1980 and 2016: A Tale of Two Graduates

I’ve never wanted to live vicariously through my son Sam. His mother and I imparted good values to him, and we let him blaze his own path. With a passion for all aspects of video games since he was a tyke in Batman pajamas, Sam did exactly that, majoring in the interactive media and game development (IMGD) program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. From the day we toured WPI and learned about the game program, he knew that was the right direction for him. He applied, he was accepted and now he’s a graduate.

I’m delighted with Sam because he made a huge academic leap from my undergrad years at Princeton University. Bowing to pressure my divorced parents to find a “practical” major that would give me something to write about as an aspiring journalist, I majored in economics rather than English, history or even classics or Slavic studies. Only one economics class grabbed my interest, “Analyses of Capitalism,” with its focus on philosophy rather than equations. My B- grades for my two junior papers and my senior thesis reflect my lack of passion. My enthusiasm for classes on 19th century English literature (Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence both electrified me and I still have my heavily annotated version of The Rainbow), the politics of civil liberties (Mapp v. Ohio sticks in my memory), European intellectual history with Carl Schorske and modern Jewish thought with Ellen Umansky all point to roads not traveled.

Indeed, I don’t even have a copy of my thesis, that intellectual capstone on the edifice of your Princeton studies. So deeply did I bury my thesis that I couldn’t even remember the title until I looked it up on the university’s thesis directory. And there it was, “An Analysis of Board-Level Union Representation.” It clocked in at 86 pages, pounded out on an gunmetal grey IBM electric typewriter. At least I turned it in on time, an improvement over my fall junior paper.

While I muffled my passions, Sam celebrated his. His mother and I supported him all the way as Sam turned a passion into informed, logical academic and career choices. Even better, he had a fantastic experience with his senior project, the group equivalent of Princeton’s thesis. He could have played it safe with a project in the U.S., but he rolled the dice on the most challenging, exciting project option. As a result, he joined of a four-person team that spent three months in Japan creating a video game, titled Chinmoku, for learning Japanese. Based at a college near Kyoto, the team pulled together the game and also saw some of the country, taking the bullet train to Tokyo for several days. The final report the team submitted to WPI runs 73 pages and features much cooler illustrations than any of the feeble mathematical equations I scattered around my thesis.

By contrast, my great immersive experience was a bleak bus trip in January 1980 to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Studies to research the idea of workers’ input into company management.

The contrasts continue. My thesis had no afterlife after I submitted it. Sam’s team, however, kept polishing the Chinmoku game. Not only did the final report earn an B from the professor, it won honorable mention in awards for senior projects in his department. The game also won honors as the top game in the indie college/serious game category of the competition of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDIGI).

I thought about ordering a copy of my thesis. The price is minimal, but I decided to avoid a wrenching trip down memory lane; I just don’t want to see a reminder of those days or hold that cracked capstone of my Princeton academic journey. I’d much rather follow and cheer on the saga of Chinmoku. It might come in handy for those already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Sam and I went in directions in another big way post-graduation. I had visions of joining the Foreign Service or Princeton in Asia or just spending time on the road in Europe before I joined the workforce. In 1980, journalism jobs were plentiful and I figured I’d be a cub reporter in Wichita or Baton Rouge or Corpus Christi, putting my hometown and college experience to good use as a feature writer. Instead, to my shock, I talked my way into a reporter-researcher job at Forbes magazine. The magazine wanted me to start quickly, so instead of traveling—or even arguing for a week to go home to Mission, Texas to catch my breath—I scrambled to find a place to live in Brooklyn and began riding the sweltering subway to work less than two weeks after I graduated. To be fair, had I not moved to New York then, I might never have moved there, and my life would have been radically different, probably lived within a 100-mile radius of San Antonio.

Now, Sam, he’s taking the smart approach. He’s got his resume, a website and a Twitter account, all the tools of the aspiring game designer. He knows the market and where his skills fit, and he’s networking and going to events. The right job is out there for him

Better yet, he’s had time after graduation to enjoy life. I tell him he’ll be working for a long, long time, so don’t go crazy in the beginning. And Sam’s also hitting the road for European travel. With the Japan experience from last year, he’s a pro at border crossings. He studied German in high school, so he has tickets for almost two weeks in Germany and then Amsterdam.

Actually, this is a joint project for two graduates, one from 1980 and one from 2016. Sam and I are going together, the new graduate and the one who never took that post-graduation trip.

We leave for Berlin tonight.

You Lose It I Find It

I’m a finder. Staying alert to what’s going on around me means I find moments in time that need a little personal attention. That may include a FedEx deliverer struggling with a load of spilled boxes; a frail woman pushing groceries to her car; a tired mom with an even more tired kid stepping into a crowded subway. I must give off a finder vibe; once in New York an elderly, well-dressed woman on Park Avenue grabbed arm and said, “Help me get across the street.” And I did. If I don’t give the universe a push in the right direction at that moment, who will? I must have picked up that attitude from reading Raymond Chandler’s novels about LA investigator Philip Marlowe, sallying forth to right the wrongs of the world.

The same drive to act goes even more so with lost objects. They’re not so common, but they drop into my field of vision at times. I’ll snatch them up and treat them as a portal into an adventure. After all, a lost object implies a loser of that object, who typically has a very high level of interest in getting that object back. Finding the lost object starts an adventure of discovery, connection and a little mystery about the way the world works.

Not always. Some objects resist return. Nobody cares except me. When living in New York in the 1980s I found a briefcase brimming with test materials from the NYC Board of Education. I couldn’t decipher them but I thought the BOE would be a better judge of that. I made some calls, only to find nobody at the bureaucratic ziggurat on Court Street in Brooklyn particularly wanted this great find. I could have tossed the whole package, but I finally located an official in the sub-sub-sub-basement willing to take it off my hands. Case closed.

Decades later, I found a battered flip phone on Post Road East in Westport, Connecticut. A barely legible email address was taped to the back of the phone, so I fired off some messages to that. Nobody responded. I finally gave up and turned the phone in to an AT&T store to let them figure out if anybody wanted it.

At the other end of the attention spectrum, both wallets and iPhones have fallen under my scanning gaze. These steamer trunks of modern identity are invaluable and yet so easy to misplace. Their absence immediately becomes a crisis of finance, social connection (quick, what’s your best friend’s phone number?) and identity. In these cases, the adventure puts me into Marlowe mode, sallying forth to right the wrongs of misplaced objects. I become the confident private investigator who takes on the case for clients when they are at their most vulnerable and exposed and uncertain. Their identity depends, literally, on the kindness of strangers. My job is to be that stranger and be that kindness. That’s what Philip Marlowe would do.

The most recent cases both involved young people from Latin America forgetting a wallet and a phone, respectively, on the Metro-North Harlem line that I use for commuting.

I spotted the wallet under a train seat around 2 a.m. on January 1 several years ago, groggily returning home after a New Year’s Eve party. I was getting up to exit at my stop when I notice the wallet. Nobody else was around. There it sat. I looked around, nobody claimed it so I scooped it up.

At home, I emptied its contents on a table. U.S. cash, foreign credit cards and ID. Clearly this came from a visitor who let festivity run ahead of caution that cold and raucous night. The problem was, I couldn’t find a way to contact the owner. Everything pointed back to Brazil. I ran through the materials again and finally found a name and phone number. At 3 a.m., I decided I’d wait a while before calling to avoid freaking out the reveler.

I called that morning. The number was for the uncle of the teen who lost the wallet. We arranged to meet that afternoon at the Katonah train station, where the teen and his girlfriend (ahh, was she the 2 a.m. distraction?) gratefully accepted the wallet and gave me a bottle of wine.

More recently, I found an iPhone on the seat of the Harlem Line train, the station before I reached mine. I slipped it into my shirt pocket and minutes later I sat down at the same dining room table where I traditionally spread out materials and start down the trail of contact.

The phone had no security, so all I had to do was swipe and I was in—to everything. This alarmed me and I clicked around only long enough to find the phone owner’s name and his emails. The owner lived in Central America, in a city I had visited, so that gave the case a special twist. How many degrees of separation came between us? He must have been visiting the New York area and dropped the phone, I reasoned. I saw some frequently called numbers but decided to reach out via email, the better to explain myself.

I IM’d the phone’s owner and his wife on Facebook, and wrote to his home and business emails. No replies. I decided to let the case simmer. Then the phone rang that night. The screen showed somebody with the owner’s last name so I hit the talk button.

“Are you calling about the lost phone?” I said. “I’m the guy who found it.”

The caller was the sister-in-law of the phone’s owner. It turns out the owner’s son had been visiting his aunt and uncle near me, and the son was using the father’s phone. The son had left the phone on the train.

“I took a chance on calling and hoping a good Samaritan would answer,” she explained.

We arranged for a hand-off the next afternoon at the Katonah Public Library. At the appointed time the boy emerged from his aunt’s car and he bashfully approached me outside the library. I pretended to bobble the phone, then gave it to him. In return, I got a hefty bag of fragrant Central American coffee beans and a charming handwritten thank-you note. The boy’s aunt and I chatted awhile and then they were on their way.

That night the phone’s owner IM’d me on Facebook and thanked me for my attention to the matter. He had been reluctant to respond to my IM because he feared I might be a scammer. I could see his concern — who wouldn’t be wary of a message from somebody claiming to have a lost object? Ill intent abounds in our times, especially when technology is the connection. Anyway, the phone call and hand-off established that I was on the level.

He said my act actually took on more urgency than I imagined, because his son and the U.S. family were flying down to Central America on Saturday, and MTA lost-and-found probably would not have connected with the family before then.

We played the six degrees of Central American separation game and we did indeed know people in common in the capital, so that gave the connection extra sweetness. I mused about the times I had visited his country.

“I developed a taste for pupusas and Pollo Compero,” I wrote, and that got a laugh, as I flaunted the limits of my familiarity of the regional cuisine. The chat capped the case and that was that.

At this point, you may be thinking, “That’s great, but what about when YOU lose something, Van? You like to say ‘what goes around comes around.’ Does it really go down that way?”

Good question. Answer: Sometimes. I’ve left a gym bag, a sports coat and a shopping bag with my lunch packed in favorite Tupperware containers on the train from the suburbs. Despite logging the loss in the lost and found website, I’ve never got anything back. On the other hand, I forgot a credit card once in a Middle Eastern restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and that I got back.

Just last week, in a drowsy ride home, I didn’t put my wallet away after showing my ticket to the conductor. I left it on my lap. When I stretched and got up at the station before mine (the same station where I found the iPhone), I did my traditional patdown and realized my wallet wasn’t in my pocket. I didn’t find it on the seat, nor under my backpack. I searched under the seat and there it, was on the floor. A close call! I doubt anybody would have seen the wallet as the train sailed north to the end of the line. A car cleaner might have spied it and turned it in. I hope so.

In any case, I lost it AND I found it. Philip Marlowe would approve.