People collect things. This happens all over the world for different reasons. Children collect bottlecaps, rocks, erasers, stickers and baseball cards just for the hell of it. A woman at UCLA used to crisscross the school grounds collecting plastic bottles and soda cans. In many places people collect scrap metal, combing through trash heaps and carrying off everything of value. In Madrid, on weekends, collectors flock to Plaza Mayor to inspect coins that dozens of vendors peddle outdoors. In one corner of the square a group of old men would gather, standing and trading stamps they collected.
I collect cups. I’m not sure when it started. But over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a number, of varied shapes and sizes. Mugs. Wine glasses. Martini glasses. Shot glasses. They come from bars and restaurants all over America. The collection is a tribute, for the most part, to good times. Each cup has a story.
It was 2004, the year before Katrina.
Andy and I were on our way to Newark, NJ from California. We started in Los Angeles and took Interstate 10 all the way East, passing through Phoenix, rolling through Tucson, stopping for lunch in El Paso on the Mexican border. We sped through the desert, staring in wonder out the window at small communities an hour from the nearest gas station.
Sand gave way to water and greenery, and we found ourselves in Louisiana, land of alligator appetizers. We stayed at a Motel 6 in Slidell one night and visited New Orleans the morning after.
The mug is from a cafe in the French quarter, a serene place not at all indicative of the endless party the South’s most raucous city advertises itself to be. The quiet beneath the town’s loud exterior was what impressed me most about New Orleans – a used bookstore with Italo Calvino and Tim O’Brien calling from the shelves; brick row homes and stone-paved streets; a view of the Mississippi. Simple stuff.
It’s always the little things I remember. Things like the sign at the aquarium that told us the story of Jonah and the shark, reminding us we were no longer in California: “According to tradition,” it read, “the great fish which swallowed Jonah was a whale. However, evidence suggests that the fish was probably a shark! Sharks have the ability to eject large objects from their stomachs, something whales are not able to do.”
We went to the dining hall three times a day, sometimes more. At around 6 p.m., wearing sweatshirts and flip flops, we’d drag ourselves out of our cramped three-person dorm rooms and head downstairs.
The cashier at the dining hall’s front entrance would swipe our Bruin cards, OKing our passage into a world of glaring lights, bad music and endless social opportunities.
The all-you-can-eat selection was extensive. Custom-made omelettes – egg-whites only? Ham? Cheese? – were a morning treat. Dinner involved cuisines from around the world, though strangely the Italian pasta and Chinese beef somehow tasted the same. Each night we chose between soups and salads, hamburgers and pizza, brownies and cakes. We’d eat frozen yogurt out of a dish like the ones here. At the end of the meal, Rachel would make us a milkshake-esque drink that was so good she called it the “screaming orgasm”. The secret ingredient, we found out later, was vanilla half-and-half.
We went to the dining hall to eat. Inevitably, we’d stay for hours. Some days we thought we’d never leave. The usual crowd was the four of us – Amanda, Armenian, from Florida, who loved her blue stickshift Honda and her fat orange cat; Dallas, Jewish, from San Francisco, who loved to dance; Sofia from the valley, who had a Mexican passport, dated a boy in Germany and lived in Brazil for a year; and me (I’m Chinese).
At dinner we’d ogle The Fairy, a water polo player who was somehow sexy despite or because of his head of perfect, long blonde hair. We’d hear about parties at the tree house or the horse shoe, receive visits from Leslie, on the track team, who never stopped smiling. Sometimes Rachel would join us after a run around the campus’ perimeter.
As stupid as it sounds, the hours during which we languished in the dining hall were some of the best of our college lives. There, away from our reading and our classes, we were completely relaxed. Over bottomless cups of English breakfast tea, we discussed and debated whatever we wanted. We shared with one another the details of our lives, and of all places, it was perhaps here that we learned the most about different cultures and upbringings.
One night a few weeks ago, I took this cup from a suite friends were renting at the MGM Grand. We spent the early part of the evening chatting and drinking, smoking on the porch. Though I didn’t stay long, I heard later that the weekend had been complete with a party bus and a blow-up dall named Caesar.
More than anything, though, that weekend was the night everyone got to see Bridget again. In some ways it was a strange goodbye party, though no one knew at the time.
Bridget had been a photo editor at our old college paper. I didn’t know her well. But the trip to Vegas was the first time in a while many of her close friends had seen her. Since graduation a few years before, she had moved to Australia after marrying a member of a band from there.
Last week, Bridget and her husband died in a car wreck in Ohio. Newsday, the Sacramento Bee and other papers ran staff obituaries. But the most poignant stories were the ones friends posted online at a site dedicated to remembering her. Old colleagues and buddies, many of whom had not seen her for years, shared memories of Bridget living out of her truck and on couches during college; of Bridget traveling to Nicaragua to shoot photographs for a story on fair trade coffee; of Bridget’s optimism and pessimism, her ambition and simplicity, her love of life and her passion for people.
I don’t take well to public mourning. But I couldn’t help but read the stories about this 25-year-old who seemed to have influenced the lives of so many of my friends. Most of the people I worked with in college graduated, going their separate ways. Many are journalists. Some work in finance or consulting. Others have gone to law school. Yet years after they left UCLA to pursue their varied dreams, here they all were, together again, remembering Bridget.
I go back to Boston to see my dad at least once a year. Typically I stay in a hostel off Boylston Street about halfway between Fenway Park and the Prudential Center. Mornings I’ll buy a newspaper and stroll through the commons and the garden, looking at the swan boats that seemed so much grander when I was small. I take the T out to Harvard and sit atop the library stairs, in the same spot where Anouk sang the German national anthem to me when we were in high school.
A few years ago, on one such trip, I visited Wellesley, my first hometown. I hadn’t been back in a long time. I took a shuttle from MIT over to the college where my cousin Nicole was studying.
If I saw the campus when I was a kid, I don’t remember it. The 19th century architecture put UCLA’s most beautiful buildings to shame. Though the residence halls were modern, their living rooms, adorned with heavy curtains and portraits of dignified women, seemed to belong to some past age. Adjacent to the common area was the cafeteria, where you could get hot chocolate in these cups all day long.
Beneath the calm and charm, though, Wellesley had a rowdy side. The college is home to naked parties boys from surrounding schools attend. Sex was a much-discussed subject.
The Wellesley of my childhood looked different at 20. When Nicole was in class one day I walked downtown to have a look around. My umbrella couldn’t keep me dry, much less warm, in the heavy sleet. Shivering as I emerged from the thickly foliaged school grounds and onto a busy road, I pondered the world before me. New England’s houses sit on sprawling lawns, lush and green, as if they had just fallen out of the sky and landed in a random fashion on plots of land. In a few months, I knew, the leaves would begin to turn, changing the tenor of the world. Winter would sprinkle snow onto bare branches. Spring, when it came again, would coax green from the earth. In summer the air would thicken, the sky turning black before the thunder boomed.
Travelers dream of California. Los Angeles and San Diego, with their palm trees, sun and beaches, seem to hold some strange promise. These coastal cities on the Pacific ring with optimism and hope, or so people have told me. But after spending 10 years of my life on the West coast, I still, for inexplicable reasons, yearn to return East. Maybe my internal clock is set to the seasons, which we don’t have here out West. The cities of my childhood have changed and I have too. But standing on the sidewalk in my old hometown, freezing on that miserable day a few years ago, I felt at home, at peace.
This last cup was a gift from my dad. One of a collection of six crystal wine glasses from Prague, it sat in the closet at my mom’s house for a couple years before I claimed it for my collection.
My father is a nuclear physicist, but above all, he is a businessman. When he visited my sister and me when we were younger, he would always come bearing gifts from his travels – hand-painted piggy banks, mini wooden clogs from Sweden, a book on Holland’s tulips. Little crystal animals from Prague were one of his favorite items. As we grew older, he would present us with candy dishes, champagne flutes and other crystal we could use around the house.
I’ve lived in 14 cities, seven in the last five years. These little trinkets my dad carried home from overseas sparked my curiosity about cultures and people around the world.
I spent several days in Prague in 2005. That was the only trip outside of Spain that I took while studying in Madrid. Before leaving for the Czech Republic, I bought a book in Spanish that taught basic phrases in Czech. The thought of not knowing the language made me nervous, so I learned the alphabet so I could at least try to pronounce things.
From the airport, the bus ran to the metro station: Dejvická. Náměstí Republiky was the stop for the hostel at which I was staying.
The days in Prague flew by. I went with a group of rowdy, outgoing boys. We crossed bridges spanning the river, got lost while wandering aimlessly and downed warm drinks at Christmas markets. We admired the architecture in a city home to one of Europe’s oldest universities. We stopped to chat with a Spanish tour guide. We tried absinthe. We considered history, thought about 1968 and 1989, about the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution.
And though souvenirs don’t interest me, I paused before the windows of shops filled with crystal, wondering if my father had stood here years before.
Written in October 2007.