Heather and I are in the third floor lounge of the Union Jack Pub in Winchester, Virginia, waiting to meet some new friends of ours and trying not to make eye contact with Bob Orange. He’s standing in the middle of the room, amongst the several tables of people out for Friday night drinks, and looking completely lost and lonely. Something of a local celebrity, he’s scheduled to start playing here in a few moments. We had seen him perform for the first time about a year ago—a lot of Beatles covers, pop tunes from the eighties, that sort of thing. We’d seen some local musicians who really blew us away—like the guy from the barber shop whose voice was one of the most expressive I’ve heard anywhere. And we’d seen some musicians whom we just kind of felt sorry for. Bob Orange was neither of these.
If he were totally horrible, I may have liked him, but he seemed to be one of those people who’d found a way to turn the drive toward mediocrity into an exact science. In other words, if you’re not bad and you’re not good, and you’re not annoying and not pleasant, you’re just boring—and for me that was just about the worst thing in the world an artist of any kind could be. But where the guy from the barber shop and the musicians we felt sorry for both seemed to get polite, half-hearted applause, Bob Orange could get the crowd cheering for him like trained seals.
Mind you, I don’t know Bob Orange at all, and I want to keep it that way. He’s a skinny guy, of average height, whose face seems to be frozen with a teenage boy’s pout. You get the idea that he thinks he’s suffering somehow; and even though he may realize that he’s suffering on a much smaller scale than a lot of other people here, the quantity of his suffering isn’t what matters. It’s the quality of his suffering that makes it so much more significant than that of anyone else here. And in that, I feel a bit of kinship with him. I know that because I’m an artist my suffering, no matter how it pales compared to the travails experienced by a lot of other people in the Shenandoah Valley, is profound.
Yeah, me and Bob are both a couple of assholes—or perhaps the term locals would prefer to use for me is pussy—and the only difference between me and Bob Orange is that I know it.
Heather and I sit at a table and wait for our friends. We had just done a poetry reading at a new age bookstore on the walking mall in Winchester. If you had told me twenty years ago that an event at a new age bookstore would be the highlight of my weekend I would have laughed so hard I’d start spraying you with the half-swallowed bourbon in my mouth. Because that was how I tended to talk to people back then—with a drink in front of me, a cigarette in my hand, and daylight a quaint memory.
It used to be, at this point in the evening, after doing a reading, I’d be completely trashed. And that was a good thing. Those drunken hours were not lost hours, and those drunken years were not lost years—they were productive hours when I became friends with a good number of people I still hold in high esteem, productive years when I learned more than I had before I started drinking. I was not among those who, as they say, drink to forget. But now, after this reading—even though it went really well—I have that sinking feeling that I have no idea what’s going on anymore, and that I’m going nowhere. Or that I may, in fact, already be nowhere.
Bob Orange is still moving about the room, still looking for that friend or just an acquaintance, even. It’s not easy being a local celebrity—but it doesn’t take much to become a local celebrity here: Heather’s already had three newspaper stories done on the various poetry projects she’s started here.. And she takes the publicity for what it is—as something that may help move these projects forward—though she knows that most likely it won’t make much difference one way or another. Or is that just me who thinks that?
Sometimes, Heather thinks I’m too quick to make up my mind about people—that I often don’t give people the chance they deserve, and that I’m too quick to take a negative view of any situation. And she’s right about that. Still, I feel that that’s what’s helped me survive all these years—survive without being more damaged than I already am, survive without being even more cynical than I already am.
Right now all I want to do is avoid Bob Orange. But Bob Orange seems as determined to make some sort of connection as I am determined not to. Because of all the things I’ve been obsessed with over the years, companionship has never been one of them. I enjoy making enemies more than I enjoy making friends (how I, at several points in my life, could number my active friends in the dozens, was beyond me) and right now the risk that Bob Orange will strike up a conversation with us and perhaps, for some strange reason, like us, is yet another crisis for us to face. Or, to be precise, a crisis for me to face, since what I consider a crisis is often something Heather can effortlessly shrug off.
After sitting there for five minutes, Heather starts to think that maybe we’re in the wrong part of the bar—that maybe our friends are, right then, waiting for us downstairs. Somehow, Heather is always the one who gets to go off on a search mission, while my duty is to wait—or “hold down the fort” as the expression goes—so she heads downstairs. I look to the other end of the room, and Bob Orange, his pout turning into the slightest, vomit-inducing grin, seems to be heading my way.
I immediately start to panic.
* * *
It was early spring.
I didn’t want to be there, at that bar in Winchester. But, on the walking mall in Winchester that night, the evening air seemed to have just the right level of crispness to it. It was the sort of chill that, if it were just half a degree cooler, would give you goosebumps. Staying out a little longer seemed like the thing to do.
I’d just been laid off from my job. Or, at any rate, they’d run out of things for me to do, which amounted to the same thing. It used to be that the end of a steady job was something for me to celebrate. But when you have a family, and you’re not the only one who’s going to suffer from your lack of income, it’s not the sort of thing to bring a smile to your face.
Back in 1992, when I was living in New York, I got completely trashed on the day I was laid off. It wasn’t a sad, woe-is-me-and-my-sorry-ass kind of drunk, though. It was a celebratory drunk, a toast to my being free of the soul-sucking job—well, maybe it was really too easy of a job to honestly say it was soul-sucking. So let me just say what I had was a ridiculous job, a job keeping track of sales for a direct-mail marketing firm (“Charlie, sales for the Susan Lucci cubic zirconium pendants are way down this month”).
And, back then, in the evening of my last day at my ridiculous job, I had a reading.
This one was at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the poetry club that was half a block away from my apartment on Avenue B and Third St. And, this time, a film crew from Good Morning America was there to do a segment on the poetry scene. So, even though I’d just lost my day job, I felt that my career as a writer was now going somewhere. Because that’s what a city does for me—it gives me hope.
As soon as I got to the Nuyorican, someone from the film crew put a wireless microphone on me. I then went to the bathroom to take a leak as she listened on her headphones to see if it was working properly. By the time I read, I was trashed. So I read a poem about being drunk.
The audience got into it. They laughed at all the right places and, I hoped, also got a sense of the sadness and desperation that lurked beneath the surface. Then I forgot all about it until a week later when, after staying awake all night, I turned on the TV. It was around eight in the morning, the time of day when I’d expect to see the morning weather report or Barney the Dinosaur, when, to my surprise, I saw myself on TV, my hair dangling in my eyes and my voice fueled by alcohol, saying, “Drunk at four in the morning…”
I felt like I’d sold out. But, since I was out of a job, it felt good that I had something to sell. And that’s what I did for the next two years I spent in New York—I wrote. I wrote for NY Press, which was a weekly paper that competed with the Village Voice. I wrote for Wrestling World, a magazine my old friend Stephen Ciacciarelli edited. I also had poems appear in cool lit mags like Bomb, and in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter. I did readings at places like the Public Theater, The Living Theater, CBGBs, and the Knitting Factory. I even did a poetry video that was shown regularly on the local public television station (usually between back to back episodes the British soap opera, EastEnders).
I was, without a doubt, lucky. Because I had made the transition from being a nine to five grunt in the straight world to a…Well, I don’t know what. Because one detail I left out was that I wasn’t making a living. I was making money, but that money wasn’t nearly enough to pay the rent on my apartment, meaning that it was my credit in the straight world that was helping me get by. That and a some temp jobs here and there, including a month long gig at Goldman Sachs and a gig at another investment firm that canned me after I’d worked there for one day—the job was supposed to last for at least one month—when I came in reeking of bourbon and cigarettes. As the guy at temp agency explained when he left a message on my answering machine telling me not to go back to the job, “your body odor was highly inappropriate.”
Again, let me emphasize that these were good times. And although my inappropriateness was a liability in the straight world, in the downtown lit scene I was a part of, my bad behavior was a good thing. And whenever I felt bad about something, like losing that temp job after one day or splitting up with a girlfriend, there was always someone to remind me that this was New York, and that no matter how bad one day may be, the next one could be completely different. And, at least back in those days, it was true.
But the high point of my days as a writer in New York was one afternoon when someone recognized me on the street. It wasn’t someone from a publishing house, or the owner of a bookstore, or some beautiful woman stopping me to say she was impressed with a poem I’d done at a recent reading—though all these things had happened at various times and places while I was in New York. No, the high point was when a homeless person, who was watching TV through the storefront window of an electronics shop on 14th Street, turned away from his free entertainment because he recognized me from the reflection I made in the window.
“Hey, man,” he said, then raised his voice a bit, “You made it! Channel 13, man!”
He was probably around my age, though of course living on the streets can make a person look older than he really is. But the big, guileless smile he gave me showed that, yes, he was genuinely happy for me. To be congratulated by a man who was obviously going through some tough times—times he may very well have been less able to recover from than me—moved me more than any other compliment I’d gotten for my work.
There was nothing else for me to do but say, with probably more sincerity than at any other time I’ve used this frequently mumbled or otherwise carelessly used word, “Thanks.”
But I was in New York then. A city which, even though I left there feeling down and out and defeated, will always feel, to me, like a city of possibilities. And I must say that if Heather, Maggie, and me were to move there tomorrow—even with all the changes, even with my old neighborhood being cleaned up of much of the grime and disorder that made it, for me, such an interesting place to live—I’d feel right at home again.
Here, in the Shenandoah Valley, even after being here for two years, I still feel lost. And I still feel like I’m going nowhere here. But maybe that’s because I need to just give in. Because New York—or even Washington—isn’t going to be happening for us anytime soon.
So I need to get out, here, in the valley, and breath in the air and gaze at the mountains. Yes, the mountains that, decadent city person that I am, still don’t impress me as much as a skyline filled with skyscrapers. I need to learn to like these damn mountains more, so that I look at them not as a place to visit, but as a place to live. I need to wake up one morning, go to the room we use as an office, where I can look out the back window and see the mountains and say, “Christ, these mountains are fucking beautiful. I mean, seriously, they’re beautiful and I’m really feeling it now.” And, the next time I see Bob Orange, I need to go up to him and shake his hand and say, “Hey, I really like your music” or “I really enjoyed your version of ‘Nowhere Man.’”
I need to say it every time I see him. Until I feel I’m making progress here. Until I start to feel at home here.
Until I really mean it.