On the Road -- Day 1, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh

The car belongs to National, a company that staffs its DC airport location with Kafka characters. “The car I want is locked,” I told the attendant. “So choose another one,” she said.

“But the Saturn gets the best gas mileage — I’m driving cross-country.”

“I’d have to find the extra set of keys.”

“Why not now?”

“It’s locked.”


“I’m sorry.”

“It can’t be locked forever.”

“You need to choose another car.”

Grrr. So I wound up renting this. I drove it from Dulles airport to Alexandria, where I went to see about the bicycle I left locked to a tree after Culture11 folded. Still there! It’s impossible to take the front wheel off without getting grease on your hands, but I managed to rub them together enough that I don’t think James noticed when I met him and his lovely wife for lunch at a nearby Greek restaurant.

“So are you moving back to California?”


“At the very least I am moving my stuff.”

How possessions accumulate. I moved east for graduate school in 2006, to a Brooklyn apartment with a backyard barbecue. So I own barbecue tongs, a large flashlight, and a wire brush to clean the grill. I paid $1,000 a month for that room, despite it being cordoned off by a curtain rather than a door. One wall bore bookshelves, and another featured a window through whose screen I fell asleep to the faint wind chimes of an unknown neighbor. One day I went to the Bed, Bath & Beyond to buy curtains, as the light bothered me at night, but the prices struck me as so absurd that I decided to hang a blue bed sheet over the pane. I went to the hardware store, picked out a hammer and nails, carried them to the counter, and returned the hammer to the shelf before I bought it, figuring that I could use the butt of the flashlight to drive the nails into the sheet.

In 2008, masters degree in hand, I shuttled my stuff from New York to Washington DC, subletting an apartment to take a $10 an hour internship. Thanks to Reihan, it resulted in a gig at Culture11 — the sublet ended, I moved into a group house, and I acquired Ikea furniture, overpriced firewood from Virginia, a French press, and a comforter cover that better approximated the aesthetic sensibilities of my girlfriend. Sometimes I hosted parties attended by both conservatives and liberals. I merely mean that I sent out an e-mail, bought a bottle of dark rum and some ginger beer, encouraged others to bring beer, and lit a fire. These were fun parties that cost me relatively little to throw. I sense that if one sticks around Washington DC long enough, the parties get much more expensive to throw, and not nearly as fun to attend.

On the same weekend in January, I found out that Culture11 was folding, and that my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I flew to California, gave notice at the group house, unsure what would happen 30 days hence, and returned a few weeks later to spread my possessions around DC — my best books to Graeme Wood’s abode; my clothing, laptop, external hard drive, kitchen stuff, more books, magazines, and a small suitcase to my girlfriend’s apartment; two more suitcases, a comforter, two pillows, and sundry other items to my friend Tara’s apartment. I have lived, these last few months, at my girlfriend’s place, on Tara’s couch, inside the bedroom where I grew up, and at the Fitzpatrick Grand Central Hotel in New York (nearby the financial services company where I am doing consulting work). These are circumstances that lead one to separate possessions worth keeping from those best given away.

Those I kept were retrieved from scattered DC locations on Saturday, when I coordinated with Graeme’s roommate to get the books, and drove over to Tara’s apartment. It is bereft of street parking, and the building requires a key card for entry that I lack, though I have a key to her apartment door. This requires that I lurk outside the entrance until someone arrives or departs, grows uncomfortable with suspicion, but nevertheless grants me access. It is funny that the next thing I do is to empty an apartment of possessions, lugging them down the hall, out a back door, and into a vehicle illegally parked with its hazard lights on.

This morning I assessed the contents of the car: the aforementioned stuff, plus a bevy of AAA road maps, an adapter that allows me to play my iPod through the stereo, and approximately 300 issues of The Atlantic, mostly from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. There are some excellent stories in those old issues. I shan’t want for reading material on this trip.

Being without full-time employment, I am trying to do it on the cheap, so naturally I got run out of my lane by a truck in Maryland, forced into a toll kiosk that only accepted the pre-paid transponder, and guaranteed that several weeks from now a ticket will be forwarded by the rental agency to my parent’s California address.

My traveling companion, neither nine years old nor the child of my first marriage, is Alex, a Philadelphia radio reporter. We met as grad students at NYU. She is moving back to Los Angeles where she grew up. Day one included a brief stop in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we walked around the capital grounds. The capital dome is a nice golden green, but I’ll never form an attachment to the photograph I took of it.

This post is being composed in Pittsburgh, where Alex and I are sleeping at opposite ends of an L-shaped couch. It is owned by A., a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology who I dated for a year in Los Angeles. She is now a dear friend. I am apparently adept at amicable breakups. Isn’t it weird, I always think, to love someone, and then having concluded that you’re unsuited for lifelong companionship, never again see them? Her husband is a great guy, works in sales for an online university, and says business is booming. I fear the people enrolling in costly BA, MA and MS programs who require phone salesmen for convincing are being done a disservice. How many are victims of our national obsession with credentialism?

Should anyone visit Pittsburgh, and specifically its Thai/Filipino restaurant Sweet Basil, rest assured that when the waitress asks how spicy you’d like your food on a scale of one to ten, you can handle “ten,” no matter that she’ll insist otherwise. As a white guy, the moment of “how spicy do you want your food” is when I most often experience the soft bigotry of low expectations.

So. Day one on the road. And on to Ann Arbor tomorrow. I best be off to bed — may Michigan seem like a dream to me now.