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I Wish I Could Tell You
Thoughts on moving and what not.
Subscribers to this newsletter are relatively few. Pretty sure I'm not telling you something you don't already know. They’re very hard to come by when you’re a nobody with a tiny social media footprint. But to me, there are a lot of you, and the past few weeks in particular there’s been a bevy of new subscribers. Regardless of whether you’re a free or paying reader of Euphoric Recall, I wanted to take a moment to thank you.
Every time I get a new subscriber, every time someone likes a post or shares it or leaves a comment, it makes me smile. Though this probably sounds overly sentimental, I’m honored that you think I’m someone worth reading, and I don’t take it for granted. I’m trying to do this writing thing for real—professionally, as the kids like to say. It’s rather difficult, and so I’m grateful for your patronage and time and attention, and I truly work very hard not to disappoint.
I am, and always have been an old soul. Anachronistic, in a way. I age internally at a rate much faster than I do physically, though my graying hair would beg to differ. But I’ve always been this way. And, like others who prefer to listen rather than talk, I’m also very observant and ruminative. I believe there are certain cons involved with these traits, yes, but there’s simply no getting around the fact that in this day and age, when the world moves as fast as it ever has and we’re constantly bombarded by information vying for limited mental real estate within our individual skull-sized kingdoms, those who fail to take the time to reflect on formative events do so at their own peril. We are the sum of our experiences, and if we choose not to properly consider those of a certain magnitude, we’re liable to lose track of who we are and where we’re headed.
I recently moved from Los Angeles to Texas. Some 9.8% of Americans move annually. That strikes me as rather a lot, but apparently it’s not. At all. In fact, Americans are moving at the lowest rate since the government started keeping track, according to Census Bureau data. A slow, steady decline. The New York Times notes this is because “rents in many larger cities have exploded, making it much harder for a young person seeking better opportunities to afford to move. And low-wage jobs, after adjusting for the local cost of living, pay about the same everywhere.”
This isn’t meant to be a dissertation on all the complex reasons that might explain this precipitous drop in people moving. I just thought it was interesting. (I should probably warn you that this post is somewhat discursive.)
Prior to Los Angeles I lived in Michigan, my home state, for about six months, and before that it was Georgia, and before that New York, and before that New Jersey.
Why was I living in Los Angeles? Because it was exactly the kind of place that you’d never expect someone like me to live. After the Army I thought I’d give grad school a try, but I only applied to one school: University of Southern California. I’m a big believer in the idea that growth lies outside your comfort zone. Given the choice between Mars and normality, most people will flee to the reassurance of day-to-day life with its unchanging, pressing demands, where the future is but an extension of the present. But I don’t like to do things half-way, and so I figured that if I was going back to school then it should be the diametric opposite of what I was used to, which was West Point. USC seemed like it fit the bill. It did.
Honestly though, the USC saga of my life was mostly improvised. I applied on a whim a few months after getting out of the Army. To my everlasting surprise, I was offered an opportunity you’d be a fool to turn down, which I remain very grateful for. I piled my few belongings into my car and moved to downtown Los Angeles. It was the first time I’d ever been to California.
I normally take a firm stance against expectations, but USC and Los Angeles ended up being exactly what I imagined: A whole 'nother planet. I showed up with a low-fade and a curiously misguided wardrobe and an arm full of tattoos. I might as well have been purple. I didn’t fit in well at USC, but that was the point. Part of me wanted to change, to become someone new. Radical changes in place and context can sometimes have a salutary effect, can sometimes even be self-erasing, and more than once I contemplated changing certain things about myself that might make moving on from who I once was easier to do. You know, like adapting. Evolving. It would’ve definitely made my new environs more suitable. I flirted with the idea.
I’m a quirky dude.
I lived in Georgia for a few years, about an hour south of Atlanta, and during this period I fell in love with Waffle House. The food’s good and straightforward, not to mention fast as fast-food and even cheaper. Plus, they make it right in front of you, which is always cool. Coffee’s good, too. The restaurant chain was particularly suited for someone like me. It’s a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year kind of place where people don’t look at you funny if you’re there alone, which I often was.
I liked to watch the people who’d come in. In the South, you can tell when someone is part of the working class even when they’re not wearing a blue collar. Waffle House clientele do not have Los Angeles vibes, believe you me. Many of these folks were life-beaten people who tend to reside in the peripheral vision of others, particularly the cooks and waitresses, who are paid wages somewhere just passed obscene. This is especially true for the latter, for whom tips must carry the day.
I know this because they told me as much. Maybe they share a collective well of empathy for loners. But as a night owl, I developed the habit of conversing with the waitresses—commiserating made possible thanks to so few customers coming in late at night. The other plus to late night Waffle House visits was that it was always quiet enough to hear the cook and two waitresses on the red-eye shift converse with one another. You’d be surprised by the things you can learn if you’re just willing to listen for awhile.
Doubtless this all sounds sort of weird, but I write fiction, too, and so I take notes (on my phone) on pretty much anything I think might be of use some day, which is basically everything. The way someone smokes a cigarette, how a woman clutches her purse, the way a little kid explores a nostril with his pinky digit, etc. I have a running Word document full of these notes. I simply email them to myself when I’ve recorded a good amount’s worth and then paste them into the document. (I take “my craft” seriously, folks!)
I learned a lot by going to Waffle Houses late at night. And a lot of what I picked up was about hardship, and sadness, and pain, and despair. So often was it that I heard these themes that I developed an entirely new habit vis-à-vis Waffle House: Randomly going to various diners and leaving a very generous tip, sometimes at multiple diners in one night, so close were they to one another.
Texas is, technically, part of the South, which is where Waffle Houses predominantly are. I’ve only been here about a month, though, so it’s too soon yet to know for certain if where I’m at now will be anything like the south South. But I do miss Georgia and Alabama. The simplicity, but also the people.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of nice folks in L.A. But I’d be willing to bet you a dollar to a donut that someone with prejudices against flyover country people is more likely to have their prejudices challenged than confirmed, whereas someone with prejudices against coastal blue bastion people is more likely to have their prejudices confirmed than challenged.
The culture in the South is that of small-town America, where, in hundreds of small ways, people watch out for each other, even check in on one another. Kindness and kinship are expressed quietly, person to person. All the noise that people get so caught up in back in Los Angeles doesn’t play in your Waffle House-type locales; nobody’s all that interested in talking about politics or opining on the latest thing you’re required to support if you’re a Good Person™. Small-town communities require comity to function. If you live in a one stoplight town, you’re going to end up running into someone again. You can’t just flip out on people because they did or didn’t do such and such, or because they did or didn’t say this or that; you don't have the luxury of anonymity that comes with living in the second biggest city in the country.
What I’ve experienced here so far has been decidedly better than Los Angeles, I must say, at least culture-wise. I will not miss this kind of dross1:
I’m exaggerating a bit here, but it did often feel as if kindness and common sense were rapidly heading toward extinction in the City of Angels. And humility wasn’t exactly in vogue, either. One too many students at USC acted like they’d hit a triple after being born on third base. It can wear on you. It’s weird living in a place where so many people aspire to be looked at, a culture in which materialism is the predominant religion and most residents are fundamentalists and the psychodynamics are such that fame, power, and the body beautiful are a holy trinity of sorts.
Also, I have empirically verified that people here don’t scowl at you if you hold the door for them, and the sidewalks aren’t teeming with tents, and the overpasses don’t have miniature forts built underneath them with refuse, and people don’t walk with their eyes glued to their phones.2 Camouflage is an aesthetic touchstone in these parts. Trucks and Jeeps are ubiquitous, and something tells me I’m not going to see a Lamborghini anytime soon, which was practically a daily occurrence in L.A. It’s also hot as hell here, so much so that it makes me miss the uterine temperatures of my previous digs.
Often, when you’re gearing up to leave one place for another, you find yourself living in a sort of twilight for weeks, waiting for night to fall, subliminally certain that you’re headed toward your own “domestic Eden”—D. H. Lawrence’s term for the place where you’ll finally feel at home. The big wide world looms again, pregnant with uncertainty, and you feel its weighty potential pent up like a held breath. At the same time, moving is an intervention that might change the outcome of your story, or perhaps clarify the connection, the linearity, between the factual past and the speculative future. Peripatetic desire of unknown etiology is not in itself a bad thing, but no matter how often you move, you still take yourself with you.
Not that I expected it to, but moving hasn’t enabled me to escape the harsh limitations of reality. The problem isn’t one of failure of the actual to meet the contours of desire; the problem is that I’m a ship without a rudder, searching a sea-stretched horizon for land and unable to understand that what I want most has already come to pass. It is a terrible thing, living without something to aim at after spending your entire life so predisposed, now trying to solve the riddle of existence and obtain some sort of consolation, unable as we are to return to a point from which we might begin again. Worse still is feeling lost while knowing full well where you are.
In the past six months, I have seriously considered submitting an application to the Peace Corps or going to Ukraine to join the International Legion. I’ve always been what might perhaps best be described as a “hardcore hopeless romantic.” Not like that mush that passes for alcoholic sincerity type of romantic; more like laying on a trampoline in the dark, swooning under the universe and watching the stars come out in a sky that looks so 3-D you could just about dive in type of romantic. But often times that romance translates to a restive unease, an angst that ebbs and flows like the rising tide, an ever-present urge that comes with doubting yourself and comparing who you are now to who you used to be and looking at where you are now relative to where you thought you’d be. Time ticks on. The clock moves faster than your expectations can keep up, and the beautiful sunset that is the future loses most of its warmth and becomes only a paleness against the horizon, like the shadow of a smile.
I wish I could tell you that with each mile I drove as I left L.A., it was as if I were coming out of anesthesia, and that life now has a new lucidity to it, or perhaps a new ambience of some kind. I wish I could tell you that the purgatorial sameness with which my days pass was left there, and that I’ve felt buoyed by the experience of moving. I wish I could tell you that my new environs are lambent with significance, and that this place wasn’t saturated with the same presentiment of sadness as the last. I wish I could tell you I was able to escape the gravitational pull of my own memory, and that the heavy opacity of the future had dissipated some. I wish I could tell you.
L.A. Public Health has turned off public commenting on Twitter.
USC students make for especially easy marks. They walk back to their apartments at night with their heads down, utterly lost in their little pocket portals. Zero situational awareness. USC’s campus is beautiful, but step outside the gates and you’re essentially in downtown Los Angeles, a place where your thinking man keeps his wits about him.