time thought Washington D.C. has a giant mall?...
... and finally he drove me up to Trinity College and helped me unload my suitcase and cardboard box, without my even having to ask, and shook my hand and said "I didn't charge you for the extra driving," and I paid him what he said I owed and then remembered just in time that I was supposed to tip him, too, and he waved and said "Enjoy the city," and drove off, and I turned to try to wrestle my cardboard box into the dorms at Trinity College, where I would meet the first and only person I've ever met who majored, in college, in rhetoric.