The first chapter of DIGFAST:
Shocked, I drop my BlackBerry into my crumb-filled lap. Somehow during the last hour of my Nashville–DC road trip I had managed to run into horrendous traffic on the Beltway, despite it being a summery, unassuming Sunday afternoon, and now I was getting slammed with spurious charges to a recently parent-defunded credit card?Panicking, I quickly press two on my phone, seeing as I had NOT spent tens of thousands of hollers remotely from my Honda.
I’d passed the last seven hours of my drive gleefully indulging in fast foods, as long rides are the only time I allow myself to eat preservative-laden goodies. It’s a treat for driving, my absolute least favorite way to spend my life.
I hear a loud “DING!” and moments later find out that no, it was not my mental breakthrough making an audible noise in the real world. I had managed to run my car, affectionately named Pyro for its fiery red color and daredevil inclinations, into a highway sign. Its friendly message made my mini-accident just a little less upsetting: Welcome to The District.
Indeed, it would be quite the adjustment. A mere half day earlier I had been sleeping soundly, or as soundly as possible after six red bull vodkas, in Nashville, having just graduated from Vanderbilt University 24 hours prior. Nashville is a land of cowboy boots, one-way roads, and honkytonks. DC was turning out to be a cement quagmire with highway signs that come out of nowhere and accost your vehicle.
I wasn’t actually even going all the way into the city. In a classic riches-to-rags tale, I had managed to go from Johns Hopkins medical student to med-school dropout and directionless, broke freelance writer. My four Amex cards had been collateral damage; I had to apply for a new, sensible-people MasterCard that racks up airline miles as a way to ameliorate the pain of actually paying my own bills.
Instead of matriculating at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I was headed to College Park, MD, home to the University of Maryland and an outrageous crime rate. The second I made the decision to move to DC, I hit Craigslist to look for affordable housing that could tide me over until I at least found a stable job.
Doing my best to avoid serial killers, I’d settled on a three-month sublet on Baltimore Ave., where I’d be living in a house full of UMD track runners who had to train throughout the summer. Rent was $500 a month and included all amenities, and the metro was only a 15-minute walk away. It seemed reasonable enough.
Having departed Nashville at 5 AM, I finally make it to the house around 6 PM. Joseph, the captain of the track team and the person with whom I’d corresponded via a firstname.lastname@example.org email address, politely offers to help unpack my car. He also politely pretends not to notice the collection of a dozen or so fast food bags strewn about the car, translucent with grease and glistening beautifully in the setting sun.
“You’re sleeping in this room,” he says cheerfully, opening the door to a modest bedroom at the top of some rickety stairs in the six-bedroom house. I peer inside. It’s not so bad—there is a bed, desk, and dresser. It’d be home for the next quarter of a year.
Melting in what I soon learned to be routine, swamp-like DC summer heat, I gaze at the personal air conditioning unit lustfully in the back corner. I’m a serious snuggler. Spooning is my favorite pastime, and satin comforters are a necessary luxury for me. Therefore, absolute near-frost conditions are needed for me to fall asleep.
As a sophomore at Vandy, I remember being violently shaken by Rachel, my roommate, as she was frantically trying to pull me out of what she thought was a night terror.
“You were rocking back and forth so much that the bed moved away from the wall!” she said, concerned about my excessive kinetics during REM.
I took a moment to explain to Rachel that ever since I was a child, I had always rocked myself to sleep. Even in my adulthood, I still could not, ahem, shake this childlike tendency, which always seemed to expose itself during my most sound states of unconsciousness.
Puzzled, Rachel stared at me blankly for a few moments. “Quin, did you not get enough love in your childhood?” she asked me, dead serious.
I burst out laughing. Of course I didn’t get enough love in my childhood, but how was this of any relation to right now?
Apparently, in her early child development classes she had read about some study in which Russian orphans often rocked themselves to sleep, even as adults, in this same manner because they received no affection as children. It was their own coping mechanism. This certainly seemed to be a parallel story for myself, though I’d always written off my rocking as a leftover childhood remnant. This new theory could explain so much.
Suffice it to say that my spooning needs are now off the charts. Hence, I keep my room ice-cold at all times, as it allows for extreme cuddling in even the warmest of months. Even when I’m sleeping solo, which would probably be for several freaking months given my complete neophyte-ness to the city, I enjoy heaping covers on at levels that would be more appropriate for an Upward Bound trip to Antarctica in January.
For the entire summer, I would keep the room at about 60 degrees, which was probably worth the $500 in rent alone.
Joseph comes by to tell me that he’d be going for a run. He eyes my cankle brace quizzically, and I quickly explain that while blackout drunk at a fraternity philanthropy football game a few months prior I had managed to sprain my ankle. Was it not meet your new roommate sharing hour?
With Joseph gone and the rest of the housemates absent, I begin exploring my new digs. There’s a spacious kitchen in the basement, and the shelves are stocked with protein powder and canned soup.
I’d be the only female staying in the house, and while my domestic instincts are kicking in to tidy up the rather messy kitchen, my laziness gets the better of me and I go back to my room to watch Real Housewives of New Jersey in my arctic cave. I fall asleep around 10 PM dreaming of gnocchi and mob fights.
I wake up the next morning, well, afternoon, at 3 PM. I have never been a sleeper, and I am shocked that I slept so long. I spend a brief moment panicking that I had missed my alarm, only to realize that as an unemployed stranger in a new city, I had very little to do. I roll out of bed and walk downstairs, where I hear men with Boston and New York accents fighting about Mila Kunis vs. Minka Kelly.
“Oh, good morning,” I say timidly, walking down the stairs and directly into the den filled with 10 men in track pinnies. I’m wearing an oversized sorority T-shirt and realize that last night’s bed-rocking session (sooooooo not as sexual as it sounds) has left my hair in a rat’s nest.
They all sit silently for a few minutes, stunned and probably confused as to why some chick is saying good morning in the middle of the afternoon. They grumble a polite “hello” and then immediately go back to eating beef jerky and talking about women. Each runner has a pool of sweat under him and in his surrounding area on the couch and seats, and it smells like Aspercreme and meat products.
I leave the track runners to their manly discussion and head back to my room to get a move on the dreaded task of job hunting. I don’t even want to think about putting together a resume for a communications position when the majority of my work experience has been spent in either a Kaplan MCAT course as a teacher or in a genetics lab as a research lackey.
Procrastination is not for me. I have never found anything appealing about putting off the inevitable. However, as I was now in a brand new city where the closest thing I had to a group of friends were the people to whom I was paying rent, I set out to do some research on the city’s nightlife and where I might find that irreplaceable gaggle of girlfriends that I once had in college.
Just before leaving Nashville, I’d begun writing for Examiner.com. I’d been fortunate enough to be able to transfer my column to DC, which afforded me the very helpful icebreaker of getting press passes in a city in which I knew not a soul.
After perusing a few events calendars, I see a recurring media advisory for an event that evening at the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest DC. With practically nothing to lose and at least some sort of writing reputation to gain, I call up the media contact for Sweet Charity, an annual fundraiser featuring a runway fashion show of apparel made completely out of desserts.
“Hello, my name is Quin. Is this Sherry?” I ask the voice on the other end of the call.
“Hello, this is Sherry. How may I help you?”
“Oh. Er…” I have not rehearsed this conversation mentally and realize I actually have no idea how to be part of the press.
“Well, you see, I just moved here. I write for Examiner, and I would love to cover your event tonight. I’m new in town, so I don’t really know the process to ask this and I don’t even know if this is the right number.”
“This is the event tonight, Sweet Charity?” asks Sherry, sounding rather bored.
“Er, that’s right, yes. Tonight. Sweet Charity. I saw the media advisory online.”
I then give her my email, phone number, and mailing address, all unsolicited of course. There is silence on the phone for a few beats, leaving me with no option except to tell her my life story.
“See, I was going to go to medical school but then a month ago I realized I didn’t actually want to do that. It was my parent’s dream. My dad’s Chinese, first generation. My mom’s very smart too; they both met at Harvard. When I asked them where they met, my mom told me that they were introduced at a networking event for Harvard alumni who received graduate degrees. As a young adult I realize now, of course, that they actually just met at a mixer. Haha!”
I wait for Sherry to laugh. She doesn’t, so I continue to let the bomb detonate.
“But of course they didn’t want to tell me that because I was just a kid and they didn’t want to encourage drinking because I was young.”
Had this story been told correctly and with the raconteur’s aplomb that I usually think I possess, it would have been funny. But of course since I’m nervous and entering a world with which I have no experience, I make it a disaster by CONTINUING to babble when Sherry refused to chuckle along with me.
“Well, anyway, my dad’s Chinese, he wanted me to be a doctor. But I don’t think I’m cut out for that. He’s very eclectic. As a radiologist, he sits in a dark room all day with very little human contact. I am much more outgoing. I think I am pretty socially adjusted. I am not weird.”
“Yeah so since I have no friends in this town I thought why not start exploring, you know? I think Sweet Charity looks like a great event. And the graphic invitation is just so cute! And red. I like red. Although it reminds me of my dad because he is Chinese and red is the color of luck in China, over in Asia. I actually have no desire to visit China. My dad always wants me to go with him. I actually don’t have daddy issues, I’m very normal. I don’t have a crush on my dad. I usually go for white males. Although he is really good looking! People think Asians are always short but he looks like Yao Ming and played football at Columbia.”
With very little to do at this point save for jumping off a bridge, I just hang up the phone. Except when I go to hang up the phone I see that Sherry had kindly beaten me to the punch, ending our call a full five minutes before I had finished my soliloquy-style hara-kiri.
A few minutes later, inexplicably, a press pass arrives in my Inbox.
I stare at the press pass, valued at $150, to an event that boasts an open bar and confections from all the best chefs in the District. I am extremely intimidated that the press release lists the VIPs of the event. I don’t recognize a single name, which is going to make things very awkward when I run into them while racing from tasting table to tasting table, shoving designer chocolates and tuna tartare tartlets down my throat like the refined, broke writer that I am.
At the bottom of the invitation I see a small sentence allowing me to bring one photographer with me.
I scour my brain wondering who I can possibly bring as my plus one before remembering that I actually don’t know a single person in the city, save for my ex-boyfriend Preston, whom I have not yet told that I have moved to DC. I can only imagine what sort of explicit texts that will illicit. Other than that, ahem, minor acquaintance, I am as friendless in this town as a half-Chinese fourth-grader with glasses, braces, and early-onset cystic acne on an Augusta, Georgia elementary school playground. NOT THAT I CAN RELATE.
I turn to my trusty PC, which has lived through four years at college, three Natty Light dousings, and one Vicodin-induced drop. Needless to say, it is not the fastest machine around, but I can usually see just enough around the long fracture down the screen to consider it a functioning, usable computer.
Facebook has since become the cyber Mecca for both tech-centric tweens and troglodytes alike, but during this lonely summer in the DC suburbs, it was still just beginning to bloom into the multi-bajillion-dollar hub that it is today. In the summer of 2009, its ability to search users based on location was still evolving, with an engine that had difficulty discerning between Washington State, Washington, DC, and Washington College (wtf is that?!).
After weeding out all my weird friends that illogically chose to migrate to the Evergreen State and whatever one cohort that decided to go to whatever that other school was, I find I have actually zero friends in DC, as I suspected. I am about to give up all hope in finding a partner in crime for the evening when I catch sight of an underclassman sorority sister who is listed as living in some odd place called “Bethesda, Maryland,” which I later learn to be one of the wealthiest suburbs of the District.
I begin my Facebook message. This is the most uncomfortable correspondence I have ever written, and it’s not even to some rando that I met in a bar.
How are you?
I immediately delete this message. I’ve known the girl obliquely for two years now, though only in that peripheral way where you can’t tell if you actually know the new pledge or if you just spent too long during rush staring at her name, age, GPA, interests, and potential shortcomings (got too drunk at Pike, dated a Lambda Chi, and other very concerning behaviors).
I opt for a casual message that basically says, “this is weird but do you want to come with me to this thing and sorry this is out of no where but I seriously don’t know anyone and I’m living with five random dudes.”
After cringing and sending off another uncharacteristically awkward correspondence for the day, I decide I should probably shower before heading off to a black tie optional event. I go to investigate the facilities. The restroom is relatively clean, and the makeshift wallpaper made of torn-out Playboy nudie pics is actually quite inspirational. Conveniently plastered next to the mirror, the photos make me realize I need to drop some serious pounds to be competitive with my new houseguests. This must also mean they enjoy arts and crafts as much as I do!
The shower itself is clean, as well. In fact the only negative I can find about the bathroom is that the shower is located next to a large, curtainless window. I can see my neighbors 100 feet away washing their car. I am quite sure they saw me washing a few things that summer, as well.
After hosing off the film of eight hours’ time spent in a car squished full with old furniture, boxes, vacuum-sealed space saver bags (very fun to use!), and an assortment of fast food victuals, I feel like a new woman. I turn to finding something to wear for the evening. What was I even supposed to dress like? A serious reporter? An on-the-scenes gossip girl who was in-the-know about the city’s happenings? A cool beatnik in jeans and a black turtleneck in the sweaty marsh of May in Washington?
Most of my clothes are haphazardly crumpled into whatever suitcases I had to maximize shipping space in my car during the drive from Nashville. I open my blue Tumi first, hoping for a cocktail dress of some kind that I could wear for the evening. I’m dismayed that all I find in there is a chandelier, a wine key, and MCAT lesson guides. I shuffle over to my hot pink DVF tote, impractically designed to hold only a few cushy items despite being the size of a terrier kennel.
I unravel some rolled clothing, finding a once-crisp winter-white suit.
I had been forced by my sorority to wear winter white during Pref Round. Sisters wore winter white and delicately whisked around hopeful (and some not so hopeful) potential new members betwixt imported Evergreens and tufts of snowy tulle. A delicious handmade cake from Ham ‘N Goody’s, Nashville’s best bakery, completed our “Winter Wonderland” theme. Or, as I liked to put it, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Fond memories aside, I reason that a suit is usually pretty safe to wear as a journalist.
My dinging BlackBerry snaps me out of my college reverie, telling me I’ve received a Facebook message. The ole BB is getting a bit long in the tooth, and all of his alerts sound tinny and waterlogged. Possibly because I have dropped my phone in water at least four times in the last two months.
It’s Felicity, and she can come. I’m pleased that she isn’t even fazed by my out-of-the-blue request to join me as part of my extremely legitimate press outfit. I give her the details and she agrees to meet me at the venue. This is going to be odd, seeing as I have never had a full-blown conversation with her, but I’m hoping that, just as in college, the free-flowing booze will keep things relatively casual.
Because I am from the suburbs of Augusta, Georgia, and spent most of my college life serenely sequestered in the Vanderbubble of Nashville, I am under the impression that driving in a city is nearly impossible. All I ever hear from my friends who are NYC natives is that there are cabs everywhere and owning a car is silliness. Therefore, I will be taking the Metro to the Mandarin, which is about 10 blocks from the Smithsonian stop.
I decide to walk to the College Park Metro stop, because it is only 15 minutes away. It’s not a bad walk, through a cute residential area with married people and small children—a completely different and new world for me.
I am only newly broke, so I find mass transit to be both scary and dirty, since it is only for poor people in all the movies. I’m pleasantly surprised, however, to find that the DC Metro system is not so bad. In fact, it’s fairly clean and well lit, and there isn’t a terrorist in sight. For now.
I start finagling the fare kiosk to purchase a Metro card. The suggested amount is $20, so I decide to load that up. I am, after all, now a Washingtonian.
I leave around 4 PM for the 6 PM event. I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get in DC. As a newbie, I don’t realize that College Park is mere miles from the DC line, as it being a completely different state/district has convinced me it must be another solid half-day trip just to get in to Washington.
After all of this mass transit rigmarole, I probably should have just driven anyway. I transferred at Metro Center, home of midday drunken confusion during my trip to Washington only six months prior for New Year’s.
In my periphery I catch sight of some fiery red hair that is straightened to the point of disbelief in this humid environment. I immediately recognize it as Felicity’s.
“Felicity!” I call out. Normally I’d be embarrassed to shout so loudly in the middle of a public space, but I know actually no one so I don’t sweat it. And besides, my yelping in this bustling metro station goes mostly unnoticed. This is a city, after all, where one’s inability to discern between a Suit talking into his Bluetooth and a schizophrenic hobo can be a matter of life and death.
She turns around and we have an uncomfy “so good to see you even though I never actually missed you!” hug at the gates of an incoming train.
Felicity and I head to the Mandarin Oriental, which is packed with well-dressed young professionals who are downing hard liquor at impressive rates. At 6 PM. I join in with the rest of them, as does Felicity (a good little Pi Phi), and we hit the ballroom to try out the tasting stations and snap photos of all the shiny people.
It is unlike any event I’ve attended. There are hundreds of guests, thronging at several dozen tasting stations, composed of DC’s top chefs and restaurateurs. I have at least 20 helpings of foie gras pancakes while sipping my Chandon. Attractive cocktail waiters swooped in after my every bite, scooping up my discarded tasting spoons and champagne glasses, all too happy to replace my newly emptied hand.
The event goes on for four hours, amidst gelato, charcuterie, sliders, and gin rickeys. I have plenty to write about after my first foray into the Washington charity scene.
I publish my article the very next day, seeing as I have actually nothing else to do.
My Examiner piece spread around town faster than a skintern’s cold sore. I was getting barraged with publicists’ emails and calls, asking me to cover their clients’ events. There were congressional fundraisers, high-fashion philanthropic receptions, luncheons at the National Press Club, and opening nights at National Museum of Women in the Arts exhibits. Suddenly, I was more popular than a Republican at wartime.
There was just one problem: I still had no friends.