A Mood of Homelessness

For as long as I can recall, I have never been very interested in local news. Aside from spasms of voracious news consumption—which included national and international events—this has always been the case. It’s not difficult to imagine what my college journalism professors would think of this disclosure if by some stranger-than-fiction circumstance they read this article. Be that as it may, I have come to look at this characteristic, which is shared by countless others, as a sign or a means of insight into a feeling that has become clearer as I have become older. The entirety of my life, or at least much of it, seems now to have been, and continues to be, permeated by a sense of being constitutionally homeless. This should not be seen as synonymous with friendlessness or lonesomeness, although I like every other human have visited those borderless countries before. It is not lacking a place called home rather an unbroken impression where you are isn’t where you should be.

A little more than twenty-eight years of my life were spent in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was born and raised; slightly less than two years of my life have been spent, in a couple of periods interrupted by a Bluff City interlude, in Chicago, Illinois. First some thoughts about Memphis. Among outsiders the city is known for five things primarily: Graceland, to where only one Memphis native I know has gone (at the behest of a visiting family member); FedEx, a company for which each person in my immediate family, including myself, has worked; Beale Street and barbecue, the former I’ve passed through, the latter I’ve eaten vigorously; and the assassination of Dr. King in April of 1968, a moment that reverberates still in the psyche of a perennially insecure town. My relationship to the city has two colors. Each time I have moved away has been accompanied by a subtle, pleasurable tenderness for her. Partly, for sure, this is because my mother, father, and sister call Memphis home, and the affection for them nicely intermingles with my thoughts of the other. It’d be dishonest, however, to disclaim the very real fondness with which I think about the city, its basketball and neuroses, music and crime, food and defensiveness, its riverside and corruption.

As a resident, though, leaving was long the focus of my thoughts (I remember saying when I was younger, believing perhaps correctly I had coined the phrase, “You don’t move to Memphis, you get stuck there”). Two memories from my youth seem apt enough to recount here. When I was at least twelve years old but no older than fourteen, I recall imagining myself splashing shirtless on a beach as a student of Florida State University. I can see myself with feet planted on the brown carpet of our living room floor reimagined as perfect sands on a perfectly sunny day as I waded knee-deep along the coastline of a perfectly sunny beach. For not the first or last time an idle daydream was the source of absolute delight. There was also a time as a teenager when New York City, excuse the cliché, was where I desperately wanted to go. While a junior and senior in high school, I took a vocational course in audio technology in which the ins and outs of recording music professionally were taught. Of this course, I remember the teacher for some of my first and all of my second year, a somewhat nasally voiced Mr. Murphy, a classmate named Henry who went to a different school and returned years later as a coworker at FedEx Ground, and a quite short, quite cute, sometimes bespectacled classmate who attended my high school and was a year behind me named Danielle. The last I heard of her she had married her high school sweetheart, a former football player, and settled I hope happily into family life. Though I was unaware at the time of how little a role music would eventually have in my life, in those days I saw myself as if not a musician maybe a studio engineer or music producer. There was an audio engineering school in New York—SAE are the initials that come to mind and an internet search reveals its name as the SAE Institute—from where I regularly received blue and yellow postcards advertising its classes. The reasons I did not attend, or even apply, are superfluous now, especially considering my general disinterest in aural entertainment, but for years those postcards accumulated and were placed into the crevices of a rectangular mirror that hung on my bedroom wall, which presently lays on the floor of my Chicago apartment not fifteen feet from me.

Too many false starts preceded my leaving Memphis. So the reaction upon receiving my acceptance letter from the University of Chicago, which resulted in my moving to that city for the first time, should be understandable. After having read it, and probably reread it, and been congratulated, I was now speaking with my sister outside. Standing in my parents’ driveway, I leapt and tapped my heels together in midair.

I try to conceive of ways to describe this maiden period in Chicago but am only able to reimagine people and places. Hyde Park’s lakefront boundary introduces me again to chance meetings with friends, early summer days actually wading knee-deep along a shoreline, a tiny fire pit and nighttime fireworks, a winter walk on a near-empty beach save for a family of four, and returns me to my final time there, which I see as clearly as that afternoon’s sky reflected on the surface of that calm, cool lake. Any number of other places could be trapdoor journeys filled with other faces as well. The import here is the return. There was a time soon after my departure when the Windy City was one of several municipalities where I could see myself escape the city of my birth. In time, however, the bygone voice of a prior locale whispered louder and louder. Although some apprehension accompanied the move back, my general feeling was optimistic; is there a better formula for hope than a new adventure in old surroundings? But between then and now, my second arrival and barely over one-year anniversary, the mood yielded to a familiar one. I began to ask myself why here and how much longer. A search for digs in another neighborhood was accompanied by thoughts of this being my last year in the lakeside city. Whether this is true or not, I cannot say for certain. Nonetheless, this state of homelessness is evident in the manner, swift and reflexive and unkind, with which my finger has many times shut my television off or changed its channel at the sound of a local news program (“Chicawgo,” I hear one broadcaster pronounce it seemingly every time). My interests here rest in a few activities and an even smaller group of people. The same can be said of Memphis. I see little possibility of living long-term in Chicago, and even less in Memphis, though neither I must admit are New York or Florida.

The well-known saying is you can’t go home again. Maybe so, but in instances as these perhaps it’s better to say: you can’t go home once.