Been home for almost three days and I still haven't unpacked. Truth is, I never fully unpacked from the Texas trip--there were just four days between that arrival and the next departure. So now my suitcase remains full, rifled through every morning as I pull out clean socks and that top I never got around to wearing in Joshua Tree.
But that's OK because that was the last out-of-town trip of the year and this weekend I plan on doing a whole lot of nothing, if by 'nothing' you mean unpacking and cleaning and generally getting my life back in order.
It's been a good year for travel. Although there was nothing to quite rival 2013's trip to the U.K. and Belgium, 2014 brought several shorter trips: the Nevada desert, Malibu, Nashville, Austin, San Jose, Lake Tahoe, Austin, Joshua Tree--twice.
But now I'm glad to unpack the suitcase one final time and spend the remainder of the year at home. I love traveling--visiting places new and old--but right now I also feel uncentered, without focus. I feel rushed and distracted. I feel as though I can't quite catch up on anything. My writing has fallen behind, other projects need attention and the thought of the holiday season is sending me into a mild panic.
This weekend will be about shifting back to the center: Unpacking, sipping tea, reading a book, writing, sorting through mail, cleaning, finally pulling out the winter sweaters and putting away summer clothes. There will be sleeping in and time spent with cats and lazy TV watching and I really hope it rains because that's the best way to enjoy such a weekend. That's the best way to be at home after so much time away from it.
It was a sunny day in late May as I perched on the steps to my New York third floor walk-up. A Friday morning, I think--10 a.m. 1998. The movers were already two hours late and as my U-Haul blocked off part of the street, double-parked with hazard lights flashing, I wondered just what the hell I was going to do. With the dozens upon dozens of boxes cluttering my tiny studio apartment. With my futon, my desk, my dressers. With my life.
I'd only lived in New York for a few months when I decided to move back to California. To call my Manhattan career stint an epic fail would be an epic fail of an understatement. But that's a story for another time. All that mattered then—all that matters now--is that I was in love and determined to move back to Sacramento.
I'd managed to get out of my lease and had given two weeks notice at my job and now I didn't have an income and any professional pride I'd previously held on to had already disintegrated to smithereens. But I did have a fiancé—a guy who I’d really only known for a few months when it comes down to it—and a new home waiting for me. There was no looking back. Just forward motion.
I'd spent the last few weeks re-packing almost everything I'd just brought out with me from California. What I didn't want anymore I hauled down to the front stoop. Usually whatever offering I left to the gods of New York living--an old bookcase, piles of tattered books, my grandmother's ratty green chair that I'd loved sitting in for an afternoon of reading--would disappear within hours if not minutes.
Eventually that left just me, my cat Sophie, and the rest of my not-so-worldly belongings. I didn’t have much but as I waited for the movers to show up--and waited, and waited, and waited--it felt like a junk shop’s worth of outdated relics in the History of Rachel.
I started making a mental inventory of everything I had. Part of the deal of getting out of my lease early was that I had to turn over the keys by 5 p.m that day. I'd called the movers a week ago--after pulling the number from one of those torn flyers that decorate telephone poles and bulletin boards everywhere in NYC--and they'd promised to have someone at my West 105th street apartment by 8 a.m. It would cost me $200 in cash (plus tip) for the job.
Now, however, I knew they weren't showing up. Nor were they picking up the phone when I called. I tried to figure out my options. I had an envelope stuffed with cash in a kitchen drawer but not must physical power. I stood five feet six inches and weighed 120 pounds, not much of which was actually muscle.
In other words, I was in a world of trouble.
Theoretically I could move most of the boxes myself. It's just that there were so many and I still had an entire storage space's worth of stuff waiting for me on the Lower East Side. Clearly planning had not been my strength in organizing this move and now I had to face reality in the coldest, harshest of terms.
And yet sitting there on the stoop, I felt paralyzed with uncertainty. Even if I could handle all the boxes, how would I move the big furniture? And how could I do it all before 5 p.m., or even 7 p.m. when the storage unit closed? I felt so overwhelmed that I’d moved past the point of being frantic and sunk into a frighteningly still and bottomless sea of numbness.
Just as I'd resolved to leave everything big behind, a man approached me. I don't remember how he started the conversation. Friendly enough, I'm sure. Just small talk. He was older, maybe in his early 60s. Graying hair and loose, paunchy skin in the face. Shabby but clean clothes.
He asked me about the U-Haul and I told him it was mine, that I was just waiting on movers who were apparently never going to show up.
I wondered aloud if the landlord would take a cut of my deposit because I'd be leaving the apartment filled with cheap furniture. I wondered if they could extend my lease by a few days, a week maybe. I wondered how much this would cost me. I speculated on all of this without hysterics. I no longer had the wherewithal to be upset. Things just needed to happen. I had to somehow push myself off that stoop and start moving already.
The man looked at the U-Haul and then at me. He asked me what floor I lived on.
"Third," I said. "No elevator, steep, winding stairs."
"I'll help you," he said.
I looked at him, surprised.
"No, that's OK--I'll figure it out." I didn't know this man, certainly I couldn't trust him. It would be stupid to let him into my apartment, to let him handle my belongings, to trust him with what little I had left.
He pulled a wallet from his back pocket and handed it to me.
"You remind me of my daughter," he said when I didn't take it from him.
"Go ahead. Give it back to me when I'm done. I want to help."
Sometimes in the years since when I've recounted this story, someone will frown with disapproval when I reach this part.
That was probably a fake wallet. He probably stole it from someone else. You have to be careful.
Of course you have to be careful but sometimes you find yourself sitting there facing a giant, black hole into the unknown and when someone come along and offers even the tiniest bit of a hand, you accept it.
I didn't take out the ID inside his wallet and look to see if the name or picture matched the one he’d given me. I didn’t look to see if he had cash or credit cards or any evidence of a life, real or counterfeit.
Instead I thanked him, took his wallet upstairs and placed it into the kitchen drawer next to the envelope stuffed with cash and then showed him the boxed-up mess that comprised my life.
He immediately set about to work, lugging piece after piece without complaint. Box by box. Sometimes two or three boxes at a time, stacked precariously as he flew down the stairs, skipping several at a time. His agility and cheerful enthusiasm far belied the gray in his hair, the looseness of his skin.
At some point the movers finally arrived--at least four hours late. Two young men, fit and muscled. They were angry when I told them I no longer needed them. We argued. Finally they gave up and left.
For the next several hours this man and I moved boxes down the stairs and into that U-Haul. He carried a million times over the load that I did. He lugged as much of the big stuff as possible by himself and then roped in a neighbor to help him with my futon and dressers.
In return I gave him water and lunch and some conversation. When we were finished, when he’d slammed shut the U-Haul door with satisfaction, I thanked him for his help and returned to him his wallet along with a small handful of cash. $80 I think--that's the most he would allow me to give him.
He wished me luck, told me to drive carefully out there on my way back to California. Hoped that I was starting a happy and prosperous life.
I made it to the leasing office well before 5 p.m. and turned in the keys. Then I drove myself, Sophie and that packed moving truck over to the storage unit where I spent the next few hours using a dolly to carry loads of boxes out of my space, into an elevator and to the truck.
Sophie and I crossed over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey sometime shortly after sunset, singing along to Whiskeytown and Yo La Tengo songs, scared but happy. Ready for the next adventure. Alone but not really.
**This post is in response to today's NaBloPoMo prompt which asks "Tell us about one time that you benefited from the kindness of strangers."
**That picture above? That's my old apartment. West 105th Street and Broadway, thank you Google street view for the memory.
Listen, I know I've been a shitty blogger lately what with just the pictures and the playlists but I just spent two-and-a-half lovely days in Joshua Tree and then had a cruel re-entry into work, which after hanging out watching the Dum Dum Girls and Victoria Wlliams and that keyboardist who once played with Leonard Cohen and just eating so much good food and drinking great drinks and hanging out with amazing friends and getting nearly swept away by monster wind in a state park, and then heading back into work and then class, well I am tired.
Very, very, very tired.
So that's why I'm just posting this pretty picture of the mountaintops between Ontario and somewheresville.
This was our last real trip for the year and, really, I'm glad. I just want to spend the rest of 2014 with my husband and my cats and my friends. I want to get centered again, I want to have time to be lazy. I want to spend an entire day in my pajamas just reading and watching TV (I honestly cannot tell you the last time that happened. January, maybe).
So, for now....
*And, no, this isn't the end of blogging, it's just the end of me beating myself up over a half-assed post.