Feels Like the First Time

The unabashed thrill of returning to normal.


This past July, I got on the Metro in DC and rode it out to New Carrollton, MD. This was significant for two reasons: It was my first time taking public transportation since March 2020, and it was my first time since lockdown reporting a story in person.

Once the pandemic put the kibosh on anything remotely described as an "event," my pounding the pavement in search of a story became a series of endless circles around my living room.

But finally, I was back in action. So much time had elapsed between my last ride and this one, I forgot how to add money to my farecard. I also lost my knack for picking out just the spot on the platform where the train doors would open at my feet. Most disturbing, I forgot about the precarious, gravity-defying angle achieved by the trains when crossing the Anacostia River.

When the train stopped midway, I deliberated if I should call my husband and tell him I loved him or dial the person who was picking me up at the Kiss & Ride and let her know I was about to plunge to my death.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes, “I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through the call to the assistant district attorney."

When I first read this, I thought, same! For 18 months, I wrestled with picking up the phone or clicking a Zoom link (what “The Jetsons” accurately predicted the future might look like). I literally felt like I was phoning it in by working this way.

Then I reread a column I wrote during the early days of the pandemic, when reality was just starting to hit. “How can I tell someone's story without being there to hear it in the flesh,” I wrote. “How long, I wonder, before I can get out to the post office, a coffeeshop, a burger joint and continue the conversation?”

As it turns out, it took 16 months and a double hit of Moderna before I could do any of that. And it didn't take long to realize that my journalist muscles, like my skills as a commuter, had atrophied. When my profile subject, a math professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, pulled up in her Honda Fit, I must have looked like a contestant on “The Price Is Right,” jumping up and down like I’d just won a Broyhill sectional.

“I'm so happy,” I said by way of hello. “I'm just so happy!”

I'm not sure what she was expecting from a reporter for the Washington Post, maybe more Bob Woodward and less Showcase Showdown winner, but as soon as I got my steno pad out and slyly noted the contents of her car — including two baby seats and a Frisbee — I started to regain my footing. By the time we got to the Yard, I was back on familiar territory.

My notebook from that day is filled with details about midshipmen, the contrast between their pristine white uniforms and her flipflops and skort; the way she wore her sunglasses on top of her head while indoors; the board games and multiple jars of peanut butter lining the shelves in her office.

All the elements that bring a story and a person to life. All the things I’d so missed until that moment. No wonder Joan Didion didn't like making phone calls.

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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