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.
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 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.
Our last meal together was at Olive Garden. It could have been worse; it could’ve been Chik-Fil-A. In a couple hours, I was to board a bus headed for Philadelphia. My second of ten years was to take place there, but before that, I had to say goodbye to North Carolina. And Ashley.
We had only been dating for a month and a half – hadn’t even known each other for three – and from the beginning it had been established that I would leave, for reasons not entirely clear even to me. That didn’t keep us from soaking up every second together, never apart for more than a few hours. Our instant rapport was built on youthful zeal and fragility, a translucent love that began fading the moment we touched it.
For my last two days in Charlotte, Ashley and I were inseparable. She helped me pack up my apartment, drive my boxes to the post office, and unload the few pieces of secondhand furniture that I owned. With friends wanting to hang out and say their goodbyes, we savored our last, precious moments alone together. Our final night was spent in my spacious but now bare apartment. I laid my one blanket out on the carpet and Ashley slept in my arms.
She volunteered to drive me to the Greyhound bus station, and it was on the way that we stopped for committee-tested Italian cuisine.
A Greyhound bus station can be many things – cold, sticky, desolate, haunted – but one thing it can never be is romantic. No movie builds to the climax of a man swooping into the bus terminal just as his lover is about to give her ticket to the wheezing, septuagenarian driver. Greyhound stations are where stories end, not begin.
We stood in line together, me with a bulging suitcase, a green backpack, and a blue laundry bag stuffed with a cornucopia of my possessions, the draw string wrapped around the wrist of my right hand while my other held Ashley’s. We had arrived early because of her inherent punctuality and now we had a half hour to wait. She couldn’t wait.
My decision to move to Philadelphia, the decision to bind my fate to my10 Cities/10 Years project, had been made before I met Ashley. I suspect if she had come into my life just a couple months earlier, my life would have been very different. I couldn’t know it then, but the year ahead of me – indeed, the decade – would be tumultuous and exhilarating, crushing and beautiful; most of all, lonely.
Ashley was crying at my side, her stoic resolve dissolving with the clock’s merciless ticking. Up to the end, she refused to ask me to stay. Fearing she would, I had briefly turned bitter towards her in our last week together, but she held her tongue. She was young, but wise enough to know better. It didn’t mean she didn’t want me to stay; it didn’t mean I didn’t want to. I am a stubborn man, though. With her tears turning into sobs, I couldn’t give her the one thing that would have comforted her.
She left me then. It was too much to ask of her that she wait to watch me step up onto the bus. She fled back to her car and suddenly it was just me, facing my uncertain future alone.
That’s not entirely true, actually. Standing in the line before me was a young boy, not quite 20 (granted, I was only 23). When Ashley left, he looked at me with a quizzical, unreadable expression, suggesting neither empathy nor embarrassment. His confused, blank eyes looked like he was seeing everything for the first time.
“She okay?” He asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, doubtful.
“She loves you, huh?”
“I…” I was taken aback by his forwardness and also not entirely sure how to answer that question. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Okay.” I hoped that would end the conversation but he soldiered on. “Where are you headed?”
Since we’d soon be boarding the same bus, I saw no reason to not tell him: “Philadelphia.”
“Yeah? I’m going to Pennsylvania, too. My family lives in…” some city I don’t remember, a place that might as well have been Moscow for all I knew of Pennsylvania at that point. I flashed one of my patented half-smile/half-grimaces of acknowledgment, hoping that would suitably express my incuriosity. Typically, I might have engaged in innocuous chatter with a stranger – why not, I had nothing better to do for the next day – but Ashley’s absence was pulsing inside me, reinforcing how drastically uncertain I was of my choices.
“I’ve been in an asylum,” my glass-eyed companion offered without prompting.
Of course he had.
Feeling it prudent to give this boy the opportunity to talk about himself, I offered a simple, “Oh, yeah?”
He talked more, much more, but what he shared about himself I no longer remember. There was only one person on my mind. Was she still sitting outside, crying in her car? Or had she left immediately? Should I call her, attempt to say something comforting? Or would that just make things worse?
Eventually, the boy sensed my disinterest and went silent. Or, perhaps more likely, he had found it hard to maintain conversation with a pillar of salt.
When our bus was ready for departure, I gladly let him board first. The boy picked a seat near the front of the bus and I, avoiding eye contact (even as I felt his gaze on me), headed to the rear of the bus.
I’ve ridden Greyhound buses all over the country. From Kansas to Boston, from DC to Detroit, and countless stops in between. They aren’t pleasurable trips, but can be generally tolerable as long as you procure a few things: a seat to yourself, preferably not near a baby; a sizeable music library; and something to read that won’t give you a headache (magazines or paperback novels are good; Russian literature tends to strain the mind too much). If you’re so inclined, a few mini bottles of liquor can be of benefit, too.
Already drained of energy before we even pulled out of the station, it would turn out to be one of the most grueling bus trips of my life.
Our fully booked bus departed Charlotte midafternoon, due to arrive in Philadelphia in the morning, the following day. That trip is roughly 16 hours, a long haul, but hardly a marathon. The early going was nothing unusual. We made various stops as we progressed up the coast, out of North Carolina and up through Virginia.
When we made bathroom or food breaks, I found myself shadowed by the young, Pennsylvania-bound man. He attempted small talk, but after a few hours on the bus and still raw with emotions, I was in no mood for it. Though he eventually picked up on my unresponsiveness, he still hovered about me, always standing a few feet from me like he was afraid I and the bus would leave without him.
We were scheduled to arrive at the Richmond, Virginia bus station before midnight where I and most of my fellow bus riders were to catch a transfer at 12:30. Instead, inexplicably, traffic outside the city stopped to a standstill. By the time we got through and arrived at the station, it was coming on one in the morning and the bus to Philly was long gone.
The station was bustling with passengers. Apparently a number of delays had riders stuck in Richmond, and for those of us continuing north, we had to wait for a bus that was scheduled to depart at seven. We spread out in the terminal, hoping to find even a few feet of unclaimed floor space to sleep on (it was too much to hope for a free seat).
Even when I did manage to find the bare minimum of unoccupied space, I couldn’t sleep. I had my three bags with me, essentially every possession of any value stuffed into them, and didn’t feel safe falling asleep with so many restless, gray-eyed strangers around. For nearly six hours, I held loosely onto consciousness, but even when exhaustion began to win the battle, my growling stomach remained vigilant. I hadn’t eaten since Olive Garden, and my only options at that time of night were whatever the depleted vending machines had to offer.
Finally, sunlight peaked through the grimy windows and, with it, the promise of my Philly-bound bus. Unfortunately, when you’re sleep-deprived, hungry, and sore, the length of time between sunrise and genuine morning is interminable. As I waited for the departure announcement over the loudspeaker, I couldn’t sit still: I paced, I sat, I stood again; I carried all of my bags into the bathroom and then right back out.
To my great relief, my bus did arrive and in time, I was on the road again.
We pulled into downtown Philadelphia in early afternoon, a quarter of a day later than I was scheduled to have arrived. I still had to figure out how to get from Market Street to my apartment in West Philly. I was in a city I’d never been to before, weighed down with heavy bags (growing heavier with each passing minute), and completely unfamiliar with the public transportation system.
By the time I made it to my new home, I was too exhausted to process that my new apartment – nay, my new room – was barely large enough for a full-sized bed or that the bars on my window warned of a rougher neighborhood than I was accustomed to. I pulled out my one blanket, the one I had shared with Ashley, and laid it out on my hardwood floor. Then I passed out.
That wasn’t the last I saw of Ashley. In fact, she visited just over a month later, and we reconnected a few times over the years of my project. But what I left behind in Charlotte, what I abandoned with her, would never be recaptured again. Of course, it couldn’t: when we separated that first time, we were still in the midst of our initial infatuation. Looking back on those brief few weeks is like peering at an insect frozen in amber: It will remain forever pure.
I will always regret and not regret my decision to leave. I know if I had stayed, the relationship would have fizzled out in time – not because of Ashley, but because of me, because I was still so young and so far from who I would become with the years of travel and experiences. Knowing that to be true doesn’t make the sting of that first move any softer. It was something I had to go through. Loss is a fundamental part of traveling; people rarely tell you that.
Now, when I’m asked how I can move so much, when questioned how I stand to leave behind places after such brief stays, I can only think, “It will never be that hard again.”
That isn’t the beginning of a poem – it would be terrible if it was – but it is, more or less, the beginning of 10 Cities/10 Years.
Destiny was the prototypical mid-2000s emo chick, sporting the requisite shock of dyed hair and inked with star tattoos on her wrists. A hairstylist in Charlotte, she had transplanted to the city from Seattle via Tallahassee and spoke with the soft, stoned surfer girl’s patois of some indistinct Pacific Northwest tribe from which I imagined she had emerged, punctuating every other sentence with a slurred, “For sure.”
She was my type, which is to say in those days my type was any cute girl who’d date me (still is). A regular at the bookstore where I had been hired as a barista, I would fawn over her every time she ordered her coffee. Eventually, I was promoted to Receiving, but I popped up on the book floor whenever there was downtime. One day, seeing her sitting out on the café patio – despite it being January – I made the unprecedented move to walk out and talk to her. I’d rarely been so bold in my life.
I have no idea what we said, but it was an introduction. On my next day off, a coworker at the store called me up and let me know that Destiny (or, the “hot emo girl,” as he didn’t know her name) was back at the store. I lived across the street, and under the pretense of visiting the art store around the corner, I crossed Destiny’s path.
The total time I knew Destiny was one month, neither the longest nor the shortest I’ve gone out with someone. Most of our time together was spent in her large pick-up truck – jacked up on giant tires so entering the vehicle involved a climb – listening to music.
She introduced me to quite a few bands and albums I still listen to, most notably the Magnetic Fields and the Shins’ “Chutes Too Narrow” which she lent to me. We made a lot of mixed CDs for each other; I’m more than a little embarrassed to imagine what music I would have given her at that time. Our other activities together, like attending a poetry reading and eating at diners at two in the morning, have congealed in my mind as some sort of romantic ideal, but the truth is, we barely knew each other. I didn’t even know her last name.
One night, when we were supposed to meet up after I got off work, Destiny left a voice message on my cellphone. Through some indecipherable noise, voices and her laughing, she had muttered something to me. When my shift ended, I called her but she didn’t answer. Days went by without any contact from her. I tried calling again a few days after she no-showed but she didn’t answer.
“Just checking to see if you’re around. I need to give you back your CD.” Destiny didn’t return my call, which is how I came to own “Chutes Too Narrow” (still my favorite Shins album). I never saw her again at the bookstore and that’s where I left it.
I’ve dated my share of women since Destiny, most more seriously than her, and in fact, only a couple months later I would meet someone who would become a major love interest in my life for the next seven years. Destiny and I didn’t have a relationship, we were just casually seeing each other. And yet, she remains in my mind a pivotal character in my story – in a way I’m sure I’m not for her. Maybe it’s just the storyteller in me – a mix of false memories and symbol creation – but those brief moments with Destiny feel important.
It was with Destiny, the two of us sitting in her apartment while she smoked weed and we listened to Billy Joel on vinyl (she had eclectic tastes) that I first started talking about 10 Cities/10 Years like I was going to do it, not just as a fantasy. I remember distinctly telling her, “I’m moving in June.” My little idea had gone from a hypothetical dream to a plan, and with that touch of reality, my life gained direction.
Perhaps I imagined I could impress her with my confidence, or maybe as winter set in, I simply realized that I was running out of time to luxuriate in a dream. Whatever the case, by mid-February of 2006, 10 Cities/10 Years was reality.
At some point in all of our lives, we have to reach a tipping point, that line we cross when a dream becomes a pursuit. At some point, the words we use must transform from “I would love to…” to “I’m going to…”
This isn’t some sort of mystical, Oprah-approved, The Secret pablum. I’m not talking about “Telling the Universe what you want.” At some point, though, if your dream is going to be real, you have to go from talking about hypotheticals to making plans. You will never save money without a reason, you will never take the big leap if you don’t know where you’re going to land. You don’t have to know everything before you start – almost nothing about the next decade of my life was planned before I set out – but you must take concrete steps.
When I returned from Spain last September, I realized that I needed a new direction. Ever since I’d finished my project, I had been living without a plan. Ten years is a long time to live by a schedule, and I needed a break. But after a year with no distinct goals, I realized I was ready to have a plan again.So I made one.
It’s great to dream, it’s the hallmark of all creative people. With enough time, though, dreaming transforms from an active to a passive activity. At that point, you need to live with a different set of verbs: Go. Do.
When I started, my beard resembled a mess of pubes glued to my face; now white hairs spike out from it (the beard, not my pubes). If you need a less hirsute way to appreciate the time span, think about this:
The best selling album of 2005 was by Mariah Carey. The show Supernatural aired its 1st episode the same year. David Letterman was still on television! (Crazy, I know.) No one had even heard of an iPhone when 10 Cities / 10 Years began.
It’s, quite literally, a different world than it was in 2005.
I’ve been doing this a long time, long enough to feel simultaneously old yet fresh to the world. I’m relearning how to think about life in terms longer than year blocks, but I have no idea what sits ahead of me even a few months from now. I remain, to my core, a stranger.
Currently, I bartend, and I find myself listening with quiet bemusement as people rant confidently, definitively about this nation from the singular, narrow perspective of their hometown. As if the whole world could be seen from one window.
People ask me where I’m from, and I say Kansas, because, yes, technically that’s true. But when it’s said back to me – “Oh, he’s from Kansas!” I hear whenever someone mentions the Midwest – it rings false. “Kansas” (or any small state) is essentially code for “Inexperienced rube.” To city-dwellers it’s quaint; to hippies it’s idyllic. In reality, it was neither.
I grew up in Kansas, sure, but in a more accurate sense, I grew up in the United States. I discovered how to be on my own in Philadelphia. I learned how to survive famine in San Francisco. I found out how to recover from heartbreak in Nashville and then thrive on isolation in Boston. My perspective is not born of one town, one city, one state, but one country.
In that way, it’s still limited. The map is vast and I’ve only explored one corner of it.
Most people define themselves by where they’re from.
For a decade, I’ve defined myself by where I’ve yet to go.
I’m not done yet. My year in Brooklyn officially wraps at the end of August, meaning that there is still 3 more months until this project ends. And even then…