The Lagniappe: Lessons Learned

In late August of this year I was back in Minnesota, and over coffee with a close friend I confided that the first year out of college had been the absolute worst of my life. (Full disclosure: I’ve had a fairly wonderful time thus far, so that was a relative declaration.) It had nothing to do with this city or my job, because fortunately I love both. But my friend and I discussed how, for the first time in 16 years, we had to operate without the ease and comfort provided by the institution of school, and how no one, especially the faculty and staff at our respective colleges, adequately informed us of the dirty truths that awaited us after graduation-the terrible maxims invisibly-inked on our diplomas. Amidst my morosity my friend offered me a shiny aphorism: “a year to learn, a year to do.”

I am aware that most of you did not graduate in 2008, and thus, will probably scoff at my whining about “the real world.” And for the few of you who are my fellow ’08 alumni, all I can say is you make me feel bad about myself. Instead of writing a practical explanation of the general, and useful, things I learned over the last twelve months I’m going to proffer a swath of anecdotal truths I’ve stumbled upon during my time (living alone) in Cambridge.

If you lock yourself out of your place, do not frantically ask a passerby to use their cell phone to call a locksmith. It may turn out that your incredibly brilliant neighbor (and her stepladder) will help you break into your own apartment. Of course, the aforementioned locksmith is already en route, the stranger and his cell phone have vanished into the ether, and you have no idea which company you phoned. But you know whoever it is you called is destined to land at your doorstep. My coping strategy entailed ripping my name off of my mailbox, and when the kingpin of keys came a-knockin’ (how did he find me?) I hid. My visceral reaction, for some reason, was to crouch and take short, quiet, breaths-as if he had super-human senses and would know I was assuming a near-fetal position in my bedroom if I was inhaling loudly. I also believed he could sense my fear at having to pay some kind of $100 “convenience charge” for having him trek all this way but perform no locksmithery. Lesson: ask for help from wise neighbors first.

If you have a hideous stain of, let’s say, balsamic reduction, on your favorite white shirt, be sure to point it out to the dry cleaning people. Even if you think that a quarter-sized splotch screams “clean me,” apparently its cries can go unnoticed. When you come back four days later to a still-blotched shirt the person behind the counter will tell you that “you should’ve pointed it out when you came in.”

Ladies, If you happen to be looking for an efficient way to ruin your new Prada shoes (or any heels with a diameter < a half an inch), I suggest spending just one night traipsing the streets of Cambridge. Those jaggedly-spaced cobblestones are hungry, and love to viciously chew on your precious stems. (As a result I also learned there is a great cobbler in Davis Square-Savas Shoe Repair.) If you buy an armoire intended to house your 42″ plasma TV, make sure that it measures 42″ inside the armoire. Otherwise, said TV will NOT fit, and you may decide to move the gargantuan effect into your bedroom to be an oversized chest-of-drawers. While there’s nothing wrong with having a 3.5’x6.5′ monstrosity store your threads, I did learn that moving it on your own isn’t too wise. Once you’ve shimmied half of the armoire into your bedroom that you realize that getting the unit from the wood floor onto your carpet requires a push from the other side. A moment of ingenuity/insanity strikes you when you see the removable panel on the back of the armoire (intended for pre-flat screen TVs). It is at the point once you’ve crawled through the newly-created hole in the back of the cabinet, but before you’ve squeezed through the slightly-ajar front door, that you’re actually sitting in your furniture (which, remember, is wedged in your doorway). Two things immediately come to mind: 1) if I get stuck, I’m going to have to yell really loudly for someone to help me, and 2) I need a boyfriend. Or even a friend, for starters. Lesson: measure twice, buy once. Ancillary lesson: find a friend. If you happen to find yourself cultivating a predilection for a specific food vendor, be careful how you space out your visits. You may think “well, this is a bustling city, surely they won’t recognize me if I come in twice today.” The truth is they will remember you. And despite your claims that the food is for someone else (I swear, it honestly was), you can still see the thought bubble appear above the cashier’s head that reads “freak.”
If you become “friends” with someone out of convenience, or obligation, this does not mean that you need to maintain a friendship with him or her. If they are not adding any palpable value to your life do not waste your time-you are busy enough already. (Professional relationships aside.) And even though you feel like you “ought or should” go to coffee/dinner/a historic home tour with this person, you ought, and should, cast aside those “plays-well-with-others” aspirations, and focus on what, and who, makes you happy.

If you happen to be reading The New Yorker on the T, some people will look at you funny, others may glare. Despite the fact that 9/10ths of the magazine is non-NY-focused people here still mistrust all things New York. Take a cue from James Van Der Beek’s character Mox in the movie Varsity Blues, and find appropriate camouflage for your reading material. May I suggest The Improper Bostonian or, dare I say, Harvard Business Review?

If you see a metal trash receptacle in Harvard Square, start breathing through your mouth. I suggest commencing this practice within a fifteen-to-twenty foot radius of the garbage bin. Why? Because these are hotbeds for what a friend of mine has dubbed “smell pockets.” There are various types of smell pockets in the square, but I contest that these are the worst offenders. The root cause is aesthetics trumping practicality. While the metal wastebaskets are handsome practices in urban gentrification, the fact that they are bolted to the ground severely inhibits the collection of all trash placed within the container. Layers of detritus collect and simmer in and around the bin, effusing a smell that can only be described as rancid cat food sautéed in foot sweat then boiled in garbage water. The grate design also acts like a bur, catching any wayward 7-11 hot dog wrappers as they tumble down JFK Street, adding to the visual and olfactory delight that is the metal trash receptacle and its unmistakable smell pocket.

That pretty much sums up everything I’ve learned in 12 months here. I now move onto the second, and perhaps more invigorating, portion of my friend’s sage advice: a year to do. So here’s a non-comprehensive list of awesome things “To Do” before October is up. (Expect at 2010 list in January.)

(which I have renamed “Rocktober.”)
13-Sea Wolf @ Paradise; Kelly Clarkson @ Agganis Arena

14-Robert Irwin lectures @ MFA

15-Barbara Ehrenreich @ Harvard Book Store; Al Green @ House of Blues; Andrea Barrett @ MIT; Mika @ Orpheum Theatre

16-Cash Hunt @ Faneuil Hall; Belgian Beerfest @ Boston Center for the Arts

17-Head of the Charles Regatta; ACT UP Symposium @ Harvard’s Sackler Museum

18-Avett Brothers @ House of Blues

20-The Raveonettes @ Paradise

21-Lenny Kravitz @ Orpheum Theatre; Sister Hazel @ Paradise

22-Peter Singer and Richard Stearns (on global poverty) @ First Parish Church Meeting House; Bill Maher @ Wilbur Theatre; Stevie Wonder @ MGM Grand at Foxwoods (CT)

23-Diane Reeves @ Berklee Performance Center

24-Jay-Z @ Dunkin’ Donuts Center (Providence, RI)

29-Stephen Dubner @ First Parish Meeting House

30-Michael Ian Black @ Wilbur Theatre


Ongoing: Boston Bruins; Boston Celtics; New England Patriots; Blue Man Group @ Charles Playhouse; Sleep No More (An A.R.T. Production); SoWa Market