It’s a beautiful Friday evening here in Ithaca–temperate, breezy-green, calm. The air finally cooled down after a sweltering couple of days, and I’m hoping the forecast is right in predicting a week of cool weather and even showers. I felt like I was trying to sleep in some stranger’s hot armpit. Not sleep-friendly without air conditioning.
Tonight, on a friend’s recommendation, I strolled around the corner to check out a place called Felicia’s. Cute spot, with a live Old Tyme band playing inside, and folks milling on the sidewalks. They serve reasonably priced creative cocktails, $2 hot dogs with homemade ketchup, and pizzas assembled from local garden ingredients. I ordered something with caraway, vodka, and grapefruit juice–not exactly awful, but tasted a bit like dumping rye bread and a grapefruit in a blender. (I think green cardamom would have worked better.) Supposedly Felicia’s is “the lesbian bar” in town, but all I could see were hippies and beatniks and scruffy, middle-aged locals dancing their own varied jigs to the washboard and standup bass. Boulder, Santa Cruz, Ashland, Ithaca: Is there some kind of Ameri-pass circuit I don’t know about?
At any rate, I wedged into a bar stool and promptly had to text my restaurant-recommending friend, so as to sketch my neighbor to the right. He was sporting: long hair; a bright red ball cap with a $ sign on the front; thick prescription glasses with wacky banana-yellow frames; and a speckled chihuahua peeking out of a shoulder bag. (Text version abbreviated.) When I asked how the dog got to hang in restaurants, he explained, “Oh, I’m crazy, so he’s magic!” Somehow that made sense.
Kelly and I talked for the next ninety minutes. Or he mostly talked and I asked questions. Like me, he was returning to Ithaca after some time, “to regroup,” he said. But as his story unfolded I got the sense that regrouping was kind of an ongoing and layered process for Kelly. Most recently he’d been in New York City for six months, helping an old friend “start a business”–until the friend turned out to be a hard-core meth addict and went ballistic on him one day. Kelly barely made it out of the city with $6 and the dog, thanks to a friend who bought him a bus ticket to Ithaca to stay with her. He was hoping the friend would get clean and apologize. Before that fiasco he’d lived in San Francisco for almost a decade, working for an Internet company until it was bought out by Amazon and he got laid off. He made reference to mental illness (information conveyed in my first impression anyway), but didn’t get into details. It was clear that he was smart and articulate. He’d gone to Cornell, studied writing, lived a relatively functional existence for awhile. He’d been in rehab once, for alcohol. “But, like, my low was the softest low in the group. I went in because I once blacked out and peed the bed.”
His life, he said, was nothing like he thought it would turn out. “Like, I thought I’d be…you know, a little more stable, a little more…like an adult by the time I was forty.” Last week, though, the contents of the storage locker he had in San Francisco had been auctioned. “I had no choice but to let it go. I didn’t have the money! So literally now all I have to my name is what I carried with me when I got out of New York. Talk about tabula rasa. I’m working for a catering business–which is ok, but I mean…And I’m afraid to even ask the universe what’s next! After some of the stuff I’ve been through, I don’t think I even want to know.” (If you haven’t detected, Kelly was, in fact, the Gay in Gay Bar.)
I asked him what he wanted if he could have it. He wasn’t sure. He’d always liked writing, and been good at it, considered himself (with an embarrassed shrug) a writer. I brainstormed with him a little about maybe offering editing services to local college students. He brightened at the suggestions, thanked me, apologized for “talking about my whole story this whole time,” asked what I did. Then somehow we got on the subject of George Jones, and mid-sentence (my sentence) he suddenly ran off to get some tobacco at some shop nearby. I waited a few minutes and paid my bill, went back to my place. The bartender said she’d hold his seat. I figured I’d probably see him again.
Kelly obviously has some issues. But still. I remember that lost feeling, not that long ago and sometimes now, here and there. It’s strange to find myself on the other side in that conversation, the side of “success” and adulthood, relative stability, a career with a title. But there is no denying that I am on that side, even if sometimes I’ve felt like I was clawing my way there on my belly. I feel just barely there now. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve had resources–family support, basic self-esteem, the ability to stay focused, no major addictions–and having those resources has so much to do with dumb luck. I work hard, but I’m lucky. I could have been less lucky, more lost, much more lost. So easily.