A paper cut. A pain between the shoulder blades that felt like I'd been stabbed by an instrument of torture. Too many sad partings with friends and favorite places. Such are the scars with which I drove away from my home in Oakland at 6:27 p.m. on the last day of July.
Thanks to two band-aids, the paper cuts are history. The back pain worsened from sleeping on an air mattress that I had not fully inflated — blame the exhaustion — but with a rest from driving, a letting go of tense muscles, and a few doses of naprosyn, that too shall be memory.
The scars of saying goodbye are not so easily healed. The pain was for the moment anaesthetized by the anxiety and bustle of storing or getting rid of accumulation. It hasn't really hit me yet, but I know it will get worse before the edges are dulled and the sorrow becomes the kind of memory that brings a wistful smile.
On Bastille day, I finished my job at Mills College, almost to the day I had started working there nine years ago. In the two weeks since, I dismantled nine years of life in one apartment near Lake Merritt in Oakland. I've done dispossession before, but I'd never before emptied out a home of nine years. It was the longest I had stayed in a single home in America.
Nine years in one place of work, one neighborhood, one apartment. Oakland's been good to me. It's mostly been a comfortable place to live; I've made many wonderful friends; I fell in love a few times (and developed a similar number of crushes); I've survived some tragedies; and I became serious about writing fiction.
Today I'm no longer employed, a.k.a free-floating bum, otherwise known as a full-time writer. Not that I've written anything these last two weeks that I've been off work. I've been too busy, dismantling, dispossessing, weaning, reducing my existence down to what will fit in my 1998 Toyota Corolla. The books, music, and some odds and ends — enough to store in a 4×4 storage space — I saved for the time when I have a stable home again. The rest — bookshelves, futon, tables, chairs, bed, desks, kitchenware — I gave away. To friends first, then strangers and thrift stores. May they all bring joy to others until they have outlived their usefulness.
I learned, yet again, a few things about dispossession and packing.
You will not have enough boxes. I had some left over from my last move, and I bought 25 new ones. Yet on the final days, to make it easy to haul the last shipment to the thrift store, I had to pick up a box someone else threw out on the sidewalk.
You will strain muscles you have not used before. I was very careful and wore a back brace (also left over from the last move), but you forget that your body is years older.
You will not have enough time. I gave myself two weeks. But I ran short. Everything got done, but I couldn't get some other things done, like taking a day to be a tourist in San Francisco or a final walk round Lake Merritt. And I'm sure I missed a final hug from a few friends.
You live in one place for nine years, you accumulate. I've long ceased being a pack rat, but still I managed to hoard. Sometimes it was easier to shove things into a closet than throw them away. Old boxes, giftwrapping, piles and piles of papers, multiple drafts of stories, notebooks, photographs, magazines, kitchenware I never used, even a shalwar kameez belonging to a friend who now lives in Europe.
I kept what I couldn't part with: photographs and old letters or mementos. A lot more I tossed out. The shalwar kameez I dutifully mailed to my friend's parents in Queens.
I could have thrown a lot more away, but I was reluctant to use the trash dumpster too often. I hate waste. Perhaps it's growing up in Bangladesh where there's always someone who can make use of anything. Perhaps it's my environmental conscience. It was certainly my friend Pat who, while helping me dispossess, looked at me askance whenever I'd try to toss something into a garbage bag.
But since I ran out of time, in the end, a lot ended up in the dumpster. Or out on the sidewalk.
I am hugely grateful to all my friends.
Several helped me make boxes, clean smudges off walls, vacuum and mop. Others rode shotgun with me while I carted stuff to storage or thrift stores. One took the couch and gave me her bed to sleep in on my last night in the Bay Area. Everyone was generous with their love.
My friends organized going-away parties, brought me food at home, or treated me to parting meals. My last Sunday became a long going-away party, as people dropped in, shared a bottle of champagne, and we shared stories about everything from love and dating to road trips and e-mail scams.
In nine years, I enjoyed many circles of friendship: old friends I knew from before I moved west, Mills people, writers, neighbors and people they introduced me to. I don't believe that there is any other place where I have had this many friends. I know, in this day when we're all more connected than before, I'll stay in touch and see folks again. But you can't put community in storage the same way you can store books. On another day, it will just not be the same.
I didn't count on the heat wave.
Ever since I first stepped foot in Oakland, first during a July vacation in 1994 and later after I moved here three years later, I complained about the cool summers here. On that first vacation I had arrived only with short-sleeve shirts and quickly I had jumped inside a thrift store to grab a couple of sweatshirts. When I became a resident, I hated not being able to wear T-shirts at night. What kind of summer was this when you could never put away your sweaters? One summer I even contemplated moving to New Orleans, though that was largely because I fell in love with the charms of that city: its music, its streets, its trees, its air.
I finally got my wish the second weekend I'd reserved for work on my move. The entire Bay Area baked under record high temperatures. Forget about T-shirts; if I could I would have gone naked outside. I didn't. Nor could I pack much. Instead I joined a friend and headed for the Berkeley marina where we sipped a couple of mojitos.
There was plenty speculation about whether the heat wave was related to global warming. No way. I can tell you it's the revenge of the weather gods against my choice to leave. "You can go, but before you go, here, enjoy a burst of misery."
I should stop moaning and groaning about the heat. I know there's much more waiting ahead of me. On the road trip I am taking, there will be places where it will be 100 degrees, others where it will be 95 with just as high humidity. I'm mentally ready for all that, but I'll be looking out for those moments when a cool breeze comes my way. It will be sweeter yet to see friends I haven't seen in a while.
I'm writing this from Los Angeles, the first stop in my round-the-country road trip. My journey is shaped like a W with a flair at the end.
The last few times I've given up a job, I've seen it as a chance to visit friends and family who live scattered. This time I'm giving myself a bit more time. But you still have to make tough choices: which direction do you go? Who will you see, who will you miss? There's folks I'd love to visit but they're sadly out of the way. I was tempted to visit Minneapolis, Chicago or northern Michigan, but I just couldn't see how to go there.
So from L.A. I'm swinging to Vegas, a city I figure I should visit at least once, then on through Utah where I don't know a single soul, to Boulder-Denver. Then down to Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas where a bloc of family await. And more friends. I chose that route because I agreed to drop in and see my friends from New Orleans who have returned. I expect that visit to be sad; who wants to see one of your favorite places still in the grip of disaster?
While I'm passing northward through Mississippi, I thought I'd drive through the delta on Highway 61, stop in and listen to some blues where they were born. Being a child of another delta myself, I'm curious to see how things resonate. Then it's on through Memphis to Cincinnati and Detroit. If there's still money I can spare, time on my hands, and energy in my body, I will push on towards Toronto and upstate New York. Who knows, perhaps I'll even make it to New England.
I'm leaving some options open. Though I'm an inveterate planner I'd like to keep myself open for last minute changes in route.
So what's this all about?
I'm taking a year off to write a novel. It's already knocking around in my head: characters, situations, narratives, on some good days, even some words and sentences. I'm expecting the road trip to prepare me. The last time I started a novel, I made it to 80 pages. Then I lost momentum and stayed with short stories. This time I'm a more mature writer, ready and determined to go forth full steam. While I love surprises and detours, I'll be hoping that none distract me from the task at hand. Wish me well.
As I travel, you'll hear more from me. And I hope I'll hear back from you.