Monday, November 28, 2005

Like Berlin, Except in English

Going down the elevator from my 14th floor office – a depressing affair, since I was the last environmental reporter to go home and I passed no one I knew on the way out – I had a funny feeling that something was going to go wrong. Sure enough, I arrived at the lobby to find that janitorial services, whoever they are, lock the doors not only to keep people out in the evening, they lock them to keep people in. Because it was my first day and I didn’t have a key, I stood there impotently rattling the bars of my cage. There are three sets of doors that separate the elevator area from the main entrance hall, and they all wobble and stick fast just the same after Willy – I imagine the man with the keys is named Willy – decides to call it a day. A gentleman in a military uniform happened to be passing outside my gilded truffle of a prison and gave the doors a few good-natured tugs, both of us knowing full well that I was going to die in there. I don’t know where he was going – in the “main area” on the ground floor of the office building, there are a few places to get food, coffee, a shoe shine or a haircut, but not at 6:55 in the p.m. He peered into a phone that connected our two little biodomes and for some reason the door unlocked at my pull. I asked him what he had done. “Hell if I know,” he shrugged, which in military lingo is the same thing as an invitation to please not talk about it.

I had acquired directions to the nearest Verizon store, still in need of a cell phone. It was supposed to be in a Circuit City at Army Navy St. and South Hayes, and luckily there’s a bus stop nearby, so with darkness upon me I waited for the 10A – at a stop right next to the freeway, I might add, where a fire truck made a great hue and cry trying to get off the exit ramp – to take me toward the shopping mall they call Pentagon Centre, the landmark bus stop in the area. After getting off the bus the biggest thing in sight was a Macy’s, so I went in to ask for directions. “Circuit City, madame? 1100 S. Hayes? You see I have the address here in my notebook.” And she replied: “Mina, we got a Circuit City around here?”

“Girl, my sense of direction is off. I’m not gonna open my mouth, or I don’t know where you’ll end up.”

“I think it must be that way” [gesturing] “because on the other side of the interstate there’s nothing there.”

So I went that way for a few blocks, following a long line of brightly lit outlet stores across the street but no Circuit City. A Russian woman asked me the time, and I put on my best Washington air and informed her I was not wearing a watch (as I’m also not doing now). She said she had missed her shuttle and I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. I found a parking attendant sitting in a hut at a pay lot and asked him about the address. He was, to put it mildly, not from around here, and he directed me to a street with a name between Pattycake and Panic Attack – I couldn’t say which, and neither exist – with a vague gesture in the direction I had just come from. So I went back, weary, and almost decided to call it off when I saw a Borders advertised above a shop window and decided to ask for better help. Without getting too far into it, the Pentagon Centre was designed by people made of stupid. There is no apparent point of ingress. One is expected to knock out a wall to reach one’s destination. Through cunning, I eventually found a better way in and asked a cashier where I could please get to the Circuit City, whereupon he guffawed and said “Yeah, in the mall across the street. You can go underground and come up right inside.” You see, there’s mall on both sides of the street. I was in the Pentagon Centre. I crossed to Pentagon City. Pentagon City is bigger. In order to transition I walked through the underground Metro stop that connects the two, wading through a cacophonous riot of strangers, and that whiff of ‘subway’ hit me like a ton of bricks, bringing back memories of Germany and how one can never get around without mastering the public transportation system. This one even smelled like Berlin for some reason.

More to the point, the Macy’s people failed to inform me that the Circuit City Express was not only in their mall, it was five storefronts down.

In their defense, I ended up not buying my phone from that famed electronics merchant. There’s also a Verizon store in the mall, which neither the Internet nor anyone else had told me. So lucky for me that I can read a mall directory, or it might have gotten very ugly. Very interesting and ugly.

After going through the process and setting up my phone – a real find with the mail-in rebate, which will not work as planned, no doubt – I decided to go home but changed my mind and asked an information desk on the ground floor where to buy some envelopes and stamps. Instead of following her friendly and no doubt accurate instructions I went to the bathroom, where things took another unexpected turn.

The stall I went into had a curious green shirt sitting there on top of the toilet paper dispenser, like a dirty little baby-shaped ghost that had decided to cover itself in cloth and be worn. I felt it staring at me and gingerly picked at it as I would a hissing viper, trying to move it out of the way without wanting to put it in the small puddle of urine on the floor in case someone wanted to come back for it. (In case you’re wondering why I didn’t change stalls, trust me, this is as normal as it got.) I moved it over and placed my stack of papers next to it, precariously balancing a yellow notepad, a smaller white notepad, a sheaf of paperwork and a bag full of a cell phone and user manual next to the curious item, which I noticed as I settled down was covered in small brown hairs. Apparently a young man had gotten a haircut, started to itch and abandoned the offending shirt in a toilet stall. I can only imagine what happened when he tried to go home. I jabbed at the paper dispenser with the shirt, awkwardly trying to position everything correctly, and tried to get it over with as soon as possible. Soon I flushed and prepared to leave.

When I rose from the elegant ivory toilet to tie my shoe, my precious quarter dollars fell from my shirt pocket and rolled around on the filth-infested tile. I found one, mercifully dry, but the other eluded me as I bent down to search for it. Without it I would have only $5.25 – troubling, especially for a bus rider who needs quarters for the fare as badly as I do. I looked and looked until people began to walk into the bathroom, greeted by a sight I can well imagine and only describe as “Young man with his butt in the air, mouthing nonsense, peering at a urine stain.” I mumbled my courtesies and left.

I had meant to have dinner at home but knew no one else would be there, so I found a Malaysian place in the food court – as this is a very sophisticated city – and ordered the vegetarian delight. (On the way I overheard a fantastic elderly woman ask a security guard whether there was a Chinese restaurant nearby. The poor thing was standing in front of a Panda Express. I don’t know if she was genuinely confused or just some purist being snippy.) I sat and ate and stared into the mall and realized that I would be going home to an empty house and a cold bed, and it made me feel like an adult for some reason. I knew I’d flown the coop for good. (You see, Margaret, my roommate, doesn’t come home from class on Mondays until 10:30. And the mysterious, omnipotent Xavier is still in India. An extra in a Bollywood musical? No one seems to know.) I took a bus home without further incident, except for two guys my age in nice clothes talking about how one had left his wallet behind wherever they’d just come from. They got out at my stop, and I thought about talking to them, but they went in the opposite direction from my house and I let them go. I proceeded to have the telephone odyssey described in the following post, which was a great way to finish off the evening. Then I drank some juice. In case you were wondering what I was doing around 6:15 Arizona time, I was sitting at a bus stop without my jacket, which I didn’t need because the cloud cover has kept things warm. Reports of rain were exaggerated and I am dry as a bone.

I don't know how long my life will go on imitating art, as in my Honor's thesis about a young man who moves to a big city to start his journalism career that isn't about me at all, but so far I feel about as haphazard and freely disconnected as he did. My work in my mind is sort of secondary to the fact of my just being here on my own. I didn't expect that it would produce any sort of psychological reaction. It will probably wear off soon.


Blogger stephanie said...

I can see all of this in my head way too vividly. My brain is laughing! Chin up, soldier. Things will get easier, but bathrooms never get cleaner.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous MikeSwanson said...

At least your daunting new life in the capital city of a doomed empire is making you a better writer ;). No doubt you can't count on your new job for that. You've gotten me thinking about a narrative of my life right now and I think I can venture a sentence or 2:

As the U of A library human resources director continued to berate me over my absences that are far above the maximum allowable, I mentioned to him that the reason why I have so many absences was because I really didn't care about the job and that if I was demonstrating that I was not a good worker that he should feel free to fire me. Consequently, if I get one more absence in the next 8 days, I'll be talked at again. I was not fired. At this moment, my confusion over the constant lack of work when I do show up coupled with the strictness with which attendance is enforced fills me with an irrepressible sense of my own meagerly salaried uselessness; a sense which motivates my attendance and which stems from lack of the same adulthood you so somberly experienced in the food court.

Well, all this is completely true, not like your narrative--Russian woman pshaw! If you hate living in DC enough to live at my house which currently has no heat in 30 degree nights and colder (it seems)mornings, then you're welcome to my couch. See, I'm giving you a FANTASTIC fallback position, you should be lucky to have a friend like me!!

11:42 PM  

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