Wednesday, July 8, 2009

American Bohemia: the Myth of the Road

When I was in college, I was very lucky with regard to housemates. Aside from one particular unfortunate frustration (Ryan was an absolutely awful roommate), I got along with pretty much everyone I ever roomed with. I'm not in contact with any of them now really, but at the time we never really clashed much. Now that I am thinking about it, a few instances are springing to mind, but nobody's perfect. During my first year, I slept on a couch in the living room for $80 a month, and I wasn't always the most pathetic person in the place. We managed to pick up several drifters to stay with us for a few months. As it was my first experience living out on my own, I didn't find it all that odd. I guess I just assumed that, in the Real World (and the Big City, at that!) this sort of thing happens. This Sort of Thing doesn't happen as it turns out - my landlord was just crazy. Anyway, one of these tumbleweeds was more memorable than the others, in spite of being one of the most pathetic. I don't recall his name for sure, but I think it might have been Brad, which will work just fine for this post.

My crazy landlord (who lived at the condo with us - he was a college student too) met Brad at school or work or some place, struck up a conversation and decided to offer him a place to sleep for a while. Brad didn't have a real job - he was an actor looking for work. So in the meantime he sold pagers and cellphones at the mall. And although he was an out-of-work actor in Orlando, Brad was still an inspiration to me. He lived in Maryland until one day, out of the blue, he just up and moved to Orlando. He packed his shit in a tiny, unreliable car and drove down to Orlando with little or no money. Crazy? Yes. But if that isn't the American Dream, then I don't know what is!

There's no doubt that he did a shitty job of planning. And although I assume that he eventually got his life in order and is living a perfectly successful life right now, I have no idea. He may have died on the streets, eating newspaper and glue. I would never do what he did. What I crave more than anything else is stability and safety. I need roots. And yet I love to fantasize about just throwing everything into my car and just leaving. It isn't just fear that keeps me rooted though. There are plenty of things that I want to keep: my wife, my dogs, my things, my money. I like, and in some cases, love those things.

The desire to just blow away isn't specific. I don't know if it is universal, but I know it can't be uncommon. It is one of my favorite themes in literature - movies, art, music too, I suppose. There is something very tempting about having no - or very few - responsibilities or ambition. Live in a shitty apartment and pay rent with cash, drive an old, beat up car, wear thin shirts, drink cheap beer - it isn't exactly the high life, but there is a sort of romance in it, and - to me - an undeniable charm. Instead of working to make more money and constantly improve your standard of living, you work just enough to maintain your current state and spend the rest of your time living and hanging out with friends.

I have been reading Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland. To some degree, this is a story like that. It follows characters in the American Bohemian mold. At first I was put off by the cliche anti-corporate, anti-yuppie (I guess they were a problem in the early 90s) theme, but after a while I was able to work around it. Although Generation X's specific 'antis' are a bit dated, the 'pros' are more universal. It was like On the Road or Catcher in the Rye or Stranger than Paradise or Fight Club - a story about young people in self-imposed exile.

The recent eponymous Conor Oberst CD is quite excellent - the perfect soundtrack to abandon your old life to. One song in particular, "Moab," states the sentiment perfectly in the refrain: "There's nothing that the road cannot heal." I don't know if that's true or not. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't. But when the pressures of life outweigh the treasures, it is a very tempting offer.

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