I’ve called many places my home little darlin, but I only come from one

On the wall next to the pool table in the basement, there was a plate cover that always hung loose. It had been missing the bottom screw for as long as I had memory and, when slid back, would pivot up to reveal an empty black hole behind it, an opening for a non-existent outlet. In the eyes of a child, it wasn’t just a gap in the drywall, it was a secret cave, a limitless expanse; a hiding place.

I used to fold up a dollar bill, even a fiver on the rare occasion I accumulated such a bountiful harvest, and tuck it into the crevice between the wall and a pair of loose wires. My hope was that I would forget about the stash and then some day, a few months later, maybe years, I’d come across it again, and it would be like finding buried treasure. The only problem was, the moment I slid the cash behind that plate, I thought of nothing else. The bill never remained back there long.

As I grew older, the game – and I suppose that’s what it was, a game I played with myself that I lost every time – took on a different objective. Now, instead of hiding the money so that I could stumble upon it at some unknown date, I hoped for enough willpower to resist removing the money at all so that, in some unknown future after my family had left, a different kid from a different family, would find the treasure.

I can’t say when I was first struck by the realization that I would not always live in that house, that my family would not own it forever, but it must have been fairly young. Our home was perpetually in a state of flux. I never had visions of growing up to raise my own family there.

I wish I could say that the last time I stuck money behind the face plate, I left it, but I’m ninety-nine percent sure I did not. I was consistently cash strapped and there was a new Spider-man comic to buy every week. Still, it’s fun to imagine some curious six-year-old playing around in that basement one afternoon and somehow managing to uncover my secret stash. It would be the greatest discovery of her young life.

Following the diaspora of my siblings and my parents’ divorce, my mother and I moved into a two-bedroom, loft apartment in the middle of Lawrence for my senior year of high school. Many different homes would follow. Over the ten years of my project, I lived in thirteen different apartments, some by myself, most with roommates, all of varying degrees of comfort and disorder.

These homes have been, at times, shabby and, at others, luxurious. I’ve had isolated apartments, and I’ve lived in the heart of the city. I’ve gone from having two floors all to myself to sharing one bathroom with six people. Whatever the amenities, wherever I’ve ended up, like a hermit crab making use of a found shell, I’ve made it home in my own way.

Home Sweet Home

After three years in Brooklyn, I’ve yet to fully settle; I still exist in the vapor. No art on my walls, cardboard boxes serving simultaneously as storage and tables. I live like someone with one foot out the door because that’s all I know. In just over a month, I’ll move again.

I tried. When I settled into my first Brooklyn apartment, I purchased a desk and a chair, and a bookshelf. I picked up some cheap pictures from a street vendor and even bought a wall clock for some inexplicable reason. I made an effort to spread out, to accumulate, to slip into the nooks and crannies and feel attached. It didn’t take.

The clock’s batteries have been dead for two months.

Home is a bed

I have this kind of strange habit when I’m traveling, I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. As a child at camp and even now on a trip, I’ll refer to whatever temporary facility I’m staying in as “home.” If we’re out and I’ve forgotten something at the hotel, I’ll say, “I’ll just head home real quick and grab it.” It’s a quirk that occasionally earns an eyebrow raise, but I’ve done it all my life and I don’t think it’s so strange. Home is where I lay my head down to sleep.

I love having my own space, I crave it, but I’m not too picky about what the space should look like. I just need to be able to find my peace.

Living with other people can complicate that, not everybody was meant to be a roommate; or, at least, not my roommate.  Sometimes I’ve made a home in an apartment despite living with people with whom I had nothing in common. Other times, it’s the people that have made an apartment home.

Home is a base, a starting point, a fixture to which I latch a tether, however temporarily. Like a climber reaching for the next anchor point, I’m always searching for somewhere new to fasten a hold.

Yet, home also remains, stubbornly, Lawrence, Kansas, and a blue, three-story, behemoth of a house ever sliding incrementally down a steep hill, now the residence of a family I’ve never met.

Lawrence: home to the University of Kansas and its rabid basketball fan base; home to the best hillside views in the entire state (maybe the only hillside views); home to artists, writers, and musicians; home to liberal reactionaries and a church on every other block; home (for a time) to William S. Burroughs, Erin Brockovich, and Langston Hughes; and the home of a family of seven, sort of okay.

View from Campus
Pictured: Setting of beloved TV movie, The Day After

The weekend before my next leap into the unknown, I’ll fly to Kansas to spend a few days with some of my family that now includes three nephews and a niece.

It used to be, when I’d return home for a short trip, I couldn’t walk downtown without running into a half dozen people I knew, just by chance. Now, when I go back, unless specific plans are made – and even then – I can go the whole visit without seeing anyone I know outside of my family. I’ll walk into an old haunt and anticipate hearing my name called only to be met by the disinterested stares of a whole new generation.

With each passing year, Lawrence, the small town in which I spent 22 years, transforms into something increasingly unfamiliar, even though in structure and physical layout, it remains persistently recognizable.

There was a time when my family name carried some cachet among (the less reputable) establishments in the town (in no part due to me), but those days have mostly passed. I suspect name dropping one of my siblings would only be met with confusion nowadays. As a college town, Lawrence is a constant churn of population turnover. You don’t have to leave a place for it to leave you.

Time will change our relationships with everyone and everywhere. I haven’t lived in Kansas in a very long time, and each visit reminds me of that fact. Yet, I haven’t broken the habit of saying, “I’m heading home” when I talk about returning to Kansas. I will never live there again (and I shake my head in dismay at almost every bit of state politics that makes national news), but it remains for always, my home.

My first home.

Home
My room looked out from the two windows in the upper right hand side.

I’ve done this silly thing over the years, before leaving some of my apartments: I’ll take one of my original 10 Cities/10 Years stickers and press it directly above the door frame on the inside of my closet. It’s unlikely anyone will ever find them, but who knows. Maybe some curious 26-year-old will be messing around in their room one afternoon and somehow manage to uncover my surreptitious memento.

It will be the stupidest discovery of her young life.

Jack String and the Case of the Strange Influence

It’s been a busy couple of months for me. In addition to my two day jobs, I’ve been working weekends as a server and teaching an ESL class one night a week, all while trying to write (rare), study Spanish (rarer), and have a social life (so rare, it’s still mooing).

Of all those demands on my time, I’m finding teaching the most rewarding. For about three hours every Monday night, I volunteer at El Centro de Educación de Trabajadores in Hell’s Kitchen, an organization that provides a variety of services to help immigrants and those whose first language isn’t English. They provide a good community service, a necessary service, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to play a small part in it – as well as a little sad that next week will be the end of the quarter.

Partnered with a co-teacher, I help adult learners with first level English, teaching essential grammar and vocabulary. The students are at varying skill levels, and almost every week we’ve had a new student arrive, so there’s a lot of on-the-fly adaptation and rejiggering of lesson plans.

Every Monday morning, I leave my apartment at 8 to work a full 9-5 (5:30, really) and then immediately take the train a couple stops north to start teaching just after 6. The class ends at 9 and then I have roughly an hour ride home back to my apartment in Crown Heights. Then another six straight days of work. Sunday nights, I go to sleep exhausted just by the thought of the next day.

The strange thing – or not so strange, based on the admissions of my fellow volunteers – is that by the time class has started, I’m re-energized, excited to engage with the students, to hear about their weeks and learn more about them. They come from Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, and other locales. Every week we talk about what life is like in their home countries, what they enjoy about New York, and what differences they experience in American culture. These are the conversations I live for.

When it’s my week to lead the lesson, there’s always a wee nervous stirring in my stomach, the weight of responsibility, a sense that there’s more at stake than whether a cheeseburger comes out at the right temperature. The glimmer of excitement in someone’s eye when they understand something that only minutes before they had not is the ultimate gratuity.

I’m sad that I won’t get a second chance to work with El Centro or my co-teachers. I hope to someday return to a similar type of program, either abroad or when (if) I return to the United States. Until then, I’m grateful for the opportunity. I don’t yet think of myself as a teacher, not really, but this was an important stop on that journey.

snowflake

A Puzzle with No Solution

Ms. Drake turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal person in my life’s direction. I say surprising because, when she was my sixth grade teacher, I always found her teaching style to be a bit juvenile. She decorated her classroom with color paper cutouts that looked more appropriate for kindergarteners. We also had a midday break where she would read different books to us, some of them well below my reading level. I was mostly bored in her class.

Hell, I’m providing her the pseudonym of “Ms. Drake” not to protect her identity but because I genuinely don’t remember it. She only lasted at the school one year.

And yet, Ms. Drake, my Ms. Frizzle-esque sixth grade teacher absolutely changed the course of my life.

Up until sixth grade, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a “mathematician.” I didn’t really have a concept of what that meant or how exactly doing math could manifest as a career. I just knew that I liked math problems, any math problems.

When I was still in single digits, I used to borrow my sister, Debra’s, algebra textbook and solve problems from her homework. I enjoyed all math, but algebra appealed to me the most because each problem was like a little puzzle, and boy, I loved puzzles. One summer, I took a school math book home with me to do homework so that I could advance the next year. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had leapt ahead in my math course to be in the same class as my older brother, Daniel. He loved that.

So, every day, usually coinciding with Ms. Drake’s reading period, I and another student, a much brighter boy than me named Juno, would leave our sixth grade classroom and go upstairs to join the upper level math class (our school was a private Christian institution that housed K-9 grades all in one yellow, metal barn-shaped building).

I took great pride in my math proficiency, and was more than a little bit of a shithead about it with my older siblings. But since I was a mortally shy and uneasy kid, it’s all I had; it was my entire identity, other than being the youngest boy from a messed up family – which I also took a weird kind of pride in.

Having that one thing to hang my hat on was very important because sixth grade was also the year puberty body slammed my groin like a Republican congressman and I discovered the most magnificent of life’s horrors: falling in love.

Her name was Laura. She wasn’t the first girl I’d had a crush on. That was Melanie in kindergarten, and there’d been others. But Laura was the first girl for whom seeing her enter the room made me feel like I was dying and being born at the same time. My crush on her is probably the reason I can’t remember Ms. Drake’s real name or most other things going on in my life from sixth grade through much of junior high: she outshone everything else.

As a chunky 11-year-old, I was not a smooth talker, and I was not cute, at least not to sixth grade girls. I was confident that Laura – and every other girl for that matter – was in love with my best friend at the time, Aaron, an athletic, naturally popular kid. That’s how I envisioned him; I’m sure his memory is far less charitable, as no one remembers their pubescent years fondly.

I went through that entire year in complete devastation, certain that I was invisible to Laura, though I know for sure that she actually did notice me: I was the jerk who made up some stupid, rude nickname for her. That’s right, I was the cliché, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to his crush so he insulted her instead. This was the beginning of a phase where, when I couldn’t think of anything funny or witty to say, I would just be mean. I expect that phase to end any day now.

There I was, in love with this incomparable beauty (there are few comparison points for an 11-year-old, Christian boy), and completely unable to break through the barrier between us. I’d met the unsolvable puzzle.

This is where Ms. Drake comes in.

In addition to the reading period, Ms. Drake would also set aside a portion of the day for us to write in our journals. We could write whatever we wanted, and at the end, those who wished to could read what they’d written aloud to the class. I’d never really done any personal writing before, never had a diary or anything, but I took to this activity with gusto.

During one of these writing periods, I created my first character: Jack String, a bumbling idiot of a private eye who always managed to solve his cases by pure dumb luck. I’m not sure where the character came from, but like most everything else about me at that age, I’m sure I stole it from something I watched on TV.

Feeling confident one day, I volunteered to read my Jack String story to the class. That’s when it happened, the most perfect, most beautiful, purest life-sustaining moment of my paltry existence: I read the silly story and the class laughed. Nay, Laura laughed. That was it. Fuck math, I was a writer.

Writing was powerful, it was world changing. It made me funny. Once Jack String came to life on the page, he became all I wanted to write about, all I wanted to do. Entering his world offered the briefest of respites from my uncertain real life. (Years later, when I unearthed the original Jack String pages, I was shocked to find that these “short stories” where barely two paragraphs long.)

As I grew older, Jack String transformed into a more dour detective until I abandoned the character altogether. Though I had loved reading Encyclopedia Brown and other detective stories, it turned out I was lousy at manufacturing meaningful mysteries of my own. My fiction grew less plot heavy as I developed as a writer, more character based. The humor also changed, from pratfalls to sardonic quips that are really only funny to me. It turns out, my sixth grade self knew how to entertain an audience better than current me.

Laura and I became “friends” throughout high school but it was always a walled off kind of relationship. At 18, when I read my poetry for the first time in front of an older, rowdy audience at the Jazzhaus, I invited her as my guest, hoping not too subtly that my exquisite words would wow the audience and capture her heart.

We were the only under-agers allowed in (my brother, Steve, ran the show) and we drank Cherry Cokes together at our separate table. When it was my turn to read, I sheepishly worked my way through the narrow passages between the swiveling chairs and up onto the spotlighted stage.

There I stood, a stick figure child with the blondest of long blond hair, standing before a drunken crowd of adults. I cleared my throat in preparation of reading truly terrible poetry, but before I could get any words out, a disembodied voice from the darkness hollered, “Hey, Hanson!” The crowd exploded into hoots and guffaws. I turned beet red, and then grew redder. Apparently I could still get a laugh as a writer.

Dripping sweat, I managed to mumble out my angsty couplets before leaving the stage to polite clapping. I sat through the rest of the show, every few minutes looking at Laura with a twitchy smile, but there was nothing to be done, nothing to salvage. I’m pretty sure that was the last time I saw Laura.

In School (Album)

For all that humiliation, for all the social anxiety, I have Ms. Drake to thank. But, sincerely so. Getting up on that stage and being roundly embarrassed was a necessary experience. I went up almost every week for the next three years, and eventually grew more comfortable performing before an audience, even if the poetry didn’t improve. It was facing that fear that led the groundwork for other major leaps that I would make in my life, particularly 10 Cities/10 Years.

It’s a strange influence that a teacher can have on a student’s life (and a preposterous society that doesn’t revere and support its teachers). If you were to ask me which teachers I’ve learned the most from or who I had the most admiration for, Ms. Drake wouldn’t be the first to pop into my head, and yet, truly, no other teacher sparked such a fundamental and lasting passion in me.

It’s crazy to think, if not for Ms. Drake, I might be an engineer instead of a writer.

I hope she’s sorry.

 

 

The Mary Jacket

Let me tell you a story about a jacket.

It’s not all my story, and in fact, it originates somewhere that I’ve never been: Portland, Oregon.

Before we get there, though, I need to back up to somewhere I’ve spent far too much time: my hometown.

Here I am trying to make my first escape.

We weren’t a happy family; perhaps not an unhappy one. We had our moments, to be sure, a series of explosions – laughter, anger, whichever broke us through. Before I’d even turned eight, we had already fractured once; a few years later, we’d do it all over again. Eventually, the whole damn thing fell apart. And we were fine.

The first fracture came when my oldest brother, Mike, abruptly left home when I was in second grade. The subsequent fracturing event came a few years later with the exit of my second oldest brother, Steve, who left home under acrimonious circumstances when I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, the timeline of those early years has always been jumbled in my mind. The mixture of my sheltered youth and a familial tendency to talk around the issues has left me spending my adult life indolently piecing together family history, like someone absentmindedly scratching a bug bite.

I suppose it must seem strange that a writer would be this incurious about his own past, but the truth is, it isn’t my past. Everything happened around me; I was a background extra in my own life up until college, and even then, really only a featured player.

So, what I know of Steve’s exit: I was the last one to speak to him before he left the house that final time. There were five kids, so my parents had opted to get us a second landline phone just for us (just for them); it was even listed in the phone book as the separate Teens’ Line. That night, my parents had gone out and gave instructions that Steve was not to use the phone, he being on punishment for one infraction or another. Nothing new there.

I was watching TV in the living room when I heard the kids’ line ringing in the den. Since the phone was never for me, I instinctively ignored it until I remembered my parents’ instructions. I rushed to the den just in time to find Steve answering the phone.

“You’re not supposed to use the phone,” I dutifully bleated.

“I know!” Steve snapped back. “No one else was answering it!”

That was it. I skulked back to the living room, then, some minutes later, I heard  Steve leaving out the garage and that was the last I would see of him for years.

Kids Christmas
My siblings. Probably.

That could all be wrong. I don’t trust the details of my memory; I tend to conflate different events, sometimes years apart. It’s immaterial; this is how I remember it. The great irony – and power – of our past is that perception shapes memory, which then shapes perception. We’re all living a lie we told ourselves. This is mine.

My next memory of seeing Steve in person came many months later. He was standing on our porch, saying hello to my tearful mother who was welcoming him back home to Lawrence. He’d gotten heroin thin – emaciated, really – and was covered with piercings, a safety pin pincushion. 

I don’t remember if Steve was wearing the jacket, though I suspect not. This jacket, which came to represent all the mysteries and allure of my brother’s time away from home, was a plain brown, polyester gas station attendant’s jacket, an ugly thing made all the more unsightly by large rips and frayed edges. Like Steve’s eyebrows, the thing was pierced through with a phalanx of safety pins, some of them functional, most just for aesthetics. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

After leaving home, but before meeting up with Mike in Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve spent time in Portland, Oregon, living in a shithole (probably) and working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Other than learning the basics of cooking from the restaurant’s chef, Steve’s main pastimes in Portland were poetry and drugs (I won’t pretend to know which ones; all of them?).

In Portland, where by law gas station attendants still pump your gas, Steve picked up the jacket. What really made this unassuming article of clothing pop, at least for me, was the one piece of personalization that my brother had attached: a yellow and orange fabric patch with the name “Mary” sewn in green letters over an orange heart. I had no idea who Mary was, but she was clearly perfect.

In fact, Mary was no one, but everyone. As Steve later explained, “Mary” was the stand-in name he used in his poetry when he was writing about a woman but didn’t want to use her real name. She was the all-encompassing focus of love and lust, hate and sorrow; she was all womankind.

So she came to represent to me.

My parents were permitting my brother to store some of his belongings at the family house, which is how I came to stumble across the Mary Jacket hanging up in a hallway closet. For a time, I would take it out just to put it on, and then slip it back on its hanger. As the months passed, though, and Steve made no indication that he intended to take it back, I began to wear the jacket out of the house, to my mother’s chagrin.

Steve didn’t mind me wearing it, but there was always an understanding that someday I’d return it to him. That never happened.

The jacket engulfed me. It must have been huge on Steve when he was at his thinnest, which is why I doubt he was actually wearing it that day he showed up on our porch. It didn’t matter, I loved it and wore it constantly. After losing a great deal of weight in a very short time as a teenager, I was slow to update my wardrobe so most of my clothes were baggy on me. The jacket fit my style (a term I use loosely).

People asked all the time who Mary was, or, sometimes with confusion regarding my long, feminine blond hair, if I was Mary. Some kids took to calling me Mary, presumably as an insult, but if it bothered me, it didn’t stop me from wearing the jacket every damn day.

Whatever reason Steve had for choosing Mary as his female catch-all, the name had an extra level of resonance for his youngest brother, a kid named Joseph who had been brought up in the Jesus in Wonderland orthodoxy of Evangelical Pentecostals. Everything was filtered through Bible stories and purported prophecy. Mary didn’t just represent some unknown love interest, she came to represent the unseen woman, the one that completed the equation: Joseph and Mary.

Perhaps I have a genetic predisposition to symbolism, or it’s just a product of my religious upbringing, but early on I developed an obsession with poetic symmetry in life, always looking for surreptitious indicators of deeper meaning or direction in the innocuous happenstance of life: a song playing on the radio with an oddly fitting lyric; the crash of thunder in a moment of doubt; a girl named Mary.

I wanted – needed – there to be signs of something grand ahead, because in the now, life was pretty miserable. Certainly, I was.

As high school ceded to college, I left much of my old life behind, including church friends and my faith, but the Mary Jacket stayed with me. From wear, the tears had grown into fluttering gashes with loose threads hanging from the edges that I routinely had to cut off. I’d repurposed some of the extra safety pins to hold the entire left side together, which otherwise flung open like a gaping mouth.

If the jacket had arrived in Kansas looking like a holdover from the 80s hardcore scene, I had managed to turn it into a homemade Halloween costume assembled by a disinterested stepmother. It had long ago ceased to be a jacket in any functional sense, more of a rag to throw over my shoulders like a cape. So be it, it was my cape.

When I packed up everything I owned for the move to Charlotte that would launch 10 Cities/10 Years, I stuffed the Mary Jacket in my boxes. Eventually, I gained enough sense to stop wearing the thing, but for sentimental purposes, the jacket remained with me for many moves. After a few years, realizing that sentiment wasn’t worth the extra money and effort it required to move every year, I unceremoniously discarded the jacket along with many other artifacts of a life I no longer lived.

Before I tossed the jacket –there was no hope of donating it, the thing was mostly safety pins by that point – I removed the Mary patch. That I still have.

Cropped
No words.

Symbolism

Writers love symbols. Fiction, in particular, is buoyed by their potential. Properly deployed, one symbol can say more than ten pages of exposition; even poor writing can be given the façade of depth with some hasty symbolism. Then there are the great writers, like Fitzgerald, whose symbolism could captivate so thoroughly, he redefined the prosaic truth of the image itself. A green light is never just a green light.

Even though I no longer believe in higher powers or spiritual intercession in the natural world, I’m still taken with the way coincidences can imbue day-to-day life with literary flair. From time to time, it’s fun to indulge a flight of fancy, to impose meaning on the meaningless. It’s utter rubbish, but what isn’t? A writer has to think in symbols.

Names will always hold deeper meaning, like how hearing a particular name brings a rush of memories about an ex or a friend I haven’t thought of in years. I’m always tickled by couples with famous name pairings or when someone’s moniker takes on an ironic double meaning. To this day, “Mary” is freighted with unrealistic meaning. It’s a connection to a past that’s mostly been forgotten or blurred into unreliable memory, and yet also a suggestion of a future that could have been, probably never will. I hear the name, it triggers visions of a specific type of life with a wife and a house, a family, a place; stability.

Before anyone thinks, “Awwww,” I haven’t lost anything, only come to understand myself better. Like that shredded gas attendant’s jacket, that existence wouldn’t fit me now. It’d only split and unravel. I held onto that vision of my future for a lot longer than I should have because I wanted so much for there to be a plan, a destination. Not anymore. I don’t need a prophecy to tell me about my future; I make my own.

Traveling has stripped me of much of my sentimentality. I’ve gotten much better at letting go of my relics. On the verge of another major move, my biggest yet, I’m examining my possessions with a plan to unload it all. Holding on to mementos from the past doesn’t actually prolong the past. Baggage is a burden, and a crutch. Minimalism is both a necessity and incredibly freeing.

Still, I like to imagine someone found that old jacket in the trash, took it home, and sewed it back together. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the things we abandoned came to have a second life with someone else? Well, the past is always being written and rewritten. May all we leave behind be remembered as fondly as a ripped polyester jacket.

The Final Day: A Thank You Note

At midnight tonight, I will achieve a goal more than a decade in the making. An idea that began as a joke and turned into a life’s ambition will finally be completed; finito.

10 Cities / 10 Years was so many things. Most obviously, it was a travel blog – one that provided very little in the way of actual travel advice. More so, it was my attempt to keep a running analysis of the culture both in terms of art and societal patterns. It’s also a memoir predicated on the fact that all memories are fallible. And it’s the story of some amazing people who changed my life.

Most generally, it was an experiment and an endurance test.

And in less than 24 hours it will be over.

On Tuesday, I’ll reflect on the project at large and what this has meant for me and what it will mean for me in the years to come.

But today, I want to take a moment and look back. I’m using this space to say thank you to those whose lives became intertwined with mine throughout this past decade, for better or for worse (for me, mostly the former; for them, mostly the latter). This was a solitary journey for the majority of the years, yet I didn’t do it on my own.

First of all, there are the members of my family who have been a constant presence in my life, even when we don’t talk regularly. My mother, a devout Christian who would probably be mortified if she knew most of what I’ve gone through and done, has always supported my pursuit of this foolish aim. What more can one ask for?

My siblings – Fonz, Steve, Debra and Daniel – are the people I’ve fought with most in my life, and because of them I’m stronger, wiser and funnier. And boozier. They have supported me as much as they have mocked me – and if you know my family, you know that’s a lot. We might be dysfunctional, but… nah, that’s it, we’re just dysfunctional.

I want to thank Shelly and Marianne, 2 of my oldest and closest friends, strong and amazing women I’ve known since before the project began. If I’m even remotely a decent man, it’s because of both of them.

And then there are all those friends who I’ve made over the years of this project. There have been some great guys, some friends who have been fun co-workers and roommates and who I have wonderful memories with – what I can remember. If we’ve had a drink together, know that I think of you fondly. Well, I think of the whiskey fondly, and you get the residual goodwill.

Anyone who knows me, anyone who has been truly close to me, knows that wherever I go, I habitually surround myself with intelligent, talented, witty, beautiful, entertaining women. They inspire me, they encourage me, they challenge me – and in return, sometimes I’m kind of okay to hang around with.

So here’s where I want to express my love and thanks to those impressive women I’ve met along the way (even those who are no longer in my life):

Alex – my first friend of this project and still one of the best friends I’ve ever had. Love.
Ashley – perhaps the purest heart I’ve ever known. Meeting you changed my life.
Ivy and Amy – the coolest and badassiest writers I know.
Amber and Kate – cool f-ing chicks who made me feel at home in the one part of the country I never thought I’d live.
Chandra – we went through it all together, and it wasn’t always pretty, but what we had was truly unique and transformative. That isn’t forgotten.
The Ladies of Forever 21 (yes, you read that right) – it was one of the worst jobs I ever had and one of the hardest years of my life but I had some great friends that year who made it worth it.
Jacky, Emily, Jenna, Cassie, Michelle and dammit, just so many others at Demos who made Nashville a year to vaguely remember through the haze of alcohol. I was at a low point when I arrived in the city and it was largely because of you that I kept pushing through onto city 7.
Clarice (and, of course, Tom) – you made Seattle a home for me (even though I didn’t live in your home).
Rhiannon – some days, all I need is to know there is someone who will enjoy receiving New Girl quotes for no reason at all.
All the Tillicum Gals – woah, that sounds dirty.
Brielle – what can I say? We saw JT together.
Rebecca – in some of my darkest moments, you picked me up with a hug or a shot (usually the latter).
Kristin and Brittany – hated the job, liked (and admired) you both.
Annabelle – not sure they come any kinder than you.
All you dolls at E&C (ugh, yes, even you Karisa – the worst) – work was rarely boring with you around.
Emily – we’ve driven the country together – twice – and we survived robberies, mice attacks and our upstairs neighbors. If you ever need a travel companion, just give me a call. I probably won’t be doing anything important, anyway. (You’re seriously too cool.)
Amandine – you remind me that I still have so much more to explore; you’re also the best photographer I’ve ever known and I’m constantly amused by the fact that you doubt how talented you are.
Sophie – sorry about the broken foot, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed my first summer here nearly as much without you. I look forward to trying to convince people I know you in a few years.

I hope you all appreciate how much I care about you. I also hope you all appreciate how hard it was for me to remain that sincere for so long. I almost fainted.

Did I forget you? Well, I drink a lot, so what did you expect?

I guess, in the end, 10 Cities / 10 Years is the story of a guy who is naturally sort of an asshole but is marginally less so because of the people he’s met.

So, uh, thanks.

Sincerely,

~L

churchgoer

Notes From the Past: Family, Love and Turkey Bowling

It’s not a secret that when I have completed my first year here in Brooklyn – the final year of this project – I plan on immortalizing my experiences and encounters in a book. For the past few months, I have been slowly chipping away at the first couple chapters. I don’t know how much of what I put into these first drafts will appear in the final product, but it’s necessary to at least put words on page.

I’m pulling predominantly from my memories for this book (at least at this stage), and unsurprisingly I’m finding a number of holes. Whether that’s due to time or whiskey, I can’t say. It’s fine either way because one of the themes of the book is the way memory distorts and changes with time. Still, to appreciate how much they have changed I need to have a reference point.

Tonight, I dug out a pile of old journals. These are poetry journals which I’ve been writing since I was in high school. You could follow the ups and downs of my life by reading through the years of my shitty poetry. You shouldn’t do that, but you could.

On rare occasion, I broke with the format to free write about my life at the time. No, I didn’t keep a diary. Okay, I sort of kept a diary. But it was done very irregularly. During the summer before my senior year, while living in Washington D.C., I wrote pages upon pages of angst-riddled notes about the perilous state of my relationship with my girlfriend and my loss of faith. If I was a smarter man, I would set that shit on fire.

And then there was the first year of this project, Charlotte. On Thanksgiving weekend, my brother, Daniel, was getting married and I flew back to Kansas for the first time since I moved. While I sat in Charlotte Douglas International, I began writing out my thoughts about all that I had been through in the past 6 months and all that I was dreading about this return to Lawrence (mostly family).

Long before I had created this website, I was already touching on the many themes that I’d still be writing about years later: Same-sex Marriage (I was always for it), atheism and religion, travel, and politics (or lack there of: “I have no real interest in politics. I don’t see why you need to be of one political party or another to want to cure AIDS.” Oh, honey.)

Going back through these old notes was actually a revealing read. My wanderlust and insecurities are on full display within the pages, though, tellingly, nowhere did I mention 10 Cities / 10 Years as that idea was still nascent in those early months in Charlotte.

Downtown 2

Much of the first few pages is consumed with my thoughts on family drama that was unfolding at the time. There’s always family drama, but reading these pages reminded me just how much drama was going on back then.

It wasn’t all family, though. I also spent a considerable amount of ink scribbling about my love life.

“H– picked me up just after 8:30 and took me to the airport.” H– was a woman I dated briefly before breaking it off who was trying to convince me to get back together. Clearly, I was taking advantage of that situation.

I also spent some paragraphs on the end of my 2-year relationship with my college girlfriend and my belief that I was perhaps not capable of succeeding at romance. I was 22, of course I was nihilistic: “I like flirtation. I like friendship. I enjoy sex. But I don’t want to be responsible for someone else, and I don’t want someone else being responsible to me.”
Could I be anymore cliché?

Alternatively, there’s a running fixation throughout the pages with having a meaningless sexual fling that weekend, either with an old high school crush or a complete stranger. Spoiler alert: Nope.

In fact, there’s a lot of wishful thinking in these words. A lot of forward looking. I had enough self-awareness to undercut my most grandiose prophecies with sarcastic asides and I had a persistent belief that nothing interesting would ever happen to me. But I was consumed with thoughts of my future and change. I wrote about New York City being my “betrothed” city, but I knew I would live other places first.

I certainly didn’t get everything right: “Home. Will Lawrence always be home? In some form or another I suppose…”

Already, I was obsessed with the idea of being removed from Kansas. Even though I had been gone less than 6 months, I referred to this trip with only slight irony as a “prodigal return.” I wanted so very bad for this weekend to feel epic, for my time away to have changed so much, both in who I was and how people thought of me. But a part of me knew it was a lie: “I am well-traveled, just not well-lived.”

After landing in Kansas City, there is an account of an awkward drive to Lawrence with my father and his new wife. At one point, they tell a seemingly off the cuff joke about their wedding which I suspect is actually rehearsed. When they retell the exact same joke a few hours later with identical wording, my suspicions are confirmed. (I also noted their indifference to a new album by Sufjan Stevens that I was telling everyone about at the time.)

In Lawrence, we had leftover Thanksgiving dinner with my brother, Steve’s, wife’s family before the younger generation headed out to the local Lawrence “hick” bar, Coyote’s. (I don’t believe it exists anymore.)

That’s pretty much where that story ends. I didn’t write about the wedding (the siblings all took shots before the service in the rental car), or about my return to Charlotte. Like I said, I’m an inconsistent journaler.

Before I finished, though, I did spend more than a page on what can only be described as the highlight of the trip: Turkey bowling.

It’s exactly what it sounds like (and exactly what you’d expect at a bar called “Coyote’s”). After both my brother and his wife took their unsuccessful turns, I was up. You might think bowling a turkey would be a rather mindless activity, but based on how much I wrote, there was clearly a lot of calculations involved. I really don’t think a summary would do it justice, so:

...the thought of throwing the turkey is not coming [up with] positive results. I imagine being too weak to pick it up, unable to throw it more than a few feet, or worse, losing control of my throw and sending the cold, hard turkey into the face of some spectator, smashing their nose and ending the festivities. I can be fairly certain nothing that interesting will happen, but still, the thought gives me pause...

I am not certain how to hold the turkey. It seems gripping the whole bird with both hands would allow for the best aim, but the awkwardness would make it hard to throw with much power. The strap does not appear to be very strong and aiming the turkey would be harder, but it would likely be easier to gather momentum, and since the prospect of watching the turkey land only two feet in front of me is seeming highly probable, I opt for power over accuracy.

Fully prepared to make an ass of myself (as prepared as one can be) I reel back, bring the turkey around in a parabolic downward arc and release. The strap breaks in mid swing, the turkey flies three feet before hitting the ground and rolling a couple more before stopping anticlimactically halfway between me and the pin. Well, at least no one's nose is broke. I'm ready to move on, back to the bar and away from the festivities when the man in charge of bowling says I get another turn because the strap broke. Lucky me.

This time, new bird in hand, I decide to go the two handed route. At least, if I only get the bird a few feet, there will be no excuse to make me do it again. Pulling the turkey back to my right side like I imagine a shot put coach would recommend (if the shot put was ten times as big, not particularly round and once alive). I then take a few quick steps toward the line, turn my body and use the momentum along with whatever I can muster in my arms to launch the bird. The turkey flies, past the two foot mark, past my previous throw, past the spectators (and their noses) and to the pins. Strike! Hole in One! Home run! Touchdown! All those fucking pins are down, submissive, broken. Do not fuck with me.

I won a Corona pin because the t-shirts were all too big for me.

And that’s basically it. The wedding happened. All of the family members survived the weekend. Nobody’s cat died.

I’m not sure turkey bowling will make it into the final book, but reading back on those old memories, I was pleasantly surprised by what I had forgotten, what I remembered, and what I was thinking back then. I don’t completely want to punch my 22-year-old self in the face, and that’s the biggest surprise of all.

“After a day of flying, drinking, talking and turkey bowling, sleeping sounds wonderful.”

Well said, you dumb sonuvabitch.

Cheers.

cropped-10-cities.jpg

Returning Home

I’m sitting in an airport being barraged by an odd sight: T-shirts, fleeces and jackets emblazoned with the logos for the Kansas City Royals and Chiefs or the Kansas Jayhawks.

Granted, I’m in MCI, the Kansas City International Airport, so such sightings aren’t, in fact, all that odd. For the first 22 years of my life, if I went a day without seeing one of those team logos, it would have been quite out of the ordinary. Over the past 8 1/2 years, though, the spotting of a Kansas City area team logo has become a rarer happening, the kind of unexpected reminder of my birthplace that flashes by and then fades quickly into indistinct memory.

Since beginning 10 Cities, I’ve averaged 3 or 4 days in Kansas a year, usually to see the family, or returning for a friend’s wedding. We celebrated a brother’s birthday this year, bringing together the 3 of us siblings who live elsewhere back together with the other 2 and our mother who live in Kansas. Drinking, eating, joking, minimal-politicking and drinking ensued.

Cake and Whiskey

These return trips to Lawrence, Kansas tend to be wrought with tension as we are a family of temperamental temperaments and strong, differing opinions (plus, sometimes shit just goes bananas). However, even under the best of circumstances, time in Kansas never sparkles with that pretty nostalgia that so many other people seem to experience when they return to their hometown.

The house I grew up in has long been owned by some other family, while almost everyone I knew from high school and college has moved away or, more simply, I’ve lost contact with them. A few old friends are in the area and I do my best to see at least a couple of them when I’m back, but time corrodes bonds and there are only a select few with whom that connection can be re-established with relative ease. We all have friendships that don’t survive the distance, there’s nothing gained by denying it.

Seeing my family and dearest friends can be an absolute pleasure, as was the case during our all-day barbeque that consisted of a plethora of smoked meats, prolific alcohol consumption, Cards Against Humanity and an impromptu bonfire.

But every return to Kansas reinforces the same cold truth: This is not my home.

Boston is my home. For just a year, true, but no less so for that fact. My life is back there – my apartment, job, friends, books, whiskey – all the more so because my life is all about travel, progression, and Boston is my latest step forward. Sooner than I’m ready, I will be packing up and leaving Boston behind, but for this year between September 1st, 2013 and August 31st, 2014, I live in Massachusetts, I live in this present.

Lawrence, Kansas, as I have always said, is a great place to live, a fine town to have grown up in. But, just as I’ve also always said, I will never, ever live there again.

I return home, today. To Boston.

Home sweet home.

Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge