I am standing in front of a very famous staircase.
I am standing in the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, where a historical marker informs me that the hotel’s main staircase inspired the description of a staircase in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The Seelbach has posted a sign proclaiming that Fitzgerald wrote part of The Great Gatsby right here in the Seelbach. Right here in the hotel bar. Which part, I am thinking, and how do they know?
Fitzgerald stayed in Louisville for a night or two, and he made more of an impression than I did in twelve years. This revelation was depressing.
I had only been gone a year, but it was long enough that I felt like a tourist in my old hometown. I was staying in a hotel and staring at historical markers in places I’d never visited when I was a Louisvillian.
I moved to Philadelphia for a teaching position.
I was invited back to read, out loud, a paper I had written about rap music. This is a thing people do.
I decided I would love rap forever during a Cub Scout hike to Wolf Creek Dam in Southeast Kentucky. We were eating Dinty Moore Beef Stew out of pop-top cans while sitting on logs in our uniforms. One of the scouts had brought a tiny radio and tuned it in to the local hard rock station. Aerosmith came on, but it wasn’t Aerosmith. It was Aerosmith’s guitar cut off and staggered and looped, with Run DMC shouting rhymes over top of it.
Larry, the Assistant Scoutmaster, nudged me with his elbow, a wide grin on his face. “This is beef stew eatin’ music, ain’t it?”
It sure was.
During a gone period of my life I spent hours every day in a coffee shop. I went there first thing in the morning when I woke up, before combing my hair, before washing my face, before doing anything other than waking up and putting on clothes.
What did I do at the coffee shop?
I drank coffee and typed my thoughts into a portable computer. Sometimes my thoughts turned into stories about rappers hanging out with Nobel Prize winners. Other times they turned into reference books about hip hop music.
A publishing company hired me to write a reference book about the 24 most important hip hop artists of all time.
Can I do 25? I asked.
No, they said. 24.
When that book was completed, they hired me to write a reference book about the hip hop scenes of different U.S. cities. Again, there were to be 24 of them. There was something they liked about that number.
I wrote so many books at that coffee shop that they used to have a cup of coffee waiting for me on the counter by the time I closed the front door behind me,
I drank so much coffee that my head used to hurt while I walked to the coffee shop. I couldn’t tell if it was caffeine withdrawal or the dread of more caffeine.
Other people sat in the coffee shop with me. There were art-school students with bumper-stickered plastic toolboxes, real estate agents pacing around talking on cell phones, buying and selling the properties surrounding the coffee shop.
I wasn’t there to be seen, though, I was there because I could not work in my house. It felt too empty, too lonely.
It was rare that I’d take the time to put in my contact lenses before I left home to write, so my fellow coffee shop patrons were a blur of dreadlocks and business suits.
Once, I stopped typing and looked up to stretch. A red-haired woman was staring very intently at me from across the shop. I went back to typing, but looked up a few minutes later and she was still staring.
I realized she was drawing me.
So I started writing a story about her.
If someone wants to put up a plaque, I wrote this story in:
Voodoo Donuts in Portland, Oregon
Café Gelato in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Higher Grounds in Philadelphia, PA.
The Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky.
Stick me in any city, this is what I do. I write stories. I sit alone and avoid eye contact. Coffee shops close and I move on to new ones. I sit in the same place every morning, no matter where it is that I’m sitting.
I never had much sense of setting. I have even been criticized for it. It was 1996, and a young Mickey Hess had written a story with no setting and submitted it for critique in a creative writing class he was taking.
Worse, the entire English faculty was observing this class, as they were using the workshop discussion of my story as a teaching demonstration for a man who was applying to become a faculty member. “I don’t get any sense of where I am in space and time as I read this story,” he said, enunciating carefully. “I can see the characters, but it’s like they’re floating around in the ether.”
I wrote this down: Characters. Ether. Asshole.
The man auditioning to be a creative writing professor said some other things, critical things, and then asked me if I had any questions.
When he handed back my story, I saw that he had written at the top of it “Nothing happens nowhere.”
Nothing happens nowhere. I tried to give his comment some consideration. He was, after all, an expert: a published author teaching writing at a small college on the other side of the country. “Anything happens anywhere,” I thought. “Everything happens everywhere.” And I skipped the rest of my classes and went to the library. What did I do there? I found that uptight motherfucker’s book and I signed it with his name, under the dedication, “I shit square turds.”
Looking back with the wisdom and perspective I’ve gained in the years since, I’m thinking maybe I wrote off his comment too quickly. After all, I never have much of an idea of where I am in the world. My sense of direction is so miserable that I often ask people to drive me around to look for my car.
I have exited houses into a common backyard and had no idea which house I came out of. I have entered homes that were not the one I came out of.
I have extracted a beer from the refrigerator, searched through a drawer for a bottle opener, and pulled up a seat at the kitchen table.
I wandered out of the back yard of one party and through the back door of another. One of the strangers at the kitchen table asked me, “So how do you know Darren?”
“Darren. It’s his party.”
“I think maybe I was at a different party,” I said.
Once, I burst through the door of my friend Luke’s upstairs neighbors, whose door, to be fair, looked exactly like Luke’s door, only one floor up. Intending to catch Luke off guard, I flung open the door without knocking. This was the kind of joke I would play, in my younger days.
Luke’s hockey-playing neighbors sat perplexed and frozen with a half-rolled joint on their coffee table.
At the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, I was prepared to read my paper about rap music in front of a panel of other professors. I would thank the audience for coming. I would ask if they had any questions.
But when I woke up after my first night in the hotel, I found that the 20th Century Literature Conference had been canceled due to inclement weather. I looked outside. The streets were clear. There was no precipitation in the air. The conference had been canceled due to a weatherman’s prediction of inclement weather.
Kentucky snow days, I have missed you.
Instead of reading my paper about rap music, I take a walk through the tourist district of my old hometown, where the locals are stockpiling bread and canned soup in preparation to barricade themselves in their homes and wait out the impending ice storm. Other than these scavengers and the bewildered professors stranded here with no one to hear them read their papers, the streets are deserted. The public schools have been canceled. City workers have been sent home.
On the corner of Fourth and Chestnut in Louisville, Kentucky, a historical marker informs me that on this very spot, the monk Thomas Merton had a sudden revelation that he “loved all these people.” Standing here on the corner of Fourth and Chestnut, he saw the people of Louisville “walking around, shining like the sun.” I am standing where Merton stood. I am trying to feel what he felt.
This morning in Louisville, Kentucky I do not see anyone shining like the sun. I see literature professors who cannot appreciate a snow day. When it was announced that today’s conference sessions were cancelled, they launched a grassroots campaign to hold the conference right there in the upstairs lobby of the hotel.
I am pretending I am not one of them.
After I moved to Philadelphia, I had a series of dreams about Louisville, Kentucky geography. I would drive around town, kind of watching myself from above, planning the shortest routes from Bardstown Road bars to used bookstores across town. The dreams were very strategic. It felt like I was auditioning for a job as a taxi driver.
One night I left work after a long day of writing and teaching and couldn’t figure out what street I was driving on. I thought I was still in Kentucky – it was so much a part of me that it was the default setting for my sleep-deprived mind.
These Kentucky dreams are me clinging to the past. Even in an unconscious state, I am trying to remain who I was.
After a few months, I don’t have them anymore.