People are crowded around the entrance as if a marathon race is about to begin and each individual thinks he can win. The lobby seems endless, is dimly lit with a yellow hue and entrances to dark, downward stairways are on both sides of the arched room. The sound is constant; magnified muffled voices and squeaks and squishes of scuffling shoes as potential passengers and lost visitors move about, trying to not run into one another but conceited enough to not care very much if they do.
A small rope marks off the entrance and, like a dog obeys a baby gate, all of the passengers are behind it. Everyone is edging for an advantage, turning slightly, bending their knees, stretching and twisting their backs in hope for one step closer until the attendant pulls the rope back and allows everyone to enter. A 30-something businessman notices a woman through the crowd, her legs crossed at the feet, leaning to the left as she squints to read something on her cell phone. She was far more concerned with her phone than bumping and pushing her way to the front of the mob and her carefree persona intrigued him.
He checked himself — khaki pants, Thom Browne loafers, argyle socks, Brooks Brothers slim fit, pinpoint, windowpane, button-down dress shirt — and because he had worked out at lunch his chest and arms were popping, at least in his own mind. She was wearing cheap riding boots on top of what looked like pajama jeans, a tattered t-shirt that he was almost positive said “Frankie say relax” on it, and a librarian sweater that was long enough to cover her pear shaped hips. The one-inch heel on her boots made her at least 6-1 and her tossed and tangled golden brown short hair completed her look, which was nearly opposite of the look he attempted to wear.
He decided it was worth the muscle required to fight his way through the crowd and strike up a conversation with the woman. I look good, she looks interesting, why not he asked himself. Two shoulder bumps, one near bear crawl and four steps later, he stood before her, checking himself to be certain the slim fit shirt was slim fitting.
“Hi,” he leaned in and said to her, looking up to make eye contact.
She slowly lifted her eyes off her phone and glanced at him looking up at her. Turning her head both directions to confirm he was sending greetings her way, she replied, “Hello.”
“I’m Tony. I noticed you aren’t concerned with making your way to the front of this crowd.” He asked, “Do you know something everyone else doesn’t?”
“Tony, this isn’t my first train ride,” she explained. “Is it yours?”
“Nah. Well, I mean, it’s my first trip to D.C. by train. But not my first train ride. I take it you go to D.C. often?”
“No, not really. But I’ve gone at least once for the last three years. And four times a year while I was in school.”
School, he thought. Life was so easy in college, even for a chronic school-bouncer like him. A few struggles with that pesky SAT landed him at a community college before transferring to Kentucky State with the intent to walk-on as a baseball player. Catcher, to be exact. KSU had good pitchers, he could shine as a catcher and possibly make it as a Major League Baseball player before graduating.
Two phone conversations with the head coach gave him the confidence and the details he needed — tryouts were held during the first week of the semester. He moved into the dorm on Day One and after a quick bite to eat headed straight to the baseball offices in Commonwealth Stadium. One of the assistants delivered the devastating news to him, that tryouts, in fact, were held the week before the semester started and their roster was set for the upcoming academic year. No apology for misleading information, no explanation time was granted, just “Thanks, we’re all set, sorry ’bout your luck.”
Apparently, the head coach was one of those passive-aggressive managers and didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by suggesting they weren’t good enough to make the team (after nothing more than phone conversations). So, dismissing the possibility that someone might attend his university based entirely on the chance to tryout for the baseball team, he gave false information about the tryout date and eliminated the chance of him having to deal with conflict. The coach would rather be known as a liar.
Already enrolled and already moved in, another year of transferable classes filled up his transcript. He finished his stint at KSU and then moved on to an NCAA Division III school in Eastern Pennsylvania, Buckulata University. He attended tryouts in the first week of the semester and, to his surprise, wasn’t in quite the same physical shape he was in two years prior. He was still a fence buster, but his knees couldn’t handle the bending like they used to and he never developed a solid infield game. Relegated to academia once again, he settled in as a business major, taking advantage of Buckulata’s hallmark of “Personalized academic attention.”
“Ah, college,” he responded. “Where did you go, Pace? Columbia, Hunter, Mercy?” he asked, proud of his Manhattan college and university knowledge.
“No, and none of those options. But I understand from your suggestions that you live in Manhattan.” How is it I always end up with tales to tell when I take the train home for the weekend?
“Yes, but only for a few…”
“NYU,” she interrupted. “I went to NYU.”
Baffled by the interruption, he stammered, “Oh. I guess I forgot that one.” He smiled, hoping to deter some of her angst, but she was still displaying signs of irritability. “Hey, I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable. I just noticed you were not fazed by all the commotion going on and thought I would ask why.”
Moments after his explanation and hope for intrusion forgiveness the attendant prepped to release the rope. Scuffling sounds amplified and increased in speed. Like a bull fighter, the attendant whisked one leg behind the other and flawlessly whipped back the rope and somehow remained in the clear of the stampede heading for the stairs.
Tony wrestled with his desire to rush with the others versus his curiosity of this carefree NYU grad. He wanted to offer to help her with her luggage, or something that would prove his genuine gentleman ways, but she had one bag and it was already on her shoulder. She hadn’t responded to his last comment so he had no idea if she even remembered it, once the people started scurrying to the stairs. “Well, it was nice chatting with you,” he said, thinking it wasn’t much of a conversation. “Have a safe trip.”
As usual the crowd of people dispersed in seconds and she followed behind preppy, loafer boy. She was a patient person, she thought, but she couldn’t come to terms with the hurry-up-and-wait process by which so many people lived.
Traveling always brings out the best of people’s patience. She was grateful that her job did not require her to travel — she heard horror stories from co-workers who traveled with sports teams and were left behind, ignored, treated as a personal Sky Hop for coaches and players — she preferred to stay at home and work every event. Well, not preferred, but, it is what it is. And it’s better than traveling.
She knew to be early anytime she was required to be somewhere. Not more than 15 minutes, but never late. Her father had embedded the need to be early after years of Sundays. Sunday School started at 10 a.m. and the sermon began at 11 a.m. “If we are going to one, we might as well go to both,” her dad would bark at the kitchen table as the family ate scrambled eggs, bacon and toast.
Everyone hustled to get showered and ready, church wasn’t like it is now with massive auditoriums filled by dancing Christians reaching to the ceiling to praise God. It was truly, ‘here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.’ And the people were dressed in their Sunday best.
Her dad was always shaved and ready before everyone else so he would go out to warm up the car. And by warming up the car, he really meant start the timer for everyone to finish getting ready. Once that key went in the ignition of that old Caprice Classic the rest of the family had four minutes to get out to the car so the eight minute car ride could commence, getting to church at 9:45 a.m. precisely.
After a minute, he honked the car horn once. Two minutes, two taps of the horn. Three minutes, the horn expressed the language of the words flowing from his mouth as patience had entirely left his body. He needed to get to church to ask forgiveness for the things he was saying. No one heard the fourth minute horn, thankfully, as family members darted out the side door of the house and to their unwritten, assigned car doors, mostly dressed and ready to confront other Christians. “Take whatever you need so you can finish getting ready at church,” her mother would tell them. “We’ll have 15 minutes once we get there.”
Arriving early for air travel became tricky as years passed… 10 years ago you could show up 30 minutes before the plane pulled away from the gate, run through the terminal and catch a flight. Now, the suggested arrival time for domestic flights is one and a half hours prior but, if you check the airline website in advance you can narrow it down to a more specific time. And if you go to the airport website, you can pinpoint the arrival time even better. It was a lot of research to confirm not arriving more than 15 minutes early to an early arrival time so, she traveled by train.
To be 15 minutes early for a train ride she simply had to show up to Penn Station 45 minutes before the scheduled departure time. No checking in, no checking bags, just pushing and shoving to get to the front at the rope — which she didn’t do. I have my ticket, I only have one bag and the Acela Express is less than three hours, I can stand for three hours if required.
Once the rope was released she swung her bag on her shoulder and inched forward, hoping no one would fall down the stairs. For some strange reason she was always fearful that others would fall down stairs and to do so because of a false need to hurry just flat out baffled her. “Why can’t people accept that life is just one giant delay?” she wondered aloud, her face melting into an attention-grabbing shade of red. Did I say that out loud?
Tony turned back to her. “What?”
Yep, I said that out loud.
“Sorry. Sometimes my mind wanders and words come out of my mouth,” she said, her memory flashing back to the 1998 movie Rush Hour –DO YOU UNDERSTAND THE WORDS THAT ARE COMING OUT OF MY MOUTH?
“No problem, I completely understand,” Tony said.
She followed the New York rule of never putting her hands on a handrail but she was cautious, keeping her head down and squarely placing each foot in the middle of each step. When she reached the platform she strolled to the back – or was it the front – looking for a ticket taker. A jolly old New Yorker beamed with, well, as much beam as a New Yorker can express, and confirmed her ticket was valid. She entered the train and went straight to a seat with an electrical outlet and a window. Why doesn’t everyone travel by train, it is so much easier and so accommodating for travelers? She put her bag in the overhead compartment, grabbed some headphones and a power pack and settled in her seat. Hurry up and wait.
In a matter of minutes the passenger car was filling with travelers. Businessmen heading home, businessmen heading out for work, college students, curious travelers, confused foreigners hoping they were in the right place despite the fact they wouldn’t have been permitted on board unless they were in the right place, all found seats and places to put their luggage.
With headphones snugly packaged in her ears she swiped her phone looking for the Audible app. She browsed her options, an eclectic mix of biographies, mysteries, chick- and American-lit, and chose The perks of being a wallflower. With all the technology surrounding her, nothing made her more happy than an app that would provide someone reading to her, instead of her reading. Of course, she wished she could decide on something other than what she had already read/heard, but she couldn’t help but returning to her favorites over and over. Perks was a touch depressing, but a quick read that she couldn’t resist hearing. She loved the references to Big Boy, it took her back to the days she would hang out with her high school friends at Bob’s after basketball games and on the weekends.
“Hey,” she heard just as the narrator began with credits and introductions in her ear. Should I fake like I’m listening to music or should I look to see who is speaking and if he is speaking to me?
“Oh,” she said. “Hey.”
“I saw you sitting here with two empty seats beside you. I figured since I had already spoken to you I would sit by someone I know,” Tony said with a smile to indicate the cuteness of his funny comment. She was slightly impressed and returned the smile. “I hope you don’t mind,” he said, not giving her a chance to express if she minded or not. He put his luggage in the overhead compartment, kept his laptop bag so he could put it at his feet and sat down.
“Are you traveling for business or pleasure,” she asked, removing her ear buds and giving in to the imminent conversation.
“I’m going to see my sister, maybe check out a few of the museums. What about you?”
She thought he should know the answer to his own question because she told him she rode the train when in college. The wince on his face after he inquired indicated he realized he asked a stupid question.
“Well, I’m from D.C. but this trip is for business. Sort of. I guess.” As much as she didn’t want to share details, or talk about herself, the more she stumbled meant more explanation. “I’m going on a job interview.”
“Oh, that’s exciting!” he said, his extreme expression a mismatched response. “Do you mind if I ask,” he paused.
Here it comes, she assumed. The dreaded question that leads to a long, laborious discussion she loathed.
“What is your name?”
Relieved the question wasn’t what she expected, she responded, “Lenni.” His inadvertent raised eyebrow reflected confusion. “Lenora. After my dad, Leonard.”
“Great. I think I mentioned before, I’m Tony. Anthony. After my dad, Anthony.” He flashed that smile again, to indicate his response was cute. It worked again. “Lenni, what type of work do you do?”
That was the dreaded question.
She wondered if three hours would be enough time to explain the type of work she does. Not that her work was hard to understand, it just seemed that conversation led to so many questions and went down so many paths and all she wanted to do was read (listen) to a book while looking out the window.
“I work at St. John’s University,” she answered with intentional vagueness. “What about you?”
“I’m an event coordinator for Bic. Pens. Not razors.”
When his college baseball plans did not work out, subsequently ending his hopes of a career in the Major Baseball League, he did the next best thing and began playing club baseball at Buckulata. Because Buckulata did not have a club team, he elected himself to be a club officer, went before the sports club council and started the KSU club baseball team. He recruited players, found a league, scheduled practices, coordinated fundraising efforts, managed the travel budget, attended compliance seminars and spent the remaining years in college playing competitive ball. By the time he graduated with the all-important business degree, he earned NCBA all-America honors and had a fully developed set of transferable business skills like risk management, organization, leadership, and budget planning. He was hired three weeks before graduation to work for Bic, one of the world’s most renowned brands.
“Are you a professor, work in admissions?” he asked, trying to figure out what other types of jobs there are at a university. He knew she wasn’t a coach, she wouldn’t be traveling by train and she wouldn’t be alone. He guessed she could be in food preparation or work at bookstore.
“Neither. Actually, I’m in a similar role as you. I think. I work in athletics as an assistant facilities and operations manager.” She could tell he was piecing together what he thought that title meant so she filled in any blanks he might be encountering. “I coordinate all of the components that go into using a facility for an athletic event at the university.”
“I get it,” he said, nodding his head. “We do have similar roles. I coordinate all of the pieces needed for our marketing teams to go to conferences, events and trade shows.” Lenni was confused, slightly, and relieved, that he didn’t pounce for more details about her job. Usually, people wanted as much information as they could get about what they considered a “dream” job.
It was hard to constantly burst people’s bubble of disillusions when it comes to working in sports. They don’t want to know that you arrive to work at 8 a.m., nearly always before any coach arrives for work, and you attend meetings, make calls, manage situations, resolve student conflicts and then at 5 p.m. — when everyone else goes home from work — you open the door for the pizza delivery guy who is providing dinner (and lunch) for you and your student staff before the game that evening. That you confirmed earlier in the day that all members of the game-day staff would arrive an hour and half before the game but with one hour and 10 minutes until tipoff, no one had showed up, causing the pizza you scarfed down to rumble in your belly.
Without help there you grab extension cords, duct tape, electrical tape, masking tape — people have no idea how much tape is needed to run a basketball game — and you begin distributing walkie-talkies to the students who did show up to work, albeit for the free pizza. You lure three students to help you begin moving tables on the court so you can assemble and construct the wires, lights, speakers, seating instructions and timelines needed for when the game-day staff does decide, hopefully, to show up. At that point you get to go to the locker room and change into your dress clothes because it isn’t appropriate for you to look less than professional when you are representing the university (but mostly the head coach), even if you did just haul 40-pound tables from a closet to the court.
Decked in uncomfortable shoes and spruced up enough to look ladylike, you escort the referees to their locker room and wait outside for them to change into their stripes. With 30 minutes until tip you knock and enter to go over the obligations of the host school, as far as the refs are concerned. Referees stretch a lot and never look like they are ready to start running. You walkie to the students confirming the scorekeeper arrived – thankfully – and you bring the refs to the gym where students are filling into their seats and players are warming up in an electric atmosphere you helped create. During the game you relax and appreciate the courtside seat you’ve earned, close enough to wipe sprays of sweat from flailing bodies off your arms. Before halftime you confirm that the media relations staff has what they need to run the post-game activities when you notice that the scoreboard is still running the animated flag that was flowing while the national anthem was playing. You run to the computer, remove the flag and explain to the student, for the eighth time, how to run the program.
Once the game ends you escort the refs back to their locker room and grab as many students as you can before they all escape to the evening’s frat party. The game-day staff was gone 17 seconds after the buzzer sounded so unless you found some students, you were guaranteed an extra hour post-game, tearing down tape, untangling wires and moving tables back to the closet. Not to mention trash duty. Around 11:30 p.m. you head home — long after all of the coaches have left work — only to start the day again in seven hours.
She always wonders if that description sounds like a dream job and, with a smile on her face, continues to provide details such as, it’s not just the high profile sports that you work. You also have the same routine for volleyball and soccer, baseball and swimming – sports no one cares about except the students competing and the high-maintenance coaches coaching. And while your annual salary isn’t worth sharing, it is important to include that when all is said and done, you make less than nine dollars an hour. Minimum wage in New York is $7.25 an hour and to even be considered for her job she had to have a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
Her number one daily goal, besides not gaining weight, is to not let the job make her bitter. She knows she chose this field and she knows, with certainty, that she will find her dream job – one that allows her to work in sports but have a life, with a husband and children and an hour a day to herself to work out, cook, or join a book club. There have been times when people have asked about her job and for entertainment she pulled a Holden Caufield, articulating phony details to satisfy her listeners. She has worked with enough radio guys with inspiring, romantic tales that she easily revises and churns into idealistic depictions rather than telling the truth and deflating the misconceptions about working in sports. Today, despite the initial yearning to relax with her Audible app, she was grateful that Tony had not requested detail that requires so much energy to explain and even more energy to overcome the disappointment she causes with her words. He didn’t seem to care to know more about her job and that was a relief. It actually made her want to know more about him.
“How long have you been working for Bic?” she asked.
“Hmm, let me think,” he said, contemplating his answer. “Oh I guess it’s been 12 years now.”
She couldn’t believe he had worked anywhere for 12 years, his fit body and youthful appearance suggested otherwise. “I guess you have only worked at Bic then?”
“Yes,” he responded, trying to cover his disappointment that he looks young. “They hired me right out of college. I like the job, I like the money, and I’m good at it. I see no reason to leave.”
“What was your major?”
Her question appeared to startle him, he had clearly drifted somewhere else. “Huh?”
“Your major. In college. Did it prepare you for this job?”
“Oh. Sorry. It’s been awhile since I’ve had the college discussion,” he said, hoping to show his maturity. “I majored in business but … I organized and ran a club baseball team and paid someone 20 bucks to make what I did look impressive on a resume. Somehow, it worked out.”
She wanted badly to make and discuss the connection of their jobs and career but, she decided against it. He recognized the pause in the conversation and didn’t want it to end. “What about you … did your major prepare you for your job?”
“Not really. Actually, no. I wanted a liberal arts degree that would give me a well-rounded, balanced approach for when I entered the ‘real world’ but, I haven’t entered that world yet. I’m still asking people what they majored in, despite the fact we’ve been out of college for 12 to 15 years.”
He knew no she was three years older than him, assuming she only took four years to get her degree. A liberal arts degree shouldn’t have taken more than four years. “So, what was your major?”
“History. And English. I read a lot.”
He wondered, and asked before he realized it, “How in the world did you get a job in college athletics with degrees in history and English?”
“How did I start working in athletics?” she repeated. There really was no way around explaining, or staying vague. But she would try. “Well, I went to NYU to play basketball. I played three years before quitting – I wasn’t a big fan of the coach and she wasn’t a big fan of me – and I spent my last year of college working in campus recreation. At NYU, campus recreation was part of the athletic department, which meant I technically worked in athletics. I assisted with the club teams, handling paperwork, scheduling, and home events, which, as you probably know from your club team, is fairly time consuming. I had to stay organized and efficient in order to continue with my classes and I created a process that impressed several people. When the people in athletics wanted my help with processes, I leveraged that into a job.”
He was impressed with her savvy ways and ability to recognize when to take advantage of an opportunity. “Wow,” is all that escaped from him. “It sounds like you would be successful in the business world with an aggressive approach like that. Is your job interview in athletics or business?”
“I’m trying to stay in athletics, at least for now. There was no chance to move up at NYU, everyone who works there has been there forever. I was grateful for my position, but it wasn’t one that allowed me to live a comfortable lifestyle. So I landed a better position, financially, at St. John’s. I’ve done that for a few years but, similar to NYU, no one in secure positions intends to leave anytime soon. I love working in sports but I know at some point I have to make enough money to eat something other than tuna – or free pizza before games – for meals. So, I’m looking around, keeping my eyes open for something that might be a good fit.”
He thought she was only telling part of the story, only because her body language changed so much when telling him about her work. When he started working at Bic, he learned quickly that if he was going to be successful, he had to understand the powerful concept of body language. There is so much significance conveyed and interpreted between people – without ever saying a word – and he didn’t want to misunderstand it. He attended seminars to understand the meaning behind the cues people give and he became an expert at reading lies. That continuing education has helped him in so many ways and right now, he knew Lenni did not want to be talking about work.
“I noticed you were about to dive into your music just before I sat down. Do you have a travel playlist prepared for your trip?”
“No. I am a sucker for Pandora and iHeartRadio,” she said. “I like the randomness. I had just picked out a book on my Audible app and was going to listen to it, again.”
“Audible app?” he asked.
“Yes, it is sort of like Netflix only, instead of picking out a movie, you pick out a book. You pay a monthly fee and earn credits, then buy the book. And someone reads it to you. I love it.”
“Ah. A modern library. I must admit, that seems to be somewhat of a contradiction, coming from an English major.” He flashed his don’t-be-mad-at-me-I’m-cute smile and could tell from her reaction that she wasn’t mad. “What did you pick out to read? Or is it listen?”
She wasn’t mad at him, but she had to correct him. “I majored in history and English. I realize the contradiction but this is really the only way I can read now,” she explained. His raised eyebrow reappeared and she suddenly grasped the oddness of her explanation. “I mean, it’s really the only way I have time to read now. To listen, so I can multitask.”
“I’m curious, have you tried a Kindle, or an iPad?” he asked.
“When the Kindle first came out I bought one. I liked it. I found it very useful when I was reading books that would otherwise be too large to carry with me. But, as my free time started to dwindle, so did the Kindle.” She smiled at the assimilation. “So, I’ve been using Audible and today, I’m listening to The Perks of being a Wallflower.”
“That is an interesting title,” he noted.
“Have you read it?”
“No. I’m fairly predictable with what I read. I like John Grisham books, I get obsessed with business books, get-rich-quick schemes, and the thriller fiction that Dan Brown writes.”
“Interesting,” she said, wondering how people had become so addicted to the get-rich-quick phenomenon. It wasn’t really a phenomenon, she guessed, since it had been around forever. But why, why do people always think a shady investment will work? She vowed to never fall for a rich man, poor man way of life.
“But, I think I might be one of the few people left that still likes to read books and not a tablet. It’s not that I dislike the tablets, I have an iPad and I take it everywhere,” he nodded at his laptop bag and then looked out the window. He paused at length, so much so that Lenni asked if he was okay and quickly snapped her thumb and fingers past his face. “This might sound weird, but I take a bath to relax. And I read. I’m afraid I will drop my iPad in the tub, so I prefer a solid paperback.” He blushed.
She recognized his embarrassment. “Is that why you zoned out there for a minute?”
“Yep. Not the easiest thing to tell a lady, that I take a bath. Especially one I just met.” He flashed that smile and she didn’t care that he had a feminine side. She hoped there wasn’t more femininity to be revealed, but she could ignore a bath and appreciated his honesty.
“I like autobiographies. Although, I quit reading those after the Biography channel was introduced to cable television. That channel will have musician biography marathon weekends and I don’t leave my chair, I just sit, all weekend, and watch musician stories. And drink beer,” he added, to help sound masculine.
She appreciated the manly detail he added. And she liked biographies too. She loved tales of drug lords and gangsters, musicians, writers, and anyone who had made it big, fallen and then picked themselves back up to become famous again. “I haven’t had cable in years,” she admitted. “One weekend, a friend of mine traveled and asked me to feed her cat while she was away. I agreed, even though Sunday is usually my only day with a few hours off from work. It turned out to be a great thing because my friend had cable. I watched a Trading Spaces marathon that gave me hundreds of ideas on how to design the house I’ll own some day. If I own a house. I guess living in New York, there’s no need to think about house hunting.”
He nodded and shrugged in agreement. She continued to provide meticulous detail about the Trading Spaces show and his mind wandered off. Thinking of the musician biography weekend reminded him of how he loved music and had dreamed of being a drummer when he was a child. When he had to choose between a drum set and a baseball glove, his dad decided the mitt was what he needed, effectively eliminating his first real decision. He subconsciously noticed a pattern to his dad’s decision-making for him, so much so that when he was given a chance to join the middle school band, he didn’t ask his parents. He came home and told them, “I’m in the band.” His mother beamed with pride and smiled, his dad’s jaw dropped as he realized his young son was now a young man who was starting to make decisions on his own. And his first decision was to be a young man with a horn.
Tony practiced playing his trumpet almost as much as he played catch. Each day he carried his mitt in his backpack and proudly dangled his dinged up, on-loan bugle as he walked home from the bus stop. The music he made came with ease and and he recognized quickly he was in the correct section of the band; the director was a former trumpet player and the best in the band were usually trumpet players. He placed extreme value on his mouthpiece, keeping it clean, and dry, and always in his sight. By the time he was in high school he was accustomed to his baseball friends poking fun at him, calling him a band geek and constantly trying to get under his skin about liking music. What they didn’t know was how the most average looking guy was considered ‘hot’ by the band geek girls, and the band geek girls were very curious and creative. Long before any of his buddies had made it to first base with their girlfriends, he had been promised the opportunity to insert a popsicle in his regular band girl, before he inserted his penis in her. He smiled thinking of how much a mess that was and how naive he was to think it would work, but there was no way in hell he wasn’t going to try. He wondered if Lenni was creative.
“It got to the point I was certain HGTV was showing the same episode over and over, but I’m pretty sure I was just on a Trading Spaces overload,” she wrapped up her story with a smile. He assumed her final comment was meant to be funny, so he returned the smile and tried not to wonder if she would have sex with him in the bathroom. But he wondered it anyway.
The trip was nearly to the midpoint and had been going smoothly. Tony had shared his love of music and explained why he had seen Tool in concert every year after the first time he saw them. She had no idea what kind of music Tool played, so she determined it was best to redirect the conversation, or listen to her book. Telling him she liked the angry phase of music Ani DiFranco made probably meant as much to him as a Grateful Dead fan understanding that Mariah Carey’s latest hit contained midtempo ballads that reignited her career. There wasn’t going to be a connection.
Tony was a nice guy and seemed to be trying to keep a conversation going in the right direction. She couldn’t take a train ride anymore without prompting memories of her trips home in college.
A bulky, tan, curly headed man sat beside her and she couldn’t help thinking he must have played football in the past. He had thick hands, as if they were swollen, and his traps resembled a rope. She hoped he would talk to her simply because his build was a direct contradiction to his outfit — blue jeans, button down shirt, loafers without socks and a blue blazer, capped off with a leather professor bag, broken in like an old pair of cleats with buckled clasp closures in the front and a shoulder strap that looked as if it would snap at any moment. She could only imagine that any story he might share with her would be as vintage as that bag, and she was not wrong.
He told her Brian was his name and he had just returned from a vacation to Johannesburg. “Do you travel much?” he asked not bothering to hear her response. “Johannesburg was wonderful, I highly recommend going there at least once in your lifetime.”
Thanks, she thought, but for now I’ll just try to see the Grand Canyon and maybe figure out why anyone would want to go to Montana. Visit Vermont and check out New Mexico, heck, maybe even visit Las Vegas, all before before I take a trip to South Africa.
Brian worked for ESPN, which she assumed was fitting because of his build. Just like the bag and the outfit, she was surprised to learn that he was a writer for the ESPN Outdoors division, informing the masses about fishing and hunting. She had dated a guy last semester that woke up every weekend and turned on the half-hour hunting programs and her father had often watched fishing shows, which she assumed he did mostly just to torture the rest of the family with his remote control power. She had never considered people actually made a career from those types of television programs, or that they had a division for that type of content at ESPN.
A husband with 12 kids, Brian was so in love with reading his college teammates — she was right, he played football — would pick on him for staying in to read a good book on the weekends instead of going out on the town to party and meet women. His new favorite thing was picking up old, hardback books from used bookstores and selling them on eBay for a profit. That way he could read a good book and make money on it. He was currently reading an amazing find that focused almost entirely on monkeys and giraffes. He expected to make a serious profit on it after he was finished reading it.
Monkeys and giraffes? She loved the whacky stories that people would tell but she couldn’t believe this guy.
Brian had been married three times and worked as often as he could because he really didn’t like kids. His trip to Johannesburg was alone, he left his family home while he took a break.
Sounds like a man with real morals and a strong sense of obligation. She was done listening.
Brian assumed she was young and hadn’t lived in New York long and he was correct. “How do you like New Yorkers?” he asked.
“They are fine,” she quipped.
She couldn’t believe the obsession New Yorkers had with hand sanitizer. Everyone had a bottle of the gel-like substance, on their desks, in their car, women even carried a bottle in their purses. Some had the bottle with the pump and she would watch as people would squirt three or four dollops, swish it around, discard the drips onto the floor and rub the excess up their arms. These people were obsessed with germ killing, bringing to her attention that the soap industry had a booming business which relied on people who actually wanted to kill germs. Professors didn’t take coffee breaks, they took wash-up breaks, chatting over whimsical events while rubbing their hands together with sanitizer.
She had not totally picked up on this habit. Even when the dorm bathroom ran out of soap and it was replaced with germ killing hand sanitizer, she could not get with the program. She wanted to wash her hands with soap and water, use two sheets of paper towels to dry her hands and be done with it. But when the soap was gone, the new phenomenon was forced on her; the only choice to be clean after relieving herself was to finish with gel.
“Where’s the soap?” she asked one of the girls that lived on her floor.
“We have hand sanitizer in there,” was the response.
So she learned how to socialize over a bottle of Purell, discussing basic hand sanitizer details at great length.
“Is it non-alcoholic? What percentage of germs does it kill? Scented or non scented? Does it contain moisturizer? My hands are commonly dry and need lotion based cleanser.”
The obsession of germ prevention extended to other parts of her life. She worked out at the campus recreation center and took an indoor cycling class. She loved the loud music, combined with the dark room and neon lights that decorated the walls. And the workout was so intense, she was eager to attend class and take on the challenge presented to her. Once, an instructor began prepping for class. She wheeled her bike to the front of the room, checked the sound system, put her CD with the class playlist on it in the disc player, grabbed a clock and put it beside her bike and last, but not least, she opened her gym bag and pulled out a special mic cover, replacing the one that came with the microphone.
“I can’t help it,” she announced as the class pedals nearly came to a halt to hear her explanation. “I get sick when I use the same cover as everyone else. I can’t handle the idea of purposely inhaling so many germs.”
Lenni began determining who lived in New York based on their germicide actions. In the bathroom, if she heard the click-click sound created when pushing down to receive a toilet seat cover, the person wasn’t from New York. One of the earliest lessons her mother taught her, in regards to public restrooms, was to “build a nest,” thoroughly covering the seat with either toilet paper or the thin sheet of paper provided in the stall. No one in New York would build a nest to use the bathroom, squatting is the only way to go. A non-resident washes her hands, dries them with a towel, tosses the towel out and reaches for the door to leave. A resident washes her hands for 20 seconds, dries them with a towel, tosses out the towel, takes hand sanitizer out of her purse and puts on a layer of germ killer. She then waits for someone else to leave so she can quickly exit after her, only using her elbows as needed to keep the door open wide enough to exit.
Lenni nearly stayed home for good after a memorable trip her freshman year. She got a great seat on the train after hustling and bustling to get to the front of the mob and sprinting to be one of the first to board. She sat by the window and zoned out as she waited for the train to depart. And she waited and waited, and waited as the other passengers filled the train car. Miraculously, no one sat beside her. All seats around her were full as well as the rest of the car. She couldn’t believe her luck, it was the train before rush hour and she was sitting in a section by herself. This was perfect, she thought.
Moments later and moments before departing, she heard a scuffle, bags banging against the seats and bodies beating against one another. An entire Indian family was boarding and there were six seats left in that car. There were six people in the family, meaning her two open seats were about to be filled. She hoped she wouldn’t get two of the four children and her hope was filled. Three of the children and the mother passed her, filling the random single seats towards the front. A child sat beside her and smiled and shortly after the father sat down. She thought she heard a bell jingle as the family was sifting through the aisle but she couldn’t swear to it. When the father sat down, she confirmed she had heard a bell. The tap-tap of four legs and jingle jangle of a bell were in rhythm and turned out to be the family’s pet, she guessed. She looked closer and saw a goat. With hooves, a beard, curly tail, horns extended from the ears and wiry, coarse fur, it was most certainly a goat. And it was going on the four-hour train ride, in the aisle beside her section. She didn’t know for certain if the animal was a pet and she had no desire to ask; however, at that time in her life she believed in signs and she could only assume this was a sign to stay out of New York. The entire city was full of germophobic nuts and she ended up with an unsanitary farm animal beside her on a train. Someone was sending her a message. When she expressed her fear of returning to school with her parents she learned quickly what signs were important — the ones her parents sent. She went back to college on Sunday evening and wondered if she would ever have a traveling story to beat the oddness of that experience.
A trip her sophomore year came close to matching the goat oddity. She sat beside a middle aged man with light brown, wavy hair and light, freckled skin. She assumed he was tall because his head was above hers when seated. He turned and looked at her as she arranged her bag under the seat.
“Hay,” he said. “How ya doin’?”
“Me? I’m doin’ pretty good for a fella that just finished up his first trip to the Big Apple,” he explained, without her asking. “Yeah, I’m fixin’ to get back home to Florida.”
She found it hard to believe a southern accent as thick as his was originally from Florida, so, despite her desire to avoid mingling with passengers, she decided to ask. “Florida? I didn’t think anyone was from Florida?”
“Well ya figured me out rill quick. I’m from Aluhbama ahridgeinally. Roll Tide!” He smiled while she attempted to decipher what he had shared with her.
“Where you frum?”
“Washington D.C. Maryland, really.”
“Born n raised thair?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly, hoping he would take the hint that she didn’t really want to continue chatting. He didn’t.
His name was Jesse and he was a safety director for a large construction company in Orlando. He thought it was ironic he ended up overseeing the safety of a company after all the risky incidents he experienced as a kid.
“When I turned 16 I got my drivers purmit darn near the first thing.”
Was that a sentence?
“I got a muscle car, a tuff, fast, steel beast of a car. I’d take that thang out and beg people to race me. One Friday night after a football game I was driving home, innocently enuff, when a copper flashed his blues at me.
Good Lord in Heaven, what is he saying?
“I coulda pulled over. But it was pitch black out and there weren’t no other cars around so I floored the gas pettle. I headed right twards the country roads I thought I knew better’n anyone else and I had that cop all over the road. Dust was streamin’ up from his path like clouds of smoke poofin’ out from a chimcall plant.”
“And speakin’ of chimcall plants, I was closin’ in to the entrance of the Arkema plant but I soomed I could make the turn with no hitches. I reckon the sirens blarin’ caused me to lose focus. I tried to turn left but I fish-tailed all over the place, ended up overcompensatin’ and wheeled right into the security fence around the plant. I didn’t drive again til I was 18 and now, here I am, overseein’ the safety of a construction company.”
He smiled and she couldn’t believe this guy had all of his teeth. “Well, I guess we all learn from our experiences.”
Jesse explained how he went to juvy, lost his permit for a year, retook the test and got his license when he was 18. He talked about the lesson he learned and the overwhelming feeling that came over him to compete with the police – to race them – never considering that he might lose the race and the consequences he would face if he didn’t get away.
He talked the entire way to Union Station.
He told her about his mama’s sweet tea and that no other person on earth could make it as sweet as she could. He shared that his brother had made a killing thanks to the dot com bubble and wished he would have invested a little bit of the small amount of money he had at the time in America Online. He talked about the drinking binges he would go on as a student at the University of Alabama and that he couldn’t believe he used to step outside of the bar to throw up so he had room to drink more. He professed that the movie Forrest Gump did not help the Crimson Tide image and he educated her on the true meaning of being a deacon at a Baptist church.
“All the deacons are the important people in town,” he told her, somehow cleaning up his southern drawl for what she assumed was a serious conversation topic. “The deacons actually run the church, voting on decisions those in the congregation thought they had made. Religion, at least where I come from, is the most politically charged institution in the south. Well, religion and football. I heard that coach Fran left Alabama because one of the Board of Trustees wanted him gone, not that he resigned to take the Texas A&M job because of NCAA sanctions. But, back to the deacons…”
Will this end, who is coach Fran and how did I end up beside an angry southern Baptist?
“The crazy thing about the deacons is that in truth, they are the least concerned with their Christianity. Friday night, they get together and play drinking games; Saturday they go fishin’ and drink all day. Sunday morning they are up bright and early, headed to church. It’s quite the contradiction. I heard the most popular game they played was that Gone With the Wind drinking game. Have you heard of it?”
“Um, not exactly. I mean, I’ve heard of the movie, but not the drinking game. But honestly, I don’t know anything about the movie, other than the title.”
“What?!” he said, loudly enough to make people look in their direction. “Girl, you have got to be kiddin’ me.”
“No, I’m not. Why is that so hard to believe?”
“Well, geez. In Alabama, everyone’s seen Gone with the Wind. Hell, my middle name is Rhett.”
“Who is Rhett?” she asked, fearfully.
“Aww, sweetie, I can’t believe this. Well, the drinking game isn’t gonna make much sense to ya but Rhett is one of the main characters. And Scarlett. Anyhow, it’s this famous movie made in 1939 and people still watch it. The deacons would watch it with a nice bottle of whisky and a few sets of rules. First, every time Scarlett says an antiquated swear word, they had to do a shot.”
“An antiquated swear word?” she asked.
“Yea, like, ‘great balls of fire’ or ‘fiddle-dee-dee’ were curse words back then. Apparently, Fiddle-dee-dee would mean, and pardon my French, ‘aw fuck it’ in today’s slang. So, any word like that, they had to do a shot. Any time someone gets slapped and any time the word ‘gentleman’ is said, all result in whisky shots for those playing the game. And these deacons would watch the movie and play that game 40 times a year. Yet they are the most important people in town, and at church.”
She smiled as he became more and more engaged with his own stories. I’m so glad I didn’t go to college in Georgia or Alabama. Cultural shock might have killed me. Then again, New York has been nothing but shock since I arrived here.
Jesse Rhett continued talking and eventually went into a rant about slaves and the Civil War but she had quit listening, only nodding and smiling to be courteous and respectful while trying to determine how she ends up beside these characters when traveling.
Tony had taken a power nap while Lenni was having flash backs over the last 15 minutes. He head-jerked and he quickly tried to catch himself, waking himself up. He wiped his mouth, in case he had drooled — thankfully he had not — and he squinted a smile her way.
“So you have an interview this weekend. What do you have going on next weekend?” he asked, hoping that didn’t sound like he was asking her out. Unless of course she wanted to go out with him. “Any games or sports going on at St. John’s?”
“No. Well, yes. Both basketball teams are on the road, which is rare. I’ll have to set the gym up for the baseball team to practice, but really, the big thing I have going on is at my alma mater.”
“What big thing is that?”
“We have an alumni game before the women’s game on Saturday.”
“I thought you said you quit the team.”
“I did quit the team. I don’t think I should be invited to the game either.”
“Oh, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t be invited,” he interjected.
“Well, I think it is unusual to invite someone who quit a team to an alumni game. But apparently the new coach is in hot pursuit of building a stronger fan base and is searching for people who might be donors.”
“Ah ha,” he shook his head with a sign of understanding.
“So, I guess in reality, anyone that wanted to play in this alumni game could, if they donated to the team, played on the team at some point, or played on the team for four years. It seems unfair to the true alumni.”
He nodded in agreement. “I imagine you can still hold your own on the court, right? There shouldn’t be hesitation to attend based on that reason.”
“Ha!” she laughed out loud at his compliment. “I guess I can still run, sort of, so I can probably still play. I didn’t do much more than box out and drop step anyhow.”
He didn’t know how to respond and wondered why women always turn down compliments. He wasn’t trying to make her uncomfortable and he was being genuine. It did look as if she could play basketball. No body language course or lie-telling seminars could explain the mysteries women present.
“I still haven’t decided if I am going. I think I will though, just to see the freak show.”
His eyebrow went up and he repeated, “The freak show?”
“Yep. Turns out my college roommate, who was a teammate of mine, decided to get a sex change after we graduated. No one knew about it, we just noticed on her Facebook page that she went from being Charlene to being Charles. She didn’t really look much different, she was very butch to begin with, but she confirmed with a Facebook note exactly why she was going by Charles.”
His mouth was slightly open as if he had just spoken but no words came out.
“I guess I lived with a girl who thought she was a boy and when she got tired of pretending, she made the big change. We weren’t exactly close, we tolerated one another as teammates and roommates, but it seems like a change like that shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did.”
His mouth remained open.
“I don’t imagine that seeing her. Or is it him? I don’t imagine seeing Charles is going to be a freak show. But I am thinking if Charles decides to play in the alumni game, it might get a little weird.”
Finally, Tony blinked. But he still had nothing to say.
“It’s funny. We live in New York and there are so many people around us, so much diversity. But when we are put in situations like this one is going to be, you never know how people will react. After my freshman year, I never thought twice about people interacting. I expected to see something I had never seen every day and I didn’t consider any one person to be ‘wrong’ if they weren’t like me. When I started working, I guess because I was still at NYU, my attitude was the same; everyone was equal. But when I started working at St. John’s, things were different. There was judgement everywhere, from everyone. I didn’t want people to know that I had friends who were Presbyterian, so there was no way I wanted people to know I knew someone who was transgender. I don’t think my attitude towards those people changed but I became much more secret about who I knew. The people at St. John’s would die if an alum decided to get a sex change and wanted to come to an alumni game. They probably would have security at the door to prevent him or her from entering the building. Of course, the coach at NYU is nothing like the folks at St. John’s. She wants Charles to come. If she … if he had enough money to get a sex change he probably has some money to donate to the program. But how will people know who he is? He will be listed as Charlene in the game program. Where will he change? There are transgender bathrooms on campus, but which lockerroom will he use to prepare for the game? I just don’t know what is going to happen. I think I’ll go just to find out.”
Finally, Tony said something. “I don’t know what to say.”
“I know, and I understand,” she concurred.
“Where are you interviewing?” Tony asked, redirecting the conversation away from the transgender alumni basketball game.
“I’m interviewing with the Washington Nationals,” she replied. “I’m nervous, I have to sit down with Barry Larkin for part of the interview.”
“Barry Larkin? Wow, that’s awesome. What is the job your are pursuing?”
“It’s a dream, really. I still can’t believe they have a position like this, but, the Nationals have an on-site fitness center. All of the managers, players, and employees of the organization are members and they need a person to manage and direct the facility. My event management and experience at the NYU rec center has given me the perfect background for this job. I just can’t believe a job like this actually exists.”
“Who knew?” he asked, in agreement.
“Not me. I thought I would be stuck working college sporting events for the rest of my life. Now, if I can land this job, I can stay connected to sports but eliminate a lot of the stress associated with college athletics. At least I hope. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I guess I should just get through the interview.”
“Are you ready, I mean, prepared?” he asked. “Do you know what you want to do five years from now?” He smiled, hoping she understood the levity of his inquiry.
“I’m ready for all of the standard questions. I think I have all of the bases covered with my transferrable skills. And I’ve brushed up on the team a little bit. A friend of mine interviewed with a Major League Baseball team and they quizzed him on things like the last time they went to the World Series and in what league they played. So I’m ready for curveball questions that may be thrown my way as well.”
“And you’ve got your puns all lined up,” he said.
“Yes,” she smiled. “I just hope the interview is a can of corn.”
The train began to slow as it pulled into Union Station in Washington D.C. She reached for her bag and wrapped the headphones wire around her hand and waited for the complete stop.
“Best of luck to you, Lenni,” he said. “I hope you get your dream job.”