Friday, December 26, 2008

Ninety-Four, Part Two: Wherein I tell how I learned how many days I can sleep on a couch.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. Part One is here.

I had two notebooks where I wrote down everything, more or less, that I thought was significant about what I did and what I thought and what I saw in Washington and Morocco, what I experienced in 1994. I didn’t know, when I left that January day on the train to Chicago and then to Washington, whether what I was about to do was going to be interesting or fun or weird, but I knew it would be more interesting, more fun, and more weird than what I’d been doing.

Up until that time, my life was not one that would be considered fun, or interesting, or weird, in any way that people would want their lives to be described by those adjectives. I was not leaving much behind. I was giving up a studio apartment and some couches and chairs that I’d bought for $100. I was giving up my TV and the VCR my friend Jimmie had sold to me for $5. And I was giving my childhood bed, the bed I’d slept on since I was maybe ten years old, the bed that slanted into the middle and had a groove that was about as long and wide as my body, the bed that was one-half of the bunk beds that Matt and I had shared when we had to share a room because our sister Katie was born, the bed that I’d taken with me when I’d moved out of my parent’s house for good. Although “for good” in that sentence definitely doesn’t mean “for better.” I had not done much of anything, really, with my life, before or after moving out.

Until I got on that train to go to Chicago and then to Washington, taking with me those possession I figured I’d need: My clothes, my cassette tapes and stereo, some books, and the notebook in which I would write down what I did in a year that I was hoping would be worth writing down.

I wish I could remember what I wrote, that very first day. I know that I wrote something not only because I was excited about being off on a trip, but because I remember sitting in Chicago’s railroad station waiting for the train that would take me to Washington, and writing in the notebook.

I was excited about being off on a trip because I had not taken that many trips in my lifetime, and I had not ever gone to live anywhere else, not counting moving out of my parent’s house and moving to Milwaukee, which doesn’t count at all. Moving less than 75 miles away doesn’t count as moving. If you’re within range of a quick drive to spend the day there – if you are only a quarter-tank of gas away from dropping in on Mom, dropping in as it so happens right around dinner time, so you stay for dinner because otherwise almost every meal you eat is a sub sandwich from your job at Subway, seeing as how you are neither a good cook nor a good budgeter and as a result there is not much that you have in your house that could be called “groceries” and even less that could go from being “groceries” to “dinner,” – if you are that close to your parents’ house, making it that easy to stop by (and also very easy to steal a couple of bath towels on the way out the door, so that you don’t have to do laundry just yet) then you have not really “moved away.” “Moved away” means no easy way back, means that trips home require planning and pickups at train stations or airports, require consideration of just how many days you can sleep on a couch. If your trips home don’t require that kind of advance logistical planning, then you have not moved away, you’ve simply moved out.

My own answer to the question of how many days can I sleep on a couch would also be answered in nineteen-ninety-four. The answer is about seven days after trying to take the LSAT while deathly tired because you are staying at Mom’s, which means you are sleeping on Mom’s couch, and because you are sleeping on Mom’s couch, you will be woken up every time Mom wakes up in the night, especially if when Mom wakes up she first vacuums the living room (where you are sleeping) and then when you ask her if she could do that later on maybe during the daytime, and she agrees, you will be woken up about an hour later when Mom accidentally spills very cold milk on your leg. I can sleep on a couch about seven more days after that.

I didn’t know that, yet, in January of 1994. What I knew was that the train was a boring and long way to travel, something I’d gathered about an hour into the trip when I disembarked at Chicago and had to wait a couple of hours to catch my connecting train. I was only taking the train in the first place because it was cheaper—slightly – than an airplane and I had to ration my money carefully. I had my savings, and the excess money from the student loans that I will be paying until I am 71, and that had to last me four long months in Washington, D.C., and another two months after that in Morocco. So I did not splurge and take an airplane; at that point in my life, I had never taken an airplane. I had taken the train, which meant a lot of sitting on the train while it went past boring winter countryside, and then a lot of sitting in the train station waiting to be taken past more boring countryside.

I’ve traveled more now, and had traveled some then, and I know that America can be a beautiful place to drive through, scenery that looks as though it belongs in a painting, tableaus that if you saw them in a movie you would scoff at and said Fake! I’d seen some of those sights already in my life, having been through the Smoky Mountains and the Appalachians and to Florida and Virginia and South Dakota.

Trains do not go through any scenic areas. Not between Milwaukee and Washington, they don’t. They go through what must be the longest, most decrepit industrial park in the world, a string of broken-windowed browning buildings all boxy and two-storied and looking too dull and dirty to have even been used as a factory to make something exciting; these were old factories that clearly were in the business of producing boring, ugly, things: One could not picture video games or Christmas ornaments or baby clothes coming from the buildings the train passed by. One could easily picture rusty manhole covers being made there. Why someone would want to deliberately manufacture rusty manhole covers didn’t matter; that was all I could imagine them building in those places.

When there weren’t old dead factories, there was just old dead ground. Ground that was just hilly enough to avoid capturing my interest, and not covered with trees enough to be pretty.

Ninety-four was when I first began developing what eventually would become one of the concrete beliefs of my life, and that is this: Hills are scenic. For something to be considered “scenic” it has to have dramatic and large changes in altitude. There has to be a cliff, a mountain, a valley, waterfalls, drop-offs, plateaus, something. Every place I’ve ever been that could reasonably be described as scenic had that: San Francisco, the Badlands of South Dakota, the seaside near Mexico, the Atlas Mountains, to name a few, all had hills and valleys and other things that are scenic. On the other hand, places that were not scenic – Orlando, Oklahoma, Illinois, -- were flat, or mostly flat, or flat enough that I wouldn’t describe them as “hilly” and therefore were not scenic.

I developed that theory on the train ride from Milwaukee to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Washington, a train ride that goes through nondescript, featureless, terrain that has nothing to allow me to remember it. I can only remember it, now, like a negative: by remembering what it lacked. There were no big trees. No rivers. No waterfalls. Nothing for the mind to latch onto and say now, that’s scenic, or memorable or worth looking out the window for.

That’s why the time spent sitting in the train station in Chicago sticks out in my mind: from the time I left Milwaukee until the time I arrived in Washington D.C. it was the only portion of the trip that could lodge in my mind at all, that could find a foothold among the song lyrics and commercials from when I was a kid, among the names of all the members of the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Legion of Substitute Heroes.

The beginning of my trip started out being memorable for being so unmemorable. I had thought, maybe, that the moment I got on the train, things would transform and become exciting and scenic and fun and weird. But that didn’t happen right away. That didn’t happen until nearly a day after I’d gotten on in Milwaukee, I got off of the train in Washington D.C., and realized that I had no idea where I was.

Or where I was supposed to go.

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