Most of my life I have managed to be reasonably happy and comfortably poor.
An exception came when I was approaching 40 and living in Portland, Oregon. I broke up with my girlfriend and became unhappy. When I moved out of her house that had the fenced backyard for my golden retriever, Newton, my poverty became uncomfortable.
But Richard and Sarah, an unmarried couple I knew from my job, wanted to leave the basement apartment they were renting, so I took over their lease. The only way I could afford the rent was by having a roommate. So I took the bedroom which was just big enough to fit a floor lamp and a futon bed, both of which I had purchased, along with all my cookware and kitchen utensils, from Richard and Sarah. And I rented the very large bedroom to a Japanese-American woman who had just graduated from Reed College. The only modification she had made when moving in was to bolt into the high ceiling of her bedroom a leather net on a swivel hook.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“It’s my swing,” she said. Then she made a big slow wink at me. “I’m a swinger. Get it?”
The best roommates are the ones who you never see except when they hand you the rent check. Almost every day after her office job my roommate went to all-night parties hosted by members of Portland’s diverse and hyperactive sadomasochism community. The only guests she brought home were her best friends, a married couple, both of who were over six-feet tall and 240 pounds. The husband was a computer programmer and an undistinguished player. But the wife was a renowned and sought-after professional dominatrix. Only once in a while did my dog and I awake in the wee small hours of the morning to the sounds of a bullwhip cracking and high-pitched whimpering coming from behind my roommate’s bedroom door.
Despite my small job, small bank account, and a room so small there was no place for my dog to sleep but on the futon with me, I had a big dream. It was a dream that had been buried somewhere between the lower mantel and outer core of my memory since I was 17. For an unknown reason that made perfect sense, the dream chose this unhappy and uncomfortable time to erupt.
I wanted to ride a bicycle across America
There was a question repeating in my mind day and night. “If not now, when?”
I was no longer on great terms with my former girlfriend, but my dog was. So when I asked, she readily agreed to take care of Newton for an indefinite time. I began, without really paying attention to what I was doing, buying or borrowing bicycling gear and camping equipment. I randomly chose a date five months away on which I would quit my job, give up my apartment, and sell the futon I had bought from Richard and Sarah, along with whatever else I owned that could not be carried on a bicycle. And, on the nights that I awoke to the call-and-response of the bullwhip and whimpering, I would lie in bed vividly imagining myself dipping the back wheel of my bicycle in the Pacific Ocean. Then dipping the front wheel of my bicycle in the Atlantic Ocean. I cleverly chose to not imagine the weeks of grueling sun-scorched rain-soaked sleeping on rocky ground between those two baptisms.
Three weeks before I was to hit the delete key on my unhappy life and open a new, blank document on which to draft a better one, I blew out my back. That is, as the first chiropractor I had ever consulted informed me, “Your L4-L5 disc has succumbed to age, and to a series of assaults.”
“Assaults? What assaults?”
He quoted from the three-page history I had provided. “Tackle football, bicycle crashes, slipping on those ice-covered stairs Thanksgiving morning. Not to mention falling off the horse onto that rock while on your honeymoon in England.”
“Your back,” the chiropractor said, “Records and remembers every insult and injury.
“Oh. Like my mother.”
Until then, I had never been seriously injured, never had an arm in a sling or a leg in a cast, never taken pain-killing pharmaceuticals, and had given but never received blood. Now I could not sit down or walk without pain. The pain was transmitted along a high-intensity electric cable strung from the toes of my left foot up into my lower back. And there was no off-switch. I was shocked to find I had become a member in good standing of the one group any person—regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, health or wealth—can suddenly become a member of. The disabled.
I asked the chiropractor, “Can I still ride my bike across the continent.”
“Absolutely,” he said.
My spirits soared.
“Maybe a year from now. If you’re lucky.”
Now, three weeks before the date I had resolved to declare my life a Do Over, a new question began repeating in my mind day and night. “What the fuck am I going to do now?”
The answer came in a rapid succession of seemingly unrelated events over which I had no control other than how I responded to each. In a word, Life.
My employer announced a layoff. I volunteered. Having worked at a job of one kind or another since I was 15, which is a reliable method for being comfortably poor, being suddenly unemployed was a shock, disorienting, and liberating.
Richard and Sarah decided to get married. For some reason the preparations required them to buy a new car and to sell Richard’s battered 20-year-old Toyota pickup he had been driving since high school. I bought Richard’s truck for $200.
I had lived ten years in Manhattan followed by three years in San Francisco, two cities where happily comfortably poor people do not need to own a car. Then I had lived seven years in Portland, where my preference and my poverty determined I would use only my feet or my bicycle to take me anywhere I wanted to go, day or night, light rain or heavy rain. Suddenly owning a motorized vehicle was a shock, disorienting, and liberating. Although just getting into and out of the truck or sitting and driving was painful, I could now travel 50 miles in an hour instead of half a day. And I didn’t have to shower when done.
Within two weeks I had completed a two-step dance with the truth. The first step was to accept that my dream of bicycling across the continent would not become real. The second step was to understand that, even without that dramatic catalyst, I still desperately needed to change.
However, lacking the courage and discipline to change the root cause of my unhappiness—me—I instead chose to radically change everything but. I decided to move to a city I had never been to and where I knew no one. I chose San Diego for the sole reason that its weather was warm and dry and sunny; the inverse of Portland’s.
When I told the clerk at the unemployment center that I was thinking of moving out of state she woke from her sleep to enthusiastically explain how easy it would be for me to become California’s problem instead of Oregon’s. I sold or returned the camping gear I had bought or borrowed. But I kept the bicycle I could not ride. I gave my roommate notice to vacate. She moved in with her married friends. I took a cash advance at a usurious, poverty-insuring interest rate and purchased an old Volvo that could tow a small U-Haul trailer to San Diego. I found a company that would tow away Richard’s decrepit truck and even give me $25.00 for its title.
While waiting for the tow truck to arrive I searched through the cab to be sure I had not left any personal items inside. From under the driver’s seat I pulled out an empty orange package of Zig Zag rolling papers, a sand-encrusted red lollipop, and $1.67 in coins.
And I found Richard’s diary.
It was one of those mottled black and white composition books. Two-thirds of its widely spaced blue-lined pages were filled with angular block-lettered handwriting in different colored inks and pencil. I knew at a glance that it was a journal, a diary, and a secret private emotional one, by the way the writing slanted left, then slanted right, then was rigidly erect, all in one paragraph.
After the briefest hesitation, I did what I always do when finding a book. I opened it to a random page and began reading.
The Richard I knew, just past 30-years-old, was tall, pale, and thin but lumpy, the way a kid who hates to exercise and was always on a computer would grow up to be. He had taught himself the internet and music, and he was a gifted mimic and actor who had never been on a stage. He could make anyone laugh. Anyone.
Richard and Sarah had been a couple since high school. Which is why, despite their young age, theirs was the solid, warm and constant kind of love that only couples who have sailed through many years of calm and storm and calm ever reach.
The Richard in this lost diary was someone I had never met.
He had roiling doubts about Sarah’s love for him. And his love for her. She got on his nerves, irritated him. For three pages he eloquently raged against being held back from the pursuit of some unnamed happiness. In the pages of the diary, I met Richard’s father, an affable English teacher in the same New Mexico high school where Richard was an underachieving student and slouching member of the slacker-geek clique. Everyone in the school, students, teachers and administrators, liked Richard’s father. And mocked him. He was an active, happy, natural alcoholic who would not or could not wear any of the disguising masks society held out to him.
The 30-something Richard writing the diary filled page after page with detailed memories of the repressed frustration and anguish he had endured as a boy and a teenager. His father—would not would not would not—just—stop—drinking. In the journal I saw Richard as a boy of 14, riding inside the very truck I had bought from him while his father drove fast and wavering on empty sun-baked New Mexico roads. I could hear his father performing a rambling monologue to his passenger son. He spoke of great scientists as if they lived next door, of science fiction he argued was great literature, of colonies on Mars or planets in other solar systems, while quizzing his son on the periodic table and the mind-bending rules of quantum physics. And all through the talk he gulped down can after can of cheap beer, tossing the empties into the truck bed to bounce and bang around as he swerved into the oncoming lane while coaxing his reluctant son to grab another can from the two cases on the floor and pass it to him.
The tow truck arrived. Five minutes later I had a check for $25 in one hand, and Richard’s journal in the other. I pocketed the check then crossed the street to the alley behind my apartment building. I opened the black cover of the big green dumpster and dropped the diary into a crevasse in the mound of trash. I pulled a soggy leaking paper bag of garbage on top of it.
On the pre-dawn morning I left Portland, I walked my dog one last time in the rain. Then we got into the old Volvo with the U-Haul trailer attached and drove away. Inside the trailer was the bicycle I could not ride; a used Nordic Track I had purchased because it was the only form of exercise I could do without being incapacitated by pain; the floor lamp and kitchen utensils and futon bed I had bought from Richard and Sarah and that, after all, I needed to keep.