What do a rodeo star, an Irish nomad, Chinese businessmen, and Texas taxidermy have in common? A surprising global smuggling ring.
What do a rodeo star, an Irish nomad, Chinese businessmen, and Texas taxidermy have in common? A surprising global smuggling ring.
Let’s talk about wandering.
Do you ever get lost in a place where you don’t know anyone, and stay there long enough to forget yourself because there are no friendly faces to reflect back, mirror-like, the identity you’ve all agreed is yours?
Let’s talk about losing structure.
As a semi-conscious rule I’ve lived by during my adult life, I keep my possessions to what would fit in a car. When I have to move, it all goes in a car and that which doesn’t go in the car doesn’t go, period. It’s a good way to simplify yourself.
I just moved. I got rid of a lot of things, and by the end, it all fit, just barely. The battered musical instruments. The books, herd thinned to only the most aged, written-in, the most sentimental. My bicycle, handlebars creaking against the black leather seats.
Yes, I know. Black leather. My entire 20 year old vehicle is a tribute to my low-rent impracticality. Flat black exterior. Tinted windows. No air conditioning. Layers of poor choices in the Texas heat.
Draped over top of it all, my life stuffed into this impractical steel box the night before departure, were two expensive suits in a suit bag, not quite comfortable or broken in yet.
The only thing that did not go was the large guitar amp. A spectacularly nice hippie gentleman, maybe the last of old Austin, if it ever existed, swung by after seeing it on Craigslist and immediately paid the asking price. As we were b.s.ing in the parking lot, a van pulled up looking for directions.
"I’m trying to make a delivery. I sell pot," the driver said, thick accent.
"Right on man," the hippie looked at me, surprised, but only slightly, then smiled warmly at the van driver.
"Oh no. Oh no. Pots. Sorry. Pots. Looking for a nursery on this road."
The hippie: “Hey, you ain’t gotta explain.” We all laugh. He asks for the address the delivery guy is looking for, examines scrawl on paper, and says, “I think you wanna go that way. There’s a nursery down there.” We talk for a few minutes about the pots the guy makes, which he seems pretty stoked on. Then he heads down the road.
This is the moment I choose to remember when I think about Texas, instead of the last night outside the hidden bar next to the state capitol when the staffers for state congressmen argued with us about stand your ground laws and the castle doctrine.
"The law is the law," they slurred, drunk and angry, telling us we should not be appalled by the death of Treyvon Martin, or Lenora Frago, or by the acquittal of their killers. The law is the law.
I wanted to say that their reading of law is a fiction we tell ourselves when we feel threatened, words in an obscure book, or a weapon the powerful use against the powerless. There is no middle ground for people to meet on under that reading of the law.
I try not to think about that argument when I think about Texas but it’s hard not to remember it.
The morning after the argument, I left the 22-person co-op I lived in for two years, a place I could not have dreamed up. Perfect.
A stack of communal bowls next to an industrial size fridge. Worn couches, arms chewed by squirrels, someone’s small pipe wedged into the cushion. Not mine. I don’t smoke. But not not mine either. A room full of bikes and tiny slots in the wall for mail.
Living there, the incidental but meaningful relationships I had with my 21 roommates became a part of who I was at the time. I liked who I was.
But when I start getting really comfortable with myself I also start getting really restless and feeling kind of old and so it’s good a job happened in DC.
Texas already seems like some crazy dream I had, a dream that ended with one last story about cowboys and Comanche and the way a town or a group can structure, or unstructure, lifestyle and culture. The dream was also full of weeks of goodbyes spoken and unspoken over too much food and drink at secret bars where drunk, angry capitol staffers intrude into your conversations with their non-points and not very subtle racism. And there, on that last night, that final walk around the unreal brightness of America’s biggest capitol building, bats circling in the spotlights, you find yourself thinking this may be the last time you see the people you’ve grown to love here.
I guess driving across the country over four days is the best way to recenter yourself.
Actually, to completely un-center yourself. That’s where I’m at now, kinda floating, not particularly geographically present in any place. I am also not exactly present in the identity I had two weeks before I left. I just left bits of myself all along the route I took here and now I’m something yet to be realized, unconstructed.
In the car, over the wind and the engine, I’m blaring Japandroids, and they’re youthful and earnest and potentially painfully cheesy but I get the feeling they mean it all and are not embarrassed, and so I’m not embarrassed either.
It seems like a blur, something that is happening to me more than something I’m undertaking myself. The drive, averaging 85 miles an hour, rockets me straight toward Oklahoma City, with its weird quiet. I walk around the city alone shooting pictures of the city and eating in the ancient, cavernous saloon I ended up in, decorated like a circa-1920s New Orleans street inside.
On the way back I talk to the friendly couple from the Phillipines I met because we all took the shuttle provided by the Best Western Saddle Back Inn to Bricktown, OKC’s version of the hip downtown historic district. Norman is an aeronautics engineer attending conferences with his wife Luli. He is keen to talk cars when he figures out I drive a BMW, and keener still to talk cameras. Both are exceedingly nice and good to talk to. Norman gives me his business card.
I’m also grateful for the shuttle driver, a young guy with a shaved head who tells me about his city. Like Texas, he says, except more caring. “We take care of everyone here,” he tells me. “We make sure everyone has what they need.” He says he likes it all right in a voice that says he’s biding his time. I hope he gets to travel too.
From there was St. Louis, and the strange Missouri Athletic Club, a 9-story hotel downtown built at the turn of the last century that is part Stanely Kubrick Overlook Hotel and part Wes Anderson vintage-filtered color-code nostalgia. I snagged a place for the night for almost nothing online last minute.
In a certain time, in a certain social class, membership in social clubs like this was perfunctory. Assigned.
The place was super-lux. An aged running track. Wood-paneled rooms. Grand ballrooms. A haunting, dark library. A dress code stipulated khaki pants and collared shirts to enter. I changed in the parking garage, pulling bits of dress clothing out of my creaking, packed car, trying on some different version of myself in the shadows of St. Louis.
Settled in my room that night, I looked out my window and saw the enormity of the city, the lights, the decay. I thought about a documentary I saw one time about a housing project called Pruitt Igoe, and the social club, just a mile away, maybe less, from where it stood, and the way life is structured for so many people in such a way that it’s hard to know anything else, even things a mile away from you. Whether it’s a housing project or a suburban palace, privileged or oppressed, successful or stifled, structures larger than ourselves have decided so much for so many.
Like most people, I don’t want to be structured by any of that, privileged or oppressed, not to that degree. I don’t want inertia to decide who I see every day, or what job I have, or where I live, or how I treat people.
But the law’s the law, man. Right.
I leave the wood-paneled rooms and the enormous grey hulk full of criss-crossing arched bridges and stained, empty industrial hearts for openness. Southern Illinois. Indiana. The sunroof is open.
I speed down back roads toward Bloomington, the classic college town, in my head a glass-bowl dome that still has a simple America sealed inside. It doesn’t look much different than it did in Breaking Away, the classic and corny 1970s film that tells a simple tale of a high school graduate striving to become a professional cyclist. He faces two choices— blue-collar work at a rock quarry or college, the cradle of white-collar life. He, of course, wants something else.
There’s a part where one of the characters gets a job at a car wash. On his first day, his overbearing boss reminds him, “hey shorty, don’t forget to punch the clock.” So he punches it with a rag-wrapped fist. I love that part.
I spend a couple hours walking around B-town. I eat a burger at a place called Farm, which is really too expensive to have such a name, but it’s a bison burger and it’s not half bad so I’m trying not to be too critical here. Somewhere a brass band is playing. Sunflowers are growing. I feel very alive, very present, young and at liberty.
The town is overflowing with cars. Kids in short shorts and on skateboards are moving into dorms and flooding the Urban Outfitters. I don’t feel old. But now I’m less present, like I’m watching it on TV.
The drive to Cincinnati is just a couple hours, and though I’ve only made it a few times, I remember it exactly. I listen to Guided By Voices to get in the proper mind frame and enjoy the freedom of low-stakes midwesternness.
Then I’m home. I’ve written and talked so much about Cincinnati that it’s hard to know what to say now. It’s gorgeous and fucked up and every time I go back I feel an ache that makes it hard to get back in the car or on the plane. I have to though and so after a couple days hanging out with friends, seeing a film screening at a gallery in old industrial Brighton, riding aimlessly up and down the hills for a day and crashing in basically a mansion a friend is renting, I just get in the car, pretend I’m going to the bank, and get on the highway. I can’t live at home until I either grow up completely or completely stop trying to do something with myself.
The rest of the trip is desperately strained, a nine-hour slog through West Virginia and Maryland. The former is beautiful, rusty and sad, the latter is empty and without emotion, except for a triumphant and very hilly stretch of two-lane road. I fear the car will overheat, but it does not. Like I said, triumphant.
I pull my car into the spot behind the house where I’ll be living, meet my kung-fu teacher land lord (no, really, I swear), and began setting up my room. All my dress shirts and my suits hang from a bar on the wall.
When I park the car, I accidentally leave my lights on. The battery is still dead as I type.
I go to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and tear up a bit, I dunno why specifically but maybe just because it seems very honest.
There’s a plane trip back with Liz for a wedding and I have to wear the suit and it doesn’t really fit well, too much extra fabric, but maybe I’ll grow into it. There’s also another set of friends’ engagement party the night before and we go to that and that is beautiful. I wonder what it would be like to be married and can’t really picture it but also don’t really feel afraid of it.
When we get back I just walk around DC everyday exploring the different parts of the city. There are blocks where new buildings are coming together minute by minute, racing each other. There are blocks with empty eyed warehouses and, what, government buildings? Something. There are the palaces of government downtown, heavily guarded like palaces everywhere.
I continue on in my not-really-me-anymore feeling, floating the blocks like a ghost, trying on different personalities. One day, I’m very gregarious and talk to strangers about museum exhibits and ask directions for places I’m not going. I meet a guy at the gas station by my house who calls himself Smokey who made a documentary about his neighborhood, now our neighborhood, though really just his still and I’m just another visitor. The tenth-fastest gentrifying neighborhood in the country sees a lot of visitors like me. I ask Smokey if I can interview him sometime for my long-term project and he says yes. I get other names from him too. I watch his documentary on Youtube and it’s pretty good.
Work is interesting. I got my picture taken for a press pass and I don’t look too grown up in it, but like I’m kind of trying the grown up thing out. I sit in rooms in the capitol listening to well-coiffed people talking about food stamps and sequester and really the structure we’re all bracketed under one way or another as I type their words onto a laptop and try not to draw attention to myself. I wear a tie every day and bleach my shirts but it’s all this sort of weird role-play that I forget about on the weekends, when Liz and I just walk around all day and eat lots of irresponsible foods.
The rest of the time I’m still this kinda child, still a bit ignorant, and I don’t really know what new things I’m going to learn but there’s always something and always someone I’m running into or meeting again. The challenge is to learn something positive and freeing, to connect with someone every time I meet a piece of structure that is cold, hard edged, inhuman.
I rent my room by the month and keep reminding myself to charge my car battery.