I had assumed that after six months, I might know something of the body and soul of this place where I find myself an accidental traveler. I chose it only in the sense that a diner chooses a sandwich at a café: It was on the menu of available items when I happened to be taking a look.
I have moved a decent amount in my life: Three countries before I was 5 years old. Four different K-12 school systems in three states in three different regions of the country. College in one town, graduate school in another (but not too far away from each other). I’ve thought a lot about what it means to say goodbye. There are precious few people in my life I’ve never said it too or who haven’t said it back. I don’t make it easy to hold on. I think that’s part of being me: itinerant, rootless. Some people surround themselves with others they’ve known for decades. I’ve never managed that alchemy. I fade in and out of lives.
But before each goodbye, there is a hello. New town. New kid. New people. Hi, there. So I’ve spent six months wondering how to say hello to #RVA and the people who by some tumble of the die happen to be here and not somewhere else. Residents will sell you on their communities, but they are more accidental than the sales staff would have you know. People near one another cohere into clouds and float along together amazed at the landscape below, but a burst of lightning comes and they fall apart and plummet like so many individual drops of rain. The water cycle metaphor is apt, for those drops will enter a watershed, flow into a stream and then a river and then the sea only to be lifted back into the clouds, again wondering at the marvelous view.
And just as there are introverts and extroverts, sports nuts and art freaks and people who are all of those, some people form lasting bonds naturally and some just play at it from time to time. I’m mindful of that as I wander this new city. At the dog park in Byrd Park, we stood as islands watching our pups whirl around each other in the dust; near the James, we sat in hundreds of tribes as Argentinian tango dancers bathed in the afternoon light. In the last six months, I’ve watched as traffic on Parham opened just enough for me and my bicycle to slip across, as a grasshopper lept off a rounded mound of earth built 150 years ago at Cold Harbor, as the light passed through Chihuly’s glass at VMFA. I watched from above: silent, floating, apart. Not sure whether another hello is worth the possibility of another goodbye. The cars streamed behind me again, the grasshopper disappeared into the tall grass, the light vanished.
I have coworkers. One has gone out of his way to praise how much I’ve gotten around town. If there is a park in town, I’ve probably seen it. If there is a museum, it probably has my admission (exception: Museum of the Confederacy, no thanks). Given the chance, people are mostly kind to strangers; through another co-worker, I have found a rec soccer team with genuine joi de vie. I am learning the streets and cafés, the rhythms of traffic and seasons, the tattooed bodies and Sunday morning hair. I study them like a text, reading what they say and do not say, writing notes to myself in the margins. The holidays will come, and I will sing the hymns of our bonds. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “I will place my/paper hat on my/concussion and dance.”
One way to discover a new place is to never do what’s expected but the next best thing. The shortest way to get somewhere is this street? Take the parallel one two blocks over. Going out to eat? Sit at the bar. Ride where they drive. Walk where they ride. When they’re walking, sit nearby and watch. Good advice for any weary traveler. Also, be where you are. My mobile is a rabbit hole. The world it offers is vast but increasingly empty. I would trade a hundred likes for 10 minutes of conversation, a lifetime of text messages for a walk through familiar rains.
Those 1s and 0s are nothing to hang onto and never enough for a junkie disassembling and reassembling them in his mind. “A hidden code can be found almost anywhere,” says computer scientist Klaus Schmeh, “because people are adept at recognizing and creating patterns.” It’s the creating part that gets me. Maybe it’s years of hard-wiring from studying literature, but I’m trained to connect, to invest meaning in coincidences, to make talismans of ordinary words. “Always connect,” someone I can never remember said, maybe Burroughs or Warhol. My problem is that I see connections everywhere despite all evidence to the contrary, floating clouds when the drops of rain are falling all around.
And so what do I see when I look around at this new place? Nothing personal, RVA, but nothing yet. I see you, but I’m not sure I’m interested in making myself visible, in claiming a personal stake. Perhaps I’ll fade in and out of view, wandering the text of the city, making notes to myself in the margins in my personal, ever-disappearing ink.