Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Well, I've more or less given up on this blog, haven't I? But don't worry, stranger, it does not mean I have given up on you. Since I am entering another period of life adjustment, surely my encounters with you will be weird and memorable. I look forward to meeting you.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


I would love to post your stories about conversations with strangers. C sent me this fantastic story today:
Can I tell you - while I was walking back from picking up lunch, this Asian fob guy started talking to me? He just started walking next to me and said, "You are so beautiful can I meet you?" He kept saying things like, "My heart jumped when I saw you and how beautiful you are" and "Your grace and elegance make my heart explode." I kept asking him if it was a joke and how much money his friends were paying him to talk to me, and he kept insisting that it wasn't. He kept laughing a little, which made me think it was a joke, but he also seemed very shy so I didn't press. I told him I had a boyfriend. Then he kept walking with me, literally repeating every minute that I was beautiful and saying poetic things about his heart that nobody really says out loud, or ever (very quickly, like muttering them almost), and I asked him what he did for a living and what he was doing around the area, etc. he seemed to answer me quite earnestly. I told him thank you and that it was nice that he came to talk to me, to encourage him. At the end he said, "It makes me so happy to be talking to such a beautiful girl like you." Then I said bye. I still couldn't tell if it was a joke, but either way, it was really amazing having someone (even if that someone was an unattractive fob that may have been playing a joke on you) recite lines about how your beauty makes their heart jump.

The end.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


My travel reroute took me from O'Hare to LaGuardia to Soho, for the fourth sleepover with C in five weeks, to the Chinatown bus to Boston. It was my first time walking through Manhattan at 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday. The 33 year-olds in bubble-hemmed dresses turning their ankles on pitted sidewalks, the erratic taxis, the "Unforgettable Fire"-era U2 tunes from a windowless bistro, all the filth from hours before had been cleared away and only I and the pigeons had the city between Sullivan at Houston and Bowery at Canal. I found a bakery, bought some pineapple buns, and boarded the 7:30 bus to South Station.

I wanted to sleep. Don El Don came through me again, so that my night was spent reading the nonsense sentences that passed in front of my closed eyes - I'll explain my amphetaminic textual vision some other time. Its only relevance here is that it caused me to get no sleep the night before.

I asked the man sitting in the row behind me whether he minded if I reclined my seat. He said, in a northern European accent, No, no, of course, go ahead! I said, Thank you. And then I added, You must not be from New York if you're so polite. Dutch? He laughed and said he was Danish but had lived in New York for seventeen years. I offered him a bun, and we chatted as he tore it to pieces with his fingers and ate it one bite-sized piece at a time.

His name was Klaus, he was in his mid-30s, and he had moved to New York from Denmark - a little tiny town in the north of Denmark where nothing happened. He had worked as an au pair in New York in 1992, and the family he had worked for was wealthy, and they took him along for their summer holidays up and down the west coast. He was young then, and he returned to Denmark to finish his business studies. The education system in Denmark was such that university tuition was not only free but also students got stipends simply for attending, so Klaus did not understand why Danes would stay in crappy jobs when they could educate themselves into better careers and be paid during the process. After graduation, he and his wife schemed ways to move to America, and when two management positions opened for the North American office of European Sperm Bank (that is the name), they took the jobs and moved across the Atlantic. His wife still held the job, which she executed for Seattle from a home office in Park Slope, while Klaus had gone onto a middle management position at an advertising agency.

He had liked working for the sperm bank. You think that the clients are primarily lesbians, but that is not necessarily so, he said. The women who came into the clinic were often emotionally delicate, because only non-traditional situations would lead people to the door. Klaus found it fulfilling to guide people through the process, to help them, to give them what they wanted so badly. He said people sent postcards and photographs of their children, which were kept all around the office.

He was on his way to Boston to pick up a car he had bought, sight unseen, from the Internet. You can save thousands this way, he said. He was buying a Volvo station wagon, for his kids and his bikes. He loved biking. I communicated that I loved biking also, but that my love was born from my commute, not from what I called "bike vanity." He looked puzzled, and I realized that I had made no sense and was being negative to boot. I said, I just mean that I prefer biking for leisure or travel rather than for fitness. He liked biking for fitness, and described to me the pleasure of riding twelve loops of Prospect Park, or about forty miles, two nights before. There were many other riders for pacing or catching, and people and scenery and topography to watch. The convenience of having a forty-mile ride two blocks from the apartment, available any time of day, couldn't be beat. He liked mountain biking also, but needed a car to get out of the city for that, hence the Volvo station wagon.

I sat across two bus seats with my back against the window and talked to him in the row behind me. It was a shame that there isn't a more extensive network of rail so that you could take your bike upstate without having to drive it there, I said. We talked about urban planning and bicycle advocacy, with him generally maintaining a note of optimism about the movement toward bike- and pedestrian-oriented planning and me lamenting the violent zealotry of car drivers and gleefully spelling the doom of the American suburb. Congestion pricing was something we could all agree on.

My eyes could not stay open, so I said, Good night, Klaus, I need to rest now. For the next four hours, through the McDonald's rest stop, I leaned my head against the window, closed my eyes and watched words scroll in front of me, and failed completely in sleep. I opened my eyes next at South Station, to see Klaus extending his hand toward me. We shook hands, and he went off to find his Volvo.


White male, 26-28 years old, 5'11", attorney, Boston University, plaintiff-side class action litigation, in Aquadots case before my judge, going to Boston for bachelor party, had been looking forward to it for months, got bumped off the same flight as me. I made conversation by asking whether he had any more information than me; he didn't. We walked together from Gate B5 to B21 for ten minutes, dodging rolling bags, slicing through queues, waiting when one was behind the other. High spirits, fast walking. I called DR on my cell phone for advice about what to do and Blake half-listened to my end of the conversation, chuckling politely when I made jokes about the weather. Queued together for twenty minutes, commiserating with fellow travelers. A man who had just made it to the front of the queue walked back looking grim. I asked, What are they saying? The man - 6'3" Eastern European in sharp business dress - said, with a gulping accent, "Bullshit." Everybody laughed, everybody suffered the same. No point in getting angry at the weather. Blake and I advanced to the counter and monopolized the smiling attendant for fifteen minutes asking about different permutations of travel options: standby on Flights X and Y; guaranteed seats on Flights A and B but not until Saturday night; refunds; reroutes. I felt lawyerly communion with the lawyer at my side.

The options were not good. Take a risk on waiting for a standby seat for the last flight to Boston before Sunday, with a more than 50% chance of not getting a seat at all, or attempt to fly standby on a flight to New York, which would leave me 210 miles from my destination at 12:30 a.m. Blake desperately wanted to go to Boston for the bachelor party; one could sense it from the way he talked about his job. I said, Come on, just fly to New York. He said, But I don't know anybody there. I said, You don't know anybody there? No. And then, for a brief moment, it seemed the crazy was going to ratchet up to a new level, and I thought about proposing that we share a hotel room that night. We had engaged with each other for half an hour and it got me to almost right amount of friendly, or flirtatious, or slutty. But I guess no, not yet, not enough. I wavered for a few moments, and then decided to run through that lovely colorful neon sound installation to Gate C8 to stand by for the next flight to LaGuardia. Blake was researching Chinatown bus options with his thumbs all over the screen of his smartphone. I shook his hand, said goodbye, and ran away.

Monday, June 22, 2009


There was a light sprinkling of rain and a few bolts of lightning in Chicago on Friday, so all outgoing flights from O'Hare were canceled. Terminals B and C were overflowing with travelers, who waited petulantly in hundred-person lines for hours for refunds or reroutes, sat on the tile near electrical outlets with their laptops burning their crotches, and lay supine on the heating vents with Cubs caps pulled over their eyes. I was trying to get to Boston. My flight was first delayed 45 minutes, then two hours, then three, and we shuttled from one gate to another awaiting, what we discovered later, a fictional flight that was never to take off.

At B5, I dozed and snapped photographs of fellow travelers. It was a rare chance to document so many expressions of unhappiness under one roof. I was at peace because I had a soft serve. I was sitting right next to the people standing in line for the United attendant, so I watched them and listened to their conversations. One man had the face of a 38 year-old but wore screened t-shirts, thick leather bracelets, and dark jeans adorned with decorative flat chains in the style of somebody fifteen years younger, in a nightclub, in Hackensack; he touched himself on the biceps and abdomen and adjusted the cuff of his jeans several times, but the intended audience for his presentation was unclear. One man had a small cell phone device in his ear and looked right at me and shouted directions, which I assumed were not for me. I heard a boy named Terry tell a man named Mario about the missionary work he was planning to do.

Half an hour later, Terry sat down next to me. I asked him whether he was going to Boston like me, but he said he was going to New York. We didn't say anything else for a few minutes, but I looked over and smiled a few times, and eventually I said, I couldn't help but overhear that you were going to do missionary work in New York. What exactly are you doing? and from there, our conversation took off.

Terry was 20 years old and headed for a six-week mission in Brooklyn. He was on summer break from his studies in marketing at a small state college in Michigan. He would be leading a group of fifty teenagers from as far away as Canada in restoration projects on a church on Flatbush Avenue whose motto was "Doing Good in the Hood Since 1654." He wasn't going with his church members; his only partner would be a girl about his age whom he had only met once before, at the previous week's mission orientation. He and his crew would be living in the dormitory connected to the church. He hadn't been to New York, but he was excited to go, and he asked me where he should go and what he should do. I said that he might like the city upon first impression but feelings of love would develop after he exhausted his tourist sites and turned to the people around him. He asked where the restaurant from Seinfeld was, and I gave him precise directions and added my own trivia to his understanding of the storefront, but he didn't appear to care too much about Suzanne Vega. Terry had the letters "WWJD" repeated in scrolling text on a tight blue bracelet around his wrist. He wore a baseball cap and glasses, and was exceedingly polite, without being formal, in the way he addressed me.

He was from Niles, Michigan, a town of 15,000 just north of the Indiana border. He said he was from the "cornfields," and that his college was in a town that was even more full of cornfields. He'd spent the entire day, starting from 8 a.m. shuttling by car and regional jet between his hometown and Grand Rapids and O'Hare, and here he was at 6 p.m. a bit tired from travel but happy to have already met so many interesting people. I liked his attitude, and told him this. I said I liked meeting people, but you don't know whether they want to be meeting you. We agreed it was nice when two people who didn't know each other both wanted to talk. One can get a sense of another's values in the way they talk about even value-neutral subjects, like whether to be irritated by a long day of rain delays, or in the simple fact that they will talk openly with a stranger. Maybe it is foolish or dangerous of me to go on believing in strangers like this, but I trusted Terry immediately.

I suppose Terry was something of a cliche, because he was kind, polite, genuine small-town boy who expressed unpretentious, open-mouthed awe when I told him about the institutions I'd been affiliated with ("Is Harvard really as hard as everyone says it is?") and who spoke of his (paltry) summer salary like it was an unfathomable sum of money. It only made me like him more. He wanted to know more about what I liked about New York. The liveliness, I said. Go to the Mermaid Parade. (He was fascinated.) Go to Central Park on a Saturday. Go to the gay pride parade.

At this, he hesitated. Well, you know, I don't know if I would personally feel comfortable about that because of my religion, he said. I had with purpose instructed him to go to Pride; I am making the slow transition from sustaining conversations with strangers by pretending to be more politically moderate than I am to actually speaking my mind, but doing so without breathing stranger-repellent radical fire; so I felt too a gentle missionary zeal in speaking to my missionary about matters of the spirit.

Terry was hesitant but not insulting, and not even conservative. He spoke about his personal discomfort - "I" statements - not about other people's sins. He was a good boy, a curious boy, a cornfield boy compelled by New York, so even though his brain had been taught to close, his heart was wide open. I am gay, I said, and some parts of the parade make even me feel uncomfortable (I said this with the Log Cabin Republicans in mind), but it's good to go and see that people are people no matter how different their identities might seem from yours. Or something equally platitudinous, and probably less grammatical, came out of my mouth; I was trying so hard. Terry responded immediately by talking about how one of his friends had come out to him but prefaced his remarks by saying that Terry was the last person he had come out to. This remark saddened Terry, because he felt that some "out there" Christians had made it seem like the whole religion was about hating other people. Terry sounded hurt when he said that Christianity was about love. God is love. He said he protested against the conservative protesters at his school, because he didn't like how they made others feel.

We drifted from this topic into the next: cops and lawyers. Everybody considered the cops in his small town corrupt. Terry had been pulled over and given a ticket for having expired car insurance because he had shown the cop two copies of his insurance papers, one of which was older than the more recent set. The cop was corrupt, the magistrate presiding over the case was corrupt, and in the end he felt that he had been roughed up by a bunch of jackasses. There was no justice. Contempt for corrupt authority, God as love, curiosity - my dear, dear boy.

Over the intercom, the kiosk attendant announced, triumphantly, that Seating Area 1 was permitted to board. I shook hands with Terry and left, because it was time for me to fly to Boston. Terry wrote down my email address and we shall see if I ever have occasion to see my dear missionary again. I left it up to him.

Seconds after the attendant made the boarding announcement, she got back on the intercom and said, pausing heavily, "Well...sorry folks, but...it looks like your flight has been canceled." This was uproarious for the crowd, who raged, and also uproarious for me, because I found the comedy utterly delightful. O'Hare and its gentle Christians could not control the 12th largest downpour in Chicago history, and there was nothing to do but laugh and laugh! The delays and detours resulting from this uproarious announcement also gave me the opportunity to have half hour conversations with two additional strangers, Blake and Klaus, which I will document here tomorrow.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


While we were sitting in a sunny park on a perfectly warm day, R explained to me and C how he had chosen the maroon-brown snowboarding pack that he had been toting around for three years. There were certain features and decorative touches that he liked. For example, he used the cell phone pouch on the left shoulder strap for its intended purpose, something I have never seen done.

He also noted that one of the zippers had broken off. Left behind was only an aggravating metal nub which R had to wrap his pincers around to unzip the main compartment of the pack.

I just so happened to have a piece of nylon climbing cord around my wrist that would fit perfectly around the metal nub, giving R a convenient zipper pull. B had had this cord tied around her steering wheel in 2007, and when I asked her then what it was, she said, It is a nylon cord, and gave it to me.

For two years I have been wearing it around my wrist, without ever having occasion to take it off. Why would I? It was simple and unobtrusive and it reminded me of the awesomeness of B. But all good bracelets must come to an end, and here was a chance for the cord to start a new life. However, after two years of wear, some gummy residue had developed around the knots. This residue made it impossible for me to untie the cord. The loop was too small to slip over my hand.

I struggled with it for ten minutes, to no avail. Nearby was a couple enjoying the weather with their infant. I showed them the cord, told them it had been attached to me for two years, then asked if they had scissors or nail clippers. They said, Sorry, no.

Twenty minutes later, a lady with a pair of gardening shears strapped to her waist walked by. I dashed after her, wrist-first, and begged to use her shears. She said, Sure, but I won't cut it for you. Perhaps fearing a lawsuit. I said no problem and cut it myself. I returned triumphantly to R and C on the bench and tied the cord around the zipper nub.

The couple with the infant shouted over to me, "Congratulations on your new life!"

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Olympia got free tickets to a show at the Old Town School of Folk Music last Friday night, so I canceled my plans for the evening to join her. We've been playing some bluegrass/country/folk music together, and I was eager to have the chance to watch some live music of that genre with her. We have similarly analytical and curious approaches to music and performance; we both want to improve ourselves by imitating the successes of others.

Seats were assigned at this venue, an auditorium that was a mix of lecture hall seating (church pews on terraced levels on a ground floor and a mezzanine) and cabaret lounge-style tables and chairs ringing the back rows. Olympia and I were seated at a table at which a man and woman were already sitting.

Since it is awkward to share a table but not conversation with strangers, I introduced myself to both of them, and there were then introductions around the table. The woman's name registered as "Pamela," but I instantly forgot the man's name. They were kind-faced older white people, heavy-bottomed with age but not unhealthy, and unassumingly dressed. The man's silver hair was short in the front but a pulled into ponytail with rubber band in the back. He had an earring shaped like a feather in one ear. They spoke to each other quietly and occasionally. They seemed moderate in every way, and very predictable for a sit down $25-per-head concert at a revered folk music institution. I say this without intending to be snide; folk is folk.

Before the concert started, the four of us chatted briefly. They wanted to know, do we like Cajun and western swing music? Even though I had gone through a zydeco craze in 1995, I threw up my hands and said, I don't know, we got the concert tickets free. Pamela said that western swing was like swing music, except with a country influence.

The lights came down and the musicians began playing. They were introduced by an older staff member as "young faces in Cajun music," but they still looked quite old to me. The youngest member seemed to be in his early thirties, the oldest in his fifties. Their arrangement was two fiddles, a hollow body electric guitar, upright bass, spare drumset; one fiddler and the bassist and guitars also doubled as singers. Their music was mostly uptempo, danceable harmonious country with jazzy walking basslines. There had been a Cajun dancing lesson immediately before the show, and just before the stage was a cleared out area for dancing, so quickly the floor filled with folks trotting around in pairs.

At the intermission, the woman sitting at the table went to fetch a drink. The man spoke to me and Olympia. I take it you guys are musicians? he said. I said, How did you know? I guess Olympia had been talking throughout the first set about the arrangements and the idiosyncratic characteristics of the genre. The man said that he was an art teacher at a local college, and that he sometimes used music to connect his students to the art. He was interested in knowing what Olympia thought of the fiddlers, and Olympia described the process of translating her classical skills on the instrument to the loose improvisation required for folk music. She talked about learning licks from a book.

The man said, There was this classically trained violinist who took his instrument down to Texas. You know, down there they say, it's not a violin, what you have there is called a fiddle!

The woman came back and we all talked about how it would be fun to dance. The man and Olympia were reluctant; the woman and I were eager. After the music started up again, couples again took to the floor to spin, twirl, and step on themselves. I looked at Olympia and suggested we dance. She demurred. The woman looked at the man and suggested they dance. He demurred. The woman and I looked at each other, and I said, Wanna dance? She said, Sure! and we took to the floor.

I cannot dance, let alone Cajun dance. I am not gifted with grace or natural athleticism. What God has given me is a below-average sense of shame. So the woman and I had a great time flouncing about on the dance floor, mimicking the moves of the more skillful dancers, spinning each other. I took the man's position and gripped her waist with my right hand and her hard, dry palm with my left.

We were both somewhat embarrassed (but not enough to stop dancing), and we chatted nervously as we moved about. At this point, there were only a few people on the dance floor and two hundred people outside the fishbowl staring at us. Because the dancers up until that point had been exclusively white male-female couples, I feared gay panic and tried to project with my body language and laughter that Pamela and I were not a May-December heteroracial homosexual pair, but just new friends out for a trot. Pamela corrected me when I addressed her: "I'm Paulina!"

We danced like this for two songs. I tried not to allow her body too close to mine, because I am friendly with strangers but I don't like to allow too much sensation to pass between me and them. Only aural, maybe some visual. Still I could feel her hard hands and smell the bouquet of her mingled, muted floral scents, and it made me the slightest uncomfortable. After two songs, we returned to our tables to fetch our intended dancing partners.

Olympia and I danced for about thirty to forty-five minutes up near the stage, trying to see the action closer. Between our clumsy dance steps, Olympia would periodically announce things like "They are using pedals on the fiddles" and "We need a spare drumset. I should buy a snare drum." It was even more nerve-wracking to be part of a May-May homoracial homosexual pair in a sea of uncomplected couples with mismatching genitalia - but only my own self-consciousness, not anyone else's judgment, made me feel this way. Anyway, by this point there were little girls dancing around in rings and middle-aged women slow dancing and other outlier groupings to make one feel less alien.

When the encore was completed, Olympia and I found Paulina and her man, and we all said, Goodbye, what wonderful table-sharing friends you were! Then Olympia and I found our bikes and rode a bumpy and dark three miles back to Cleaver Street. Last night we composed a mariachi song, but I would not be surprised if we move soon to western swing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

kafka on the shore

I ushered at a performance of Kafka on the Shore, adapted for the stage, at the Steppenwolf Theater. A few years ago, I read and jumbled its plot up in the swampy area of my brain reserved for Haruki Murakami's whimsies, complicated ice cream-based desserts, and early twentieth century Russian music - i.e. the place where nonsense goes to die - so my memory provided no guidance for me as I watched. I'm not sure I got anything out of the play except for a sense of Murakami's weirdness.

I stuffed programs sitting next to a funny young man with an angular face who wore a suit. His name was Patrick. He told me he worked in a spy store. I said, What the hell is a spy store? He said, Think of something a spy would have, and we sell it there. I said, Shoes with daggers that come out of them. He said, Well no, we're a kid-friendly store. Turns out he was talking about the "Boring Store," which is a place about a five-minute walk from my house.

Patrick said he tutored kids in creative writing and was applying to graduate programs in creative writing himself. He also said he moved to Chicago from Indiana to try to be an improv actor. He was not obnoxious like the one other improv actor I have met: that one subletted a room from A and just got stoned and drunk with his 22 year-old friends every night to prepare for "psychadelic improv" and would do things like fall asleep sitting upright on the couch with his mouth wide open, cradling a two-thirds empty jug of generic brand whole milk. In contrast, Patrick was friendly and funny, and he tore tickets while I passed out programs and said, "Watch your step! Enjoy the show." over and over again.

He had funny mannerisms that endeared him to people. I studied them. He said, "Howdy!" really loudly when taking their tickets and gesticulated in slapstick ways (e.g. he flicked the ticket with an exaggerated motion of his index finger when telling patrons where their seats were located) and most people walked away from him with a smile. We sat together during the show, and then I left during the post-show Q&A.

Several months later, I walked into the Boring Store. I heard Patrick's voice (he was helping out a customer) but I did not see him. I turned tail and fled the storefront, because I became suddenly afraid of not having anything to say to him.


While I sat in the park with R and C yesterday, two different dogs approached me. Both fell in love with me. The first was a squat young dachshund who stood off to my left and stared soulfully right into my eyes. We never touched. The second was a white Scottish terrier who clawed up my left leg in an effort to love me. It looked like a polar bear and wriggled. Its owners walked it away from me before I could stuff it into my mouth. Dogs love me.

Then R told a story about a donkey named Rosita that fell in love with him when he worked on a farm one summer. He described her as having a sweet face with long eyelashes and a deep emotional life. Rosita had miscarried years ago but continued to mill around the spot of earth where her fetus was buried. She backed up into R several times, but he would only pat her backside and move out of the way.

These are not exactly stories about conversations with strangers, because animals are too guileless to be strangers, but they belong on this blog because connections with animals are equally, ineffably wonderful.


The ice cream vendor outside the Met sold me a $3 strawberry popsicle that was so hard and so cold that my tongue stuck to it when I tried to eat it. It was like licking a light pole on a winter night in Milwaukee, or so I have read.

It was humid and in the mid-80s in New York, and I wanted to know how my popsicle stayed so cold in the vendor's cart when there didn't seem to be any electric-generated cold air circulating through it.

He opened up his cart and showed me the blocks of ice within. He said, You can touch it. When I reached out to touch it, he said, Oh no, you shouldn't touch it, because it will hurt. It was dry ice sublimating in plumes of white steam against the city heat. It cost $26/pound, and he had to buy almost four pounds each day for his cart.

You have to sell thirty-three popsicles before you even start making a profit? I said. He shrugged. I left and he sold four popsicles to a crowd of panting tourists who had just exited the museum.


The Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Guggenheim, which I saw this weekend, was a chore. I don't thrill at Frank Lloyd Wright to begin with, mostly because his large-scale planning seems so naive and car-centered. Also, pressing your face up to glass boxes displaying drafting paper to discern the faint pencil markings of an architect's drawing is not the best way to experience architecture.

Halfway up the spiral, I wanted to take a break from the hazy palimpsests, so I stopped at the gift shop. Another woman had the same idea as me, so we paused at the entrance while we tried to figure out who would enter the slim doorway first. She was a light-skinned African-American woman in her mid-to-late thirties, and voluptuous in a motherly way. (I had seen her partner and children go into the gift shop already.)

She gestured to indicate that I should proceed. I responded by bowing and sweeping my hand rightward to welcome her in like a maitre'd. There was a pause.

The woman grabbed my left hand marched us in through the doorway together. We then laughed together, uproariously, spontaneously, and were both in the gift shop. I said nothing to her, but smiled and went off. I bought three postcards and left.

At the top of the spiral, I ran into her again. We exchanged a look that said that we had experienced something funny and surprising together. Her partner and kids were looking at a model of the Taliesin West campus; they had no idea. Nobody had any idea.

Then I buzzed down the spiral out the museum and found my friends sitting in the shade outside Central Park, and I never saw that woman again.


On Sunday night, I went out to a bar in Manhattan with a friend. It was Fleet Week, I had been loudly proclaiming my intention to kiss a sailor before the end of the weekend, and there were sailors inside the bar, so the atmosphere felt a little giddy to me. I found a lonely sailor named Carlo. He was stationed on a boat docked on the west side. He was Guatemalan and had family in New York. From him I learned that the all-white uniforms with button-up shirts would be replaced with the navy pants/khaki shirt combo in November, but that the dress uniforms (Sailor Moon outfits with neckerchiefs and the navy blue-outlined cape-collar) would be unchanged. He let me try on his hat.

He bought me a Budweiser. We chatted a bit, danced a bit, and kissed a bit. He had nice muscles, which I gripped with great fervor as we danced. He kept saying that he didn't know how to dance to this kind of music. (It was hipster rock.) I said, Because you prefer Latin dancing? several times, because he couldn't hear me. I could barely hear him.

My friend found the sailor's friend and danced with him. She also scored a few photos with the sailor hat and an indiscreet peck on the lips. Our sailors chatted with other girls, but there was no jealousy or competition because sailors during Fleet Week are the silliest thing to compete for. We urged them to have fun with the rest of the week as they traveled on to the next bar.

My friend and I continued dancing. A girl introduced herself and said that she had gone to our law school but had graduated a year later. She introduced us to the rest of her friends, and we danced near each other, but not together, for a song. Meeting people in a bar makes it less scary and less loud, which I appreciate.

I saw two young hipsters dancing nearby - they were male and female, but they looked queer rather than heterosexual - so I thought I would extend the bonhomie to them as well. I had been mulling over pick-up lines for most of the evening, and I decided to try them out on the young hipsters. I approached the boy first and said, Hey, that's the worst sailor costume I've ever seen! He said, What? because he hadn't heard me.

We were bouncing in synch with the awful music. I said, I said that's the worst sailor costume I've ever seen! He said nothing and his friend interceded. What did you say? she said.

I said, I said, you guys have the worst sailor costumes I've ever seen!

She rolled her eyes in disgust and yelled, We're not sailors!

And then they moved away from me on the dance floor.

I probably should have said best, not worst, sailor costumes. But who takes such an obvious extension of friendliness as mine literally?

I hate them.

Monday, May 18, 2009

six points

I biked to an outdoor festival yesterday but was surprised by the $5 entry fee. I refused to pay. There was no sense in paying to stand under a tent with fratty northsiders when the sun was shining, so instead I unlocked my bike and headed up Lincoln. I wanted to ogle the vintage Telecasters at the Chicago Music Exchange, but my day had started late and the store was already closed by the time I got there.

Having been thwarted twice, I had nothing left to do but meander over to the Lakefront Path via Lincoln Park sidestreets. Chicago is laid out in a sensible, logical grid. The streets are evenly spaced: eight blocks is one mile. Every fourth street is a major street (for commerce/traffic), and all the streets in between are smaller and more suitable for residences. The blocks are large enough that their perimeters can be lined with homes and they can be bisected by back alleys for access to the garages behind the living spaces. As a bike commuter and car-disliker, I don't like how car-centered this allows Chicago to be, but it must be convenient for those who drive.

The north-south streets intersect with east-west streets at perfect ninety degree angles, creating a grid for easy navigation: State and Madison Streets form the 0 N/S 0 E/W intersection, so if I told native Chicagoan I lived at 1200 north and 1600 west, he would know that I lived at the intersection of Division Street (1200N, twelve blocks north of Madison) and Ashland Avenue (1600W, sixteen blocks east of State). This makes it extremely easy to know where you are and to gauge travel distances.

In addition to the north-south and east-west streets, there are a few streets that run diagonal to the grid, including Milwaukee, Elston, Lincoln, Clybourn, etc. These streets are also sensible because (1) it's faster to travel on the hypotenuse of a triangle than on its two legs, and (2) diagonal streets intersect with the north-south/east-west streets to form six-point intersections around which commerce and public transportation can cluster. The Damen-North-Milwaukee intersection near my house is one such example. Traffic around it slows to crawl, but that has created the conditions for a dense and lively constellation of bars, restaurants, bookstores, and boutiques. I missed out on the gentrification of Wicker Park, so I have no nostaglia for the grimy past nor resentment of the shiny present; I am just happy to be able to walk to two nice independent bookstores (Myopic and Quimby's) and two of my favorite music venues (The Double Door and Subterranean) in fifteen minutes.

These six-point intersections can also be nightmarish to cross, however. Because of the way the lights are timed, a pedestrian might have to wait for three sets of traffic lights to rotate through their full cycles before crossing over to the other side of the street. It's dangerous for bikers, walkers, and drivers.

Yesterday I found myself at the intersection of Belmont (E/W), Ashland (N/S), and Lincoln (diagonal) trying to figure out which way to head to the lake. Though it was sunny, the air that blew through the loose neck of my t-shirt felt cold and windy. An Asian man pulled up on a bicycle next to mine and said, Boy, I never know where to go at this intersection! I responded, It's my first time at this intersection! He said, Which one is Belmont? And I said, I don't know for sure, but probably that one running slight left up there.

The light changed, and we rolled across one street and stopped at the next light, waiting for that one to change. The man on the bicycle said again, Jeez, this intersection is always like this, isn't it? I said, I don't really know, it's my first time here!

Then the light changed again and we rolled to the third traffic light. This time I was in front of him on my bicycle. I heard him saying something behind me. I said, What? He said, I said, you look like my cousin's friend, but not really, but from a distance I thought you might be my cousin's friend. I said, Oh, ha ha. He asked me again where Belmont was, and I pointed at the street I had gestured at earlier. He took Belmont east and I took Lincoln southeast. Have a good weekend! he shouted at the back of my head. You too! I shouted back as I churned my legs toward the lake.

Writing this down has made me think of a joke I read in a book of noir stories set in Chicago. (An awful book, try not to buy it. I will send you my copy if you want.) The joke goes Q: What are the streets in Chicago that rhyme with "vagina"? A: Paulina, Melvina, and Lunt.

What I like about this joke isn't the crass punchline, but the fact that in Chicago, "Paulina" is pronounced "Paul-EYE-na." Now that's a riot!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Out of habit, I thanked my cab driver after I gave him directions. The plexiglass divider between the driver's seat and the back seats was pulled shut. He said something that came out muffled. I said, What? He said it again, again muffled. I said, What? He repeated it a third time. I still did not hear him. I said, What?

He pulled open the divider as he drove and shouted, I said you're welcome! Then he shut the divider again. I said, Oh, and buckled my seatbelt. 

We drove the eight miles between Midway and my apartment in silence. I turned off the video feed on the screen embedded in the divider, but the screen saver still cast an unpleasant light into my eyes. 

Three blocks from my apartment, I said, My house isn't all the way to Division and Ashland, it's two blocks before.

He opened the divider and said, Your house? Did you build this yourself? I said, No, I meant my apartment. I sometimes say house.  He said, Are you rich or something? Are you a rich girl?  I think he was trying to make his tone bantery, but instead he just sounded accusative. I said, No, I am not rich, I am sharing a rental apartment with another person.  

Why don't you have a house? he said. I said, Because I am not rich, and it is not my goal to be rich. He huffed.

The tab was $24.85. I gave him thirty dollars. Five dollars is a standard tip for a ride from the airport. As I exited the cab, he said, Good night, rich woman.  He was practically spitting. I walked in a hurry the half block to my house.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

dog shit

The Bloomingdale Trail is a defunct elevated train track that the city of Chicago has attempted (but thus far failed) to convert into a linear park space.  Its eastern terminal is a short walk from my house. Because it is not yet a park, there are no legal or structured access points to the trail. Once I climbed a wall, Prince of Persia-style, to an embankment that led up to the trail. There is also a hole clipped into the cyclone fencing around the interstate through which the trail is accessible.  Recently I noticed that somebody had built a rickety ladder with plywood so that it was no longer necessary to scale the wall at Paulina. On one of the steps of the ladder, somebody had written: "Please don't remove this! We built it so that the trail could be a public space!" I don't expect it to last long, because it looks like a tort in waiting. Past Leavitt, there is a much easier walk-up access point. 

The rail ties are rusted and overgrown with weeds and there is broken glass littering the entire three-mile length of abandoned track. People seem to enjoy drinking beer up on the trail and also leaving their beer cans behind. On the trail I have found a pair of leather child's shoes, the clip of a clipboard, rail spikes, interesting graffiti, and a parakeet's nest under the Blue Line, which is elevated above the defunct elevated line. The parakeets were green and looked like aliens. Apparently a pet store had released a bunch years ago, and they found happy homes in Hyde Park and Bucktown. 

Today I went up on the trail with a camp chair with the intention of writing letters to some friends. Near Winchester, I came across a couple with two roaming mutts playing on the tracks. The dogs were unleased, but they were friendly, and they trotted around me. The owners were inattentive.

One of the dogs dashed off to the side of the track and hunched over to evacuate its bowels. The male owner looked back, and then quickly looked away. I was walking behind him, and I said, in a polite, but firm voice, "Hey, your dog is pooping. Do you need a plastic bag?" The obvious message of this question was not that I was offering a plastic bag, but that I disapproved of dog shit littering the trail, and I wanted him to pick up his dog's shit.

The beaming idiot smiled back at me and said, "Oh no, we just let our dogs poop on the trail! It's biodegradable!" 

I was so startled by this response - cheerful idiocy - that I just shook my head and kept walking. After I got past the owners, I formulated several responses, any one of which would have sufficed to voice my disapproval more firmly. "Yes, but you also enjoy walking on a dog shit-free trail," or "Please pick up your dog shit" or "You smug, irresponsible twat." But it was too late, and I had walked on, and I only had my bitterness to console me. I walked until they were out of sight, and it was almost sunset, and found a quiet, dog shit-free place to compose my letters.

Two weeks ago, a hipster couple was walking a potato-sized chihuahua down Cleaver Street as I sat outside on my stoop drinking my Saturday morning cup of tea. These owners were also inattentive. The dog was so light that the owners didn't notice, as they kept walking, that the dog was crouched in its shitting position and digging its nails into the concrete to resist being dragged forward. It laid a little brown turd directly in front of my stoop, and then a few more aftershocks as the owner's dragged it on. I said, loudly, "Hey, aren't you going to pick up your dog's shit?" because it's really not preferable to leave your dog shit in front of somebody's stoop as she sits there drinking tea. The male hipster, in his purple frock and sideways cascade of hair, said, "Oh, I guess, yeah." He looked dumbfounded for a moment, then found some waterlogged junk mail in the gutter, and scooped up his dog's tootsie rolls and walked down the block looking for a trash can. I really enjoyed watching this as I drank my tea. 

I was not as successful with my badgering today, and just ended up feeling angry.


On a midday midweek flight from Chicago to San Jose, I took a window seat and a young South Asian man took the center seat next to mine.  I only glanced at him when he sat down, and saw only enough to stereotype him as a first generation immigrant, probably an engineer at a microchip company in the South Bay, probably with excellent Anglo-Indian-accented English, probably not married. These were the things I could tell from his flight destination, his modest physique, his moustache, his clean generic polo shirt, and the way he smiled politely at me when we happened to look at each other.

I slept fitfully for the first half of the flight. I had two pairs of rolled-up shorts stuffed under my jaw to keep my head from lolling around. Occasionally my elbow jabbed his on the armrest, and I apologized. Each time he smiled politely and said, Oh no.  

We were served seltzers and Coke somewhere over the Rockies.  After the drinks were cleared, the man pulled out a laptop computer. I looked over at him and gestured at the two half-opened windowshades to my left. Sunlight came streaming through them onto our tray tables. Would you like them to be up, or down? Because of the laptop? I said. The man smiled and said, Oh no, whatever you'd like. I said, Whatever is best for you, it makes no difference to me. He continued smiling but expressing no real preference, so I said, Let's just leave them halfway up and down. The man slowly played chess against the computer and won. 

An hour or so later, I began reading a stack of briefs on a copyright case. The issue was whether a federal court has jurisdiction to hear a state legal malpractice claim where the underlying event was the attorney's failure to file a federal copyright claim before the statute of limitations expired - the merits of the unlitigated copyright claim would have to be explored by whatever court ultimately heard the malpractice claim. It was extremely tedious and I took notes in the margins to keep myself awake. 

The man kept glancing at my papers in a way that suggested he was not only interested in what I was doing but searching for an entry point for conversation.  Finally, he said, Are you a law student? I said, Oh, I am a lawyer. He said, But you look so young! I said, Well, I did just graduate from law school last year. But twenty-eight is not really so young. 

I said, And you, what do you do? He confirmed that he was an electrical engineer in a South Bay microchip company, and that he lived in Santa Clara. I asked him where he was from, even though sometimes that question can be tricky, and I hoped I would not offend him. He said, India. I said, Where in India? He said, Hm, well, it's in the Bombay region. I said I had lived in India for a few months, so he said, more specifically, that he was from Andhra Pradesh. I said one of my best friends was a second-generation Indian-American from Andhra Pradesh. I couldn't remember if R's parents were actually from there, but I wanted to make my new friend feel comfortable. I may have just sounded patronizing, but it's hard to know whether first-generation immigrants feel as irritated by the well-meaning conversationalist's hunt for thin geographical connections as their second-generation children do. He asked if I was from China, and I said no, my parents were from Taiwan.

My neighbor wanted to know about the time I had spent in India, so I told him I had lived in Delhi for two months but had taken a 40-hour train trip from Delhi to Chennai to visit a dear Tamil-American friend, with whom I then traveled to Kerala. He asked if I had seen the statue of Thiruvalluvar in Kanyakumari, and I said that the tip of the subcontinent was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. He seemed very proud when I said this.

He was not coming from Chicago, but from Florida. There had merely been a layover at Midway Airport, so he couldn't say whether he liked Chicago or not. He had just finished a brief tour of East Coast destinations with his parents, who were visiting from Hyderabad. They had gone to Niagara Falls and then to Florida, where he had cousins. His parents remained with the cousins to enjoy the beach a few more days, but he had to return to San Jose to get back to work. Work was project-based and usually 9-5, but this week he had to put in a few more hours. 

I offered my name and then asked his. He paused, then said, Kalyan. I teased him: did you forget? No, no, he said. But many Americans seem to have a hard time with my name. Did I say it correctly, I asked. Yes, you said it just fine, he replied. Then many Americans should just try harder, I said. 

Kalyan had studied for a two-year master's degree at Arizona State University. He said, in response to my question, that it was a party school, but the electrical engineering program was quite good and was ranked among the top thirty in the nation at the time he applied. I didn't realize until much later that my asking whether it was a party culture suggested to him that I didn't value his degree highly, so that he felt compelled to defend it by stating its ranking. But his tone did not betray any impatience or insecurity, just patient explanation. We exchanged pleasantries about the weather in Phoenix. I told him that my dad had come over to study for a electrical engineering master's at an American university also. 

He said that if he were to be laid off from his job, he would have only ten days to find a new job before his H1B visa expired. I hadn't realized the window of opportunity was so slim, and I told Kalyan that the government should be doing all it could to recruit and retain educated professionals like him, and that a 10-day window was senseless. He concurred. I told him that 65% of my dad's company had been laid off and that he was worried about the same. I couldn't tell if all of my signaling to him that I was sympathetic to him, his life path, and his immigration status made him feel any more comfortable with me, but I was trying.

The captain came over the intercom to tell us that we were about to descend into the South Bay. Kalyan and I did not speak much more after this announcement. He gathered up his belongings and I looked out the half-opened windows, giddy in anticipation of the fine weather and family time. After we had landed, as we stood side by side in the aisle waiting to deplane, he turned, smiled and said, It was nice to meet you. I said the same, and smiled.  

We walked off the plane together, and then I walked fifteen feet behind him until I grew tired of my snail's pace, and then I darted ahead and speedwalked past baggage claim to the ground transportation curbside.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


I told the woman who rang up my tea this morning that she had nice nails. I noticed them when she handed me the change. They were deep blue. I said, Nice nails! She said, Oh thank you!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


As often happens, somebody decided he wanted to talk me tonight, which I didn't mind. That's one nice thing about being more or less single, not minding when people want to chat. I squeezed onto a barstool between him and an old man at this little bar, and settled in to watch the band. When I sat down, I caught his eye and said hi. This sort of greeting is something I do quite regularly now that the economy is so bad that it makes me think that natural disasters or terrorists with Kalashnikovs or roof collapses could happen at any time, and it's always better to acknowledge strangers so they feel less inclined to trample you when it comes time to rush for the inward-opening exits.

He was wearing a single earring in his left ear that was five pieces of chain maille linked together. It was also our entry point for conversation. He offered me a beer, I politely declined, then I asked him if his earring was chain maille. He didn't seem to understand that I was testing for the medievalist geek connection - I did after all spend an afternoon last week browsing websites for war hammers; I am in the market - and instead said he'd had the links in his ear for twenty years. It still didn't give me a clue to his age, since his face was youngish and bright and he wore a black cowboy hat that hid all (if any) evidence of hair loss. He said he owned the photography studio that did all of Crate and Barrel's catalogue photography, and I made some stupid crack about coffee press glamour shots that was mercifully swallowed up into crowd noise.

We got started talking about bikes and you know where that always leads, for me at least. He had recently purchased a low racer recumbent and a three-speed English cruiser from the estate of an Internet bike personality whose website I've often visited. So I listened to this man explain the mechanics of an internal gear hub in that patient and patronizing way that men talk to women whose brains they don't want to hurt. It wasn't offensive; it was just interesting to observe from a half Corona hazy distance this thing called masculinity. It also wasn't entirely undeserved since I made some stupid comments about post-and-beam construction and then referred to sprockets as "thingies." I liked him, anyway.

My favorite story of his involved his job long ago as the caller for pig races at county fairs. He said that he had traveled around with this county fair and taken care of the pigs. One day one of the pigs got sick because it had eaten up a bunch of woodchips with its slop. The pig got bloated and cried, and was obviously in pain. The only way to help the pig was to (he said this euphemistically) reach into its lower intestine and pull the woodchips out. So he did. And then, "because like dogs and people, pigs die alone when they're sick," he slept in the shed with the pig for three nights. After that, the pig followed him everywhere, like a dog. Once it sat in his lap as he sang karaoke. At the end of the job, he left the county fair. The pig was transformed into bacon.

We got to that slushy point where you lay your hand on someone's arm to emphasize what you're saying but you're not really doing that because what you're saying needs to be emphasized. I decided to leave because I was not prepared to explain to the man at the bar why I was not willing to get beyond that point. About 3% of the conversation had involved me talking about myself, mostly about my occupation, so it wasn't as if I was ready to discourse about my recent aversion to pussy/interest in only Germans/accumulation of emotional impedimenta and my long-abiding paranoia about the oral transmission of herpes. These things, suitors, are the dragons you slay en route to your broad-shouldered princess. Nor was I prepared to explain in Denglish to a Bavarian man what "It didn't mean anything" meant.

So I drained the lime pulp from my Corona and left before the second set. I said, "It was nice to meet you but I am turning into a pumpkin" and a left with the vague promise of taking him up on a $5 bet to ride his low racer recumbent. He was disappointed that I didn't stay longer, and then he gave me a powerful hug that reminded me of when I was on the boy's wrestling team in high school and accidentally matched with the 265-pound sophomore who bent my elbows in the wrong direction and compressed me like a panini into the Ensolite. He is on Facebook, so maybe he'll join the other 343 people whom I barely know but whose profiles I can view.


The bubbly woman from the mail room has changed her hairstyle three times, and each has been genuinely cuter than the last, so I give her a you-go-girl kind of comment when she comes in. This comes out of my mouth like marbles because my natural affect is sarcastic baritone, but I am trying, you know. I bought forty lollipops from the intern (whose school is trying to raise money one $.50 lollipop at a time for the $8,000 shortfall in their prom budget!) and have been pushing them on everybody who comes into the office. Just now, the mail room woman walked out with the whole sack of them, saying she'd distribute them to the mail room workers. Cavities for everyone in the Dirksen Building! Perhaps I will buy another forty lollipops because people seem to like you more when you push free lollipops upon them.


I forgot the UPS guy's name but he is very friendly to me and has a repaired cleft palate and has told me how much he loves fishing in Minnesota. Yesterday he came in in shorts, and I said, Whoa, shorts! He said, Yeah, it's hot outside! I said, Summertime!