The Out of State Game

It’s the height of the summer travel season, and I have been on the road often lately, traveling to New York City for video shoots.

And since my colleague Bob prefers to drive our Dodge Caravan, I am free to sit in the passenger seat and pass the time by playing the Out of State Game—one I am sure many other people play.

It goes like this: I scan the traffic in search of out of state license plates, and when I spot one I ask myself a series of questions: Could I live there? Would I be willing to pack up and move there? What would my life be like if I went there?

I guess it boils down to just four words that could determine your level of happiness: Here or There? Stay or Go?

This sense of longing to migrate somewhere else is the subject of a short poem in my new collection Sidewalk Stories.


Elsewhere—a state of mind:
Reno or Raleigh,
Topeka or Tacoma,
an imaginary vacation
from my current geographic position.

Elsewhere—another place to be,
an alternate zip code.
Elsewhere—when shall I go?
To where shall I roam?
Elsewhere—I’m eager
to embark on the journey,
but the target city is unknown.
Elsewhere is calling—is beckoning,
and I’ve already left home.

In reality I don’t need road trips to ponder these thoughts. I play the Out of State Game every day while walking through the parking lot of my apartment complex, which is home to many college students who come from faraway places.

Some of the states represented include Washington, Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Indiana.

But there is one plate that always thrills me and sparks my imagination. A white metal background with reddish-orange cursive lettering. California. California. California.

When I see a California plate, I rekindle the dream of relocating to Los Angeles, trying to carve out a living in the film or entertainment business. I consider if I could survive the freeways, earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, crime and high cost of living.

My fascination with California can be traced to my love of John Steinbeck novels and LA-based film noir movies from the 1940s, e.g. The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.

But the allure of California also stirs memories tinctured with regret, as I think back more than 20 years, to the time after I completed my master’s degree in film and video from American University. In the summer of 1993 I returned to my hometown of Rome, New York, to finish my thesis.

Afterwards I went to work for the City of Rome in the recreation department, doing odd jobs like refereeing adult league volleyball games and teaching an after-school woodworking class. And in the spring and summer of 1994 I served as an administrative aide to the mayor. However, the funding for the temporary job ended in the fall of 1994, and I had decided that I would take about $2,500 in savings, pack up my used gray Chevette and head to Hollywood, hoping to launch my career as a production assistant or entry-level staff member.

My mother rejected that idea, and in the course of an afternoon she and my sister talked me into embarking on an alternate, “safer” plan of moving to Venice, Florida, on the Gulf Coast, where I could stay with a friend of my Aunt Theresa and pursue employment down there.

My Aunt T. is a Roman Catholic nun, and her best friend, the late Father Charlie, a Redemptorist priest, had an extra bedroom in the condo provided for him by the Diocese of Venice. My mom and sister thought that with my endocrine-related health problems, residing in a stable environment near Aunt T. would be preferable to living alone on the West Coast. I folded and scrapped the idea of going to California.

At the time the entertainment industry was burgeoning in the Orlando area, located more than two hours away from Venice, and I was hopeful I could get a job there. But full-time opportunities were scant and when my savings started to drip away, I took a low-paying feature reporter/editor position at the Venice Gondolier newspaper, swinging my career in a different direction, one toward journalism—a path that would bring me to stops in Ohio and Arizona but never to California.

So now when I see a California plate, all I can do is wonder how things could have turned out if I had mustered the courage and gambled on a life in California. Would I now be an accomplished producer, director or studio head? Or would I have ended up impoverished?

I bemoan that I didn’t take the risk when I was young, and while I am not too old to move somewhere else, it’s seems unlikely to happen. But I try to chase away the regret because it serves no purpose and has no place in the 2017 version of my life.

I must accept the decisions I made without wasting time punishing myself by reflecting on what might have been. That’s easy to say, but hard to do because I can’t stop my eyes from seeking out Golden State plates on the streets of Syracuse.


Where Do You Want To Go?

I found this piece of paper recently on a shelf in the Biblio Gallery, a small art exhibition and study space located on the fourth floor of E.S. Bird Library at Syracuse University.

Where Do You Want To Go?

Where Do You Want To Go?

No text accompanied the sheet. And the open-ended question perplexed me. Did the writer mean “where do you want to go” for vacation or relocation? I wondered if the gallery had a hidden camera tucked behind the wall, with the lens zooming in on me, to pinpoint which city my eyes hovered on.

I thought about the question again and decided to play the game with the intention of making a new home in one of the cities.

I stared at the photo thumbnails. The 12 cities are, in order on the page: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Washington, DC, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC and New York would provide the best career options for me, since I work in the field of media/communications, specifically video production.

After I finished college in the early 1990s, I dreamed of going to Los Angeles and working in the film industry, starting out as a production assistant and working my way up the movie business food chain. Instead I went to graduate film school in Washington, DC and then started working in journalism because I needed to repay my student loans.

But even today, more than 20 years later, the dream of residing in California still tantalizes me. I think about golden sunsets, waves crashing along the beach, gleaming skyscrapers and making friends with laid back Angelenos who can point out art house movie theaters, historic Hollywood architecture and the best places to go for authentic Mexican food.

I still get giddy when I see a California license plate standing out in a snow-covered parking lot in the middle of a Syracuse winter. And I desire to see my first and last name on an envelope followed by a California mailing address. I would probably buy colorful return address labels so I could attach them to the Christmas cards I would mail to my family and friends in central New York, rubbing it in that I would be warm during the holidays while they would be freezing.

But I think the best part of living in LA would be being able to listen to Vin Scully announce Dodger games and watching live thoroughbred races at Santa Anita Park.

Dodger Stadium. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I looked at the sheet again and made my selection. It was definitely LA.

Of course I understand the risks of living in Southern California—the threat of droughts, wildfires, earthquakes, high crime and the insane traffic on the freeways. But I think I’d like to give it a shot.

And if it doesn’t work out, I could always pack up and drive cross-country back to Syracuse, where I could sit in my living room and make plans to go somewhere else. I could pull out the sheet I found at the library, cross out Los Angeles and say, “one down, eleven to go.”

But I considered the question again: “Where Do You Want To Go?” And two different thoughts popped into my head. One is … I could be happy living in any one of the 12 cities on the list, as long as I have a decent job and a place to live. And the second thought is … why do I have to go somewhere else? Why do I have to leave?

Is it possible to be happy right here in Syracuse? Or do I need to reside in one of these major cities in order to prove to myself that I’m successful, that I’ve made it, that I’ve lived up to my potential?

I’m still trying to answer those questions. So I’ll ask you: “Where Do You Want To Go?”