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“In depression this faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying – or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity – but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes. And this results in a striking experience – one which I have called, borrowing military terminology, the situation of the walking wounded. For in virtually any other serious sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting. His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained. However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations. There he must, despite the anguish devouring his brain, present a face approximating the one that is associated with ordinary events and companionship. He must try to utter small talk, and be responsive to questions, and knowingly nod and frown and, God help him, even smile. But it is a fierce trial attempting to speak a few simple words.”
(Excerpted from Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness)
The initial puncture threw me for a jolt, the right side of the vehicle sinking low onto the road. I was doing 80 in a 65, driving somebody else’s Impala, and I could hear the tiny pebbles turf like rock salt on the guard. I had no money, no means by which to pay for repairs. I had no clue whether there was even a donut in the well. And so I just kept driving, ignoring sparks that burned like embers as they flew into the air.
I had driven from State College all the way to North Philadelphia – 200 miles to take a girl named Shannen, four years my junior, to see The Ghost and the Darkness. Shannen, the blonde, pony-tailed waitress whom I had been flirting with all summer, whom I had kissed during the final week of August, whom I had screwed at Gerry Vessels’ house, whom I had refused to just let be.
The rites of autumn left me empty, drinking hard inside the Wildwood bars. I was still paying rent at State College, and – due to a combination of stupidity and exhaustion – I had mailed my August payment in the form of paltry bills. Come September, I received an invoice for two month’s rent, plus accumulating fees ($2 a day). The setback boxed me in, particularly at a time when there was less work, more drinking, and little savings to be found. I went to my parents for $600. I went to Bill Salerno for more. I began to pay off the balance in dribbles, $2 late fees accumulating one day at a time. My student loans were entering a period of repayment, a dynamic which I ignored for lack of money. I had no phone. I had three addresses (none of which I was calling home). There were collection agencies contacting my parents; urgent notices arriving at school.
The boarding house I had been living in was shutting down toward the end of September. And so I sat one night, and I worked out what I believed to be a viable plan. I would rent a P.O. Box in Wildwood, using the residence on my New Jersey driver’s license (212 East Magnolia) as a reliable proof of address. I would stake my claim for unemployment, enlisting a friend to pick up the checks (before depositing them in my account). I would return to State College, where I would supplement my unemployment writing papers for straight cash. I’d re-enroll, thereby avoiding any delinquency on student loans. I’d use the refund check to stay on-point with all my bills. I would pay back Bill Salerno. I would pay back both my parents. I would lie about my inclination to pay back either one.
Meanwhile, I would continue heaping blame. Upon my parents for pushing me into an engineering major that had nothing to do with my goals. Upon my father, for dismissing – and simultaneously trashing – my ongoing interest in writing. Upon an under-this-roof philosophy that had previously been enlisted to control my education, my vocation, and a student loan that kept on mounting with the meter stuck in spin.
I had little stake in returning to State College. I felt imprisoned by that lease, indebted to a real estate agency that had more than likely stolen one month’s rent. I was broke, living in a town that ran bone-dry on eligible employment. I had debts, and the only way I knew to keep from paying was by extending interest limits while holding creditors at bay.
I harbored no aspirations of becoming someone’s parent, or husband, or cantor, or witness. I had spent 18 years genuflecting before an altar where every word meant staged response, where morbid Godheads ate their young by way of platitudes, where dim-lit thinkers heaped dull nonsense down one’s throat. Literalism, contextualism, mindless blather cast as Dogma? Pedophile priests as vessels of Jesus; strong-minded women given the title of “none”? I had resisted; I had taken my stand, planting my freak flag on a hill. And yet, I could not seem to shake the old world’s traction, bleeding fingers wrapped in tendrils as I fought to gain control.
Rock n roll had saved my life in high school, providing heroes who inspired love and hate and questioning of authority, who sparked synapses that had never felt fresh wood before. Rock n roll pushed open doors that harbored art and myth and cinema, that harbored strength without demanding equal share. Rock n roll preserved ideals that held no sway in oil-barrel America; a place where guts ran wide with flesh and aging skin drooped low as wattle.
The illusion became one of squelching ambition, of convincing average dreamers that their lives were not their own. Small-town heroes earned felt letters for excelling at male sports, speeding long into a world of tending bar, peddling insurance, leasing an office on the second floor of a mall. Conformity became the only currency, a scale upon which mainstream order was controlled. Reasonable prejudice was applauded; county lines ran deep as moats.
To appear un-cog-ly was to welcome scorn, counseling sessions, parent-teacher meetings, whatsoever-will-we-do-with-Kevin? The disease was validation; a supreme level of we’re-all-just-so-OK that swept fresh air out of a room. Strained mortgages, starched collars; entire lives playing out like unconscionable business agreements. What kind of world was that? Forty years worth of Sisyphean discord.
By the age of 18 I had grown restless, displaying early symptoms of a mental illness that would gestate through the years. I was suffering bouts of depression, uncomfortable in social settings to an extent my only inclination was to drink. It had been explained that every impulse I held dear was wrong, that I was a screw-up, a letdown, a cog for which there was no wheel. Meanwhile, I was type-A, at risk, intelligent, innately built to battle hard. And so it came to pass one afternoon, a little over five years removed, I was driving west along the PA Turnpike, heading back toward State College in a broken-down Impala. The front right tire had just given way, causing the CV joint to cave. There were sparks flying and stones glancing and the smell of burning oil bruised the air. The steering column shook just like a jackhammer, several control-panel lights began to flare. And yet I could not seem to lift my foot off of the gas pedal. I was afraid of what might happen if I yield.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)
©Copyright Bob Hill
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In 1993, Denzel Washington was nominated for an Academy Award based on his lead role in Malcolm X. Washington lost that year, to Al Pacino (for Scent of a Woman), and in the wake of it, Director Spike Lee went on record, saying he believed that Denzel Washington had been robbed.
Pacino’s performance in Scent of a Woman was brilliant, this despite the fact it represented only the third, or even fourth, most impressive turn of his career. While no one should be faulted for having such a remarkable track record, it stands to reason Denzel Washington pulled off an acting feat that still endures. Washington would not collect for another eight years, at which point he received the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Training Day – an equally powerful turn in a more box-office-friendly movie.
The fact that Denzel Washington was even nominated for Malcolm X seems oddly relevant, particularly given the stink surrounding Selma in light of this year’s recent Oscar nominations. The question being: how – or why – would the Academy nominate one actor for his portrayal of a deeply polarizing African-American Civil Rights figure, only to snub another for his betrayal of a more beloved one? In other words, why Malcolm X and not Martin Luther King?
The answer is that Denzel Washington provided a much more penetrating performance in a vastly superior display of cinema. Selma, despite an opening scene that absolutely commands the audience’s attention, very quickly disintegrates into schmaltz. A pair of venerable British actors (Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth) clumsily cast as Lyndon B. Johnson and Alabama Governor George Wallace? An understated turn by Tessa Thompson that pales in comparison to her lead role in Dear White People? The repetitive appearance of Oprah Winfrey serving as nothing more than a distraction? Little by little, these faux pas take their toll, compounded by a screenplay that literally whitewashes the despicable grit of Southern-American Confederacy.
According to Deadline, Director Ava DuVernay rewrote close to 90% of Paul Webb’s original script. Included in these rewrites was a necessary revision of Martin Luther King’s original speeches, the rights to which had previously been sold to Dreamworks (by way of Warner Brothers). So now you’ve got a sanitized script, toned down to satisfy a PG-13 rating, featuring speeches that were never delivered at assemblies that never actually took place. The costumes worn by poor, black activists have no grime, the attitudes of rich, white bureaucrats arrive entirely declawed, and any investigation into deep-set attitudes that originally gave rise to widespread ignorance (i.e., the groupthink mentality of long-held American institutions) comes bearing no real weight at all.
This is not to say that Selma is not a good movie, or even to deny that it is one of the most important motion pictures of the year. It is simply to say that Selma is not an Oscar-caliber picture, nor does it feature any Oscar-caliber performances. Any outlet that would promote a case of bias along race lines is guilty of manipulating its audience in the most underhanded way possible. I am speaking here of the Huffington Post, of Bloomberg News, of the New York Times (by way of David Carr). I am speaking of the Associated Press, The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. I am speaking here of any entity that would poison the well by way of disingenuous means. This … This is race-baiting in the age of aggregate film criticism. This is castigating the Academy for its failure to recognize Selma as a movie that received the same approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes as Paddington. This is the same narrow thinking that led America down this rabbit hole to begin with, and it is propagated by several syndicates that – for one reason or another – have something to gain by trading upon race.
When a motion picture like 12 Years a Slave confronts racism with precision, that film deserves not only the nine Oscar nominations it received, but the three Academy Awards it later won. Point being, in the case of Selma, capitalistic media perpetrates a disservice by encouraging noble fare as a popular surrogate for craft. And I will use here, by way of example, Clint Eastwood’s recent biopic, American Sniper.
American Sniper, which whitewashes its subject in a wholly different way than Selma; American Sniper, which evokes jingoism on the Right in much the same way Selma already has among the Left; American Sniper, which is a better motion picture than Selma despite not being nearly as important; American Sniper, whose lead actor, Bradley Cooper, does not deserve an Oscar nomination any more than Eastwood’s biopic deserves to be nominated for Best Picture.
American Sniper is the beneficiary of people embracing ideals over value and substance. How else does one explain Bradley Cooper being nominated in a year when Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) and Tom Hardy (Locke) remain simultaneously out in the cold? How does one explain American Sniper AND Selma being nominated for Best Picture while A Most Wanted Man remains nominated for nothing? You won’t hear about any controversy surrounding A Most Wanted Man for the simple reason there’s no percentage in it. Instead, media outlets will treat you to an embedded clip of Jennifer Aniston referring to herself as “the number-one snubbed” on Ellen (Is there anything more repugnant?).
It bears mentioning that both Lee Daniels and Spike Lee were offered the directorial reins for Selma. Daniels turned it down in lieu of The Butler. Spike Lee, well, who really knows why Spike Lee might have turned Selma down. It could be Paramount wouldn’t relinquish creative control. It could be the script appeared too formulaic. Then again, it could be Spike Lee, a director who demonstrates a brilliant, honest vision for whatever he seeks to accomplish, simply recognized Selma maintained no oratorical access to Dr. Martin Luther King; to several speeches that defined not only the man, but the most strident push for equality in this country’s history. Assuming that was the case, Lee’s directorial instinct might have proven unequivocally correct.
(Selma is currently playing in theaters nationwide. It received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Song, but none for Best Director or Best Actor.)
The night ended with “See Ya Later, Alligator.” The night always ended with “See Ya Later, Alligator,” as originally recorded by Bill Haley and His Comets. It was 4:45, and all the bottom-shelf liquor had inevitably risen from 50 cents all the way up to $2.50. I was standing near a DJ booth, watching warm-bellied drunks parade the dance floor like blades of grass into a bale. It was dark, a reassuring dark, interrupted by the penlight registers alongside every bar. There was a couple standing next to me, and they were making out despite the rising smell of sewage seeping out from the commode. I had been there for eight hours, had smoked my way straight through a set of standards – Maxine Nightingale directly into “Dancing Queen”; “Mony, Mony,” into “Come On, Eileen.”
It was late now, and I had partnered up with a sprite-sized Irish girl who was wearing a slick-black tank top over camouflage, the purple satin of her bra straps peeking out from either side. This girl’s hair was cappuccino blonde, and her eyes ran sharp and dark with wild mascara.
“Do you want a shot?” I hollered. And she hollered back that we should leave.
When the lights came on, the ugly lights came on, this girl, she led me south along Pacific, past the brawlers, past patrol cars, past the Irish stretched out wide in front of Romeo’s. She made a left onto East Garfield, another left into a driveway. She kissed me long against house siding, then led me inside through a door that scraped the asphalt like a grind.
“I want you to fuck me,” this Irish girl whispered, and she pulled me by the shirt onto a couch with broken arms.
Please Note: None of these movies was originally released during January of 2014 or
January of 2015.
Despite several highly questionable casting, screenplay, and directorial choices, do not avert your eyes. This country’s history of ignorance – in all its forms – is galling. The triumph of human dignity is only slightly more enduring.
There is no motion picture that can reveal Whitey Bulger to be more of an indiscriminate asshole than this documentary does.
Tom Hardy cannot fail.
The acting is so remarkable one tends to forget just how depressing this incident was.
A warm tonic for a bitter day. So it is.
5. A Most Wanted Man
A most under-appreciated movie.
4. Still Alice
Julianne Moore has a deeper range than any other actress in America. She IS this movie. No other actress should be within a mile of her throughout this year’s award season.
3. Gone Girl
Marriage equals prison, but we are both in this together.
1. Inherent Vice
Over the past few weeks, film critics (i.e., long-form movie recappers) have been employing terms along the lines of “trippy,” “wild,” and “wacky,” when attempting to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice. In five years those same film critics will be employing the term “cult classic.” In 10 years they will have shortened that generic term to “classic,” which is, ironically, what Inherent Vice happens to be right at this moment, what with all its mixed metaphors and Biblical subtext, its pop culture references and lack of equity in sequence, its Coen-level oddity and all its incandescent lightness. Look, I could go on for 3,000 words here, and there may very well come a moment when I do. For now, allow me to quote from Ram Dass: “Let us consider an example of the relation of a group called ‘hippies’ and a group called ‘police’. If a ‘confrontation’ occurs during a protest, what is the result? If the hippies see the police only as ‘them,’ then the result is an increase in polarization and distance between the two groups. Each returns to its headquarters and plans an increase in its own strength to overcome ‘them.’ Why does the distance increase? Because nobody wants to be ‘them.’ Everyone wants to be ‘us.’ And if you meet someone who sees you as ‘him,’ or ‘one of them,’ that meeting arouses in you all your paranoia, and you, in turn, see the other person as ‘him,’ or ‘one of them.’ Such cycles get worse and worse until there is violent confrontation. What is the conscious alternative? It is not to avoid protest or confrontation. Rather, it is for the participants to become more conscious. And what does that mean? It means that though you may be protesting against someone or some group, you realize that behind the ways in which you differ, you are the same.” Anyway, the point being, Inherent Vice is just so fucking great I think I’ll see it one more time. On a related note, I am totally moving to Venice Beach in 2019. You can bet your ass on that.
Kurt Cobain was a victim, the world’s only martyr, or so he might have you believe. I am speaking here of the man, and not his music. I am speaking of an addict who masqueraded behind his pain, who put off treatment for his ailments, who felt violated by the media, who threw his soul onto the tracks for fame. Is this the voice of a generation (as Rolling Stone declared Cobain to be)? Is this the voice of any generation? For in the case of Kurt Cobain, die-hard fans have been consistently confronted with the sentimental divide between great music and a tortured soul. Cobain’s demeanor – gray and foggy as the Aberdeen sky – seemed preprogrammed to reject any apparatus it had an inability to control. Cobain hated the publicity, yet he made a spectacle of himself. He hated the fame, yet he kept popping up on MTV. He hated the machine, yet he bent over backwards to be accepted by it.
By Cobain’s own admission, he hated average people. He maintained what he referred to as an “imaginary hatred” for anyone from Seattle. He hated dogs, primarily because they were loyal. He had a “problem with the average macho man – the strong-oxen, working-class type”. He felt “pissed off about everything, in general,” according to Michael Azerrad’s audio portion of the documentary About a Son.
Kurt Cobain lied about being on drugs. He lied about suffering from depression. He lied when he called members of the media “fucking liars” for implying he was lying about not being on drugs. Time and again, Cobain’s contempt came masked by an insistence upon appearing smug – an unconditional version of smug that bows one’s credibility once major truths have been revealed. Cobain was the broken child of a broken home, carted off by his own parents before the onset of pubescence. And while his ascendance – given the circumstances – was nothing short of incendiary, it also came unbalanced by a constant fear of abandonment, along with rote skepticism regarding the ever-growing publicity surrounding him.
Kurt Cobain appeared to be gentle and gracious and altogether compassionate whenever dealing within his element. He gravitated to the fringe; minor, haunted factions that had been subject to a similar level of persecution – the punks, the gays, the feminists; any group that had been denied its equal share. Cobain became the poster boy for disenfranchised youth, and perhaps quite fittingly, he got it on with its Rapunzel.
Courtney Love was an IT girl, an oracle, the genuine article dressed up ala a baby doll; vicious, brilliant, seething and measured, it was unclear whether she might kiss you or kill you. The more Cobain receded, the more his wife came bearing fangs. Lynn Hirschberg’s scathing-yet-honest 1992 Vanity Fair profile presented Love as a frenetic maelstrom, choreographing a series of counterintuitive maneuvers, each of them executed with ramshackle precision. According to author Victoria Clarke, who’d been working on a tell-all book about Nirvana at right around the same time, Courtney Love bashed her over the head with a beer glass inside a Hollywood club known as Raji’s, just prior to dragging her across the floor by her hair. Cobain, on the other hand, very calmly threatened to have Clarke “snuffed out” via a voicemail message left on her answering machine. Kurt’s message, while fiendish, sounded as if it had been recorded from the inside of a closet. More importantly, it lacked the jagged follow through of Love.
Courtney Love does not dawdle. And while the results might seem vindictive, Love deserves credit for coming pre-packaged as the devil we know. There is a pulse to Courtney Love, a clear and steady frequency that leaves no trace of static. “She is the least loyal person I’ve ever known,” ex-lover and collaborator Billy Corgan admitted during a 2013 Howard Stern interview. “I was standing there watching a band and Courtney Love walked up and attacked me,” Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna acknowledged during The Punk Singer. There is nothing surprising about such claims, as Love tends to bring out the diminutive in people. Independent of the opponent, Love douses the fire with semi-mortal intent.
“The fact is men always get a much easier time about their problems than women do,” Love insisted during a 2011 interview with The Fix. “Just look at Keith Richards. That guy has done more drugs in his life than I could ever imagine. But he gets celebrated as this cool survivor, while I’m branded as some shameless skank.” This is true, despite the fact Love never acknowledges that dynamic as both a hindrance and a blessing. For it is Love’s late husband, Kurt Cobain, who still gets celebrated as a deity, 21 years after leaving both Love and their baby daughter to fend for themselves. Had the tables been turned, Courtney Love’s death would have been regarded as a pathetic, weak and selfish act. To wit: When Love maybe attempted suicide back in 2004, the majority of outlets presented the story with a “controversial-vixen-spiraling-out-of-control” vigor that vehemently smacked of condescension.
Allow us to be clear: Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict. He lived in an ongoing state of pain because he put off, or flat-out refused, decisive treatment for both a stomach ailment (most commonly associated with an ulcer) and scoliosis. Once he began to dull the pain by self-medicating, it compounded the issue from a perspective that he was now not only dealing with the burden of multiple conditions, but also a close-ended cycle of addiction. Withdrawal would more than likely have resulted in an unimaginable threshold of discomfort, combined with an immense level of guilt, fever and nausea, all of it escalated thanks to an intense-albeit-familiar torment radiating throughout his torso. The root of the problem: an ongoing series of weak-minded decisions, each of them predicated upon Cobain’s refusal to confront rather than avoid.
The final word of Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter – Cobain’s final word to anyone, about anything – was “Empathy”. Empathy? A cry, a plea; the ability to identify with others. This is precisely the type of sentiment that any ninth-grade slouch who harbors aspirations of falling ass-backward into rock stardom might appreciate. And yet, one gets the sense that Kurt Cobain was applying that term even more to himself than he might have been to others. Empathy strikes at the very heart of Kurt Cobain’s world view; it appeared to be the central thesis behind songs like “Polly,” “Rape Me,” and “All Apologies.” Empathy resided at the molten core of every Cobain documentary, and it signaled Kurt’s eventual retreat following the release of Nevermind.
Nevermind was a groundbreaking record, but it was also reminiscent of an eerily depressing period – for Kurt Cobain, for Freddie Mercury, for the Soviet Union and the U.S. Military. Live Through This, on the other hand, remains almost timelessly removed. The same can be said for Celebrity Skin, and even Nobody’s Daughter, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Alternative Charts. The difference between Nirvana and Hole is that Courtney Love’s music is versatile, emotional, perfect for running, or walking, or brooding, or drinking, or banging someone’s head against the wall. Courtney Love’s imagery is dark, all of her references, surreal; Hole’s choruses are fierce and unafraid of sounding catchy. And that voice, while increasingly produced, still manages to claw its way up from the depths.
In the days following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Courtney Love became the story: Courtney Love, who received the news while in rehab; Courtney Love, who had a major-label LP entitled Live Through This dropping only four days later; Courtney Love, who recorded herself re-reading Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter (with commentary), then allowed it to be played over the P.A. system at an open-air memorial; Courtney Love, who – despite certain questionable motives – responded to the list of personal grievances Cobain listed in his suicide letter by saying, “Well, Kurt, so fucking what? Then don’t be a rock star, you asshole.” Courtney Love, who summed up in two sentences what three-quarters of the American public was already thinking.
Everything about Courtney Love tends to punch people in the gut, and – perhaps for that reason – there’s very little allowance for her genius. Love is pugnacious, sure, and she has single-handedly done more damage to herself than any PR campaign could’ve possibly managed. Yet, despite that, Love moves forward, making music, making television, making headlines, taking stands. In 2012, Courtney Love fought eviction from a West Village townhouse, and won. In 2014, Love defended herself against a defamation lawsuit involving Twitter, and won a second time. At the age of 50, Courtney Love is still that same outrageous fuck-up, only now she’s branching out into the worlds of art and fashion and haute couture.
Kurt Cobain, on the other hand, well, Kurt Cobain is still dead, by his own hand, and for this he has been honored with both a statue and a local holiday (among other things) in his hometown of Aberdeen. HBO has picked up yet another Cobain documentary, and while this one promises to be a bit more engaging than its predecessors, chances are it’ll still rely upon that same old dour back story. Hit So Hard, meanwhile – an absolutely searing documentary regarding one-time Hole drummer Patty Schemel – will presumably continue to languish over on Netflix.
Ultimately, Kurt Cobain was a man who found no hope in life. His ideals were born out of escape; out of running away and cowardice. And the idea of going out like Jim Morrison – of living fast, dying young, and leaving behind a marketable corpse – well, that idea begins to fade once any grounded individual reaches the age of 25. It’s easy for Universal Music Group to repackage Kurt Cobain these days. There is no risk involved in liking him. Courtney Love, on the other hand, has 21 extra years worth of publicity to live down, the digital kind that inevitably leads to a Pavlovian response.
Anyone who’s disappeared into the Cobain wormhole, sifting through countless hours’ worth of interviews, print articles, and promotional media, has eventually noticed a negative pattern emerging. Specifically, the majority of Kurt Cobain’s personal recollections appear consumed with getting over – on record execs, on ex-bosses, on rival rock stars … anyone who Kurt Cobain potentially perceived to be a threat. The level of animus is palpable, and while that may not be Kurt’s fault, it certainly serves to cheapen the Merlot. Courtney Love, comparatively speaking – despite demonstrating an acute inability to appear objective whenever considering herself – boasts an even darker background than her husband. On balance, Love has fought back much longer, and more admirably, than Kurt Cobain ever could. Whether you’re a critic, a cynic, a punk, or a fanatic, perhaps it’s time to give Old Mother Love her due.
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The 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 following 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 the bed down. 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 foot.
“Relax, Alvin,” his counterpart insisted. “We’ve got plenty of time, and there are roses left 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.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)