…Like the time I was standing in New York’s Penn Station waiting for my friend, Alex, so we could ride back to Princeton together. People just walked past me without so much as glancing up. The crowd moved around me the way a stream parts for a submerged rock.
Even Alex just ignored me and left me standing there when he walked by and headed for the exit to NJ Transit.
I was filling space. But I wasn’t an obstacle. I could have been on fire and nary a passerby would have thought to extinguish the flames because nothing was burning.
OK. It was New York City, where rush hour is every hour. And New Yorkers are not the most congenial people in the world. Ask someone for directions, and he or she immediately goes into a defensive stance, pulling out the mace or pepper spray without even thinking of doing what a citizen of Moscow would do– point to the direction of the destination. In Moscow, the resident would even go so far as escorting you to the subway you need. Not New York, where along with the mace or pepper spray, you would likely be told “go to hell’’ or worse.
Even though I moved to the Princeton area after college, I was a native New Yorker, and even to a native New Yorker, there can be extremes. I live on the far edge of the extremes. I am so invisible maybe I could rob a bank and witnesses would tell about the gun or the note. But no one would even recognize the fact I was there threatening them. And if the cops did try to find me, I would wind up as one of the 10 most non-wanted.
It’s been like that my entire life. I graduated NYU in the top five percent of my class. My name was somehow not in the awards section of the program. Believe it or not, I wasn’t even invited to the graduation.
Oversight? To some, maybe. To me, the guy who still doesn’t have a picture on his driver’s license and whose mail all still comes addressed, “occupant,’’ even bills, sees it as the way things are.
So it was that my love life was lifeless, a veritable zombie if there had ever been life in the first place.
Take what happened when the online dating service found the “most compatible match.” Her name was Marylynne. She was the chief writer for Antansonia’s traveling mime group, and author of the promotional slogan, “A mime is a terrible thing to waste.’’ Not a very talkative group, to be sure.
So, right off, conversation was difficult.
We were seated at one of those awkward round tables at a Starbucks in Lawrenceville. We were both nervous. We talked about the weather, the price of hemp and why gas prices were too high. Sparring, sort of, looking for some common bond without getting into politics or religion.
We didn’t know any of the same people. That eliminated gossip.
Neither of us was at all interesting, clearly. Somehow, I was compelled to get a conversation going.
Embolden by the fact Marylynne didn’t already make some excuse after three minutes with me, like “I think I forgot to turn off the microwave,” or “I have to run. I just got an urgent phone call from work.” So, I asked what I thought would be an icebreaker question. I still can’t figure out why she just flicked her latte with her right hand and stormed out of the Starbucks without even offering to pay.
“Marylynne, if you pay so much for your underwear, how come you get upset when some guy tries to look up your dress?”
What was wrong with that?
After all, all you have to do is stroll through a Victoria’s Secret and look at the price of panties and uplifting bras—not that I do, at least not that often—and you have to think how incongruous it is that all this pricey stuff is off limits to admirers when it’s being worn by a real person, not a mannequin. Hell, I wasn’t even trying to look up her dress to see if I could get a glimpse of her panties.
What it all comes down to, I guess, is what’s a fellow who even introverts scorn supposed to do to get on that treadmill called life?
As for Marylynne, she had a good personality. OK. Her looks weren’t dazzling. She may have been a little chunky and too short for her body. But if even for only those few minutes, she sat with me, talked to me, even answered when I said something. That alone equates to beauty.
Not that I’m much of a prize. I guess I could describe myself as couch potato fit. I could use some more hair. My teeth are probably not Ipana worthy. I look as if I broke my nose playing hockey—which could be a plus in the notice me context. But I never even picked up a hockey stick or held a puck, I was born with the smooshed, crooked look. I suppose when it comes down to it, I would be described as a nice guy, someone with a great personality.
If first dates were touchy, second dates were virtually non-happening.
Believe me. I was determined to overcome the shortcomings. I was living in Morris County and commuting to Trenton for my job lobbying for Greenpeace. So to improve my selling skills, I enrolled in a public speaking class at the community college in Morris County. I was one of seven people in the class. The other six, as was typical, never even took notice of me. I sat there in the classroom invisible.
The others went out for ice cream sometimes, walking right past me, never asking me to join them. Conversations about baseball, the folly of buying retail or the jerks running the college, the county, the state, the country never involved me.
Yet, I was in my element. Even if no one listened to me or even noticed me when I was learning speaking. I knew me. I had no reflection in the hypothetical mirror. I was the flower pot in the corner if I was lucky.
With or without the others’ recognition, I was still gaining confidence. I had a whole new attitude. OK folks, walk around me. I was given the lectern. I spoke. At least I listened to me, and I liked what I heard.
This led me to politics. If I was invisible—which I still am—then no opponent could find anything to accuse me of, not even the political folks who delight in skewering and taking out of context what another political being says.
It didn’t happen to me. I could say anything. No one ever noticed. I was on the ballot for school board. None of the 85 voters who turned out even remembered what I looked like or cared. My words were abstractions. But without the taint of dirty campaigning that couldn’t work on someone without an identity, I was seen as the ultimate reformer. I won easily as the alternative to the boobs running the world.
In the old song, “It Pays to be Ignorant,’’ the punch line is if you have enough money, you’re a seer.
In my world, it pays to be invisible because if there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there to smear me with. In a sense, I was invincible. My brand was bland.
Success led to arrogance. Next challenge, the township council in Pepack-Gladstone, a community of the rich and famous. And me, neither rich nor famous. But nondescript, which was my ultimate attribute.
I won election again, easily and by a wide margin because my opponents couldn’t find anything to say about someone with no shadow, so to speak.
In a natural progression, I went on to county government and the New Jersey Assembly, leaving nothing behind, literally without footprints. No record because I had no reason to be bought. And, most importantly, no taint, nothing to fuel a whisper campaign, no dirty laundry.
My party — one of them, I guess — nominated me to run for Governor as the clean candidate. The nomination came with a hot shot political consultant, an organization, campaign money and endorsements.
So, here I am today in the Governor’s office, sitting behind the Governor’s desk, a man of no particular party, no philosophy, no attributes, no enemies and, probably, no friends except those whose job depends on me and those who believe I can help them get business with the state or a job somewhere.
Such as the spoils of victory. Even the enemies respect that.
I’m so anonymous, nondescript, invisible I can even go out without the bevy of security people and walk the streets with impunity. I may be the Governor. But I got here on my non-record. And I have kept it intact.
Now, I wonder if Marylynn will accept a second date if she gets a call from The Governor’s office. If she even remembers me.
Dan Weissman lives in Yardley and participates in the Writer’s Room at the Princeton Public Library. He covered the governor’s office for the better part of 30 years as a statehouse reporter for the Star-Ledger.