Hello new visitors. It’s quite possible you’ve found this site because of the Newsweek article. If you haven’t already read it, I recently wrote about 10 Cities/10 Years for Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature, which is a space for people to share their unique life experiences. In the article, I discuss the details of the project, what I learned about myself through doing it, and what I learned about America in general.
It was an honor to write for the feature and I’m quite pleased how the article came out. You can read it here:
City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in “blue” America and millions of Democrats in “red” America. One of the silliest notions I’ve ever heard is that there is a “Real America.” According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I’m from “Real America.” This concept, that “Real America” exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?
After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the “liberal bubble,” but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the “conservative” box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I “sacrificed” children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.
If you’d like more background on what exactly the 10 Cities project was (and continues to be), there’s always the About section. If you want to read some stories from the road, you can check out “The Book” section (scroll down and start with the Prologue). You can also check out other Press coverage. Or just take a look around the site; you may stumble across something I’ve totally forgotten I wrote.
Whether you’re a regular reader of this site, someone who used to be a regular reader and is just checking in, or someone who came across 10 Cities/10 Years because of the Newsweek article, I’d love to hear your thoughts: on the article, on the project, on life, on the 1962 Chicago Cubs, whatever. Leave a comment, show some love.
Cheers from Madrid,
P.S. Anyone who is interested in keeping up with my ongoing adventures, including my life in Spain and future publications, can add your email address over on the righthand side.
P.P.S. If you live in Madrid or are going to be in the city in mid-October, I’ll be doing a talk about the project and my writing at The Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore in Barrios de las Letras. Get tickets here.
New York City, split into five boroughs and a thousand neighborhoods, cannot be defined as one thing. When someone dismisses this city with some hoary cliché about hipsters or millionaires, I know they’ve never actually spent any time here. This city has as many personalities and styles as it has corner bodegas.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn, worked in Manhattan, rarely been to Queens, coasted through the Bronx, and touched my toes on Staten Island. I’ve had one experience of the city, and it is hardly representative. But it is still authentic.
As I’ve done for previous cities I’ve lived in and left, I’m taking time to look back on my time here and grade various aspects of the city. Let me stress, though it should be obvious, that these grades are based on my experiences which have been shaped by a lot of factors that are not universal. This isn’t an attempt to give a definitive grade of the city, only to organize my final thoughts on yet another one of my short term homes.
Let’s get going.
Public Transportation – Hoo boy, this is a loaded topic right now. On the one hand, New York’s subway system is the most extensive in the country, one of the biggest in the world, and connects culturally distinct neighborhoods to create a melting pot like no other place in the world. All that, and it has free wifi.
On the other hand(s), MTA is riddled with systemic problems and hopelessly obsolete equipment, all coming together to create one of the greatest metropolitan clusterfucks of all time. It’d be impressive if it wasn’t so damn infuriating. Hurricane Sandy only exacerbated the issues and an already strained system – which has a ridership far outpacing its capacity – is currently in a transitional period. Repairs and improvements are possible, but the costs will be staggering and will necessitate massive disruptions, all of which might prove worth it in ten or fifteen years, but for current New Yorkers (not especially known as being even-keeled), it is going to be a nightmare. (One of a number of reasons I’m happy to be leaving now.)
There’s a lot of blame to go around, though currently it’s mostly falling on Governor Cuomo. There’s no question that he deserves a chunk of it, but in reality, the underlying problems are the result of a kick-the-can mentality that has existed for decades. This city – and state – needs to act now or matters will only get worse and worse.
And, yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve personally been quite lucky. When I first moved to the city, I was on the C and A lines, which are inconsistent and overcrowded, but by no means the worst in the system and generally within spitting distance of being on time. Better still, since moving to Crown Heights, I’m right off of the 2, 3, 4, and 5 lines, four of the most accessible and reliable routes in the city. That might change when other lines get shut down for repairs, but for my time here, it’s been ideal.
To give a fair overall grade, I have to consider both my personal experience and the general quality of the system. I’d give it top marks if I were only reflecting my experience, and it’d barely get a passing grade if I were solely grading on the big picture. So splitting the difference:
City Planning – From the very first time I walked through Manhattan, some fifteen years ago, I was awestruck by the sheer grandeur and scope of this modern wonder. When people think of a city, whether they’ve been here or not, they’re thinking of New York. As far as modern metropolises go, it remains the truest form.
There are a lot of ways in which NYC is falling behind other major cities (see: Public Transportation), but it will forever remain one of the most unique and successfully laid out cities in the world. Even more impressive, a lot of its “city planning” was achieved by mere chance, a natural evolution guided less by intentional design than by individual actors pursuing their own interests and somehow forming a cohesive whole.
Yes, many neighbors make strange bedfellows: Chinatown and its pervasive fish smell flows over to some of the most expensive and ostentatious avenues in the city. That’s just part of the charm. There is nothing I enjoy more than taking a walk through urban spaces, and what New York offers more than any other US city is an unending kaleidoscope of facades and personalities. Sure, in a post-Giuliani world, it’s lost much of its aura of danger, and Times Square is a logo-ejaculating neon nightmare, but there’s still plenty of grime to be found if that’s your bag, and if that’s not your bag, something more to your tastes is only a short subway ride away (assuming no delays).
NYC is massive. While there are many neighborhoods that feel downright suburban and there’s no shortage of economically impoverished areas (I’ll leave the debate over gentrification for someone else), this city manages to both be an explorer’s delight and still absolutely accommodating to a homebody. I can’t tell you how many Brooklynites I’ve met who rarely leave their neighborhood, let alone the borough. Truly, something for everyone.
Bars/Nightlife – Um, yeah, New York has nightlife. What really needs to be said? If you like to drink and hang out late with other people who do, you are never going to be out of luck in this city. When I first moved to the city, I happened to move into one of the few bar deserts in all of Brooklyn, a yet-to-be-gentrified portion of Bed-Stuy where you could walk for fifteen minutes in any direction and not find a watering hole. Truly, a rare spot. It didn’t last long, because at the beginning of my second year in that apartment, I stumbled across The Evergreen, newly opened and within walking distance of my apartment.
Other establishments were starting to open in the area by the time I moved to Crown Heights, a neighborhood that has no such dry spots. It matters not where you live, though, because a train or a bus or a car will deposit you into some form of nightlife within minutes.
In terms of bars, Manhattan is overrun with the flashy, expensive joints (meh), Irish pubs, and dives that still charge you ten bucks for well whiskey. Brooklyn does hipster and trendy, naturally, but you’ll also find plenty of true dives and neighborhood haunts and whatever else might be to your taste. Of course there are clubs and secret raves and strip clubs and whatever it is that floats your boat. Oh yeah, they have boat parties, too.
The point is, if you come to New York City looking for nightlife, you’d have to be a real twit not to find a scene for you.
Art Scene – When you think of art scenes, New York City is always going to come to mind. Granted, that’s partly due to its history: whether you’re thinking of the writers of the 1920s or Andy Warhol’s Factory, this city has been synonymous with art since the 19th century.
Even now, there’s Broadway, and the Met, and Carnegie Hall, and all the other famous venues, big and small. TV and movie crews are a fairly regular sight, especially in Brooklyn, and every major musical act in the world passes through here for at least one night. If you’re looking for big name performers, they’ll be here.
The real test of a city, though, is how well it fosters the smaller art scenes; do artists still come here to pursue their dream at the cost of everything else? Of course. Does anything come of it? Of course, for some. A lot’s been made of the city’s astronomical rent prices pushing out struggling artists and hampering similar art scenes from growing up here, and there’s unquestionably some truth to that, but frankly, we’re living in a pretty terrible time to be an artist no matter where you’re living. I would know. At least in NYC, you’re likely to find a sympathetic audience. Well, not antagonistic, at least.
In my three years here, I’ve attended massive arena concerts, shows in the park, and intimate venue gigs; I’ve been to an independent movie premiere, an off-off-Broadway play, and burlesque, drag, and fashion shows; I’ve read my terrible poetry to a too-kind audience and watched a woman perform a folk opera; I have been to museums and galleries, passed buskers on the streets and subways, and checked out street dance crews. Oh, and I’ve seen a few dozen movies. If I wasn’t such a lazy bastard, I could have seen a whole lot more, too.
The point is, New York City might not be the most hospitable place for artists, but art lovers really have nothing to complain about.
Grade (Music): A; Grade (Everything else): A
Living – By certain metrics, New York City is the most expensive city in the country (in terms of affordable housing options, San Francisco and Boston are actually less viable), so that is going to affect one’s way of life here. Sure, if you come here to work on Wall Street (or to indulge your fetish for grown men in superhero get-ups), you’re going to be living large. For most of us, though, the astronomical cost of living puts a damper on life.
And yet, for every $34 cocktail, there’s a half dozen free concerts or movie nights. There are always free days at museums and the botanic gardens, and if all you’re looking for is to get drunk, there are cheap options. No, you’re probably not going to find New Orleans’ rock bottom prices (and no Nickel Shot Nights), but a night of drinking doesn’t have to cause you to break your lease (unless you have one of those friends that insists on drinking in the Lower East Side). The point is, moving to the city does not require one become a monk, just savvy.
Then there’s the issue of housing. The stereotype is real: Some NYC apartments really are hamster cages without the views. If you’re deadset on living in the trendiest neighborhoods (did you immediately think Williamsburg? Congratulations, you’re already passé), then sure, expect to squeeze a twin bed into a closet. Otherwise, there are plenty of very good areas in this city that have reasonably affordable, human-sized digs still in walking distance of public transportation (see above for that mixed bag). Who knows how much longer that will be true?
Affordable is, of course, a subjective term. When I’ve told family members back in Kansas what I pay for rent, they balk, and my rent is one of the cheapest in the city. Some people come to this city with lucrative job offers, while many others don’t enjoy that privilege. Like most American cities, New York is basically intentionally pricing out the poor. On the other hand, NYC has embraced the $15 minimum wage (it’s being gradually phased in over a number of years), so that’s small relief.
The bottom line is, this city is expensive – depressingly so – but if your dream is to live here, to make it here, that dream is still within reach. You’ll just have to hustle.
People – Man, what can you say about New Yorkers that hasn’t already been said by every single movie and TV show you’ve ever seen? Well, a lot, actually, because media representations are always incomplete at best, or bullshit at worst.
Are the characters from Girls real? You betcha. Sex and the City? Probably, but I couldn’t afford to hang out with them. Friends? If you mean white people, then yes. Looking for something less Caucasian? Well, Spike Lee’s joints truthfully capture an aspect of the New York (Brooklyn) way of life, but those are more historical documents these days. For every popular depiction of New York City out there, there are still plenty of stones unturned. Some people will never see themselves represented on TV.
Let’s just say it: New Yorkers are loud, impatient, and rude. They wouldn’t argue the point. But I’ve only lived here a few years and I was already two out of three before I got here, so I don’t think you can blame that on the city. Get past the stereotypes and the fear, and the people here are really just a microcosm of all of society. Sure, that’s a cliché of all cities, but more than any other city in the country, NYC truly defies easy generalizations. People from all over the country and the world have traveled to live here. How could only one personality type exist here?
Also, nice people are the worst.
My experience of the people in this city, both locals and my fellow transplants, is that they’re generally friendly, at times confrontational, but usually happy to let live. They get heated about politics and sports, and they can sit in a bar and talk to a stranger for three hours about their favorite bands. They’ll screw you over from time to time, but they’ll also watch your back; their faces will light up when you walk in after a month’s absence. They’re people. This is New York. This is everywhere.
And if you’re wondering, “Do they think they’re better than me?” Yeah, probably. But if you’re worried about that, then aren’t they?
I’ve used this blog to tell my fair share of stories about living in New York City, but sometimes you just have to step back and let the city tell its own stories.
When my first year in New York came to a close, I posted some of my favorite photographs from my time so far. Here, then, are more of my favorites, these from the last two years of life in (and around) the city.
Next week, I’ll be dusting off an old feature as I give NYC it’s final grades. Until then, enjoy the photos.
I’ve been known to indulge in my share of excavating. As I prepare for my next big move, I’ve been looking back, not only on the decade-long 10 Cities/10 Years, but also on my youth and even more recent history. Writing these chapters from my life has been rewarding, allowing me to scrutinize my memories and re-examine pivotal moments in my history, recontextualizing my history as it relates to my present. But there are other ways to explore the past.
One of my favorite tools for documenting my life in real time is Last.fm, a website I’ve mentioned not infrequently in these pages. It’s the simplest of ideas: the website tracks the music you listen to on your various devices and compiles that information into charts and data points. It’s extremely nerdy and entirely unnecessary, and I love it.
I started using Last.fm just a few months before I set out on my decade of travel, so I have a document of all the music I listened to throughout the entire journey from day one: my ups and downs, my relationships come and gone, my periods of depression and moments of hysteria, all of it soundtracked. It’s the kind of thing that I can nerd out over for hours, and often do.
I decided it would be informative to look at my Top Songs charts for the various years of my 10 city project to get a sense of the tenor of each year through my musical obsessions. I’ve taken a snapshot of my Top 5 tracks, so now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take another look back at my project, this time through song.
How predictable. In my first year of traveling, I was still mostly listening to the artists who had gotten me through college, so Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright had been getting heavy rotation for a few years by this point (and still do). “Fake Plastic Trees” was my go-to favorite song for years, though its stature has diminished some over the years.
In terms of evolving musical tastes, The Decemberists were one of the many new artists a friend introduced to me while I was living in Charlotte. Especially in those early days, the Pacific Northwest band was known for their whimsical and eccentric mix of British folk and sea shanties. I was besotted with “The Engine Driver” which has this one verse:
I am a writer, writer of fictions I am the heart that you call home And I’ve written pages upon pages Trying to rid you from my bones
It’s the kind of melodramatic sentiment that I absolutely adored back then. (Eh, still do.)
Not much had changed in terms of favorite artists, though I was definitely listening to a more varied selection. “Come Pick Me Up” is my all-time most listened song and has never lost its “Favorite Song” status, but by this point I was starting to seek out more obscure artists. Mirah was another new discovery from my year in Charlotte, and she rapidly ascended into the realm of favorites. Though I’ve only followed her career intermittently recently, I was fortunate enough to see her play live just a few months ago at an intimate benefit show for LGBT youth. She was lovely.
Ghosty, for those that don’t know, is (was?) a band from my hometown in Kansas. They played a set at the famous World Café in Philadelphia and I saw them perform. Staying after to talk with the guys, I was surprised when the lead singer said that he actually knew me because he had seen me read poetry back in Lawrence. That was wholly unexpected and kind of cool.
For a time, Beirut was the musical artist I felt most spoke to my increasingly disparate tastes in music. I used to say that if I had any musical talent (I do not), I would make music exactly like Beirut. It’s interesting how, as especially so-called “indie” music has expanded in form and genre, the once unique Baltic sounds of Beirut have become just another common trope. I still enjoy Beirut, but my fervor has lessened considerably.
Starting to see some more female artists gain prominence in this list, though none of these three particular artists would be in my favorites. Still, Beth Orton’s Central Reservation did receive considerable play for a few years. “Concrete Sky,” which is off of a different album, features one-time Orton beau, Ryan Adams, so that probably helps explain its high chart position here. It’s also just a beautiful song.
“No Children” is, for me, the perfect song about a doomed relationship, that kind of love where the two people are terrible for each other but still work in a twisted sort of way. John Darnielle is a storyteller, and the entire Tallahassee album is arguably the best novel he’s ever written (though his two actual novels are worth a read).
My fifth year was, at times, arduous, as you might recall, so it’s not really surprising that the songs that got the most airplay in that year were in large part downcast affairs. I adore Neko Case’s entire oeuvre, and I consider her song, “Star Witness,” to be one of the defining songs of 10 Cities/10 Years (I’m frankly shocked at its absence on these lists). Although “Don’t Forget Me” is a Harry Nilsson cover, she definitively makes it her own.
Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” stands out from the other songs on the chart with its propulsive and infectious rhythms. It appeared on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation (along with Iron & Wine’s “Die”) and was basically the standout track from two discs of excellent but mostly similar sounding indie rock and folk music. Worth tracking down.
In the wake of a bad break up in Chicago, Nashville’s list consists of a lot of old favorites; comfort food, I suppose. Ironic that the one Adele song that I was really into that year was actually one of her more upbeat tracks. Also, “Dear Chicago”? How on the nose could I be? (Granted, it’s a fantastic song.)
Ryan reclaims the top track, but this time with a song that was never officially released. Both “Karina” and “Angelina” appear on the famously unreleased 48 Hours (bootlegs are available, obviously), which was scrapped in favor of Demolition, a solid but ultimately less cohesive album. I’ve said this elsewhere but, after Heartbreaker, 48 Hours is Ryan’s greatest album, and the fact that it has never officially been released is a tragedy (a few songs appear on Demolition). “Karina” is his most sympathetic and piercing character piece and deserves to be loved by millions.
Otherwise, this list clearly reflects the counter-intuitively sunnier times I was having in Seattle. Also, funny to note just how much Childish Gambino has evolved as a writer and performer since those early days. “Freaks and Geeks” is still a banger.
This was another hard personal year, but still a year with a lot of partying, which is nicely exemplified in the dichotomy of Justin Timberlake and a pair of The National’s bleakest songs. The Divine Fits’ “Shivers” splits the difference, an old school proto-punk cover with the lyrics:
I’ve been contemplating suicide But it really doesn’t suit my style So I guess I’ll just act bored instead And contain the blood I would’a shed
Considering my state of mind that year, the song was clearly speaking to me. (The song also includes one of my all-time favorite lines of shade: “My baby’s so vain / She’s almost a mirror”.)
I’d been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie since college, and yet, somehow, I had never bothered to acquire their most critically acclaimed album, Transatlanticism. I rectified that in Boston and soon after became enthralled with the eight minute centerpiece. I was also still obsessing over Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk/mixed genre band from New Orleans that you should also be obsessed with. Get on that.
(Also, yes, Justin Timberlake made the list two years in a row; no shame.)
And then came Brooklyn. Kanye West is an asshole. Kanye West is too full of himself. Kanye West lacks impulse control. All true. Also true: Kanye West can produce some amazing music. When Boston roommate, Emily, helped drive me to my tenth and final city, “Power” literally started playing the moment we passed the city limit sign. There couldn’t have been a more thematically appropriate song for that moment.
I had a brief fling with a French girl when I first moved to Brooklyn; my infatuation with The Stills’ french-language “Retour a Vega” lasted much longer. At the same time, I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with HAIM’s debut. Their latest release is very good, but I still play the hell out of Days Are Gone.
Goddamn right JT threepeated.
Notably, while many of my favorite artists are represented in these lists, there are plenty of others that don’t appear (no Sufjan Stevens, no Elliott Smith, no Spoon, no Rilo Kiley), while a number of artists who I barely listen to anymore (Night Terrors of 1927, really?) showed up.
I could have done this kind of list with my Top Artists or my Top Albums and gotten some very different results. For instance, these were my top albums from my year in Charlotte:
All five albums came out between 2005 and 2006, yet only one, Picaresque, is represented on the most played songs. I suspect that I was still getting to know these albums and thus listening to them straight through instead of just cherry picking my favorite tracks.
I chose to look at my top songs instead of albums or artists because I think they reflect my moods in those years more accurately. The album lists lean heavily towards recent releases, and my top artists stay pretty static from year to year (Radiohead and Ryan Adams are almost always in the top spots). By contrast, my ever-changing top song lists across my ten year journey illustrate not only an evolving musical taste, but they also provide insight into my mental state in those particular years.
Perhaps this sort of thing is only interesting to me (if so, you probably aren’t still reading, so who cares), but if you have a Last.fm account, I recommend taking a gander into your own past. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.
For the completists in the continually dwindling crowd, I’m including my second and third year lists from my time in Brooklyn. As I’ve written about previously, the music of Songs: Ohia carried me through a very difficult post-project year, hence The Lioness charting so many tracks. And then, this current year’s list is a result of my concerted effort to seek out more diverse artists and voices, in particular more women.
Brooklyn (Year 2)
Brooklyn (Year 3)
Ideally, the list will continue to evolve every year because I will continue to evolve. In that way, these charts serve both as a document of the past and a challenge for the future. Who knows what my playlist will look like after a year in Spain? I look forward to making fresh comparisons next August.
I was falling apart. Just weeks after having reached the anticlimactic denouement of 10 Cities/10 Years, I’d sunk into a depression as toxic as the poisoned well from my year in New Orleans.
I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A decade of my life had been dedicated to this one purpose, and now I had nothing. Nothing to show for my efforts, nothing to look forward to, no sense of myself. I was just another broken branch thrown into the bonfire of Brooklyn, turning to ash.
There were acerbating factors, as well. Suddenly broke, I started two new office jobs on top of my bartending gig, working six to seven soul-crushing days a week. Wanting nothing but to curl up in my darkened bedroom, I’d come home to an apartment bustling with an unrelenting rotation of new roommates and temporary guests that stripped me of any sense of solitude. Making matters worse, one of those guests was a girl I had briefly dated; relations had soured between us and her presence was a constant source of anxiety.
Even once I did pass through the gauntlet of the living room, I’d step into my bedroom and onto a drenched throw rug: my room repeatedly flooded from rain water that poured in through the shoddily spackled walls. Peace of mind was always on tomorrow’s to do list.
One Saturday night, having bartended until two in the morning, I returned home but couldn’t bear being inside my apartment where the paper thin walls ensured I was never truly alone. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and ascended to the roof.
Usually, I would have the black space to myself, but that night, three of my neighbors were upstairs sitting around candlelight and listening to music off of one of their phones. Providing the bare minimum of social interaction to be part of the group, I sat and listened.
While the guys chatted about topics I couldn’t pretend to care about, a song began that immediately grabbed my attention, the first mournful strum of a minor chord ricocheting through me like a scream in a cavern.
“Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia is heavy, a love song haunted by death, or maybe more accurately, a funeral dirge pierced through with aching love. “Every kiss is a goodbye,” the singer confesses, then repeats more insistently. It’s a mournful ballad, a heartbroken and brittle cry, and in that moment, it pierced through me like a religious revelation.
I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The chorus repeated inside me – “Your hair is coxcomb red, your eyes are viper black” – like it was some sort of incantation, a summoning to a lost spirit.
In a trance, I bid goodnight to the neighbors and immediately went online to track down the song and its album, The Lioness. I spent a few days hoping to find a CD in local record shops – for some reason, I felt compelled to own a physical copy of the album – but when the search didn’t pay off, I downloaded the album and spent the next month listening to it almost exclusively.
Laid low by depression, the music of the late Jason Molina wrapped around me and kept me warm, kept me sane; kept me alive.
I’m recounting this now because over the weekend I had the good fortune to see Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. at the Littlefield here in Brooklyn. If that name is a bit cumbersome, it’s because it pays tribute to a complex and troubled artist. The concert, in honor of Jason Molina, was performed by a group of his former bandmates, tourmates, and friends.
Molina was the driving force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., among other musical acts. He was a prolific songwriter and an omnivorous consumer of genres, shaping them around his singular voice and lyricism. By the time I discovered “Coxcomb Red” on that September night in 2015, Molina had been dead for over two years, the result of alcohol abuse and addiction. He had been 39.
I wasn’t entirely unaware of Molina’s work before his death. I had a passing familiarity with Magnolia Electric Co., mostly as a name I read in headlines on Pitchfork or saw listed on compilations. There are so many artists, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when it seems like it’s just another white guy indie band. Perhaps for many, that’s all the collective output of Molina will ever be, but once I discovered it, it became a salve.
Molina put out a prodigious amount of music under his various names, whether as a solo artist or with a band. I’ve spent the nearly two years since I first encountered Songs: Ohia listening to as much of Molina’s music as possible, and yet, at the memorial concert, there were still a handful of songs I had never heard, and talk of recordings I’ve never tracked down.
Standing in that audience with people who had loved Molina’s music and hearing stories about the man from people who had known him in life, I was moved near to tears. I, like I imagine many people, had found his music in an incredibly bleak time in my life, so I came prepared for a somber affair, and while at times there were moments of solemnity, the show was more often a celebration, a recognition of both the man and the friendships that he had helped bring together.
That is the power of music, the magic of a song. On this blog which is ostensibly about traveling, there are nearly as many posts tagged “music” as there are “travel.” In my lowest times, I’ve always turned to musicians. They lift me up, console me, give me perspective, and often articulate my own emotions better than I can.
On at least one occasion, music has literally saved my life.
I’ve previously recounted my ill-fated college road trip to Seattle on this blog, so I won’t rehash the full story here. The relevant portion took place on the second night of the trip when, after having crossed into Wyoming, I was waylaid by a late season blizzard that sent my poor two-door Ford Escort flying off the road and into a snowy ditch. I spent two hours in a gulch before a tow truck pulled me out and I was able to cautiously drive my hatchback through the night until I found a rest stop.
Hoping the storm would keep the authorities otherwise occupied, I broke the rules of the rest stop and settled into my back seat to sleep through the night. I hadn’t packed for a blizzard (it was early spring and back home was already experiencing summer temperatures), so as I shivered in my back seat, I slid on any layer of clothing I could find and wrapped myself in a blanket that I always kept in the back. It wasn’t enough.
For two days, all I had consumed was half a box of granola bars and a few cans of warm Sprite. My body was sore and exhausted, I didn’t own a cellphone, and my emergency funds were already depleted after paying for the tow service. I was also acutely aware that no one knew where I was.
While my stomach growled, I was too tired to think straight, but too frazzled by my predicament to sleep. I closed my eyes and hoped unconsciousness would arrive, but my mind was racing, my heart beating unsteadily as I couldn’t shake the fear that I might have hopelessly driven myself into a whited-out no man’s land.
To calm my nerves, I slid on my headphones and used the last of my weathered, portable CD player’s battery life to listen to Sigur Rós’s untitled album (the cover stylized as an empty parenthetical). The eight-song suite of tranquil, atmospheric instrumentals paradoxically evoked images of a snow-covered tundra and the enveloping warmth of a sun-bleached day.
The album soothed me, like aural Prozac, my panicked mind now focused solely on the lilting and crescendoing themes. If I was to be buried in a mound of snow, at least I wouldn’t be alone. By Track 5, I had drifted into sleep.
To say that Sigur Rós saved my life is not to suggest I would have died without music. But, if I had not been able to sleep, if I had continued to try to forge through the intensifying blizzard while sleep-deprived and dangerously low on blood sugar, the next day’s bad decisions would have likely been even worse. I was lucky to get through that ordeal; I very easily could have been unlucky.
I turn to music for strength, whether I’m trying to get through a long work day or in the midst of an existential crisis. All art forms – literature, film, television, photography – offer some form of comfort against the ceaseless horrors of human existence, which is why art exists. Music just happens to be the most immediate form, a mainlined narcotic.
I do not abide people who call certain types of music “depressing.” That’s not how depression works. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or thinking about something unpleasant; it’s the deeply penetrating iteration of destructive, self-hating thoughts that cannot be reasoned or wished away. Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.
For those who have come to love the frequently subdued music of Jason Molina – though his oeuvre can span the spectrum from exultant to funereal – what resonates so deeply is the stark honesty and humanity he projected. He was an artist who could convey raw emotions more nakedly than almost anyone, which, admittedly, doesn’t always make for the easiest listening experience. It’s not supposed to.
I was lucky to find Songs: Ohia when I did. If one wonders how someone in the midst of a depressive episode could find appeasement in the bleakness of an album like The Lioness, it’s quite simple: when Molina was singing in my room, I didn’t feel alone. Isn’t that why we listen?
It’s been nearly two years since I reached the end of 10 Cities/10 Years. My first year in New York came to an end, and a second one started with little fanfare. I had girded myself for a come down period, but I wasn’t prepared for it to come so soon, or so brutally. Apparently, ten years of moving had trained my body to crave change and it didn’t react well to being deprived.
It was the deepest mental crash I’d experienced since New Orleans, triggering a complete emotional and physical exhaustion. My first year in Brooklyn had been exhilarating, but now everything curdled in my vision as I felt walls closing in. For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have a goal. I needed purpose.
One Last Story
We barely spoke to each other as Ruth drove me back to my Bed-Stuy apartment. This would be her first time coming to my neighborhood with me. She wasn’t staying. We pulled up to my front door, parking briefly. I leaned over, kissed her goodnight, and then, before opening the door, paused.
“This is over, isn’t it?” I asked.
We met on a dating app.
A week after I moved to Brooklyn, I downloaded the Tinder app to my phone. A week later, I went on my first Tinder date. That woman cheerfully offered to give me a tour of Brooklyn. We walked around on a drizzly end-of-summer Saturday, had a few drinks, and exchanged the details of our lives. It was the prototypical first date.
Our second date was a concert. We had a pleasant but unspectacular time before kissing goodnight. Then she went out of town and when she returned, she texted me that it wasn’t a good time for a relationship (I later learned this was a common dating trick: use a trip out of town to ghost an unwanted date). I said I understood and moved on. I ignored the app for another year.
It was a couple months after Sophie left that I tried Tinder again. As it turns out, my life is great fodder for casual conversation – one Tinderalla called it “the perfect first date story,” and she had a point. If a conversation was stalling on a date, I could turn the subject to some city I had lived in and it would open up all new avenues.
Dates came in waves. Some weeks, I saw two or three different women, and other weeks all matches went ignored. There were numerous first dates, a smattering of second ones, and on a few occasions, I made it to a third. The fourth remained out of reach. It got to the point that getting past the third date seemed like a milestone.
I’m certainly not the first person to feel that dating apps essentially make a game of the whole endeavor. With each fleeting connection, as the fourth date grew more elusive, it started to reinforce that game mentality, with each date feeling like a level to be reached and beat. There was a goal to be achieved. But I kept dying at the same spot. Reset.
Though a lot could certainly happen in between a first and third date, I convinced myself that what I wanted – a lasting relationship, a reason to stay, a purpose for a life in Brooklyn – waited right on the other side.
Yeah I was losing, but I was having fun playing all the same. There were good conversations, making out, even a couple one-night stands. Some connections felt more substantial than others, and it was disappointing when they fizzled out. Trysts were a nice enough distraction, but I was, perhaps naively, hoping for more. I’d spent the previous decade ricocheting between wildly impractical love affairs and loneliness. I was ready to try a stable relationship. Didn’t I deserve one?
I decided to expand my pool of dates by downloading Bumble, an app practically identical to Tinder except that it requires women to start the conversation. It appealed to my shy nature and I appreciated that it gave women more control. I’ve seen enough Tinder Nightmare posts to feel bad for every women, ever. The connections on Bumble were, indeed, better. It was harder to get to the first date, but when I did, it didn’t feel like we were wasting each other’s time, even when it didn’t go anywhere.
I connected with Ruth on Bumble in June. For our first date, over drinks and appetizers, we talked literature and our different upbringings – she grew up in New York City and had lived there most of her life – and when the night was over, I walked her to her bus. Our second date was a sushi dinner in Brooklyn Heights. Afterwards, we walked along the Promenade and kissed in the glare of passing traffic.
Our third date took place at a Celebrate Brooklyn concert in Prospect Park. She arrived fifteen minutes late, and partially into the date, one of her friends joined us. This felt like a signal, the brush off, so I was surprised when she proffered an invitation to her Cobble Hill place following the concert. The next morning, we made tentative plans for a fourth date.
As that night approached, I anticipated a text saying she was sick or she had to work, any of a dozen excuses I’d been given by past connections. Instead, she arrived (late) for dinner. The date itself wasn’t particularly interesting – we saw a movie she didn’t enjoy and then returned to her place – but we had reached a fourth date. It felt momentous.
More dates followed, usually ending at her place. I met her friends and her parents, even attended her father’s poetry reading. She went out of town for a week around the 4th of July and when she returned she didn’t blow me off. She had me over on a particularly scorching Wednesday night and cooked us dinner. My friends, who hadn’t met Ruth, took to referring to her as my “girlfriend.”
The following Saturday, we returned to Prospect Park for another concert. She was late again. From the moment she arrived, I could sense her absence. I knew she had just received some upsetting family news so I chalked it up to that. Back at her place later that night, though, she turned to me and confessed in her matter-of-fact way, “I feel ambivalent about you.”
She clarified that she wasn’t disinterested, just uncertain. She had strong feelings about me in opposite directions. I suppose she thought that would be reassuring. As best she could articulate, my best quality appeared to be that I was “nice.” Never a good sign.
We hashed out our feelings for maybe an hour and the next morning the tension had dissipated. We went to a neighborhood coffee shop to work next to each other. If felt like a couple thing to do. I’d started to relax when, as we walked back to her apartment, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said, with a pitying smile, “I don’t want you to worry about how I feel.”
We didn’t talk again until Thursday night when I received an unexpected call from her. I’d spent the week bracing for her to end things, so I was shocked when she invited me to join her and a group of friends for a weekend trip upstate.
The weekend was almost perfect. There was swimming in a pond and climbing waterfalls. We cooked BBQ and drank, roasted s’mores and played games. Group conversations covered religion, politics, and art. The trip felt like a turning point; Ruth appeared to be giving me admission into her group of friends. It was somewhere to belong.
And yet, I could still sense it: Ruth’s ambivalence.
The next weekend, we went to see Louis CK perform (this was well before the accusations of misconduct were public). She picked me up, arriving early this time, and drove us to the show out in Forest Hills. On the way, I noticed her respond to a message on Bumble. Ruth’s distance was palpable – while waiting in line, I tried to hold her hand and she pulled away. We both laughed heartily through Louis’ typically brilliant set, even as he touched on the uncomfortably relevant topic of doomed relationships.
She took me home – she had an excuse for why I couldn’t come over that night – an interminable drive. Sitting mostly in silence, I spent the time working up the nerve to ask the question I knew would end our nascent relationship. After I asked her if it was over and she answered in the affirmative, we talked for another ten minutes, exchanging only a few words. While she didn’t feel strongly for me, she couldn’t bring herself to break up with me. I had to break up with myself.
“I don’t want you to be sad,” she said as I prepared to exit her car. I almost managed a grin. She had never had a say in that.
We’d only been seeing each other a month and a half.
I was, of course, sad after the break up, but not devastated. Even in the moment I could recognize that we had never really clicked as a couple, and that I had placed undue weight on the relationship because of that arbitrary fourth date milestone. I was rushing towards a fabricated resolution because I wanted there to be an endgame.
Ruth was a smart and funny woman, independent and focused. She had her failings, everyone does, but they were irrelevant. She was a reminder of the greatest gift that 10 Cities/10 Years had given me: a surplus of remarkable, strong women in my life. So many, in fact, that in these chapters, I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many more stories left untold.
I count myself incredibly lucky for all the women who have come into my life, some for only a matter of months (or days), others for years, and maybe even life. Their perspective has changed me for the better, their support sustained me, their creativity, grace, and beauty invigorated me when I had lost the will to continue. 10 Cities/10 Years was a journey from boyhood to manhood, and women were my guide.
A couple months after Ruth exited my life, my travel companion, Emily, and I took a trip to Spain together. I had a revelation. Upon returning to the States, I deleted Bumble. I resolved to forgo dating for the next year in order to save for a move abroad, a decision that was met with some skepticism by my friends. But if there’s one thing more enticing to me than love, it’s the road.
I thought that when I reached New York I would feel a sense of place, of purpose. I believed that the city would be a star of too great a gravity to escape, that I would finally find a home. And I do feel at home in Brooklyn, I do feel a sense of belonging. Maybe I could be happy and in love here. Why not?
But I haven’t reached the end of the road.
Now I get asked a lot, “What’s the plan?” How long will I be in Spain? What will I do after that? When will I come back? The answer, to all questions, is, I don’t know. There isn’t a plan this time; no goal, no purpose. I’m going because it’s where I want to be right now. That’s enough.
I’m not looking for a destination, anymore. It can find me if it wants to.
“Are you happy?” She asked me. This woman who had been the center of my world at one point had all but vanished from my life. We hadn’t spoken in years. She has a good life now, a happy one. The life she deserves. I may never be a part of it again.
I couldn’t answer her question. I’ve never been able to. The answer isn’t yes or no, it’s a treatise.
I’m alive. For however long as that’s still true, it’ll suffice.