Buffalo Nat’l River, Arkansas / September 2013
Early morning in the fog of the Ozarks. Looking for the town of Rush, an old zinc mining town. If you want to believe what the locals tell you, it’s the only ghost town between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
My heart to him is like a pond to a crane: he wades round it, going in as far as he dares, and then attempts to snatch what little fish come shoreward from the center. — Jim Shepard, from “The World to Come”
Town of the Living Dead -
“Louisa is always around 1870, and I’m always around 1845, so we couldn’t mingle together, because I’m dead,” Henry explains to Nathaniel. “The delegates would say ‘Have you seen Louisa?’ and I’d say, “Oh, she’s a very little girl.”
“And they’d see me without Henry and ask ‘Have you seen Mr. Thoreau?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, how I miss him since he passed away,’” says Louisa.
“And the drunker the delegates got, the harder it became,” Thoreau adds. “I mean, they just didn’t really understand what we were doing there.”
This is amazing.
When I was 21 I walked into a restaurant on Decatur Street. I had never waited tables in my life. This was the last stop on my train to Brokesville, having already sold my car to pay our rent and bills. I handed a man who looked like a Las Vegas pit boss (his former job was, in fact, as a Las Vegas pit boss) my completely made-up resume. His face bore no discernible expression. “You know how to bartend?” he asked gruffly. “Yes,” I lied. “Can you start tomorrow?” he asked.
I trained under Miss Lorraine. Miss Lorraine was 68 with 8 kids and 18 grandchildren. She suffered no fools, and she saw through me immediately. Miss Lorraine actually taught me everything I ever learned about reverse psychology. She had her regulars, who bloomed under her verbal assaults. “Miss Lorraine, where are our beers?” they would holler, grinning. “I’LL BRING Y’ALLS BEER WHEN I’M GOOD GODDAMNED READY!!” she would shriek. She had a snappy ball-withering comeback for everything. They ate it up, left her twenties under their napkins. It was under her tutelage that I learned that for some people (mostly hardworking men who lived on shrimping boats) abuse equaled attention, and any attention was good attention. Anyone who could get Miss Lorraine to crack a smile would pump their fist triumphantly. She dropped out of school in 8th grade, but about 72% of my current operating wisdom in regards to respect comes from her.
Two thirds of the people who worked at this restaurant were in a band together. On Thursday nights the back room turned into a dimly lit, smoky music hall. I bartended, sneakily looking up drinks from my pocket-sized book under the bar light. People packed in to see the show, which was part carnival, part film festival, part singing like you’ve never heard singing before. It felt like magic was being made. Which, in fact: it was. That singer with the slicked back hair and saxophone who once rode his delivery bicycle through a hurricane to get me aspirin? He’s now the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He may have gone on to win a Grammy, but I went on to win the only award I have ever won, at the “Best Bloody Mary in New Orleans” competition (the secret ingredient: I distilled my own Cajun-spiced vinegar. Under the watchful eye of Terrebonne Parish-bred Miss Lorraine, of course).
During Mardi Gras I made enough money to pay a month’s rent in one day. For thirty days in a row. My boyfriend, an alcoholic felon with a warrant out for his arrest in two states who I had moved with from San Francisco after only knowing for two weeks, did not believe in banks. So he kept all our money in a box under the bed in our haunted house. The day I left, I opened the box to take half the money. The box was empty. This is a very New Orleans story.
I fell in love with the cook. He knew who Will Oldham was and looked good in a grease-stained tank top and had huge, gentle brown eyes. On my last night in New Orleans, we drank at Molly’s across the street with everyone else from the restaurant. Until it was just the two of us. Believe it or not, it was the only time in three years I got drunk. We were listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. “And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you…” I whisper-sang to him. “Stop,” he whispered back with his eyes closed, and took my hand. He led me out into the humid pink June dawn and we began unlocking our bicycles. I had no idea where we were going, and I was supposed to get on a plane in five hours, but suddenly everything felt possible for the first time in forever. I looped a leg over my bike. We locked eyes and smiled. Which was precisely the moment the alcoholic felon ex-boyfriend emerged from around the corner. He had been looking for me. The cook looked at him, then looked down at the ground. Then he pedaled off, and he never looked back. Years later, I told a boyfriend this story. It bugged him, and he couldn’t figure out why. “Wait,” he said. “I think I know. It’s because of everyone you’ve ever loved, he’s the one with infinite potential. He’s the one that got away.” Which is actually what I think of when I think of New Orleans in general, now. That it is the one that got away.
Girls love spaghetti!
I’ve known Amanda for 17 years. She hated me for the first 5. I can hardly blame her: I shopped at Hot Topic and took her ex-boyfriend to prom. He was 21 and had a lazy eye and an old English stomach tattoo that said “thug life.” He lived at the Burlingame “motel” (if you’ve ever been to Burlingame you’ll understand why I have to put that in quotes) and sold bunk ecstasy.
She was the first person I knew to move to San Francisco. She lived on Haight and Webster across from the projects and she only ever wore red and black and listened exclusively to Peaches and Fischerspooner and I thought she was the coolest, most worldly person in the world.
Eventually she went to Ireland and lived in a tree for a year. I went to New Orleans and lived in a haunted mansion. When I came back to San Francisco she was living with some mutual friends and I crashed on their couch. We were both itchy in the same way, tired of how everyone seemed perfectly happy to listen to all the same bands and drink the same 40s in the same skate parks as they did in high school. And thus we were bonded in our existential discontent. We have since seen each other through countless hungover brunches, obsessive crushes we never talked to, shitty decisions, brave decisions. Basically: our 20s.
She moved to New York and left an Amanda-sized hole in San Francisco. But one day I hung out with this guy (this guy!), and immediately came home and wrote her the following: “I have met your soul mate. He lives here. You have to come home. I’m not kidding.” She laughed at me. Two years later she came home and I chaperoned a bowling date and they’ve basically been together ever since. The moral of this story is: listen to your friends, they know what’s best for you.
Now she lives in my attic and we share an obese cat and a fantasy gay husband and as the last two single people on earth (well, until recently) our names are always ampersanded on the seating charts at mutual friends’ weddings (“Aw, I thought y’all were gonna be some hot lesbians” our high school pal ‘Milkbone’ slurred drunkenly at the last wedding, forced together at the lone “singles” table as we all were). She is the only other person I know who vividly remembers the way the arcade at Fashion Island smelled and who loves 80s freestyle jams as much as I do. She willingly interprets all my dreams and calls me on my bullshit in the nicest way possible. She is probably the wisest person I know, and the funniest.
This is all to say: in life, you have to find the people who grab your hand and drag you along, even when you want to hide under the covers. Especially when you want to hide under the covers. Find the people who hold up the mirrors so you can’t look away. Find the people who always tell the truth. Find the people who make you snort diet coke out of your nose from cackling so hard.