Friday, September 28, 2012


The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college was pretty anomalous. I took a job working for the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, which came to my attention when I looked through the classified section of the newspaper (ah, quaint old 1994) and early on in the A’s came to a square labeled “Activist”. The job entailed going door-to-door in various communities, distributing information about environmental legislation and soliciting charitable donations. I was only tolerably OK at it (due to my inherent aptitude for taking “no” for an answer) but I stuck with it all summer.

I’ve had four kinds of jobs in my life. Retail jobs, white-collar computer jobs, construction jobs, and the NJPIRG gig. The first three are easy to encapsulate and explain to people, because most people have also either worked those kind of jobs or at least possess a passing familiarity with them. Far fewer people have “canvasser” anywhere on their resume. So that’s part of the oddness of that summer. But the job kind of took over my whole life that summer. The workdays started later, and ended much later, than more normal jobs. And the people who were drawn to working there were mostly of a certain type, fairly different in a lot of respects from my usual crowd. Yet those co-workers were the people I spent most of my downtime socializing with that summer as well, because we were all on the same schedule. I didn’t really stay in contact with any of those folks, and yeah that was 18 years ago but I pretty much lost touch within a semester of being back at school. It was intense while it lasted, though.

I hate to traffic in stereotypes, but the people who worked at NJPIRG were for the most part all variations on the standard 90’s flower children template. Politically far left, easy-going slackers, most of whom enjoyed recreational substance experimentation (ahem). I had grown up in a slightly-to-the-conservative-side blue collar town and gone on to a college full of stressed out Type A overachievers, which means most of my high school friends couldn’t care less about tree-hugging, and my college friends who did care were more likely to study environmental engineering or pre-law or something than actually chain themselves to a tree. I never witnessed any of the NJPIRG gang engaging in any radical protest, but they at least seemed capable of doing so at the drop of a rasta hat.

Another widely shared NJPIRG trait was vegetarianism, both for its bleeding-heart empathy and environmental impact. I dabbled with vegetarianism in college myself, which I found easy on the one hand because I had a meal plan and the meatless options were as easy to procure as anything else, but difficult on the other hand because I freaking love steak, hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, &c. &c. But I still found it interesting to spend so much time with people really committed to the lifestyle, and who had settled into it to the point where they could joke about how they gained weight at first when they subsisted entirely off grilled cheese sandwiches and peanut butter, but now had a better handle on their diet. And it was a late night in the summer of ’94, hanging out with vegetarians with a serious case of the munchies, that I was first introduced to the falafel, which might just be the most savory cruelty-free foodstuff in the history of mankind. Not quite enough in and of itself to make me contemplate lifelong vegetarianism, but man, pretty close.

I’ve been thinking about those crazy hippified former cohorts of mine of late, or at least their falafel-scarfin’ ways, because there is a new Middle Eastern restaurant in the works along the same block as my current gig’s office building, which will supposedly include falafels among its offerings. The first day I saw the Coming Soon signs in the windows of the place, I was intrigued. When I’m looking to grab a quick lunch outside the office, I usually get a burger or a slice of pizza because those joints are right downstairs, and it would be nice to have falafel as an equally convenient option to throw in the mix. The signs promised the restaurant would be open this summer, and I’ve been looking forward to it for months (because that is what qualifies with me for excitement: semi-exotic lunch possibilities). Unfortunately, the last day of summer came and went last week, and the new restaurant is not yet operational. Really, from what I can see through the uncovered edges of the windows, it’s not even close, just bare cement walls. Amusingly (or depressingly, depending on how you want to look at it) there is another restaurant space just a couple doors down which houses a California Tortilla, and it started being constructed after the Middle Eastern place put its signs up, yet it looks like the California Tortilla could very well be ready for customers this coming Monday. But there’s a Chipotle catty-corner to it, so it’s a really inessential addition to the lunchscape around here, whereas falafels would be … falafels! But they have been indefinitely delayed.

Oh, what does it all mean? Is the exotic forever doomed to be trumped by the mediocre mainstream? Is the past actually condemned to not repeat itself? Are we barreling towards a double-dip recession which will be littered with unfinished projects that seemed like good ideas when things were getting better until they got much worse again? I don’t know, man, I just want some deep-fried chick peas in a pita, come on.

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