I lived in New Orleans for a year, from 2012 to 2013, arriving in the city on September 1, 2012, four days after Hurricane Isaac. That Category 1 storm briefly passed over New Orleans, almost seven years to the day after the city was hit by Katrina – a Category 5 storm. Other than the French Quarter, most of the city was without electricity for half a week or longer.
My first few days in the city were spent sweating through intense heat and humidity. The city’s water supply was also temporarily put under a boil advisory, meaning tap water needed to be boiled before it could be consumed. Arriving in the wake of a hurricane was a harsh introduction to the city, even though Isaac had been far less destructive than Katrina.
Within a month of moving to the city, I took a job at a restaurant in the Central Business District. One of my co-workers there was Chris Woods, currently an English teacher at Jesuit High School in Mid-City, the same school he attended as a teenager.
Woods and I worked together the night of Super Bowl XLVII, which was being held at the recently renamed Mercedes-Benz Superdome less than a mile away. It was an eventful Super Bowl: the Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers 34-31, Beyoncé headlined an extravagant halftime show and, dramatically, the stadium’s power went out for 34 minutes in the 3rd quarter.
With the eyes of the world on the city for the biggest sporting event of the year, the power outage was a reminder that New Orleans remained a work-in-progress seven and a half years after Katrina.
The Superdome infamously played an important role during Katrina, housing nearly 16,000 people throughout the storm’s barrage and in the days after the hurricane struck. It provided lifesaving shelter, but after it lost electricity, the stadium also became a sweltering cage for many locals who didn’t or couldn’t evacuate.
Repairs to the Superdome cost US$366 million, a substantial sum, though relatively minor compared to the multibillion-dollar price tags of new stadiums in the National Football League.
In the lead up to Super Bowl XLVII, which occurred in the middle of that year’s Mardi Gras festivities, the city raced to prepare for the surge of football revelers and national attention it was sure to receive. Besides beautifying parts of the city that would see increased tourism, the city council invested considerable effort in repairing sidewalks.
The neighborhood I briefly lived in, St. Roch, noticeably transformed during my year in New Orleans. At the end of my former street sat a historic food market that was nearly destroyed during Katrina. By the time I moved away, the dilapidated building had gotten a face-lift, though finishing the project would take a few months more. The St. Roch Market reopened in 2015.
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.
We watched the SUV sail across all three lanes of Storrow Drive. It was Saturday night and Amanda was giving three of us rides home after work. The bars had just let out and Storrow, which runs alongside the Charles River and connects the West End to Allston, was pocked with traffic. Not that it deterred the drunk in front of us.
That year, Boston was launching a pilot program to keep a selection of subway and bus lines running until 3 a.m. on the weekend, up from 1 a.m. Working in the service industry, I welcomed the change – unfortunately, only temporary – as finding a Taxi on a Boston Saturday night is cutthroat business. Plus, Boston roads are less than ideal that time of night.
After the SUV narrowly clipped our rear bumper, Amanda judiciously let him pass. In awe, we watched the drunk race ahead, swerving across all three lanes to sideswipe the cement barrier on the left side before ricocheting back across the lanes and nearly careening off the road into the river before correcting.
From the shoulder, a sitting police cruiser watched the scene but didn’t move. We called 911. To our dismay, the drunk slid off the same exit as us. The SUV must have pulled off down a side street as we merged into traffic because we lost sight of him. I have no idea where the driver ended up, whether back home, in a police car, or with his head bisected by a tree trunk.
Watching the SUV abuse the road evoked a visceral response in me, a seemingly gratuitous anger. I’ve done my share of idiotic things while drunk but my reaction wasn’t because the driver almost collided with us; or, it wasn’t just that.
There is a beauty to a road at night, the serenity of a world viewed only in the high beams. Red and white lights passing in streaks, chaotic yet rhythmic. It’s game theory and ballet; it’s sacred. And one drunk was fucking that up.
Forget it Jake, it’s Allston
My arrival in Boston coincided with the beginning of the school year, and since the city is one giant college campus with a town threaded in the cracks, hundreds of thousands of students had already gobbled up every rental well before I began my search.
Only a few weeks out from my ninth move, I received an email from a guy named Lucas. He and another roommate, Emily, had locked down a four bedroom apartment in Allston, but two of the other renters had dropped out unexpectedly and now they were scrambling to fill the rooms. Their misfortune was my… not misfortune.
On Moving Day – the bitterest Boston holiday – I drove into the city under a torrential downpour to meet my three roommates. Together, the four of us would survive our apartment.
Allston is the cirrhosis-stricken liver of Boston’s college nexus. Calling it rat-infested inaccurately characterizes the natural ecosystem: Allston is human-infested; the rats just tolerated us. Our first floor apartment included easy access to the basement laundry and a quarter-inch layer of black, indeterminable grease coating every surface. It was a week before I realized our floor was actually made of hardwood.
Like any classic sitcom setup, the four roomies had one dynamic as a group, but split into pairs we developed distinct relationships. With Lucas, I chatted pop culture and liquor, money and politics; life. He worked in fraud prevention for a major bank and, of the four of us, was the only one with a traditional 9-5 job. He was also a practiced cook and spent many weekends with his out-of-state girlfriend.
Adam, the youngest of the four, had been studying film at UCLA before transferring cross country. He required little prompting to expound endlessly on his passions. He and I frequently debated art at length, somehow always circling back to David Lynch (he a devoted fan, me, not so much). An off-hand comment about a superhero movie trailer could unexpectedly turn into a three hour exegesis on the shifting classification of film genres.
Finally, there was Emily. She’d relocated to Massachusetts from Arizona for nursing school. Demonstratively bright and from a family of means, she could’ve studied anywhere in the country but was drawn out East by a desire to expand the borders of her world. With Lucas’s regular schedule and Adam being a morning person, Emily and I handled the late night conversation shifts and became fast friends from our first meeting.
On any given night, we could kill a bottle or two of wine while weaving through a range of topics, whether travel, music, mental health, or any tangents that might shake loose after midnight. Or, we might just have a 2 a.m. dance party, to Lucas’s chagrin.
Lucas, Emily, and I barhopped together – Adam, to our occasional amusement, wasn’t a drinker. We partied vicariously with the Founding Fathers on the Freedom Trail and danced to 90s songs in sweaty clubs. Sometimes we stayed closer to home to drink among the crystalline youth of Allston. My roommates could still pass for undergrads, in looks if not in lack of cynicism, but next to collegiate eternal youth, I couldn’t help but feel (and look) worn. The threshold for old age in Allston isn’t high.
In our apartment, indignities stacked up quickly. Even after we – well, Emily – gave the place a thorough cleaning, rodents were a fact of life. The rats and the mice maintained separate territories. Outside, long-tailed, beady-eyed rat bastards rustled incessantly in the garbage before retiring under the tires of passing cars, painting the streets like some sort of gut-splattered Jackson Pollock.
Though slightly less aesthetically repulsive, the mice were nevertheless a more persistent problem, scampering inside our walls and hungrily devouring anything within two feet of the ground. They got so comfortable in our home that they even invented a fun game: They’d hide in the trashcan and race up Emily’s arm when she went to throw something away. Boy how she howled with laughter.
As our landlord unhelpfully – but rightly – pointed out, mice were just a fact of life in Allston. The same could apparently be said of an apartment whose power grid had inexplicably been rerouted through the oven. Half of the apartment, including Lucas and Adam’s bedrooms, lost power unless one of the stovetop burners was left on. Not ideal.
When we eventually found a non-incompetent electrician (third times the charm), he discovered that the fuse box in the basement had previously caught fire and partially melted. Now, I’m no building inspector, but I suspect one or two codes had probably been broken to get to that point.
Then there was the paper thin ceiling. Usual college kid noises infiltrated our space, but we – again, mostly Emily – also had our upstairs neighbor’s awkward sexcapades projected down at us as if by loudspeaker. And yet, the true cherry on top of our shit sundae apartment didn’t arrive until New Year’s Eve.
With Adam and Emily out West, Lucas having an NYE dinner with his girlfriend, and me working the holiday shift, our apartment was visited by freelance movers. Climbing in through a broken window in Emily’s room, the intruders ransacked the place. In terms of financial loss, Lucas probably suffered the worst – I lucked out; though they swiped a couple hundred dollars I had sitting out, they unplugged but ultimately left behind my laptop, my only possession of any value.
The police were predictably unable to do anything about the break-in. While we could accept our material losses, it was the psychological intrusion that invoked the deepest absence. I’ve been robbed before, but never from inside my own apartment, even when living in some of the purportedly worst neighborhoods in the county. For Emily, especially, the use of her window as the point of entry was an unrectifiable invasion.
With the passage of years, we’ve come to appreciate the dark humor in our garbage dump of an apartment. Even at the time, though, the various frustrations never perturbed me quite as much as they did the others. In part, this was because I’d lived in my share of hovels. Even more so, though, I felt comfortable with concrete issues, problems with solutions. We could set mouse traps, put bars on the windows, call repair men. I didn’t feel, as I had in New Orleans, like returning home was a prison sentence. I actually liked the apartment; I enjoyed my roommates.
Lest I give the impression that I only experienced one Boston neighborhood, I did enjoy life outside Allston. I served tables at a pub in the Financial District, working alongside a diverse and rowdy crew, including my co-closer and concert partner, Amanda. I celebrated St. Patty’s Day in Southie with Emily and attended the Red Sox’s World Series parade with Lucas.
When the city started feeling too small, I left. The Northeast has an advantage over any other region of the US because a day trip in almost any direction will bring you somewhere entertaining and beautiful.
Meanwhile, Emily and I worked to bend Boston to our inebriated will. Boston doesn’t permit happy hour and its nightlife is mostly constrained to weekends. Allston dives were fine, but half the fun was in wandering. On one late night, in fruitless search of a rooftop to lounge on, we surreptitiously climbed the fire escapes of strangers, dodging the headlights of passing cars.
One Sunday evening, we trekked half of the city until we finally located an open liquor store. Stashing bottles of champagne, we entered Boston Common and reclined on the grass while the dusk burnt away to night.
For all its posturing as a city, Boston is a small town, for better and worse. It didn’t take long to feel like we’d experienced most of what it had to offer. When the city felt constraining, we sought out fresh avenues. Emily was a fellow traveler, accustomed to taking detours in life. Restlessness was our bond.
Twenty-four hours after the NYE break-in, I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. The trollies and subways of Boston could be inefficient, especially in winter, so Emily was transporting her car across the country. To give her parents peace of mind, I volunteered to co-pilot. They expressed their appreciation, but fact is, I’d drop a baby to go on a road trip.
We had a loosely planned route: Avoiding winter in the Midwest, we cruised across thirteen hours of hypnotic, Texas nothing, then dropped into New Orleans overnight for Emily’s first visit. From the bayou, we crept through eerily quiet Mississippi and Alabama towns in pursuit of plantations and any restaurants open on a Sunday afternoon. Our progress was hampered by a snowstorm as we approached Nashville. Finally, we reached the coast, dining with Marianne and her beau in D.C. before swinging past New York on our way back home.
Somewhere in the lull between Texas and Tennessee, while I sat behind the wheel with Emily asleep in the passenger seat, I had a moment of such transcendent calm that it bordered on religious. With the road stretching to each horizon, no cars in sight, I was overwhelmed by a sense of timelessness, as if there was no future, no past, just that road, that instant. Maybe I wasn’t meant to have a home; I’d be okay.
I could’ve driven forever.
In the waning months of my year in Boston, while I focused on my final move, my roommates were also resolving plans. Adam jumped the Charles River to live in Cambridge; Lucas moved in with his soon-to-be fiancé in Connecticut; and Emily found a new apartment with Amanda so she could finish her final year of nursing school.
As for me, it was almost literally the last hour before I had a place in New York. It didn’t matter. Even if I ended up homeless, come September 1st, I was driving my few belongings the four hours to Brooklyn to begin Year 10.
“I love you,” I whispered. Perched on my chest, Ava repeated the words back to me.
A little over a week later, she broke us up to be with someone else.
This story is, as all of them are, more complex, but in the next weeks, as I obsessively replayed the movie in my mind, these were the only two plot points that mattered.
We met in Chicago when we were both in long-term relationships. Like my own relationship at the time, Ava’s was perpetually rocky, and so we confided in one another about the circumstances of our dissatisfaction, as friends.
Then she visited me two summers later. Newly single, she and another friend, Nadie, came to explore Seattle, beauties sans commitments. On the first night of their visit, having given them my bedroom for their stay, I was preparing to sleep on the couch when Ava came into the living room, bent over, and kissed me on the lips.
I’d never had a woman make the first move before and it caught me quite by surprise. The following day was spent exchanging furtive looks until that night, with Nadie gone to bed, Ava once again came to me. A couple days later, the two of them returned to Chicago and that was to be the end of it.
New Orleans is far and away the most idiosyncratic city of all I’ve lived in, a village from the past thrust haphazardly into the future, with a personality so distinct that, at times, it could feel like a foreign country. It was exhilarating, but also wearying.
I avoided Hurricane Isaac by three days, but not the damage. Almost all of New Orleans outside the economic hub of the French Quarter was without power. With temperatures in the 90s and humidity thick as taffy, I sweated through my first weekend, unable to sleep, crushed by the atmosphere.
Like many of the inhabitants of New Orleans, my new roommate, Donatella, was not locally grown but had nonetheless embraced the city as her one true home. She did her best to give me a proper welcome, greeting me with a shot of vodka the moment I stepped out of the taxi before bar hopping me to the French Quarter. Insistent air conditioners whirled in the Quarter, but there was no escaping the oppressive heat.
I wasn’t suffering alone. The entire city was on edge, even with Southern Decadence providing a festive aura of greased up, naked men dancing in the streets. My first night, I tagged along with Donatella who was tending bar at the AllWays Lounge, a home and performance space for the proud mutants and outsiders of New Orleans. Nudity and liquor were flowing, but the move and the heat had melted my energy.
“One second,” Donatella commanded after I told her I was calling it a night. Reaching under the counter and into her bag, she came back up wearing her radiant, incorruptible smile and holding out a box cutter. “Take this. Just in case.” The darkened St. Roch neighborhood was no place to walk without protection, especially on a roiling September night.
As had been the case with some of my previous moves, a budding romance distracted me from the difficulties of adjusting to a new locale. This year, it was Ava.
Ever since Seattle, we’d been exchanging daily texts and emails, with plans for her to visit in October. Built upon a three-year friendship, our relationship blossomed quickly. In discussing the future, it was suggested that she move to New York City where she could further her fashion career. It meant more time apart, but after seven years of travel, two didn’t seem so long. To have a beautiful woman waiting at the finish line felt like a perfect, Hollywood ending.
Meanwhile, even though my savings went a long way in New Orleans’ cheap economy, I wasn’t taking any chances. I accepted the first job offer I received, working at one of New Orleans’ most mismanaged 4-Star restaurants. The nightmare conditions were due almost entirely to the GM, a ladder climbing egotist who ruled disinterestedly as the restaurant’s sommelier, yet rarely made appearances in the presence of a customer.
That job taught me that New Orleans rewarded free-spiritedness and penalized a work ethic. As the year progressed, I naively believed I’d be rewarded for dependability, but instead, my coworkers enjoyed their holidays off while I served an empty dining room. I should’ve heeded Donatella’s warnings. She encouraged me to look for less regimented employment in the essentially citywide, gig economy. Alas.
I suffered through the heat until it broke in October. The city came alive again as it prepared for its second favorite holiday, Halloween, AKA warm-up for Mardi Gras. I explored the city with my roommate, but the party generally came to my door. Donatella’s irresistible personality drew in everyone, and so our apartment was a hive of varied and interesting strangers blowing through. Almost literally.
Donatella had sold me on the “shotgun”-style house, a floor plan that abandons hallways and fourth walls for an unbroken passage from front door to back. In my roommate’s perspective, this nurtured a free-flowing, open, and creative living environment. Fine in theory, but in practice it meant no privacy.
My room was the only route to the kitchen from Donatella’s room. I erected a partition out of thick sheets, but even with flimsy doors between our separate spaces, all barriers were essentially ornamental. Sound carried indiscriminately. With Donatella being a fully realized, independent, and carnal woman, I went to sleep many nights with headphones affixed to my ears.
Work drained my spirit and home didn’t provide the rejuvenating solitude I needed after spending the day with people. New Orleans was exhausting me, and not in the fun way.
For this reason, Ava’s daily messages and looming visit were my sole source of restoration in those early months. When she finally did arrive at the end of October, we had the kind of sublime reunion so rarely enjoyed by long-distance lovers. Seeing New Orleans – its towering churches, the Museum of Art, the street performers – with Ava’s fresh eyes made the city beautiful. There was no awkward acclimation period, no time wasted on rediscovering our groove. Laying together after reacquainting our bodies, we spoke of our love.
But she couldn’t stay. On my own again, real life nullified the highs of our romantic weekend, each day proving anew that the Big Easy cared nothing for my worsening mental state. My daily notes to Ava grew increasingly despondent, and so, when in early November she told me she couldn’t keep the relationship going, a part of me expected it.
I couldn’t even reel in private. Donatella walked into my “room” just as I hung up with Ava. She was kind enough to offer a comforting hug and invite me out to drown my sorrows in booze. Strangely, that night I turned down her invitation.
Depression was overwhelming my entire being. I knew it was too much to count on Ava to shoulder my burden, so while the breakup devastated me, I understood. Until, that is, the inevitable Facebook post of Ava with her new boyfriend some weeks later. Now there was an acute sense of rejection to go with my loss.
For a time, Donatella was an unbelievably gracious source of comfort. When I had to work from 9 am to 11 pm on Thanksgiving – the one holiday I celebrate – she greeted me upon my return with a bear hug and a plate of leftovers. She then escorted me out for drinks and lively karaoke performances (her, not me).
After tiring of Kajun’s Pub, she used her key to let us into the closed Allways Lounge. Under a soft, orange glow, we sat together at the empty bar’s piano, shoulder to shoulder, neither one of us knowing what we were doing, and riffed for hours. From our staccato notes emerged restorative, shattered music. I felt weightless for the first time in months.
We walked home with the rising sun, raw with emotions. That night I’d seen the darkness in Donatella that she mostly covered by emitting light like a strobe. She opened up about a history of abuse, a wound still tender, both from the pain she had endured and the guilt she felt for another victim left behind. Her heavy and intimate confession underlined a growing platonic affection between us more substantial than anything I’d had with Ava.
Naturally, it didn’t last.
Years of itinerancy had taken their toll. I was unable to make the simplest human connections knowing that in a short time I’d be gone, a barely remembered name popping up in a newsfeed. People were temporary and I was a ghost. Ava’s disappearance had been particularly crushing; for a brief time, I’d fooled myself into believing in her permanence.
Amplifying this instability were the unending guests passing through our doors. Donatella signed us up to host couch surfers. I’d wake up to unknown out-of-towners on the couch; sometimes they were bar patrons she’d met the night before who’d taken her up on an offer of a place to crash. If I had had a door on my room, I might have found the rotating cast of strangers vaguely endearing.
The depression would not relent. Under a confluence of factors, no one cause, my mind had become a tempest, volatile, erratic, boiling over one moment in manic rage, then leaving me hollow and weeping on my floor. I couldn’t even feel in possession of my own emotions.
It’s easier, now, to accept why Donatella lost patience, but at the time it was just one more battlefront, our once close friendship degenerated into screaming matches. It was a cruel irony that a woman who welcomed everyone and readily accepted any sexual, gender, or racial identity, found my illness so intolerable. Perhaps it just hit too close to home.
And yet, no one hates a person with depression more than the person themselves.
In December, distraught over everything – my job, my home, my broken heart, myself – I resolved to end it. Suicide had always hovered in the back of my mind, a personal nuclear option, but now, I woke up and went to sleep contemplating it. I made a plan: At month’s end, I’d throw myself off of the Crescent City Connection into the Mississippi River. The thought of sinking brought me rare moments of peace.
I suppose I gave myself a buffer, in part, because my brain goes through cycles and I knew there was a possibility I could still rise out of stark misery. Instead, each day, I felt worse. I became a practical mute at work and stayed offline, falling further into isolation. When no one seemed to notice, I took that as confirmation of my worthlessness, justification for my choice.
On an evening in mid-December, my D.C. friend from college appeared on the caller ID. Surprised, I almost let it go to voicemail, but succumbed to curiosity.
“Hey,” she said in her hesitant, unassuming way. “Hadn’t seen you post lately, thought I’d check how things were going with you.” Without hyperbole: Marianne saved my life that night.
I didn’t admit to her what I planned to do, probably attempted to sound lighthearted and casual, but after we talked briefly, I hung up and bawled. For once, the tears brought relief. Such a simple act; Gomorrah spared for the benevolence of one friend.
Clear Skies, Again
Life didn’t immediately improve. Climbing out of the depths is a process.
My rift with Donatella grew apace and after five months, I relocated to a new apartment in Mid-City with co-workers. The job remained a drudge, but an incredibly lucrative one. I earned more money serving the well-heeled of New Orleans than I’ve ever made at any other job. I could pay to see a show or buy a necessity without checking my bank account. I reached my savings goal so easily that I gleefully quit my job a month and a half early.
Despite my mental state, NOLA gave me extraordinary, one-of-a-kind experiences: waking up early on Fat Tuesday to drink Irish coffee in a crowd of colorful costumes on Frenchmen Street; sinking into mud while watching Fleetwood Mac at Jazz Fest; dancing upstairs at Blue Nile and being kissed by a stranger; feeling the city’s incomparable rhythms pulsing from every street corner. Hell, even the graphic gay porn playing on the TVs upstairs at Phoenix Bar was delightful in its own way.
Cracked by Mother Nature and enshrined by ineffectual governance, the city’s splintered infrastructure can’t hide that underneath it all, NOLA and her people are big-hearted and dynamic. Still, like that friend who always knows where the party’s at, sometimes you’re just not in the mood to answer her call.
Which is to say, I’d take any opportunity to visit New Orleans; I’ll just never live there again.
In the summer, New Orleans’s suffocating heat and humidity returned, but planning for Boston invigorated me. After only one more year, I would finally arrive in the Promised Land.
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…
It looks like I got out of Boston at the right time.
The timing of my project has been mostly fortuitous, it seems. When I move to a new city, there is no way for me to predict what will come next. The job market might be booming or it might be abysmal. My new roommates may be fun to hang out with or they might be disgusting pigs who leave a centimeter of grease caked onto the pans. My favorite bands might play ten minutes away from me, or they might skip my city altogether to play in Bumsfuck, ID.
The most unpredictable aspect of my journey, though, is the weather. I’ve spent time in every climate in the contiguous United States, whether it be tropical New Orleans, or marine Seattle, Sunny Southern California or frigid Chicago. But I’ve been lucky. In the entire span of my 10 year project, I have yet to face the wrath of a major storm.
10 Cities / 10 Years began in the summer of 2005, the same summer that New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. I was 700 miles away in Charlotte where the storm system barely made a blip. When Superstorm Sandy devestated the Northeast in the fall of 2012, I was down in New Orleans. For almost every city I’ve lived in, the year before or the year after I arrive seems to result in a near catastrophic storm (you’re welcome).
I haven’t missed everything. I was living in Seattle in 2012 when one of the biggest blizzards in recent history hit the area. While Seattle did get its share of snow and the city was largely disrupted because the locals didn’t know how to drive on the stuff, for the most part I was unaffected. In 2007, while I was living in Costa Mesa, Southern California had a series of wildfires that forced the governor (Arnold) to declare a state of emergency. From my apartment I could see the smoke, but it never reached anywhere close enough to be a worry to me.
And then there was the summer I moved to New Orleans. Hurricane Isaac hit the United States on Wednesday morning, the 29th of August. It caused widespread flooding and power outages throughout the south, including in a small neighborhood named St. Roch where I was set to move on Saturday. My future roommate suggested that I put off my move but that’s not how my project works. I was set for the 1st, I was going to arrive on the 1st.
As longtime readers might recall, it wasn’t pleasant. In the wake of Isaac’s passing, the city was bathed in 100% humidity with temperatures easily in the triple digits. No electricity meant no air conditioning and five minutes after stepping out of the shower I was soaked in sweat yet again. Two days later when the power came on, my roommate and I literally hugged each other we were so happy.
Despite those close calls, though, I would still say I’ve had a fairly lucky run of moves.
Last year at this time, I was living in Allston, the college student-infested hub of Boston. We had a lot of snow and it was very cold, but for the most part it was an average winter. This year… poor, poor Boston, buried in mounds of snow and more still on the way. I hear my friends are getting to work via the Iditarod.
I’m sure a lot of my ‘fortune’ is due to perception bias. Some part of this country is going to get hit by a major storm every year, no matter what. I just happen to notice when it hits a place I’ve lived or am planning on living.
But I still feel lucky. It’s possible that in this, my final year, New York City could get pummeled by a massive blizzard. But so far, while I can see a few fluffy flakes gently floating to the ground outside my window, a mere 200 miles away, Beantown is getting a decade’s worth of powder.
I guess there is no other conclusion to come to other than, New York City is safe as long as I’m still living here.
Or, maybe next year the big storm will come for us.
You know, I should probably start planning a trip now…