By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
If you're important enough, they'll wait for you — Chili Palmer
Within a few weeks of moving to New York I realized that I was going to have to serve as a cross between a concierge and an innkeeper whenever my friends arrived in the city. It didn't matter if they came from the Midwest or the West Coast—they weren't going to have the money to sleep on anything fancier than my dorm room floor and they weren't going to have a clue where they could go on a malt liquor budget while I was in class. Perhaps this is the same no matter where you end up: You have to serve as ambassador to your new home for your friends. As gratitude is usually expressed in beer, it's always been a system that I am more than happy to endorse.
New York is a bit different than most places, however. This city has a gravitational pull that draws in people from all over the world for everything from multiday summits and protests of said summits to hour-long power lunches. Granted, I don't see a lot of people who come in to discuss policies or to talk business, and, as I've gotten older, I don't see quite as many people coming into town to wave their freak flags. Regardless, if you've immigrated to New York from somewhere else in America, you are going to get a lot of visitors, especially if your friends have a penchant for traveling. You're also going to become familiar with a phrase: "This city is a great place to visit, but I could never live here."
I can't help but feel the same way when I travel to other cities. I've recognized that if you spend enough time virtually anywhere, it becomes home. You get to be part of a community; become friendly with one or two cliques of friends; find someone who wants to share a bed with you; get a job; establish a routine. Other places begin to seem alien. It's only natural. This is why I more often than not take the "great place to visit…" line with a grain of salt.
However, I do have a few friends who say this about every place they visit because, for them, every city is just a stop upon a longer journey. This is not a douchy metaphor, nor is it some commentary pertaining to alienation; it's simply because they don't set up roots. It would be unfair to label them as a group of drifters, however. Some are professional gamblers, musicians and sculptors; others are humanitarians and outdoorsmen who take jobs knowing that they will not have to remain in one place for longer than a few days or, at most, months. They enjoy an enviable amount of freedom that they do not wish to exchange for anything, and, consequently, will say of any city, "Great place to visit…."
What they don't gather in moss they gather in good stories. Even the most reserved of them often find themselves—simply by virtue of their having been all over the country or, in some cases, the world—accidentally breaking into the Paris Zoo, sitting in on bass with a reggae band in Busua, Ghana, or punching their way out of a Turkish brothel. You get into trouble when you take the road less traveled.
Perhaps no one I know personifies this type of lifestyle more than a friend of mine who recently blew into town after an expedition in the Appalachians. On top of being a trail runner and a professional climber, he leads an extremely simple life. I guess he's technically homeless, but it's a transient lifestyle as opposed to a sad or desperate one, and he has been living this way for about two years now. Sometimes he spends a few weeks in either Detroit or Colorado, but for the most part he can be found traveling this nation in a pickup truck that has been outfitted with enough storage space and amenities to make it a miniature mobile home. True, it can be solitary at times, but it seems that he has friends all over this country. Much of this is due to the Michigan Diaspora, which has spread people from my hometown across this country like spore in the breeze, but it's also due to his general willingness to talk with random strangers without reservation.
After playing the ambassador so many times, it's nice to have someone come into town who doesn't even ask to use your bathroom. We simply met up at a bar in the Lower East Side and reminisced about our high school band and a trip we'd taken throughout the West—a few highlights including a bluegrass festival in Telluride, the South Dakota Badlands, Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains and an incident involving one Officer Tom Green in Salina, Utah, that drained most of our bankroll. Furthermore, Officer Green took it upon himself to lock me in the back of his cruiser in the 106-degree heat during a 45-minute Creed rock block as he searched the car. He only reluctantly cracked the window.
While this seemed like a scene from another life for me, my friend was still having these types of experiences.
Suffice to say, we had plenty of laughs as he told me a few of the more absurd incidents in which he'd been involved over the course of the past few months. Even if we hadn't seen one another in a few years, we fell back into step with one another quickly. However, we hadn't met up simply to talk about the past or about his time rambling from coast to coast in his truck. He wanted to go to a free show at Rockwood Music Hall (196 Allen Street). The act was a solo guitarist by the name of Michael Daves, who had been my friend's banjo teacher once upon a time when he lived in New York.
Though most people have never heard of Michael Daves, he has regularly gigged with some of the most talented musicians in America, most notably Chris Thile. He's a musician's musician, and evidently a repository for the pages of the American songbook that New York City is so wont to ignore. He seems genuine, too; not only because he's the kind of guy who plays John Hartford songs in a neighborhood that's typically associated with punk rock, high fashion and ironic posturing with regards to everything from anti-consumerism to anti-intellectualism, but because he isn't making a statement. There is no pretense about him. He's a guy playing free bluegrass. That's it. If you want to support it, you can throw a few bucks in the bucket that gets passed around close to the end of the set.
For as long as I can remember, Rockwood has always been a venue where talent typically trumps energy (which is saying something for someone like Daves), and it's refreshing because just about every other small venue in the city would prefer to be the womb for the next iconoclastic punk rocker—even if punk, were it a human, would be over 40, living in the suburbs, sober and incapable of making casual conversation about anything beyond high school, drugs or himself. True, Rockwood is usually far more laidback than most other venues, but it's still a bar and it still attracts bands that play loud and fast. It's the type of place where it's okay to stop in for a single set, to have a double bourbon, and then be on your way.
As my friend and I rode the train back to Brooklyn, I couldn't help but think of how many places he'd traveled since I last saw him. He'd told me about his time in Austin and Portland and Asheville over the course of the night, and a little part of me was jealous. He had the freedom to travel all over the country, which gave him the opportunity to accrue the type of life experiences that, at the very least, make for good memoirs. He got to eat unique food and listen to unique bands as he met unique people.
After thinking about this a little while longer, I remembered where I was. I remembered that one didn't have to travel from New York to experience the rest of the world. The world comes to New York City.
Though I will always be jealous of my friend's lack of restrictions and ability to travel wherever he wishes, I have to remember to appreciate the fact that I only have to take the subway to get to more or less the same place. And while his travels may expose him to certain experiences that are more authentic than mine, I think it's debatable who has the more scenic trip.