28 January, 2012

A Baboon in the Bluegrass, Part 1: Lexington

[This is dedicated to the cute artsy girl in the purple plaid coat who smiled at me in the Starbucks this morning for no particular reason]

My Life is a vast inconsequential epic with a thousand and a million characters...” -Jack Kerouac

Sitting in hole in the wall Mexican restaurant drinking Modelo Negro and eating enchiladas (she had tacos) with my college friend Stephanie, I was beginning to reassess my feelings about Lexington. Having lived here before – the next in a string of places I consider familiar – I sort of took certain things for granted:

  1. That my mental map of the place would help me get around; and
  2. That my initial sense memory of the place was the only memory of the place I needed.

But first thing I noticed about Lexington when the bus pulled into the Depot was that I had forgotten where the bus depot actually was. My memory had confused it (as I would later find out) with the main hub of the Lexington Transit Authority – the metro bus hub behind the downtown library.

Prior to deciding to take this trip... or rather, prior to the circumstances coming together in such a way that not only is the trip important, but also necessary... I had no reason to come back to Lexington for any length of time. And as I got off the bus and surveyed my surroundings, and after I realized that my memory had reorganized the entire city incorrectly, I realized something else.

I had managed to forget almost everything about Lexington.

I don't know if it was deliberate. I used to live here. For three years in the late 90's Lexington, Kentucky was my home. I thought I'd gotten to know the city pretty well. As city's go, Lexington isn't really large. It's more like a small town that got too big to fast and never really came to terms with it. It's a town that probably felt like it had to ACT big because the University of Kentucky main campus was there; and more importantly, the UK WILDCATS are there... and there's nothing in Kentucky more important than UK sports. Specifically, basketball. Particularly, Men's. So in a way, Lexington is, as a cities go, like a teenage girl who has to buy a new pair of shoes because her friend has a new purse.

Nearly every association I have with Lexington – mental, emotional – are bad associations. I think about the girlfriend I had who fucked all my friends; I think about working as an office slug at the University of Kentucky and hating myself just a little bit more every day; I think about one particularly psychotic husband who believed I was brainwashing his wife... when in fact, I was really just fucking her. I remember walking to work at Wal-Mart on Man O War Road and I remember also working at Target and Meijer. I remember working the counter at the Dairy Mart. I remember getting arrested for reckless operation of a vehicle because a Lexington City cop couldn't get me to blow into the breathalyzer enough for a DUI.

I remember first moving to Lexington from Cincinnati. To make the move happen in a more expedited fashion, I more or less pushed myself on a friend of mine from college, Phil. Phil is also a writer, and a respectable one at that. He's one of the mad poet varieties – probably because he's technically legally insane – but he's also a voracious reader, sometimes astute critic, and a good chess player to boot. He claims no political opinions, but he does have his thoughts on the matter of the human endeavor to rule over one another. Last I checked – and yes, it's been a while, but bear with me – he pretty much thought the whole thing was pointless, and probably doomed to failure. (He very well could have changed his mind by now... but given the state of things, I don't see how he could any way but vindicated.)

After I was able to find regular work and save money – I'm fairly sure that didn't happen nearly fast enough for Phil – I moved into my own place, off Versailles Road. Not long after that, I convinced another college friend, Jerry, to move down to Lexington, saying he could sleep on my couch until he got up on his feet. It didn't seem to matter to me at the time that Phil and Jerry had never gotten along; all I figured at the time was that it would be cool to have all of my college friends together in the same city... presumably to continue the same semi-dysfunctional but still comfortable social dynamic we had all been a part of in college. (Back then, I still believed it was possible to hold on to people, just as they had been when I first knew them. I hadn't yet realized that in order to keep friends, you have to accept that they, like everything else, have to go through necessary changes or else get dragged under.)

As you might expect, the whole lousy sit-com... because what else could it turn out to be... ended in disaster. Now I'm not really friends with either Phil or Jerry. I lost my friendship with Jerry because of a girl... see, how the sit-com becomes bad melodrama...and I lost my friendship with Phil because I was a raging, arrogant ass.

And then there's Lynnie. Lynnie, who was the reason I rode a Greyhound in the first place. But that's probably another story for another time.

As I was sitting with Stephanie, talking the way we have always talked... topics ranging from politics to literature to teaching to life, spirituality... I found myself having to re-evaluate my thoughts about Lexington. Not that I think I'd ever want to live here – there are other places I am much more comfortable and where I would feel more welcomed overall – but it's not such a bad place.

The thing about Lexington is that it's impossible to get around it's inflated opinion of itself; this isn't a town that wants people to look too scruffy or too poor or too downtrodden. When I lived here before and worked downtown (I was a file clerk, briefly, for Bank One... which was eventually bought out by Chase Bank.) it struck me odd that nearly everyone, regardless of where they worked, sort of dressed the same. Khaki pants and a green shirt. Jerry and I used to laugh about it. Lexington is, regardless of whatever else it is, an entire city with a Wal-Mart employee attitude.

One of the other things I've noticed... there's not many cops, but a lot of “security guards.” For example, when I was at the downtown library yesterday, I saw at least five private security guards. Five. Now, while on one hand I think it's a step in the right direction that they take their library so seriously, I do wonder about the purpose of a private, taser wielding brigade of black polo shirt wearing bullies in what should be an open, public, and non-threatening place. (Stephanie explained that after the current mayor was sworn into office, the first thing he did was slash the police and fire department budgets. This, as you might imagine, makes him popular with the libertarian horde and the underlying criminal element. Don't worry, though. The increase in crime is only really happening where the poor and the blacks live. And no one here gives a damn about them, anyway. One look at someone scruffy... say, like moi … people here feel compelled to run and check their credit rating to ensure that their hubris is justified.

When I was killing time at the library yesterday, I noticed I wasn't the only one. One of the ironies of Lexington is that it has such an inflates sense of itself, but it has – and did, even when I lived here – a steady homeless population. And one of the places they go to get out of the elements... whichever element happens to be seasonal... is the downtown library.

At one point, I was sitting at a reading table on the second floor, next to one of the large windows facing Main Street, on the far side of the fiction shelves. Other than needing someplace to chill until I could meet up with Stephanie, I also needed a place where I could charge my cell phone and tie into some free wifi.

(Yes, yes. The problems that face a techno-hobo. It could be worse.)

Of course, a library security guard walked by every 10 minutes or so. Always a different guard. One guy, at the table in front of me … that had been occupied by a cute blonde girl who looked too sad to be anything but a runaway. The dirty old letch who found her and complained that he'd been looking for her all day sort of completed the picture.) seemed to be used to the patrol pattern. He unpacked his sack, tried to air out his clothes,and packed it all back in less than five minutes. Two tables up, a couple of the older guys were talking. One was mentioning a place he might spend the night... some guy who lets him in to take a shower. From the conversation, I gathered there was some give and take that I probably didn't want to know about.

One of two of them eyed me suspiciously. Generally they paid me no mind.

But none of them asked me for a cigarette or spare change, either.

Guess they knew better. An easy mark in Lexington isn't difficult to find. They all wear khakis. And green shirts.

The thing is, even in a place like this... and while I feel less antipathy towards the city, I do, nonetheless find that I can't forgive the overall lack of humanity... it's encouraging to know there are good people with good hearts and good souls and solid heads on their shoulders. Stephanie is one of those people; because even though I haven't seen her in probably ten years, she still opened her home to me. Her little house in Nicholasville reminded some of the house in Mount Carroll... except that it was in much better shape, and probably only dated back to the 1940's, not the 1910's. It has older house issues, which she's working through. But she's also not willing to go into debt. She's a planner and a doer. She dreams of maybe selling the house and moving to New York. She thinks maybe she might just stay where she is. But there's always been this thing about Stephanie... this thing I've always's liked. She doesn't compromise on her vision. She's not afraid to take risks (including home ownership... more of a risk than those vulture-like realtors would have you believe). 

And that's really, as far as I can tell, the only way to walk through the world. Without compromise and in the face of enormous risk.

Here in Lexington, though, if you are a bit scruffy looking, remember:

It's probably best to avoid eye contact. And please: Do not feed the khaki-ed animals.

[I need to extend my thanks here to Tina Stretton, who found the correct number and name contact at Greyhound Bus Lines in order to convince them they ought to be letting me ride for free. In addition to some piece of my immortal soul... which admittedly, isn't worth much... I also owe Tina my eternal gratitude. Or an overall percentage, whichever is less. 

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Thanks for reading.]