2018.08 minutiae

  • I got to the front of the line at the farmers’ market and noticed that the young woman weighing my tomatoes was wearing a sweatshirt that said “MATER DEI BASEBALL” on it.  Mater Dei is a high school in Orange County; I went to a couple of debate tournaments there back in the day.  I said, “Hey, Mater Dei! I grew up right near there!”

    She said, “I found this in a dumpster”

  • So at the end of July I drove a passenger van 3205 miles from Baltimore to Berkeley.  Said van was packed with a preschool teacher, those worldly possessions of hers that would fit into the van, and her cat.  I expected the cat to spend all 3205 miles yodeling “oh‑woe‑woe” the way Ditko used to on car trips, but she was well behaved: aside from a few token meows on a couple of mornings, she just chilled in the carrier.  This is especially impressive in retrospect, as the many lacerations on the fingers I am using to type this sentence attest that this cat has no chill.

  • On past trips to BWI I have rented cars right at the airport, but since the airport agencies had gigantic surcharges for one‑way rentals, I reserved the van at a place downtown.  That meant getting downtown without a vehicle, but according to those googly maps I could just take the light rail directly from the airport to the rental agency.  So I landed at BWI, followed the signs to the light rail station… and was greeted by a barricade and a couple of signs announcing that the station was closed indefinitely.  So I had to ask random bus drivers whether they might be headed downtown.  Eventually I found one who was.  That bus offered a couple of firsts: my first time witnessing a crack deal, and my first time witnessing someone smoke crack on a city bus.  Many of my fellow passengers loudly berated the guy for smoking crack on a bus.  One of them, an obese woman with many tattoos and missing teeth, shouted that the crack smoker needed to find Jesus.

  • Prior to this trip there were ten states I had not been to; that number is now down to eight (six if you count airports, which I don’t).  One state I crossed off my list is West Virginia.  I had thought that my chosen route would only take us through the northern panhandle, for a total of maybe ten minutes in the state, so I was surprised when the signs suddenly indicated that we were heading into Morgantown, home of West Virginia University.  Morgantown seemed pretty diverse by West Virginia standards; for instance, I suspect that I saw more hijabs there than are worn by the rest of the state’s population put together.  We also got lunch at a pretty decent taqueria.  No one who worked there had much in the way of a distinctive accent; I felt like I could have been in Sacramento or someplace.  (I could hear that I was in Appalachia the moment I stepped into the Target, though.)

  • I had no reason to think that I would ever be in Dayton, Ohio, but when it turned out that the route from Baltimore to my house passes through Dayton, I emailed my brother Rabie and asked for the address of the cemetery where our brother Raihan is buried.  When I looked it up online I got concerned, because the posted hours indicated that the cemetery would be closed by the time I got there, but Google Street View revealed that there was no wall or fence around the grounds, so it seemed like nothing would stop me from just parking at the curb and strolling to the gravesite.  And when I arrived I found that nothing had changed since the Google van had trundled through: the road was a strip of asphalt in the middle of nowhere, with corn on one side and graves on the other.  I found the small Muslim area of the cemetery (where my father had buried Raihan despite the fact that my brother was not a Muslim) and examined every grave marker, while low‑flying planes buzzed my head as they landed at the airport across the street.  I couldn’t find his name anywhere.  Luckily, my traveling companion had one of those new‑fangled cellular telephones, and since the time zones worked in my favor, I was able to call Rabie at work and ask for further directions.  “Do you see a big tree about halfway up the lawn?”  “I see a medium‑sized tree right near the entrance.”  “No, this was—​wait. Maybe the tree was a backhoe.” 

    In 1993 I had been shocked to discover that my sister’s grave was unmarked, but in retrospect I guess I can see how such a thing might have happened: she was a baby who had never made it out of the hospital—​my parents didn’t even agree on what her middle name should be—​and my family moved away almost immediately after her death.  But surely my father would have purchased a marker for a son who had reached the age of thirty‑six and had spent much of that time living with him?

    Maybe not so much.  She started to get upset at what a ghoulish situation this had turned out to be, but Rabie offered some words of consolation: Raihan had devoted his academic career to studying surrealism, so he would have appreciated the absurdity.

  • I had been to Iowa once before and been struck by a distinctive cultural quirk: it seemed like everyone in Iowa, or at least in Davenport, took friendliness to levels I’d never encountered before.  In New York there were plenty of total strangers who didn’t hesitate to strike up loud conversations, but that was an obnoxious, even aggressive sort of friendliness that was not for me.  It was a relief to move back to the “polite” part of the world, with brief, pleasant small talk.  But Davenport was the best of both worlds.  The young woman who checked me in at the hotel chatted with me for half an hour as if we were old pals catching up: she told me about moving from California to rural Iowa at age seven and about what it was like being the only half‑Asian kid at her school and was just a delight to talk to.  I thought that was just her, but then the waiter at the restaurant I went to did much the same: I’m used to the bonhomie of someone looking for a good tip, but this just seemed like a genuinely nice guy.  Even when I was out and about, everyone I encountered in Davenport had a friendly word as I walked by.  Thirteen years later, the same turned out to be true in Iowa City.  Once again, everyone on the street or in the aisles of stores said hello as they passed.  There was a bike race going on, and as we sat at a crossing waiting for a peloton to ride through, every cyclist smiled and waved at us.  I went into a sandwich shop and the proprietor came out of her office to greet me personally, asked whether I was new in town or just passing through, and shared some stories about her Bay Area connections when I said I was on a road trip from Baltimore to Berkeley.  Then while I was waiting for the soup to be packed up and the sandwich to be made, her daughter came over to say that she went to college in L.A. and just started chatting with me like we’d been living on the same floor of her dorm building for a year.  I asked her about any culture shock she had encountered in moving from Iowa City to Los Angeles and she said that the most striking thing was the wealth disparity: that the politics were similar (Iowa City being a bright blue dot in a reddening Midwest) and that she had been relieved to discover that big‑city brusqueness was not really a thing on the west coast, but that she was not used to seeing blocks full of ostentatious mansions and then, a stone’s throw away, gangland squalor.  Iowa, she said, was still a product of the Great Compression: as much as it’s become a standard line, it was still the case that the head of a company would be the guy in the nice house on the corner, not someone tucked away in a sprawling estate in a gated community.

    Anyway—​I remember that back in my ifMUD days there was a fair amount of debate about standards of friendliness.  The New Yorkers and the Northwesterners agreed that L.A.‑style “fake friendliness” was the worst, but for different reasons.  The New Yorkers argued for authenticity: If you’re some rando who’s probably getting in my way while I have important shit to do, why should I act like I have positive feelings toward you?  That’s dishonest!  In New York people might get in your face, but at least you know where you stand!  The argument from the Northwest was less about positivity than about intimacy: Who the hell are you to act like we’re buddies?  You don’t know me!  You don’t know anything about me!  Familiarity is earned over time, so if you expect me to go beyond the bounds of brief pleasantries, you have to put in the work!  I can relate to both of these arguments to a certain extent.  I used to be a dues‑paying member of team “honesty over tact”, and I’m still very introverted and find most interactions with people pretty taxing.  I get how people could find a culture of constant performative friendliness to be kind of a nightmare.  Nevertheless, I totally love it and give eastern Iowa a big thumbs‑up.  (Western Iowa keeps electing Steve King and is therefore a hellscape.)

  • I have remarked many times on the fact that phone calls in the 1980s were crystal clear and reliable while phone calls in the 21st century are often unintelligible and drop without warning—​a big step backward in the name of mobility.  In Nebraska I learned that while in the 1980s TV could get staticky for one reason or another, nowadays it apparently it goes from crystal clear to no signal whatsoever when it rains.  Do people really not prefer to put up with a little static?

  • She was struck by the way that when we crossed into Nebraska suddenly everyone seemed to be limping or wheezing or struggling with some other health issue.  When I got home, it occurred to me to plot our route up to that point on a map and check which states fell into particular categories.  Here was the result:

    The key?  Blue states are the ones that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare.  Red states are the ones that didn’t.

  • When I lived in Orange County in the late ’90s my favorite place to get a smoothie was Juice Stop in Yorba Linda, so I was saddened when it went under—​apparently the chain had overexpanded and then collapsed, retreating to a handful of stores in eastern Nebraska.  I haven’t found a smoothie shop nearly as good in all the years since.  The current generation of juice shops seem entirely concerned with getting all the nutrients out of the kale and don’t much care about, y’know, taste.  So my jaw dropped when, as I drove around looking for a bakery where I could fill up before the long trek from Lincoln to Denver, she randomly pointed out a smoothie shop and when I turned to look I discovered that it was Juice Stop!  I had completely forgotten that a few stores were still clinging to life in Nebraska!  And it was every bit as good as I remembered.  I can’t imagine how long I would have been kicking myself if later I had been reminded that Juice Stop was still hanging on in Nebraska and I realized that I had driven through, oblivious.

  • Denver seems to be a city on the up.  Lots of new museums and things that weren’t there even on my last trip through in, let’s see, 2011.  I was sad to learn that Watercourse Foods had changed its philosophy and that all my favorite items had been dumped from the menu, but our host took us to a similar place where I had quite possibly the best veggie burger I’ve ever tried.  She also told us about a farmers’ market in the western Colorado city of Palisade, where we could get peaches right from the source.  I didn’t really know what that meant, as I’d never heard of Palisade, but even though we got there after the farmers’ market had ended, I soon discovered that we hadn’t lost our chance to get some peaches, because the city seemed to consist of nothing but peach stands.  The sign welcoming visitors to town has a picture of a peach on it.  The bike shop’s logo is a bicycle with peaches for wheels.  Palisade seems to be kind of into peaches is I guess what I’m trying to say here.

  • Here’s a picture of the cat back in Maryland that I posted earlier this year:

    Because the cat was so attached to that basket, to make her feel more at home in California I created a sort of Franken‑cat‑tree by bolting the basket onto a new, taller tree with assorted doodads for the cat to play with.  It seems to have been successful!

    However, while the cat still hangs out in the basket a lot, she spends a lot more time at the top of this cat tree than she did at the top of the previous one.  The problem is that the uppermost platforms are not very big, meaning that she spends a lot of time sitting in ridiculous ways like this:

  • Every time I go grocery shopping I can’t help but be spooked by the boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch:

    I guess that’s supposed to be a wafer of cereal finding its fellow wafers appetizing enough to lick its nonexistent lips, but to me it looks horrified at the prospect of being turned into food.  If you can’t see the facial expression I see, I’ve tried enhancing it a bit:

  • While heading back to my car after a tutoring appointment I encountered some surprisingly literate wildlife:

I received an email from a reader who wanted to weigh in on my article from a few months back about a scene in the comic book Giant Days.  To recap, a student at the University of Sheffield is looking for an apartment.  We see a montage of terrible places: one is the size of a coffin, one is a criminal’s hideout, one is across the street from a slaughterhouse, one is haunted by a “periodic evil presence”.  Then there’s the fifth, for which the punchline is, “Well this is very nice, and the price is great… but strictly speaking this is Chesterfield.”  I thought the joke was that it order to find a decent, affordable apartment, she’d had to move a crazy distance away, and commented on how Britain and the U.S. had different perspectives on whether 10.3 miles qualified as particularly far.  This reader, a local to the area in question, thought that I had missed the point entirely—​that the joke was not that Chesterfield was far from Sheffield, but simply that Chesterfield lacked Sheffield’s cachet.  Here is my reply (edited for length/clarity):

Thanks very much for filling in the cultural gaps here!  I do have to say that if this is the joke, it’s a worse one than I thought.  I’m trying to think of an American equivalent, and I think it’s sort of like if there were a comic about an NYU student trying to find an apartment in Manhattan, and we had these two possible jokes:

“Well this is very nice, and the price is great… but strictly speaking this is Pennsylvania.” (far away)

“Well this is very nice, and the price is great… but strictly speaking this is the Bronx.” (less prestigious)

I think the first one is a lot funnier—​the joke is that, “strictly speaking”, the first affordable apartment she found was two states away, while in the second case, the joke is that she’s a snob… or, rather, that she’s right to be a snob.

What surprised me was when this reader wrote back to say that he preferred the second joke.  As much as I hate the whole “punch up” / “punch down” frame, I do think that there’s a difference between, on the one hand, mocking a place for its weather or for its traffic or for reflecting the shitty values of its inhabitants, and on the other, mocking a place for the crime of being insufficiently “posh”.  The latter is obnoxious, and if that really had been the joke, I would have been disappointed.  But when I looked it up again I saw that the response to “strictly speaking this is Chesterfield” was “We prefer to think of it as South South South Sheffield”, so I’m pretty sure I was right all along about it being a distance joke.  Whew!

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