After a one-hour ride on the Metro-North Train from New Canaan, Conn., into New York City, N.Y., I disembarked the steel train car and trudged into Grand Central Station. The light pouring through two- or three-story glass windows reminded me that even here, the sun makes an appearance from time to time.
Every morning for nearly three months I performed this ritual. Off the train, into the station, an ocean of bodies rushing about, a large clock at the center of it all, feeding the racing rats a diet of tick and tock. They’d run about, faces in phones, scurrying up escalators and out through revolving doors.
Something I learned while participating in this ecosystem was to stand on the right side of the escalator so the suits could rush by to make their opening bell. So the Mad Men could catch their breakfast, coffee, and clients. So the cops could march past to get about the business of suspicion. Up the moving staircase we were all shuttled, each, it seemed, at the pace that corresponded with our income — or the lack thereof.
At the top of the stairs, the gray concrete and silver granite of the world’s greatest city lay just on the other side of a gold-framed glass monolith — the gray buildings made all the drearier by the gray sky beating down on their walls. The streets alive with steam rising from manhole covers, yellow cabs streaking by, swirling the steam into white spirals. Save for the color of the cabs, it was a monotone scene. Like one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos: black, white, and desperately alive.
Outside that glass were 8 million people, cars, trucks, shops, and high-rises. And sludge made up of some combination of oil, asphalt, pickle juice, rat piss, and garbage bile. In many places, the snow from the last blizzard had yet to melt in the recessed corners of the curbs. The temperature outside was a balmy 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind was howling through the canyons made of skyscraper walls.
The walk to my office was about a mile through midtown Manhattan. Every day I made my way to the doors, I wrapped my scarf tighter, I pulled my hat farther down over my pink ears, and I pushed against the revolving doors, shoving my free hand deeper into my pocket while my mind frantically tried to find some Zen. Every day I said the same thing to myself: “Into the breach.”
Every day I said the same thing to myself: Into the breach.
Why is an overlander subjecting himself to this? Truth is, I performed this ritual for a long 90 days straight — all just to earn enough money to fix our Airstream camper, which had just broken down 200 miles outside of our destination. Initially the idea had been to drive up to New York City, stay at Croton Point Park, and commute into the city every day to earn money at an ad agency so we could pay off our student loans — so we could be free to overland henceforth debt free.
Alas, our camper decided that plan was much too good, and on the drive up to New York City, the engine literally exploded when a piece of the camshaft came off and made mincemeat of our motor. What are the odds this would happen just outside the city of Mechanicsburg, Pa.? Incalculable.
We decided that instead of scrapping the camper, we would go ahead and get it all fixed up, since it was our only home. We did have a Volkswagen camper back home in Texas. We’d bought a few months before the Airstream hoping to make it our home on the road but we decided it may not be the best for the road life we had planned. Looking back now, this was a wretchedly poor decision, but hey, you live, and you learn, and then you end up selling that Airstream camper later at a loss — but that’s a different story altogether. Fixing up the Airstream it was, and the repairs it needed would run us north of $20,000. That’s not a typo.
With the camper out of commission for 60 days, we were thankfully given a place to crash by a fellow traveling friend (who was also my creative director). Once we wore out the welcome at my creative director’s house, and after almost two months of sleeping on some couches, we bounced around between friends’ apartments in the city and Airnbnb rentals in Brooklyn.
One rental in particular sticks out as the lowest point of our situation. It was in Bushwick, which I suppose is a neighborhood of Brooklyn. The area was a complete mess. Trash everywhere. I saw a man finishing a salad he was sloppily eating out of a plastic container unceremoniously discard the container in the gutter. Or maybe I saw a hundred men do this. Our daily walk to the subway F train included hurtling over garbage bags the size of a 300-pound man, dodging sandwich-wrapper airplanes being tossed about by the frosty wind, and avoiding the gaze of ne’er-do-wells looking to beg, steal, or manipulate you out of something they valued.
All this to get to the F train. Fucking train. If the garbage dodging wasn’t enough to get to you, standing face-to-face with an Indian guy who had curry cereal for breakfast certainly was.
The F train. A steel cage packed with the same rats that raced around Grand Central Station. I soon learned to bring an empty Powerade bottle with me so I could stick my nose in it and smell the sweet sugar instead of the thickly scented perfume, curry, homeless guy, candy, Starbucks, roast beef, old cheese, and fart. Fuck that train.
One night as we headed back to our rental in Bushwick, I began to feel a nauseous cloud envelop me. I sat with my eyes closed, trying not to let the melting pot of smells set off a fountain of vomit. I didn’t want to be the guy that makes the F train worse. I sat, concentrating, trying to frolic to my happy place. I turned to Jessica and told her we had to get off. The doors opened, and like a good New Yorker, I selfishly threw myself past everyone at the door and ran to a trash can. My hands gripped the sides, where some kind of sticky fluid had taken up residence, and I let loose a growling ralph. I got on the next train, got off at the next stop, and ralphed again. Repeat.
We finally made it back to our “home,” and I crawled to the bathroom where I spent most of the night sleeping on the blood-splattered floor, waiting for the next heave-ho to come gushing out of me. Why was the floor splattered in blood, you ask? Because there was a female dog in that house who happened to be in heat at the time, and for some reason, our unemployed hostess simply didn’t have it in her to use a Swiffer mop to clean up the blood. Every day for a week or so, we entered this little hovel, our feet crushing little bits of dirt and dried food. The apartment was barely lit and smelled of city. And every night, a young man who had zero interest in women came home and would play the most awful mix of pop music I think I’ve ever had the displeasure of hearing.
The awfulness of this reminds me of one subway ride in particular that sticks out above the others. I was making my way to a photography store, sitting on the subway and minding my own business, when a sack of filth moved himself purposefully into my field of view.
“Whatchu looking at, white?” he demanded in a not-so-endearing tone.
“I’m looking at nothing in particular, but if you’re suggesting that I’m eyeballing you, I think it would be prudent to reassess how you entered my field of view,” I calmly replied.
He then proceeded to yell obscenities at me and every kind of racial slur he knew. Apparently the gentleman was not fond of white people.
I sat calmly. He lunged at me. I didn’t flinch. Because, let’s be honest — I would have loved to break this idiot’s face, as it seemed he required a righteous ass whooping, but after almost 60 days in that prison of a city, did I really want to see what a real prison was like?
I resolved to solve our issue peaceably. I proceeded to inform my new friend that I was in fact not white and that should he decide to come at me, it would not end well for either of us. It seemed to me that although violence could’ve been justified here, given his aggressive actions toward me, reason and diplomacy should win this day.
I experienced more bigotry and racism in that one interaction in the “enlightened North” than I had in 32 years of living in the old Confederacy.
The train stopped, I got off, he followed me. He called me a Jew and proceeded to use even more epithets about my perceived Jewishness.
“No, sir. I am Puerto Rican,” I informed him. He chilled the fuck out. Some.
“I hate white people. Ain’t no white person ever done nothing for me,” he said.
“I’ve managed to live my entire life not relying on whites, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, or anyone else to do anything for me. In fact, I’ve never expected it. Maybe you should consider doing that for yourself, instead of worrying about the skin color of those around you,” I replied.
“Shit’s hard, dawg,” he said.
“It’s harder if you’re a racist.”
I sped up, crossed the street, and lost him in a crowd of people. I grew up in the “racist South,” but I experienced more bigotry and racism in that one interaction in the “enlightened North” than I had in 32 years of living in the old Confederacy.
When we finally got our camper back, our hearts had soured to the vehicle. It was the reason we were out $20,000 in repairs and another $6,000 dollars in car rentals, train tickets, Airbnb rentals, and everything else. It was why we hadn’t paid off our student loans, and it was why we had been stuck in New York City — a place we almost totally despise for its values, attitudes, and insanity.
Have you ever dreamed you were walking down a street in nothing but a white t-shirt that’s too short to cover your jibbly bits? That feeling of helplessness and frustration — the constant nagging question of how the hell did I get myself into this situation? The need to just run faster to get away from onlookers, except if you run, then everyone can see everything. That’s what it felt like those 90 days we were in New York City: helpless and desperate and frustrated. It was a series of bad experiences, each flanked on either side by a worse experience. From daily subway rides with curry guy, to vomiting undercooked food, to trudging through sludge and ice and cold wind, to our camper’s engine blowing up, it seemed nothing went our way.
When we finally left the city limits — when we were finally driving through fields with skyscrapers no longer visible in our rearview mirror — the song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show just happened to come on the radio. We were heading to our beloved South — to Johnson City, Tenn. The song could not have been more perfectly timed.
“Heading down South to the land of the pines…”
I grew up on the outskirts of Atlanta, Ga., with woods and creeks and beaver dams just on the other side of our fence. Southern mornings there were misty, humid, cool. We’d jump on our bikes and pedal around the woods on trails my father had made for us. We’d weave in and out of pines pretending we were “Top Gun” pilots — Goose and Maverick dogfighting invisible enemies that seem so real to kids living free and letting their imaginations run wild. We’d tire of our bikes and then set about harvesting fallen limbs, building our tree forts up in preparation for the next make-believe attack. Pines were everywhere. Their pinecones were grenades, and the sap was the blood that leaked from our wayward machine gun fire.
Jess and I sang along as loud as we could. “Picking me a bouquet of dogwood flowers…”
Mornings in the south are humid and cool, the air is light and sweet with the scent of pink dogwoods — not F-train curry breath and perfume and city.
“Running from the cold up in New England…”
We had endured the worst winter the Northeastern U.S. had experienced in 20 years as vagabonds and drifters, homeless and underprepared. We had felt stifled and shut in. With our vehicle broken, we couldn’t leave. Our liberty lay just outside that Empire State.
“And if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free…”
We’d heard from New Yorkers that the South is filled with fools and fanatics. We encountered multiple people who’d never visited because they feared being shot. The bubble in New York City is real. For us, the South means freedom, and when we heard those lines in that song, we couldn’t sing along anymore. We burst into tears. It was joy and relief we hadn’t felt since the day we married.
At least there we would die free.