Moving On: The Year of Going There (& Back Again)

Bob Nio Jacket 2The most pivotal moment for me occurred during a downpour 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. It was nightfall, April 4th, and I had driven 500 miles, my first significant jaunt behind the wheel in more than a decade. The rain forced me to pull off in Belle Vernon. I felt groggy and listless and I hadn’t eaten well since morning. I checked into a Budget Inn, $64 plus tax. My debit card got rejected. One time, two times, three times, four. I contacted Wells Fargo, at which point I was informed there had been suspicious activity regarding my account. I confirmed a running list of transactions. And that was when the panic struck.

The wood paneling began to shimmy and both legs went damp like stew. What was I doing? Where was I going? I was unemployed, alone, traveling across the country, hemorrhaging money by the hour. What if I lost my wallet? What if my account got drained? What if that rental car fell into disrepair? What if it got totaled? What if I got totaled? Hurt? Impaired? Upended? What was I doing? Where was I going? The questions whirled like dervishes. And for a moment, the only defense that I could muster involved convincing myself that I would turn back come the morning.

With the exception of one bachelor party in Las Vegas, I had never traveled beyond the east coast; had never experienced the grandiose trappings of America. I had anticipated the anxiety, sure, yet none of that seemed to matter now. I was in it, the whip of the storm, my back pressed to the wall as I settled slowly into breathing. Inhale-exhale, ease your body down in layers. Recalibrate your thinking; dial the hour back to zero.

I turned down the bed. I ordered a pizza. I took a quick shower. I watched Iron Man 3.

Eight days later I stood alone along the L. A. coast, so enthralled with Venice Beach I planned on moving there in 2019. Nine days, 16 states, the most rewarding nights I’ve ever known. This trip, it had proven much more liberating than I had assumed. I knew where I was now. I knew where I was going. I pulled out of Santa Monica, 3,000 miles left to toe.

***

The most pivotal moment for me occurred at 8 AM on August 16th, as I stepped onto the line for my first competitive race in 23 years. To call the race legitimate would be misleading, as the event was a 5K; a fledgling fun run meant to bolster the annual triathlon taking place on that morning. My body felt weary, having only slept for one night out of three. I had eaten next to nothing, causing lean muscles to stiffen and atrophy like glue. I had trained for six weeks. I had run a mile in 5:20. I had completed 70 miles worth of road distance in the week before I tapered. Part of me was ready. The remainder of me was exhausted.

I ran horribly that morning, finishing in 21:38 (approximately 6:57 per-mile). There were excuses, a plethora of them, not the least which involved a sand-ridden course, accompanied by 20-mile-per-hour winds. Yet in the end, these elements did not seem to hinder top competitors. And while I proved fortunate enough to win a medal in my age group, it came at the expense of understanding I had failed.

That time – 21:38 – ate away at me to an extent I went out two-and-a-half weeks later – no wind, nor sand, nor hunger pains – and set it to pasture. I ran alone on that morning, in Central Park, equipped with nothing but a fuel band and an iPod Shuffle (I had been forbidden from wearing the iPod during my race). I completed 3.7 miles in 23:03 (approximately 6:11 per-mile). I did not bask in what I had accomplished. I had run much faster at 16.

***

The most pivotal moment for me occurred during the final week of October, when I realized that – for the first time since 1999 – I was in danger of not being able to pay all my bills. I had enjoyed a decent run since getting laid off in January of 2013. At one point I had $35,000 in my account. But most of that was gone now, depleted given the exorbitant cost of living in New York City. After a decade spent working without end, I had taken one year off to pursue several personal goals. I had become a better writer; I had become a more experienced man. Yet I needed to work, and so I did. First, I began writing for the Untitled Magazine. Next, I picked up a handful of one-off jobs handling copy. Third, I landed some contract work for a law firm that specializes in workers’ rights. The money was trickling in. But the problem was I needed it to flow.

I set a budget of $40 a week, all inclusive, with the exception of bills. I sold my Play Station. I sold my games. I read two books cover-to-cover while sitting in a Barnes & Noble, one hour at a time. I did my laundry in the bathtub. I let it dry over the sink.

There are levels to being poor, of course; a difference between going broke and being broke. At the age of 18, I was so broke I needed to steal in order to eat. At the age of 41, I was going so broke that every paper towel and tiny pill, every coffee ground and shave, began to feel more like an audit. Do I need this? Can I conserve it? What’s the cost-benefit? What other options do I have? Paying bills began to feel like playing hopscotch; accepting invitations, like a 10-lb. weight. Worse yet, it had become increasingly difficult to justify my delinquency, particularly to anyone who accepted no distinction between being poor and being cheap.

I was fraught with distraction, searching for answers as I wandered along Sheep Meadow one afternoon. There was an elderly couple in front of me – crisp shirts, matching pants – and as the path began to narrow, a trio of skaters hustled past. They spread their girth across the median, inadvertently forcing the couple into a fence.

“Goddammit!” the elderly man exclaimed. He tattooed the asphalt with his boot.

“Relax, Alvin,” his counterpart insisted. “We’ve got plenty of time, and there are roses
still in bloom.”

I stopped along a bench to write it down. I think it might’ve been the sweetest thing
I’ve ever heard.

***

The most pivotal moment for me occurred this morning, when I woke up safe, at home, with a bit of money in the bank, some of which I had gone to significant measures to procure.

Toward the middle of November, my entire world had turned to shit. I was destitute. Expected checks were not arriving, unexpected debts had not been paid. Within a day or two, I had entered a familiar cycle – the lack of focus, the tightening of muscles, a constant, sometimes uncontrollable, urge to sleep. Every breath began to feel as if my lungs were filling up with water.

As a matter of necessity, I accepted a seasonal job selling Christmas trees. A few days later, I began to recover certain aging debts. I picked up some additional contract work from a second law firm. And slowly, ever-so-slowly, the wayward ship began to turn. Occasionally, on frost-bitten mornings when the wind bit tiny holes into my fingers, I’d set my worth upon the hook and sting of honest toil. I was outside, laboring in a seasonal trade, at Christmas time, in New York City. One year beyond the onset of midlife, it felt refreshingly like coming home.

Day 1,095

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

Moving On: A Dime & A Dream

The ElviIt began as a series of dots, each of them free-falling toward earth, a static shroud of gray behind. There was music, rounds of clapping, clasping hands despite no sun. There was the buzz, and then the cut, of engines; a chartered plane, a stretch of sand. There came the first of 30 parachutes, ballooning forth like blobs of dye. There came white bell-bottoms, whistling creases; trails of smoke from every thigh. There came fake rhinestones, gold sunglasses; a tower of speakers, “Suspicious Minds”.

There came the first of 30 Elvi, all sideburns and bouffant, maintaining pace as he detached himself in stride. There came a retinue in tandem, thumbs up, heads down, trailing off into a tent along the sand. The action shifted, west toward a stage, where the Flying Elvi took their marks. There was a rush and then a whistle, an off-key round of “Burnin’ Love”. It was an atrocity, and it was perfect – part of a burgeoning campaign to bolster Wildwood’s future by paying homage to its past. Cape May had made good bank on this for years. Wildwood, by comparison, remained uncharacteristically tame. Continue reading

John Cheever on The Old New York (1978)

“These stories seem at times to be stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat. Here is the last of that generation of chain smokers who woke the world in the morning with their coughing, who used to get stoned at cocktail parties and perform obsolete dance steps like ‘The Cleveland Chicken,’ sail for Europe on ships, who were truly nostalgic for love and happiness, and whose gods were as ancient as yours and mine, whoever you are.”  

(Excerpted from the Introduction to The Stories of John Cheever)

Moving On: A Murder on Park Boulevard

55810192“Hey, Fred.”

This is what Robert Connors said. He was buzzed, but not drunk, slumped alone over a barstool at the Firehouse Tavern around 2 AM. It was the second Friday in May, a week prior to when the crowds and city ordinances would allow for every bar to remain open until 5.

Frederick Simmons had just entered along with a second man whom Robert Connors did not recognize. The two of them were drunk, coked-up, both black and in their mid-thirties, with Simmons looming large over the second man at 6’0, 290. The two men separated, with Frederick Simmons flanking Connors as his partner cruised the bar.

Robert Connors was a local, and he knew Frederick Simmons from winter nights spent working at the Wildwood Bowl. The two of them exchanged pleasantries, at which point Connors noticed something out of the corner of his eye. The second man, John Poteat, was brandishing a club, which he slammed down on the galley, demanding money from the bar.

When the bartender refused, John Poteat struck him in the shoulder, wooden club glancing the deltoid with a thud. Frederick Simmons escorted Connors into a bathroom, where he flew into a rage, slamming Connors’ head into a sink with such intent it broke the mold. There was water spurting forth now, and the two of them slid down low onto the floor. Connors turned, just long enough to see Simmons’ head cast like a halo. There was a flash, and then a thunder, a rusty switchblade piercing Connors before it garroted his throat. There was blood, the sound of gurgling, hot water hissing forth from broken pipes. Frederick Simmons pushed himself up off the body, trudged wet footprints through the bar. John Poteat was on the sidewalk, fighting off a battered bartender who had refused to let him go. Simmons emerged, then doubled back, thinking better of getting caught up in the fray. He hurried south toward a service exit, making his getaway alone.

***

Continue reading

Nick Cave on The Power of Ideas (2014)

“All of our days are numbered. We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all, because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it. Sometimes this idea could be the smallest thing in the world, a little flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand, and pray will not be extinguished by all the storms that house about it. If you can hold on to that flame great things can be constructed around it that are massive and powerful and world-changing,
all held up by the tiniest of ideas.”

(Source: 20,000 Days On Earth)

Moving On: A Slight Return

Lightning 1There was daylight creeping in across the bed sheets, and I fiddled with a rod to draw the blinds. I had managed the entire evening cast in darkness, at first inside the basement of some house party, and then again along the two-block walk to Mary’s. The thought of daylight made me nervous now – a bitter pill for drunken souls.

The two of us lay crammed inside a wooden bunk, with Mary’s hair sweeping my torso ala brush. I reached my hand down, tapped her shoulder. “I think I … I think I’m gonna cum,” I whispered. Mary’s neck craned like a derrick, took one last drop, and then it froze. She lay beside me
moments later.

“I’ll be right back,” I told her.

I scraped my head against the ceiling, scrambled low onto the floor. I found my blue jeans, shirt and boxers, turned them out and put them on. I took a piss inside the bathroom, stole a six pack from the fridge. I grabbed my sneakers, left my knee socks. I eased the door against strong wind.

It was the second Saturday in March, 1996, and the damp State College streets ran empty. I started off toward my apartment, located half-a-mile away. Once there, I drank cold beer while listening to music. Come 9 AM, I hopped the first of several buses bound for Wildwood. There would be work along the pier now, countless hours’ worth of sanding down and priming to be done.

Continue reading

‘America Today’ by Thomas Hart Benton @ The Metropolitan Museum of Art

bentoncity1352564491315Jackson Pollock served as a model for several of the male archetypes featured in Thomas Hart Benton’s 10-panel mural, America Today. And Benton, in turn, served as a mentor to Pollock. Given their relationship, one might find it odd that it is Pollock who steals Benton’s thunder via the Metropolitan’s latest exhibit. Benton’s mural, originally crafted for the New School’s International Style Building on West 12th, is both decadent and unique, featuring everything from taxi dancers to racketeers; railroad workers to grain elevators; boom years to lean. And yet, it pales in comparison to several like-minded pieces located in the installation’s anteroom. Along the north wall, Reginald Marsh’s The Bowery, as well as John Steuart Curry’s John Brown. Along the west wall, Jackson Pollock’s Pasiphaé. Collectively, these paintings represent an unexpected morsel, like feasting on hors d’oeuvres at the expense of one’s main course. Either way, it’s all worth seeing, and it’s a perfect time of year to do just that.

(America Today continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through 4/19/15. Free with suggested donation, 82nd Street @ 5th Avenue.)

Five More For The Offing:

Richard Dawkins on Getting Something From Nothing (2012)

“It does violate common sense, but – as I said earlier this evening – you can’t go by common sense. If we could do things by common sense, we wouldn’t need physicists. Common sense, of course, comes from what was necessary for our brains to survive in the Pleistocene of Africa. They had to know how to catch a buffalo and find a water hole, and how to climb a tree when being pursued by a lion or something. So our brains were never shaped by natural selection to understand either quantum mechanics – the theory of the very small – or relativity – the theory of the very fast. And it’s actually an astonishing compliment to the human brain that at least some humans are
capable of understanding.”

Excerpted from The Unbelievers

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