The Wandering Scientist

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Impermanence of music

Written: August 16, 2016, in New Orleans, LA

About: New Orleans, LA

There is a certain bar in New Orleans. It is a hole-in-the-wall with a short bar, a few small tables, and a band crammed into a corner. In this respect, it is like many other bars in town. This one just happens to be among the best.

Yeah.

So come here. Squeeze onto a bar stool, or screw yourself into one of the diminutive tables. Order cheap drinks. Watch Frenchmen Street flow in and out of the bar. Listen to some of the best electric blues you will hear anywhere. And remember – you cannot take any of it with you.

Even though the guys playing this spot have been doing it for years, they do not really seem to think of themselves as a band. They do not have a stack of CDs out front. No Bandcamp or iTunes pages. The outfit that has got your heart and your throat in its cool hands does not even really tour outside these stained and peeling walls.

You can never listen to this music again, take it apart phrase by phrase and bar by bar, loop it over and over on your commute, or thrust the earbuds at your friends – “Take a listen to this!” The only way to share this music is to drag your friends to New Orleans, find this spot, and be there on the right night and at the right time.

Once the strings and drum skins are still, their music is gone forever.

Then again, maybe this music’s impermanence and immediacy are part of its power.

There is no divorcing yourself from the moment. If you miss a note, there is no chance of coming back for it. You have to be there, plugged into every instant. You cannot be listening to it with half an ear. This music will not compete for your attention with the glowing screen of your smartphone. No, you have to be right here, right now, so shake off your drunken haze. I know this whole place got your head spinning with a deluge of lights, alcohol, and music, a carnival of wide-grinning inebriated strangers looking for an experience.

So settle down. You have found the experience.

The man on the other side of the night

Written: March 23, 2014

About: Charlottesville, VA

It is just past 4am. We are driving back from a late night dance. It has not actually stopped, so somewhere behind us the blues still draws and growls and bumps. Out here, the streets are dark and empty and silent. My girlfriend is asleep in the passenger seat but I am stark awake. Awake and alone.

I have been here countless times. Though this street is not always in Charlottesville, it is not always blues that warms me from a distance, and I am not always driving. Yet time and again I find myself alone with the night’s quiet, in the innumerably late hour. I drift past the inky side alleys, through the hazy spots of street lights, glance at an occasional insomniac neon sign. The street is slick, vast, and perfect.

Why am I here? Why am I here again?

Why push on through exhaustion. Why pour beer and whiskey into the night without a second thought. Why mock and dare the sunrise. Why forget food and sleep. Why measure out mile after mile of these deserted streets. Why peer into the dim, dissolving distance.

What am I looking for?

Driving along the night-time Charlottesville, it suddenly becomes clear. On the streets utterly devoid of people I am looking for a person. I am looking for a better me – the man on the other side of the night.

On the other side of the night, this man walks along with subtle and effortless swagger. He is confident in his plans, assured in situations that are uncharted. He is flawed in all the right and beautiful ways. Though he is not always right, he can find his way without hesitation or panic.

The man on the other side of the night has learned to let go of all the anxieties that I carry with me every day.

That is why I am out here once again. I am driven by the indelible belief that if I cruise through just enough nights, if I subject myself to just enough abandon, if I wade through just enough late-night strangeness I will finally cross the night and make it to the other side.

We pull up to a red light. The engine idles with a gentle purr. Pelican City, barely audible, moody, plays on the stereo. I look left, through the side window, with my ghostly reflection superimposed over a dark storefront. Same glasses, same haircut, it looks calmly from the sidewalk into the car. We sit there a second, the light turns green, and I pull away.

Of course the man on the other side of the night is a fantasy, a fevered dream of myself. The quest is pointless. The streets are as empty as they seem. The other side of the night is the immaculate fix.

But then, it is 4am, my brain is crackling, and the world is as illusory as I want it to be. The other side of the night is just around the corner somewhere.

I love you, highways

Written: May 20, 2013

About: driving around the United States

American highways, I love you.

I do not mean this in a cheap, tired, greeting-card way. Not in the way of lust. This is not a childishly romantic story. I want to sit with you and watch the world age. I want your dust, your gravel, your grass, your revolving skies, your sunsets and sunrises, your deep silky nights and the blazing afternoons.

I do not know the moment I fell in love with you. It may be that I have always loved you, even before I met you. I do know the moment I knew. I looked into your eyes – the eyes of a diner waitress at a truckstop somewhere in the California desert, perhaps outside that bastard Barstow – and could not look away. You served me home fries, greasy eggs, and a side of five hundred miles of hot gravel. You were perfect in that moment. You have always been and always will be.

I know you are not some mindlessly naïve teenager. This is not an adventuresome memory vending machine, press a button – get a pretty postcard. There have been rough times. There was that one time a tire exploded on a big rig on I-75 in Florida. The shrapnel sheared the side mirror clean off the car right in front of me, and showered my windshield with hard burning rubber.

Once, on I-84, in the mountains between Portland and Salt Lake City, I got caught in a vicious, slushing snowstorm. The snow stuck to the road in thick layers, whipped up by the eighteen-wheelers into a foam that coated my windshield, leaving me blind as I was approaching a turn. I could not see, but I had to star turning. If I turned too early, I would be mangled under the truck. If I turned too late, I would plunge into the frozen crevasse. But I was graced with a safe journey, and here I am, saying to you, I love you.

For every dark moment – blinding fog on the bridges East of New Orleans – there is a myriad wonderful ones. I know not to take you for granted, I know you cannot be reduced to any one thing, and I know to take the sparks with the storms.

There is the sun rising over downtown Baltimore, and then setting over the Georgia swamps. The Texas prairie, the cliffs of California, the red soil and the brilliant blue lakes of Shasta mountains. The first time I drove West, I saw the sun setting in Texas, somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio, a particularly empty part of nothingness. That was the first time in my life that I had even approached the desert. The view was so stunning, I simply had to, had to stop. I got out, leaned on my car, and watched you slip into darkness. You were flawless.

I love you, highways.

Rocketing along a busy interstate in California, pulling over on the shoulder of a deserted Arizona highway, I feel unconstrained, I feel my own. With the point of origin many miles behind and the destination whole tanks of gas ahead, I feel detached from the minutiae, solidly in the immediate right now. In your vastness I have found the realization that I am both infinitesimally insignificant and brilliantly my own. Out on the road, the sense of self comes into the sharpest relief.

The air is rushing by, I’m chasing clouds, and my lips settle into the slightest upcurl. Lane markings skipping by like blips on an old record. Truck stop coffee and gas station hotdogs, a sense of carefree lightness. Thoughts take on the long shapes. There is a sublime rhythm to this experience, a heartbeat of the tires bumping on the pavement, the long continuous breath of the wind humming on the edges of the car. This is the place. This is the place I want to be, and I always miss.

I love you, highways, and I will never stop.

Uncanny New Orleans

New Orleans has uncanny powers. Things and events touched by this city seem to become more heavily symbolic and meaningful. It produces coincidences that are charming and mischievous.

It was two years ago that I fell in love with New Orleans. It’s odd to know the exact date, but I do. On December 24th, 2010 I walked into the Spotted Cat and saw Meschiya Lake perform, and my heart was marked ever since. Though I did visit it again soon after, I have not had the opportunity to go back there until just recently. I have been trying to go again, but nothing worked out. Until a peculiar sequence of events conspired to bring me back.

The first was my college friends having a combined birthday and end-of-the-world party at the end of December. Lake City is about thirteen hours driving from DC, which is reasonably manageable. The drive from Florida to New Orleans is even shorter. The drive from New Orleans to DC, however, is much longer. While I was trying to figure out how to complete this route, a friend of mine mentioned that she was staying with her parents in Knoxville, TN for Christmas, and that I would be welcome to stop over. Knoxville is almost exactly half-way between DC and New Orleans. It could hardly be located more perfectly. At this point, I simply could not refuse the trip. As scheduling worked out, I arrived in New Orleans on the 23rd of December. On the 24th, I was again at the Spotted Cat.

Preparing for the trip, I messaged my friend whom I had met that first time on Frenchmen St. While she wasn’t going to be in New Orleans, we were going to overlap for a night in Tampa, FL. So we met and had dinner.

The above coincidences are not that unusual, given that everyone travels around during the holidays, I have friends in many parts of the country, and I think everyone has parents in Florida. However, the last touch was much more precise.

A couple months back, my dryer viciously attacked most of my dress shirts, ripping off many of their buttons. I have only repaired one. So when the time came for me to pack for this trip, I only had two shirts suitable for dancing – a black one and a blue one, the latter being the shirt I wore two years. I brought both, then lost the black one in Tampa.

I have two black vests I like to wear to dances. The newer one turned out to be in dire need of cleaning, so I had to pick the older one. The same one I had worn two years ago.

While I did recently buy a new pair of dance shoes, they did not work out very well, and I had to revert to my old pair.

So when the time came for me to dress to go to the Spotted Cat, on the exact two-year anniversary of my first visit, I was down to a single choice of outfit. The exact same one.

Breakfast in Paris

Written: October 14, 2011, in DC

About: Europe, summer of 2003

This is the dumb moment. The moment I am standing still, staring at the train schedule board, where my train’s departure time is instead replaced with some words in red. I arrived here on a fine-tuned, precisely designed plan, and now this plan slumped on the floor in a useless pile. The English-speaking clerk at the window confirmed the menacing words. The last train from Amsterdam to Berlin has been cancelled and clock is fast advancing on midnight.

The carefully orchestrated plan crawled to a trash can and disposed of itself. I stared at the clerk, who was of no help. I stared at the street outside. Well, I stared at the darkness outside. There was nothing much out there, certainly not a place to sleep. I didn’t have that much money in my pocket anyway.

I repeatedly stared at the board, the street, and the floor. A decision had to be made and soon. Some sort of decision. It didn’t even have to be a good one. In my pocket I had a train voucher which allowed unlimited train travel within a 24-hour window across France, the Low Countries, and Germany. Options in Amsterdam have come to a zero. The number of trains yet to depart tonight did not. A rash new plan was born.

I marched back to the clerk and asked for the next train to Paris. I decided I’d get on the next train to Berlin from there. I am beginning to think that things only get truly interesting when something unexpected goes terribly wrong.

Night trains are an excellent way to spend a night. There is barely anyone on, and the sleeper cars are often open. You can have a room all to yourself if you feel like it. Then arrive in the early morning and have yourself a full day in the new city. As an added bonus, sleep on the train is some of the best sleep possible.

New York grabs you by the collar and drags you into a jet stream of humanity. New Orleans pours you something suspect and laughs hysterically until you do as well. Paris charms you, simply and effortlessly. Gare du Nord greeted me on a cool and quiet morning. The city was fresh and just waking up to a gorgeous sun. I quickly procured coffee and something baguette-related, parked myself on the bench, and took in everything romantic and aromatic that surrounded me. Which, given the circumstances, was a fair bit.

It was the perfect hold on a cool break of a twirling song.

The idyll of the Parisian breakfast did not last as long as I had wished, and again it was time to get on a train. The final leg of the trip was also troubled, though in less charming ways. The train simply broke down. Twice.

One of the unintended train changes was in Cologne. Everything was in German (which I don’t speak). I’m pretty sure I ended up on the right train mostly by accident. In the middle of the chaos, I called my brother in Berlin to update him on my travels and let him know my adjusted arrival time. He asked me where I was, and I realized I didn’t actually know. I was asleep when we got here and someone told me I had to get off the train. I could see outside and recognized the great Cologne Cathedral, so I told him I thought I was in Cologne. This now stands as the greatest feat of my person architectural erudition.

I was now traveling in daytime and no longer had the luxury of empty train cars. The voucher allowed me on the train but did not guarantee a seat – a fine but crucial distinction. The trains were over-crowded, so I had to bounce between diner cars and entry landings. Memorable company included a group of German army cadets (who mostly grinned and smoked) and a group of Asian girls (who mostly chatted and giggled).

That afternoon, I finally made it to Berlin and my brother picked me up at the station. The moment was filled with a sense of decisive victory. So much could and did go wrong and did, and none of it mattered.

When travel plans go awry, sink your teeth into the new reality instead of angrily lamenting your schedule. It’s the only way you’ll go to Paris just to have breakfast.

Dear x

Written: April 26, 2011

About: a book

dear x
i love you
y

The words appeared on a small slip of weathered paper, neatly torn from a larger sheet, and tucked away between the pages of a book I am reading. They weren’t addressed to me. An old love note in an old book. A tender moment lost in a time long past.

The discovery made me stop and pace around the room for a while. Such simple words. So filled with honesty and truthful desire. Gentle care had gone into so carefully separating the little piece of paper, deliberately inking the words, and inserting the note between the pages of a book shared.

I readily admit my love for words, and this loves frequently leads me to use too many of them. I often put great effort into describing things and emotions effusively and at length, with detours and side stories, always hunting for the perfect metaphor, that unique angle, that awe-inspiring perspective that will strike the reader with its brilliance. Perhaps, too often, too much effort. I am struck by the beauty and the elegance of expression that is so brief yet so potent. That which is true needs no embellishment.

Our paths seem to be littered with mementos of great passions. Not always the positive ones. This admission comes on the heels of another recent find of mine, a sorrowful lover’s letter. Anger rarely leaves anything quite so coherent; its memories come in shards and scars, but no less evocative. Or perhaps a variation on the classic, something along the lines of “D + S = forever 1987,” scrawled into a sidewalk.

It doesn’t take much to reconnect with those emotions, even if they are not yours. If our own lives have such artifacts throughout, imagine the thick layers of memories wrapped around our cities, where generations of millions of people have loved and suffered and remembered. And then imagine all the moments that didn’t leave a trace.

Thanks for the year

The last year of my life has been rather reckless and impulsive in many ways, and it is only through the unfathomable kindness of my friends, those I have just met and those I have known for many years, that these months have not turned into a complete disaster. Quite the opposite, this has been one of the most incredible and amazing periods of my life. So much has happened, and as I sit here, writing this, I realize that I simply don’t have the words beautiful enough to truthfully paint what has transpired, and to properly express my gratitude.

I have been through love and heartbreak and everything in between. Innumerable couches and beds and meals and drinks and talks and dances and embraces and adventures. Even in writing this, I am sitting on a friend’s couch inChicago, wrapped in humbling hospitality. Chicago is the last stop, the last burning day before this year finally comes to pass and I move on to something completely new, different, and wild. As much as I look forward to my new life and home inMaryland, I miss this last year. I miss you already, my friends. I feel like I haven’t spent enough time with any of you, even those I’ve seen almost daily. If only I could have just a few more moments to sit and chat and be near you…

I’m still grasping the sheer magnitude and depth of this experience. Tremendous things have come to pass, and it will take more time still to comprehend and assimilate all of them, if that is even possible. This year has been an experiment, sometimes intentional and sometimes not, and it has come to the wildest success.

I entered this year among panic attacks and a deep loss. In truth, it hasn’t been a perfect ride since then, either. There have been times of toxic uncertainty, deep despair, and close brushes with death. I have made mistakes that had cost me dearly. And then there were moments that were nothing short of divine and perfect. So I suppose it has gone just as it should have. In its messy madness, life is beautiful.

So I sit here on a friend’s couch in a gray Chicago morning, listening to Jason Webley, and smiling. And it is because of you, my friends. Thank you.

Exit, Stage West

Written: April 3, 2011

About: Tucson

I have lived in Tucson for about seven and a half years. That’s the second longest I’ve lived anywhere, and now I’m having the strange realization that Tucson is a place on the road, and no longer home. Well, perhaps it is a bit more than a place on the road. After all, having spent so much time here, I know how Tucson lives. I’ve seen it change. I have stores and stores of memories from here – from heartbreaking to euphoric to simply strange. Still, even though I can never be a tourist here, I’m not quite a local either.

The end of my stay here is not without its poetic moments. Since my new job is not covering my moving expenses, I’ve had to get rid of almost everything I own since I can’t afford to move it. All of my furniture, a lot of my clothes, much of my kitchenware, my computes. The only things which I have pretty much refused to give up are books and music. I have boxes full of volumes and CDs. An attachment that is sure to cost me in the near future.

My dance shoes have finally been worn through. These shoes have survived for about six years – an incredible feat for the kind of abuse that these shoes have taken. And my final weeks in Tucson is when they have finally started showing holes. Another chapter, another chapter, right?

The train of things leaving my hands has been enlightening. It’s been nice to realize that even though I haven’t had all that much, I actually need even less. Whether it’s something I’ve given away, or threw away, or sold, I’ve felt lighter and more empowered with each bit. It is a good feeling, knowing that I will rocket into a new life minimally encumbered. I want to carry memories and experiences, not items.

There is a beautiful and serene view of the Tucson sunrise from the A Mountain, just around the corner from the smoked-through, piss- and beer-stained Buffet. The cool Tucson night, bearing within it the improv and dancing madness – hours and hours of idealists imbibing and sweating their passions. So many stars in this night, an endless field of golden flickers so vast and deep. Cross the Gates Pass and get lost in this infinity, spend a good hour conversing with the distant worlds. Or if you want someone closer, there is Broadway Café and the Grill, always open and always up for a good conversation. What’s better than a milkshake and some hashbrowns to grease your mind and tongue, anyway. I’m walking down a street, bottle of Jack in my hand (my girlfriend), grinning, feeling punk, bounding up the stairs and into the house for an improv jam that will blow everything into the stratosphere. How much liquor have I poured into myself in these years? Enough to keep this burn alive. There’s blues on, and it’s blues like I’ve never heard before. There’s blues on. Someone is so very close, moving with me in comfort and perfection. The tiniest of movements like the loudest of words. My hands are covered in dark oil and tiny specks of aluminum and steel, a sharp and reassuring smell of the cutting fluid. The sun is out, wrapping everything in its fiery embrace. And then there is the sunset under a gradient sky, with the burning red mountains as the backdrop. And all the while, the saguaro whistle their quiet songs in the wind.

I’ve gone through so much here, and I miss you already, Tucson.

On a Greyhound bus, part 1

Written: March 23, 2011

About: early March, Greyhound buses

I was faced with two facts. The first is that I had to get to New Orleans. I’m not going to presently discuss exactly why, but the need was absolute. After all, I had given my word. The second fact is that after a few months of being basically unemployed, and since years of grad school failed to leave with me a lavish fortune, I was rather broke. At this point I had accepted debt, but even that was beginning to run thin. So airfare was completely out.

The cozy cabins in the sky that take you into the heart of Mardi Gras jacked up their prices like the wicked mercenaries of old. I essentially had the following options: driving, taking a train, or taking a Greyhound bus. They all seemed approximately equally costly.

I’ve just covered the space between Arizona and Florida by car twice. Another two days of driving through the Texas void would drive me mad, so that was out.

Of the remaining options, Greyhound was cheaper than the train by a third. I decided I’d rather blow that third on whiskey in New Orleans, so the die was cast. I took tickets on Greyhound and quickly repressed all thoughts about the 35 hours aboard the bus. I packed some sandwiches and a bottle of water, and had my roommate drop me off at the Tucson station at 6am. Oh adventure, you are not easy.

The first I would say is this – being on the bus for that long was not nearly as terrible as I had imagined. The seats are actually more comfortable and spacious than those on most airlines. Contrary to popular belief, the buses don’t smell all that terrible, although we’ll get back to that shortly. Also, after a few hours I started losing track of time. Daylight and night’s darkness mixed together with an endless barrage of miles, empty desert miles, tiny towns, gas stations, and highway mile markers into a strange brew that simply made me forget how long I’ve been here. I still recoil at the thought of being on a bus for 35 hours, but at the time, the experience was alright.

The bus is packed with people. Sometimes it’s not packed all the way, but that is still far more people in the immediate proximity, and for far longer than is ordinary. The outcome is that everyone’s lives are inflicted on you. At least a day of someone’s life – however unusual a day – unfolds right in front of you. Besides, there is so little to do that eventually you run out of desire to fiddle with your phone or read something. Everyone ends up in conversations, or at the very least unintentionally listening in on someone else’s conversation.

I met at least three people in serious trouble with the law. One was just released from prison and was going back to see his family. He obsessively talked about two things – seeing his little daughter and being incarcerated. The two others were on their way to an important court hearing. Missing that hearing meant jail time. All three took every chance to talk about their trouble with the law, and all with a good measure of personal sainthood.

There was also a guy who grew up in a Mississippi trailer, then served in Iraq. While overseas, his wife started doing drugs and beating their kid. When he came back, he promptly divorced her, took the kid, moved to el Paso and re-married. He was one of those tall, skinny Southern guys made of muscles, cowboy boots, and grins. The Marlboro man is a hopelessly sterilized version of these guys. All that heavy stuff he had gone through, and here he was, smiling, chatting up neighbors, and sharing snacks with a kid across the aisle. Some people just hold up the world.

A crazy guy boarded the bus at one of the small stations. He spent the long ride through the Texas night tearing up a deck of cards and showering the bus with this confetti. No one questioned him.

About the smells – all the buses I’ve been on have been fairly fresh. Air conditioning was, if anything, excessive. Only once was I assaulted by a wave of urine stench, but someone promptly countered with an air freshener. I guess that is a mark of an experienced Greyhound traveler – carrying Fabreze.

The other four times the strange airs assailed me, it was because someone lit up some weed in the bathroom. The smell is unmistakable if you’ve spent some time in college. One of the times, I wondered out loud if was indeed weed that I smelled. A girl sitting another row up turned around, sampled the air, and in utter excitement screamed, “I do! I do!”

Being confined in such a small space for so long makes you long for human contact and camaraderie. After switching the buses a couple of times, I noticed that two other guys were switching with me. They noticed the same thing, so we ended up sitting together and talking for hours. A bond formed on a Greyhound bus is a strong one.

When the bus finally neared New Orleans, this feeling of unity swept up the entire bus. The driver piped jazz into the PA speakers. People were hollering, dancing in the seats and singing. It really felt like the last thirty hours were compressed into the final ten minutes. The Super Dome loomed into view as the bus finally rolled off the highway and plunged into the tight New Orleans streets. The stupor spell finally lifted, and everything – everything everything everything – accelerated.

Maybe that’s what it feels like to be out of jail, and that’s why those ex-cons were so talkative. After a while, you simply get into the “I’m on the bus” mode. The world shrinks to your seat. Occasional pit stops bring great elation not normally associated with gas stations. Small pleasures matter a lot all of the sudden. Getting to the final destination also brings with it the deep realization that the world is much bigger than the bus.

What is even better in this story, is that once I was free, I wasn’t free just anywhere, I was free in New Orleans.

On being away

Jan 24, 2011

En route to San Francisco

I’ve only been home for a few days, after a dash across the Atlantic and a mad time in New Orleans. I’ve gotten a bit of a somewhat regular sleep schedule – being back in Tucson after a near month absence has obligations that I didn’t expect but appreciated. It was a lovely comeback and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Yet that didn’t last long – I drove to Phoenix and jumped on a plane heading to San Francisco, with only a few things, about four hours of sleep, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, on loan from my roommate. The story of a young writer bounding around the country, immersed in the road and the blues, had a certain irresistible appeal.

I’m in a bit of a conflict with myself over all this. Somewhere in the back of my mind I have the quiet desire for little more than a pair of warm rounded shoulder to lean on, the sort of embrace where you can easily miss an hour or a whole afternoon because you merely blinked… Strange that this is exactly what I’d found among all the thousands of miles. Life, of course, is strange and unexpected in its best moments.

The other part, of course, is the one jumping at the road, the side that keeps the bag by the door at all times. There is a mad allure to the road, some sort of predatory instinct to keep moving, to constantly search for new friends, places, tastes, visions, and stories. I don’t mean the stories of my adventures, but rather the stories of the people I come across. The road is lined with innumerable hearts, and each one has got words in it. In precious moments they open up and speak. Most of the time, the communication is not verbal, but much more subtle and accidental. It’s another traveler slumped on a bench. It’s a shy loner awkwardly sitting at the bar. It’s the kindness of strangers and incredible coincidences. The desire for these things becomes so zealous that sleep and food begin to slip away from me.

After several days on the road I find myself exhausted. I sometimes forget to eat, and sleep is minimized. When I do sleep, I actually sleep better than ever. The hours of rest are short, but an implicit understanding between the mind and the body make the most of the brief respite. The body finds reserves of energy that I could not imagine even days earlier. I find myself in the sort of spot where I simply have to keep moving. I feel a hard physical crash thudding right behind me. I just know that as long as I have something to do – work, conversation, dance – I can keep going almost indefinitely. So I keep standing, grinning. A great sense of freedom is to be found in this delirious exhaustion, and this sense makes all the misery worth the while.