Crossing

“Opera is a primal union of animal longing, as expressed in sound, and human meaning, as expressed in language,” writes the classical music wunderkind Matthew Aucoin in his notes on Crossing, his new opera for which he unconventionally wrote both the libretto and the music, inspired by the life of Walt Whitman and commissioned by the American Repertory Theatre as part of their multi-year National Civil War Project, at the Citi Schubert Theatre through June 6.

In foreground Alexander Lewis and Rod Gilfry. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography
In foreground Alexander Lewis and Rod Gilfry. Photo: Gretjen Helene Photography

At 25, Aucoin has done more work with more world-renowned institutions than musicians more than twice his age might dream. In addition to this commission from the A.R.T., Aucoin is the Solti Conducting Apprentice of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, and composer in residence at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum where he will be presenting a cycle of art songs in the galleries June 26-27.

It’s through multiple performances at PEM that I’ve had the opportunity to experience in the flesh the extraordinary musicianship the rest of the world has read so much about in extensive profiles by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. I’ve born witness to Aucoin’s pluck and volubility at the piano, precision and expressiveness on the conductor’s stand, and the contagious curiosity he shares for literary allusions and complex sounds.

Amidst all this virtuosity, though, I come away from each performance recognizing above all Aucoin’s youth, as undeniable as his technical prowess. The very picture of precocious. While much of the classical music world lauds this fact as salvific, I worry Aucoin’s fecund youth is being wasted on institutional gimmickry.

Rather than in service to aging institutions selling more tickets, I would love to see Aucoin use his youth to stretch his talents to breaking, absorbing, and creating and recasting the expressive sounds of universal human longing in his singular voice and understanding. By definition, this means he needs to take risks and to fail, a lot: anathema to the world-renowned institutions hiring him today, until he creates something so new and beautiful and true they can continue to sell tickets to productions of it for generations after Aucoin’s youth has faded.

While I have yet to see Aucoin fail, he’s certainly taken some risks, notably, with Crossing.

In content: Whitman’s self-sacrificing care of wounded soldiers introduces the uncomfortable idea of predatory compassion, which for Boston audiences especially, perhaps invokes the trauma of the church abuse scandal. And, while representation of homoeroticism today is largely passe, it still carries an air of taboo.

Musically: a chorus of eleven men creates a sonority of strength and beauty we hear (and experience) too little of. Appearances by women are perfunctory, agents of plot and convention. The Negro spiritual is invoked, transformed and celebrated with finesse and abiding understanding.

Indeed, there is virtually nothing here to overtly criticize. It is outstanding work deserving in every way of the highest marks.

But as Aucoin makes clear in his notes, the opera house is about more than winning high marks from on high; it’s a public, primal space of longing and meaning. And for me, the Citi Schubert seemed more an academic recital hall filled with friends and family in awe of all the music the proverbial young Johnny had learned.

Instead, I yearn and trust Matt to guide me into and through a musical wilderness I’ve never heard or imagined, to draw out emotions and relational complexities that surprise, frighten, and inspire me, to acknowledge the boundaries of my knowledge in demonstrating a new kind of freedom.

I realize, it’s an extremely high order. One might even say impossible. Except it’s been done before.

Ever read Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass?”

I think this kid’s just as good.

The workshop presentation of 'Crossing' on October 28, 2014. Photo: GretjenHelene.com
The workshop presentation of ‘Crossing’ on October 28, 2014. Photo: GretjenHelene.com

Crossing
A NEW AMERICAN OPERA
WORLD PREMIERE
Music & libretto by Matthew Aucoin
>With the chamber orchestra A Far Cry
Directed by Diane Paulus
Through June 6
Citi Schubert Theatre
Tickets start at $25
americanrepertorytheatre.org

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I love getting invited to experimental/avant-garde/new acts of creation, especially operas.

And Guerilla Opera, the independent collaborative performing ensemble in residence at the Boston Conservatory, gives me lots of opportunity to stretch my expectations not just of what an opera is, but what a performance can be, all while showcasing the talents of some of the finest musicians and stage directors in the Boston area, aka the country/world.

I remember well the time the countertenor in a chicken suit serenaded us in a kiddie pool filled with cheerios.

And the existential multiplicities derived from enjambing the infinite versioning of sandwich making.

Guerilla’s most recent production “Pedr Solis” is equally clever, challenging and esoteric.

Brian Church, Baritone in the title role of Pedr Solis.
Brian Church, Baritone in the title role of Pedr Solis.

The internationally acclaimed composer Per Bloland best known for his Electromagnetically-Prepared Piano, found inspiration for this new work in the abstract modernist writing of the Norwegian novelist Pedr Solis, [I can’t find any of his work in translation. . . let me know if you can. . .] particularly Solis’s most famous novel Stillaset (“The Scaffold”), which he describes as the journey of an unnamed protagonist navigating a seemingly infinite edifice, during which time he discovers a “black book” of Old Norse legends and language which begin to disrupt the narrative, eventually taking over and ultimately being overcome itself by cryptic symbols resembling runes. There is no ending, only a gradual “falling apart.”

The obvious complexities of Pedr Solis’s novel are reflected, rather obviously, in the opera Pedr Solis through adventurous polyphony (often atonal), cryptic obscuring shrouds worn by the chorus, and large wooden blocks which are stacked and measured and moved and knocked down in a series presumably reflecting the development of the narrative.

It’s all fascinating and clever and obviously the result of a lot of time spent by a lot of folks with a lot of education.

And yet I can’t help but think there’s something pretty fundamental missing. Perhaps it’s just a hole in my own education or personal preferences, but I yearn for allusions to more traditional conceptions of melodic beauty or the elegance of complexity in harmony (as opposed to complexity as complexity).

Must “new” music completely eschew these fundamental musical experiences in pursuit of intellectual interest or rigor?

I don’t think so, which is why I’m going to keep going to every new opera I can find for a glimpse of some new and yet unknown beauty.

Gout de TGI Fridays

On Thursday, 19 March 2015, over 1000 chefs across five continents participated in the “Gout de France,” a celebration of French gastronomy inspired by Auguste Escoffier’s 1912 “Diners d’Epicure,” creating regionally evocative dishes conforming to a “French-style” menu:

aperitif
cold starter
hot starter
fish or shellfish
meat or poultry
cheese
chocolate

I thought of attending an official, expensive, fancy menu in Boston.

But then, I read on eater.com about a provocative new ad campaign for TGI Friday’s “endless apps”  and thought purquois pas? If we can celebrate the tradition of eating in the French-style with a Caribbean or Asian or Quebecois accent, why not with the distinctive, nutritionally dubious, commercially overwrought inflection of suburban American fast-casual dining?

In truth it’s a tradition with which I don’t have much familiarity or access, as I only really go anywhere accessible by public transit and institutions like TGI Friday’s have mostly limited their access to those displaying privilege through the possession of personal automobiles.

The ride over was as disorienting, intimidating and frightful as that Siberian bus I took from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island: Where am I going? Am I going to survive these horrible roads? There’s no way they’re going to have anything I need once I get “there.”

Once we got there, we discovered it was a popular place?! Only two seats at the wraparound bar.

I started trying to figure what to order for an aperitif (Do you think they have Pernod? Maybe Lillet?), when the townies seated next to us asked about all our strategizing.

How to explain the Gout de France to baseball-cap wearing, Bud Light drinking Baby Boomers at the TGI Friday’s bar?

“The French Government has instituted. . .”

Definitely not.

“There’s a worldwide movement. . .”

Pretty risky.

“We’re crazy cookbook editors.”

True and somewhat relevant if not wholistically descriptive of our presence.

We went with that as I ordered a Jack with two rocks as an aperitif and the bruschetta as our cold starter.

The idea of the Gout of course is that a menu constructed within the sturdy and time-tested framework of the French-style doesn’t have to be weighed down by French ingredients and preparations, but can and should flex and expand to embrace and exploit local delicacies and delights.

How was our bruschetta an expression of the delicacies and delights of this place?

The tomatoes looked to be tomatoes in that they were tomato red, but tasted not of tomato, but of nothing really. We were consuming the image of a tomato, our memories of tomatoes and the possibilities of tomatoes, but not, a true, living, blessed tomato.

The bread: dense, life-less, not just dead, but having never lived.

For our hot starter we ordered pan-seared pot stickers: tasty and texturally interesting but with no real relationship to our previous course. And, what was that taste? MSG?

For the fish course, we had to go off menu in ordering coconut fried shrimp. And, what to say about them? They were fried. But as a course intended to reflect the delicacy and sweetness of the sea, they failed miserably. The shrimp were no more than a vehicle for their fried exterior and might as well have been tofu, soylent or a figment of my imagination.

We ordered Boneless Buffalo Wings for our main course, a dish I secretly adore for its aggressive pungence. But what is it? How does it get its distinctive color? What does it have to do with Buffalo, NY? And do these disembodied nuggets of flesh have have any relation to chickens?

The cheese course is my favorite in a traditional menu, serving as a break from the heaviness of those just passed, consumed at a leisurely pace, featuring sharp, distinctive, often new tastes.

On this night, we ordered for this purpose fried mozzarella sticks, which I suspect you’ve had before. They were not unlike our fish course, except saltier. We did not finish them.

Nor did we order a brownie obsession(r) or mudslide for our final sweet course as we had earlier discussed.

I was stuffed and unsatisfied, filled with a hunger for something more/else/alive.

And so our taste of Danvers concluded. We paid our not insignificant bill and began our not short journey home.

Our French-style menu had failed to reveal much beauty or delight, though I believe there was truth in it. Just as the framework can expose an unsung chef’s skills or a little known ingredient’s complexity, it allowed us to really taste the distinctiveness of suburban America.

Defined by price and excess, valued for appearance and conformity to an outside standard, it’s in high demand to the lowest bidder.

Bon Appetite.

 

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Strange Days

In my guise as sometimes theatre critic I can get some pretty fun emails. . .like this one!

“[You] came up as a potential resource that reviews fringe theater companies.  For that reason I am inviting you to Exiled Theatre’s first production.”

I especially appreciate in this message that there’s no judgment or valuation: no, “I’ve heard soooo much about you” or “I’d loooove for you to come review.” It’s a simple statement of work: “you do this thing; will you do it for us?” Maybe I’m good, maybe I’m not; that’s not really the point.

So often it seems in our noisy, fast-paced, twittering lives, straightforward substance gets pushed aside for the posturing superlatives that might win a valuable few seconds of attention from a random passerby, regardless of truth or relevance.

“Would I like to review a fringe theatre production?”
Why yes, in fact, I’d LOVE to!

And so I put on my calendar the Sunday matinee press performance of “Strange Days: Five Tales Concerning Dark Paths, Odd Numbers and Birthday Cakes,” and made plans to rendezvous in Cambridge at a couple new trending watering holes.

At the nouveaux wine bar around the corner from the performance venue, we overheard some other guests request a speedy check. Are we going to the same place? Do you know what we’re going to? Not a clue. . .

Down an alley, past a rattling roll-up door, up the stairs. It’s dark. Where are those sounds coming from? Do we go through this door? A familiar face! From Salem Theatre. Exiled Theatre’s founder and playwright. Perhaps we’re not so far on the fringe afterall. [Or, maybe it’s the fringe where I spend most of my time. . .]

In the Green Street Studio, we found a few rows of chairs facing an expansive space most commonly used to teach “Advanced Modern and Movement Lab,” “European Swordsmanship,” or “Balkan Dance.”

Perusing the program, we learned that this production was indeed the first for Exlied Theatre and would be comprised of five short original plays by James Wilkinson. The first of which, “Delicious,” was familiar from Salem Theatre’s “Moments of Play” Festival.

Here, it was performed with all the innocent absurdity requisite of a piece involving the mysterious delivery of birthday cakes and a prosthetic hand.

Wilkinson seems most comfortable in this sort of twilight zone, pushing slightly wacky but mundane situations to extremes while testing the disbelief of his audiences. A young girl picks up a couple hitchhikers, one of whom is injured. In the midst of a storm on a secluded island, young Nora goes missing.

Perhaps because each piece is so short, they come-off more as “treatments” or exercises in a game of what-if, than fully developed, complex wholes.

Regardless, Exiled Theatre is most definitely doing the work — a new company, performing new plays — it’s wonderful to see, whether on the fringe, or wherever you happen to be.

+++

Strange Days: Five tales concerning dark paths, odd mercies and birthday cake
By James Wilkinson
Directed by Teri Incampo
through April 5

Exiled Theatre
exiledtheatre.com

Duane Michals: Storytelling

What’s been the most amazing thing you’ve seen today?

If you’ve been to the Peabody Essex Museum you might name the photographs of Duane Michals featured in “Storyteller” on view through June 21 as pretty amazing.

Through image sequences, multiple exposures and the overlay of handwritten messages, Michals has developed a decades-long trailblazing reputation for challenging conceptions of what a photograph is and how it carries meaning.

Consider “Chance Meeting”: A sequence of six gelatin prints documenting two men passing in an alley. A pedestrian subject if ever there was one. Taken individually a viewer might not think to questions beyond how and why, focusing on the work and the artist, leaving the subject and its potential relevance just out outside the frame. As a series, though, a narrative starts to take shape and questions of what, what if, and what now are inescapable. No longer a static photograph to be admired and/or critiqued, the work becomes an invitation to engagement and possibility.

Michals has explained that his works are, “about questions, they are not about answers.”

At a recent Cultural Conversation in PEM’s atrium, I found the artist himself pretty amazing.

Pre-conversation, settled on stage dressed in a Pantone-approved marsala colored Mr. Rogers inspired cardigan, I first feared the 83-year-old legend would be so passive and timid chief curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan would struggle to maintain conversational flow, let alone vigor.

That fear, mercifully, lasted mere minutes, for as soon as Michals started speaking it was apparent that Hartigan’s chief task would be keeping him on topic and on-color. Of the many flashes of brilliance Michals meandered through, most are not printable here. I have never before laughed so much in that space.

He spoke about his proximity to celebrity: working with Magritte and talking on the phone with Andy Warhol (not as thrilling as one might think).

Duane Michals, Magritte at his Easel, 1965. Gelatin silver print. The Henry L. Hillman Fund. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Duane Michals, Magritte at his Easel, 1965. Gelatin silver print. The Henry L. Hillman Fund. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

While he would not indulge a question about his camera, he described in detail a daily, animating search for amazement. A constant testing of boundaries in pursuit of creation.

After the conversation, another Manhattan (Michal’s preferred tipple) and a parting plate of antipasti I found myself in the coat check line with the artist and took the opportunity to ask what he’d seen that day that had amazed him.

With little hesitation and a distant, longing gaze he replied, “that Chinese wallpaper,” which was not at all the response I was expecting. I thought perhaps he might describe a bizarre interaction with a fan, or a detail from our urban landscape I’d never bothered to pay attention to, or anything really other than one of PEM’s core and perhaps unsexiest holdings

AE86556.P, Panel 18

A little sleuthing revealed that earlier that day Michals had been shown some items in storage including some panels of the Strathallan Castle Wallpaper, an extraordinary hand-painted Chinese panorama from about 1790 which hung on the walls of the ladies’ salon at Strathallan Castle in central Scotland.

Could this be the thing that so amazed the provocative of-the-moment contemporary artist? What did he see in it? Did it perhaps remind him of the 30-photograph sequence “The House I Once Called Home” in which he explores the abandoned three-story brick house where he spent his child?

Duane Michals The House I Once Called Home, 2002 Thirty gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text The Henry L. Hillman Fund Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Duane Michals
The House I Once Called Home, 2002
Thirty gelatin silver prints with hand-applied text
The Henry L. Hillman Fund
Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Or something else entirely. . .

What imaginative possibilities did it raise for him?
For me?
For you?

Have you been amazed recently?

The Comfort of Things

Once upon a time – before goat farms, pop-up cocktail parties, and quarter-life crises – I lived alone in a sparsely furnished studio where I read voraciously and quite widely.

It was an education as formative as any other that might have more explicitly called itself the same and laid the groundwork for the life I am creating today.

During this time, I read a quiet, unsung, potentially quite boring work of popular sociological scholarship, The Comfort of Things, which explores the objects the residents of a single London street possess and the ways those “things” both reflect and affect their lives and relationships.

I heard once and very much believe that every book we read changes us, regardless of whether we’re able to articulate the specific change. Occasionally, therefore, me being me, I try to practice intentionality about this and list a change wrought from each book recently read.

It was in the midst of one of these listing periods that The Comfort of Things first came in to my life and a subsequent assessment of my possessions, desires, and potential for transformation was inevitable. Soon thereafter, I found myself online ordering a dining room table to fill my barren square footage.

In my book-laden life, I had identified a craving for something more human and broadly nourishing: the ritual of a meal, the challenge of a new recipe, the comfort of a sauce mousseline sabayon swaddling a beautifully poached fish with hints of tarragon, and a community with which to share it all.

I now no longer own a table (or much of anything, really, which is quite intentional in case anyone feels concern).

And yet, I find myself today in undisputed possession of all those things I first thought to bring a table in to my life to cultivate.

This past Saturday, five years from its institution, the Julia Child Supper Club reconvened to celebrate our community’s beloved tradition of sharing complicated, comforting meals.

So much had changed for each of us since we first embarked on our culinary journey together, and yet the resounding resonance of our ritual reverberated from there to here and now to then and back and forth across generations and continents, courses and cuisines. There were tears and hand holding.

In that present I grasped the reality that I was now already in possession of everything I needed to create my future, whatever it might be.

It was no longer necessary for me to own a table, as I was finally able to see that the entire world was in fact a glorious table laden with delectable transformative delights and plenty of room for all the friends I haven’t met yet.

IMG_6783

Le Menu

pernod

cornichons – noix – chips
mousse de foies de volaille – pissaladière niçoise
gâteau de crêpes à la florentine
filets de poisson en soufflé
salade – fromage – fruits
le marquis à la “cha-cha”

Look away, Look a-way!

If there’s a Dixie city I might claim as my own, it’d be Charleston, the Holy City, a place of sophistication and grace.

Award-winning food, the Spoleto Festival, religious exceptionalism (the first baptist church in the south, last French Huguenot congregation, lots of Jews).

I also notice a lot of shadows here.

Through its port and market passed 40-60% of American slaves.
In its speakeasies flourished one of America’s first and most dynamic queer communities.

Some of the shadows are personal. Early in my adult life I worked for a company with a home office in Charleston and consequently developed patterns and acquired knowledge of alleys and routes and watering holes. There are contacts in my phone with 843 area codes and no last names (I’m still not sure who got that text about meeting at minibar. . .)

Wandering around slightly north of Broad (read: “s.n.o.B,” supposedly nothing worthy on the peninsula is north of Broad Street) I ate house pickles, sampled local microwbrews, and sucked honey off the bones of James Beard award winning fried chicken, before heading to the micro- minibar occupying the reception area of the office I once used to visit.

Inside, there weren’t more than a dozen seats, at least three of them occupied by folks who had once lived in Kansas City. On the menu was Boulevard Beer and hot injection beef jerky. A southern styled singer-songwriter crooned in the corner to whom I paid no attention until the insistent refrain “Look away, Look away!” caught my imagination.

I’ve always thought the goal is to look straight on, squarely and objectively, no matter how painful or grotesque.

What could we possibly be looking away from? I hope not prejudice and injustice, inequality and inefficiency.

“What is this horrible, horrible song?” I asked.

“Dixie,” I learned. “The national anthem of the Confederacy.”

And thus yet more shadows were revealed.

Wikipedia later offered more informed analysis than my simplistic impressions. Though by no means canonical, the general sense of the origins of the song “Dixie” seems to be that it comes out of blackface minstrelsy. A freed slave pines for his old life picking cotton for his kind and gracious master. He’s not so much looking away as looking “a-way-down–there.”

Regardless, it seems a strange sentiment for Confederate-Americans (that’s really a thing) to rally around.

Of course, the French sing in the Marseillaise of watering their fields with the blood of their enemies, but I’ve always thought of that as hyperbole. What’s the literary device at work in “Dixie”?

+++

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!

In Dixie Land, where I was born in,
early on one frosty mornin’.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!

I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
to live and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!

There’s buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,
Makes you fat or a little fatter.
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land

Then hoe it down and scratch your gravel,
To Dixie’s Land I’m bound to travel.
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land

I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
to live and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!
Away, away, away down south in Dixie!

It’s not easy being free

For several years now, I’ve celebrated my home-free-ness, writing and talking about how much work and social capital is required to maintain my liberated position. The status in fact carries quite a lot of privilege. It’s not at all like home-less-ness, I’m always sure to clarify for the sake of my pride and the comfort of others. It is intentional, well-planned, hard-fought.

There are, of course, intersections of the -free and the -less which reveal themselves most strikingly when my efforts to remain car-free too force me in to community with the car-less who often also have less home than society feels comfortable with.

Back on the Greyhound en route to Savannah, my potential seatmate with the EDM playlist invited a biker with a 9-inch long gray goatee and tattoos on his knuckles to join her. For the rest of our time within earshot of each other she didn’t stop telling stories.

“I lived with fundamentalist Christians in a hippy tent camp. . .”
“When I hitchhiked from Santa Fe to Seattle. . .”
“One time when I accidentally overdosed on my anti-depressants. . .”

“I was one of the lucky ones on the streets. Some of those people don’t have ANYTHING.”

She went on to talk about how her father died, and her mother. There was a dysfunctional foster family. A string of friends and cousins and godmothers who took her in. A halfway house with a short-stay limit and now a bus ticket to a distant relative in rural Pennsylvania. She wasn’t sure how long she’d stay. Long enough to get her feet under her, figure out a next step.

I understand that thinking. It’s in fact the animating sentiment of this rather expensive trip celebrating free-ness.

She was recognizing, though, that despite lacking most every comfort of life, she did have far-reaching if not particularly intimate relationships and social networks, a quick mind and a free spirit. Her neighbors on the street only had burned bridges and addictions and debts of all kinds. They were on their own. And their luck was not good.

That’s about the time I got distracted from her story. Just outside Savannah we stopped at a random convenience store just off the highway where a gaggle of youth, dressed in navy and khaki so nouveaux-institutional they might have been ironically dressed hipsters (except they were black), got on.

Realizing the bus was filling, I reluctantly offered my carefully preserved free seat to an over-grown boy confusedly wandering the aisle clutching a manila envelope.

Back in motion, just 20 min from the Hostess City, my neighbor began perusing the contents of his envelope. There were some sheets of wide-ruled notebook paper with crude printing I couldn’t quite make out, several pages of itemized expenses, and an “official” letter addressed to M. Innocent (his real last name, I’ve expurgated the details of his first) from the Georgia Department of Corrections stating the terms of his release from their facility.

I couldn’t quite figure out how to start the conversation, but I did have lots of questions. Not so much, “what were you in for?” but “Do you know where you are sleeping tonight?” “How are you going to pay for/plan/create the next thing?” “What would you want for yourself, if anything in the world were possible?”

I wasn’t thinking of these questions because my seatmate had just been released from prison, but because I ask them of myself all the time and his reality and its very evident limitations cast them in a whole new light for me.

A convicted criminal very well might not be welcome back in his family home; his earning potential over the past months would have been limited so he could not have had much more than a few dollars in his pocket and I doubt his great-grandparents set him up with a trust fund from their publicly traded company. As a black man with limited education and a criminal record was there in fact anything else in the world than this for him?

I was raised to believe that I was smart and talented and good enough to create any kind of life I wanted for myself and no one should tell me I couldn’t or shouldn’t. I wonder how often he heard that message?

Ironically it’s the very reason why, I chose to be on this bus in this community and not by myself in a car, and why I was planning to walk upon arrival in Savannah meanderingly through town to the bed in a nouveaux bnb in an up-and-coming neighborhood I had booked for myself that night.

My spacious Magnolia room opened on to a sun porch, furnished sparsely but efficiently, stylishly but not expensively. All three rooms in the house were booked that night. There was not a planned cocktail hour. Around 3.30 I thought of organizing one, but then thought of the logistics (getting invites to guests, would they receive, would they want, where can I shop, how much do I get, what time. . ).

Instead I just took myself for a tipple to a famous watering hole in a mansion on the park where I met a South African/Polish couple living in Charlotte. Did you know London is a financial capital because of its time zone? You can eat biltung raw before it’s been cured into its more recognizable jerky like form? Las Vegas has the highest concentration of Michelin starred chefs in America (the world?)?

I had one round in these plush surrounds (plus an extra the bartender slipped me) before tearing myself away and on to the next thing. Through sleepy squares with monuments to war heroes like Count Casimir Pulaski and picture-perfect houses of worship like the first Reformed Synagogue in the States, my senses were tuned to the beautiful, lively and well-loved.

A divey-dive bar in the shadow of stately mansions with a blinking PBR sign out front. What could be more beautiful, lively and well-loved than that?

There I met neighborhood landowners with accents so slurred I wondered what they’d sound like later in the night? Also SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) grads with whom I had a rousing convo about arm-knitting.

“Where should I eat dinner?”

“The organic, farm-to-table, burger place in a converted fast-food joint on the outskirts of town I’d sniffed out earlier in my meanderings?”

D’accord

A “bloody,” grass-fed, pimento-cheese spread burger later, I was back in my expansive bed with the weefee planning the next day.

My train to Charleston left at 8.20 in the morning. The self-identifying artist/writer/traveler/proprietor of my home in Savannah suggested I schedule a taxi which I thought was ridiculous until looking at the transit map and realizing it was the only possibility. You literally cannot walk to the train station and there are very few public busses.

In the morning, my taxi was half an hour late. . . Chalk it up to the South’s slower pace? En route, I noted that the train station was So Far Away. He said it used to be downtown, but folks were concerned about all the homeless people who hung out there, so they moved it out of the way.

A midnight train to Georgia. . .

. . . is not possible to book from Miami.

Wouldn’t that be a great way to celebrate New Year’s Eve?
In motion, On the Way

It’s not that there’s not a train from Miami to Georgia. Just that the timetable’s backwards: leaving at noon, arriving at midnight.

1.24 am in Savannah to be precise. And while I’ve definitely arrived at that hour in the city that never sleeps, my uneducated and no doubt biased sense of Georgia’s fifth largest municipality is that the Hostess City is more sleepy than sleepless. So I booked a midnight bus instead, arriving at noon on New Year’s day.

I felt renewed for the journey with my second day in Miami. Breakfast was several hours, including a glass or two of rose, working through some year-end Ignatian exercises in the verdant garden of a scruffy French cafe just off Espaniola Way.

Then, a carefully researched cubano sandwich at an off-the-grid lunch counter. Followed by happy hour at the secretly public luxury hotel pool bar where my new favorite bartender Patricia was working and I met some folks visiting from Marblehead (Bizarrely, I’d met a couple from Beverly a few nights previous in Naples.)

I swung back through my hostel for some house punch in the courtyard to watch the beautiful people arrive for a New Year’s Eve fete. [If I got a perm, would I have a jewfro? Or just a perm?]

Then some provisions for the 13 hour bus ride ahead from the grocery store across the street where I was not expecting to have to speak Spanish and off to the city bus stop where I met a cook at a new two-month old hotel who offered me his friends-and-family discount for the next time I’m in town.

In case you’re unfamiliar, bus stations are funny places. They’re not usually accessible by public transit (because everyone obviously is driving themselves?) and are not surrounded by many commercial enterprises. Most upsetting for me, bus travelers, apparently, don’t factor in to Starbucks new location identification algorithm.

[Also a note that while I’ve recently been reminded that the rest of the world doesn’t always take kindly to Bostonians talking about how much better they are than everyone else, it really is hard to ignore how superior Boston’s bus terminal is to every other I’ve ever seen. It’s a completely different animal. No doubt because we paid for it. . .]

I was especially struck by the very interesting array of dental work on display in the waiting room in Miami.
“How do you chew when in possession of those particular three teeth?”
“I’ve never seen such a golden smile. Seriously. How many troy ounces?”

It’s in fact a pretty diverse crowd. I try to do my part representing college-educated white males. Otherwise it’s pretty much equal parts confederate flags and doo-rags.

At our 3 am hour-long rest stop in Orlando, I ordered up some fresh brewed coffee from the vending machine and noticed that there were a few more people queuing to get on than had gotten off. . . I might have to share a seat. . .Should I make an alliance? Or take my chances?

My options for a preferential seatmate were admittedly limited. The blindingly white Lacoste shirt was promising, but the wearer spoke only the equivalent of what must have been Swahili and tried to get off at every stop. . .all that moving and explaining in sign language could get tiresome.

Otherwise the obviously smart but chatty 20-something with a carefully curated EDM playlist she created hand motions for? Probably not.

Ultimately, I decided that chances were in fact slim the entire bus was sold out on this New Year’s train to Georgia so my best strategy was to possess my space with as much presence as I could muster. The very last open seat on that bus was going to be next to me, and if it even occurred to you that you could ask to sit there you’d have to be a sociopath (which would at least result in an interesting conversation).

Luxuriating in open space and weefee, I did a little research into the meaning of that promiscuous midnight train reference. Turns out it’s incredibly irrelevant. The singer’s following her lover back to Georgia where they hope to settle after failing to make it in Los Angeles.

My New Year’s journey is completely different: forward and progressive and venturing.

And northward. . . How remarkable that I’ve been so far south in my journey, Georgia is North! There’s some relativism for y’all.

On the road again

Now that I’m old and responsible, I realize I’ve gotten out of the habit of travelling.

Even before this new-found, so-called maturity, keeping me from the road were battles with various insecurities (housing, employment, steady income).

But prior to all this, in a glorious age of innocence and ignorance, I was pretty good at connecting dots, maximizing experiences and transforming strangers into lifelong friends. I was a traveller, a pilgrim, who could not help but journey into the unknown, finding in the foreigner a neighbor, and in the exotic, an abiding comfort.

So when my parents invited me to spend the holiday with them in Florida, I saw an opportunity to reclaim adventure. Previous insecurities had been shored up to such an extent that I had resources abundant enough to buy myself some freedom: a week-ish to make my way meanderingly from South Florida to New England by whatever means I might conjure.

Ironically, I’ve never travelled in my own country. This is, of course, not to say I haven’t taken trips, been in airplanes, stayed at hotels. What I haven’t done is ventured from here to there, itinerary-less, free to journey wherever and however whim and opportunity might allow. I have no idea why this is the case, except perhaps that there is no real infrastructure in America for budget travel which is perhaps an extension of the belief that a vacation is a luxury which must be bought for a price on the free market.

It was from the Greyhound bus station in Naples, Florida, that I first got the sense that “the things which I have seen, I now can see no more.”

“No, thank you sir, I’m not looking for drugs. Just waiting for the bus to Miami. Is that strange?”

Soon after my drug offer, a young stylish German couple were dropped off by an older man to whom they bid farewell warmly, but not particularly affectionately. Were they related to each other? Couchsurfing? AirBnB? Perhaps one of their parents had met this man 30 years earlier skiing in the Alps and now after a lifetime of hearing stories about their American friend they were finally meeting during this gap year?

I never asked them. My German’s bad. I don’t want to interrupt. They don’t want to talk to me.

Once on board and crossing Alligator Alley I gloried in the wifi (or as I and the French affectionately say, “weefee”), one of the unsung luxuries of domestic bus travel. I used the time to answer emails and work on projects. It felt good to accomplish these tasks and even better to have them to do, though they meant I did not read my book (Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War), research restaurants, or even look out the window at the Everglades, one of America’s most distinctive landscapes.

Upon arrival in Miami, I had done enough post-departure research to know I needed to catch the 150 bus to get me to the  award-winning design hostel in which I had booked a bed for that night. I had not, though, gotten to the point of figuring out where or how or what. . .

My recognizable confusion caught the attention of a young Panamanian who quickly set me straight. We did not make plans to meet-up later as I once would have thought to arrange. It might be strange? I was worried about checking-in. I don’t need a side-kick.

Later I wandered the streets of South Beach, marvelling at the architecture and cosmopolitanism, but realizing I was not in possession of the tools to navigate the complexities of this landscape: What’s a trap? What’s a gem? Where/when are the best special menus? Is that hotel bar open to the public? This rooftop?

It takes some work to be able to answer these questions. I had intuition and the advice of bartenders at my disposal.

For dinner, I ended up at one of the new American outposts of the French bakery chain Paul with a sandwich mixte. Though technically foreign, Paul, did not offer adventure or newness, but rather comfort, the equivalent of hitting up McDonalds in Paris for a Big Mac.

Back at the hostel at a respectable 10pm, I met my bunkmates. A Swede and an Austrian, both au pairs for families visiting Naples from New York. They’d been given some time off for the New Year and came to Miami, like me, looking for something different. They invited me to the courtyard for drinks. I demurred. I’d been there earlier in the evening. Had books to read. The next day to plan.

And besides, “I’ve had that conversation before,” he said to himself with the dismissive confidence of experience, hardly recognizing the threat the incurious thought posed to his very way of life.