I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness. — Jack Kerouac
I think we get so comfortable with our own lives, that we become disassociated with the lives of others. Since I travel back and forth to the Triangle every Tuesday and Thursday now, I have noticed the lives of so many people. For some reason, we have normalized a never ending existence that is in frantic motion, but rarely arrives. Some people get close, but there is always some catastrophe that hinders the race. We have accepted this promised defeat while being told we live in a promised land, but in our current reality, it is only promised for a rare few.
I have become, in my back and forth up I-85, very aware of where every Sheetz is located and the exit numbers off the highway. I have memorized the markers, the turn lanes, the sameness of every welcome. If Sheetz are not in your area, they are an oversized gas station with a convenience store and a fast food diner. They are very busy. Sometimes there is a line for gas. The stop always feels safe, or there is always an illusion of safe ingrained in the marketing. They are different, but the same. It feels like a Walmart or The Dollar Tree, where people go, in search of something and yet, it is not there. And yet, they continue to go. Whatever the longing, it is epidemic in America. I remember when I was a little girl, and we traveled, we would look for Howard Johnson’s. They were all along the interstates, right off the exit ramp where there was absolutely nothing else. They offered a nice small motel and a pool for overnight, and a restaurant for travelers. We would stop, and a hostess would greet us. We would be led to a table with cloth napkins. The food was good, and the ice cream even better. When we stopped there, it was fun to sit at the table and color the paper placemats, run to the window to gaze at the pool, and then hit the road knowing we might never come back. It was all oxymoronic, but comfortable. The stop, however, felt quite different than the current stops at Sheetz. We went out of necessity, and then we were gone. Sheetz is a place for travelers and locals. It is a magnet when the old Gulf down the street is closed, and there is no longer anyone to clean your window, or pump your gas, and say, “Drive safely,” all of that will no longer do. The liminal space of yesterday is imprinted on our hearts and souls, but we go to Sheetz like it is magic, and there is no rabbit pulled from a hat.
The interstate is a gritty place. Everyone is in a hurry. It is important to stay out of people’s way. They might have a gun. And watch for things falling from overpasses. And animals die there, so many deer. Blood staining the asphalt. And often, traffic comes to halt for what seems like eternity. Life begins to crawl. And in this murky mess are truckers. They sit high in their eighteen wheel rigs. They can see everything the world throws at them. Any night, I might pass exits where truckers have pulled off, maybe twenty-five of them at any given time lined up along an exit ramp or exiting the other side like fire trucks off to the great inferno. I thought truckers stopped at truck stops, to eat, to shower, to rest, but no, they live by a timer. There is no day, no night, just go, and we have normalized that. Like urinating in a bottle at Amazon, or running from a UPS truck down a sidewalk with a package at eight PM, or making two-hundred-fifty-one billion dollars a year or seven-twenty-five an hour, and not scratching our heads and screaming, “Is this not insane?” The truckers do not have time for all that. In the late night, they own the road. They will tail a car, like a goth shadow, so so closely until it finally out of fear, moves. Sometimes, they will blink a thank you to a driver who lets them into the constant busy endless flow of lights traveling to somewhere along I-85. The truckers, sometimes, tragically, fall asleep, and the crash closes the road with debris everywhere, and other truckers then creep anxiously. Will they be next? It is an underground world of sun and moon, tireless highways, and exit ramps…a race that never ends, and when it does, there is no medal, and no prize. The traffic never stops. Never stops. And we normalize this.
Some nights, I stop in Archdale. I pull into the Hampton Inn to use the restroom, because McDonald’s is closed. The lady who works the night shift knows me now. The parking lot is full, and guests hang out in the lobby. They watch TV and drink fresh coffee. They recognize the regulars. Outside is a small herd of feral cats. The lady at the front desks says they feed them sometimes. She says they are very sweet. Late at night, when the road becomes a liminal space, the cats race across four lanes of no traffic, going back and forth, searching for food, or someone who can take them home and love them. I drive away worried about them. Just like the other night in front of Wegmans in Chapel Hill, there were two homeless people hanging out. One appeared to be mentally ill, and the other developmentally disabled. I wonder how they ended up in the unsure streets at night, in the cold. As I was getting out of my car, a police officer pulled up, and then another. The cop got out of his car, and the mentally ill one walked away really fast, looking back over his shoulder until he disappeared into the night. The one with developmental disabilities seemed pleased and just wanted to chat. The police were calm and walked him to the other side of the building, towards the woods, and the homeless man, with his backpack and limp, waddled into the fog and the lights and towards the back of the building until out of sight. The vulnerable are not good for business. I walked into the store, it is perfect. Prosperity feels everywhere. It feels like the contradiction of what is good in America, and we accept that hook, line, and sinker.
On Tuesdays, I almost always dine at one of my favorite Greek restaurants in Chapel Hill. It is not far from I-40, which merges with I-85 about ten miles west of the exit to Kipos. I love sitting outside on Kipos’s covered patio. It is a mini escape from where I am. The patio is also a unique garden. There are lovely large planters with shrubs and flowers, and colorful large ceramic pots with vines and other greenery. The brick outside wall of the adjoining building is painted in keeping with the garden vibe. White incandescent lights are strung across the entrance walkway, and they create a warm and cozy feel. A bowl of avgolemono soup and a loaf of homemade sourdough bread are cathartic. It is a welcome relief from a world gone mad. The strange thing is when you arrive and when you leave, the dollar store is right next door. It is a reminder of the decline of so many communities all across America. Many of these communities are food deserts. It is a neon intimation of the decline of the middle class and the working poor. And we normalize it. We normalize hunger and poverty in America. It is as if it is the constant reminder to working people that at any moment, all can be lost. Every person is only one bad move from disaster. Haven’t we already lost? Only a lucky few arrive. And we accept it.
As I walked back to the car, past The Dollar Tree, I was minutes to Whole Foods. I pulled into the parking lot to the music of a violin. A young girl was playing and asking for money for a desired college education. People were stopping, and filling up her bucket. But maybe this was a lost cause, not the music, but the dream. I drove past her when I was leaving. I dropped a ten dollar bill into her bucket. I then headed for I-40. The traffic was slow and construction lights were on. I thought about my drive back to Shelby. Darkness settled in to overtake the light. I put on some music, and cozyed in for the long ride back. I thought about which Sheetz I should stop at to get gas. The truckers were still on their race, people were on their way home, and I was hoping I would arrive at my destination before midnight. I watched for deer, and checked out overpasses, and I stayed out of angry drivers’ way. Night fell, and I kept going. The machine in which we live keeps going, like a marble on a marble run. And I wondered out loud , “Why are we even here?” Sadly, there was no answer. There never is, and yet we stay in perpetual motion, cogs in an enigmatic wheel of fortune, coming and going to where, for what, and to what end? Maybe all that we may never really know, yet what we know is good enough, and we should live it.
- Patty Brown
The world is violent and mercurial — it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love — love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love. — Tennessee Williams