[I’ve changed names when I felt like it]
I came to on an elevator, floating somewhere between the first and fifth floor. At my feet, half-conscious but laughing all the same, was my friend, Ariel. Abruptly, the elevator stopped – had it been going up or down? – and the doors opened to reveal a parking garage.
“Where did you park?” I asked her, not entirely certain where I was or how I got there, but apparently fully cognizant of our mission to find Ariel’s car. From her position splayed out on the ground, she pressed the button on her key fob. No horn. The vehicle, it seemed, was not on this floor, whichever floor that was. The doors closed and we progressed to the next.
This continued for a few more minutes – or was it half an hour – with Ariel losing the fight to regain her footing and I determinedly stepping out of the elevator on each floor and trying to spy the missing car. Eventually, either through exhaustion or the miraculous return of some sense, I realized that even if we found her car, Ariel was in no state to drive. I sent the elevator back to the ground floor.
Exiting the parking garage, I half carried, half dragged my friend to the street and waved down a taxi, sliding her into the backseat.
“Tell him your address,” I commanded Ariel, which she dutifully did. I gave the driver a twenty-dollar bill and they were off.
With each passing minute in the late March night air, my senses were gradually returning to me. I walked to clear my head a bit before waving down a taxi for myself. Slouched in the backseat, I gave the driver my address and held loosely onto my fleeting consciousness until I arrived home. My neighborhood: Fisk-Meharry, Nashville.
Safe and Secure
I arrived in Nashville defeated. I had crawled through San Francisco and Chicago amidst the worst of the Great Recession and come out the other side, officially in the latter half of 10 Cities/10 Years; I was drained, bitter, and ready to give up. Just a few weeks prior to my move, I briefly contemplated scrapping my plans and moving into an apartment with my brother in Austin. It would’ve been a terrible idea (for both of us).
I finally settled on a dirt cheap two-bedroom apartment in the predominantly black neighborhood between two historically African-American colleges, Fisk University and Meharry Medical College. And by “predominantly,” I mean, the only white people I saw were driving through with their windows securely rolled up.
Like my time in West Philly, I heard frequently that Fisk-Meharry was a dangerous neighborhood, including from my white landlord and my black neighbors. Taxi drivers regularly refused to drive me back home after work or to pick me up when I called for a ride. The recession had hit Nashville, too, leaving city projects in my area, intended to usher in new growth and development, incomplete or abandoned altogether. I walked the neighborhood every day without being accosted, but its reputation was fixed.
I lived on an island set upon a sea of liquor.
Every month, I went through a handle each of bargain bin whiskey and vodka – the kind that comes in plastic jugs and doesn’t even pretend to have a pedigree – on top of drinking with coworkers after nearly every shift and any other occasion I could find for “exploring” Nashville. When I couldn’t work up the energy to go out in public, I hid inside my apartment, a sparsely furnished grotto for my isolation.
My one lifeline to humanity those first months in Nashville was Ashley, the woman I’d left in Charlotte. After having spent four years far apart, only one state divided us now and we still had a crackling electricity in our flirtations. She’d endured the separation and my relationship with Selene – the Facebook posts, the pictures, the public display of romance that we’ve masochistically made a part of our societal norm – under the pretense that we were “just friends.” But we were never just friends. Or, more accurately, we were never good at being friends.
As long as the possibility of a future romance remained on the table – and with Ashley, it always did – she tolerated the distance, both physical and emotional.
In my post-Chicago malaise, I gifted Ashley with the fractured pieces of my psyche. She helped me put them back together. We used the word “love” – we never had during the nascent, Charlotte period of our relationship. I started making concessions: I could end my project a year early, count my hometown as Year 1, and move back to North Carolina once I finished so we could live near her family. That’s all that mattered to her.
Now a nurse, Ashley looked into travel nursing so she could spend a few months in whichever city I lived. I supported the idea, but it meant giving her a vote in my next cities. She wanted to live in Arizona, but I was adamant against it: the state had recently passed Arizona SB 1070, the draconian anti-immigration law, and I suppose I felt I was making some political point with my stance. Mostly, I just didn’t want to be back in the Southwest again.
Our long distance relationship lasted nearly four months, a mix of highs and lows. The week of Thanksgiving, we spent a few days in a secluded cabin up in the Great Smoky Mountains, the border between her state and mine. The picturesque, revitalizing backdrop offered all the promises and pleasures of what a simple life together could be.
So, of course, I broke up with her. The distance – the continued separation – required too much energy, too much focus, and the thought of stitching together a relationship over the next four to five uncertain years apart was unthinkable. Once again, I had a choice between Ashley and my project, and I chose 10 Cities/10 Years.
After a fruitless and demoralizing stint at a phone bank calling up dissatisfied and very angry customers, I found a gig waiting tables in downtown Nashville. The restaurant, Demos’, is a regional institution with its steaks and spaghetti varieties, positioned in that niche between fine dining and generic family fare. All of Nashville came through those doors, whether to eat or to serve.
The staff at Demos’ was your usual mix of students, burn outs, lifers, and strivers. Like Los Angeles for actors, screenwriters, and directors, Nashville’s official status as Music City means seemingly everyone in the service industry has (or had) a dream of making it in the music business.
It was the one city where, when I told people I was a writer, they immediately assumed songwriter.
As I gradually climbed out of my depression, the Demos’ crew was always around to provide at least one drinking buddy. In an industry with massive turnover, some servers came and went in a matter of months or even weeks. From shift to shift, I could repeat the exact same day – serve lunch, go for midday drinks and pool at Buffalo’s Billiards, serve dinner (partially in the bag), and then get more drinks – with a whole new group of coworkers. Server life is a bit like Groundhog Day.
Not everyone vanished. There were a core group of Demos’ servers who regularly went out together, including the high spirited Ariel, a favorite drinking companion.
That black out night in the elevator had begun commonly enough at the Beer Seller, where our group was playing pool and watching March Madness. A couple hours into the night, we were joined by one of our usual creepy hangers-on.
There is a type of older man who hovers in bars where groups of young friends regularly gather. These men ingratiate themselves into the group with the hopes of getting a shot at one of the attractive, young girls, which, as servers, we had no shortage of. Everyone knows their intentions and no one trusts them, but they buy drinks and other substances, so the group usually tolerates their presence.
That night, our creep – John? Sure, let’s go with John – had supplied the usual rounds when he offered to up the ante. Retrieving his wallet, he slipped out tabs of what, at the time, I assumed were Xanax. I suppose they could have been almost anything, but I wasn’t really in a questioning mood. Four of us – John, Ariel, myself, and Will, another coworker – put the tabs on our tongues and washed them back with beer.
And then I woke up on the elevator.
A few days later, when Ariel and I had a shift together, she beelined straight to me.
“How did I get home?” She asked, a mix of confusion and concern in her tone.
I told her about the cab. Thanking me profusely, she explained that she could remember most of the night, but not what happened after we had been kicked out of the last bar. As she recounted, after splitting from John and Will, we had bounced from bar to bar, dancing at one, hogging the jukebox at another, generally being young and obnoxious as you do when your mind is erased.
She could recall up until the point that we left the bar, well after closing time, and then, like something out of science fiction, we swapped consciousness: the moment she blacked out, I came back online and filled in the rest of the memory. She remembered the partying, I remembered our egress, and together, we completed the night.
As the year in Nashville progressed and each day pushed Chicago further into memory, I regained my sense of purpose. For the better part of a year, when I thought of 10 Cities/10 Years, all I saw was everything I had lost, everything I had given up for this quixotic venture.
The friends I made at Demos’, the strangers I met in bars and the stories they told, even the failed attempts at romantic flings, these were all a reminder of why I had set out on this path half a decade prior, and why I had to keep going. In the process of falling in and out of love, I had lost sight of what mattered: the people on the road.
That year, my sixth, I made a vow to myself: I would complete this project no matter what came my way, even it if killed me. So what if I was throwing good money after bad, I had come this far, and I was going to let it ride.
Ironically, after resisting Ashley’s direction of my future, for Year 7, I created an online poll to let friends and strangers determine my next city: Austin, Denver, Portland, or Seattle. When the voting closed, Seattle claimed the victory by one vote.
Let It Ride
One of my last nights in Nashville, I ascended the towering grassy hill known as Love Circle, joined by Dustin and Jacky, two close friends from Demos’. As its name implies, the spot is a popular, shall we say, “make out” spot, but at a nearly 800 feet elevation, it also offers one of the best views of the entire city. We climbed up to the hill with a bottle of Eagle Rare and sat on top of the world, recounting our shared times and envisioning our separate futures.
Jacky was a singer in a band, Dustin was in school, and I had four long, unknowable years ahead of me. But for a short time, our paths had merged.
Maybe I’m just projecting, but that night on Love Circle had the feel of a transitional moment for all of us. High above the city that had brought together three dreamers from different hometowns, we could see for miles. Other than a few clouds, we had clear skies. I felt something I hadn’t in a very long time: contentment.
And that was reason enough to keep going.