Subway Buddies

I think I’ve decided that Nora Ephron is going to be my new 2014 subway buddy. Really, she’s perfect for the task. She’s smart, and funny, and tells great stories–anyone who’s had three husbands, met JFK in person, and written When Harry Met Sally is bound to have some truly Grade-A stories, and when that person is also a great short-essay writer, well, how can you go wrong? I can’t think of anyone better to enjoy my commute with.

I think Nora will really enjoy the Metro. She’s a New Yorker, so she’ll be impressed with how much cleaner and easier to understand the Metro is than the New York subways. She’ll probably giggle at the ‘70’s carpet on most of the cars, but out-of-towners always do that. Nora and I can swap stories of our underwhelming meetings with famous womanizing presidents (she was disappointed to learn that she may have been the only intern Kennedy never hit on, while Bill Clinton wasn’t even the tiniest bit flirtatious when we met. Although in all fairness, I was eight years old at the time). We can even play Metro games, like guessing at people’s occupations, or trying to spot a man under 40 who can wear a suit without looking like the guy on top of a wedding cake. We’ll have a wonderful time together.

Please don’t bring up the fact that Nora Ephron tragically passed away in 2012. Or the fact that I never met her when she was alive. These are irrelevant. Being physically present is a totally unnecessary quality in a subway buddy. In fact, it’s rather discouraged. There’s never any worry about one of us running late, or getting on a different car by mistake. If I had a bad day and don’t want to talk about it, she won’t pester me to tell her what’s wrong, but can cheer me up with a funny sweet story about her uncle or the people in her old apartment building. If I feel like chatting with the person sitting next to me, or texting my friends instead of spending time with my subway buddy, she won’t feel hurt or jealous. It’s a beautifully simple relationship.

I have another subway buddy, of course, who’s quite different. It’s Erin Morgenstern. She’s not as boisterous as Nora, and is not really into Metro games or swapping stories about our weekends, but she can make the whole world fall away so beautifully. Her background is in visual arts, and it shows. She’s only written one novel so far,  The Night Circus, but it’s incredibly lovely, and luckily it has almost no plot. A great novel with no plot is truly an underrated thing. When a book’s whole strength rests in its plot, you read it once, enjoy the story, and then you’re done. There’s very little point in going back. But with a book where the plot is secondary or even incidental to things like great characters or an extraordinary setting, you can go back plenty of times and still thoroughly enjoy yourself. That’s how it is when I’m riding the Metro with Erin–I’m spending a few minutes completely forgetting I’m on a train, looking into a beautiful place with characters I love, and what they’re doing doesn’t really matter.

A good subway buddy is harder to find than you think. I’ve tried dragging J.R.R. Tolkein along with me, but he’s so bothered by the noise, and how the trip ends just as he and his cast of hobbits and elves and the like are getting comfortable, that it just seemed cruel to subject him any further. Jane Austen gets motion sickness and trips over her petticoat. Neil Gaiman keeps forgetting that this is the Metro, not the London Underground, thank you very much. And Douglas Coupland’s complaints about consumer culture seem more depressing than funny if you’re listening to them while underground in a metal tube.

But no matter. Nora and Erin and I will suit each other just fine. I think the two of them will get along, even if they are so different. And it will be nice, at the end of a long day, to descend the Metro escalators (there’s a Bob Dylan song I always think of when I’m on those escalators), swipe my farecard, pull out my Kindle, and see my subway buddies waiting for me.

Native Daughter

Here’s the thing about being a DC native. It makes it hard to read the paper.

After reading Sam Youngman’s “Take This Town and Shove It,” and Chris Cillizza’s rebuttal, “Why Washington Journalism Doesn’t Suck,” I felt, along with deeply identifying with Mr. Cillizza, a familiar muscle twitch near my right cheekbone. It was the same muscle that twitches when I hear some politician talk about “the Beltway crowd,” or boast about how they’re not a “Washington insider.” But to give some more perspective, I should start with a little background story:

Welcome to June 2011. It is 3pm on Capitol Hill, and if one more person asks me “what I think of DC” or “isn’t this so different than where you’re from?,” I will, in a symbolic if not particularly effective gesture, bash them repeatedly over the head with a copy of my birth certificate.

When I interned for Congress the summer after my freshman year of college, I still had absolutely no perspective on how most of the country thinks of DC. I was born in the city, and there were enough DC transplants attending my university alongside me that I didn’t think myself unusual. On the Hill, though, the other summer interns were often mystified to hear that not only was I a DC native, but that anyone was, that such people even existed. They thought everyone in DC had moved here to work in politics. Forgetting the classism involved in such sentiments (surely you’ve noticed the thousands of blue-collar workers who keep this city of over half a million people running?), this kind of talk always hit a nerve with me.

That internship was the first time it really hit me that large swaths of the country know Washington for its political scene, but don’t really recognize that there’s a city full of people here, too. This would bother me far less if the people who think of Washington as a political ambition playground or a place to spend a few years after college before moving to a “real” city didn’t have the habit of moving here, seeking out a somewhat ridiculous way of life, acting surprised when they find it, and then blaming my hometown for getting them into this mess.

“Take This Town and Shove It,” struck me as a perfect example of this phenomenon. Youngman’s story was a repackaged version of an age-old tale: ambitious young person comes to the big city, gets caught up in the decadent life, finds that the life they’ve sought out is unfulfilling, and must return to the humble roots of their original passion. There are movies about this–from “Moneyball” to “The Devil Wears Prada.” The only bizarre part was that Youngman seemed to think his dissatisfaction with his time in DC was due to some inherent evil present in the city or its “culture,” as opposed to a fairly typical reaction for anyone who lets their ambitions run away too far with them.

This is simply nonsense. Growing up here, in an upper-middle-class environment, I knew plenty of people, mostly the parents of people I went to school with, who worked in government or journalism, and they were not particularly different from anyone in any other profession. They certainly weren’t whiny, lecherous boozehounds like some of Youngman’s acquaintances appear to have been, or scheming “Beltway insiders” like a politician might make a speech about. To my admittedly untrained eye, they seemed like people who went to work every morning, helped their kids with homework at night, and watched football on the weekends. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Insidious Beltway Insiders!

I understand that this phenomenon is not unique to DC. Poor New York is a symbol of about a dozen lifestyle stereotypes, and certainly fills to the gills with people looking to embody them. (At this point, you will be unsurprised to hear that I have friends in New York, and while they range all manner of occupations from software engineers to comics artists, none of them are portraits in flashy debauchery, nor would they make good fodder for a tv show about “New York Dreams”) But at least there’s a counterbalancing stereotype of the curmudgeonly native New Yorker, so popularized by Woody Allen. Perhaps DC needs a famous filmmaker to write it a few love songs?

Chris Cillizza worried about looking like a “Villager” defending his tribe. I suppose what I am trying to say here is that I am exactly that. This city is my village. I saw “Peter Pan” at the Kennedy Center when I was barely old enough to walk. I was horrified at the age of ten to learn that in most cities, people have to pay admission to go to museums. I was more delighted with Teddy finally winning a race than with the actual Nationals victories that preceded it. So please, when you write about Washington, please try not to portray it as merely an oozing blob of toxic “culture.” There is a city here as well, and it’s one I’m happy to claim as my hometown.