I was wrapping up my first year in graduate school and preparing for a summer semester that would find me completing an independent study project rather than going to class with the rest of the cohort. This was another of those decisions that would come back to haunt me as a basic videography and editing skills class would have been an easy A whereas creating a short film in three months was anything but easy.
Nonetheless, I convinced my program director to let me strike out on my own over the summer. The subject of my film would be the bicycle messengers who hung out behind our building smoking weed and drinking beer from brown-paper bags when they weren’t tearing up the Washington DC streets carrying packages and letters to lobbyists and attorneys and legislators. It was a profession that was being killed by information technology and had yet found a way to transition to a new paradigm delivering things that can’t be transmitted electronically.
What I didn’t know was that my job was getting ready to take all of my available time and my love life was going to take a drastic turn in a few short weeks. My luck had been mostly bad on Match.com until I sent a short note of introduction to the attractive redhead with green eyes and a great smile. She wrote back almost immediately and seemed to think I was something of a rarity on Match with my ability to use complete sentences and not talk incessantly about my religious gym habits. I was in New York City over the July Fourth holiday to shoot the World Bike Messenger Championships for my film project and didn’t get the note until I returned as I had no email access on the road.
I stayed at the Central Park Hostel near Spanish Harlem on Manhattan’s upper eastside. The room was all mine, but I shared a bathroom with perhaps a dozen others on that end of the hall, many of whom were in town for the messenger races. I wasn’t the only person carrying a bike up and down the stairs each day, though I was the only one I saw with camera gear tucked into a sleek backpack and a tripod strapped on the outside. It was my first time in New York City and doing it solo was an adventure of the highest order.
The first thing I did after parking my over-priced Infiniti SUV in a garage for the weekend and checking into the hostel was to bike the route from my accommodations on the east side of Central Park to Jersey City across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan’s financial district. I swung through the park as I headed south to where I would pick up the ferry. I had heard scary stories about this wild no-man’s land in the middle of America’s most densely-packed city, but the scene I found was diverse and idyllic, even at the 103rd Street subway entrance where I entered the gigantic green space on an asphalt bike path busy with traffic going in all directions. I rode without a specific route in mind knowing all roads led toward my destination.
I had been tagging along with bike messengers in Washington DC for a month or so at this point, so my bike skills were approaching the point where riding in NYC traffic didn’t pose too many challenges. Not sure wearing a baseball cap instead of a helmet was a good idea, but I wasn’t the only guy tempting fate sans cranial protection. I made my way toward midtown in a meandering fashion until I reached the ferry piers located at W. 39th Street near the Lincoln Tunnel. The ferry took an hour to arrive and then took forever to turn around and leave again before another eternity spent sailing to Hoboken and then Newport where I disembarked for a short bike ride to Jersey City where the competition was taking place. I would find out later from one of the few DC messengers I was able to track down that the quickest route to and from Jersey City was the PATH Station located where the World Trade Center towers once stood near the southern tip of Manhattan.
I hung around for the rest of that day’s races trying and failing to find someone from DC. I counted on the fact that I knew a lot of the guys and gals by sight, so getting some introductions and interviews should have been easy enough to arrange but were definitely not when every person I met was a stranger to me. I still shot plenty of footage and even a couple of interviews with the event organizers before leaving to find the PATH station and meet up with my cousin at the place where he tended bar in Tribeca.
I left the entrance to the PATH station in the financial district where the train from New Jersey dropped me off to find an enormous hole where the World Trade Center had stood four years earlier, a raw and open wound of dirt and concrete and steel behind a floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence papered with memorials and remembrances that separated the site from the sidewalk that connected the PATH and the stairs that descended to the subway stop taking me uptown to drop off my bike and my gear and to get freshened up before taking the same train in reverse back to the bottom of the island to hang out with my cousin Eric.
I left NYC before the fireworks display on the East River to avoid holiday traffic but was not the only one with that plan in mind and a four-hour drive stretched into six. I had a plush ride and satellite radio, so it was inconvenient but hardly onerous all things considered. When I finally got home, I checked my work and personal email accounts. Waiting patiently was a reply from the pretty girl on Match who I sent a note to before I left town for the weekend.
Megan was a paralegal who recently moved to Washington DC from Minneapolis. I don’t remember the specifics of what we wrote over those first couple days of trading emails back and forth, but I sent her my number very early on and said we should chat by phone. I had found mixed results on Match over the ten years I had been using the site to meet women I never had the courage to talk to in person when I saw them out at the clubs dancing. My only real rule was to move from the virtual to the actual in the shortest time possible to avoid falling in love with a fantasy again. After a couple of long phone calls, we agreed to meet at the fountain in Dupont Circle the coming weekend. It had been less than a week since our first email.
I always considered it a huge win if the girl I was meeting for the first time actually looked like her photos. Bonus points were awarded if she looked better. Megan fell into the bonus category for sure in her modest denim skirt, short-sleeved white blouse and sensible flats made for the walking I later learned was both a habit and a hobby. We chatted for a little while in the park, running into an old friend of mine, before heading to a nearby bar I had been to a couple of times with Caleb and served an awesome Mojito. Gazuza Lounge was a few blocks up Connecticut and featured a large outside patio overlooking the busy Dupont neighborhood.
We sat there for hours, talking and smoking and drinking like we had known each other forever. It was something that had never happened in all my years of dating. At one point we looked up and realized it was night. Megan lived just up the hill in Adams Morgan, so we split the tab at her insistence and walked to Columbia Road NW and up to 18th Street NW. We each pointed out interesting architectural and urban details along the way, yet one more indication confirming the chemical and emotional and intellectual reactions that provide the underlying foundation for love at first sight.
Our final stop of the evening was Tryst, a coffee shop and lounge that served grub any foodie could love. The baked goods were off the charts as well which is why Megan suggested it for a nightcap of a latte and a pastry. Long a baker in her own right, this place met her high standards. I had never been to the place, but it was an awesome spot and would become one of our favorites in the years to come. I picked up the check and Megan protested. I said she could pay me back with a good night kiss and earned a smile as well as a nod. The deal was struck.
We walked back to Columbia Road, around the corner to Biltmore Street and to the entrance of her building. The kiss she owed me was just as sweet and as soft as I suspected it would be given my girl’s full lips. Just the barest hint of tongue suggested the intimacy still to come. We finished with a long lingering hug and a promise to get together for a second date in the very near future.
I had parked my car behind the building where my office was located on 16th Street NW, just a few blocks from the White House on the other side of K Street. I sparked up a cigarette and turned toward my destination with long, quick strides that chewed up the mile and a half in about twenty minutes. I had long since processed the drinks we had earlier and was basically sober when I climbed behind the wheel for the twenty minutes back to the apartment I shared with my brother near Duke Street in Alexandria, Virginia.
I was back up five hours later and ready for the Monday morning craziness that greeted each new week as a project manager in a web firm. I selected the apartment complex because they provided a free shuttle bus to the King Street Metro stop three miles down the road. It was a convenient way to avoid the parking lot that I-395 became each weekday morning as it headed into Washington DC across the 14th Street Bridge. Not only that, but I didn’t have a parking space most days, so the metro was really the only choice that made sense given my precarious financial picture. The only downside was the shuttle stopped running around seven and the bus around midnight, so it certainly limited how late I could stay in the city.
This only became relevant a few days later when Megan and I got together for our second date. One of my favorite professors at American University also did stand-up comedy at local open mic nights. That night, he was performing at Nanny O’Briens in the Cleveland Park neighborhood just north of downtown along Connecticut Avenue NW. I drove into work because I wasn’t sure how late our date would go and snagged a spot behind our building by arriving super early. This had the added benefit of avoiding rush hour. I tried to focus on client issues, but all I could think about was the gorgeous woman I had a date with and the continuation of the good night kiss we started three nights earlier.
I picked her up outside her apartment building in the sleek, midnight blue SUV we named Midnight without a hint of irony. I originally purchased it to impress the ladies only to meet and fall for a girl who wasn’t impressed by 20-inch chrome wheels in the slightest. I was able to show off my parallel parking skills once we got to Cleveland Park as the only available spaces were on the narrow, winding streets on either side of the busy commercial district. I tucked my bulbous vehicle into a spot that many wouldn’t have even attempted. We got out and Megan admired the bare inches between my bumpers and the cars in front and behind.
We had a casual dinner at the Irish pub across the street from the second, smaller Irish pub hosting the event. I felt as just as comfortable on our second date as I had on our first and could tell she felt the same about me. I probably ordered a Reuben, but that detail escapes me. I know I nursed my beer because I would be driving later and hoped to have another at the next establishment. We jaywalked across busy Connecticut Street NW to an equally busy Nanny O’Briens. I snagged a lone stool at the bar and ordered us two drinks. I offered her the seat and she said we could share the seat instead, much to my surprised pleasure. I tried not to respond too enthusiastically as she gave me a quick kiss and settled down on my lap for the duration of the show except for a brief potty break.
We sat through the first act to take the stage, a funny young black guy if I remember correctly who provided quite a contrast to my English film professor in his fifties. He offered candid observations on being an immigrant and a teacher and a father, weaving together the threads of all three roles into an energetic tale that was mostly funny. It was impressive for an old dog who only decided to try stand-up comedy a few short months earlier as part of a personal growth project. He actually included part of his “system” in our classroom time when he had us each detail out a sort of SWOT analysis of our lives. SWOT is a business school term that stands for Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat. It is a pretty good way to analyze just about any situation you can imagine if it is done with a modicum of objectivity, not always an easy task when honestly examining one’s life and the part you had to play in both the successes and the failures and the missed chances.
I was determined not to miss my chance with Megan and leaned into my instinctive attraction with abandon.
* * *
We started hanging out regularly after that second date, either staying at my place or hers depending on the occasion or the particular day. That usually meant my place on the weekends and hers during the week since we both worked in the city and I was shooting footage and interviews with the bicycle messengers each day after work. I told Caleb from the beginning that I had met the girl I was going to marry, but he was skeptical. He even bet me ten grand it would never happen. A year later following our wedding in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, he denied making the bet. We both knew the truth. I may even ask him for that cash at some point in the future when he starts making his millions after more than a decade of effort.
I told her I loved her sometime within the first few weeks of finding each other. I don’t remember the exact day, though Megan probably does. I can envision the scene precisely. I was dropping her off at her apartment, stopped in the no parking spot in front of the building. Before she climbed out, we shared a tender and lingering kiss. I said something like, “You know, I think I kind of love you.” She replied, “I know and I think I kind of love you, too.”
We’ve been joined at the hip ever since.
We decided to move in together one day in late September of 2005 when the end of my leased approached in October. We were hanging out at the apartment I shared with Jon, though he was rarely home at the same time we were as his network of parkour practitioners and fitness clients continued to grow. I floated the idea of us moving in together when Jon told me he was moving into a house closer to his work that a client had built using the latest green technologies and needed a roommate to help afford the payments. Megan seemed surprised by the notion but amenable to the idea of going all in on what we had found together over the last few months.
I moved in with Megan over the month of November when the complex management used a technicality to force another month of rent out of me. They also kept my security deposit and charged me for the damage the fire department caused when they had to respond to a cigarette ash that had blown through a rotted hole in the wall to start a small fire. That the entire exterior of the building was kindling and had it been in good repair nothing would have happened in the first place was apparently a moot point to everyone involved. I couldn’t even get the fire inspector to cite the management company for failing to address what was obviously a fire hazard.
The move was mostly completed the first weekend in November and Jon had mostly moved out the month before, so the apartment sat vacant until the official end of the lease. No sense in continuing to commute for no reason when I had already been added to the lease for the Adams Morgan place and all my stuff was there as well. I was also hard at work at finding a story in the dozens of hours of footage I had been shooting over the last few months. I had gotten an indefinite extension from the program director to finish my “summer” project, but it had to be turned in at some point for me to graduate. I was having a hard time seeing the final piece in the jumbled mess of interviews and b-roll I had accumulated since I started down this road. I was becoming a pretty good bike rider, though, so there was an upside to the downside of my waning enthusiasm for the project.
The week before Thanksgiving that excitement dimmed even further while shooting a biker named Jesse who also happened to be a fantastic graffiti artist with an extensive portfolio of work around the city. We hooked up one Friday around noon in Farragut Park where the messengers hung out while waiting for packages to deliver. I was enjoying a rare day at work without ten different things going on and had been up late the night before with developers from India building a volunteer management system for a local non-profit. I took an afternoon off as compensation since the days were getting shorter and I was still having a hard time finding the thread of the film I was building in pieces. There was really no rush as my professor had allowed me to work on it for as long as I needed to with the understanding that I wouldn’t graduate until the film was completed.
This couldn’t have been worse news for a procrastinator such as myself, but I was more than happy to extend the time horizon on my project and hoped the story would develop organically the more film I shot. In this case, I was shooting Jesse on a package run and then he was going to take me around to see some of his work afterward. It was a rare warm and sunny day in mid-November that would be sorely missed in just a few short months when DC’s mostly wet and windy climate settled into our bones for the winter. While it didn’t stop the messengers from doing their job, my equipment didn’t take bad weather with the same aplomb, so I was strictly a fair weather filmmaker.
I tagged along as the tall and soft-spoken black dude took off toward the Shaw neighborhood after delivering a legal-sized envelope to a large law firm near the capitol. I learned a couple years later that he died of a rare and particularly aggressive form of cancer. He may have been in his late twenties when I met him. At that moment, he was a picture of health and youthful vigor. I learned he dropped out of college due to of a lack of funds. It always amazes me how few people who wanted to go to college would actually go to college thinking they couldn’t afford it despite the amount of public and private money to go to school. College isn’t right for everyone to be sure, but Jesse wanted to be a digital artist and pay for his graffiti habit by building websites. That would have certainly been worth the investment given the increased standard of living and job security he would have been able to realize.
We swung by his apartment first to smoke a blunt and check out some of his designs. It was in the basement of a hundred-year-old Victorian rowhome in a neighborhood just this side of shady and hard. A few years earlier and the scales would have fallen the other way for sure. It was decorated in the twenty-something bachelor chic that I recognized. I pulled up a pillow on the floor and started to unpack my camera gear while my host unrolled a prepackaged cigar to make use of its natural tobacco wrapper to fashion the blunt we’d be smoking soon. A ratty looking kitten prowled the edges of the room, keeping its distance with wary swipes of its stringy tail.
“Don’t worry about, Killer, bro. He’s cool.”
Killer wasn’t cool. Killer was fierce and determined to strike back at any comforting touch that came within striking distance of its hellish claws. The second I reached out to stroke its back when it pushed up close, the kitten flipped around and wrapped all four limbs around my forearm, head arched over my wrist and claws digging in at sixteen points. Killer than bared its fangs and sank them all the way to the gums through my long-sleeved shirt and into the tender flesh below the pale green fabric.
I slung the cat from me by reflex and it landed on its feet before nonchalantly walking into the bedroom. Jesse and the two messengers who shared the apartment with him were quickly laughing so hard they were almost crying. He actually stopped rolling to avoid spillage. I wasn’t amused, but laughed politely and waited for the blunt to be rolled.
The next morning, my wrist started to swell and my medically-minded girlfriend insisted I go to the doctor. It was never my first choice for anything, but Megan was right. The doc placed me on a regimen of wicked antibiotics to counteract the nasty poisons found in cat bites. I never knew such a danger existed but would never forget as the pills tore my gut apart both coming and going for the entire ten days I was taking them, including Megan’s favorite holiday Thanksgiving.
* * *
I was still going to class every Saturday to complete my masters in film, television and video. I was also busy falling in love and set out to purchase a diamond ring for my would-be bride as soon as possible. Megan’s favorite movie was Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn. I had never seen the film, but the website had a lot of great rings at prices I could afford with the help of a generous credit limit on my cards. I found the one I thought she would like and planned to head to the store in Bethesda during lunch one Saturday at school.
I figured I could pick up the ring and check out the café in Tiffany’s to plan the actual proposal. Imagine my surprise when I found out we couldn’t actually get breakfast at the high-end jewelry store, though they were more than happy to sell me a platinum engagement ring with a half-carat diamond of fairly decent quality. It sparkled like a captured star as the sales woman snapped shut the turquoise box and slipped it inside of a slim, turquoise bag with rope handles. I stashed it inside of my backpack and drove back to American University, plotting a new scheme for how I would propose now that Plan A was out.
Despite the grand plans forming in my head for the rest of the afternoon, I busted out the ring as soon as I got home, unable to wait a single second longer than the five months we had been together. I don’t remember the exact words that I used, but it must have worked because she said yes without hesitation and slipped the ring on her finger. It would need to be sized later but still fit without complaint. We kissed like we had never kissed until that moment and started envisioning a future together that continues to evolve some nine years later and three thousand miles away from Washington DC.
A few weeks later, we took our first trip to New York City to hook up with one of her best friends from Minneapolis who would also be visiting the city with her new fiancé. The New Year’s Eve trip had been planned long before they met their respective paramours in their respective cities over the course of the previous year. The room was prepaid and the date preselected, which meant the four of us would be sharing the modest room with two queen beds and a flat-screen television in the midtown Doubletree.
The Infiniti SUV that was the source of more than a little financial tension in our relationship provided a comfortable ride in the ridiculous holiday traffic as well as a satellite radio for entertainment in the unlikely event the constant conversation waned. It was like that for us from word one, a stream of comfortable consciousness interrupted only by the brief interludes of silence that our divergent personalities were destined to bring but our instinctive love for each other had always been enough to get the conversation started again.
We entered the enormous city in the distance via the Lincoln Tunnel. I was always surprised at how long it took to get through that dim tube of concrete and tile burrowed under Hudson River. We arrived in Manhattan on the westside near midtown and made our way across the waist of the island to the reasonably-priced garage we had scoped out online ahead of time on the eastside near the hotel. The forty dollars a night we paid for the stay still gives me a pathological aversion to paying for parking. Megan’s friend Justine and fiancé Paul arrived the day before, so we dropped off our stuff at the Doubletree front desk before wandering to a pizza shop near Macy’s to meet them.
We both walk with long, fast strides that ate up the sidewalk at a rapid clip. Back in Washington DC we would be passing more people than not, but here we simply kept pace with the mass of city dwellers moving at the same quick speed. It became the first of many long walks in what would become our favorite American city to visit. Our longest hike started in Harlem on W. 122nd Street and ended at the same Doubletree hotel on E. 57th that we were staying at for the first time this holiday weekend. On both occasions, we chatted nonstop about people and architecture and random bits of news or trivia that had sparked our imagination or curiosity or disgust.
We arrived early as we usually did and loitered in the area around Macy’s for Justine and Paul to arrive, running a bit late as seems to be the case for them even as recently as last year when we got together for dinner when we went to Minneapolis for Megan’s twentieth high school reunion. Certain friends you just add however much time they are usually late rather than being annoyed by the behavior. I have had numerous friends over the years who are chronically late. Kind of odd when I think about it now, but I don’t remember ever having a friend who viewed punctuality as important of a trait to nurture as I did more than Megan.
Justine and Paul couldn’t have been more different and yet more perfect for each other. She was tiny with parents from Indian while he was lanky and white and very mid-western. They both had sparkling personalities with a wry, winsome wit that made them the perfect companions for a fun couples weekend in New York City. Sharing a room with another couple wasn’t awesome but wasn’t too bad with the exception of no vacation sex. We hung out long enough to have a slice of halfway decent pizza and a couple of beers before walking back to midtown.
We actually ended up spending very little time together as we were both newly engaged and more interested in exploring the greatest city in the world on its craziest weekend with our new fiancés. They planned to spend the countdown in Time Square within the seething mass of drunken humanity we had seen for years on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, showing the ten-year plus difference in our respective ages. Megan and I were looking forward to ringing in the New Year in much calmer fashion with my cousin Eric at his bar in Tribeca.
The place was packed to the rafters, but we had a couple of stools reserved near the cash register where Eric spent much of his time as he was coming and going from either end of the long bar to deliver drinks to his customers. The woman he was seeing at the time or in the process of trying to see at the time or some such romantically-involved status joined us just before midnight for the official countdown and then hung out until Eric closed the bar around three. We walked with them to the nearby subway stop to head back to our hotel in midtown while they picked up a train heading south to Brooklyn. He was working the next night as well, but we planned to see him again in Brooklyn before we headed home on Monday to be back at work on the Tuesday following the long weekend.
We got off the train near Time Square, still more than a mile from the hotel. The streets were still fairly busy at this early hour on New Year’s day, but nothing like the what we had seen earlier in the evening when we left Justine and Paul to enjoy their celebration near the ball drop. We were both dressed for the freezing temperatures and snow, but the drunk women in too-short shirts and too-high heels were having a bit more difficulty navigating the slippery sidewalks. Megan and I shared a chuckle at their expense and still exchange a glance anytime we see a pack of Woo Girls out for a precarious stroll.
My mostly vegetarian wife has one temptation she just can’t resist when we are in New York City. Thankfully, we found a hotdog vendor with his iconic silver cart still open near the empty ice rink at Rockefeller Center who could supply the required tube of boiled meat in a steamed bun with a stripe of plain, yellow mustard as the only condiment. I got onions added to mine but otherwise it was identical. Megan tore into hers with gusto as we walked the last few blocks of our hike to Lexington Avenue and East 57th Street. I was less enthusiastic when I discovered adding “onions” to a dog in NYC meant a stewed onion concoction that was anything but the dice, raw onion I was expecting. Two bites and my hotdog was added to an already overflowing garbage can at the corner.
Our temporary roommates were asleep when we got back to the hotel, so we got ready for bed as quietly as possible and slipped off to sleep after completing our good night ritual for the first time in 2006, a year that would prove to be quite energetic, both at home and at work.