It became important for me to write a story about my life, a true story, so I sat down to write and immediately began to fret. What would it be? I wondered. Not, I repeat, NOT another travel story for God’s sake. I’ve nearly exhausted those. But then I said to myself, You haven’t used all of your travel stories in nonfiction. Maybe in fiction, but not nonfiction. Either way, no travel stories. Okay, I said to myself, I can deal with that, so what about all the weird places you’ve lived, or places you’ve spent extended periods of time but not quite lived? How might one of those episodes figure into a story? Like that time you stayed in a trailer park in San Antonio for two months, worked twelve hours a day in a shopping mall, were allowed only two days off out of sixty. On your first day off, Thanksgiving, you and your wife at the time dined at Denny’s and it was awful. Isn’t that worth telling? Well, not really. That’s the extent of the story, already told. Then I said to myself, But Joan Didion could make it interesting. Hell, she could make a potato chip interesting. But then I reminded myself that I was absolutely not Joan Didion. Nobody is Joan Didion. But surely we must dream, I said to myself. Then I fretted some more.
What about when you lived for a time in a squatted building with a former girlfriend on 2nd Avenue and Houston, at the edge of the Lower East Side in Manhattan. That must be worth telling. Well, yes and no. I do have some distinct memories of the place. The squat, a four-story abandoned elementary school filled to the ceiling with trash of all sorts, was a dusty labyrinth of an edifice that no one in their right mind would enter unless out of necessity. That said, the unlikeliness of living for free in Manhattan beside apartments that started above three thousand dollars per month made the risk kind of worth it. Rumor was Kate Millet lived in those apartments next door. Or was it Gloria Steinem?
Of course nothing is truly free. Many before me had been arrested for sleeping there, punks, anarchists, outsiders of every stripe. City workers had routinely inspected the place and called the cops when they found anyone inside. The guy who invited me to stay there, an anarchist friend of a friend who went by the name of Deadbolt, who was the only one left brave enough to make the squat his permanent residence save for the son of a Peruvian general who was trying his hand at slumming it in America, said I’d need to be careful entering and leaving. That’s the most dangerous part, he said. That’s when you are exposed.
But it was also the coolest part. Next to the subway stop called Second Avenue, on the IND Sixth Avenue line, there was a small neighborhood garden cordoned off with a chain link fence. If you stood on the black square-tubed railing around the subway entrance, you could hoist yourself over the top of the garden fence, and once inside you’d have to creep past what felt like Amazonian forest to the far end of the garden until you found a set of stairs leading into some kind of dark and cavernous basement. Once down there, a flashlight was necessary to find the door that had been bricked up from the inside. The only way to know that it was bricked up required taking off a thin steel panel from the bottom of the door, exposing a hole that someone had broken through the bricks, jagged edges rimming the space that was large enough for a slender person to crawl through. And that’s what we did, morning and night. Once inside we walked across rubble through winding corridors, dust floating across flashlight illumination causing in us the reflex to choke but motivating us to make the ascent up two flights of stairs, down more winding corridors until you reached a string dangling in the center of the small cluttered room. Pull the string and…surprise! A makeshift kitchen with one power strip with a minifridge, a toaster oven and a single light bulb connected to it. Of course, they couldn’t all be used at the same time, a breaker would flip and that was far away in parts I hadn’t yet seen. We did what we could for the two months we spent there. We admired the downtown skyline from the rooftop. We marveled at the long-drained swimming pool in the basement. We slept in a little storage room behind the stage in a auditorium where children would have put on productions, the door of which we hid behind an old stage backdrop landscape painting, just in case of intruders. The best part about the whole New York thing was the bagels.
I pondered about what to write and remembered that I had done that a few times—spent a month, or two months, or longer in various cities. After all, I had been a carnival worker just after high school, and later a self-proclaimed vagabond for years. There were San Antonio and New York, as already mentioned, but then there were San Francisco, Del Mar, California, Minneapolis, Portland, St. Louis for almost a year, Barcelona for nearly four years, and Berlin. Each place unique, each presenting distinct benefits and challenges. I wouldn’t write about traveling, of which I have done so much, and I wouldn’t write about short stints of living.
I once attempted to write a story where I squeezed the entirety of my life into two clean compartments, each eighteen years long, the first in the Oklahoma countryside romping among blackjacks and post oaks, the second in cities, all of those glorious cities. I looked with a skewed romanticism at my youth. I remembered the fishing, the solitary playing with G.I. Joes in the backyard ditch, the hunting trips with my dad in Nebraska and around our state, the dirt road walking, and the woods. I left out the alcoholic stepdad, the strained relationship with my real dad, the overworked mom, and the poverty. I skirted right past them into my teenaged punk rock idealism that led to brighter vistas, the kind of dreams that didn’t just stop at being in a band and touring and sleeping on strangers’ floors, but would materialize into another different world altogether. I had those dreams for a long time, of another world, where bosses were too scared to show their ugly faces and everyone was fed and we didn’t even want fancy things and even if we did we couldn’t get them because there would be a widespread worker mutiny that precluded their manufacture. But that dream, like most dreams, faded. Or perhaps it transmuted into what jerks call realism or pragmatism. Like my parents’ generation, I’d sold out and become a Democrat. I wouldn’t tell that story, not here. That one needed space and time and elbowroom for reflection. It was still stinging too bad to write about.
And so I asked, Do we need another living in squalor story, another petty crime story, another “look at me, I’ve encountered poverty” story? If not these things then what, a love story, a heartbreak story? Or maybe a betrayal story. I’ve had those experiences, been on both sides of those coins. Or perhaps a story about the love of literature, or of the impact Moby Dick made on me and how I saw the carnival as the modern day incarnation of the whaling ship, riffraff enclosed in tight quarters roving around the country in the service of tyrants. But that sounds stupid and mostly uninteresting. Again with the self-doubts. O how I fretted. What I needed was a story. A real story.
Photo: NYC, 2015 — Mark Wyatt