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 20; click here for a table of contents.
The title tells you what's going to happen in this installment, right?
I was sitting here, this morning, trying to think what else I could say about my time in Washington, a time that I thought was going to have been so inspiring in my life, so important, so integral, so other-words-that-start-with-i, that I kept a journal (not a diary) of it, writing down all my thoughts and experiences.
A time that, as it turned out, was so unimportant that the journal sat in storage for years before being thrown out, a time that now, when I think about it 15 years later, I am hard-pressed to remember what it was that I remembered in the first place. Twenty installments into this, and I had to spend about 10 minutes searching through my own prior entries to try to remember what it was I haven't yet written about.
And yet, I can't shake the feeling that Washington was important, even if it was not important in the way that I thought it would be. I thought it would be important because I'd go there and get a great internship and meet famous, important, powerful people, and I would impress them with my acumen and gumption and would begin my inevitable rise to power and fame and, yeah, riches, too.
That did not happen.
Also, I'm not sure I have gumption, a word I like to use but which I'm not entirely sure I use correctly.
What happened instead in Washington was that none of that happened, and yet I ascribe an almost mystical significance in my mind to that year (which wasn't even a year but was only about four months), and the fact that I ascribe that significance to my time in Washington serves, in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way, as evidence of the significance of that time in Washington. My thinking is something like this: I believe that something significant happened, so something significant must have happened, or else I wouldn't believe that.
That belief, that something significant must have happened to me in Washington or I wouldn't believe that something significant happened to me, is perhaps the only lasting result of my time in D.C., the only thing I carried with me as I got on the train back home at the end of my time there.
Okay, not the only thing I carried with me, because I was not only bringing home all the stuff I'd taken there in the first place, including my stereo (why did I bring that, anyway?) but also some other stuff that I'd bought there, like the t-shirts that you can buy 4 or 5 for $10 at the stands on the streets. They're not very good t-shirts, but they are cheap t-shirts, so I got a bunch of them to bring home to people as souvenirs. Those t-shirts didn't last that long, possibly disintegrating in the wash before I left on the next leg of my journey, a week or so after I got home. The belief that something significant had happened lasted a lot longer, continuing even as I type this; even now, I believe that something happened to me while I lived in D.C? But what? What was it? What significance resulted from my time there?
I did not quit smoking while I lived in D.C. I didn't even, ultimately, seriously try to quit smoking. Instead, I tried to try, and didn't even try very hard, at that.
I didn't keep in touch with anyone I met in D.C., not Rip or Dave or Frank or Carlos or Justice Scalia. Even as I rode the train home with Carlos, the guy from a 'Guay,' I knew I wouldn't be seeing him again. We talked (as much as I was willing to talk instead of listening to my Walkman and reading) a bit, and talked especially about how Carlos and I and Rip would get together in the near future, maybe in New Hampshire where we could see where Rip lived and meet Drago, and maybe even in whatever 'Guay Carlos was from, since I was going to be a world traveler and live an exotic life, and I doubted, in my mind, even then, that I would go through with any of those plans. Not because I didn't want to live an exotic life and see the world, but because I already knew, about myself, that I shed off people very easily, that I could let them go and not look back and didn't carry friends from one walk of life to the next much, if ever. Carlos and Rip and Justice Scalia and Frank and Dave were already part of my past, my legendary past (as it would, I was certain, be referred to some day) but my past nevertheless, and they would remain there the way almost everyone remains in my past.
My life is not a roller-coaster ride, circling around to the station again and letting people hop off and then come back to get on a little later. My life is a one-way trip, and if you get off at a station, you're likely not to get back on in the future -- unless you skip ahead and meet me at a destination as yet unknown to me. I knew that in 1994, and I know it now, and I'm just saying it as a warning to the people who know me now (and to those who will know me in the future, people who will likely not know the people who know me now or knew them then): Stick with me or you're left behind.
I made half-hearted efforts to keep in touch, here and there. I sent a Christmas card, once, to the Pinkerton people, doing so my first year of law school (which would have been about 1 1/2 years after I left them.) I updated them on how I'd been doing and I think I talked to Frank on the phone -- I have a memory of that, but maybe it's one I invented because I can't think of how we would have gotten in touch on the phone. I certainly wouldn't have called him, because that would run contrary to two primal impulses of mine: hatred of the phone, and loathing of getting in touch with people from my past.
I also talked to Rip, off and on, for a couple of years, talks that were entirely prompted by Rip keeping in touch with me. Rip had a knack for getting my new phone numbers and looking me up and otherwise tracking me down, and sometimes I'd accidentally pick up the phone when he called (this was before Caller ID and cell phones made it possible to never take a phone call that was unwanted) and sometimes I'd just feel nostalgic and want to talk a bit, the way sometimes I page through my old comic book collection or pull out a Calvin & Hobbes treasury. Mostly, though, I took his phone calls to stop his phone calls: Rip called and called and called and would only stop when I actually talked to him, so I would break down and talk to him for a while, getting 'caught up' and talking politics and vaguely discussing possible plans for us all to meet at Slippery Rock College where Carlos was still going, and then hanging up and not writing down his number and not remembering even what plans we'd decided to make.
By then, though, I was in law school and was already on to a new phase of my life, a phase that involved fewer ideas of world travel and politics and more ideas like How can I possibly live on a $20 per week grocery budget (my actual budget) and How can I possibly read 300 pages per class per week (my actual assignments) and more plans like "going on to become a prosecutor and working in a district attorney's office" and "running for state assembly."
(Note: I never actually did any of those things, but once I did file papers to run for Assembly, only then I couldn't find a campaign manager and gave up on it.)
Before that, though, I knew I wouldn't keep in touch with people I met in Washington. I didn't know why I wouldn't, then, but I knew that I wouldn't. I think now that I know why, in part, I don't keep in touch with people from different facets of my life.
Part of the reason, one I've mentioned before, is that people who knew you back in the past knew a different version of you, and often times that version is one that you no longer want to be (or didn't then want to be, either.) That version is the version of you that did things that you don't want remembered, the embarrassing things you did as a teen or kid or young adult or 30-year-old who got a little too drunk at a party, and that version of you is the one that people will remember and bring up when they run into you. I guarantee that if I meet someone I knew when I was 24, they will remember not the many cool things I did when I was 24, but will remember something terrible or humiliating I did when I was 24. I have never run into someone from my past who said something like "Hey, remember that time we were in class together and you gave that one answer that was totally brilliant, just blew the teacher out of the water, and proved you were a genius?" No, they always say something like "Remember the time you go so drunk when you were 17 that you ended up passing out in your closet and vomiting for three hours into a shoebox?"
But in a more-encompassing view than that, it's not just that the people from your (or at least, my) past remember embarrassing things about you (or me), it's that they don't fit into your life anymore.
The people you know at any given time, the people you choose to associate with at any given time, are in your life through a somewhat-bizarre mix of your choices and dumb luck, and when those choices, or your luck, changes, those people likely won't fit your life anymore.
Take the people you know at work. You probably, if you work, have some people that you like at work, people you enjoy talking to, people you get along with well. You chat over coffee, you talk about football games, you discuss the business and the news of the world that affects your business. You talk about the kids that are pictured in the photos on your desk, the art on your walls, the fish tanks in someone's office... and that's it.
Those people seem like your friends, your associates, your pals, but take them outside of the business context and it will become only too apparent that they're not. They're work friends who can only really be your friends at work. I've had people from work out to social events, birthday parties for the kids and a housewarming party, and it's always an awkward mix; I never know what to talk to them about and feel a little out-of-sorts at seeing my boss walk through my house, commenting on how nice my TV is (while missing how we could really use some new wallpaper, something I then have to wonder whether I should point out, because I'm worried that at my next review, I'll hear We don't need to give you a raise, not with that nice TV you've got).
Removed from their work context, the Work Friends don't fit in, and I am always ill at ease when I see work friends talking with, say, my dad or my brother.
Add to that the element of time passing, and the dissonance becomes even greater: People I worked with for a while who now exist only in my past, who knew me as an intern at a Risk Assessment Company but who did not know me as a law student, or as a lawyer, have little in common with me as I exist now, and it never seems to work when I get together with them or try to get caught up with them. They know Past Me, and Past Me doesn't exist anymore; and I know Past Them, not Present Them, but it's Present Them who is sitting in my living room or talking to me on the phone.
That's how it was when Rip would call. As interns, and roommates, we'd shared geographical proximity and a love of Washington D.C. and politics, in general. Once we left Washington D.C., though, we lost some of that element: we were no longer interns in a city filled with interns. We were no longer geographically connected. While we still both loved Washington D.C., and politics, we loved the Washington D.C. that for us, now, existed in the past, too, a hazy D.C. filled with cherry blossoms and trips to a bar to watch the Superbowl and a day spent walking around the National Mall, but a D.C. that wasn't around anymore.
It wasn't enough to keep us in touch, and I knew it, and I never really regretted not making a bigger effort to keep in touch with people I met in D.C., because I knew it wouldn't matter. I wasn't interested enough to keep in touch, and my life probably wouldn't let me keep in touch, or would give me an excuse for not keeping in touch, which was the same thing, so far as I was concerned.
By the time Carlos got off the train in Pennsylvania, leaving me the bulk of the ride home to listen to music, sit by myself, write in my journal and read, I'd already let go of all but the most important impressions of Washington D.C. -- those 'most important' impressions being, now, the vaguely-recalled hodgepodge of memories jumbled together in my mind, the barely-remembered Hope Diamond crossing with the way the cherry blossoms looked on the Potomac, the many views of the Washington Monument combined with the almost-known layout of Washington D.C., the impressions of the long escalators lodged firmly in my mind next to the knowledge that the city was laid out by an architect named L'enfant, a piece of knowledge I stored in part because I like the Vangelis song L'Enfant, a song, in fact, that I would listen to over and over on tape in Washington, and a song I would go jogging to more and more in Washington.
It's a song that had seemed, when I left for Washington D.C., when I first listened to it while sitting, cold and alone and nervous and excited, in Chicago's train station, to have embodied adventure and excitement and exotic places. It's rising, driving insistence, the electronica that swooshed and urged, seemed to me to be foreshadowing a thrilling new world, the world I was certain that I'd find in D.C.
The world I hadn't found: Instead, I'd found a world filled with dreary office work that I tried to get out of, with politicians who were smaller and sadder than I'd imagined them to be, with justices who were shorter than I thought they should be and who told me that the most important thing in their lives was the loss of a bailiff. The D.C. I arrived in sent me to an office building in Virginia, so I didn't even work in D.C., and the D.C. I'd imagined would run by me like a vice president out for a jog -- something that was possible because I wasn't really paying attention to it, anyway, as I was too busy going around trying to see sights and meet people and impose my views of what life should be onto what life actually was. While I worked to lose 10 pounds to prove a point, and to quit smoking without actually quitting smoking -- things I worked at while not actually working at the things I was supposed to be doing -- and while I walked and rode around the city trying to see it all (while not actually seeing any of it, really), while I did those things, Washington D.C. had already begun receding in my mind, and I'd already begun pulling back from Washington D.C., letting it go on with its life while I went on with mine, keeping it around only enough to be handy, the way I did with girlfriends and friends and business acquaintances. I treated D.C. like I treated everything else in my life: I built it up in my mind, first, sitting there in the train station listening to L'enfant, and then, when it wasn't exactly what I wanted, I decided to make the best of it while also moving on almost immediately and beginning the next phase of my life.
That's what I did with the apartment I rented after moving out from my parents' house. That's what I did with the two-year college I attended for a while before going to UW-Milwaukee and then law school. That's what I did with each of the girlfriends I met before I met the only woman I ever wanted to marry. And that's what I've done with each and every person I've met (other than Sweetie) and each and every job I've ever had: I've decided Oh well, make the best of this until the next part gets here, and then I've done that.
So when Washington turned out not to be "Washington," I made the best of it: I met the son of the Shah of Iran. I rode the Metro each day and bought my bran muffin and diet cokes and ate them for breakfast while I read the Washington Post. I toured embassies and shook hands with a Supreme Court Justice. I went for beers with my fellow interns and saw where George Washington went to church. I toured the White House and watched carefully as I did so to see if I could spot the president (I didn't). I wrote letters home and called my family and translated some stuff and wrote a couple of papers and smoked cigarettes and went to Gettysburg and ate sushi.
And through it all, I'd put on my headphones, and I'd listen to "L'enfant," and I'd remember, too, that the next step was Morocco, was a different continent, across the ocean, full of strange and fascinating things that I could scarcely contemplate, but I did, anyway.
So after Carlos got off the train, in Pennsylvania, I put on my headphones again, and I put on the song L'Enfant, and I imagined what would come next: Morocco. I listened to the song play, and I imagined Africa: mountains and jungles and rivers and excitement. I imagined a wide-open sky of shooting stars, and me under it, barefoot, lean and tan. I imagined me watching the sky and listening to that song and being further away from home, even, than I'd ever been, and I imagined that the next part of my adventure would be significant, would be exciting, and would have a lasting impact.
I was right, I think, about most of what I imagined, was to come. I was totally wrong about the details, as the details would involve sheeps' eyeballs and a gun pointed at me and a lot more stomach illness than I would like to remember, and also a lot of confusion. But I was right about the overall impact, maybe.
Then again, maybe not, since that's what I'd originally thought about Washington, too.
next: Morocco! (Almost.)