“Attention: Train 217 approaching.”
Every morning at the Santa Clara Caltrain station, the commuters act as turnsoles. All rotate to face the sunrise. All look to see what color it is today.
It could be described as beautiful if it wasn’t set against the decrepit shit-scape of junkyards, frat-houses and storage units of Santa Clara, CA. Empty sidewalks reflect a pastiche of painted light. Crushed cans of Keystone catch the glint of early-day–scattered in memoriam of squandered potential and class-attendance records. Rows of corrugated steel conceal forgotten musty boxes and twilight memories.
Maybe this whole scene is actually very pretty. Maybe I’m just too bitter to see—I don’t want to be here.
Every day I walk to the Santa Clara Caltrain station to catch either the 6:27 or the 7:01 northbound train—more often the 7:01, as the lack of sleep and ninety minute commute is beginning to wear on me, and my 5:14 alarm is oft finding itself impotent—muted and snoozed.
Every day I walk through the campus of my old alma mater, next to which I live. It smells of landscape, and the mustached maintenance men tacitly acknowledge me as I walk past a row of tall shrubberies that smell heavily of the salty Italian prosciutto I eat every Easter. Strange that something green can smell so pink.
After passing through campus like a prisoner who’s served his time, free to go but unable to leave, I cross El Camino Real, saunter past Starbucks, past Cramer’s Bagels, around the bend by the Railway Museum—whose bathroom is, to my dismay, always locked when I need it most—past the large black man whose corpulence is so amplified by his down jacket that he looks more boulder than human, past the man in the wheelchair who is panhandling and wishes me a good day—every day—ultimately to descend a set of concrete stairs, cross under a half-pipe tunnel of tan cement and walk towards a circular school-bus mirror that balloons out and distorts me more dramatically the nearer I get.
Past my fisheye reflection, I turn right and ascend another set of concrete steps to reach the Northbound platform. In doing so, I am always—always—met by the northbound “bullet” train, which speeds past and inundates me with wind and dopplering sound so loud and offensive that it feels a personal affront—like the train is taunting me. It knows how irritating its horn is. It knows that I can see it perfectly well, that the horn serves no purpose but to make my recently-awakened heart clench into a fist in my chest and take my jaw from drowsily slack to tensely aware—aware that today is only Tuesday. Aware that I will repeat this ritual three more times before I sleep my Saturday away. Aware that I will spend my Sunday dreading the looming Monday where I’ll repeat this whole damn thing again.
Almost more unpleasant than the noise of the passing train is the snailish passing of time as I wait the seven or eight minutes for my train to arrive. There is the same crowd—the short, stout and goateed Californian man, in his heather grey zip-up hoodie and 49ers baseball cap, who is fond of re-telling stories to whoever makes the rookie mistake of sitting next to him. He is “peaked at 18” personified. A human manifestation of the golden age archetype.
Every morning he recites the same stories of the days when he had his old Camaro, of the days when he would surf, and of the days when he would get into fights at the bar—always capped off with some snarky invective about how kids these days aren’t like he was when he was a kid—how the stuff he got away with then isn’t gotten away with anymore.
There is also the small and slender Asian man, always all in black—jeans, New Balance shoes, bicycle helmet and jacket—clutching his black, folding, heavy-duty scooter, the straps of his black Santander backpack digging into his shoulders (maybe he works at a bank?). The bag is loaded to the brink of bursting with what I’ve determined are various gizmos and gadgets of the film industry (debunks my banking theory). I fondly call him “scooter guy” (to myself).
He wears his helmet for the duration of the commute, even though he isn’t on his scooter. People probably laugh at him for keeping the helmet on, though I don’t since he’ll probably be the only one to live to tell the tale if the train ever flips in some kind of lethal cataclysm. I would want him to speak well of me—the lone survivor of our shared disaster—though he probably doesn’t know I exist. I am okay with this. He is one of the few passengers who remains with me from Santa Clara—the second stop on this limited service express train—to San Francisco 4th and King, the ultimate stop where passengers de-train and walk at a city pace to their jobs on Folsom or Market or, in my case, Mission Street.
Among the usual crowd are the few who try to spark up conversations with me, though I do my absolute best to make it very clear via body language that it is early and I am not to be trifled with. I do believe that most people here at the station wish to be left alone, but they feel a very Californian obligation to be friendly even as the sun barely rises and wastes its warmth on the low-rise graveyard of stucco and terra-cotta known as the South Bay.
One such man is Gary. Or Garry. I’ve tried to read his name badge several times but it’s never fully visible from beneath his peacoat, but through eavesdropping on his daily conversations I have confirmed that Gary(/Garry) is his name.
Gary gets off at Palo Alto. I’ve recognized, also through eavesdropping, that he works/studies/does something in the medical field at Stanford. Good for Gary. I have no qualms with him. We nod to each other and exchange muffled (and reluctant, on my end) pleasantries. The only full-length conversation we’ve ever had was on the grounds that we both attended Santa Clara University. We shared the obligatory–and I think exaggeratedly–fond reminiscences that only alumni can share. Beyond that: nodding and muffled pleasantries.
Gary is a frail-looking man and his voice sometimes trembles in the way a teen’s does when he’s speaking to a female and actively trying to avoid a voice-crack. He has glasses and looks tall but is shorter than I am and has a fair selection of v-neck sweaters. Gary usually wears a pair of blue suede wingtip shoes which I like very much (and have been tempted to ask where he bought them, though that would fall outside of the boundaries of nodding/muffled pleasantries).
At 7:01, the train—my train— lumbers up to the station like an old dog returning a ball. Its bell rings with languor, and I imagine it lolling to and fro like a dog’s tongue as it trots to its owner. Its ringing is bearable for every moment except the one where the bell-car passes directly in front of me and the feeling of hearing is akin to having my ears boxed in a middle-school lunch-line.
I board the train. Every time I step aboard I think of Buck in The Call of The Wild, because this is the same station where he began his journey north as well. It makes things more bearable. A non-literary pursuit tenuously connected to literature by a trivial fact.
Aboard the train I am tired enough that the desire to sleep pervades but I am not tired enough to actually be capable of sleeping. I am too tired to read, too tired to do much of anything, so I just look out the window and wish the landscape was that of some other part of the country, if not another country entirely. I often think of Yellowstone. I imagine my train is going through the park and that I can see the golden eyes of grey wolves glowing in the growing light of early day.
I initially only planned on being here, in Silicon Valley, for a month. I moved back home—after college at good old SCU—to Massachusetts, with the plan of working for a year. Then—if I was lucky enough to get in—the plan was graduate school in New York City. But I am a writer, so when somebody tells you they’ll pay you to write for a month in Silicon Valley, you get on a plane and go write.
That is why I am here—or was here initially.
Now the company—a very good company, probably the best(/only) I’ll ever work for—has hired me full time. So here I am, living a permanent life with a temporary mindset. I am a resident of California now. A place I left behind and swore I’d never return. I am a resident. I wake up, eat here, sleep here, shit here–and will do all these things here for potentially years. Yet I feel as if each day is a step towards home. Somewhere else. Some ejaculatory relief where I’ll look back and think, “I toughed it out, now here I am reaping the reward.” The sweetness of being free of the day in, day out routine that stood between me and where I wanted to be–as if I even know–as if I ever knew–where that was.
There’s a light at the end of this tunnel, there must be, but right now it’s blotted out behind some opacus cloud.
In a nutshell, convincing myself that this is temporary is the only way I can cope with a very non-temporary reality. Hindsight being 20/20, this mentality is hardly sustainable.
When life gives me lemons, I tend to fall in love. This commute has provided me with my inamorata: an absolutely stunning Indian girl with long, lean, toned and muscled legs that show through her dark designer jeans. She gets on at Menlo Park and immediately falls asleep with her mouth slightly ajar and her hair up in a messy looking bun sort of thing—more like a big black lump of cotton candy. When I’m not imagining that the train is somewhere else, I’m imagining what it would be like to watch her take her hair down. To let the hair fall on her shoulders and back. She has lips the color of halved figs, her eyes are large and dark enough that I’d be able to see my reflection in them if I ever gathered the testicular fortitude to get close.
I am clearly her junior, probably only by five years or so—but still—she seems so deft and experienced. She has the right trendy backpack (Herschel) and here I am with my ratty old North Face, still tinted brown with dirt-stains from a Vermont mud-run and smelling mildly of stale Coors. She’s perfectly put together and here I am in my green corduroy pants that’ve seen as many coffee-spills as a taxi-seat’s seen asses, a four-year-old gingham shirt (size medium when I should definitely be in a large) and a pair of Clarks that just don’t look quite right no matter how many different ways I try to wear them. (Laces too long? Or do I just not know how to dress?) She’s the Kamala to my Siddhartha. Teach me your ways, my sweet and sultry beloved, for I am yours. As Siddhartha learned the language of love, I will learn from this nameless beauty the secret to success in the world of San Francisco startups—a world I never dreamed I’d be inhabiting—and, spoiler, a world I didn’t end up inhabiting for long.
My paramour rides from Menlo Park to 4th and King, and the best part of my day is the walk—next to her/behind her/in front of her—attempting to gain her attention as a regular fixture in her morning routine. Stopping beside her at crosswalks, righting my posture (pro-tip: let your hands fall by your side and force your thumbs forward: perfect posture), puffing my chest out like the meathead Neanderthal I become when trying to impress a woman without speaking to her. (A Neanderthal and a coward.) I walk close enough that I can smell her hair, which smells like it’s only treated with the most upscale products and infused with the most potent pheromones. She walks quickly—very—which I find attractive—very—and the slight sway of her hips as she puts one foot in front of the other hypnotizes me: a pendulum of denim and limbs.
Through eavesdropping on her phone calls (don’t judge me, she speaks loudly) on the afternoon walk from work to the train (we usually catch the same train home) I’ve found that she has a boyfriend (cue the cowardly Neanderthal puffing out his chest, pounding it with white-knuckled fists) whose father adores her and who is twenty-eight but seems hesitant to move in with her, which is a cause for concern. (If she so much as blinked at me in a way that seemed endearing I would pack my bags and get my unworthy ass to her apartment. Wandering around Ikea with her is my idyllic wet dream.)
As I write this, I recognize that I sound stalker-ish. I prefer “journalistically observant.”
When we reach the Starbucks (*Starbuckses. There are, in fact, two directly across from each other.) at 4th and Mission, it comes time to say goodbye (cue Bocelli, my eyes linger and long for her as she walks away). She continues walking. I turn onto Mission Street.
The weekend before my first day at the office on Mission Street, I took the train into the city to scout out the location. Such is my way. I scout. A longtime believer in the benefits of thorough reconnaissance, I lurk like a preemptive ghost wherever I’m to be, and when it comes time for me to be there, I’m usually at least thirty minutes early.
What I noticed about the office, the door at least, was that it was wedged right next to a small eatery and my first reaction was “is this the right place?” It’s directly across from the iconic Mel’s Diner, which allegedly has fantastic milkshakes, though I’ve never gone to get one because enduring the flatulent ramifications of a cup full of liquid dairy in a crowded office with an open-floor-plan yields the potential for embarrassment and the rectally-leaked methane-ignition of proverbial bridges to burn.
The place I work(ed) is a financial startup in San Francisco. They really want to help people—it’s truly admirable. I’ve never been part of a group brimming with such positivity, such eagerness—I will not soon forget the feeling. Writing about the company now that I’ve left, I really do appreciate their mottos, mantras and their relentless desire to help consumers without being beholden to certain funders, etc. They are the first source I recommend to friends seeking financial know-how.
But what I was getting at with the whole “the place I work(ed) is a financial startup in San Francisco” thing is that I didn’t exactly fit in. The aforementioned Neanderthal from the commute was never destined to be a piece in the office jigsaw, not that I wasn’t made to feel welcome.
There was a kombucha keg. A lot of the people were vegan. I am not vegan. Kombucha frightens me. Neanderthal James eats his meat red and rare. Cholesterol is a myth in my flawed worldview. Bison burgers, bourbon and bloody sirloin are the stuff of man, so I tell myself as I justify my anachronistic and closed-minded philosophies. But the direction I’m taking here is that startups in Silicon Valley, and the vegans that work for them, are a certain type of way. Not a bad way, not wrong. Probably a better way than I am. But it’s just a way that I am not.
First: Friendly and Positive. I am not all that friendly nor am I exceptionally positive. To me, being around people for more than four hours is equivalent to exposing a slug to four hours of Morton Table Salt. I cringe and I writhe. Bubble and explode. I’m not cut out for interfacing. My fantasy is a life alone in a hermitage, preferably on an island, where I can live off fish that I catch, collect rainwater to drink and go years without speaking.
Second: Eager to Converse. I don’t think I have social anxiety (my friends may disagree)—but talking to people that I don’t really know, particularly during lunch or over food, is not easy for me. If I’m on a date and the food is messy (e.g. pho, burritos, tacos, ribs) I usually address it before I start eating, warning that I’m going to look like a fucking slob (Neanderthal James refuses to eat ribs with a fork and knife) for the course of the meal. I hope that this takes the awkwardness out of it, maybe even makes it funny in an “oh look at all the BBQ sauce on your face!” or a “ha ha! You’re slurping so loudly!” kind of way. Like a cute little baby covered in spaghetti sauce, except I’m a pseudo-adult whose chin is wet with broth while I slurp my noodles like a complete buffoon.
I find that sometimes, one on one, this works. When you’re meeting co-workers for the first time I don’t think it really does. You’re at work. You’re supposed to be an adult. You should be able to eat a fucking taco without getting it all over yourself. Well, I can’t. And even worse, when people are asking questions about you, your life, your background, they’re looking at you with scrutiny. It’s a table full of spotlight-equipped high-powered microscopes, dissecting you and every word you say. It doesn’t help to have a face full of carnitas and some spicy orange sauce on your shirt.
I’m coming across in a less than flattering way. But when I see the words “Vegan Pad Thai” on a menu card, I’m inclined to hit the road. But I’d signed on for the job and I was ready to put the time in. To earn the generous paycheck they offered and to be a Californian. Didion was a Californian. I could be like Joan Didion. This was my life, now. My path. “You can’t always get what you want,” right Mick? I was strapped in, ready to grit my teeth, to see it through. No more in-between for me, time to make a life.
Until I got the email.
“We are pleased to inform you that you’ve been accepted to the graduate program of your dreams. Yes, the one that you thought you had no shot at getting into. You’re moving to New York! Free money!”
I’m paraphrasing. Take the quotation marks with a grain of salt (make sure you save some to pour on this authorial slug come lunch-time, though).
But one morning on my train ride—the dismal train ride which I’ve relayed in such detail already—I received an email conveying this information to me. Assuming it was just another email regarding goings on within the company, new hires, signing up for cell-phone bill reimbursement, something about compliance, I glanced down at my smudgey touch screen only to find that it was an email to my personal account. A personal message to inform me that I’d done it. I’d been fucking accepted to the only grad program I’d ever considered doing and I was on top of the damn world. But I’d also just accepted a job offer in San Francisco. But I’d just been accepted to my dream grad program—the only one I applied to—in New York. And so, like any pseudo-adult, I texted my Mommy.
“That’s great! Congratulations! So proud of you!”
Something along those lines. The decision was already made, though not announced—I’d be going to graduate school in the fall, relinquishing the incredible job that’d just fallen into my lap. After some emails and pestering on my part, I arranged a quick meeting with my boss and laid it all out for her. I’d been rehearsing the spiel in my head for some time, but had to fight not to tear up as I delivered it there, in person. She and I sitting in a tiny conference room behind a closed door, watching the people who I assumed I’d be working with for a couple years–hell, maybe longer–walking back to their desks from lunch.
I speak emphatically and employ my hands too much when I get nervous or worked up—when I’m talking about serious things. My hands were flying around the room like coked out hummingbirds. They flew down to one spot on the small table in reference to graduate school, then lurched to another spot in reference to everything she and my other mentors had done for me. They pointed out the tall rectangular window of pristinely clean glass to gesture toward the idea of the company as a whole—the wheel in which I was going to be a cherished cog until my life changed with the half-second buzz of a GMail notification.
I was grateful for the time and money she’d invested in me, I’d learned a ton, but graduate school had to happen. This had always been the plan. Not only the plan, but the dream. It was time to test my mettle.
She was very understanding.
My mind was a hexagonal room of feverish bouncy-balls hurled at high speed. In one corner there was: “Do what makes you happy.” “Follow your dreams.” The proverbial two roads. (Not quite what Frost meant, but I’m rolling with the popular misconception here.)
In another corner there was: “Money!” “A Salary!” A paid writing gig where I’d be helping people, a clear path of ascension within a company—freedom to be whatever I wanted to be within a group of people that wanted me to be there. Security. Health insurance. Company happy hours. A fucking 401k!
Another corner: School, uncertainty, starting new again. Slowly, the room of my mind settled down to just one ball and two corners. I was engaged in a vigorous and high-stakes solipsistic ping-pong volley between two very different lives.
It’s easy to preach “follow your passion,” but it’s a whole lot harder when you have to leave a really fucking good thing to do so.
I told my boss I’d be happy to stay on for the next few months, but would understand if it was better for the company to let me go. Walking out of the room, I think we both knew it’d be the latter. Like any mutual breakup: less than ideal, but unanimously understood as necessary.
Turning down more money than I thought I’d make fresh out of college, leaving an opportunity to do work that was actually going to change the world in a positive way—and I do not use the phrase “change the world” lightly—is something I grow to regret at times. Writing consistently and getting paid consistently–where’s the downside? I reminisce with friends about the benefits package, the company culture, all of that. “You’re an idiot for leaving that.” “I’d kill for that.” “Are they hiring?” “You’re a fucking idiot for leaving that job.”
Maybe they’re right.
Do I think it was the wrong choice? No. I know I’m going to be doing something that I’ve dreamt of since I first picked up paper and pen. Do I wish I could’ve stayed longer? Yeah, definitely. Various avenues of social media have allowed me the pleasure of vouyerism into the lives of my ex co-workers and I am definitely tickled with sadness. The camaraderie, the lifestyle of working a 9-5 and feeling a part of something, seeing the same faces on the train, walking past the same hobo under the same overpass sleeping under the same shopping cart—I miss that. But I wouldn’t go back and change it. I signed that contract for a lot of good reasons, but also a ton of bad ones. When the most you’ve ever made is thirteen an hour, and the most you’ve ever been paid to write is a crisp Benjamin to ghost-write something you don’t really give a shit about, seeing real adult money direct-deposited in your bank account has an intoxicating effect. The idea of a quick detour with steep monetary benefit doesn’t seem so terrible. But in a life where we’re forced to keep moving, every day spent taking a detour is a day spent travelling further away from where you originally intended to go. We are always in transit. Riding trains, walking to work, making the tough calls that carry the consequence of altering our unraveling personal narratives more than we might realize. I was lucky enough to jump from my detour back to the road I wanted to be on—and sometimes that requires leaving a damn good thing behind.
Sitting on an airplane, California behind me, I remembered another essay I wrote about waiting in an airport terminal. It was one of the samples I included in my graduate school application, and probably my favorite of all the pieces I’ve ever written. I thought about most things I write, and how often transit is the keystone that supports the arch across which my words travel from beginning to end. The notion of in-between. I took out my notebook and drew a straight line. I marked the beginning: “birth.” I marked the end: “death.” Then I marked three points evenly across the rest: “x, y, z.” I sat there and looked at it for a while. The variables meant nothing. In the space between the plotted points, I wrote “L.I.F.E.” I understand this is cheesy. Life is lived in the interim. We spend more time in-between than we do at our destinations. It is the little things, the day to day, that make a life. The in-between. Being twenty-two and turning twenty-three between starting and finishing this essay, this was relief to me. I always feel like I’m on the way, never that I’ve arrived. This timeline brings me peace and reassurance that I’m on some sort of path. That time keeps on going, even if I don’t know where.
Maybe, in some alternate reality, I kept the job. Maybe I sacked up and talked to my Kamala on the train. Maybe we took a skiing trip to Salt Lake City with her co-workers. Maybe I moved up the ladder where I was, and maybe I’m there, a different me with fatter pockets, different clothes, and an apartment in some wonderfully cultured neighborhood in the Bay Area.
But I’m not. I’m sitting here, at a cluttered desk, writing this. My wallet is thinner than it was, and it will continue to thin. My hair is unkempt and my beard is thrummy. I don’t know what the fuck I’ll be doing in two years, but I got a chance to double back on my detour and head towards what I’ve always wanted, and I know that I’m meant to be sitting right here, at this very moment, doing exactly what I’m doing. Always on the way, always in transit.