Chicago El, July 2003
Originally uploaded by panopticon.
I finished college in the summer of 1992, smack in the middle of a nasty recession.
What would have been a bad situation was made even worse by the fact that I'd never been encouraged to think beyond finishing college.
The first 17 years of my life were spent hearing over and over that I would go to college and it had better be a good one.
So I got into a good one, and spent four years straining to just get through without killing myself.
There was some vague notion that I was being sent to college so that I would come out the other end ready to Do Well.
Do Well at what never seemed to be the issue, I was just supposed to Do Well. I majored in art history, and was good at it - very good - and thought for a time that I would love to do museum work.
Unfortunately, I didn't have the backbone to stand up to the Lily White Woman at the Harvard University Art Museums who taught my senior seminar.
We were in the process of wrapping up our final project, which had sent me right over the moon: co-curating an exhibit at the Fogg Museum.
My object selections and captions had sailed right through review while more than a few of my classmates were given slaps and told to re-write.
I was on top of the world. I'd found it. The thing I was good at.
I was in the Prints and Drawings Room taking care of a few details and Ms. Lily White, who basically had my dream job, asked me about my post-graduation plans. I said I wanted to go into museum work.
She shook her head and tut-tutted and explained that, though my work was among the best in the class, and I would be receiving honors in my field, I came from entirely the wrong sort of family background to work in a museum.
Had I considered teaching art in, perhaps, a public school? Maybe in the inner city? Surely the milieu there would be a bit more comfortable for someone like me, she suggested.
I'd spent four years at Harvard feeling like I had no right to be there, and those kindly remarks obliterated the little bit of ego I'd managed to acquire.
So that was end of that.
Jobs were in short supply that year, even for the graduates who'd chosen money-track concentrations like Economics were having trouble landing offers.
When you have only one timid dream, and it gets killed off, you take what you can get. I drifted into a steady but drab position at an ancient but shabby college for musicians, and thus began my Lost Years.
I was living at the time with the aspiring opera singer I'd met and fallen in love with during my senior year, in a bleak suburb of Boston called Malden.
Ironically, for a town literally within sight of the epicenter of American higher learning, Malden is mostly populated by people of dim wit and narrow mind.
Every morning, I'd join 3,000 of my fellow citizens on the MBTA for the slog into the city. And I was appalled by my first encounter with Morning Faces.
Without exception, my train car would be packed with gray-faced secretaries and puffy-eyed salesmen, utterly devoid of emotion or animation.
Their eyes, when open, saw nothing. They didn't read, or talk, or even look out the windows. They just sat, or leaned, empty of life, pictures of dread and frustration.
At the end of the day, coming home, they barely seemed to register a pulse.
After a week of this, I found myself praying in earnest that I would never turn into one of those people.
On the whole, I've done a good job of avoiding it. My first defense was reading. I can read anywhere, to the point that I've been known to lose track of my surroundings.
I was once called on the carpet for being late to work because I'd reached a key chapter in Middlemarch and rode past my office and the four following stops before noticing something was wrong.
Then I got my first camera, two years ago, and since the only free time I had to play with it was on the subway, I started taking subway shots.
This made me more aware of my surroundings, not less, but it transfigured them. You want to see the world go from ugly to gorgeous in an instant? Look at it through a viewfinder.
And now, since after September 11 one is not permitted to take photographs on the subway, I knit.
This seems to combat Morning Face better than anything else, if the response I got recently is any indication.
A woman I'd never noticed before, but who has obviously been watching me, came up as I was casting off part of the teddy bear.
"I am dying to know what you're making," she asked, with a twinkly smile.
"It's part of a teddy bear," I said.
She giggled. "How cute! You know, I see you knitting on the train all the time."
"Yes, it's a nice way to start and end the day. Very relaxing."
"I can tell! You know, I sit here and watch you, and everybody else is half asleep, and you're just sitting there tapping your foot and you have this little smile on your face, and you just look so happy. And so smug! And I swear, one of these days I'm going to haul off and hit you!"
And with that, still smiling, she got up and got off the train.
Lately I've started looking around the car before I pull out my needles.