Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ninety-Four, Part Nineteen: Wherein I Compare An Ex-Girlfriend To Formerly-Famous Pandas (But Not In A Mean Way).

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 19; click here for a table of contents.

When I was in Washington, I had a girlfriend, of sorts, although it's hard to say she was my girlfriend, at least in the year 1994.

It's hard to say she was my girlfriend in 1994 first because I only saw her rarely that year. I left for Washington in early January, and she remained home in Wisconsin. She came to visit for a few days on spring break, staying in the "guest rooms," which were actually otherwise-unused dorms.

Following my stay in Washington, then, I went to Morocco just a week or two after I got back to Wisconsin, and stayed there until early August, and I didn't see my sort-of-girlfriend, whose name was Laurie, during those two weeks at home or during the 8 weeks in Morocco.

Then, when I finally got back to Wisconsin, we didn't see each other for the better part of a month until school started up again; we both attended UW-Milwaukee, but she lived around Green Bay and I lived in Milwaukee. Each summer she would return home to live with her parents and I wouldn't see her.

So although we dated for about 2 years, at least 1/3 of that 2 years was spent in different states (and on different continents on different hemispheres), and another part of that two years was spent in different cities. Somewhat strangely, maybe, a part of that two years was also spent living almost directly across the street from each other, a proximity that didn't impress her on my memory any more firmly.

That's the second reason I call her a sort-of-girlfriend: I can't remember, very clearly, what we ever did as a couple. I recall, once, going to a bar with her and her friends and one of my friends, but I don't recall many dates beyond that. I can't remember going out to dinner, or movies, or... anything.

I certainly can't remember what we did or said or talked about when she came to Washington, D.C. As I sit here on a cold, rainy, wet, splattering day in October, I can recall about her that she had longish, brownish hair that was straight, and that she worked in the cafeteria at UW-Milwaukee for extra money, and I can recall the "date" when we broke up.

We went to the "Coffee Trader," a restaurant located on the East Side of Milwaukee, and a restaurant that I worked at very briefly, sometime after I got back from Morocco and she got back from Green Bay and we were both in Milwaukee, attending the same school and living across the street from each other. I recall that, but probably mostly because the Coffee Trader fits into my memory at several different junctures: It makes an appearance, in my life, both as the site of the break-up with the sort-of girlfriend (whose name was Laurie) and as the site of the place where I worked for a while as a dishwasher, and as the place where one could buy, when I was younger, a coffee called something like "Jamaica Blue" or "Jamaica Blue Mountain," which coffee was supposed to be the world's rarest, most expensive, or best coffee, or something, costing, as I recall, around $35 a quarter-pound.

I knew about "Jamaica Blue Mountain," if that's what it was called, because my mom would occasionally want fancy coffee when we were younger -- 17 or 18 or 19 -- and we would occasionally go get fancy coffees at the Coffee Trader. The Coffee Trader was an almost-unheard of restaurant/shop back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was a restaurant that focused primarily on coffee, which was very unusual: so unusual that it was the only such place I knew of for decades.

That seems strange, now, when there are about four coffee shops within two miles of my house, and only one of those is a Starbucks, when there is an entire aisle devoted solely to coffee at the grocery store, when The Boy works in a sandwich shop that sells about 7 different kinds of coffees, and McDonald's sells, or sold, gourmet coffees, and coffee has become something more than just "that stuff Dad drinks that smells weird in the morning." My mom, in buying "Jamaica Blue Mountain" periodically was at the forefront of a massive shift in consumer tastes towards fancier coffees and places to sell fancier coffees and places to sit and drink fancier coffees in comfort and faux luxury, towards a time when bookstores would have coffeeshops right inside them and would invite you to buy a coffee and then browse among their books and then sit and read their books for free while drinking coffee.

This shift has come at the exact same time as people have become less likely to actually sit down and drink that coffee, to actually go someplace and sit and drink coffee, as opposed to sitting in their minivans (now equipped with DVD players and televisions and swiveling seats and pop-up tables, and equipped, in advertisements, with families who spend their family-time playing board games in the minivan, an advertisement that makes me sad and angry at the same time, because of all the things it represents that I hate: Families on the go more and more, families with the money to burn to buy vans with tables and DVD players, families who don't understand that if the best you can do to spend time with your children is play a quick game of Trouble with them in the parking lot while waiting for soccer practice to begin, then you're not doing a very good job of parenting), all those changes have come and gone since the early 1990s, and since 1994, when I sat down with Laurie to break up with her in an amiable way.

The Coffee Trader, too, has come and gone, closing in 1998.

I am thinking about Laurie and how I don't remember anything about her because I was beginning to write about one of the specific days I do remember in Washington, which was the day I bummed around the National Mall with my roommate, Rip.

I remember spending a couple of specific days with Rip. Two, to be exact. The first was when we went to watch the Superbowl at the bar, and the second was when we walked around the National Mall, towards the end of the semester.

That puts Rip, a guy I shared a room with for about five months, ahead of Laurie, a girl I dated for about two years, in terms of actual times I can remember spending with them. Laurie, in fact -- and I mean this not at all disrespectfully or in a mean way -- is tied with Hsing Hsing, the formerly-famous panda.

Is it possible to be formerly-famous? Or, once famous, are you famous forever? It seems possible to be just formerly famous, if once people everywhere knew who you were, and now nobody knows who you are, or a far lower percentage of people know who you are. At one time or another, there were probably people, and pandas, who were the toast of the world and who have now slid into obscurity, and Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling are two of those.

Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling lived at the National Zoo, and were the pandas that China gave the U.S. as a gift after Richard Nixon visited in 1972. Hsing Hsing was the boy (although, first, who could tell, and second, that seems strange, to speak of a male panda, since all pandas seem kind of female to me, the way koalas seem female to me, too, and parrots fall into that category of animals which seem to have no males in them. I can't picture a male parrot. It seems they all should be female.)

I saw Hsing Hsing in the zoo on the day I went to the National Zoo and the National Aquarium -- workdays, again, that I'd taken off from "working" as an unpaid intern at Pinkerton to instead go walking around Washington D.C. and take pictures and eat giant cookies and listen to music on my clunky Walkman. I'd heard about Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling for years and wanted to see them in person, but I'd missed Ling Ling by two years; she'd died in 1992.

Hsing Hsing didn't look that well when I saw him, and certainly didn't look impressive; quite the opposite, the day I saw Hsing Hsing the panda was sitting in an indoor enclosure with whitish, institutional walls, separated from a completely-non-curious public by thick glass that appeared unnecessary, as Hsing Hsing seemed immobile, possibly dead. There was some sad straw sprinkled around the enclosure, but I couldn't tell if that was for Hsing Hsing to eat, or to sit on, or maybe if it was just an effort to make the cage seem less obviously a cage, the equivalent of putting a plastic plant into a goldfish bowl.

A sign informed those who cared to read -- I was the only one I saw reading it -- that Hsing Hsing was ill with something-or-other, and would be going back outside when he felt better. He must have felt better at some point, because he didn't die until 1999. I hope he felt better, because I don't want to think of even a panda lingering for five long years in that space, ill and hoping for death.

The lack of a crowd outside Hsing Hsing's cage surprised me, though, because these were famous (formerly famous) pandas, and I expected a group of gawkers, like the ones that had always been around Samson's cage back at the Milwaukee Zoo.

Samson the gorilla was a highlight at the Milwaukee Zoo when I was growing up. He was, as I recall, the world's largest gorilla, or maybe the world's largest gorilla in captivity, or possibly just the Midwest's largest gorilla. Whatever his status as the World's Somethingest, he was a draw at the zoo despite moving so rarely that he might as well have been stuffed.

About once every 2 or 3 years, as kids, our parents would take us to the zoo, and the highlight of the zoo was always going to see Samson, who sat in a boxey enclosure (not unlike the one that Hsing Hsing would be in years later) and stared out at the crowds of people staring back at him doing nothing.

Doing nothing for the most part, at least. Samson sometimes picked up a banana and ate it, or another piece of fruit. Once, he moved to the other side of a ledge. Any such activities would set off a murmur and talk in the crowd.

We never got up to the front row of people looking at Samson, so in my mind, when I picture Samson (who I can picture far more clearly than the last, break-up date with Laurie), I see heads of adults and kids in front of me, my Dad lifting me up to look over the top of the crowd at the giant gorilla sitting in the back of his cage, looking at me.

Samson had a scale in his cage, but I never saw him get on it. The scale was there, I suppose, to verify to the crowd that Samson was the Somethingest gorilla around. I don't know if anyone ever saw him get on the scale. Probably someone did, someone who waited around more than the five or so minutes that we'd stay there before Dad or Mom would say "Okay, ready to go?" and we'd grumble and pout but we'd go.

Hsing Hsing's cage was smaller, and there was no scale, and there was no crowd of people to frustrate my efforts to see whatever there was to be seen. That's one thing that sticks out in my mind about Washington: The fact that it's possible to get right up close to everything, from the Vietnam Memorial (which you can reach out and touch) to the Holocaust victims' shoes (again, touchable) to the Washington Monument you can stand in, to, back then, the White House, which you could walk through without an appointment or background check at all.

Everything in Washington is right there in front of you, waiting to have its hand shaken or stairs climbed or fountain walked through or, in this case, to be looked at sadly as you wonder "What's the big deal about pandas?" and then try to tell yourself that the panda would be more impressive, maybe, if it was outside and not sick and not surrounded by tile and straw.

Or it was. Back then, in 1994, I could walk up to almost anything in Washington D.C. and be an arm's-length from history or news. I stood against the rail watching Hsing Hsing do nothing, as people walked by without paying attention to the National Pandas at all. I'd stared at the Hope Diamond and Old Glory and I'd toured the White House and I'd even been mere feet away from then-Vice President Al Gore as he'd jogged by.

That happened, the Jog-By, on the day that Rip and I bummed around the National Mall, a day that came after my White House tour and after visiting Hsing Hsing, near the end of the whole internship. We'd decided, Rip and I, to spend the day just hanging out, which was a rare move for me, as I generally don't like hanging out with other people. I very much preferred, back then, to go it alone, to walk through all those sights and embassies and monuments and cherry blossoms with just my backpack and Walkman and Marlboros -- I was still smoking at that point, still telling myself that I would quit but not ever actually quitting -- and seeing all that with just my own thoughts and my camera.

But every now and then I'd cave in to vaguely social impulses I had, and agree to do something with others. The bumming around the Mall day was just such a day, and Rip and I headed down to the Mall, home of the Smithsonian and Vietnam Memorial and Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and Capitol, and sidebar to the White House, with not much in the way of plans beyond "let's just walk around."

Which we did, seeing the Lincoln Memorial and the rest for a second time, at least for me. I'm not sure if Rip had gone to see them himself or not. Rip was a more social person than I was and was, I think, less likely to have gone on his own to see those things, plus Rip worked in Washington both as an intern and as a waiter at a fancy restaurant, helping make ends meet by working 3 or 4 nights a week doing that for tips.

I didn't work in Washington, not really as an intern and certainly not at any other place. For a day or two I was employed by a movie theater, but I decided I didn't like it and didn't want to work there, and quit, living off of student loans and some money my family sent me, strictly budgeting myself and making the most of all-you-can-eat buffets and student meal plans. I could eat a phenomenal amount of food at one meal and then skimp the rest of the day, something that didn't really hurt my physique -- I was down to 162 pounds by then -- because I ran and smoked a lot, running probably 50-60 miles a week or more, and smoking 7-10 packs of cigarettes.

That all seemed like a good idea at the time. 15 years later, 70 pounds heavier, and thousands more in debt, I would like to go back in time and tell my younger self to do things a little differently, but I probably wouldn't have listened to me.

On the bumming around day, Rip and I went to a fish market near the Mall. I've always kind of liked fish markets, even though I don't like fish, or even the smell of fish. Fish markets are colorful places, though, full of life and energy and people with fish, places that seem made to be visited by people who don't live there, or even necessarily belong there, people like me, interns in Washington with a camera and a backpack and a fascination with things that look like postcards of places I wanted to go. We walked through the fish market and got a free sample of a new kind of soda they were trying to market, a soda called Fresca, which we both found interesting but didn't particularly like.

(Fifteen years later, I buy Fresca whenever I can, so that's another thing I could tell younger me: Don't just write this off because it's got grapefruit in it. Give it a shot. I don't think my love of Fresca now is nostalgic. I don't drink it because I like to recall Washington, or because it reminds me of Washington. I drink it because I kind of like the grapefruity taste, liking it in Fresca even though I don't like it in real life, on its own, the way I can like fish when they're sitting in a fish market but not when they're sitting on my plate.)

We saw some of the monuments, and chatted about whatever would have seemed important to us back then, probably a lot of politics, probably most of it very conservative, as Rip was conservative and I was kind of sure I was, too, at the time. That was the day that Al Gore went jogging by us, Rip pointing him out to me and me leaping up to photograph him, Al Gore making only about as much of a stir, drawing as much attention, as Hsing Hsing did; the vast majority of people went on with their business as though the Vice President was nothing more than a slowly-fading panda in a cage, looking at the sky or the grass or the buildings but not at him.

There are ways, I guess, for things to become less important, or to never gain the importance that they seem they should have. If one is surrounded, constantly, by history and news, as you are in Washington, if the things that you see on the news that night are the things you rode the Metro with that morning, if the stuff you read about in class is now hanging on a wall in front of you, it becomes less significant in your mind, it can fade in importance to be jumbled in with all the other memories and slowly but inexorably replaced by other images, other thoughts. Eventually, those memories, so vivid at the time, those experiences, become just a collage, a few moments from a whole day: a fish market, a soda, a Vice President jogging, maybe three minutes out of a day that took hours.

That day, like my visit with Justice Scalia, is preserved in a photograph on my wall, too, a picture taken by someone else at the end of the day. Rip and I stood in front of the U.S. Capitol. Rip is wearing tan shorts, a blue shirt, and sunglasses. He stands like Captain Morgan, hands on his hips and leg to the side. I am taller and stand straighter, legs slightly apart, hands on my waist and elbows out, wearing a pair of purple shorts and a Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt. We look serious, like people in old-fashioned photographs do, and like interns in Washington D.C. probably thought they should look, standing in front of history and surrounded by news: Slightly frowning, brows furrowed, impervious to the effect our comic-strip t-shirts make on the tableau.

Unaware that eventually, this moment will be remembered with the exact degree of detail, and with the same level of importance, as the time we stood in front of a panda cage and wondered what's the big deal?

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