Monday, May 14, 2007

Further Adventures in NYC

THE WEEKEND SOCIALIZING CONTINUES with a trip to Queens Saturday to celebrate M's completing graduate school. Commencement ceremonies were Friday, and she had planned a party once she had given that mortarboard a good stiff toss into the air. She first informed me of this back in the waning weeks of our job, when I needed such a shot in the arm for the future. Early May still seemed very distant from that standpoint; hell, from that date, the final day of work still seemed like a remote, dim star of hope.

Time being the sprinting bastard it is, the two intervening months sped by. M worked nearly 24 hours a day during April to complete the many stages of her design-school graduate thesis project, including a graphically intensive printed presentation and construction of a prototype. I helped by proofreading PDFs of her presentation, marking them up in Acrobat and sending back corrections. She sounded more and more frantic as the deadline for sending the presentation to our old newsletter printer, and we chatted extensively while she entered the corrections to InDesign. Initially I felt guilty for possibly taking up design time, but she told me that talking to someone relieved her anxiety. She was an excellent supervisor when we worked together, and a fine conversationalist (we took more and more time during our final weeks at the salt mine just shooting the shit), so I was as happy to help calm her down as I was to chat with a friend whose daily presence I miss.

She got everything in on time and passed that project — as well as two other classes — so by Saturday, she was a full-fledged Master of Science. Friends and family converged on Astoria to celebrate this awesome achievement. I began Saturday by purchasing a jeweled picture frame with a large wire dragonfly on the corner and a graduation card. From Paramus, I drove down to the Weehawken Port Imperial complex and hopped a boat over the Manhattan. Twice in the Big Apple in the same week . . . I had nipped over on Wednesday before doing some volunteer work at WFMU to see M's work along with that of her classmates at the Hammerstein Ballroom. This, by the way, was a stunning display of design talent: typographical manipulations, painting and computer art both aesthetic and commercial, blueprints, and product and packaging design, which is where I found M's projects. I wondered what sort of work I might have been able to produce if my employment had offered these sorts of creative opportunities. That M was able to cultivate her talent among the sterile confines of our newsletter layouts and all of her administrative worries was great testimony to her focus and discipline over these past 3½ years.

From the ferry terminal, I took their shuttle to the bus station, and caught the R over to Queens. This was my first visit to the borough in 16 years. Through his father, my pal John had scored a block of U.S. Open tickets back in 1991. I have no interest in tennis, but free passes to a world-class tournament were tough to decline. I recall deadly traffic both ways, nightmarish concession-stand prices, and Stefan Edberg stomping Michael Chang firmly into the earth in straight sets. The brief lesson in how tennis is scored lasted about five minutes longer than the actual match.

M had selected an Italian restaurant near her neighborhood that carried a good rep among some Sopranos actors, who had been spotted dining there on breaks from the nearby Kaufman-Astoria Studios. I arrived obscenely early — a bad habit of mine — so after determining that neither she nor her family were there yet, I strolled around a bit in this unfamiliar borough.

I've worked in NYC for nearly 8 years, but my range was always tightly circumscribed about my two offices. I only strayed outside when taking a long, frustration-ridden break or in taking alternate means of transit out of the city to dodge a train malfunction or tunnel jam. I was somewhat better at our Chelsea location, from which I made fairly frequent forays into the Village just two blocks away. Still, I've only been to Brooklyn twice, Queens thrice (now), and never to Staten Island. Any deep expeditions to Manhattan's many charms have come on weekends, when friends and I would make museum runs, or when I pulled solo trips to the FMU Record Fair or to scope an indie flick. So I appreciated the chance to take a turn around Astoria. It especially helped fill in some of the blanks from last month, when M would take me with her in cellphone form to make the odd coffee run. I could "see" her trip up and down from the apartment, but all I knew of her environment was that there was a source of hot caffeine.

Folks began filtering in as the start time passed. I finally met her recent fiancé, and saw for the first time since his January layoff one of the two junior designers in our group. Aside from M, I hadn't been in touch with many other folks from the old company, so it was good to get a live update on his doings. As for her fiancé, he confirmed that they would actually make the announcement of that arrangement later on at the party, providing folks with two reasons to celebrate.

M arrived shortly thereafter, looking positively radiant and a touch frantic. I don't think I've seen her at rest since the late-January "holiday" party our company threw, and even then she had to run out to class before it wrapped. None of that now; classes were over for good, and her only mission for today was to have fun and ensure that others did the same.

She had set up her prototype and the bound thesis in the main party room. After having proofread the pages so many times, I was able to walk curious viewers through the thesis and the philosophy behind the project without even cracking the text. Reviewing it in hardbound form, however, and seeing the model there, drove home for all those gathered just how much work she had exerted in this class. And this was for just one of three she did in the spring semester, and after delaying some of the thesis work when construction of the prototype was delayed!

By the time we were seated for dinner, our fourth designer from the old company had arrived. She faces some unique challenges in her job hunt, the most prominent being her early-60s age. Despite her incredible diversity of experience across the graphic-arts world, employers still freak over age, sub rosa in most cases, as such discrimination is illegal. The career-counseling service cautioned us on ways to circumvent this tendency via our resume entries and responses in interviews, so I hope she got the same message I did when she undertook the program. M had seated us with her thesis advisor, a tenured professor at the design school, with the thought that she might be of service to us in the job hunt. My fellow designer was able to ask some questions about Web design and getting attention for the jewelry she manufactures via a decent Web site. Both of us were generous in our praise of her student, M, and told her she had been an excellent manager, the likes of which we might not see again.

Dinner was quite excellent, especially a seafood sampler we received as an opening course. I can't cook seafood here because I have no ventilation, so this was a rare treat. M took the floor after the main course to thank everyone who came out, as well as those who had helped her in her graduate studies and on the thesis project. I was pleasantly surprised to be thanked first for my help in editing and proofreading the thesis text. That was a tremendous honor and I was gratified to be credited and applauded. The most deserved applause of the evening, however, was for the tired yet happy graduate at the head of the room, both for her completing this academic journey and in announcing the engagement to the crowd.

With the sun gone over Queens, I made my goodbyes to M, her mom and fiancé, and our remaining coworker. I'm sure I'll see M sometime in the future, but when is a question. I do intend to keep in close touch with her, now that she's got her life back, and ready to get the career-counseling program in motion. For now, though, I am deeply proud of her achievement, and I look forward to seeing the ways she exercises her talent at whichever company is wise enough to hire her.

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