Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Day 4: (Un)Familiar territory

And so we reach the home stretch.

On June 13 I woke up around 10 a.m. in Youngstown, Ohio, in a newly renovated Motel 6 room. I had 396 miles to go before reaching New York City; another 5 or 6 miles after that before I was happily in my own neighborhood.

My mileage count is as follows.

Day 1: 798 miles.
Day 2: 830 miles.
Day 3: 850 miles.

So 400 miles on Day 4 looked to be a relative walk in the park. It was. I-80 glides gracefully through Pennsylvania's green hills and valleys. I spent that time surfing through the college and public radio stations at the low end of the FM dial, absorbing weirdly mortal tunes like the Byrds' "Chestnut Mare." Even New Jersey was a nice jaunt along the Delaware River before heading inland to Newark and Jersey City. Not even the traffic at the Holland Tunnel or the gridlock of Manhattan and Brooklyn could disrupt my mood. I clumsily parallel-parked my new, larger vehicle at one of Park Slope's crowded curbs and met Valerie as she got done with work. After four days away from my fiancee and all normal aspects of my life, I was finally within sight of home.

But really, what is "normal" these days? Frequently, when I get in the Toyota, I don't feel like I deserve a new (only seven years old!) car. Soon I will get married and launch a new, "mature" chapter of my life. Soon we will sell Beaker, the loyal, reliable Honda that drove us to New York City in the first place six years ago. And, after seven years, my career in journalism is out the window.

Four days on the road, with my life in suspended animation, and now I return to a city of questions.

A good friend of mine (who is leaving New York in alarmingly short order) recently wrote a passage in her short story detailing a particular longing that grew from living in the city: "To watch and watch and watch and never again participate." She was invoking the dizzying richness and density of human interactions in the Big Apple, but the same thought seduced me as I made my way across the country. Why not duck the terrifying pressure of ensuring the rest of my life is not one big failure? What story do I have left for myself? Nothing has seemed 100 percent real since my reporting job was eliminated. Often it seems that the world has just continued on with no place for me in it. After the collapse of the narrative arc I saw myself living out, I sometimes feel like a disembodied eye, a designated witness to the struggle of those who still have a stake in things.

It feels much the same to streak across a foreign landscape and look at the people bound for the next town over instead of the opposite coast. I listen to the radio stations and hear advertisers struggling to fill exhibitor booths at an "outdoor life" expo in Elko, Nevada. In Nebraska I hear radio advertisements for crop insurance companies putting a friendly spin on the apparent fact that many farmers can't afford to insure their entire crop. In Cheyenne I see the big brass bell mounted next to the door inside the Arby's, exhorting customers to ring it if they received excellent service--a subtle callback to the dominant era of the railroads, to before the interstate highway system, when that city perhaps meant more in the grander scheme of things.

All those things hint at a way of life, for better or for worse. For now, what I have is a road. Even though I'm done with this physical drive, it's going to take miles of attention, exertion and quite likely some serious cash on the barrelhead for me to find some kind of offramp and stake my claim. At least now I know I'm good for the long haul.

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