Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Morning Face

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.


Anonymous said...

Franklin, you are such a joy, and everytime I read what you've written I just want to shout, "Oh, me too!" or "I know exactly what you mean!"

Shame, shame, shame on the vile Ms. Lily White.

Lately I've been struggling to make sense of the opportunities that seem to be so abundantly presented to those who do come from "the right family background" and yet people I know who are amazingly brilliant and talented but not from the "right" mold have had to struggle to attain. And even with all the struggling, there are so many slammed doors that it is sometimes hard to brush yourself off and go back for more of the same. It is downright disheartening. Even so, we continue, because what else are we going to do if not try to carve out a space in this life for ourselves?

Congratulations on working so hard to avoid Morning Face and succeeding. Also, yikes! That woman on the subway sounds like my grandmother -- she was very fond of saying the most frightening and sometimes horrible things with a smile plastered on her face. Again, yikes!

Anonymous said...

Every time I see you post a picture you've taken I don't think you could post a more interesting one and then - poof - you turn around and do it.

I was blissfully unaware that one had to have the correct "family background" for much of anything. Thanks for correcting that. Geesh.

goblinbox said...

1. I love the way you write. Short paragraphs, simple and clean, strong impact.

2. "The wrong sort of family background"?!?! She just stood there and told you to your face you were lower class? Fucking cunt.

3. The morning face on public transpo is terrifying, isn't it? Thank God for reading, knitting, and iPods. I've managed to avoid turning into one of those people, but not by beating the odds as much as moving as far away from the real world as possible.

4. While I do it myself, I think it's odd that we've evolved a social habit in which we threaten to hurt things we love. (Referring to the woman wanting to stab you with your needles because she admires your ability to knit in peace.)

Rebekah Ravenscroft-Scott said...

i was once told i was of a "different intellectual ilk" when i had (i thought) failed to grasp the nuances of Hannah Arendt's political theory. when i told my advisor (bless her!) all she said was, "well, what do you expect from someone born into the obviously 'right family' who's stuck teaching undergrad, non-traditional aged, working-class people who are obviously smarter than him?" turns out I did get Arendt and having the right person tell me that at the right time in my life has made all the difference.

I'm so sorry you didn't have your antidote to Ms. Lily White (yes, cunt/bitch)when you needed her!

as for the woman on the subway, I am her and I am you all at the same time, that's a sobering thought!

thanks for a fantastic, thought-provoking post :)

Unknown said...

How come when you post an entry about your lot in life, I find it riveting, while other bitch queens sound like incessant whining?

My 16 year old niece gave me very sage advice once, she said "Life is hard, princess, get a helmet."

As for the picture in a Homespun singlet, sorry, but you'd have to take that one in person.

birdfarm said...

There's a sort of "Lost Years" period in my life, too (whether it was two years or almost ten depends on how you look at it). It was definitely a period of wandering in the wilderness.

But as one of my favorite books says, "Eventually you realize that every step you've taken has been on the path."

Not The Path--not some kind of Right Way that leads to some great truth or shining beacon. But just your path, your own particular route through life.

I like looking at it like that.

Franklin said...

Now Tricky, you hush. If Joe wants to find me riveting, don't you discourage him.

Interesting that this one seems to have a touched a chord. Very cool. Maybe almost everybody has a Lost Year or two?

I write about this stuff because writing it down wraps it into a neat little ball for me, and then I can drop it into the box labeled "Over and Dealt With." Feels good to do that.

BTW, you'll get more than a few pearls of wisdom like this from Birdfarm if you read her blog.

Anonymous said...


Sakebottleswing said...

I understand exactly what you're talking about--I spent the better part of last year living in Malden, and every morning I saw (and still see) Morning Faces everywhere. Since I have little choice but to take the MBTA every day, I often knit, or a get a good seat by the window so I can look outside at the Charles river or whatever else is passing by. I love to start and end my workday by knitting, and sometimes people will comment on my knitting--often about how they wish they could knit.

People, you can knit. Ask me, and I will teach you!

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