Today marks an anniversary. On this day in 2000, I boarded an Amtrak train and headed west. I left my home in Connecticut, the only place I really knew in my almost twenty-five years on the planet (minus one weird year in North Carolina.) I was leaving behind a life I knew. Ahead was thrilling uncertainty.* Many times in my life I had (and have) chosen the devil I know, now I was welcoming the devil I don’t know.
My little life had unraveled over the course of six months, though things weren’t exactly stellar before that. 1999 was a year of a few crap jobs (a factory, a PIRG,) and one okay one (pizza delivery.) I worked for a band as a “merch guy”. It didn’t make anything, but it was fun, mostly. I had hoped that I’d be able to go on a tour, whether with the band I worked with or another one. And it seemed like I was getting somewhere with my art and comics. But I still lived at home and hadn’t found love, which definitely bothered me. I’d hoped that I would at least move out and move on by the dawn of the new millennium. That didn’t happen.
Instead, a succession of unfortunate events happened in January: My piece-of-crap car bit the dust, my fifth vehicle in as many years. I decided to not get another car, which meant I had no job. And the band I worked for broke up. No hope to go on tour with them, but at that point, I was sick of the music scene and don’t think I could have hacked going on the road. I was left living at a place I didn’t want to be, with few friends left and no good way to get around.**
What I needed was drastic change. I needed to get out of Dodge and find new horizons. I was scared. I worried that if I didn’t leave now, I may never get out. I’d end up with a dreary existence in a dead-end working class place. That fear lit a fire under my ass.
The idea of leaving Connecticut was not new. I had grown weary of the Constitution State over the nineties. It didn’t feel like a place to grow, to “make it”. The state to me was a collection of rich towns and poor cities, neither offering me much opportunity in personal growth. It had been a long time since I felt like I “belonged” there. I had pursued the idea of getting out upon graduating high school in 1993. I had hoped to go off to art school in Georgia, but a lack of funds meant that I didn’t. Instead, I floundered around without plan.
So I mulled over my options: I could just find an apartment in New Haven, but that didn’t seem like a big enough step. I thought about Boston, since I liked the town and had friends there. But it seemed too expensive.*** Philadelphia could work: it was cheap, I enjoyed it, I had friends there. But it didn’t seem like a big enough step. It was still in the Northeast, just a couple hours from home. Too close. I needed a bigger jump.
California became the obvious option. I visited The Golden State for the first time in 1998, and had returned twice since. It was such a different vibe, more open feeling, more positive. Everyone seemed cool. People liked zines and comics. And the weather was so much better! After a February 2000 trip out west for a comics event (APE in San Francisco), my mind was set. I was heading to California, San Francisco specifically.
The next four months were filled with my single-minded determination to leave. I found a part-time job in New Haven. While this meant a couple hour bus commute, I felt that the benefit of regularly getting out of Ansonia, where I was living, outweighed the costs–I worried that I might lose my mind being trapped in the Naugatuck Valley. I saved up as much money as I could, while purging a lot of my stuff. It was a tough time–I had a pretty ascetic existence consisting of that bus commute (at least I got some reading in) and going to the library to spend an hour on the internet, researching as much about the Bay Area as I could. Spring in Connecticut that year seemed especially beautiful, almost like it was the Nutmeg State’s last ditch effort to keep me there. But despite pangs of doubt, I stayed the course.
On Thursday June 16, 2000, I got a ride from my friend Rich to New Haven’s Union Station. The train journey had me first head north to Springfield, Mass., then west toward Chicago. I looked out the window, seeing the familiar landscape of my lifetime fade away. I knew I’d be back to visit, but didn’t know if I’d ever be back to live. I knew that the time ahead wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t want to give up easily and return to the boringly familar.
It wasn’t a direct trip to the Bay Area. Instead, it was a two-week tour of America by rail, one where I fell in love with long-distance train travel. My first stop was Toledo (of all places), to attend a great zine conference in nearby Bowling Green. It was an event where I saw old friends and met new ones. Then Chicago for a couple of days, where I gained a love for the Windy City. (I thought that if SF didn’t work out, Chicago could be another option.) Then onto what would become my favorite train, The Empire Builder, for my first visit to Portland. I stayed with my friend Dylan and also thought Portland could be a good place to live. (But I was moving to “the greatest city in the world!” Ha!) And then south on the Coast Starlight to Emeryville.
I remember the morning I got off the train. The previous couple weeks was “a vacation”, now I was to start the next chapter of my life. The reality hit me. It was that thrilling uncertainty that scared me, but was what I needed to grow. I took the shuttle over to the city and crashed at my friend Keef’s house for a few weeks, while I hustled. The Bay Area ultimately was not for me, and I moved to Portland in April 2001. And I never returned to the East Coast to live.
I miss Connecticut from time to time. But ultimately I made the right decision. I was heading for a lonely, defeatist, desolate existence if I stuck around, even if I made my best effort to change. It’s hard to be positive in a place where negativity abounds and people are more willing to shut down your ideas than help. I don’t think I could be the person I am now if I didn’t find a supportive, creative community like I found here in the Rose City. I’m glad I found the escape velocity to leave the familiar behind.
*Thanks, Adrian Tomine!
**This was before I really got into biking, but even if I had made a determined effort to use my bike as transportation, it would be difficult in this hilly landscape, where it might be ten miles to get where I wanted. Plus, transit in Connecticut was pretty remedial. I could get back and forth from Ansonia to New Haven OK (though the bus ran only hourly, stopped around 6 PM, and didn’t run on Sunday). But getting to other places by bus would be tough to impossible.
***The ultimate irony that I didn’t know at the time is San Francisco was even more expensive than Beantown. But in retrospect, it felt better struggling in the Bay Area than in Boston.