BuzzFeed is awesome, but some of their posts — specifically those about turning a certain age — are kind of a downer. Well, I think age is just a number, and we spend too much of our lives feeling shitty about how high or low it is. So, here is a list for all those who don’t give a shit about their age.
After I graduated from Stetson University in 2007, I didn’t know what was next. I was dating my current wife, Heron, and we wanted to stay together. Well, I wanted to travel and see somewhere new, but she had to find a place that made sense with her work. So we looked at the options of where she could go, and we decided on…Detroit, Michigan.
Neither of us knew anything about Michigan, but we moved there anyway. My heroes — Hemingway, Kerouac, Twain, — all said that if I wanted to be a writer, then I needed to travel to know places. So I figured, no matter what, Detroit was a new place, and I would surely be able to write about it one day. Yeah, I would find some job, and I would write at night — or even when I was at work. What did I know?
We moved to Detroit in the fall of 2007, and the presidential elections were underway. I can still remember McCain saying the fundamentals of the economy were strong, and then the economy suddenly fell off a cliff. Of course, the recession then pillaged the rest of the country, but what I found when we moved into Ferndale was that the recession was already there in Detroit. It was very hard to find work, and I ended up working at the desk of a YMCA, teaching guitar, and working as a substitute teacher in some rough schools. Now, I’m beginning, finally, to start to write about that experience. So here is a list of the greatest lessons I learned from my year in Metro Detroit — a city that I hold close to my heart.
1. Libraries and piano stores are safe havens.
I was out of work in Detroit for a bit, and it was tough to find a job. I thought because I had a degree from an excellent school in Florida that everyone in the city would want to hire me. Well, it’s difficult when everyone else is looking for a job, and they already know people there. So I had to find a headquarters to set up and look for a job, and it ended up being the Royal Oak Public Library. Every morning, I would drive over to the library, find a table, and look for work. I had no idea how to find a job, but I kept at it. And on breaks, I would read short stories by my heroes and search for an answer.
But what I noticed was that I wasn’t the only one who had this idea. There was free internet at the library, and the computers were always swamped with people. Homeless men and women from all over the city would be waiting for the library to open so they could use the computes and the bathrooms. I’ll never forget walking in with them in the morning. I had a cup of coffee in my hand; they held their change of clothes in a plastic bag. I really empathized with them. Of course, my circumstances were infinitely more stable, but I also felt like I didn’t have a home. And the library became a place of comfort for the lost and wandering.
I would also go on walks at lunch breaks, and I wanted to find a place to hang out where I didn’t have to pay money. What I found was that piano stores were a great place to relax. I would walk in and play the piano for twenty minutes, and then I would walk out and head back to looking for jobs. So no matter what happens to me in my life, I know I will always have piano stores and libraries.
2. Work is beautiful and can be art:
Many people don’t know this, but the Detroit Institute of the Arts is one of the best museums in the country. It might just be because of their amazing mural painted by Diego Rivera. It’s scales four massive walls, and it depicts men in the car plants, creating the machinery as the mural morphs to reveal that we are all also machines created by a similar assembly line. Seeing Rivera’s mural has proved to be one of the greatest artistic experiences of my life. That’s one of the first times I understood that work was art.
Back home in Clinton, Massachusetts, I worked some jobs doing manual labor, and I knew very early on I needed to find a way to use my mind instead of my back. But while I was going through this process, working at a farm or picking stones out of the Earth, I met so many people who made this their life. And I don’t know how to articulate it yet, but those people who worked with their hands were beautiful. They seemed to be at peace with something that I wasn’t.
Philip Levine writes such beautiful poetry about work in his collection What Work Is, and his poetry has inspired me beyond, well, I can ever express. He is a true “working-class hero.” I was lucky enough to interview him at the LA Weekly.
And now I remember seeing that Van Gogh had painted people working in the fields. I remember the people wandering around in the cold in Downtown Detroit, the snow covering the cars and the streets, when I drove into a hip restaurant to apply for a job waiting tables. I remember working in the YMCA, watching gym towels spin in a washing machine. I remember the snow outside of the high school where I was a substitute teacher, right off of 10 mile in Ferndale, or some mile, way beyond the reaches of my consciousness. I remember that I gave out all my books to my students, hoping they would find solace in words.
3. It wasn’t going to be easy.
Probably the best lesson I learned from Detroit was that it wasn’t going to be easy…being a writer in this world. It was a shock to find a city that wasn’t opening their arms to me, because I thought I was some hot-shot. It was a shock to find that securing a real job after college was not guaranteed. It was a shock to find that when I went to apply for teaching jobs they laughed at me and my American Eagle collared shirts. It was a shock to find the darkness thicker than the snow, thicker than the memory of night back home.
I was just a kid who thought that I could wander into a city and become a writer…or a teacher, but no, Detroit said, nothing is handed to you. You need to work for it. You need to bust your ass. And you need to be thankful for your job at the YMCA or a substitute teacher. You need to be thankful that you can teach guitar. You need to be thankful that you can see this part of the world, no matter how tough it is.
In the end, I feel that I had grown a lot in Detroit, and I didn’t even have it that tough. I love that city, because there will always be a part of me, a young and naive part, still wandering into piano stores and libraries, trying to kill time.
So tomorrow, I’m taking to the road with nothing but my backpack and a prayer. No, just kidding. I’ll be driving up to San Francisco to meet with a fellow FIU alumni, Joe Clifford, and participate in the Lip Service West reading. I hope to also meet with another writing buddy I know from a long time ago. I can’t stress how important it is to know people in life who are successful at what you’re trying to do. Mentors, people who have been through the shit. Because honestly, writing is a tough journey; it’s filled with more ups and downs than motor cross races, and everyone’s path seems to be different, but it’s just amazing to hear the stories, to be encouraged to continue.
Well, it’s been a long time since I have had an adventure. I used to think that everything had to been adventure or it wasn’t worth doing. So, here I go, trying to rediscover that sense of wonder. I’ll be giving updates throughout the weekend when I can.
Here’s a list of what I’m bringing:
- Two pairs of boxers and some shirts.
- A coat for the cold weather
- A guitar?
- A book on tape
- My journal.
- My laptop with the story I’ll be reading
- A sense of adventure
Well, thanks to everyone for reading, and I hope you’ll check in on the story as it develops. Oh yeah, exciting news coming out tomorrow in the literary world.
One of my favorite movies is The Bronx Tales. I don’t know why, because sometimes I think the main actor’s (the guy who played C) performance was a bit stale, even though I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. I swear I can almost retell you that whole movie. One of my favorite parts in the movie is the clip above, when Sonny tells C about the door test. Basically, it’s a test to find out if your date is one of the three true loves. According to Sonny, you only get three.
As for the door test, Sonny says that you take a girl out, and when you pick her up, you make sure the doors are locked — the windows up tight. So you take the girl to the car, you put the key in the door, and you open the door for her. You let her in the car, shut the door, and walk around the back. While you’re walking around the back of the car, you look inside, and your date doesn’t reach over and unlock your door, then you dump her. You dump her right there and move on.
Of course, this test requires that you have manual locks in your car, and how many people still have automatic locks? Well, when I was younger and I had a car with manual locks — a beautiful Subaru Legacy wagon — I used to test every woman who came into my car — even if I wasn’t romantically into them. If they passed the test, then I did sort of think about it.
But I guess this reveals something about how corny I am. So what? I am a guy who believes in true love. I believe that there are certain people out there in the world who are meant to find each other. I know that sounds lame, especially since the woman I’m about to marry, ah hum, failed the door test, but she has spent the last several years making up for it.
And I think these types of test are somewhat important — while more fun than accurate — and it’s a shame that everyone has automatic locks so they can’t perform the love assessment. So I’ve come up with a new test.
Say it’s you and your significant other, and you’re watching a television show together. Make it the brand new episode of Breaking Bad. Well, at this point, you should have a buddy call you — or fake an excuse to go outside. Walk around outside, and wherever you are, make sure you can see your date, and if she doesn’t hit pause on that DVR so you don’t miss a part of the show — dump her. Dump her good. And never look back.