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I Am Walking Next Time, I'm Not Even Kidding: Part One

Image “New York City – Skyline & Brooklyn Bridge” © Flickr user  Dibady   

Image “New York City – Skyline & Brooklyn Bridge” © Flickr user Dibady 

Jesus Christ,” someone told me, “Have you even be home this year?” I had to think about that for a moment. I’m also sorry I can’t remember now who I had that conversation with.

The truth of the matter is that I have been home a great deal, over the hazardous course of 2014. My memory as I write this tells me that there were long, long, hatefully long periods of stasis. There were weeks at a time, in which I had nothing to do but watchNewsradio, pretend I understand social media marketing, and drink bourbon at five thirty in the morning.

But memory is one thing. When I look at the straightforward facts and figures for what I did, and where I went during the past twelve months, it would seem that I’ve been pretty busy. I’ve traveled to New York, North Carolina, Denver, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. I have managed to stay in the sort of state of motion that I tend to whine is missing from my life. I finally got a tattoo. I dropped acid for the first time in years, and nothing even remotely negative came of it. I finally saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert.

I’m not running through this list to brag. I’m simply trying to put everything into perspective, as I write this at three o’clock in the morning. We are a couple of days away from Thanksgiving. We are a tired heartbeats away from the end of the 2014. I’m not much for resolutions. I do believe in giving yourself a few moments to take stock of your current situation, and everything from the recent history of your life that has brought you to where you’re standing in the present. And I have to be honest with you: Where I’m standing now isn’t too bad at all. I sure as hell don’t have the right to complain as much as I tend to complain.

But I do know one thing: I am not the Greyhound traveler I once was. I am not as resilient. There is far less romance and dirty magic in very long stretches of travel on a tin can filled with sullen lunatics and cheerful maniacs. When I went to Boulder and Denver, Colorado this past May, I took Amtrak. I used the train to get there, and I used the train to get back to Richmond, Virginia a few days later. It was fine. The train got into Richmond two days later than it was scheduled to, and I had about a dollar-nineteen in change when I arrived. This was because I had not anticipated Amtrak turning my quick jaunt home into the kind of epic journey that Tolkien might have appreciated. I was very broke, very tired, and very sick of traveling, but I did make it to Richmond alive.

And when I did make it to Richmond alive, I remember either telling myself, or telling someone else as we tried to get drunk during the last ten minutes of what was technically my birthday, that I wasn’t going to do any serious traveling for a little while.

“I’m almost thirty goddamn years old,” I told someone, or muttered to myself as I smoked in some rainy location. “People my age either find ways to make serious money while in constant transit, or they start planning for their first and second marriages. I am irresponsible. I am failing at life. I need to do something that at least implies I’m doing a different, more elaborate thing to occupy the next decade of my life.” And if I did express such deep thoughts to another human being, they probably weren’t paying attention to a word I was saying. I wouldn’t have.

In the days immediately following my return from Denver, I knew I still loved traveling. I still loved building a network of people I would probably never see again, across a distance of hundreds or even thousands of miles. I love those things right now.

But I had to face certain things: The kind of life I liked to lead on the road is the kind of thing that’s cute when you’re nineteen. When you’re twenty-nine, you start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, you’ve wasted your entire goddamn life. After getting back from Denver, I had to deal with this question. I also had to decide if traveling at a near-constant rate was really something I enjoyed as much as I used to. Loving the wear and tear of long road trips is fine. Being able to maintain strong knees and a cheerful disposition over trips that take three, four days to reach the destination is another. When Denver was finished, as I was staying with friends in Richmond, and trying to get a grip on the punchy dance card I had for the next few months, I felt as though I needed to decide if I wanted to do long Greyhound/Amtrak trips ever again.

And for anyone who hasn’t read one of my travel articles before this one, it’s probably worth mentioning on my end that I can’t fly. There are a couple of reasons for that, and we’re not going to go into them now. They’re not very exciting.

At any rate, I wanted to do something with the last year of my 20s. I wanted to know exactly what my limits were with things like long jags of traveling. I wanted to respect these limits, appreciate them. I wanted to fool at least a few people into thinking that when I turn 30 in 2015, I would have at least some of my shit together.

I considered that punchy dance card. I went down the list of things I was going to engage, over the course of the next few months. I had a trip to North Carolina that was coming up. I had a run to New York to visit Bud Smith, bother a girl I liked very much named Cara, and make some additional time for Manhattan, Queens, and New Jersey friends I don’t get to see as often as I’d like. I remembered that I was going to be in the Pennsylvania mountains for a weekend soon. All of those trips sounded good to me. I even looked ahead to the Anime convention I was going to staff in October. As far as diversions from the grave go, I had a lot to keep me busy.

I considered all of those things, and then I decided that at least until the New Year, I wasn’t going to go any further than states like New York or Pennsylvania. I was tired. I wasn’t as good at handling sudden scene changes as I used to be. I was slacking off on the novels and short stories I wanted to write, edit, or send off to some (god hopes) interested publishing house or literary magazine. My energy is having a harder time than ever in keeping up with my ambitions. As I get older, I need to either make some substantial lifestyle changes, or I need to start taking a more realistic view of what I can actually do.

Not wanting to cancel any of those other mentioned trips, and wanting to find the time to write the things I wanted to write (and still want to write, I suppose), I decided that any opportunities for a really long trip would just have to wait for a few more months. As I think about it, I suppose you could make the argument that I had a similar mentality about romantic relationships, too.

I’m almost thirty. I have never been married. I was once engaged, but that didn’t go particularly well for anybody. My anxiety, bad habits, and temper can get mighty exhausting awfully fast. As a result, my relationships tend to open and close as quickly as ambitious, earnest, but ultimately too-weird-to-live Broadway plays do. I tend to assume that it’s largely my fault that my relationships with women don’t last a terribly long time. I’m a lot to put up with, and my rate of self-improvement will suffocate even the most patient heartbeat.

None of that is meant to be self-deprecating. I definitely don’t want pity. I’m just trying to explain myself. It seems as though that is something I’m always trying to do. I won’t pretend for a moment that the social stigma of unmarried men is anything like the one women have to face (god forbid a woman makes it to the age of forty, and still hasn’t gotten married or had children). Even so, I do get strange looks from people who aren’t sure why I haven’t gotten married yet, or why I’m almost thirty, and haven’t had children yet. There is also some question as to why I would actively choose a career that pays less than ten grand a year.

When you combine all of those things, you get people who think that something is clearly wrong with me. I’ve missed a few key points on the responsible adult checklist that a lot of people seem to carry around. I don’t have a lot that I can ever really say to that. Yet I try to explain myself anyway. I try to tell people why I haven’t done all of the things that most reasonable people get around to doing, by the time they get around to being about my age. Trying to explain myself is something I should probably do less often.

So there’s the feeling that something in my life needs to change in some mildly dramatic way. There’s also the realization that I am no longer the happy traveler I was fifteen or ten years ago. I was thinking about these things after Denver. I was also throwing in some personal reflection on why my relationships struggle to last more than six months. I decided that at least one thing I could do with all these thoughts was stay away from really long road trips for a little while. After a certain point, going on the road for lengthy stretches of time feels like the kind of thing someone does when they are no longer interested in even pretending to face reality. 

When Denver, Chicago, Kleft Jaw, and all the rest was behind me, I wondered if I was going on the road for that exact reason. I wasn’t sure I was enjoying myself anymore.

But I had commitments along the lines of New York, Pennsylvania, conventions, and more. I would stick with those, get to the end of the year quietly, and perhaps leap onto the 2015 scene with something that could potentially resemble a clue.

As this resolve turned into an ongoing mantra I could repeat in my head, I tried to imagine something that could come along, and completely screw over my plans to at least attempt self-improvement. I couldn’t think of anything. I certainly didn’t see myself getting into a relationship anytime soon. The world is perhaps a better place when I’m not trying to date it. There are times when I believe that more keenly than usual.

New York changed things, as New York is want to do. The plan for New York was not complicated. I was going to visit with Bud Smith, a good friend, and one of the best writer/editors I know. I was going to see the city that makes me the most unreasonable romantic you could ever have the misfortune of sitting next to in a bar. I was going to spend some time with Cara, who I have been lucky enough to know for the past three years. I didn’t think any of that was going to amount to more than the surface value I was already aware of. 

If you know me, you know New York is the city of my childhood, my breathless present, and my unrealistic future. I wrote about my last visit to the city a couple of years ago, so I won’t go on and on about the town here. I’ll only say that of all the things I was looking forward to doing over the rest of 2014, New York was easily the heavyweight champion of the to-do list. The fact that I also wanted to meet up with friends, wander the city, and maybe get in a reading or two were all just ways to make a great thing even better.

In staying with Bud Smith in Washington Heights, I had a rough idea of what I was going to do with my time. I was going to hang out with someone whose work I had admired for quite some time. I was going to try and get in some readings. I was going to try and build moments in New York that would make the trip distinctive from the other times I have gone to New York over the past several years. Before that, I was going to see Cara in Cooperstown, which is a decent distance from the city, and I honestly couldn’t imagine what we were going to do.

That’s not an attempt at being funny. Whenever possible, I try to avoid expectations with things. This has gotten easier in my late 20’s. I wouldn’t recommend this mentality for everybody, but I’ve found that when expectations are low, or vague, neither of which are the same as negative, the potential for surprise is greater. It means I’m going to drive you fucking nuts, if you ask me where you want to go for dinner, but some of the more significant misadventures in my life have come out of keeping one thing in mind: When I allow myself to be surprised, I almost always am.

That approach to stumbling around life has occasionally come back to break ribs and chip teeth, but generally, I like telling stories that emphasize the fact that I’m just as surprised as everyone else that the particulars of the story worked out in the way that they did.

Parts of this trip to New York were clear to me. Others had a small maze of prize doors, and dead ends with a hell of a first step to crash down to the bottom. I was going to see Cara first, then head to the city to hang out with Bud, and anyone else in the five boroughs who had supposedly missed me.

The trip to New York almost killed me, in the way that any layover longer than ten hours can leave your spirit feeling like a bag of extremely dry leaves. All this Greyhound and Amtrak (and then cars) over the years has meant getting used to the thrilling possibility that maybe, just maybe, someone is going to severely fuck up. Although I have managed to go my entire life without missing a bus or a train due to personal comedy of errors, I can’t say Amtrak or Greyhound has always been there to meet me halfway.

As Memorial Day traffic made it impossible to get to Manhattan on time, I realized that I would perhaps have to spend a little time at New York City’s Port Authority. I don’t mind that. It’s in the congested heart of a crazed city, and that’s usually at least good for watching people. What I did have a slight problem with was the fact that after being forced to miss the bus that was going to take me to the station near Cooperstown, I would have to wait some eight hours for the next one.

Killing eight hours is easy enough, but it does become a little cumbersome, when you have luggage to carry around. I ate with a man I had met at Port Authority at the Tick Tock Diner, watched Robin Williams movies in the wake of his recent passing, and seriously contemplated even going as far as New York on Greyhound. At that point, I couldn’t even fake enthusiasm for the long wait, the tedium of standing in line in a hot room to get on the bus, or sitting on the bus for seemingly eternal stretches of mean-spirited time. I wanted to see Cara, Bud, and everyone else. I wanted to see parts of New York state and New York City that I didn’t have a lot of experience with. However, as I tried to sleep on my duffle bag, on the floor of Port Authority, my desire for those things was being crippled by how tired I was.

What I realize right now is that all of this sounds like a pretty spectacular level of bitching, over a life that is pretty good, all things carefully considered. I suppose I am whining, and I would also suppose that it is a privilege to be worn-down with the day-to-day nonsense of one’s life. Destinations were as appealing to me as ever. It was the journey that I had started to find increasingly insufferable. Getting back to Richmond from Denver was a good example of that. Virginia to New York amounts to a considerably shorter distance, but I was even more frustrated and sick of the journey than I had been on the run back from Denver. This thought seemed to highlight the notion that certain things in my life needed to change, if only because they weren’t as much fun as they used to be.

I did make it to Cooperstown, and Cara was there to pick me up at the bus station. Waiting for her gave me the chance to catch up with a guy who had been thrown out of his apartment by the mother of his child, and was planning to go upstate to stay with his stepsister. They hadn’t seen each other in seven years, and he was nervous about the sex he knew they were going to have.

He asked for my advice on the matter. I didn’t have a lot to offer, and Cara’s car showed up in the parking lot across the street, before this could become obvious to him.

Cara and I met at an Anime convention in 2011. This is not a significant surprise, when you keep in mind that I have been attending and staffing conventions for a little over a decade. I meet a lot of bright, engaging, extraordinary, disturbing, gross, vicious, or simply wonderful people at these things. I will never remember all of them, and in spite of being a relatively young man, it’s getting harder and harder to keep track of everyone. Cara was memorable from the very beginning, and I suppose that’s probably because of the circumstances involved in meeting her.

You could probably make a movie of all the times I’ve stepped outside to smoke that would be around five or six days in length. Being a heavy smoker means going outside a lot, which usually doesn’t bother me. When I do go outside for a cigarette, I have certain expectations. I expect to possibly meet someone. I expect to stare at the lights and the traffic that surround wherever I happen to be. I expect to fuck up my lungs, my heart, and the rest of my bothersome organs a little bit more.

At Anime Mid-Atlantic, held during one of the hottest weekends on record in June 2011, I did not expect to find a college student, locked out of her hotel room, and moments away from collapsing due to heat stroke.

But that’s what happened with Cara. We have been friends ever since. Very few of my relationships establish trust in the form of convincing a nearly comatose woman to follow a strange man back to his Motel room for water and pills (ibuprofen), but that’s how this one started. In the few years since, we have managed to stay in touch pretty steadily. Unfortunately, until recently, this did not involve actually hanging out with her as much as I would have liked.

And right from the beginning, or at least after the numbing heat had stopped frying her interior like a giant frying pan full of eggs, there was something about Cara that made her company compulsory. We saw each other at one more convention after that, in November of that year. Seeing someone else combined effortlessly with how spectacularly fucking stupid I can be at times, and it never occurred to me during Anime USA that she had driven down from New York to staff a convention, as an excuse to see me again. I never imagined that possibility.

She reminds me about that sometimes. I can understand why it might bother someone to drive from New York to Northern Virginia to see someone, only to be completely ignored by that person.

There are way too many stories like that in my life. Things I missed, or worse, people I hurt, because I couldn’t stop for even a moment to consider the notion that maybe, golly gee maybe, there was something going on, beyond the main narrative I had created for myself. Luckily, most of us get to die without ever finding out just how many times our tunnel vision fucked us over, but sometimes, you get a hint of what life could have been like, if only you had paid just a little attention.

Then again, things happen for a reason. Or so people tell me. I’m occasionally and completely disillusioned with that idea, but maybe there’s something behind it. Or it’s just a thing we’ve worked out to keep from going mad with daydreams of possibilities that are gone, and possibilities that may or may not exist in the moment.

At any rate, had I paid attention to Cara at Anime USA, it’s entirely possible we wouldn’t have moved along the exact path that brings us to the present. Who knows. It’s probably not worth thinking about too seriously.

We saw each other once more after Anime USA, and then, until I saw her in New York during my most recent trip, we simply kept in touch, in the way that people do, and often give up on. But we didn’t. There would be long periods in which we didn’t speak, but then, out of nowhere, the week would be filled with lengthy, constant phone calls. We lived our lives. I was pretty sure I had fallen in love a couple of times during this period. I might have, but the other person was never quite as enthusiastic as I was. Or I just wore them down with the things that tend to make most people very tired of me very quickly.

There was frequently talk of getting together, but things never really worked out to that end. It wasn’t until I decided to head to New York to see Bud that an opportunity to also spend time with Cara presented itself.

That’s what brought us to the point of sitting in her car, driving along to Cooperstown, and talking as though we had seen each other yesterday. I suppose we had, since we had been talking and texting on our phones with greater and greater frequency, in the last few months that led up to getting on the bus for New York.

And it went well. The point of this story is the recent Greyhound trip from one end of the country to just about the other side, and all of this background information has taken us a little away from that primary thread. Rambling is a problem I have been actively working on since approximately 1989. And while the backdrop for that primary thread is important, we don’t want to stray too far from things. I also believe there are only so many details I need to make the point that in the few days Cara and I hung around each other, before she drove me into New York City to Bud’s apartment, we moved past the friendship we had accidently created a few years before. Every single one of those details are important to me. I would even go so far as to assume that they are important to her, as well. Even so, I suspect that all of you have figured out by now that by the time she dropped me off on the muggy street that faced Bud’s apartment, we were already planning the next time we could see each other.

The rest of the New York trip, which included going to Long Island to see Cara again, and then visiting some longtime Anime convention staffer friends in Jersey, was nothing I would dream of inventing complaints about. I loved the casual intelligence of Bud and his wife Rae. I had a great time marveling with my friends in Jersey at how much time had gone by. I can’t even begin to accurately explain the silence that overwhelmed me, when Cara and I took a double-decker bus tour of the city we thought we knew so well, which was hosted by another longtime friend of mine.

In other words, I was able to create memories of the city that were wholly different from the ones I had made on previous trips. One of the most consistent reasons as to why I continue to travel is the hope that I will be able to do that. I ate street car food so disgusting, even the pigeons turned it down. I co-hosted another episode of Kleftikos Radio, Kleft Jaw Press’s exceptional internet radio show, with Frankie Met. I tried not to let the fact that I was sweating like a Chris Farley reincarnation get me down. I bought a teddy bear from FAO Schwartz, because I’m a goddamned grownup.

And so forth.

In other words, the destination was worth the journey. In my experience, this isn’t always the case. When it does happen, it’s easy to assume the worst of the future. Clearly, something awful is going to happen later on. I wondered about this possibility, as Cara and I started dating, after I left New York, and made my way back to Virginia. It wasn’t a rational thought, but after a week as incredible as the one I spent in New York, I worried that karma was going to dream of breaking my ribs.