The week that I turned 40, C took me on a road trip to New Orleans. We got up early on a Saturday and loaded up my little, second-hand black car. A screw fell out of my glasses, and the right temple fell off. I spent the whole first part of our trip with them carefully balanced on the bridge of my nose so that they wouldn’t fall apart.
We ate terrible snacks from suspect gas stations in shady towns where people drove pick-up trucks with Trump bumper stickers, and meals from fast food places that we’d never go to in a non-vacation setting.
C drove, and I tortured him with 10 year old hipster music. The Handsome Furs. Helio Sequence. Ra Ra Riot. I sat sweating behind tinted windows, looking out at corn fields, at rusty barns and grazing cattle, wondering what I’d done with my life. How could I possibly be 40? I didn’t feel like a forty year old. I felt as young, as directionless, as lost as ever. Wouldn’t a 40 year old have his shit together by now?
My friends who are my age all have houses, children, and careers. All I have for 4 decades of existence is a growing list of cities that I’ve lived in, of jobs that I’ve irresponsibly quit, a savings account with less money in it than when I was 20. I’ve rationalized the string of poor decisions that have led me to this place by citing the fact that I’m an artist. But I just haven’t had the time to get around to writing that alleged novel that I’ve been working on. I’ve lived a life rich in experiences that looks terrible on a resume. Now that I’ve reached my life’s half-way point, I can’t help but wonder what might have been, if only I’d stuck with that decent paying job that corroded my soul, if I had stayed put and put down roots, if I hadn’t cashed in those 401(k)s to fund all of those cross country moves. Would I be happier or more fulfilled?
I wonder if I’ll ever write that novel. I wonder if C and I will ever stay in one place. If we’ll buy a house together somewhere on the California coast. Or if I’ll go from cubicle to cubicle in some two-bit town or other. If we’ll decide to call it quits and go our separate ways. If I’ll spend my autumn years struggling to eke out an existence in a town I’d rather not be living in. Alone with my no longer cool MP3s, a collection of other people’s books, re-posting pics of me when I was younger and still someone that someone else desired.
When you’re sitting in the passenger seat of a used car whose check engine light is perpetually on, on a 14 hour road-trip, there is a lot of time to contemplate one’s failures.
We stopped for the night in Memphis. Since it had just been a place that we were going to spend the night, and not a destination, we were surprised at how quaint a little city it was. We checked into a 3rd rate hotel where the elevators didn’t work. Our room was across from a pool that was crowded with people who obviously weren’t guests of the hotel.
We walked down to the water, the fecund stench of the green, bloated Mississippi permeating the air, trickling down our backs, hot and sticky. Sweaty brides were having their engagement photos taken. We took pictures of the strange, pyramid stadium, the bridges, and the skyline. We walked back up to Beale St. with it’s blues joints and barbecue places. We had drinks and watched horse-drawn carriages covered in Christmas lights clop by with fat tourists, glistening in the neon sky.
That night we lay in bed at the sleepless hotel, with re-runs of the Forensic Files playing, telling one another how we’d kill each other and get away with it.
The next morning we had a southern breakfast at a place called The Blue Plate Cafe.
C said, “You order. You speak the language.”
We had homemade biscuits and sausage gravy.
Then we were off again to New Orleans. The cornfields turned to scattered trees and coastal plains. The gas stations and rest-stops remained uniform in their evocation of the movie Deliverance. We drove over a long raised freeway with nothing but swamp beneath us, and no exit for miles. The car’s cruise control worked every other time we stopped and started.
We drove into New Orleans late Sunday afternoon. Our hotel in the Central Business District was much nicer than the place we stayed in Memphis. There were art-deco chandeliers in the lobby, and elevators that worked.
After we freshened up, we walked directly to the French Quarter. I was crossing my skeptical fingers that I’d like it, or, barring that, that I could tolerate it, since C seems determined that we move there, even before either of us had seen it. I was pleasantly surprised when it surpassed even my most hopeful expectations. The French Quarter was magical. It was purple, and blue lit, otherworldly, with an energy that reminded me of parts of New York City, of San Francisco, of Paris. There was a sort of crackling vibration that tinged the air, that rang through the cobblestone streets, the iron gratings of balconies, the decaying, old-world buildings, out of place in a southern, new-world state.
We ate alligator, gumbo, crawfish omelets, red beans and rice, beignets. We drank ridiculous cocktails on Bourbon St. where an unsuccessful hustler told us, “Come on, fellas. It’s titty time!” And a half-hearted prostitute asked if we were looking to have a good time. We sat in an outside courtyard and listened to a middle-aged man (like me) sing Frank Sinatra. He even sounded like Sinatra. Our waitress there was liberally drinking every time she walked back to the bar, and was hammered when she misplaced C’s drink. Later she came up to us and said, with a slurred, southern accent, “I gave your drink to those Chinese people! And they aren’t even drinking it.”
Another sleepless night in another hotel room. Another marathon of Forensic Files.
The next day, after breakfast we took The Saint Charles St. Car to Uptown, and walked down Magazine Street. A developmentally disabled woman on the train warned me to watch out for black people, because they don’t like white people. On Magazine Street we walked past funky little shops and restaurants. In a record store called Peaches, C picked up an album of Stevie Nicks’s greatest hits. We stopped by an optometrist and I had my glasses fixed. We ate snow-cones while we waited, my lips stained cherry red, and his stained hand-grenade green. The drink, not the explosive. We walked through parks with trees, branches heavy with hanging, gray moss, past white-columned mansions and pastel colored houses.
That night we took a haunted tour of the city conducted by a woman who professed to be a fifth generation Voodoo priestess. She was a charismatic storyteller, and took her 25 odd charges on an enjoyable tour of the seedy, sinister past of the old city. As we made our way to the tour’s apex, the house of Madame LaLaurie, there was a violent, southern thunderstorm. We huddled under awnings as it rained, as thunder rumbled the iron gratings and window panes, and lightning streaked across the sky. A Scottish couple, perhaps unfamiliar with the thunderstorms of the southern U.S. squealed and moaned in terror every time the lightning flashed or thunder cracked. The tour was the best $50 I’ve ever spent.
The next day was my birthday, and we spent the day in Museums and sculpture gardens. It rained again that afternoon, and we stood in the entrance of a parking garage while I talked to my mother who had forgotten my birthday until my dad reminded her.
“I can’t believe you’re 40!” She said. “That’s old.”
It rained, and a pair of tourists played “Heads Up” on their iPhone, and my mother berated me for having accomplished nothing with my life. “You should be saving for your retirement!” She said.
“Why should I save when I’m the sole heir to the Brister fortune?” I asked.
Back on Bourbon St. a pair of street hustlers conned C into paying for an unsolicited shoe shine.
We walked to Frenchman St. where the Voodoo priestess said that the locals went instead of Bourbon St. The said locals eyed us warily as we walked past tattoo parlors and goth clubs playing 80s music.
When it was time to check out of our hotel we didn’t want to leave. On the drive back to Chicago C made me listen to Cat Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, and Pink Floyd. We drove all the way back to Chicago in one day. The gas stations and fast food all blended together.
On Wednesday I went back to work. I sat in an office, staring out the window. My office mate was lamenting the fact that she had turned 29 and hadn’t accomplished anything with her life. I didn’t point out that she owns a home, has a husband and a child, and has a higher-paying position than I do, 11 years her senior.
On Saturday we got up early and drove to Toronto. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in Chicago and rest after the trip we’d had the week before. But C wanted to see a Lebanese pop band that was playing Toronto’s gay pride. So we piled in the car again, and C drove us north to Canada.
The toll way to cross the bridge into Canada was backed up, so we sat in traffic for a long time before we even made it into customs. A douchey Canadian customs officer in mirrored sunglasses asked us why we were going to Canada, where we were staying, and for how long.
In Canada the roads were noticeably better maintained than the roads of the U.S. I felt like a poor relation visiting my better-off relatives. They called their rest areas On Routes, and there were Tim Hortons’s everywhere. The farmland, at least, looked the same, the barns, the silos and the houses could be anywhere in the U.S.
Outside of Toronto there was a traffic accident and we sat in traffic for a while again, and ended up getting to the city hours later than we’d expected to. The city was beautiful with it’s distinctly Canadian buildings of green glass mixed in with European style architecture, the iconic CNTower. We walked down Yonge St. pleased to see how diverse the people were, to hear languages other than English, and to have food options other than the deep dish pizza and hot-dogs of Chicago.
The official website of Toronto Pride wasn’t nice enough to say what time any of the acts performed, so we weren’t sure whether the band had already played, and if we’d driven all that way for nothing. Luckily a kind Canadian at the information booth assured us that the band didn’t play until 10, so we walked down the street and had Korean food. All around us, polite Canadians were having politically correct discussions about philosophy. Straight people had brought their families in from the suburbs to take part in the Pride festivities.
We walked back to the stage where an Iraqi-Canadian rapper was rapping. Some preppily dressed, and well coiffed men sat down from us, discreetly smoking a joint and ogling the hairy, muscular men who passed in too short shorts. As the band began to set up, we made our way down to the front, past the tattooed tank-top with his hipster beard, and tall, thin Lebanese men who couldn’t stop kissing one another, past the progressive white girls, and settled in to watch a band called Mashrou’ Leila perform.
Belly dancers opened for the band. They waved colored scarves, and shook, and smiled, and balanced candelabras on their heads. A smoke machine kept going off right in front of us, and everyone waved their hands to blow the smoke out of their faces. Someone in the crowd kept bouncing a balloon back and forth, until, after the third time it hit me in the head, I removed the balloon from circulation, and shoved it to the ground at my feet.
The band was comprised of beautiful men in black, shiny outfits who sang in Arabic, but who introduced every song in perfect English. The music was fantastic, and I fell slightly in love with the handsome violinist with his beard, and sleeveless shirt, and goofy smile. But it was the lead singer who evoked Freddy Mercury that amazed me. They were wonderfully talented, and though I didn’t understand the words, I felt it. Introducing a song called “Ghost,” the lead singer talked about Orlando, describing mass shootings as a particularly American phenomenon, and I felt ashamed and defensive.
We walked back to the hotel after the show. Through the well-behaved revelers, the throngs of rainbow colored denizens of Pride. Toronto boasts the biggest Gay Pride festival in North America, which cannot be disputed. But even though it is certainly large, Toronto is still distinctly Mid Western, and despite it’s diversity, suffers from the same watered-down blandness that Chicago Suffers from. There wasn’t the grit, the people cutting loose, that you might see in San Francisco, for instance. And I wondered if this is just the way of the world now. Gays are so mainstream that even Pride is just a watered down, unshocking version of what it once was. Or maybe I’m a middle-aged man suffering from a case of the back in my days.
In the hotel, a deluxe suite much too big for the two of us, we spent another night unable to sleep, watching terrible, Canadian TV. No Forensic Files.
In the morning we had a nice enough Canadian breakfast at a restaurant called The Senator. We got sugary drinks from a Tim Hortons and walked down to the waterfront. This too was beautiful but boring, and after an hour, we walked back to the hotel, to get in our car and drive back to the states.
The drive back went much more smoothly than the drive there. The blonde, American customs officer was just as brusque as her Canadian counterpart. But she waved us through, and we were relieved when we got back to the familiarity of our own country, that despite its problems, and despite the fact that a disturbing number of it’s citizens are pro-gun conservative Neo-Nazis, was still our home, for better or for worse.
As we drove home there were early fireworks going off in the Chicago suburbs. Red, white, and blue lights flashing in the sky. My forehead lolling against the dusty window, the lights of the skyscrapers spread out hazily before us beneath a purple sky. C played Mashrou’ Leila on the stereo, and I sang along with words I didn’t understand in a language I didn’t speak, in a city, and a life I didn’t feel I really belonged to.
I may not ever write a novel. I may not ever live in a house by the sea. C and I may not grow old together. I don’t know what the future holds. But for the present, at least, I can look back at my life, now half-way over, and feel that maybe my mistakes haven’t been quite that bad, driving in a car, with good music, with a beautiful man beside me, and an open road ahead of us, pregnant with possibility.