“There is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.” – Henry Miller
When travel is a way of life, the concept of home becomes malleable, fallible, and strange. Last week, when I was stepping out of my friends’ 70s camper bus to get to my flight back to New York and they asked if I was happy to be going home, I remarked that I’ve been on the road so much this year that the airplane seat is what feels like home. And I’m reasonably comfortable with that feeling, because surrender to travel, and to the road, forces a kind of magical thinking. On the road, connections are the natural state of being, whether it’s connecting between modes of transit, or places, or people. If you surrender to those connections with curious eyes, everywhere is new. And if it isn’t new, it’s your eyes that are. And there are positives and negatives to that.
Last Saturday I had occasion to explore Harlem and New York’s Upper West Side, which is new terrain to me, despite the fact that I’ve lived out here for seven years. I wandered into a café where the barista wore a fleur de lis necklace, which led us to talk about New Orleans, and that opened up a rush of nostalgia for that place that I’m feeling very acutely tonight.
New Orleans and New York are an intriguing contrast to each other. Both are 24 hour cities, and both afford each person the ability to take from it what they want to. But on a fundamental level there are differences that inform what each person can take. The most fundamental, I think, is their relationships towards money as a baseline for lifestyle. New Orleans seems completely uninterested in wealth. There’s an awful lot of vicious poverty there that is not to be discounted, but there’s also a lot of people that couldn’t be bothered to worry about money. Capitol is the life’s blood of New York, the current that propels its energy. Even for people that don’t care for wealth, a large amount of it is required just to make the basics of life happen here. I think the result is that New Orleanians tend to be a genuinely friendly lot, whereas New Yorkers are sincerely polite.
When I was exploring the Upper West, I came across Westsider Books, which must have signed a 100 year lease sometime in the distant past, because it was unusual to step into such a tall and narrow space on the main drag of Broadway absolutely bursting with cheap, old, and actually dusty tomes. I walked in with the traveler’s whim, to see what this new place had to offer, and its shelves were overflowing with favorite authors and topics. I turned a narrow corner and happened on the travel shelf where Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi was staring at me. Henry and I became friends when I was in high school, and last interacted about a decade ago when I was enthralled with his sculptural writing in Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. I tried Colossus back then, because he said it was his favorite of his books, but it didn’t connect with me. So I sold it. But last Saturday, the book asked me to pick it up again, so I did.
Tonight, I was out of sorts. The weather in New York has turned from early summer to late winter so abruptly that an animist would call it spite. I took to the gym and read Henry’s monologue, where his thoughts on France and Greece connected strongly with my ruminations on New York and New Orleans.
The Frenchman puts walls about his talk, as he does about his garden: he puts limits about everything in order to feel at home. At bottom he lacks confidence in his fellow-man; he is skeptical because he doesn’t believe in the innate goodness of human beings. He has become a realist because it is safe and practical. The Greek, on the other hand, is an adventurer: he is reckless and adaptable, he makes friends easily.
After the gym I stopped at my local pub, Harefield Road, where every stool to the left and the right of me was occupied by people talking to the person they arrived with or otherwise looking at their cel phone. As I read more of Henry’s words, a lady came up beside me and was bantering with Nate, the scientist who pays for his education tending bar. She was interrupted by a lout she knew who came up and said, “I shoulda known you were the one wasting this guy’s time. Order some fucking drinks or I’ll kill you!” This was his joviality. I guess I shouldn’t have been appalled by this joke between friends, but I was. But I also didn’t say anything, because you don’t do that here, and when I looked around to see if anyone else felt the way I did, all I saw was a wall of faces illuminated by the screens of their handheld devices.
We need peace and solitude and idleness. If we could all go on strike and honestly disavow all interest in what our neighbor is doing we might get a new lease of life. We might learn to do without telephones and radios and newspapers, without machines of any kind, without factories, without mills, without mines, without explosives, without battleships, without politicians, without lawyers, without canned goods, without gadgets, without razor blades, even or cellophane or cigarettes or money. This is a pipe dream, I know. People only go on strike for better working conditions, better wages, better opportunities to become something other than they are.
It is a pipe dream. But when I’m in New York, I’m bothered more and more frequently by how we are a city of millions who ignore each other, and when we can’t ignore each other, are suspicious of each other. It's not that we disavow interest in what our neighbor is doing, it's that by assuming a posture of self-preservation, we disavow the concept of neighbor. New York is beautiful, intelligent, and advanced, but we’re the kind of advanced where eye contact is so off-putting that we use wireless devices instead of talking to our neighbor.
Tonight, when I walked home from the gym, I looked at the tall buildings, the beautiful people, and the expensive restaurants on the way, and I missed New Orleans. I missed Flora Café, and I missed Devin playing the piano after she served me a cup of coffee, and I missed the musical Monday streets that affirmed the fact that another week had begun and we are all still here, in this, together.
New York is where I live, but it’s aloof, and it greets me like a visitor. New Orleans is a place I get to when I can, but it greets me like a friend, and sometimes, like a brother.
In travel, the concept of home becomes malleable, fallible, and strange. And sitting at my desk and writing this letter to you, I long for New Orleans, or for the airplane seat. I love everything about what I do, but what I do is home, and where I reside, well…
“All France, it has often been said, is a garden, and if you love France, as I do, it can be a very beautiful garden. For myself I found it healing and soothing to the spirit; I recovered from the shocks and bruises which I had received in my own country. But there comes a day, when you are well again, and strong, when that atmosphere ceases to be nourishing. You long to break out and test your powers.”
Right now, home is vocation. Everything else is observation.