May, 2004 (One Night Stranded In Another Town)

This is from a longer autobiographical piece, an earlier excerpt of which can be found here.

Austin. Late. Saturday night or Sunday morning.

At one point, sitting at Mojo’s and contemplating the evening’s next stepping stone – a critical one, as courses of action pursued after two a.m. tends to be – a guy (tall, white) came in and sat in a chair a few feet away from me. If this were a novel written before, say, 1920, I’d have introduced him as “a rather curious fellow” and what aroused my curiosity was the small show he made of sitting: slouching as low as he could in the seat before his center of gravity would have forced him to the ground; the chair wasn’t just a place to sit – it was a place with a specific purpose, a place to be. It implied that he was someone living out his own narrative, with maybe his own considerable, possibly day-long, journey of which the chair may either be an endpoint or a way station.

Just as curiously, he gazed about the room and then looked directly at me, taking care to give a big old smirk when he saw he’d caught my attention, as if we had just shared an inside joke. He was lanky and pale, with short-ish blonde hair that split the difference between stylishly messy and just messy, and somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties – maybe just late twenties but he might have earned a few years somewhere along the way. He may have been, if not drunk, then under the influence of a can or two.

Still smiling (perpetually bemused really), he said, “Well, it sure is surprising to see everyone out tonight.”

He said it familiarly and mostly to me, not too loudly but loud enough to suggest he was holding court over this little back patch of the coffeehouse. The girl opposite me reading, just to my left – about twenty or twenty-one, Hispanic, cute, a perfectly normal person you wouldn’t expect to see reading alone in the middle of the night at a coffeehouse so you imagine she was probably waiting for a friend – also couldn’t help but take notice.

I responded. “Well, I don’t think it’s too surprising.” Not quite as surprising as being spoken to in a cozily informal manner by a complete stranger without the faintest trace of an introduction, like this was a 1937 movie and he was William Powell and you were, I dunno, William Powell’s co-star. I played along, trying not to miss a beat because I wanted to see where this would go. “The semester’s just ended, so everyone’s probably blowing off steam. People gotta escape finals.”

“Seems right. But still, it’s about two-something and seemingly everyone’s awake.”

I think I got his point, assuming he had one. Most people up way after midnight are up for some reason and, from the evidence on display, we are not those people – we are neither partying, working, or travelling, but just hanging out, living out a privileged state at an utterly impractical time.

The girl across from me joined in. “It is weird. How long do you think people can go without sleep?”

He paused. “Depends, I guess. The right substances can certainly do the job, but for the sake of just keeping going… probably a few days.”

I spoke. “Yep. I tend to think of it as mind over matter – that your body can follow some directive you set if you will it. For finals, two years back, I came up against a crunch – I looked at my schedule and realized I’d probably have to stay up for about three days in order to best study my ass off and go to work at the same time, everything that needed to be done.”

“Shit,” the guy says, grinning.

“Heh. Yeah, so I prepared myself, coffee [holding up my mug] and everything. I made out a schedule, deciding when and where I could take little naps, two or three times each day maybe, a half-hour here and an hour there; some vague hope of rest, y’know? But when I got to it, I just couldn’t sleep – every time I closed my eyes, nothing came. I couldn’t get there. I was tired, sure, but I wasn’t exhausted or near collapse when I probably should have been. I drooled alot. I just had stores of energy, enough to keep me alert, keep me going. I remember when I finished that last final, on that last day, I had one final thing to do – to pick up my check at the bookstore I worked at. I had the day off so after that I was gonna go home and crash, as anyone would. When I went up to my boss, she was so happy to see me – she told me she was glad that I got the message she left on my phone, that someone had called in and she needed me for the evening. Sure. Six hours later, I walked the two miles from work to home (which I can’t remember at all), went straight to my bed and slept for the next seventeen hours.”

“Seventeen hours,” he says. “That sounds about right.”

It was about then that we introduced ourselves – she’s Melissa, he’s Steve, I’m Richard. When me and Steve told each other our names, Melissa was surprised. “You mean you two don’t know each other? I thought you two were already friends!”

And while I had this willing audience, it’s tempting to wonder what they made of me – I wasn’t wanting for content – but I didn’t speak much about myself. The notion that I didn’t need to – that I wasn’t too hard read, much like I read or misread Steve, with a trail of footsteps discernible beneath me to anyone paying a little attention – was appealing; it’s just half a day, a jolly wearying jaunt, far from transformative, but I probably do bear some evidence of it on me, an invisible tell-tale layer of sweat, a stink I wear with confidence, a stink I can only wear with confidence, stuck as I am with it until I cross two counties, all the while brandishing a wry smirk I wear on a head which is always tilted somewhat askew. It’s the kind of weariness which contains the exhilaration which bred it, the kind you might have after you’ve exerted yourself to your limit simply for the sake of doing so, at no one’s behest, without frustration or pressure. This stillness, this inner certainty, is something I happen upon typically after a nice two or three hours spent dancing – it’s what you’re left with after you’ve reached the furthest edge of today, all it can provide, and, by extension, the furthest edge of yourself in that brief span. And so the world becomes easy, the world such as it is at three or four a.m., when you’re protected by the past eighteen or twenty hours like a suit of armor, a portion of experience which will inform you and any actions you pursue from then on until sleep comes and hits the reset button.

But I could have been more direct – I could have said why I had forsaken sleep on this night rather than a few nights some years past, why I was there, that my presence at Mojo’s at two a.m., two-thirty, wasn’t casual, all the story I’d accumulated in the past twelve hours on my way to being slumped on this couch, of which a whole bunch of walking may not be necessarily interesting but the premise may compel, my sickness and my exhaustion and, should I be disarmed by the caffeine and this instance of human contact, the breakdown I could feel lurking at home, a breakdown which may be either a distinct event awaiting me or a currently ongoing process, which I hoped to avoid or maybe just stall by traveling the path which lead me here, that however lax I may seem smiling on this couch, animated by coffee and coffee-related drinks (a year away from discovering alcohol), this is an earned state, a rest I’m taking from the world in a pleasant pocket of late-night activity in another town, it didn’t have to be Austin but Austin’s convenient, a very cozy Elsewhere, my presence here as luck, better than some IHOP or Denny’s, wondering how I’d maneuver my way through the next seven or eight hours in a bland booth under headache-inducing fluorescence, instead I’m here, on a couch, before you, in a place which didn’t feel so much like shelter from the outside, a discrete space, as a segment of the outside which decided to come in, if that makes any sense, a place where I can feel the wind flowing through the open windows, a zone outside of reality rather than in a booth segregated from casual contact with the wait staff lurking about, always intruding.

I probably wouldn’t have gone into such detail, obviously – to describe it so wouldn’t be fiction but it would be false, as I’d be left waiting a few days before it occurred to me why I did what I did. And it would veer close to a patter – hear my story, ye passers-by – and that would ruin everything; I want nothing from these people, nothing but what I have right now, these moments they’ll spare, time I’m glad to get rid of and they may or may not set a greater value to. We’re all just hanging out, a random set of folks on couches in some place, with only the rhythm of our speech as it bounces off each other setting anything like a standard – probably not a high standard but we managed to keep each other amused.

Back outside the whirlpool of self, in the realm of action, the conversation continued on for a bit. Eventually Steve decided to go outside for a cigarette on the patio. I decided to join him. I imagine I left Melissa with a cheery “See ya in a bit!”

Up front, the world outside seemed much the same as when I left it earlier – lights, cars, people, stuff. The party across the street still hadn’t run out of Rohypnol. Me and Steve smoked and talked, largely about what there was to see around us, more talking in the dark about how strange it was to be talking in the dark. At one point, Steve mentioned that he’d been diagnosed as schizophrenic. He’d been stable for a few months, he said. “Keepin’ in there.”

It’s not a conversation stopper but the next bit did its best to be. Steve gestured at the Fourth Floor Frat Fiesta across the street.

“You see those people? They’re not gonna do much. They just party and go to school and work and not think about much – they’re alright, but they’re doing what they’re expected to. The only thing they know how to do.

“But, man, there’s something about you. The way you talk and the way you look at things. I think you’re an interesting fella – you might be a politician or something. You’ve got an air about you, something that tells me you’re gonna be someone in the world. I think you’re gonna do what he wants to, no matter what.”

Sure! Why not? That’s why you abandon yourself in other cities for a day – to meet people who will call you brilliant, an exemplar of humanity at its finest, after knowing you for twenty minutes. The real point of travel is to reach a spot where you can see the universe give you a nice coy wink. And it only cost me about sixty bucks altogether, Greyhound fare included.

The natural response to all this was to say “Aw shucks,” shrug it off and try to continue the conversation, which is what I did. Soon thereafter, Steve said he’d be heading off. We shook hands. He told me to wish Melissa all the best for him; there was an odd go-get-em undertone there, as if he expected me to make some kind of play for her – another misjudgment on his part. Bye, Steve. Where ever you are now, I hope you’re alright – you’re a good guy.

Inside, Melissa had disappeared, probably for the best – no one’s ideal of late night company includes a dilettante vagabond and a schizophrenic. Bye, Melissa! Good luck on everything I didn’t learn about you. You seemed nice.

Now returned to my comfy solitude, I just settled back on that couch and wondered about what had just happened. I was quick shift into my earlier neutral state, content with the coffee, the night through the windows, the dim lights up above. A half-hour of this and I decide not to wear out my welcome. So goodbye to Mojo’s as well. The September after this trip you closed (And at what time? Midnight? 6 a.m.?) and now you are a hookah bar, one with a list of daily hours on, no doubt, a front door which locks. The Big Black Table 3000 is on an eternal eBay roundelay, from one buyer to the next while the restroom doors were certainly the first thing to be painted over. I miss you terribly.

I like to believe I wandered into the night heedlessly, as secure in my naiveté as when I hopped on the Austin-bound Greyhound earlier – and this may in fact be the case – but I suspect I mentally bookmarked my next destination when I was roaming about earlier in the evening. What I remember is walking three or four blocks south in near complete darkness, a few lights in the distance, and then seeing an all-night diner, local, without the taint of a franchise, and deciding that breakfast seemed a good idea, or whatever you call a meal appropriate to 3:30 a.m.

So: pancakes, bacon, more coffee. The place was busy. I may have been the only table-for-one there as well as at the last one available – surrounding me were groups of people, couples, families (?), all pleasant, all chatting, none of the expected drunks, just everyone winding down from their splendid Saturday night. I made a go at the stack of pancakes on my plate but they beat me – they looked delicious and may have been so, but all I could taste was the saliva in my mouth. I ate maybe half, drooled into the rest, and mainly just stared at them, or rather, the space between my eyes and the pancakes. I didn’t hit a wall but I could touch it – I was tired. Coffee’s only diminishing returns and Mojo’s already felt like a sepia-toned memory. I couldn’t stand outside of myself as I’d been doing all evening – my body became irrefutable, something to be obeyed, its commands at that moment being staring and drooling. It wasn’t simply the lack of sleep – those three days awake may have been noteworthy, but they weren’t an anomaly – but also the miles I’d crossed on foot and the fact that I’d spent most of this day without the safety net of routine or company or, most importantly, an environment I could take for granted. There’s a plan, sure, but “go there; come back” is a plan in much the same way as “I woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night” is a description of a day. There’s a lot of distance between a) and b) and I have to think through every inch of it, an ongoing conversation with myself as to how I would waste these fifteen minutes and the fifteen minutes after that and the fifteen minutes after that and so on… each increment of time a responsibility and each responsibility of a little more import than the last as my energy reserves dwindle and possibilities drop off (no seeing that movie now!) and the night grows less certain and less familiar until, with quite a few fifteen minute increments still ahead of you, each awaiting their turn, your fatigue leads you to staring and drooling on pancakes in some restaurant.

All of which is just an elaborate way of saying I’d grown sick of myself, a state which kicked that cushion of exhilaration out from under me. Mind you, if it were only this malaise, I could probably sit it out, go into neutral and expect a return to stability soon enough. But there’s also this restaurant, a thoroughly decent place which is bright, pleasant, quite bustling. And when you’re sick of your own presence amidst a bright and pleasant bustle, it only throws you into relief as someone who can’t share in it, someone alone, lonely, someone who’d been lonely for a long time. Who the fuck feels compelled to walk around a city to make himself feel something? A lonely person, that’s who, someone who has instantly convinced himself that he had never been as happy, as casually happy, as the people around him. In comparison to them I felt sad and seedy, a sad and seedy person who’d lead a life he retroactively declared as sad and seedy, ready to join the ranks of sad folk you pass on the street, people who’d grown accustomed to a life synonymous with exhaustion, people who became sad and seedy because dignity gets so easily tossed when your life consists of exhaustion, an exhaustion you live with daily and whose only reward is another day alive with exhaustion, for whom sleep was only an interruption of exhaustion and not its resolution, whose maturity meant becoming not acclimated to life but to exhaustion, who railed against exhaustion on Friday night and woke up on Saturday morning more exhausted – people who wore semi-permanent half-smiles and whose skin around their eyes seemed to have sunk into their skull, with the curves of those eyes showing all too well from within. The four, five, six hours I’d yet to experience but knew I’d have to (I sensed) won’t just be a burden to add to all the rest – they’d be a repetition of this moment, with my eyes focusing and unfocusing before these pac-man shaped pancakes (adorned with sliced strawberries and that always-neat ice cream scoop of butter) while the background noise of laughter and shouting rang loud as judgment. My original intent – to waste an hour and a half or so with this meal, the better to carry me comfortably close to when the bus I pegged as the first step back home began its early morning route – was tossed. After forty-five minutes I paid my bill, tipped generously, and left.

Back outside, I navigated streets I’d never walked through and whose names I’ve now forgotten, something I did confidently, with resolve – I think I assumed this guise of competence because my only real desire was to curl into the fetal position in the middle of a convenient patch of pavement, preferably a patch of pavement regularly used by traffic. I managed to escape that funk soon enough – maybe it was this sudden sense of focus or a small burst of adrenaline, probably both. Despite the fact that it’s all ghosts and cars passing at ten-minute intervals, the world seemed real once again: I was just someone like anyone else, someone making my way. I found the bus stop where I needed to be and sat for an hour, maybe an hour and a half.

There I was greeted by nothing and more nothing, continually. Nothing times nothing equals nothing, elementary school math. I imagined some passing tumbleweeds to amuse myself, but the idea of movement fell off the scene frictionlessly. You fall into this mood like a river and you get carried along; story and association were quick to fall away, leaving behind a Man, a Street, a Bus Stop, and the Early Morning in the steady process of becoming Day. The Sun, a perfect thing which can only be itself and can only ever refer to itself, would soon arrive and bring with it distinction and definition. So I watched everything in the world gradually become more and more beautiful. Actually there was no accumulation in beauty – the difference between the way things were at 4:58 and 4:59 or 4:43 and 5:12 wasn’t a matter of degree but a sense of each moment in of itself; as if compensating for the happy vacuum surrounding, the smallest increments of time take on their own texture and character, each one quick to exit the stage for another. You don’t need to go somewhere else for that epiphany, just pay a little attention.

Down the street, where my eyes were always angled for the bus due to arrive in an hour and then x amount of minutes, there’s a series of shops, a storefront, a very pleasant trail of perspective that led to the horizon. I mention it for the same reason I mention every other detail in this story – it was there and I saw it. One day, I’ll go back to that spot before dawn breaks and walk down the sidewalk in front of that storefront; maybe I’ll see myself waiting at the bus stop a few blocks away. And I’ll bring along a reasonably sized ladder and a bottle of Windex as well, to wipe away the drab and murky blue light up in the sky which appeared in the ten or fifteen minute gap between the stars bowing out and the first tinge of yellow. It doesn’t wreck my mood or anything; I just want to see what lies beyond it.

The bus came and that led to another bus stop and then another, a regular routine of waiting and movement as I closed in on the bus station where I began this story. Day became Sunday, the sky became absolutely blue, and on the buses were people heading to church or to work or, like me, just heading somewhere. During one of these rides, a guy in maybe his early twenties, probably Hispanic, popped up a few rows ahead of me, in one of the seats up front which face sideways so I could see him in profile. His wardrobe was stylish but rumpled, a long sleeve yellow dress shirt, blue jeans, and sunglasses; he didn’t move at all, just sat slumped, still, with his mouth open to the extent that he was asleep or maybe stuck in that bedraggled state which is very close to sleep but provides no rest. All the signs pointed to a more conventional version of my night, with alcohol as a prime component in one or more of the expected settings (a club, a bar, a party, a friend’s house, etc.). Whatever couch he departed twenty minutes ago didn’t provide him with anything like the needed rest, and here he was dipping in and out of himself, skipping between nothing and brief glimpses of nothing. Looking at him, I think I saw what others must have seen when they looked at me: an escapee from the previous day, a straggler who was taking his time catching up with everyone else.

I spent maybe two hours like this, Sunday being a lax day for public transportation and Sunday morning doubly so. Eventually I got off… somewhere. It was close to the western edge of the city – one of those hinterland districts inhabited by nothing but office suites for contractors and storehouses for machinery, 2x4s and sheet metal, an environment whose appearance is divided roughly between the desolate and the functionally pleasant/utilitarian. Your concentration just slides off every detail; it’s a good place to find yourself when you’ve crossed over into another day awake and can’t be bothered about where you are – it doesn’t care either. I jaywalked across the wide empty street and walked maybe half a mile in search of a bus stop. When I made contact, it occurred to me that I didn’t know if the route I wanted had Sunday service. I spent the next forty-five minutes in this state of uncertainty, with only the will to stand and stare vacantly at the air in front of me.

Or not. My memory of these events is at best approximate – there’s the distance of time, and nowhere is that distance felt more than right here, as the comfy tattered mattress awaiting me eighty miles away was both very near and very far, the obvious end of this circle. By now the standing and staring are the actions of a stranger, someone named “Richard Baez”. I’m closer than anyone else to him right now, but still a bit further off so everything I’m describing is second-hand. I imagine this feeling of detachment applied just as well to my state at that moment, so “Richard Baez” was there and his uncertainty was a real thing, a real thing much in the same way that the street he had just crossed was real – undeniable – but something to be interacted with or just observed, however he chose. By then I (or he) was just a cog in my own story, following a script automatically, and everything’s a prop, to be used to reach the end of this last act.

The bus did arrive, of course. But then the response to any outcome would be “of course”, every possible reality awaiting me equally inevitable. Marcus Aurelius reflected that 10,000 years of life would add little novelty to that of the average length of existence, that time and experience would repeat with only modest variations, making the distance between these two extremes negligible; there’s not so much a moral (be happy with what you get, quantity vs. quality) as a stoic philosophical precept buried there: that existence is a limited thing, or, at least, the existence we can only confront with our little consciousness, our flickering perception. At this stage, it’s something I understood plainly, without thought, an observation I’m tempted to emend from a lifespan to a single day, when you’ve crossed the threshold of comprehension and the hours have begun to snowball, when whatever will happen will seem equally likely, none of it especially worthy of a reaction.

It’s all happening and it’s all happening at once and even if it’s not really happening, it may as well be. Which is to say that nothing happened. My footsteps laid down roots, with the ground clinging to my blood-stained shoes, shoring up my attempts at progress. Conversely, time kept skipping forward when I blinked, so I’m on a bus, at a depot, on a comfy seat; outside of the window there’s an environment which moves at a dizzying speed. I’ve lost sight of myself – hummingbirds had plucked my eyes from their sockets, removed me from my view, dropped them off somewhere, probably San Marcos – and this is my reward…

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