What came first, the music or the misery?
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
During the four years that I lived in San Francisco, I constantly thought about leaving. Not because I didn’t like living there. Mostly, I loved it. But it was easier to imagine missing a place than to be present in it. Just like I missed New York for the entire four years that I lived in San Francisco, I knew one day I would miss San Francisco too, and I would remember its foggy streets and damp sidewalks the same way I remembered the buildings and bridges of New York: with nostalgia and accomplishment. I had been there, once.
I wanted the soundtrack, the scene. I imagined peeling out of California in a car on an epic cross-country drive. The boy next to me, the highway ahead, leaving my misadventures behind. I would return to New York a new person and create a new life there. I would write again. Then, finally, I would be happy.
Instead I ended up leaving California alone, on a cross-country Amtrak train, staying up all night after my goodbye party. I’d quit my job, broken up with the guy I was dating, left my apartment and my roommates. By taking a four-day train ride, my leaving would be gradual, slower. I’d watch the entire country roll past the window and think of everything I had left and everything I had to look forward to. It was, I believed, the most romantic option.
I couldn’t afford an expensive sleeper car with an actual bed, so I slept in a coach seat for three nights. The first two nights, I had two seats to myself, and I slept and slept and slept, crashing from the adrenaline of the past month, all the goodbyes and all I had done to break up with my life. I sat in the scenery car watching the Sierras, the Rockies, and the flat plains of the Midwest, places I’d previously seen only from airplane windows. My arms and legs ached from sitting, and when I walked down the aisles I had to balance myself against the shaky ground, the rattle of the train car against the tracks. In the bathroom, the room shifted from right to left, right to left.
Once or twice a day we’d stop in some city for twenty minutes and so we could get out and stand in front of the station and mill around in the parking lot.
I read books, listened to my iPod, and wrote in my journal. After a brief layover in Chicago, we transferred trains, and now I had a seatmate, an older white man who, when he asked me where I was going, said, “Too many Orientals in New York.” When I went to the snack bar, he cut his toenails and left the clippings on my tray. My book was in my seat, where I’d left it, but now it was soaked with water.
“Did you do this to my book?” I asked. The man looked at me and laughed. I was shaking, I was so angry. I waved the book in his face. “Why would you do this?” He didn’t answer me. I cursed him out and left for the lounge car. For four hours the train sat still on the tracks in the middle of Ohio, waiting for a freight car to pass. When I returned to my seat, the man was gone.
I fell asleep, and when I woke up I heard other passengers talking in thick New York accents. After a few weeks back in the city I wouldn’t even notice the accent anymore, but after being in California for so long it sounded exaggerated, outsized, and I was so happy to hear it I almost cried. I wanted to listen to New York accents all day. I wanted to be home.
I didn’t know it then, but the scene and soundtrack wouldn’t be enough to make me happy, nor would the drama of picking up my life and moving back across the country. Instead, there would still be new scenes to aspire to, new dreams of fleeing to new cities.
After I got off the train in Penn Station it took me days to no longer feel like the ground was shaking whenever I stood up.