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

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.

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Poetry Pals

I can’t seem to get enough of writer Charles Bukowski these days.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

I recently finished reading his novel Hollywood, a fictionalized account about Bukowski’s experience writing the screenplay for the movie Barfly.

I then ran out to the library and checked out two poetry books by Bukowski—The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems and Come On In!: New Poems.

I don’t even read much poetry but I felt I needed more Bukowski books in the house, like I wanted to keep my friend around for a while. Bukowski seems less like a deceased author and more like a buddy spending his vacation with me. When I’m engrossed in a Bukowski work, I often picture him sitting in my living room and reading aloud from his book while taking sips of beer from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Miller High Life.

Anyway, that’s just a fleeting image. The writing speaks for itself. And I’ve only read up to page 57 in The Flash of Lightning, but here’s a poem I found worthy of sharing. I hope you enjoy it too.

Born Again

this special place of ourselves
sometimes explodes in our
faces.
I got a flat on the freeway yesterday,
changed the right rear wheel on the
shoulder,
the big rigs storming by,
slamming the sky
against my head and
body.
it felt like I was clinging to the
edge of the earth,
30 minutes late for the first
post.

but strangely, something
about the experience
was very much like emerging reluctantly
a second time
from my
mother’s womb.

Bukowski, Charles. The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems. New York: Ecco (An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 2004.

I also ran across an old interview with Bukowski in the New York Times in which he discusses his style of writing and being a lucky late bloomer.

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