I wish everyone a life of streets and alleys, lanes and country roads. Wet, dry. Narrow, wide. Busy, quiet. Lit, or dark. They are, and they have always been, my escape. My feet follow them, one in front of the other, as I struggle with what feels so heavy on my shoulders. And I’m reminded when I look down, or in fatal despair, toward the sky, of my place in the Universe. That is power.
Thinking back now, I remember more of them than I would have guessed yesterday. One memory leads to another, and then to another. They head in this direction and that, woven together, related but distinct, emanating out from the center, creating a pattern that no single one would hint at. In whole, they map so much of where I’ve come from and who I am.
There’s the street outside the house where I first felt the freedom of riding a bike away from home without anyone by my side. Those three blocks beyond the driveway and a “Don’t-go-beyond-the-high-school” shout after me from my mother seemed so liberating back then. I remember too the disapproval I felt when developers sawed a new road, dividing my block in half, without even asking the ten-year-old if I approved.
It was before the internet and social media when I started rounding the block, when exploring the world meant opening the door, not a browser. And I remember every additional street I navigated as my universe grew, as I found the dips in each new road that gave my bike extra lift on the upswing. Until at last, I arrived at the edge of town and was reminded by the last yard of asphalt that this town was so small and the world outside it was so big.
The gravel ran rough under the tires of my dad’s John Deere. Sitting on the top of the wheelwell as he drove, I swept my head to the side to protect my eyes from the onslaught of oncoming dust because the county forgot to dump lime again. Over that same gravel as an almost teenager, I first drove a truck down the road. Around the second bend my mother yelled at me for not moving the truck far enough to the right to allow the oncoming car. Funny the things we remember.
In high school, I stuffed into the back of a car around midnight with some lyric disappearing out the window and off into the night. I grabbed the headrest in front of me and peered through the fogged glass to see if I could discern, like I was told I should be able to, the letters “PLEH” protruding from the road. It was rumored to be “HELP” spelled backwards, a final plea from a motorcyclist who crashed into wet concrete that became his tomb. Or so the tale goes.
There was also the narrow alley with grass sprouting down the middle that ran alongside a barn trapped by houses that long ago encased it in the growing town. And, through a daze of alcohol-tainted virgin blood, I remember not knowing what to say as my friend cried in my arms at something I knew hurt but still couldn’t understand. So I did all I could, which wasn’t much, and held him as his tears hit bricks that should have long ago been dug up. “It’ll be okay”—as if I had any idea.
Those roads were my whole life back then. But with the wonder and the excitement that came with them, came the exacting realization that night that life was more complicated than the few blocks and ninety degree angles stretched out in front of me suggested. The quaintness and the sheer innocence of a rural, midwestern childhood could only protect us for so long.
The roads multiply from there; they flood my mind. I’m reminded of the one that led the way to a late night diner, lit like a supernova of incandescent lamps on the corner of a nothing intersection in nowhere Illinois at 3 AM. My Nighthawks. There’s also the one, with the aid of an errant companion or two, that unraveled itself in front of me, beckoning us to an adventure from one end of campus into a shuttered arboretum. The stars were alive.
It was sometime around then I found a friend in a line at customs and walked out of the airport onto a European street for the first time. Those streets changed everything. There’s that pitch-black road I walked down with my clothes stuffed with newspapers to find shelter from a cold night. And there’s the small side street that that marked the entrance to a home in this foreign place. I found a barn and a country road there too, and the sky reminded me of that night long ago when I realized that life is not simple.
There were more too. There’s the one I remember because an old friend who I have long since fell out of touch with ran down with her pants around her ankles. There’s also the one I trudge through as if I was making my way through Jello having just eaten a brownie that wasn’t quite just a brownie. And there’s the cobbled one along the water buoyed by boats. I escaped into one just long enough to pretend it was mine and that I could take it anywhere.
When I got back, winding Missouri roads hijacked my twenty-something self. Paired with an album that followed the dark curves of the Lake of the Ozarks, I screamed lyrics at the universe, as the crisp air, cleaned by the trees all around, lashed at me. If I close my eyes, I can still imagine turning off the tree-lined roads onto the main drag where a frozen custard stand from the fifties lit up the heavy summer nights. There was no place to be; time stood still back then.
I headed south after a few months. Mississippi lulled me with Christian talk radio broadcast from some radio personality’s basement somewhere within earshot no doubt. Jesus Christ is your Savior, I was told. And while there’s still so little I remember from those hours-long drives down I-55, I remember vividly answering a call from a friend who was supposed to move to Louisiana with me and listening to him tell me that he wouldn’t be there when I arrived.
When played against the backdrop of a new song, Louisiana’s roads felt familiar if I sung along. So when I hear that one song now, I’m brought back to that car and that road, with tangled thickets out the driver-side window and, out the other side, the levee holding back the Mississippi. And then there were those antebellum streets, lit by gas lamps, and wetted with the lick of whiskey on my tongue. They’re pocked with too many rickety porches and overpass bars and drunken nights to make sense of it all now.
That wasn’t it though. There are all of the roads, streets, and alleys I’ve told you about so many times before. More in Louisiana, and the ones in D.C., and France, and in New York too. The ones that I stained with the tears of a young man who was scared of who he was. The ones that I walked alone at night with no destination in mind because I was convinced there was no place else to go.
It’s 5:30 in the morning. I’m wiping the sleep away from my eyes as I walk past the mailboxes and out the door of our apartment. We live above a tire shop that’s out of place among all of the skyscrapers under construction. The streets aren’t crowded yet, but the city still hums until I block it out with my headphones. It’s November now. The morning air isn’t cold, but it isn’t warm either.
As I turn to walk down 34th Street, I’m greeted by the Empire State Building standing dark in the skyline. Do they always shut the lights off late at night? I think to myself. The New Yorker greets me too. It glows scandalously red at this hour. No one else is looking up. I wonder why not and I wonder where they’re going. What does she do? Him? I’ll never know. I notice the air rushing in my lungs. Music floods my ears and my pace quickens to the beat.
The orange yields to the bright white walk signal and I start to cross Ninth Avenue. I’m not regularly up when traffic is this slow. So when I get to the middle of Ninth, I stop, turn north, look up the street, drop my left foot behind my right, turn south, and look down to the end of the island. The buildings bookend the narrow sliver of morning sky. For a second, I’m overwhelmed by the massiveness of it all. But I don’t linger.
Image courtesy of Gregory Upton Jr.. Some rights reserved.