Escape from New York

I just spent a bunch of time in New York, and this time it was the actual city itself, not upstate, and man, was I happy to be back there, and re-discover a place that I had left 22 years ago. I could go on and on about the New York of today, but I’d rather tell the story of why I left in the first place.

In 1986, I was living in Ulster County in a spectacular, dilapidated farmhouse on 140 acres, with a pond, and endless meadows and woods all around.  There was an adorable Norwegian couple in their mid eighties next door, and I lived with my girlfriend in what could only be described as a sort of bucolic paradise.  I can’t remember what we paid in rent, but it could not have been more than $500 a month, because I’m pretty sure we couldn’t afford much more than that.  I believe it may have been the fall of that year when my girlfriend left for the Happy Valley of Amherst, MA, to get her master’s degree.  We more or less broke up, and we moved out of that old farmhouse, and I moved into my parent’s house down the road — from one dilapidated farmhouse to another.  The move was to be temporary, but the months slipped by — September, October, November …

And it was November where I began to feel a sort of growing frustration with my surroundings, because it’s November when the amazing multi-colored display of the autumn Catskills comes to an end, and rarely has any snow fallen by then, and so everywhere you look is a gray, dull forest of bare maples and oaks.  After 25 years of this, it starts to get … old, for lack of a better word.

I was framing houses that autumn and winter, and as the months wore on, I became more and more restless.  I was probably depressed about breaking up with my girlfriend, a little embarrassed to be living with my parents while in my twenties, and more than a little ready for a change.  January of 1987 was one of the coldest I had remembered.

One day in that freezing month, when the wind was blowing what had to be 40 miles an hour, I remember standing on some ceiling joists in a two-story on the East side of the Hudson, with my torso pushed through the rafters, accepting 4X8 sheets of plywood from an assistance below, and tossing them on a 12X12 pitch roof and nailing them as fast as the nail gun would operate in that arctic cold.  Three times the compressor had quit that day, and I remember being so cold that I couldn’t even move my jaw properly to answer the questions from the helper below me.  I just worked silently, slapping those long pieces of plywood onto the roof and moving as fast as my motor skills would allow me in that temperature.  At one point, I hung the nail gun on a rafter, pulled up a sheet and started to flip it onto the roof when the wind gusted ferociously and ripped it from my hand.  I watched it sail down the street like a little autumn leaf in the wind.

Something at that moment snapped in me, as I watched that sheet of plywood sailing away through the early afternoon white light.  I paused, watched it go, and laughed a little more than maybe I should have.  Then I slowly stepped down through the house and called down to the boss.

“Todd !  Hey, Todd!”

His head craned up from the compressor, which had just then quit from the cold.

“I’m taking off, man …”

He smiled,  “Absolutely … this is ridiculous. C’mon we’re all outta here, guys!  Let’s all break for the day!”

Down below as we wrapped up, I pulled him aside and explained that I wasn’t coming in the next day.  He looked at me, and said that I was right — I should take a couple of days off — maybe even a week.  I hadn’t had a vacation in more than half a year, and had been working Saturdays, and even some Sundays.   But I explained that, actually, I needed a little more time than that.  I said I would surely be back, but I wasn’t sure when.

He saw something in my eyes, I suppose, and didn’t try to dissuade me.  That afternoon I drove home home, backed the pickup up through the frozen yard up the barn in the back, and pulled my 17 foot Coleman canoe out and stuck it into the back of the pickup, through the back window of the cap.

I hugged my parents goodbye and started driving straight south, figuring I would stop when it got warm enough.  I ended up driving almost nonstop to the Everglades, where I put the canoe in a black river in the state park adjoining the federal lands.  Over the next two days, I paddled the boat very slowly down the winding dark water, fishing and stopping often,  until I reached the ocean.  There I more or less turned left, towing the boat behind me in just a few inches of water, as I walked east toward a deserted, stony beach, where I camped.  I decided, then, that I was not leaving that beach until I had decided just where I was going to live next.

It took three days, but after hours and hours of thinking, punctuated by longs bouts of not thinking at all, I finally came to a decision — the Pacific Northwest.  I would drive my truck straight west as soon as spring came.

I did return to work a few weeks later,  framing houses until the weather turned, but I told Todd I was done before my birthday, which was at the end of April.   He tried everything to get me to stay — told me I’d have my own crew if I wanted it.  Raise — all the stuff you do to keep someone who works hard.  But I was having none of it, and as the days warmed, I became more and more restless and excited, and just before my 26th birthday I packed up my truck, said goodbye one last time to my parents, and drove.  West.