Friday, October 2, 2009

Fifteen Minutes Through Columbia, At The Other Side of the Fence

"And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself - did I get here?" 

                                                                                   -David Byrne, Talking heads
                                                                                    Once In A Lifetime

I try not to get too wrapped up in nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong, it has its place. If we don’t reflect on our experiences, we can't grow from them. But reflection can be a slippery slope, getting so wrapped up in your past that you forget to experience the present. New experiences give way to the previous. You can get so involved in the past that as the world moves on around you, it leaves you behind in a self-reflective feedback loop. That might be an extreme example, but we've all seen it happen. Maybe we’ve even experienced it once or twice, getting lost in photo albums for maybe a little too long, or dwelling alone over a bottle of wine and dusty yet dangerous should-haves. I know I have more than my fair share of should-haves, longing for a means to correct and reroute what’s already been done. But I’ve learned not to focus on who I was, but rather who I could be. Maybe I’ve learned that a little later in life than I should have, but then if I’d taken the time to reflect on the present at a younger age, I wouldn’t have that problem now.

See how easy it is to get caught up?

Last night I made my weekly ritual commute from Greenville to Summerville. If there’s any stretch of road in this country I know, it’s I-26 in South Carolina. I know it’s a 34 minute stretch from I-385 at I-85 to I-26. I know that in five minutes I’ll pass Joanna, ten more minutes, Jalapa. I know that Newberry is fifteen minutes to Dreher Island, and another ten minutes to the outskirts of Columbia. Then from the Ballantine/White Rock exit, what I consider the boundary, it’s fifteen minutes to the Zeus plant near the Dixiana exit. There are four St. Matthews exits, three Orangeburg exits. One of the St. Matthews exits is also an Orangeburg exit, and it has some colorful rocks displaying a smiley-face to your right.

Thirty-eight minutes later and you’re at I-95. Past I-95, the scenery takes on a decidedly low country appearance. Spanish Moss appears on the live oaks and the wetlands seem to be threatening to take over the interstate the moment they're allowed, if the cars would just stop for five minutes. The road soon flattens out. It’s the home stretch. The smell of low tide and paper mill creeps in over the smell of pine trees. This happens right around Summerville.

Each time I pass through Columbia I know I should stop and see Dad, or Sam, or one of my aunts, but I keep going. I just don’t want to stop. It’s not that I don’t want to see them, it’s just that I want to get home to Summerville. But last night I think I figured out from where some of my hesitation comes. 

Before I left work in Greenville I had a glass of wine with my co-workers. Therefore, around the time I hit Irmo (on the outskirts of Columbia, near said Ballantine/White Rock exit) I really needed a bathroom. So I waited the fifteen minutes, and hit the rest stop just past the Zeus building.

I got out of the car, and with a deep breath took in a scent I had forgotten all about. I don’t know if anybody reading this has ever noticed, but each city, each town has a specific smell. The outskirts of West Columbia is no different. It’s a mix of pine, exhaust, grass. I couldn't tell you what it consisted of. I couldn't begin to describe it. 

I made my way to the predictably lemony-scummy rest stop bathroom and came out, once again being hit by the cool air carrying that smell (mind you anything is better than urinal cakes). It was not a bad smell. On the contrary, it was really quite nice. It’s said that smell is the scent most closely linked to memory. I wandered down the sidewalk, stretching my arms and legs, and stopped to take in the nighttime Columbia skyline. From a distance it actually looks like a decent-sized city. 

Columbia has a distinct culture. It might not seem so from an outsider, but Columbians have a history and even certain terms only they can interpret. For instance, unless you’re from Columbia you have no idea what I’m referring to when I say the Brown Sign with the Sowing Machine in the Corner. Or the Vomit Comet at Naked Iguana. Or Malfunction Junction, General Frontage, Cabin Fever, Mister Knowzit, Captain Telegram, Trustus, Group Therapy, the now-closed hundred year-old Capitol Restaurant, ad infinitum.   It will all always be a part of me, as much as I tend to brush it aside.

I took my gaze away from the skyline and meandered over to a chain-link fence that stood blocking access to the Frontage Road (see: General Frontage – pronounced Fronn-taj). A memory hit me that threw me back fifteen years, jarring me. I walked down that road once with a backpack and a few friends, heading toward somewhere or other, likely getting up to no good. I remember approaching the fence from the other side and wondering where that rest top was. It was a sobering shock to me to see that spot again. I couldn't believe I was there again. I remember that night so well.  

And here I was, fifteen or so years later, looking back from the other side. It was an odd feeling, as if I was looking back at some stranger so many years prior, with the backdrop of my home city creating a day-glow some distance behind me. I could still picture myself there, off the side of the frontage road - piercings, green hair, likely a beer in my hand. I wondered if I would have been able to picture myself looking ahead a decade and a half - in a suit, coming from Greenville, a corporate event planner. Out to the world, a partner in Rhode Island where I wanted to return. I might have spat in my own face. It would have been against my very core values. 

Same As It Ever Was

I sometimes miss wild nights in Columbia, wandering (stumbling) home from Five Points, shooting fireworks from the roof of Cornell Arms, climbing on rooftops, finding my way to the tops of office buildings, staring out my apartment window at Adluh…Flour…Adluhflour while waiting for our neighbors to come over so we could find something vaguely interesting to do. That was around the time I started getting bored with it all. The parties, the drinking, the punk shows, the gay bar. It just got old, stale, as the still heat stewing in a city on a hill, with few trees, surrounded by wetlands. (Columbians often say Columbia sits right over Hell). 

Back then, I continued this lifestyle simply as a default. It was just what I did. We waxed philosphical in Cafe' Espresso and later continued the debate over beer and who-knows-what until we found ourselves at a show, dancing and drinking until we passed out. 

Now the party is over, and I look back on it all and wonder what, if anything, I got out of it all. I started my life too late I think sometimes. But then, I think before I leave for Rhode Island, I want just one more wild night in Columbia, and put it all to bed for good. Maybe we'll go to the Art Bar. Maybe we'll feel pretentious enough to sit in Goatfeathers and wax political, and maybe after a few more drinks in the Library we'll head for pizza at the Village Idiot. Maybe we'll shoot fireworks from the roof of Cornell Arms. Then again, I'm not sure if I would get the same enjoyment out of it. But I still need to do it just one more time. 

If I know a place in this world well, it's Columbia. It's still a part of me. But I don't feel a connection to it. I've never felt it was my home town. And I don't relate to the guy I was fifteen years ago, at the other side of the fence. But he was still me. Somehow, he was part of the road that led to who I am now. Somehow, some way, I hopped the fence. And now I just want one more taste of what it was like over there. But then, if I were there, would it still be the same? Probably not. 

I slowly walked back to my car, got in,  and drove the rest of the way to Summerville.  I didn’t think about that experience again until I sat down to make some format changes on this blog. I know this was not supposed to be a diary, but I had to write about it. I feel a little better now. I still wonder how I got from green-haired, pierced, party boy to corporate event planner. I wonder if I lost something along the way.  

I’ll get back to less self-absorption next time I write, but thanks for listening. 

"And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house? 
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go? 
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? I wrong? 
And you may tell yourself
My god!...what have I done?" 


DickDeadeye said...

I <3 this.
I often wonder these things as well.