Monthly Archives: March 2015

Well, Shit (Or, Fire on the C Train)

The woman next to me on the subway is reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I’m not normally one to talk to others on the subway, but I can’t resist a good read. “What do you think so far?” I ask her, nodding at the book.

She seems as surprised to be spoken to as I am to be speaking to her. “Uh, um, it’s great?” Her voice has the uptake at the end that signals she would prefer to be left alone.

I sigh and return to my own book, slightly disappointed in myself that I am so desperate for human companionship that I’ll talk to strangers on the train. I have read precisely one page when the train slams to a stop so quickly that all of the passengers tumble into each other. One woman falls to the ground, and the man across from me quickly helps her up.

“That can’t be good,” he says.

“What?” someone asks.

“The only time the train ever stops like that is when someone pulls the emergency brake.”

The words have no sooner left his mouth than the door at the opposite end of the car opens and people begin to flood through. One of them is a tall brunette in a black jacket, pushing a stroller. “There’s sparks coming from the heater back there,” she announces to our whole car.

Of course, we all strain in our seats to look towards the back of the car.

The conductors radio each other using the overhead intercom.

Conductor One: “Someone pulled the emergency brake.”

Conductor Two: “Where?”

One: “Towards the back of the train.”

A man I can only assume to be the second conductor enters our car from the opposite door of where everyone flooded in. “Did one of you pull the cord?”

The stroller woman points behind her. “The heater was sparking.”

Two disappears in the direction stroller woman was pointing. Seconds later, we hear over the intercom, “Hey, we have a fire back here.”

Someone in the car squeals, while the rest of us remain huddled in our seats. Do we get up? Move towards the front of the train? Go out a window?!? I look out the window; we are at a crossroads on the tracks, a major interchange where trains come and go and switch lanes. The express train to Brooklyn is approaching on the right, and the express train to Queens is coming from the left. I hope they’ll see us. They come to a stop a safe distance away, and I say a little exclamation of thanks.

The side door to the car opens, and a handful of police officers pour in and jog in the direction where the second conductor disappeared. The train still isn’t moving. I can’t see anything; I wonder how bad the fire is. I wonder what will happen to us, if we will have to get out and run out the emergency subway exits. Past the waiting trains, past the inevitable tunnel people. Or if they’ll just make us sit. The baby in the stroller is crying. I don’t blame it. I wage a silent debate with myself over whether I should read my book or be ready to spring to action, and I elect to remain in a state of readiness.

“Hey, buddy,” we hear Two on the overhead. “Pull up to the next station so we can evacuate. We’re close to it, and there’s a bit of a situation back here.”

I can see smoke through the doorway to the next car. The woman next to me sees it too. She sets down American Gods and says, “Well, shit,” at the same time as I say, “That’s just what you want to hear over the loudspeaker.” Our words are the only words in the car. We all stare at the door as the train slowly lurches to life and winds for an agonizing minute that feels like an hour into the next station. The doors open as the train comes to a stop; I have never seen people exit so quickly. The American Gods woman and I walk a few paces to the opposite track and then turn to watch as smoke billows from the now open fire car. “Well, shit,” she says again.

“Well, shit,” I agree.

We stand to the side and watch as emergency workers come running down the stairs. There’s a hiss as they attack the fire, and the smoke increases. It isn’t going out right away. We are all ushered up the stairs and out into the open air. The American Gods woman goes one way, and I go the other. I will walk to my destination rather than try to catch another train, all the while wondering what would have happened to us had we not been so close to the next station. If we had been on a longer stretch of underground tunnel. If the people hadn’t noticed the sparks and pulled the emergency brake.

Everything is moment to moment here; this is what it means to live in New York. We share stories every day with people that we will never see again; we tell each other’s stories, and then we forget each other. We move on. Tomorrow, no one will remember that there was a fire on the C train. But today? I’ll own this story.

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Sometime, the World is Shit. But Sometimes, It’s Not.

I said to myself “I am not going to write tonight. I am going to drink and watch ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and feel sorry for myself.” Well, here we are. Drinking, watching “How I Met Your Mother.” And touching the laptop we promised we wouldn’t touch.

It was a weird week for me. I had a dream, in coming to graduate school. A dream that I was going to be as good of a student here as I was in undergrad, that I would be shiny and wonderful. That I would become a teaching fellow and eventually graduate and become a professor. All while working to publish the most wonderful essays and numerous books. I knew that this dream might not totally come true. But it’s still hard to realize that the paths I have to choose from are not the ones I thought they’d be. I don’t deal well when thing deviate from my master plan.

*

The first time I “taught” in front of the college classroom, it all went wrong. Really. All of it. It was first semester as an English 101 teaching assistant. I don’t remember anymore what the activity was; it fell sometime during our fallacy unit. The wrongness was a slow build. I starting the class with a journal activity, and no one would talk to me. Not planned. I fumbled around, trying to pull answers from them.

I looked at at my supervising professor for guidance. She didn’t give it to me; she wanted me to figure it out.

I tried to keep going. I plugged my laptop into the projector and turned on the display to show something on my screen, only to realize that the display settings on my laptop were accidentally on dual screen, and that the wallpaper on that second screen was a picture of my dead son. I ripped the plug out, but the picture remained on the projector. The class assumed, totally justified, that he was still alive. There was the usual “how cute” exclamations.

I looked to my supervising professor for guidance. She didn’t give it to me; she wanted me to figure it out.

I told myself I couldn’t cry in front of the class, that I would never come back from it. That I would never come back to that classroom, or maybe any classroom. So I soldiered on, and I plowed through the rest of the activity. Our class, a group that was never horribly talkative, did speak a little. I didn’t cry until I left the class day and was in the relative safety of my car. I cried because I was certain that, because things didn’t go the way I had expected, I had failed.

*

Graduate school is not going the way I thought it would. It’s not all bad. But it’s not all good. My school lied to me, and that really sucks. Teaching fellows are NEVER hired from my division of the school. In the words of the person I met with to discuss my lack of a fellowship, “Creative writing students aren’t needed.”

You read that right.

Creative writing students aren’t needed.

I could totally wrap my brain around that, in the moment. It has felt like, with my workshop professor this semester who I mildly idolize, I can do absolutely no right. I went first through the workshop process and submitted before class even began, so there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t format correctly. I didn’t bring a paper copy of my revision work to our first office hour. I didn’t bring plates when it was my turn to bring food. I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t. I became certain that she hated me.

*

My second time in front of the college classroom, I was better prepared for things to go wrong. I showed a video and led a discussion. The class still didn’t talk much, but I was more adept at pulling out of them the things that they needed to learn. I helped them to get to where they needed to be in the lesson with relatively little embarrassment on all parts.

I don’t remember how many times I looked at my supervising professor on that day. But I don’t think it was as many as my first teaching day.

*

“Creative writing students aren’t needed. If I was you, if I could do it all again, I would leave this town. I would never go into academia. I would stick to copy editing to supplement my own work.”

The person I was meeting with followed that by telling me to run. Literally. She told me to run. She was filled with advice, but the biggest thing that stuck out to me was that, if I wanted to teach, I should have gone into literature instead of creative writing. In order to teaching with an MFA, I need to publish many books. Not just one book. Many. And publishing books will make me expensive. It’s the ultimate paradox, because no institution wants to hire an expensive candidate.

Jobs in the creatives are slowly dwindling down to a scary sad minimum. They are few and far between. I thought that I was setting myself up, doing everything right, and that I would just … teach after graduation.

I thought wrong. I’m not going to be a teaching fellow, and there was never any chance of my being a teaching fellow. I am now on my own to pay for next year’s tuition, sans teaching stipend.

I left that meeting certain that I had made absolutely every wrong life choice in the book.

*

One of the last times I was in front of the college classroom, I was a second semester teaching assistant. And a total different person. I was more confident, more prepared. I showed a video clip from “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” and used it to teach the class how to first write a profile, and then a paper proposal. It was a great activity all around. The class clicked with the video clip. They clicked with me; I clicked with them. They clicked with the concepts.

They understood me, and what I was trying to say.

I didn’t look at my supervising professor ONCE during that lesson. As a matter of fact, I think she purposefully sat off to the side so she wouldn’t look at me. I did it on my own, and it was the best that I ever did.

I got to my love of being in front of the college classroom by traveling a winding, occasionally shitty, road. It wasn’t always the road I thought it would be; I thought that I’d be perfect right away, and I wasn’t.

But I got there. Eventually.

*

I’m not as good a student here as I was in my undergraduate. I’m still an A student, but I’m a totally different A student. I’m doing a LOT of other things while balancing my classes. I am holding three jobs (four if you count temporary nanny work) just to make sure my rent gets paid and I get fed without taking an excessive amount out in loans. My old friends all have glorious graduate programs that fund them, so they don’t have jobs apart from their teaching and their studies. They can be the students that they always were; they can be great. It’s hard for me to talk to them, to admit how hard this really is, because they’re happy. Their programs are great. They are great. I’m just here. I walk dogs: I write food blogs; I copy edit all the things. This week, I’m a nanny. And I still barely live on what I have each month. The city is expensive. Graduate school is expensive.

I am worried that I have too many balls in the air. That I’m not great anymore. It’s a scary, occasionally lonely thing, to know that I made this decision, to come here, and that I have to own it, despite the fact that it is NOT what I thought it would be.

I had a much needed conversation with a good friend tonight. It’s amazing how our relationship has evolved; it feels like I’ve known her forever, but it’s only been two years. One semester in her class, followed by two semester where she was the supervising professor to my teaching assistant. Somewhere along the way, she gave me the confidence to come to grad school. To go for what I wanted; to become a writer, and someday, a professor. And today, she gave me confidence once again.

“Have you thought about it?” she asked me. “Next year? Going to Iowa?”

“They wouldn’t take me now. You just don’t turn down Iowa. And it would be starting over, with [debt amount edited to protect my emotional sanity].”

“I wonder if you wouldn’t be saying the same things, wherever you are. If you wouldn’t have regrets.”

This is the most truthful thing I’ve heard all week.

My MFA credits will not transfer if I leave for a different program. I would start completely over, but my debt from this year would come with me. I don’t want this year to be a waste. There are good parts to my program to go along with the boatloads of bad. My workshop is incredibly challenging in that it pushes me to my very boundaries as a writer. And my seminar? It’s just amazing and incredible. For the first time since I’ve been here, I’m being asked to really think. To push myself. These are the good things.

This week, I was told that I will never be a college professor. Maybe I’m not going down the path I thought I was. But who ever is? The path to “getting there” is long and windy and bumpy and takes a lot of detours. I still think I can get there some day, though. And when I do, I would love to send that woman I talked to an email and tell her just how wrong she was.

Sometimes, the world is shit. But sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, the path is direct. But most of the time? It’s not. And the truth is, we learn more on the indirect path than we ever would traveling in a straight line.

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