Photo: Wendy
Photo: Wendy

Claim

NOLA

His name is Cub and he’s sitting on the sidewalk with a pile of books and a typewriter. On my first pass down Dauphine Street, I am too self-conscious to speak to him. Unlike the other street performers, Cub is dressed in the familiar hipster chic favored by former nerds and current liberal arts students: skinny chinos rolled high to showcase punchy socks and a set of toothpick ankles, a fresh bowtie and a sweater vest and round, dark glasses.

I am curious about him because in this city of street-side strip clubs and beat-up jazz and double-fisting, oyster-slurping tourists, he feels most like me. I am the former-nerd-current-liberal-arts-student; I am the writer; and though I’m not sitting on sidewalk curbs, I am drifting, waiting to claim some place. Waiting for some place to claim me.

On my second pass down Dauphine, I stop. Like the men who stand yelling outside the Bourbon Street bars, like the homeless singing under the French Quarter balconies, like the women who’ve spread cards out on folding tables in front of the Saint Louis Cathedral, Cub is hawking something—except that his something is poetry. Two dollars for a poem, a scattering of words for 50 cents.

Somehow, this is more real to me than anything I’ve touched so far in New Orleans, more tangible than a beignet down my throat or the cemetery vaults or even the slurried Mississippi River. Here I have found a poet for sale, white index cards like gull feathers in his dark hands, the typewriter cradled up against his knees. I want to ask him how it feeds, the poetry, if he buys hot dogs or chicken soup or lentils, whether they come in bowls or on plastic plates or in tins. How does it feel to eat off your own words?

A homeless man in a motorized chair has come by to talk to Cub. He’s got a pug in the front basket, the cone of a party hat strapped to its soft, smooth head. He waits patiently as Cub stretches his fingers on the typewriter keys. When we meet eyes, he grins and recites his own spontaneous verses for me. Cub finishes and signs the index card with a formation of circles which look like a paw print.

“And how are you this morning Earl?” he is saying to the homeless man as I walk away. The dog, batting at his hat, has begun to whine. Because it is a wet day in Louisiana, the ink from Cub’s pen takes a moment to dry.

 

SF

My brother brings me flowers wrapped in yellow tissue paper. In the airport, he looks older and more beautiful. The oxygen breathes right to him here in San Francisco. When he hugs me, I imagine that I can feel his lungs, his heart, the wrap of protective bone. We surprise each other with our solidity, with our precise existence in space and the formal, physical way we now have of locating one another. For him, before, it was: New York City, LA, Amman, Madrid, D.C. The joke went around back home in Iowa that Tom had a medical condition, geographic ADHD, with the strongest symptom a permanently half-packed suitcase. Since I turned sixteen, my brother has always been in a state of just-leaving.

Tom lives on Golden Gate and Divisadero, on the block where the Western Addition breaks off into NOPA. From the balcony between his room and the kitchen, we can see out to the Bay, where the heat has kept the fog from settling. At its most basic, San Francisco is a series of architectural frames, delicate rooflines built off each other, with somewhere a Victorian as the city’s one keystone against which they all are leaning. I imagine for a moment that we are the keystone, the cornerstone, the crux. Against us, San Francisco rests herself with a sigh.

I know that it is really over when I meet his boyfriend of eight months. Garrett is of the OC, although he doesn’t wear it on him. He is funny and thoughtful and 5’6″. He works in advertising for the Wall Street Journal, although he wants to do what I want to do, which is write. And it is really over because Garrett knows Tom better than I do. It is really over: the growing up in Saudi Arabia and Indiana and Iowa, the shared white Chevy Malibu, the annual summertime trip to Lake Michigan. I feel the gap, the disjunct, swish it around in my mouth. This isn’t us anymore. I have suspected it for a long time, and it is not so much a matter of dealing with it now as it is a matter of making myself familiar, of looking at it under the NorCal sun and understanding what has become of brother and sister when distance has exerted itself.

Tom helps me pick out new glasses on Valencia Street in SF’s Mission District. I’ve worn the same pair since I was a high school sophomore and there’s a discolored patch on the bridge where the ophthamologist misapplied the molding putty all those years ago. I am twenty-two now, a senior at a college near our hometown. These new frames are big and clear. In the days after I leave, they will remind me of him, and of being here.

 

SLC

Under the stadium lighting, the cowboys look more sweat-lathered than the bulls. The action happens quickly: the swing out of the gate, the bull dropping its head, the cowboy falling and rising as if an electric shock has been strung through him. Count the seconds: one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four—and then he’s off, a jumble of ribs and spurs as he somersaults backwards over the great beating haunches, his body a twist-and-scramble among the dirt and the hooves.

The bull retreats to its pen as the wranglers pull the cowboy up to safe perching on the metal rails, their skinny, Levi’d thighs clamped tight around the bars. In the ring, the rodeo clown is wagging his hands at the crowd as the crowd tips, sways, spills its collective 32oz beer on the bleacher seating. I shuffle my boots to keep them dry. I don’t belong here but I fit in just fine. I took a couple of semesters off from college in the last two years, spent nine months working as a wildland firefighter for a forest in rural Utah. I’m used to the beards and the lifted trucks and the cheap chewing tobacco. It’s familiar almost, comforting almost. I know it and it knows me.

“Let’s give it up,” the announcer wails as the next man mounts the next bull, “for the boy from our very own HONEYVILLE UUUUUTAAAAAAAAH!” I begin to count again—one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand — until I’m on my feet with my mouth cranked open and I’m yelling for the tiny cowboy from Honeyville, Utah as he rides out eight-one thousand, nine-one thousand, ten one-thousand on into an eternity of sunset thousands, his right hand aloft and snapping. I surprise myself: the rush, the scream.

The second best bull rider is small like the Honeyville boy, a black cowboy from Idaho. I am seated close to the chutes where I can watch the riders milling, their chaps slung low beneath the brass plates of their belt buckles, and this is how I come to see the Idaho cowboy practicing with the air, his shoulders and torso swung and rolled as he throws his palm upwards and feels the way it must feel to ride a bull that means to buck you.

 

I believe that the solid, human fact of me can be realized in Salt Lake City. This place becomes me: the ringing mountains of the Wasatch Front; the suggestion of Park City through Parleys Canyon; the insinuation of the Great Salt Lake, of brine shrimp and Antelope Island. And slowly, I will become the place. The High Uinta Mountains, Starvation Reservoir, the tiny Mormon towns, weird and otherworldly. I’m moving here in October, leaving the Midwest — home — for good this time.

Give me a few years to live here, then set me up inside a dictionary. Following the etymological formalities, SLC will serve as a concise definition. I don’t think I’m alone in this. See Cub the Poet. See Tom, my brother.

Let the snow sit on my hairtips as the wind enters my lungs. On afternoon runs, the mud will rise over my socks to rest against my ankle bones. In the evenings, I will watch the last of the light as it goes out of the valley. High up on the mountain ridges, everything glows.

***

 Read more essays in Placed, a column curated by Miranda Ward.
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