I stood beneath a statue of Christopher Columbus, in one of many cities bearing his name, and read the following inscription:
THE SPIRIT OF DISCOVERY
HAS THE POWER TO CHANGE
THE COURSE OF HUMAN HISTORY
AS DEMONSTRATED BY
THE VOYAGES OF
SHATTERED THE BOUNDARIES
OF THE WESTERN WORLD
MODERN HISTORY HAS BEEN SHAPED BY
ONE MAN’S COURAGE TO PURSUE A DREAM
It seemed improbable that the statue had been built recently; praising men like Columbus was not in vogue. Every year on Columbus Day the usual suspects preen themselves, hoping that their self-flagellation will go viral. To live in a culture so unmoored is exhausting. I wonder how long it would be before a mayoral candidate is swept into office on a promise to change the city’s name. I vaguely recall reading a story in the local paper a few years ago about some presumably angry demonstrators gathering around a Columbus statue. It wasn’t even this particular Columbus statue, but the more ostentatious one down at City Hall, a gift from the people of Genoa, Italy, Columbus’s birthplace.
It was only a matter of time until he was pulled down like Sadaam in Baghdad.
I took a picture of the inscription on my phone and sent it to a friend. Turning away from the statue, I crossed the street in front of the old theater and entered a shaded courtyard. It had been deliberately constructed in front of a soulless office tower to create the illusion that you weren’t trapped inside a box of recycled air with windows that didn’t open. Still, I was grateful for the shade. It was the sort of Midwestern summer day that made your clothes stick to your skin. I sat for a few minutes pretending to enjoy myself before giving up and entering the trendy, overpriced salad bar where I had decided to get lunch.
I grabbed a table in the corner and seated myself so that I could see the entire restaurant. The crowd was the office lunch-break type. I inadvertently locked eyes with a former co-worker, who was sitting across from another former co-worker, and resigned myself to inevitable small talk. Thinking it was the polite thing to do, I crossed the restaurant to their booth.
“Graham. Lauren. How are you?”
“Good, thanks. You?”
“Oh, just fine. Are you both still working at the Statehouse?”
I couldn’t tell if I was interrupting something important or just generally unwelcome company. I hadn’t wanted to talk to them in the first place, but they were good people, and I wanted to fight the instinct to live inside my own head. I was rewarded with this conversation.
“Okay, well it was great catching up.”
As I returned to my table, I immediately regretted my sarcasm. Perhaps they were busy, but more likely they remembered me as the sort of person who doesn’t put in an effort to socialize and then resents everyone for treating our relationship superficially.
After sitting absent-mindedly for some time, I remembered that this was a “fast-casual” restaurant, where an assembly line of workers frantically prepared your meal according to your exact specifications. I always order off the menu. I want the chef to tell me what I want. It’s literally what I’m paying for. I pulled a book out of my bag and got in line, which had gotten quite long since I entered. It’s hard for me to read in public because I’m easily tempted to eavesdrop, but I find that holding a book distracts me from my thoughts and my phone.
I opened the novel and tried to power through a few pages while I waited. I had found this book in one of those little free shared library boxes and violated the community trust by taking a book without leaving one. I had a general rule against reading fiction, which I broke only occasionally, but I was attracted to this book because it was small and easily portable. Labeled a novella, it was a fictionalized portrayal of 20th century French composer Maurice Ravel’s last ten years of life. In 1927, having already achieved success, he reluctantly set off on a tour of America.
“He’s not all that sure anymore that he feels like leaving, now. It’s always the same story isn’t it: he accepts these offers without thinking about them and at the last moment they drive him to despair.”
It was comforting to imagine that a famous composer also dreaded social obligations. And yet, he boarded a cruise liner to the new world.
“Hi sir, what can we get for you?”
Startled, I ordered the Tuscan salad. Herb grilled chicken, roasted button mushrooms, orzo pasta, bell pepper, tomato, mozzarella, and Tuscan kale, which I assumed, like Corinthian leather, came from New Jersey.
After eating and eavesdropping for a bit, I exited the restaurant into a concourse which housed a few services for overworked professionals, like a gift shop for last-minute, low-effort trinkets. I vaguely remembered buying something there several years ago. Deciding that I had explored enough for the day, I walked outside into the heat and, after fumbling with the clumsy phone app for two minutes, shamelessly rented one of the electric scooters that had suddenly appeared overnight on every street corner in the city. I pointed the machine west and kicked off a few times until the motor was humming. My unbuttoned shirt unfurled behind me, catching the wind. I couldn’t tell if it was speeding me up or slowing me down. I suppose it doesn’t matter when you’re moving 12 miles per hour.