I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father. It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff). My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful. Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes! No dining hall goop for me tonight! Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.
I do not drive. Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel. This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go: I ride the bus.
There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it. However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names. The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train. Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride. Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents. But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer. I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.
A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.
“Why would you want to know that? To know which bus you just missed?” My father laughs. His son is weird.
Well, yes, Dad. Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important. After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today. It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.
Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret. Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class. On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all. I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).
Regret is a tough road to go down. The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter. To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again. You start singing Sinatra. “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”
But then it hits you over the head suddenly. Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night. Those two words. What if.
You never know what will be the trigger for these head games. It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work. It could be a story on the six o’clock news. Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.
This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.
First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.” Damn, I want to do that! The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia. I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today. It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it. This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas. (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)
As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster. For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job. I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago. Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world. The interviewer told me his was “rock star.” I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED. Need I say that I didn’t get the job?
Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds. Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School. One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school. Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour. I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.” The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.
Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again! As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment). The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me. I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper. I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house). And all of that when look what I could have done! I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer! If only I had known. How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?
I must confess: After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted. My labor was all in vain. While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.” There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.
The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense. Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.” Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.
All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again. Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures. Scott Turow became a novelist. And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.
Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by. As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings. To tell that bus “later, gator.”
And it’s true. Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken. Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…