When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath…
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage
Want to Wander: Intoxication
June 4, 2013
“When are you going to update your location on Facebook?” he asked after learning I had safely arrived in Colorado last year.
Location. Why does it seem important to so many people?
Because of the transience that has marked my life, when I am asked the simple question, “Where are you from?” I hesitate. How am I able to claim a specific community as “mine” when I haven’t spent many years in a single location?
My slow reply has always been as oblique as my rejoinder to his recent query: “I don’t have a single place I call home,” I responded. “Until I do, I will leave my status where it is in Chicago.”
While there, I spent two years studying how monumental works of public art are the tools wherewith educators may build a sense of community. Ironically, though, I have yet to clearly define community — much less establish myself in one. I embrace my position outside of most recognized communities.
My old girl curls beside me on the floor each night, not close enough to touch or be touched, but enough to be aware of my presence. She remains content only in the realization that she is beside me, satiated by the bowl of food I give her each evening before bedtime.
I have been told she paces about when I am not with her around bedtime, fretting between her usual perch on the porch to the space she believes I should be occupying. Her behavior may be indicative of separation anxiety usually manifest in animals that have been rescued. To me, her behavior indicates a devout loyalty bred by every creature’s longing to feel a sense of communion and connectivity.
She doesn’t need a specifically defined location in which to stay as long as she knows I am beside her, and she is always ready for our next adventure.
One of the earliest works of English literature addresses space, place and adventure. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales recalls a series of voyages as pilgrims move from one location to another. Chaucer’s poem unfolds during the first few weeks of April, and their adventure draws them together as they discover characteristics of place as well as each other. The sense of connectivity and community isn’t tied to a single location but rather in their shared journey.
“Where are you going next?” people ask me after hearing my tales last year’s bicycle excursion from Chicago to Colorado.
My response is typically vague when asked about a specific location: “Wherever the wind may blow me.”
The wheels touched down shortly before midnight, delayed because of weather, a frequent occurrence during what is historically one of the stormiest weeks in the calendar year. The colder winds of March and April had yielded to the warmer, quicker yet more devastating thunderstorms of June.
Perfect time for a pilgrimage.
Nashville’s refrain hadn’t spoken to me (perhaps because its song is a strummed rather than stringed ballad), so I had decided to catch the wind blowing me back to the city’s driving rhythm of traffic jams and concrete, the stench of uncollected trash and spilled liquor, the syncopated cadence of taxi horns and shouting vendors.
The thrill of the city is intoxicating. But like most vices, I prefer to indulge them in smaller doses rather than choosing it as lifestyle. A quick fix with the understanding that the ecstasy is transitory.
New York City. Its sleeplessness appeals to my ongoing struggle with insomnia, and rather than checking into its overpriced hotels, I was like a moth attracted to the glare of Times Square.
“Are you from here?” the girl asked as she exhaled cigarette smoke through her full, parted lips.
I had paused outside of Grand Central Station to appreciate the contrast between Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building. I was aware, as I almost always am, that as a lone woman walking the streets after sunset, I appear to be an anomaly. Usually only female natives are willing to take on the streets alone after dark, knowing which ones are safe and which ones should be avoided.
Perhaps it is an instinct I developed while wandering the streets of Seattle, Portland or Denver at odd hours with my brother when we were young.
Or perhaps it is a certain defiant bravado that I may someday regret.
“No, but I know your city well enough not to get lost,” I laughingly replied, understanding that areas wherever a few people linger is generally safe, which means a quick glance at Google will steer me closer to bars and restaurants rather than the safety of parks I had sought a year ago as I traversed rural America last year.
“I love my city,” she responded, and the words lingered over her head like a thought bubble with the predominate I <3 NYC insignia, mingling with her next exhalation of cigarette smoke.
For a few moments, she and I share the same space, and as she disclosed her favorite spots in the city during the dark hours, sunrise, and sunset, I realize it isn’t place that unites us but the words we exchange during the brief moments we spend together, an elusive connection momentarily held together as transiently as her cigarette smoke blowing on the wind.
June 8, 2014
“Did you see our names on the board?” she asked excitedly as I passed her in the concourse. Ninety days. We had successfully completed our probation period, and the company was celebrating our accomplishment.
In the middle of March, when we first began our journey, there were 40 of us. We are down to 14. Retention rate on a job requiring its employees to lift on the average of 29,000 pounds per day is low, and errors can cost anything from a torn ACL to thousands of dollars worth of damage to the aircraft. And then there is Colorado’s tumultuous, unpredictable, bi-polar weather that may one day yield bright, warm sunny skies, changing to sleet within minutes.
We passed the dreary afternoon huddled into a ten foot square enclosed space while the wind howled through the cracks in the structure, warmed by our memories of beaches or sun-drenched avenues and the hope of our unfulfilled dreams. The wind, the roar of engines, and the click of a mouse that at any time would reveal that we would have to resume our conversation an hour later all punctuated our conversation, which trailed as aimlessly as our varied experiences. We formed a microcosmic community, drawn together by our shared addiction.
“By Christmas, I will open my restaurant,” the business major stated, adding, “I don’t want to go into debt so I am building my savings.” He further explained that he spends his afternoons huddling in our shed after passing his mornings preparing breakfast burritos in his street cart. He minored in Spanish, ruefully adding that he and his roommates had often chosen liquor over food while struggling to maintain his 2.0 GPA in order to retain his scholarship. “I like traveling too much,” he confessed. “I had more saved, but last year I made too many trips.”
The newly married blond flashed her brilliantly white, perfectly straight teeth that shone between her parted lips, contrasting deeply with her darkly tanned skin. “I know what you mean. Often when I get my check, because of the imputed taxes, I only get a few dollars. But that’s ok.” She boasts an itinerary any multicultural sociologist would envy, including the destinations Thailand, Chile and Singapore. “I know in a few years my husband and I will begin having children once he begins his orthodontics practice, so I am enjoying it while I can.”
Her contagious smile infected each member of our erstwhile community, and when she moved to the next shed to help them through their rush, we fell into a sullen silence absently distracted by the click of the restaurateur’s mouse as he booked his next flight to Hawaii. “I am surprising a friend with a trip in a few days. He doesn’t know where I am taking him. He just knows we are going somewhere.”
“How do you define community?” my colleague at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago challenged me. He added, “Is it confined to a specific geographic location, a shared goal, or a commonality of interests?” I had explained my thesis conclusion that educators could utilize the participatory democratic educational spaces surrounding art to unite a community who will look toward the promise of the future by sharing a connection from the past, engrossed in the present which will lead toward a future which will built together. “It may be comprised of a group of workers, students, or colleagues,” he posed. I hesitated, unable to offer a single, clear, concise definition.
My hesitance was well grounded because I believe a community may entail any group of people, regardless of size, unified by a single cause, interest, location or event. Our huddled crew, if only joined together for a few fleeting hours, formed a community, and at the time, our addiction to the art of travel served as a single unifying, community-constructing dynamic.
The diagonal lines on the computer screen suddenly changed to a solid color, and the enfolding shed burst into life. We grabbed our wands, gloves, jackets and reflective vests, knowing that we would easily pick up our broken conversation once we had attained our shared goal. As we rushed out of the shed, our exuberant companion rejoined us with her perpetual smile, glanced over her shoulder and shouted over the din, “I want to hear all about the people you met on your bike ride last summer.”
Deferred dreams, varied destinations. We shared them with one another like companionable AA members, each one of us sketching the path that led us to our windy shed.
We each cling to our adventures, recounting them to one another like a penitent clicking out his confessional prayers on a rosary, with each bead representing either a former adventure or one upon which we hope to soon embark.
“Are you from Colorado?” I asked her when we had finished our first run. We had sat closely beside one another on a small bench, protected from the wind while enjoying the warm sun. She loosely grasped the directional wand in her left hand with the other one casually resting upon her muscular thigh. She shrugged her shoulders, mentioning she had just moved here from Hawaii, adding she had also recently returned from a prolonged residency in Chile.
Like most adventurers, she refused to claim a single residence as her home. In spite of her 5’ 3” and less than 110 lbs. frame, with a flick of the wrist she effortlessly commands the 70 ton beast that nurtures our shared addiction, feeding its insatiable gut with bales that easily weigh almost as much as she does.
For a moment, for a day, she is my hero.
“You realize you are in control of a 22 million dollar piece of equipment?” the pilot informed me as through the broken transmission of our poor connection as I first began what is known as a push-back. Planes don’t have a reverse gear, so the ground crew is responsible for pushing them backward, away from the gates.
“That’s ok,” I flippantly replied, “I am an art history professor. I have been responsible for far more expensive pieces of art than this.”
He laughed, answering, “This is hardly a work of art.”
“It looks quite beautiful from my vantage point,” I replied.
“Welcome to our community,” he responded as we gave one another our final salute before he took off. “The sky’s the limit.”
Taking Flight: Standby
June 10, 2014
Chopin plays softly in the background, lulling me into a relaxed state, augmented undoubtedly by the half empty Guinness bottle sitting nearby. Soft staccato piano has replaced the earlier measures of Gershwin that had evoked mental images of Charleston’s Cannery Row.
Days off. Lately they have been filled by long flights followed by all-night shooting escapades in various cities.
Tonight, it is good to be with the girls…not just my own, but my niece’s latest addition to the family, a high-energy min-pin who runs circles around my girl, nipping playfully at her when they charge up the stairs each evening, racing to see who can beat one another to the top.
The min-pin always wins, standing atop the landing as though her 18-pound frame is challenging my 90-pound girl to a rousing game of “King of the Hill.”
Those simple moments define life. Not the bustle of New York’s Times Square at four o’clock in the morning when sunrise begins to dim the neon and the drunken tourists yield to wheelers and dealers sporting designer suits.
Chopin’s Second Sonata fills the room, a slow cadence that once was recognized as the funeral march. Few identify it thusly any longer, but the strains of music seem appropriate for my current mood.
I was bitten by the bug years ago through the constant transience to which I was all too familiar as a child. The need to leave behind old surroundings for the adrenaline rush that comes with the new. The same one that launched me on my 825-mile trek across America nearly a year ago. The need to always experience something new, ever searching for a sense of familiar, a sense of belonging.
On the encroaching eve of my 51st birthday, I have yet to find it—that sense of belonging that magically creates home—but I love the rush that comes with stepping onto new ground for the first time, bracing myself for whatever may come.
I have launched a new adventure, started yet another a new chapter in my life, one appropriately accompanied, it seems, by Chopin’s Second Sonata.
“Someday, Roberta, you will be a bag lady wandering the streets with nothing more than a shopping cart filled with Henry James novels and designer shoes,” she told me one morning while we sat on the steps of the fountain outside the University of Colorado’s bookstore.
Her words stung. Little did she know that the person she identified as “soccer mom” had spent many years of her younger life as a homeless transient trying to hide her identity from police officers, always carrying a $20 bill, sleeping too many nights huddled alongside her brother in the camper shell of a Ford F-150. I had learned to hide my past as well as I once hid my homelessness.
Now, the truth of her prediction rings out with a remarkable sense of irony.
Throwing bags. Bag lady. That’s what I do now. Not a glorious title, nor a glorious job. Ramp Agent. Airport Marshal. Wing Walker. Bag Handler. Yet the job—a far cry from full-time higher ed instructor—regardless of title, dignity or description feeds my addiction, and each time I hit a new city in my designer shoes, toting my designer bag stuffed with a clean pair of underwear, a copy of Henry James “American Scene,” my computer and a change of clothes, her words resonate across the years.
“We are required to always carry a $20 bill,” the flight attendant informed me as she buckled herself into her small seat facing my first class one. When I get my assignment, it is always in the best row, and the flight attendants are quick to offer me whatever I need to make my trip more comfortable, including intimate, candid conversation.
“I lost my wallet once. When it was returned, the bill was gone, but at least they didn’t take my badge or my passport.”
The thief was oblivious to the potential value of the TSA badge he or she momentarily possessed. Access to any number of airports across America and Canada.
Non-revs. That’s what we are called in the business. We bond quickly, we airport rats who, like myself, too often sell our souls to the lowest bidder for a hit of our addiction: our next flight to whatever destination we are able to acquire.
“When I was in Miami last week….”
“What? You went to Miami?” my son interrupted.
“Oh, wait. That wasn’t last week, was it?” I asked myself aloud, nearly overlooking his incredulity that I had been to Florida and back without his awareness. “Well, it was a few weeks ago, I suppose,” I continued. “Yeah, I was in Miami. Did a single-day, 70 mile bike ride with Uncle Ralph,” I added in explanation of his inquiry.
The weeks have blended together; double shifts in which I sleep little, squeezing as many hours into a weekend as possible just for my next hit, the next weekday flight to yet another destination.
Belonging. I doubt I find it, especially when I spend my nights with strangers who share whatever busy city square in which I happen to land.
No reservations. No plans. Just another destination with nothing more than the next new memory to keep me company with empty words echoing through my mind, drowning out the sound of the jet engines.