It’s raining here today. So I’d like to tell you instead about yesterday. Monday, July 30.
On my way out the door in the morning, I saw The New Girl with the new map walking the other way. She looked slightly nervous but her feet barely touched the ground. I’ve been fascinated by this idea of the person on their way out crossing paths with the person on their way in lately. “Is there a word for that?” I’ve been asking myself. “Have there been books written about it? Movies made? I guess there was that one with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in it, or that Tom Petty video with Johnny Depp in it. But surely there have been others. Haven’t there? In any event, someone needs to tell that tale again.”
When I saw The New Girl I couldn’t help but smile. I’d somehow become the person on their way out. I guess this is how it happens though. It maybe takes a year, then one day you wake up and realize, it’s you, you’re it.
When I walked outside it was around 60 degrees Fahrenheit and felt just like the autumn mornings in America. It was cool and crisp and the sun was shining. I was wearing a faded black hoodie and breathing thick breaths.
As I walked, I started thinking about my autumn day trips to Bachelor’s Grove, a cemetery just off the Midlothian Turnpike in the south-east suburbs of Chicago. My memories of Bachelor’s Grove are interesting in that I have more memories of the air, and of the sun hitting the trees and ghost town streets than I do of the tombstones themselves. But this isn’t a problem. I’m not content with most things in life (hallelujah), but I am content with my memories of cemeteries and the air in the fall. And the air here yesterday was the same.
Remembering those Bachelor’s Grove trips got me thinking about my many October visits to New Orleans, where I made once-a-year friends whom I volunteered with at a haunted house just off the highway. Corpse paint, blood capsules, my girlfriend playing the role of sacrificial virgin in the satanic church, the low growls and high screams at passersby, the southern hospitality and homemade jambalaya. There was nothing quite like it. Even that haunted house probably wasn’t quite like it, not like the way I remember it, I mean.
It’s strange how that works. In my time here so far on this curious Earth, I’ve found that a whiff of air at a certain temperature can act as a time machine while simultaneously shifting everything a little to the left or right. For example, I love the movie The Exorcist, for many reasons. But one of those reasons is that the film reminds me of the fall in America. More specifically, it reminds me of the fall in Washington DC. But I’ve never even been to Washington DC in the fall.
This is what I mean about the temperature of the air.
The right air, when inhaled the right way, in the right place and time, can do strange and beautiful things. The right air combined with the right thoughts and imaginations can generate electricity.
So, as I was saying, yesterday morning I was walking like lightning through the streets.
I walked to the College Building of my university and dropped two spiral-bound copies of a 6,000-word story I’d written into a blue steel box. With those few motions, I’d finished my Master’s. “What do I do now?” I thought to myself. But I didn’t have the answer. So I returned six books to the library, checked out a copy of The Grapes of Wrath, tossed it in my bag along with my notebook and a week-old copy of The New Yorker, and kept walking.
I walked past a man crouched over a chalkboard in front of a coffee shop. He was drawing the outline of the face of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Maybe Leonardo. Maybe Raphael. It was hard to tell as it was just an outline and none of the color had been added to it yet. But it didn’t matter. The misshapen head and mask were enough to remind me of one of my first “artistic” endeavors. Which was, of course, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle illustration company that I’d started in the fourth grade with my friend Scott Peters. I don’t think we ever settled on a name. But the options were: “Peters & Leli” or “Leli & Peters”. So, as you can see, we were destined for failure. But we did draw one fantastic life-size full body portrait of Michelangelo first.
Failure came pretty easy then. It wasn’t really a thing. But I lost that luxury somewhere along the way. Somewhere along the way my Fear of Failure became a really, really big thing. A massively big thing. For a long while, it devoured me. And it was only after seeing that ninja turtle head yesterday that I realized it was no longer there. I don’t want failure, of course. I don’t go out looking for it on moonlit nights. But I’ve seen enough of it rolling around to know that it’s usually not so bad when it does swing by. And it’s never anywhere near as bad as the anticipation of it. So I choose not to burden myself with that fear anymore. And when others try to instill it in me, I choose not to burden myself with them either. Who has the time? I’m already burdened enough by this nagging Fear of Not Trying Hard Enough that will forever haunt and kick me like a can down the road. But may it always be, I say. May it always be.
So, as I was saying, yesterday morning I was walking like a failed Christian through the streets.
I walked to the coffee shop that I’d started writing something in last September, before the romance of the new city had worn off. I drank a black Americano and alternated between staring out the window and reading Malcolm Gladwell’s incredible New Yorker story about distance runner Alberto Salazar.
I walked to the two coffee shops I used to go to when I first moved here last August and lived for two weeks at a hostel in Bloomsbury. I thought about the emails I’d sent off from the one, the mortgage I’d refinanced from the other, the heavy and sleepless anxiety I’d felt in both, the thoughts of “What the fuck am I doing here?” that I ran like a rabbit in quicksand from everywhere.
I meandered toward Soho and stopped along the way to wander around Forbidden Planet. Eleven days earlier I’d had a little time to kill at Heathrow before a short trip back to Chicago. There’s a toy store at the airport, so I walked around in it for a little while. I made a deal with myself then that I’d stop to walk through all the toy stores I could when I passed them and had the time. So I walked around Forbidden Planet looking at all the sci-fi, superhero and horror movie figures, which didn’t do much for me. Then I walked down to look at the books and comics in the basement and read a few pages from a Ray Bradbury novel that did. And then I left.
I drifted past a group of Slovakian break dancers who the Internet tells me are onetime winners of the Slovakia’s Got Talent TV show. The backs of their Slovakian flag-colored jumpsuits read “Slovak Old School Brothers”, and they were putting on an ad hoc show in front of The Sports Cafe next to Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End.
I walked around Covent Garden for awhile because I felt like walking through a crowd. As Life has repeatedly reminded me over the years, walking by yourself among a large crowd of people is one of the best ways to ensure that you’ll be left alone.
I walked through Soho before finding myself on Denmark Street. Denmark Street, for those who don’t know, has a lot of historical ties to British music. Jimi Hendrix used to record in the basements there. The Sex Pistols used to live and record there. Today the street is lined with music stores and gear shops. I walked into one and played a 12-string acoustic guitar. I haven’t played a guitar since I moved here and I miss mine like a sailor misses the sea. So I sat and played what I could remember of “Everybody’s Talkin‘”, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea“, “Done This One Before“, and “Waking Up Insane“. I hummed along quietly but really wanted to sing a little loud and out of key. “Some other time,” I thought.
I walked to a coffee shop I’d never been to before and sat and read the first two chapters of The Grapes of Wrath as people left their jobs for the day and the city started to come alive. At one point a man tried to sell me some drugs. But I declined his generous offer. Later, two younger men asked me where they were and I asked them if they could be more specific. They couldn’t. But then I realized that I couldn’t either. So I told them they were somewhere between Soho and Covent Garden, in London. They thanked me and found a map.
After that I started walking back from whence I came.
When I got there I kept walking.
Instead of the usual cold can of vegetable soup for dinner, I treated myself to a vegetarian plate at a Turkish restaurant on Upper Street. As I ate, I started re-reading the Springsteen New Yorker profile for the third time. I did this until the lights fell dim and my eyes grew tired. Then I walked back to my room.
When I got there, I sang all the songs I’d wanted to sing in that guitar shop on Denmark Street. I sent a tweet off into the ether that read: “Finished my Master’s today. Went for a 10-hour walk. I smell.” I sang one more song while looking out the window for the moon. Sometimes it hangs out between two buildings across the way. When I saw that it wasn’t there I looked at the night sky instead. Then I lay in my bed listening to old Inside the Actors Studio episodes for hours. (I’ll explain later.)
I fell asleep around 2am.
When I woke up I saw that a few of my friends from Chicago had replied to my tweet congratulating me. “Thanks!” I replied back. “It’s really good to hear from you.”
And I meant it. It was. But I wanted to say so much more. I spend so much time writing about all the black and oozing shit that we’re born into, that it suddenly felt imperative to me to write about the day that I followed the paper trails, coffee beans and dusted hints of autumn air all through the city.
So here lies yesterday. Monday, July 30. It will not be written about in any history books. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t spit fire all day and roll and curl like smoke into the night.