Talkin to the Man in the Rearview
It's a funny thing, this social media. It's something I swore I'd never get sucked into. And then it was something I said I'd only use as a promotional tool, to plug what little I've published during my short stint as a fiction writer. And now I'm checkin in with ya at least oncet a week, hangin on your every reaction, wondering why one post resonates yet another goes relatively unnoticed; why early adopters have disappeared yet new followers have emerged; why a thumbs-up and a heart have become my barometer yet folks who've never engaged via a click tell me face to face that they can't wait for what's next. Hell, my MFA program's marketing team seems more interested in posts I spit out overnight than the short stories I spent two-plus years chiseling and polishing and chiseling some more. As for my mother, well, she just scours every word, hopin to find a sign that her son's alright.
Of course, that's the blessin and the curse, ain't it? With more eyeballs come more questions, more opinions, more expectations: "All them stories can't be true?" "Why do ya pick the people you do?" "Why do you cut off the g's? You ain't a hillbilly." "Why'd you start makin 'em so long? And what happened to the drunks and the strip clubs?" "Can't they all just be... funny?"
I should say up front that I appreciate every eyeball, that your emojis keep me goin, that those tiny blue thumbs and tiny red hearts are about all I look forward to most days. But a friend of mine (and a close reader of #ubernights) asked me a question recently that I haven't been able to shake: "Where are YOU in all of these? Isn't this your existential journey?" Sure, I am THERE, movin the plot along with an aphorism or smart-aleck one-liner, stepping back now and again to offer perspective for where it is I'm writing from, occasionally giving a glimpse of what's rollin around in my head. My friend's right, though. I've protected myself with varying degrees of separation from you and the folks in my Civic. I've been more journalist than essayist, more camera lens than mirror, although it should be noted that countless Uber nights hit the cutting room floor, that I am the ultimate arbiter, deciding who fits my themes or who inspires me or who I think will simply gain some clicks. The view from my rearview is inherently tinted, perhaps even clouded, by my current station in life, by the time and place I find myself in. And while that might sound like an abstract notion, I don't believe that it is. The time and place I find myself in is quite concrete: I'm back at the beginning, back in the town where I graduated from college nearly a decade ago, back at the precipice of this existential journey—despite my insistence that it's only just begun. It was along these streets, within these academic halls, at the counters and on the patios of these bars and restaurants and concert venues that now bear different names and new facades, that I discovered this intangible need to string sentences together, to express myself within the infinite space that lies between the period and the next capital letter. Then, somewhere between here and the Hudson River and Mark Twain's house, I lost the meaning between the lines, lost sight of the complexity that exists within the simple telling of our stories. I lost sight of the good fight. Maybe that's why I'm back here, where the words used to connect, where the sentences made sense. Or maybe I'm back in the place where the words were safe from scrutiny, not burdened with the weight of livelihood or merit or someone else's expectations.
These are the thoughts that punctuate my trips, that fill the void from one passenger to the next. I get paid, sure, but I'd be fibbin if I said the stories of others aren't my lifeblood these days. I suck everything out of them I can, coax every detail, prayin that within their lines I'll find my point again—or at least take my mind off the fact that I'm not certain I have one left in me. Contrary to the picture I might paint, my nights aren't all that colorful. I spend several hours in my car alone. Unlike other major metropolitan cities, Knoxville hasn't completely warmed up to Uber, so if I want to fund this relatively expensive existential crisis, I must drive the drunk shifts, which usually consist of shuttling twenty-somethings from the hotspots around campus and downtown and the Old City directly back to the very row of apartment complexes where they will request me to pick them up the following night. There ain't much substance, is what I'm sayin, even with the occasional sign of life, like Jun, an exchange student from Shanghai, whom I met this week, and who is researching the densest stars in our galaxy, studying their molecular makeup, attempting to unlock their mysteries. Or Chad, a doctoral candidate in astrology, who left behind life as a rock 'n' roll drummer to focus on the Kuiper belt, orbiting out there somewhere near Neptune and Pluto, which I still like to think of as a planet with a chip on its shoulder. Or the three thirty-something white women who pleaded for me to stop at a fast-food restaurant after their "buck wild" Tuesday night and continued to remind me that they weren't apologizing for the amount of calories in the grease-bottomed bags I handed over, even though I'd offered no judgment to begin with. Or the six-foot-three, 280-pound (his measurements) black man, whose Uber handle is "Big Papa" and who's been a bouncer around Knoxville for years and who admitted that he'd rather not have a career predicated on his fists and stature and skin color. He told me this after I listened to him expertly negotiate the dismissal of a "booty call" (his words) to instead enjoy a foot-long sub and cream stout and a night on the couch.
I could spin a yarn out of any of those, stretch them to effect, whether that be humor or sadness or poignancy or perhaps even genius, because I'm a firm believer that genius can be found in every vignette of our lives, if we put the brakes on long enough to see it. Of course, I am a writer, too, and while there is innate ability required, I did go to school for six years to learn how to figuratively and literally read people, to become a chameleon, to extract their stories and assume their emotions, often without them being the wiser. I don't know that I consciously chose to hold off on #ubernights for a week, following my epic encounter with the Billy Joel quintet, but I did spend most of my Uber nights considering the meaningfulness that I've been imposing on the moments of others, the fairness of that, the self-gratification. It was on my mind Tuesday night when I scooped up a trio of college kids, who'd left a concert early, once the opener went off stage. I inquired about an opener worth the price of admission, and the guy up front said, "These new guys called Bear Hands." I did a double-take. Bear Hands are not "new guys." They are a four-man indie rock (whatever that means anymore) act that I first saw on the Lower East Side in 2007, my first winter living in Queens and working in Manhattan. I immediately started scrolling through Spotify for that long-lost EP, wanting these kids to understand that whatever they heard in that brand-spanking new concert venue had evolved from what I heard in that tiny bar, a lifetime ago, when I thought I could waltz into the Big Apple and write about music and movies and pop culture, just like every other kid who'd graduated from an expensive college that had a journalism school with a proper name attached to it, unlike mine, which at the time still referred to the Internet as "electronic media."
If you've ever fancied yourself an audiophile, Bear Hands was, for me, that "I saw them when" band, a group on the rise, a group that was surely going to be headliners sooner than later. My first byline in a national magazine (all 65 words) was a review of their EP, Golden. Then three years disappeared before their first album was released, by which time I'd mostly quit writing for a full-time editing gig, and the indie rock scene had evolved from good ol' guitar shredding and hi-hatting and a heavy does of kick drum for synths and keyboards and over-produced samples, and the follow-up to Golden went mostly unnoticed. I put Golden on repeat, trying to convince folks leaving the show that this was the same group they'd watched open for Silversun Pickups, a band that also had its seminal indie moment around the time I arrived in NYC, and one that fell relatively by the wayside for similar reasons. The rhythm and the beat of Golden had lost its luster, as tends to happen as tastes evolve, but I was keenly aware that the lyrics of the young Bear Hands were empty to me now, perhaps always had been, words that rang well next to one another, yet when examined, were mostly hollow. So I cued up the single that has them back in rotation, "2AM," a song that features a keyboard and the slightest of synths and is about dealing with all your friends being sober and going out being a drag and all your favorite spots being closed and making love being "fine," but really just wanting to forget how old you are. Most of the folks I met following the show were around my age, and that song had resonated with them, although I'm not sure why it had with those college kids, other than maybe them having some confused idea that growing up happens from eighteen to twenty-two. The riders and I, we reminisced, about where we were when we first heard this band and that band, how we mark our lives with music and the bars we heard it in and the company we kept in that time and place, how a part of us will always remain there, in that haze of happiness.
I interviewed Bear Hands once, at Pianos on the Lower East Side, for a profile that eventually ran in the now-defunct New York Press, which seems to be a recurring theme for places where I've been published, save for The Worldwide Leader, of course. The four of them were simply glad to be asked questions, glad to have been compensated in what amounted to beer money for doing what they loved. The same could be said of me then. Driving to and from that venue on Tuesday night, picking up patrons and concert promoters and even a rep for a major record label, I thought about what I would ask those grow men nine years later, wondered if they envisioned themselves still playing opener in a college town for a band whose most-popular single on Spotify is from 2006. I wanted to ask them if they lost a piece of themselves in the process, if they could transport to that night at Pianos on the Lower East Side and reverse course, knowing what they know, maybe dig their heels in a bit deeper, or maybe walk altogether. I'd like to think they'd say they're content to still be penning lines, still drawing crowds, however small, to hear their chords. I'd like to think they'd say whatever part of them was lost has been regained, albeit at an inevitable cost, the same cost any of us must suffer in any profession, in any station in life. I'd like to think they'd say they pull out Golden too, every once in a while, and that they're nostalgic, painfully nostalgic, but also at peace with leaving that part of them in that time and place, that whatever "selling out" they might've done, pandering to record labels or agents or audiences, was a necessary rite of passage. I'd like to think they'd say the reward is to still be musicians, getting slightly more than beer money, although their taste in beer ain't as cheap.