May 21, 2002

How to Grow a Longer Nose

I lied. I flat out lied and it was so effortless I was shocked to hear the words slip so easily out of my mouth.

I am never fully awake when we ride the morning Metro. I’m not sleepy, though I’m in some closely associated world. I’m coherent enough to be a good parent to my accompanying little girl and be engaging and interactive with her early morning banter. But it takes a good amount of effort to maintain my equilibrium. Coffee is not a sufficient antidote for this condition.

Horoscope for May 21So when a woman we’ve seen at the subway elevator a few times smiled at us I smiled back, easily and without concern. All my instruments were in the green: everything was within tolerance levels. She asked how we were doing and I replied. “Fine” is an answer I don’t have to think about. Then, without warning, she asked me where I work. This was the antidote. I suppose our morning “meetings” made her feel familiar enough with us to broach the subject.

Riding public transportation (along with surfing the net) has forced me to constantly evaluate my and my family’s sphere of privacy. It’s an odd mix and the boundaries are in constant flux. There is no doubt we are on display on our daily commutes. I’ve likened it to being in a play on stage. To ignore or deny that seems unreasonable. Children are a natural attraction in a world where we’ve come to question everyone around us. But there are limits and dealing with the fuzziness of those boundaries is not easy so early in the day.

Just this morning, when boarding the packed subway elevator, a older man queried my daughter: “What’s your name dear?” My daughter looked down silently. “Can she hear me?” he asked, turning to me. “Yes,” I replied. “But we’re teaching her not to talk to strangers.” All eyes or ears were on us. The spotlight was too bright. So he asked me her name. I had to tell him I didn’t feel comfortable divulging that information. I’m protective of both my and my family’s personal information. But the path of least resistance would have been simply to provide him with the information he requested. Often I am required to take the rougher road. And I need to be in full possession of my faculties in order to do that.

Within the boundaries, I’ve got to say, we are one of the Metro’s best entertainment venues. DC’s subway is relatively tame compared to other cities’s. There are no platform musicians and no one walking from car to car asking you for anything. So we are often the only entertainers aboard. Watching us play is a viable alternative to hiding behind the local news.

But like any production, the interaction is usually only between actors. Audience participation is limited. We do, on occasion, invite selected individuals to join us. Sometimes simple eye contact insures one a good time. While at others the unfolding play between my daughter and I requires additional participation.

Last week, as we were commuting home after a long day, I told her that mommy wouldn’t be home and I would be her chef for the evening. I’ve learned it’s always a good idea to prepare a four year old for out-of-the-ordinary events. And this was one of them. She knew an opening when she saw one. “I want candy for dinner!” she countered. “No, chicken nuggets tonight” (her main food group). “Candy.” “Nuggets.” You can see where this was going.

I spied a woman across the aisle laughing. Others were peeking above their PDAs. I turned to all of them and projected in my best stage presence: “How many people here think my daughter should have a good dinner tonight?” Seven people raised their hands. “And how many think she should have candy?” I simultaneously watched my daughter’s face as I polled the audience on this second choice. No hands. “See, sweetheart, everyone thinks you should have a good dinner.” So you see, I do not shy away from public interaction.

“Where do you work?” is, on the surface, a natural and common question. Yet, this was personal enough to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t prepared for it so early in the morning. And not when it was delivered by someone I didn’t know. This wasn’t an art opening. And without thinking, I lied. “At the IRS,” I stated as if I’d worked there for years and was already in the final stages of planning for my retirement. I’ve got to hand it to me, instinctively, I used my best repellent. I didn’t want to tell her where I worked. There was something about her.

But I regretted it immediately, for lying, yes, but even more, for the quality of my lie. I answered without thinking of the possible consequences. What if she worked at the IRS? What would I have done when she asked which department? She looked like she could work at the IRS. I pictured myself begging for forgiveness from someone I didn’t even know.

As our train moved downtown I watched to see if she got off before our transfer. Not a chance. Hmmph. We changed trains. She followed. But on the next platform she went the other way.

Relief. I’d dodged a bullet. But it still didn’t feel right. And this was not over. There would be other mornings. I had never pictured myself working at the IRS. With this knowledge, would she start querying me about the latest tax laws and her deductions? She seemed the type. Would I find myself digging an even bigger hole, having to tell her I worked in the audit department (the strongest repellent known to man)? Would this dissuade someone who felt no compunction asking a stranger WHERE THEY WORKED at this hour?

I was awake. And I ruminated for at least an hour after I got to my office cube. I had created an unexpected persona for myself. My daughter’s father was a tax auditor at the Internal Revenue Service.

How does an auditor act when commuting? I pictured myself wearing Sansabelt™ slacks, a short sleeve white shirt with broad blue vertical stripes (too wide to be subtle), and a necktie with the Rugrats on it. My federal ID was on a long chain around my neck and neatly tucked into my shirt pocket (pocket protector and pens optional). I had given myself this part. It wasn’t something I had consciously aspired to but the role was mine. Did I have the talent to pull this off? What would I do the next time I saw her?

I didn’t have to wait long. Two days later, as we marched up to the Metro turnstile I saw her waiting for the elevator. This time I took the initiative. “How are you this morning?” She scowled. “I’m angry.” My heart dived. Had she found me out? She pulled a letter out of a folder and handed it to me to read.

It was from her supervisor advising her of her unsatisfactory performance review. My instincts had been correct. She had few boundaries. What could I say? I was so amazed that a total stranger would share her personal and personnel facts that I could only gloss over the details on the paper in my hands. I scanned while I decided quickly how to respond. My daughter was bouncing around me while we waited for the elevator door to open.

“I’m sorry.” I neither wanted to say more nor anything that might prolong the conversation. I truly was sorry. I knew how tough office relationships can be. All of a sudden, I was no longer worrying about my IRS status. The tables had turned as I held my invitation to be part of her morning drama. My daughter and I walked to our seats as the station lights dimmed.

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