You're a sky full of stars

Emerging from the underground

Art: Starry Night, Edvard Munch, 1922

Vicki’s Note: I guest-wrote a piece for Leon’s newsletter last week on what AI truly means. Go read it!

It was sometime in the middle of 2013 that I hit rock bottom.

I was still working full-time as a data analyst and going to my part-time MBA classes twice a week at night after work. I would then take the very late train home, nodding asleep in my uncomfortable plastic SEPTA seat, blearily wave to my husband, go to bed, and get up to do it all over again.

I didn’t have kids yet, but it was still an extremely grueling schedule, and some days I struggled to justify to myself why I was doing the program, what I would do afterwards, and how long it would take me to finish given that I was only taking a class at a time. And then I would go back to the SQL query I needed to complete immediately or else my work inbox would overflow.

It was one of these days when, in the half hour that I had between the end of work and the start of class, I decided to take a shortcut to class through Suburban Station.

Suburban Station is a below-ground terminal of the SEPTA Regional Rail system, which has a number of tunnels in Center City Philadelphia, all of them in dubious states of maintenance. I have to believe the station was planned and started with good civic intentions because it has a beautiful art deco entrance. But, even though most of the city’s suburban commuter traffic goes through the station and there are a slew of shops there, it’s entirely neglected by the City of Philadelphia, which, strapped for cash and resources, sees it mainly as an unsolvable civic problem.

Although it’s been much-improved in recent years with the addition of the Concourse at the Comcast Center, in 2013 it wasn’t great.

Of all the places in Suburban Station, the McDonald’s was probably the worst. In a busy underground intersection where crowds rushed by to and from work, completely submerged in the eternal Suburban Station twilight, its tables littered with used napkins, the restaurant itself seemingly didn’t know what it was doing there.

It was often the site of raised tensions, floors sticky with Sprite, and flagrant health department violations. It was not a place to idle with a bag of fries and people watch. It was hostile to the entire experience of dining and eating as such.

I was already having a stressful day at work, and I had three hours of class to look forward to. I believe it was finance, where we were doing balance sheets and income statements, which eluded me in undergrad. And here I was covering them again, only this time after a full day’s worth of work, the columns of numbers blurring together in my textbook late at night.

I walked past the McDonald’s, and made a fateful decision.

Reader, I had dinner at the Suburban Station McDonald’s.

I ordered a 10-piece of McNuggets, large fries, and a large Coke, because why the hell not? If you’re already at the bottom, why not go all the way down? In a way, it made me feel better, like I was in control of an uncontrolable situation.

Once you’re at the bottom, there’s nowhere lower you can go.

You can only start to slowly at first, but then more confidently, and faster, and faster, make your way back up.

We are all, right now, metaphorically, in the McDonald’s of the Suburban Station that is 2020. No matter how the rest of the year goes, particularly this next week, we’re still going to be in the basement. There’s no way things will get better before 2021. No one knows what even the next couple days look like.

But once they start getting better, they’re going to get better fast.

I think.

I hope.

I have to.

I don’t want to be in the basement for much longer.

I want to, like I did that night, leave the restaurant, feeling completely gross, but free, clean and clear, never to return to that subterranean darkness and the din of the trains rushing past, surfacing from Suburban Station and breathing in the crisp air of a cool fall night, quiet, at peace, the clouds in the heavens above moving quickly to reveal handfuls of small, twinkling stars.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. Type in the exact number of machines to proceed

  2. How to become a consultant?

  3. The US childcare epidemic

  4. If you can, please donate a computer screen to a teacher

  5. Profile of Kelsey Hightower

  6. COVID modeling in March

  7. Localization and Gmail

  8. What would it cost to fund the Octonauts?

The Newsletter:

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The Author:

I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a kindergartner and a toddler, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.