Something about Space
As a sophomore in high school, in 2005, I had a really fun history class. It was fun because I was one of those kids who actually liked school, but it was the first course I took that felt like a simulation of college. (Or at least the image of college that existed in my head when I was 15.)
The teacher was a young guy, in his early 30’s and relatable to the generation behind him: us. He offered a fair blend of authority and empathy, a guy we never forgot was our teacher while at the same time being able to communicate with him like a friend, or equal.
The reason his world history class seemed like college was because all the time we got sidetracked by discussion. Occasionally we skipped past a day’s worth of information because someone asked the teacher a question and it turned into a class debate for the remaining hour. It was an “advanced” class, so some of the “advanced” students talked down about it in other classes… how we weren’t really learning anything in there. I didn’t care for them very much.
My outlook was the direct opposite. I thought I learned more talking about the world than actually learning about world history. It was one of the most influential courses I have taken at any level of school.
Don’t get me wrong. We did real work in there, learned about Greece and Troy and Rome and all that. One day we had a worksheet with 25 questions on it, had to read a chapter of the book and fill in the answers or whatever for homework.
It was weird on this particular night since, for some reason, I did read the chapter, and filled out the questions all by myself. Typically I would finish some portion of it, maybe half or a shade over — just enough that I wouldn’t feel guilty copying the rest of the answers from one of my friends. But that was almost invariably the case.
The next day in world history I arrived to my desk and got my homework paper out, got ready to turn it in. The girl sitting next to me had been sick that week, and only did 22 of the 25 questions. (How do I remember that number?) So she was scrambling to fill in the remaining three.
I can’t stress enough how nice this girl was. I mean, she was innocent and quiet… she probably cared a shitload about what grades she earned and how her parents felt about those grades. It could have, too, been the other way around, and she would make just as much sense.
So I did what I imagined any nice guy would have done. I said, “Here, just take mine.” It was so casual and the class was so laid-back that I didn’t think twice about it. She only needed three answers, anyway, so where’s the harm in that?
“Um, what are you doing?” the teacher asked me, suddenly appearing out of nowhere next to my desk.
“Oh she was finishing her homework,” I said, which wasn’t totally a lie.
“You can’t just let someone copy right in front of me,” he said with a quick laugh. “How dumb do you think I am?”
That wasn’t really my point. I didn’t see the problem. I know copying isn’t right, per se, but by then my whole idea of copying sections of assignments and rewording them to better fit my voice was something I was desensitized to. In my head it wasn’t a big deal because this is the most commonplace practice at that age.
Anyway, so her and I both got a zero on that assignment. Afterwards the class was assigned to read and take notes all period long, so there was a ton of dead time. On the inside I was fuming at what just happened, mostly due to my ego getting bruised. I was embarrassed in front of the class by my favorite teacher who I thought was on my side, and there was nothing I could say to talk my way out of it.
Then finally I couldn’t contain it anymore. In the middle of the class period, while everyone read and took notes, I calmly got up from my seat and headed back about ten feet to the teacher’s desk. His head was down.
“Don’t you think that was maybe a little bit of an overreaction?” I asked, but that isn’t how benign it sounded. I put so much emphasis on “maybe” and “little bit” that it was impossible not to take what I said as condescending. I was excited in the pit of my stomach, the type of burn I’ve felt when on the verge of getting into a fight, and it boiled over in the form of words that made me sound like a complete asshole when I opened my mouth.
“Eric I made my decision, now go back to your seat and do the assigned reading,” he said. But I couldn’t give it up.
“I mean, at least give me a zero. You don’t have to punish her, too,” I came back with. As much as I was hanging myself I knew I had an audience.
“Cool your jets, Eric,” he retorted. That was the haymaker.
“Cool my jets?” I started before getting cut off. I was really fucking heated.
Then he got up and made me go outside the class, so I paced around the hallway until he came out.
Five or ten minutes later, he exited and we had a “talk”. He said even though I was being “chivalrous” in trying to take the blame, that it wouldn’t set the right example if he let me get away with it. Knowing myself I’m sure I apologized for calling him out, but how fucking dumb was I. So, so transparent.
There’s no doubt I thought I was above the law in that class. Appropriately the teacher dubbed me The Senator, presumably because I was a bullshitter. But every now and again, and again, and again, it’s necessary to knock me down a peg. 2005, in particular, was a crude stage in my development. I was still so childlike in managing my emotions, didn’t know what to do with the imaginary chip on my shoulder.
Arguments were something of a sport then just as they are now. The difference is how much more infrequent they are now as compared to then, and that I won’t even throw my hat in the ring unless I feel one hundred percent justified. Or right, you could say.
I used to do things just to do them.
* * * * *
M_ picked me up in a cab, and we drove from La Guardia through the Bronx and Queens and Harlem on our way to her apartment in Manhattan. She lived a few blocks away from Central Park, on Broadway. We arrived to her apartment and she showed me around, took me up a flight of stairs to the roof that overlooked all the busyness happening around us.
It was the beginning of July.
That night I got to experience riding the subway for the first time, as her and I traveled down to Times Square and found an Irish pub. M_ was only 20 and I was 21 at the time, so we had a system we used at every bar we went to. When the two of us entered I’d order a couple drinks while she went to the restroom, then she’d come out and there would be a drink in front of her and that was that. I don’t think anyone in New York really gives a shit about checking I.D. like they do in California.
We each had a beer — Guinness, I believe — before leaving for another bar shortly thereafter. Down a couple blocks of dark streets, removed from the bright lights of Times Square, we found a little hole in the wall that seemed more appropriate. There was a little Vietnamese bartender and maybe something like 20 patrons inside. The music was loud; the lights were dim; it was any old weeknight.
There we befriended two young Brazilian people, brother and sister, that appeared to be a couple based on how they generally carried themselves. It’s probably a cultural thing, but they were of the touchy-feely variety with each other. They were probably making out or something, but I don’t have a clear recollection of all the details from the night.
The Brazilian guy and I periodically went out and smoked cigarettes, along with the clutch of other smokers out there at the same time. He asked if M_ was my girlfriend, to which I responded no; then he told me his sister “liked” me, so he was trying to swap dates, essentially. Decent and logical strategy if I do say.
We stayed there for the rest of the night, or at least until 4 a.m. for last call. M_ and I were both pretty hammered, as were our new Brazilian friends. I signaled over a cab rather than going through the riff-raff of a subway system I had no clue about. We made it about four blocks before the cabby pulled over and M_ threw up in the middle of the street. But we made it back… up the hundred or so blocks on Broadway. It ran up like a $80 toll, so I swiped my card and picked up M_, who was fading in and out of consciousness next to me in the backseat.
M_ was wasted, so she went straight to bed. I negotiated the flight of stairs leading up to the roof to smoke a cigarette, just take in New York in my own private moment.
For a second it felt like being back at Virginia Tech, suddenly finding myself in a foreign state where I was all by myself. There is a certain power in that independence. And an unmistakable vulnerability in the isolation.
* * * * *
Totally hungover, we woke up in the afternoon that day. We spent a couple hours drinking coffee and recovering; I watched ESPN, because of course I did, while the two of us sat on her futon.
When M_ and I got our shit together, we went out for a walk on the edges of Central Park. I remember walking street to street, seeing kids playing basketball and old ladies carrying large bags they had no business struggling with by themselves, seeing the buildings stacked upon buildings, the amount of people walking place to place, from bums to businesspeople. . . .
California is such a waste of space in comparison.
I enjoyed talking to M_, going on walks with her. Her and I never lacked for things to talk about; our history of hanging out almost always involved alcohol and the night; this day was the opposite; it was daytime and we were sober.
She said in Central Park, close to where we were, there was a lake where people rented boats with oars, cruised around for an hour at a time. So we walked down and did that. I paid the $50 or whatever, and got pushed off into a little two-person boat with M_.
It was another humid day. The skies were grey and it was warm outside, and in the middle of this lake in Central Park rowed 30 or so boats. I was on one of those boats, drenched in my sweat from grinding the oars through the water time and again. From a snapshot it would have made for a romantic hallmark image, if only anything about the reality between us was romantic.
Green surrounded us everywhere. The trees and grasses provided a subtle escape from the noise of the city, a pocket of tranquility. I don’t remember anything M_ and I talked about, but I’m sure it was nice. I could see the top of The Dakota from my vantage point.
M_ and I left the boats to grab some lunch, a nearby burger joint. Then we went back to her place, got ready for whatever we were going to do that night.
At age-26, present day, I don’t know why I went to New York five years ago. Did I really want to see M_? Did I feel bad for her? Or did I really just want to see New York for the first time?
* * * * *
M_ and I went to Coney Island that night.
We got dressed, headed for the subway to go all the way to Brooklyn. We got on the wrong shuttle early on and lost a half-hour or so, but we were on our own and it was more of a cool adventure than a hassle. The two of us made it to Coney Island eventually, so no harm no foul comes to mind.
First we went to historic Nathan’s and got a couple hot dogs. I had an issue getting food down the entirety I was out there; at the time I was in the teeth of my prime weed smoking days, so when I was sober the nerves in my stomach weren’t calling my name very hard. Since I couldn’t take kush on my transcontinental flight, I was shit out of luck as far as an appetite was concerned.
From there we went over to Luna Park, a little amusement park right across the street. It had a small rollercoaster, which was perfect with me since I don’t normally do roller coasters, swings, a ferris wheel, et. al. So we did all of those things, and that was fun.
On the way out, on the walk back to the subway to head home, a group of five black guys stood next to a booth. Like you would see at a carnival or fair. There were large stuffed animals draping down the walls, various gaming systems on display.
“What’s up playboy, do you know how to shoot a basketball?” One of them asked me.
“Hell yeah,” I responded. “Who’s got the hoop?” We all starting laughing.
So I walked up to the booth, and the guy offered me this really sweet deal. He said if I can shoot ten ping pong balls into a laundry basket-sized bin, then I’d win a Play Station 2 or XBox or something of the sort. To be honest I didn’t really care about the prize; I just wanted to win.
There was a catch. I’d get three free shots, or mulligans, and then I’d have to put up $1. Every time I missed after that, the dollar figure would double. So it’d start at $1, go to $2, then $4, then $8, and so on.
I took the first ping pong ball and made the shot. Then the second, third, fourth, and fifth. I was five-for-five with three mulligans in my pocket. I was going to win.
Then, I missed. Then I missed again. And again after that. I removed a $1 bill from my wallet and placed it on the shelf in front of me, at the booth we were all huddled around.
I ended up making my sixth and seventh shots, but the $1 figure ended up ballooning to $256 in the process. I even went to the nearby ATM, which the nice guys at the booth conveniently pointed me to. Because they really, really wanted me to win.
The guy who originally called me over told me, “No, man. It’s all in your head. You were making them all at the beginning, but now you’re tightening up your arm on all your shots. Just relax a little. You got this.”
My next shot didn’t even hit the basket. It was a complete airball, and it cost me the last $128 I took out of my wallet. I considered going back to the ATM to take out $500, but M_ told me it wasn’t worth it. So we left.
On the subway I felt defeated. Like only if I’d taken one more shot, I would have hit the next two and won the game system. I also felt pretty dumb in front of M_, because she could see how frustrated I was. And I wasn’t particularly in the mood to talk about my most recent loss, so there was a funky vibe.
We stopped at a bar on the way back, near her apartment, and winded down after the eventful night. It was still pretty early, maybe only about 1:00 in the morning, when we got home. The two of us sat on the futon and watched Catfish (the original documentary) per her request.
It wasn’t until later night that I even understood what happened to me at the booth in Coney Island: I got hustled. They baited me in, made the game seem winnable, then altered it to ensure that it wasn’t. It was simple and brilliant, and I was the perfect mark.
I had another day in New York before the 4th of July, my mom’s birthday and the day I’d fly back to California. The mishap at Coney Island on Day Two definitely stung, and the thought I could be so stupid continued to sting for a couple weeks, but I was still determined to make the best of the vacation.
At the very least it would make for a story.