Monday, March 30, 2009

Ninety Four: Part Eleven: Wherein I Compound Interest, and Try Not To Appear To Be A Waiter.

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. Click here for the table of contents.

My morning routine, when I was in Washington, was the same on most weekdays once I went to work for the Pinkerton Risk Assessment Services people. I found that the routine, like my quitting smoking and my ongoing efforts to lose an additional ten pounds, helped keep things feeling as though they were under control.

It's strange to think that the world seemed out of control, given how little actually happened. Many memoirs are written about important events or fascinating happenings or meeting people who are beyond interesting -- or, barring that, being beyond interesting oneself.

Nothing important happened to me in 1994, not in the sense that most people think of it. In retrospect, fifteen years later, I think lots of important things happened to me, but they are the kind of important things that are hidden inside and less noticeable than the unimportant thing that happened. I did not receive any awards. I did not cure anything, or come down with anything. I did not walk somewhere or refuse to get out of bed. I did exercise a lot on two different contingents, try out to be a talk-show host and, at one point hold a monkey on my arm. Those things maybe were the unimportant things that happened to me on the outside that led to important things happening in my mind and beliefs and attitude. But the fact remains that nothing I did in 1994 was, in terms of its impact on the world, even as significant as the person who invented the Pixy Stix. And we don't even know who that was, today. If Mr. Pixy doesn't have a memoir, why should I?

Nor were there fascinating happenings. True, there was one day where it snowed and the city shut down, but that was not really a "fascinating" happening, unless, like me, you were from Wisconsin and marveled that a city could be shut down by about two inches of snow. I remember that day pretty well, actually. It was early on in the semester, and I woke up, as I usually did, about 6 a.m. to have my pre-shower breakfast (a cigarette and a diet Coke) and then shower up and put on one of the three dress shirts that I owned, and one of the few ties I owned.

The dress shirts were a green one and a gray one, both long-sleeved button up shirts that I'd bought at the J.C. Penney Warehouse outlet before I left. My thinking was If I'm going to be working in an office, I need some business clothes. I had a few pairs of nice pants, including a couple of black pants that I had because I'd been working as an usher at a movie theater, and I needed black pants to go with the tuxedo shirt and coat that I wore at that job. But that tux shirt and coat were my only upper-body business attire, and they weren't exactly office-ready if only because they smelled like butter. And boredom. So I'd fired up the old Buick Century that I drove back then, the car with the drooping interior roof, and headed over to the J.C. Penney Outlet, on the theory that an outlet store would have the cheapest prices on clothes, and I needed cheap prices on those clothes. This trip was being financed entirely by student loans , student loans that 1.5 decades later would still be being paid, and which will have ballooned to an astronomical figure as a result of law school and an administrative error which I was entirely unable to cure and the effects of which I could not foresee. If there is a lasting result of my trip to Washington and Morocco in 1994 -- a lasting result beyond a vague sense that something important settled in me during that time, making it a year that deserved to be written about which is, probably, a sense that I have about many years in my life. And many months. And days. And hours.

And spare moments: I think those deserve to be written about, too. Driving home from the office yesterday, I was watching the water trickle down from the snow that was melting on top of my car. It had snowed the night before and in March, I don't try to clear off the snow, I just let it melt. As I drove and the snow melted, it would run down the windshield in rivulets that would tack and turn and branch out in interesting patterns that grew more and more complicated until I had to erase them with the windshield wipers, starting the pattern all over again. And I thought: this is something that should be written about, described, the clear, icy tiny streams of water, 5, 10, 20 of them coursing down my windshield in straight lines as I sit at a stoplight, like sprinters heading for the finish, but then I start up moving and the wind blows them and they begin to backtrack, to turn aside. One splits, then another. Two join up and try to push down against the wind, only to curl backup in a u-turn of melted runoff, and on the side, one streamer of water has grown 10 or 11 tiny branches, all pointing to the left, which are twitching and stirring in the wind but don't have enough water to move on as their own selves... and then clear and start over... and now I've written about that, and so you can see that in my mind, a year spent in Washington and Morocco is no more or less deserving of my (and your) time than a 15 minute commute on a Sunday afternoon when the snow is melting but spring won't get here yet.

If there is a lasting effect, as I said, of 1994 beyond the idea that the year must have meant something, it was those student loans, and part of those student loans is the two shirts that I bought at J.C. Penney's, shirts that have now been lost to history and landfills but which live on in my memory and in the interest on the $32 cost, interest that has been compounding for 15 years at 8%. I made the first payment on my student loans in November, 2008. If you assume that I paid for the shirts in that payment, for simplicity's sake, then those $32 shirts cost me ...


Well, that is a bit deflating. I had to just now go to a calculator to figure that out, which I did because I'd assumed that the number would be astronomical; I'd figured this: those shirts are going to end up costing me $13,000 or something, given how much time has passed and the mysterious way interest works. But it's $101.

Which is probably symbolic of something, but I'd hoped that it would be symbolic in the other direction, so I'm going to ignore the fact that it's almost certainly symbolic of this exercise in remembering. I simply won't draw the line between assumption that minor purchase would, fifteen years later, have incredible impact on finances and assumption that minor student trip would, fifteen years later, have incredible impact on outlook on life.

Moving on, then. The other dress shirt I had was a white dress shirt that had short-sleeves, and it was a dress shirt that I wore exactly one time in Washington, D.C. - -which means that I have, as an adult, worn a short-sleeved dress shirt exactly one time in my entire adult life.

The why of that is this: Frank, the guy who ran Pinkerton, where I interned, was a man of strong beliefs. Not all of those beliefs deserved, maybe, to be elevated to the level of belief, as opposed to quirk, but they were all held so strongly that they moved beyond quirk or personality into belief. Smoking, for instance: Smoking was a belief with Frank. It had to be, as he was the only person I ever met who could outsmoke me . I cannot recall Frank without recalling him holding a cigarette, an ashtray in front of him, and two or three packs of generic cigarettes in front of him or near him.

That's how much Frank smoked. This was 1994, before the real attacks on smoking and cigarettes began, before the tobacco lawsuits made lawyers rich for a long time and states rich for a short time and tobacco companies rich for a medium time. This was when cigarettes were relatively inexpensive, and Frank smoked so many of them that he had to buy the generic cigarettes, those cigarettes that came in the packs that had strange colors, Day-Glo colors that marked them as something that you should look at, when, in fact, looking at them meant that you'd notice that they were generics, and that is something that most people, I assume, would rather not have known about them. Buying generic food is embarrassing enough for most people -- at least, it is for my kids, who would rather starve to death than eat cereal from a bag, and who will also not eat cereal from a plastic cereal container that I pour the cereal into, because if I've poured it into that container, they suspect it must have come from a bag (or else why would I have repackaged it?) -- but buying generic cigarettes is a step below that, even. It says, about the person, that this habit of theirs is so draining that they must try to save money, destroying their fingertips and their odor and their lungs in the most economical way possible.

Despite smoking that much, Frank never had a full ashtray in front of him, so he remained one step above the elderly relatives many people had who would smoke incessantly but never seem to empty the ashtray, so that when they had to put the cigarette out they had to stop, and look down, and examine the ashtray to find a spot, near the edge, where they could stub the cigarette into nonexistence. Frank's ashtrays were not like that: they remained relatively free and ready to accept the latest cigarette.

Frank's other beliefs included that the best lunch in the area was served in a strip club about a half-block away from the offices, a strip club he took us to, once, for a lunch. 1994 was part of a time in which you could not only smoke freely in many offices -- and "freely" means copiously -- but you could also take interns to a strip club for lunch without fear of a lawsuit for creating a hostile atmosphere. I look back on that time now and think this: If I'd played my legal cards right, the settlement would probably have paid off my student loans and I'd have broken even on the whole affair.

The lunch at the strip club, which took place early on in the internship (because it was kind of cold outside, still) but not too early on, because Frank had to make sure, probably, that I was the kind of intern who could go to the strip club for lunch without making a federal case of it (sigh...), was not all that good, either. Anyone, ever, who goes to a strip club, or any establishment which is similar to a strip club, including that Strip-Club-For-Wusses, Hooters, has an excuse for why they are at that strip club, and the most common of those excuses is the food is really good there.

How is that an excuse for going there, though? The excuse is offered up as a rationale, after all. The excuse is given to justify going there in a vain attempt to explain that the person was not there to look at naked people, but there for the food. The person is saying, more or less: I didn't go to look at naked people, I just went there because the food is really good there.

But is there a shortage of restaurants at which the food is really good? Are we expected to believe that someone (Frank, in this case) walks out of his office and looks around and sees, say, five or six restaurants within walking distance, and ticks them off in his mind: Rib place: sucks. Burger joint: sucks. Italian restaurant: sucks. Chinese place: sucks. Diner: Sucks. Strip club: Excellent food, it's just too bad I'll have to eat it with two or three naked women walking around. (sigh...).

The excuse falls apart more still when one is taken there, as an intern, on the pretext that the food is really good there - - which was actually the justification offered by Frank, at the time -- and then, when there, the food is... just so-so. As I recall, it was a sandwich and fries. And not a very good sandwich.

The strippers were not very good, either, but that is probably to be expected of the kind of person whose job it is to strip for businessmen in a suburb of Washington D.C. on a weekday in February. Whatever the stripping hierarchy is, that's got to be pretty near the bottom.

Frank's other belief, the one that I absorbed and carry with me to this day, was the one that resulted in my wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt only the one time in my adult life. At one point during the internship, I wore my sport coat (the gray one I'd had for a while that I got at a discount at a used clothing store) and my white, button-up, short sleeved shirt, and my tie. Then, when I got to work and began the early part of my daily ritual (having a cigarette with Frank), I took off my sportcoat, and had this exchange, which I still recall word-for-word to this day:

Frank: Short sleeves, huh?

Me: Yeah...

Frank: My father told me something when I was a kid. He said that whenever he saw a man wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt, he said to himself, "There's a man who's not successful enough to afford air-conditioning," and I've never forgotten that. Makes a person look like a waiter.

I, too, have now never forgotten that, and I still think it about people when I see them wearing a tie with a short-sleeved dress shirt. I think: that man cannot afford air-conditioning. And that he looks like a waiter. Which isn't, I suppose, a bad thing in and of itself -- my roommate in D.C., Rip, was a waiter, too, and made pretty good money doing that -- but the way Frank made it sound, it was a bad thing.

I never wore that shirt again -- instead, opting to rotate among the two dress shirts that I had with me, and varying the ties and my two sport coats and hoping for the best ("the best" being "hoping that nobody notices that I have only two outfits to wear.")

So I was wearing one of those two dress shirts the day that it snowed in Washington and closed the city down, and I went outside to look at the snow that was closing the city down and thought to myself: this? This is closing a city down? There wasn't even enough snow to wet down the tops of my shoes, not even if I tried scuffing my feet through it to do just that. But Washington, it seemed, was ill-equipped to deal with any snowfall, and so the city was shut down, leaving me with a day outside of the already-established ordinary routine, a day that I opted to use to continue to explore the city. In that case, I opted to explore the city by going to the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which was just up the road from Trinity College.

Not my photo.
I'm not capable of aerial

According to its website-- which I had to check, because I remember very few of the details, the Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in North America, and it has "over 70 chapels and oratories."

I remember it being big -- monumentally big -- but not that big. Also, why "over 70" of something? The point of that, I suppose, is to make it sound bigger, even, than it is. "Over 70" means "somewhere between 71 and 100,000,000,000 or more," so it's possible, I guess, that the Basilica has 100,000,000,000 chapels and oratories... but the number is probably more like 71 or 72.

When I say "over 'x' number of things" I mean "I can't really be bothered to get an accurate estimate," like, say, when applicants for a position at our firm ask "How many people work here?" and I and the other lawyers in the interview shrug and try to count and then say "Over 20."

It is 24 as of today, having just counted in my head. But I may have missed a few here or there.

But others say "over 'x' number of things" to try to expand on the number to make it sound larger. If you make $20,001, and tell someone you make over $20,000, they likely will assume you make $22,000 or $23,000, not $20,001, and so you'll sound a little more important. And if I say there were "over 3" strippers at the lunch Frank took me to, you'd probably guess 5 or 6, instead of 4.

I don't remember how many strippers there were, though. There were more strippers than should ever be present at a lunch. I can tell you that.

So I went to the Basilica on the snowy day, in part because it was a tourist attraction that was nearby and I wouldn't have to use precious money going to it. Most things in Washington are free, which is great, and which is the way tourist attractions should be in our nation's capital, but it required money on the subway to get there and then, once there, money needed to be spent on refreshments and the like, too, so I was always looking to economize. My budget was already feeling constrained -- part of the reason things felt out of control, I'm sure -- by the fact that no money was coming in.

Up until that point, I'd always been, since moving out of my parent's house at least, poor. Maybe I'd been poor before we moved out of my parent's house, too, but if so, I didn't realize it. I thought for a while we were poor, when I was very young, because of a lecture my brothers and I got from my Mom on throwing out milk cartons. She'd called us into the kitchen to yell at us and held up a plastic milk jug that had been put in the garbage under the sink, uncrushed, full-sized.

"This is not how we throw away milk cartons," she said, and proceeded to smash it up and throw it away while lecturing us on how it wasted garbage bags and space. What I took from that lecture was: we are too poor to afford garbage bags.

Then, I didn't think that we were poor, really, until I began hanging out with people who I took to be richer than we were: people who had swimming pools in their yards and whose kids had cars and other luxuries. Never mind that for a long time, we had a swimming pool in our yard (an above-ground one that was eventually taken down because we were too big for it) and that we probably could have had cars given to us if we didn't insist on wrecking the cars that our parents drove, forcing them to incur ever-increasing insurance premiums and car repair bills. Ignoring all that, I'd figured we were poor, or at least poor-er.

But then I learned what poor really was in the Summer of No Money, and had lived poor since then, scrabbling by on fast-food and movie-usher wages, picking up enough money here and there to have bought my own car (the Buick Century mentioned earlier, for $1,000) and some used furniture; I still used my old twin bed from when I was a kid, with my old twin-bed mattresses from when I was a kid on the bed.

And then I learned that poor was even worse when there was not a check coming in a week or two. It's one thing to be poor but know that you'll get paid in two weeks. It's another thing to be poor and have no money coming, anytime soon.

So I was already feeling the pinch of not having a lot of money and not having any money coming in, early on that day in Washington, and that was one reason I opted to simply go to the Basilica: I wouldn't have to spend money on lunch or snacks, because I could come back to the school for lunch and dinner, and I wouldn't have to use my subway money.

The other reason was that I liked going to see churches, and I also liked going to church.

As a kid, I'd begun my student life at a Catholic grade school, a school I attended for three years, right through Ms. Wilhelmi's third grade, before transferring to public schools beginning in the fourth grade. At the Catholic school, St. Charles, I recall going to church every day, which means that if we didn't go to church every day, we sure went an awful lot .

After transferring to public schools, we still continued to go to church every Sunday for Mass, and for a while, I attended "CCD" classes after school. I didn't know what "CCD" stood for then, and I still don't now. Having looked it up just now, I can tell you it stands for the "Confraternity of Christian Doctrine," but that means nothing to me because I don't know what "Confraternity" means.

"CCD" classes were held after school or in the evenings, at St. Charles, and were attended by kids who were Catholic enough to have to go to them, but not so Catholic (or so well off) that they could attend the school itself. I don't recall a single thing about those classes beyond this: They were held in the same third grade room that I'd had for my actual third grade.

Eventually, I stopped going to CCD, and I know that I stopped going before being "confirmed," whatever that is, because when I was a teenager and hung out with my main friends Fred and Bob and Flan, they would occasionally talk about being "confirmed" and going on "retreats" and things like that, and I had no idea what they were talking about.

Religion, as a kid, presented great mysteries to me, but not the type of mysteries that religion is supposed to present. The mysteries presented to me by religion were flip sides of the same coin.

First, when I was very young, I thought everyone was a Catholic. I didn't know there were other religions, and was surprised when my next-door-neighbor friend, Paul, one day said something about going to church. I said that he didn't go to church, because I'd never seen him at our church. He'd said he was Lutheran, which was to me a made-up word and I dropped the subject until later, my mom confirmed that, yes, people were "Lutherans" and that it was a different religion than ours. My mom said the words "Lutheran" and "different religion" in such a way as to convey to me a skepticism: she didn't outright say they were going to Hell, but I understood her perfectly and never mentioned religion to Paul again.

Then, when I was older and hanging out with Fred and Bob and Flan, I was surprised to learn that they were Catholics-- by that point, I'd stopped going to church except on "special occasions" like Easter and Christmas sometimes -- and I'd assumed, without really thinking about it, that nobody was any particular religion, especially not Fred and Bob and Flan. It was difficult to picture them being "religious" to any degree, given that mostly we spent our time driving around in Bob's old 1960's white Impala and trying to drink illegally and talking about "chicks" and smoking Marlboros and Camel Lights and swearing as much as humanly possible.

Then, in college, I'd begun going to church again, on my own, more or less every week, and that had begun, too, in 1994 -- I'd started going to the church near my apartment building, and attending that more regularly than my Mom and Dad would have ever thought I might.

It was that mixture: poverty, snow, a day off, and a bit of a religious streak awakening in me, that led me to the Basilica that snowy day in Washington, and I wish that I could say that I remembered much of the Basilica, but I simply don't. When I sit here and picture it now, I picture some white stone and candles and a souvenir shop and a grand church that was very, very large-- much larger than the little church at St. Charles that I'd attended most of my life -- but beyond that, I can't picture any specifics, even though I not only visited it but also went to Mass there a few times.

And, to be a little more vague, when I picture the Basilica, I cannot be 100% sure that I'm not confusing it with St. Patrick's Cathedral, which I and Sweetie visited in New York on our honeymoon.

That's more proof of how un-memoir-able 1994 might actually be: There was no great impression created on me by my visit, during a time that I was becoming more religious (or re-becoming more religious) to the largest church in North America, no symbolic moment, no stirring of emotions in my chest. Instead, there are vaguely hazy memories of stone and candles and pews which, to be honest, are probably an amalgam of every other church I've ever been in combined with the pictures I looked at on the Internet today plus some just-plain-making-stuff up on my own.

The truth is, I don't recall the Basilica hardly at all, but I remember specifically what my morning routine was every other day. Maybe the morning routine benefitted from repetition, or maybe it's just more the kind of thing that sticks in my mind. I have no doubt that, if I'd entered the Basilica and been struck with a Saul-esque religious vision, I'd have remembered that, and maybe the Basilica, very clearly. But I didn't, and instead, I just walked around and looked and I'm sure that I kept quiet and thought a lot and enjoyed any stained glass or sculptures, and then went outside and had a cigarette, and that kind of thing doesn't make a lasting impression on me.

Not the way that, say, riding the subway every morning does, imprinting on me permanent memories of my morning commute. Each morning that I went to work at Pinkerton, each time I showed up there, began the same way: I would get up, I would shower, I would walk up the street to the Metro station and scan my card. I'd ride the Metro to the stop where I got off, generally looking at people around me and listening to my Walkman as I did so, and then get off on the escalator that I rode everyday: a steeply inclined endless ride up that as time went on I began trying to walk up, faster and faster, as a way to challenge myself and get some exercise.

At the top of the escalator, dizzy from the vertiginous ride up, I'd turn the corner to the little deli-convenience store that was right there. I'd go inside, get some diet Cokes (this was before I learned to drink coffee; I wouldn't start that for a few months), a Washington Post, and a Raisin Bran muffin. I'd sit down and read through the paper for a while, eating my muffin and drinking a diet Coke. I'd have a smoke, and then get up and take the paper and the other sodas and head up the street to the job at Pinkerton's, walking past the strip club I hadn't eaten at, yet, and into the office to begin my day with my sit-down with Frank.

That routine is so fresh in my mind I can recall this: I always sat at the second of the tables from the door to the deli, facing outwards to watch the crowd. The diet Cokes were in a cooler near the back of the store, to my right. The muffins were wrapped in plastic and kept to the right of the cash register, as I faced it.

I can almost taste the muffin-and-diet-Coke flavor, now. That was a great breakfast.

As I said, memoirs are of important events or fascinating happenings people who are beyond interesting, maybe someone else, maybe oneself.

The most fascinating happening I can recall, as I sit here, is the day the city shut down due to snow and I went to see a church I can barely remember.

I did not meet any people that could be called "fascinating" who I remember to any great degreee. The son of the Shah of Iran was, I'm sure, fascinating -- but I met him for only about an hour or so, and I have absolutely no recollection of him whatsover. None. Beyond simply meeting him, that is, and an impression, now, a decade-and-a-half later, that he was very polite and kind of cool, the way many people from the Arab world are very polite and kind of cool.

Justice Antonin Scalia was also a fascinating person, another one I spent an hour with, but to truly make this a great memoir, I would have had to spend more time with him than just that. But I didn't. I spent just the one hour with him. A fascinating hour, to be sure, but one hardly worthy of all this paper.

So if this were the kind of a memoir that people have come to expect, then I would have to be the fascinating person at the heart of it. Based solely on my morning routine, that doesn't seem likely.

But perhaps I became fascinating.

No comments: