Tuesday, August 30, 2011

albany redux

as the title suggests, the following essay is the reworking, from memory, of an essay i first wrote during grad school for one of my classes.  it is a redux because soon after moving to maine i lost almost all of my writings in a flood that left over a foot of rain in the basement of a house i was living in. 

consequently, all of (my perception) good essays from that time were lost to mother earth.  most of them were forgetful, as it has been about 20 years since i wrote them, and most were also forgetful simply because they were not that good.  however, a few of them have stuck in my head because they were either personal in nature or had that certain something that made me keep coming back to them in my mind.  "albany" was one of those for both reasons.  it was an interesting occurrence in my life and in my very humble opinion, the original was one of my best essays. 

i can't speak to the quality of this new one, but we'll see, because unlike my college or professional publications (few they are) i do not write these essays then brood over them, dissect and edit them, either by myself or with a group.  i just simply write, making changes as i go along, then i read them over again to make sure they are at the very least coherent and have no glaring typos, grammatical errors, etc.  but that's it.  other than that, they are there, ripe for the picking and ready to be picked over by readers.

a note about this reworking of "albany".  in the very remote possibility that someone was in my class and is reading this now and even more remotely remembers it, my apologies if things seem different.  like most essayists, i am working from memory and memory is always fuzzy, especially with the passage of time.  it's impossible -- or very nearly so -- to go back and check the accuracy of these events.  nor would i want to.  this rendition is my telling of something that happened to me years ago and i prefer to go on memory; i do however, promise to be as accurate and honest to the original as possible without being able to refer back to my previous essay or fact checking times and places.  also, in the original (this was before the widespread use of the internet) i used the real name of the person i went to visit. now, with the advent of google and facebook and everyone knowing everyone's business, i will refrain from using her name for what should be obvious reasons after reading.

so, without further ado, i give you "albany redux"

at a time in my life in which everything sucked and (mistakenly) i thought things could not get any worse, i did what every idiot male will do, i packed up and headed out.  i was in college and not very motivated anyway, when my girfriend (later to be future, then ex-wife) and i broke up.  i was devastated and at a loss as what do to, when a friend of mine suggested i move to boston to live with her and a few friends who were going to boston university and sharing an aparment.  there were many people moving in and out that year but they had a couch i could use and an extra body to pay the rent was always welcome. 

so, with very little else to keep me grounded, i packed up my few books and belongings and set out for allston, a section of greater boston on the green line and not too far from b.u.  i had very little plans set out, i just needed to get out of the hapless situation i was in and i had lived in boston prior for one summer working at mass general as a phlebotomist.  i figured i could maybe pick up some hours there or find a more permanent position somewhere either drawing blood or maybe working at a doctor's office.  it was really the only skill i had at the time.

but as i said, i was listless and moreover i was severely depressed about the breakup.  i was young and emotional then, not the haggard and curmudgeonly tim we all know and tolerate.  frustrated by the lack of available positions in the area, i signed up with a company called medi-temp which, like the name suggests, provided temporary work for people in the medical community.  but at the time, even temp jobs were hard to come by; one day i would draw blood for a doctor's office in brighton, then the next i would be packing boxes at a book distribution center.  why those kind of jobs were listed under medical i have no idea, but the desire to eat and drink was such that i took what jobs they would give me.

work was inconsistent, so i would frequently have a day or two -- sometimes even a week -- where i would have no work.  and with everyone else in class, i was bored and not given to socializing easily, i started taking day/night trips to various places around new england and canada.  i made trips to portland, maine, st. johnsbury, vermont, quebec city, montreal, new york city, etc.  by and large they were good trips and i would either come back home or sleep in my car (see previous post).   i am usually comfortable being alone and like to see different places and visit new restaurants and new bookstores. 

however, after a time i grew weary of traveling aimlessly and started to think of things i could do and see.  i had recently read the novel ironweed by william kennedy and had been fascinated by the characters and places.  the novel had even sparked a high school memory of anna ciampi (not her real name).

i first met anna ciampi in high school when i attended an future business leaders of america, fbla for short, conference.  for those of you who are laughing, it's because you know how far from being any kind of business leader i am.  but i was in fbla for several reasons.  one, they went on the coolest trips.  two, i did take typing and a few other business classes because i liked the teachers, ms. timmerman and ms. speer.  three, my best friend walter was a big deal in the fbla, running for offices, statewide and perhaps even national, though my memory is foggy on that point. walter is and always was a motivated person, succeeding in life as he did back even in high school.  plus, he's one funny fucker. 

during one of our years in fbla, a few of us went to a national conference; again i'm not sure where but i believe it was somewhere in texas (walter emailed me after i asked him and he believes it was little rock).  walter was going to give a speech and i'm assuming i was there to attend the conference and be his majordomo or perhaps more accurately, his man friday.  frankly, i don't remember much about the conference except for seeing two girls kiss (ostensibly on a dare or to shock and titillate, which of course it did) and anna ciampi. 

i don't remember if it was at a night time dance or function, or in one of the talks at the conference, but at some point i began talking to anna.  she was/is an italian/american from albany, new york.  i was captivated by her accent and her brash demeanor.  she was different from anyone i knew, as exotic to a high schooler from podunk arkansas as anyone could be.  she had this wonderful tangle of dark black hair and a large nose that to this day i still find appealing on women.  i have a vague recollection of her wearing green shorts and a brown top at some point and i remember she looked very good in them, quite voluptuous. 

the foremost memory of that trip was making out with anna on the bed next to my friend while he was making out with another girl from mississippi.  this sort of thing would happen to walter; he was popular and ambitious and the girls thought he was cute.  but for me, it was one of those infrequent times when the stars align and you find a girl you are attracted to and she finds you attractive.  i can remember the television on and the lights low and feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet.  to use the parlance of my mother's time, i believe i reached third base that evening.  which, as it turns out, was the only evening we had because the conference was over the next day.

we did exchange addresses, email not readily available back in the dark ages. and we did write, she told me of her family, her soccer team, about her college plans.  i've long since lost those letters, but i still recall the excitement each time i received one.  she was a good writer and i imagined a time i would get to see her again.  i fantasized, as kids the world over will do, that we would meet up again soon and continue where we left off.  but life and distance kept us apart, and eventually her letters dwindled down to nothing.  other interests, school and time made the weekend a distant memory for her i'm sure, and after some time, it slipped into the recesses of my mind too. 

but, sitting on my couch/bed in boston those years later and with william kennedy's ironweed in my head, i started to wonder what had happened to her and what she was doing.  it was only about 6 years or so later, so i thought there might be a chance of finding her.  the information age was still a ways away and though i had forgotten much about her, i still recalled her address from all the letters i had sent her.  i'm lousy at remembering faces or events, but numbers and addresses i seem to have a knack at storing.  

the trip from boston to albany is only about three hours and it takes you near worcester, springfield and stockbridge.  it's a lovely area, especially in the fall, but this was winter and the trees were bare and wet snow covered the ground and i was content to keep my eyes on the road and listen to the slush slush sound my tires made.   as soon as i passed into new york state, i started wondering if i would really go through with it.  it seemed silly and childish and there was a good chance she was off at school or indeed that she and her parents had moved somewhere.  but, i figured, at the very least i could find her house and drive around looking at some of the landmarks in ironweed, a copy of which i brought with me.

i stopped at a gas station and bought a cup of coffee, some chips and a map of albany.  taking it back to my car i began searching for her address.  there was a blowup of albany and a street index on the backside of the map and it wasn't long before i found a few places listed in the book and, more pertinent to this story, anna's address.  she was on the other side of town so i decided to go find it first, then decide what to do.  it didn't hurt to at least go check it out, right?  it was the middle of the day during the week, probably no one was home.

i found the house pretty easily.  it helped that it was on a corner lot and there was a low, white brick fence around it with the street number prominently displayed.  it was impossible to tell if anyone was home as there was a garage and it was daytime so there were no lights to easily see.  so i drove by it, then took a trip around the neighborhood to check it out and decide what to do.  it was a very nice suburban neighborhood, full of an eclectic mix of capes and federals with what looked like well tended lawns under the blanket of snow.  i drove around for a while, just looking and building up my resolve.  i decided there was no harm in ringing the doorbell.  i suppose i could have called but i hadn't bothered to look up the number and i felt like if i didn't do it in person, i wouldn't do it at all.  i was at loose ends in my life and looking back i realize i just wanted to revisit a time in my life when things were easier and i had hope. and for at least for that long ago weekend, i was on top of the world.

parking in the driveway, i gathered up my coat and headed to the door.  i rang the doorbell, there was no response.  i waited a second then knocked on the door, figuring there was no one home but wanting to satisfy myself that i had at least tried.  after a few more seconds i heard some noise inside and then the door opened a bit, the person peeking their head out.

"yeah?", was all she said.  i just stared back at her.  i wasn't sure what to say.  it looked vaguely like anna, but it had been a while and it if were her, she had changed a lot.  anna had been curvaceous while this person was sickly thin, gaunt.  her cheeks were sunken and her hair was stringy and looked oily.  her clothes were tight which only accentuated her skinny frame.  her nose was even more pronounced but instead of enhancing her beauty, it made her look even more thin.  i looked closer. it was her, no question about it.  just a sickly version of her.  i thought maybe she had been very ill.

i finally spoke.  "are you anna?"

"yeah, what do you want? who are you?"

i didn't know what to do; for a number of reasons i wanted to run, she was obviously much different than she was in high school and i was already nervous enough about seeing her again.  but then i realized i had changed too.  i had lost weight from lack of desire to eat and my hair was already thinning. but mostly i was at a low point in my life and i had little to lose by talking. 

so i started talking.  i mentioned the fbla trip and the letters we wrote and i reminded her that i had her address, that i was living in boston and that i was just in the area looking at some landmarks and thought i would look her up while i was there.  actually the reverse was true; i had used the book as an excuse to come to see her, but she didn't need to know that.  i rambled, standing at the door, for what seemed like forever.  finally i stopped and looked at her: nothing.  i could tell she had no idea what i was talking about. 

"cool, you wanna go for a walk or something? my folks won't let me have anyone in the house."

we headed out around the neighborhood and without any preamble, she started telling me her story.  her senior year of high school a friend of hers got her to try heroin.  turns out, she loved it.  couldn't get enough of it.  she kept it under wraps just long enough to get accepted to the rochester institute of technology.  but after a semester there, she got kicked out because she wasn't going to any classes and al her money from home was going to heroin.

"i couldn't get out of bed without thinking of how i was going to get more heroin.  i sold everything, from my books to my car and finally my folks knew something was up so they made me come back home and put me in rehab.  i've been in rehab three times now.  i don't think it's sticking."  she said all of this without a trace of pity or care in her voice.  most of the time we were walking, she kept her head down and only rarely did she lift her head to look at me or anything else. 

it was cold so i suggested maybe we should go get a cup of coffee.  she must have trusted me or not cared, because i could still tell she had no idea who i was but she said, "sure, i know of a place." she said it just like that, "...of a place". i remember liking the way that sounded.

as we were getting in the car she saw my copy of ironweed.  she asked if i wanted to see some of the places like i mentioned.  i said yes.  "we can pass by a few of them on the way to the diner."  so we headed out and she gave me directions through the streets and into the city.  at one place she pointed out that her dad used to take her there when she was a little girl to play in the park.  "now it's just a dump, like the rest of albany." and she chuckled at that.

i was feeling depressed.  i wasn't sure what i had hoped would happen, but this certainly wasn't it.  i'm sure we looked like a loathsome pair as we took a booth at the diner.  we ordered two coffees and then she told me she didn't have any money to pay.  i told her that was alright, i would buy and if she wanted some food that was okay, too. 

"no, i can hardly eat anymore.  food just makes my stomach turn.  my parents make me eat with them when we are home and it all tastes the same.  like shit."

as we sat there, i told her about my ex-girlfriend and living in boston, try to find out what to do with my life.  we both just looked at each other.  all that easy time of talking when we were back at the conference was gone.  now it was just two sad and lonely people staring across a table, waiting for coffee, one strung out from too many drugs and another just feeling sorry for himself.  we drank our coffee and i reminded her again of our time at the fbla conference but i could have been talking about the lack of rainwater in sub saharan africa because i could tell she wasn't listening and had no memory of that weekend.  she was also jittery, i noticed that the coffee in the mugs was dancing about; her legs were bouncing up and down fast and furious. 

funny thing though... the moment should have been awkward, and i should have wanted to get out of there, but for some reason a sort of calm came over me.  this was, i suspect, a precursor to the man i have become, to accepting people for what they are, who they are.  i had hoped for more, for me, for her, but in the end, it was enough to have come all that way and to see her.  we sat in what was, at least for me, a comfortable silence of the weak and the tired. 

i started driving her home and as we neared the house, she said: "you better let me off here, my folks won't want me to be with you. and i was wondering, can you lend me some money?"

those of you who know what she was probably going to do with the money, can now cast the first stones.  i gave her all i had on me, minus 10 bucks for gas to get me home.  in the end, i decided it was much like the homeless in the streets around boston, they hit you up for money and you either gave it to them or not; but what they do with it is their own business.  and what she did with it is her business.  she used me for money but i used her too, for a look at the past, for what could have been, what never was and it told me a little bit about what i was becoming. 

and i'm okay with that.


  1. So I wonder, whatever became of her . . . .

  2. That was pretty damned cool, Tim. I enjoyed it immensely.

    or, should I say

    that was pretty damned cool, tim. i enjoyed it immensely.

  3. Thanks for sharing a glimpse into a chapter of your life and what shaped you into who you have become. It was fascinating to read.

  4. Sometimes stepping back teaches us to appreciate what never was...beautifully written. :)

  5. had i told you about this before, steve?

  6. thanks for the kinds words, everyone. i hope to rewrite a couple others that i lost. one was about a cowbird and a coffee cup, but i gotta think on it for a while.

  7. no, this a new story for me. You should really put a collection of your travel essays together and lets look at publishing them.

  8. lol, dude, most of the traveling i've done that is worth writing is with you and kenneth and i'm not sure we can publish any of that without being arrested. :-)
    and i think you've heard me talk about it before, but you were probably asleep in the back of the car.