False Start

FOR THE WEEK OF JANUARY 5-11, 2014

I lunged forward at the sound of the starter pistol, only to be halted short of the finish line. No one knew where it was supposed to go.

One week ago I sat on the couch at home in Corona, California, bags packed and ready for my departure to Washington, DC. I was to fly out of Long Beach at 10pm for a red-eye and, after a layover in Boston, arrive in DC at 9am. The time had come and I was ready. For several days prior the whole country had heard about the great storms tearing across the Northeast and Midwest, but little had been made about how it might affect flights to Washington—or at least until I had to fly there.

With just hours before my scheduled departure, I got an alert from JetBlue on my iPhone telling me that my flight had been delayed to 3am. With some relief, I silently celebrated the few extra hours I had to spend with my family. I leaned back from the edge of the couch and exhaled. We made alternate arrangements to drive to the airport and had it all figured out when yet another alert came through. This was the big one.

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Like an endurance runner training for a big marathon, I spent months mentally preparing to take the next big step in my life and move to Washington, DC for a nearly three-month internship. I had never lived beyond the confines of Southern California’s suburban Inland Empire, nor had I spent any considerable time away from my friends and family. My fears grew as time passed and my departure date approached. By December, when my last quarter on campus at the University of California, Riverside drew to a close, it seemed as though I were saying goodbyes every day. It took a while for it to set in that those goodbyes were a little more permanent than usual.

We say goodbye all the time. After spending an evening hanging out with friends or a holiday gathering with family, the goodbyes are always so temporary. They come with the comfort of knowing those people aren’t so far away, and seeing them again is as easy as a short drive down the freeway. But the goodbyes I had been giving were much more significant, and it didn’t set in that the next time I would see the most important people in my life would be, at the earliest, in two and a half months. That’s what I slowly came to terms with by the night my flight was cancelled.

My family and I had an unexpected guest at the dinner table that night: JetBlue’s customer service holding music on speakerphone. We waited to get through to schedule a new flight for nearly two hours. Their choice of music could use some work. Might I suggest Slayer? Perhaps a selection from their seminal album Reign in Blood? It’s a record that furious customers could certainly identify with after having their flights cancelled and then put on hold for hours on end.

The soonest flight out of Southern California was scheduled to depart from San Diego on Thursday night—a full four days later than I had planned. We gritted our teeth at the thought of driving so far down south for my flight and just booked it, knowing we had to take whatever we could at this point.

Limbo

It’s a strange feeling to have. To ready yourself for such a big moment only to have it snatched away from you. I guess the closest I can describe my state of mind at the time was limbo. Where do you go? What do you do? I had a profound feeling of displacement that I hadn’t before experienced. I was supposed to be on the other side of the country, and I had responsibilities waiting there for me, yet I remained home without any capacity to fulfill them.

Have you ever said goodbye to someone only to find that you’re walking in the same direction to your cars? The awkwardness that follows of having to say goodbye once more captures just how the following four days felt. My departure coming and going as quickly as it did had disrupted my anticipation, and in many ways made me have to prepare all over again. Leaving didn’t feel so real anymore. I spent the next few days squeezing in more moments with loved ones, which I am so deeply grateful for, but those extra days made my trip that much more difficult. It’s hard to say goodbye, even harder to do it twice. I’m sure it was just as hard for the others as it was for me, and that’s what made it so bittersweet.

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We Have Liftoff

After a long day at UCR getting my affairs in order (that sounds a bit morbid doesn’t it?), returning library books and canceling my parking pass and on-campus rent—admittedly things I should have taken care of before my original departure—I was offered a parting gift from California in the form of brutal traffic on the way home to grab my bags and head to San Diego. So bad, in fact, that it took me two hours to make what is otherwise a 20-25 minute drive.

Never in my years of traveling on my own have I ever had a smooth flying experience. This isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of the problems have been out of my control. Sure, I’ve had my few almost-missed flights, but airport problems, weather interference, cancelled flights, and general disorganization on the part of airlines have made flying a consistently stressful task. This cancelled flight and subsequent delay only added to my frustration.

After a flurry of photos with family in front of the picturesque security checkpoint, San Diego International Airport loosened me from its clutches and allowed me to embark on the first leg of my grand quest.

Frost tarmac in Boston

Frosty tarmac in Boston

Bagels, Boston Style

I hate Boston. I’ve based this sentiment entirely on one experience in the Starbucks at Logan International Airport.

I had a bad feeling about Boston as soon as I stepped off the plane. I could hear the attitude in the air, or really over the intercom, as an airport employee angrily told a would-be passenger they’d be missing their flight, all in the thick Boston accent I had only heard in movies up until that point. I trudged on.

Let me be clear: I like bagels. They make a nice, quick breakfast. A fresh, warm, well-toasted bagel cannot be beaten. So I stopped at Starbucks during my layover at 5am EST (2am PST, mind you) to have a snack before my next flight. I ordered my cinnamon raisin bagel and was told it would be right out. Perfect.

My bagel was ready five minutes later. I eagerly grabbed it and ran to the terminal where my connecting flight awaited me, only to find that I had to go through security again, because that totally makes sense. After boarding and squeezing my overstuffed suitcase into the overhead compartment I sat down, took a deep breath and opened up my Starbucks bag, excited to dig in.

Now, I understand they were busy. They had lots of people to accommodate, in addition to the unhappy Bostonian who stood in the Starbucks, but just outside the line, and seemed to serve no other purpose than to publicly decry the coffee establishment and its patrons as “yuppie b******t” (his words). But not even a morning rush and cranky heckler can excuse what I pulled from the bag that morning.

Not only was my bagel untoasted, but it was ice-cold, rock hard, and hadn’t even been cut. This may seem like a minor inconvenience, but air travel can be demanding, especially a red-eye flight across the country, so the solace we early-morning journeymen seek in small things like a nicely toasted bagel is that much more meaningful.

Hungry and determined to somehow consume this doughy ring of disappointment, I tore the bagel in two and fought to spread the frozen butter in a battle that I did, in fact, win.

Goodbye Boston, and good riddance.

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Frozen river somewhere over Maryland.

Frozen river somewhere over Maryland.

Arrival

This past June, I was involved in an auto accident that left the car I’d driven since I was 16 in a crumpled mess. For the next six months I lived without my own private transportation, a feeling that reminded me of my first year in college when I opted to not pay the outrageous parking costs at UCR’s residence halls. After the accident, I joked with my friends that I had come full circle. Well if I hadn’t then, I certainly have now.

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I am living at the University of California Washington Center on Rhode Island Avenue, just a few blocks up 16th from the White House. It’s a nice building, albeit a little stuffy. The windows don’t open. For what is essentially a souped up dorm, the building is locked down like the Treasury. To get in the door, you must tap a magnetic key fob to a sensor outside. Once inside, you must present your official UCDC ID card to a bridge troll—I mean security guard—in order to pass. To get into the elevator, you must once again use the key fob, as well as on any floor if you want to use the stairs. Then of course there’s a key to enter the apartment, and then to enter the bedroom. By this point I was surprised they hadn’t padlocked the bed.

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Ready, Aim, Fire!

After 8 or so hours of traveling across the United States, all I wanted was a hot shower and a nap. I unpacked as much as I could before determining I could go no further without these very basic spoils of civilization. It was then that I realized I lacked both a towel and a pillow. Surely my flying experience had gone far too smoothly for me to get away with some rest. I had to work for it.

That night, in the pouring rain, I set off with a friend to Target. Our mission, should we choose to accept it: purchase bare necessities and transport them back to the UC Center.

One of the very first gripes I heard from other students upon landing in DC was the city’s 5 cent tax on plastic bags. Most everyone moaned about the inconvenience, so much so that they went and bought reusable bags, as if to game the system. Way to stick it to the man, folks.

It was after I had checked out and I stood  staring at the twenty bags in my cart that I realized there was no way two people could carry so much through the rain, onto the bus, and several blocks down the street. Overhearing our futile deliberations for transporting twenty Target bags several miles away entirely by hand, the cashier reached underneath the counter, handed me a grip of monstrous bags at no charge, and offered a mildly sarcastic “good luck.” I watched in awe as a halo appeared over her head and she flew out the door and into the clouds in the night sky.

We walked out of the store with four Target-branded bodybags. The bus driver offered a look of compassion at what was likely a familiar sight—soaking college students dragging way too much merchandise from much too far away.

There have been few accomplishments in my life that I rank as high as opening up the carton of eggs I stuffed in one of the bags that night, only to find all of them in their pristine, uncracked glory. Sometimes victory tastes a lot like an omelet.

Four Target bags the size of my body.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Looking Up

My first real day of exploring took place on Sunday, January 12. The day began with a trek to the Library of Congress on the Metro and through the rain near the Capitol. I first visited the Library several years ago on a family vacation, but I don’t think I fully absorbed the weight of the institution, from its history and purpose to the architecture, exhibits, and the very collection of media itself!

As anyone who has read Fahrenheit 451 knows, the trope of burning books is a powerful and symbolic one, with resonance in censorship, ideological conflict, and sheer terror. Until the mass digitization of our cultural products, one could literally destroy ideas by lighting a match.

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One of the biggest takeaways I had from the tour was that the Library of Congress is a physical testament to the importance of the book and of our national and cultural artifacts. When the Library was housed in the Capitol building, it was burned down not once, but twice, thanks to wars (particularly payback by the British in the War of 1812 for the US’ burning their similar library). After those fires, Congress determined the Library needed its own home, and one that was fireproof! Thus, the Library of Congress in its current incarnation was born.

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Library of Congress Reading Room

The elaborate palace-like building that sits across from the Capitol is considered by many to be the most beautiful building in Washington, DC and I’d have to agree. Every inch is coated in significance, from the entrance archway donning a young and an old scholar symbolizing the lifelong pursuit of knowledge, to the Americanization of Ancient Greek-style art and architecture (including paintings of American sports like baseball and football that adorn the corners of the ceiling, which would look just as appropriate in Athens as they do here).

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I found myself spending most of my time in the Library looking up. The feeling of raising your head and taking in what is above you is something I’ve noticed this town does very little of. Walking the streets, everyone has their head down, eagerly pacing toward their destination. The spirit of curiosity that lends itself to exploration and adventure doesn’t seem to have much of a place among the busy streets and stuffy buildings of Washington.

Some of the most wonderful parts of the Library are hidden above our heads. A stunning dome in the reading room looms above 12 statues of historical icons of scholarship that line the walls, illuminating the reading room below where today’s scholars (myself included) gather to produce new knowledge.

In the suburbs, any structure with a sense of architectural creativity stands out from the pervasive tilt-up industrial parks and strip malls. In DC, the streets are lined with big, ornate, expensive buildings that in any other context would draw admiration for miles around. Until I started looking up, I’d so easily walk right past an architectural gem without even batting an eye. For having been in town for a week, I got upset at myself for not appreciating the urban spoils that are feats of industrial design on every block. From impressive lobbies and building materials to unique signage and colors of windows, I quickly took notice of my surroundings and lifted my eyes from the sidewalks to the skyscrapers. I’m really glad I did.

Atrium of the Library of Congress

Atrium of the Library of Congress

Frosty Cupcakes

That evening the UC Center hosted a field trip to the famous cupcake shops in Georgetown. I piled onto one of two buses along with about 100 other students and headed across town, prepared for a pastry-packed pilgrimage.

Our first stop, Baked & Wired, is the hole-in-the-wall hipster haven that I blame for my newfound admiration of the cupcake. For years, thanks in part to TV shows and a crop of new gourmet shops, cupcakes have taken hold of the dessert scene in a way that was completely lost on me. Ever since I was a child I ate cupcakes with reluctance, always secretly wishing the next would somehow match the satisfaction I got from a piece of cake, but ultimately left me disappointed and messy. Do you eat it with your hands? No one ever seemed to use a fork, and doing so seemed as awkward as using a fork to eat pizza or any other finger food.  I don’t miss unwrapping the cupcake and lifting it to my face, fiddling with it to position the right bite with minimal frosting on my nose. It was more work than it was worth, so when shops like Sprinkles and Casey’s Cupcakes took my peers by storm, I looked away.

Strawberry cupcake from Baked & Wired. (Before)

Strawberry cupcake from Baked & Wired. (Before)

I’m here today to tell you I’m a changed man. I have seen the light. In came to me in the form of a perfectly crafted, moist, sweet, smooth, strawberry cupcake. It was unlike any cupcake I had ever had. The frosting was creamy and sweet, which complemented the vanilla cake and real strawberries perfectly. Six other students and I shared our cupcakes with one another and each seemed uniquely satisfying in its own way. In the company of others digging into their cupcakes with forks, it felt right. My life in DC was starting to feel right.

Strawberry cupcake from Baked & Wired. (After)

Strawberry cupcake from Baked & Wired. (After)

Courtesy of Sprinkles Cupcakes.

Courtesy of Sprinkles Cupcakes. Woof.

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