I was practicing the Don Juan excerpts for an upcoming audition. While doing so, I was reminded of the first (and last) time I played the piece, almost a decade ago with the New York Youth Symphony. Our assistant conductor was a red-haired twenty-three year old graduate student, who would pass away a few years later from cancer.
Working so close to death, most people assume that I’d have become hardened to it. Maybe it’s so on the outside, but inwardly I’m now so much more easily distraught by loss.
Coincidentally I’m now the same age she was. On a random summer afternoon, four years after the fact, I find myself unable to get out of bed, crying for a young, dead, assistant conductor, wondering whether she’s still thought about at least once a day, by her family, or her friends, or her colleagues.
It’s half past August, Summer of 2018. I’m still working as a New York City Paramedic, and while I love it and it pays well, I know there’s something more out there for me to do. I split my time between a handful of commitments: studying for my Medical College Admissions Test, work, music (I’ve chosen to take on an orchestra audition in September), volunteer work, and working out. I recently finished my S130/S190 courses to work as a Wildland Firefighter on my vacation time, but I still need to take the pack test to be “red card” qualified. It irks me to hear the news of the current large Californian wildfire and not be able to do anything at the moment due to work and school commitments–to the point where I ignore news sites and any talks of the fire.
Susan left for Finland two weeks ago and it already feels like months. She’s gone on extended trips to Finland for work before, but for some reason this time around the time seems to pass excruciatingly slow.
I should increase the amount of time I commit to studying, but the MCAT is especially tedious with their purposefully complex short passages. Reading dozens of short essays ranging from biochemical experiments to the ideologies of historical political parties–studying for the MCAT has taught me that there really is no shortage of topics I struggle to give two shits about. Regardless I’ve already decided to take the exam, and so I really should devote more of myself to preparing for it.
Health wise I’ve decided to set a goal for myself: a resting heart rate of 52. I’ve put down down weightlifting as frequently and am trying to focus more on cardiovascular health via running and a low(er) carb diet. I’ve picked up Muay Thai recently and it’s one of the things I look forward to most every week, although it might just be the excitement of a novel endeavor. Even so, the thought of fighting competitively is exciting, mostly because of my fear of losing. Losing something you really want has always been a huge motivation for me, but in the past few years I’ve noticed I increasingly don’t know what I want. Perhaps I know what I want, but it conflicts with what others want for me.
Other highlights of the summer so far include the frisbee tournament in Wildwood, New Jersey, just outside of Cape May. I went with a recreational team I’ve been playing with for the past two years. It was hot, it was the first time I’ve been truly sunburnt, but it was fun and I’d go again without a doubt.
The thing about having space on either side of the bed is that if you wake up feeling all sorts of wrong, you can go back to bed and get up on the other side. That’s why these small New York City apartments will never really do it for me.
My roommate is a special education teacher for eight year olds at an inner city magnet school. While you might think the kids there are better off because it’s a magnet school, it unfortunately isn’t the case. Parents in the area often put their kids in magnet school as a last ditch effort once they get kicked out of public schools. As a result, this particular school is now considered a failing school, with test scores lower than the public school it shares a building with. The kids travel between shelters. They don’t shower, not because they’re kids and they don’t like showers, but because there’s no place to shower. Some kids come in with limps and bruises. All the teachers have a working relationship with ACS. Struggling just to get through the here and now, the least of these kids problems is a better future.
A few shifts ago I met a young woman. Her address came over our screen and we immediately recognized it as a homeless shelter. She had been physically beaten by someone close to her, but you could tell she was used to it. Her voice was slow and monotonous, and her eyes were dissociated, enough so that we wondered if she was on drugs. We stood by as the police questioned her for their report–a necessary, but callously formal process. A process that requires directly asking invasive questions that you purposely avoid thinking about.
Are you living at this homeless shelter? Yes. Do you have a child? Yes. Does the child live with you? No. Do you know the man that hit you? Yes. Has this man hit you before? Yes. What’s he look like? Where does he hang out? Where did he hit you? Why did he hit you? How did he hit you? Are these marks from him? I’ll need to take a picture of them.
The questions were enough to make her voice crack, for a exasperated inhale, and for a small sob to make it’s way out. But just as quickly as her demeanor broke, it resumed its prior disengaged disposition. She wasn’t on drugs. She had simply learned long ago that life is only bearable when you’re not invested in it anymore. Divorcing herself from reality was easier than enduring all the unfair punishments life unceasingly pushed on her.
Coming home from work to hear my roommate rant about the younger versions of the girl I met–it wasn’t hard to see the crushing cycle the poor live through. They say that for every ten thousand sorrows suffered there are ten thousand joys. It certainly doesn’t seem true for the individual person. Perhaps it holds true on a bigger scale. For every ten thousand joys some people feel, others will feel ten thousand sorrows.
A giant allegory that almost reads as a writers coping mechanism. The well is death, and as hard as Naoko tries to live, she can’t be pulled away from her own tortured soul. Toru experiences a brutal coming of age when he realizes a perfect story is no longer possible.
Once in a while, saying to yourself, “What am I doing? This is insane” is a marker that I’m doing something worthwhile. There are a number of times I’ve thought it to myself: skiing down my first black diamond as a kid, flying a Cessna for the first time, and now I was thinking it on my flight to Los Angeles. I was flying to L.A. to buy a new motorcycle, an Indian Scout 60, to ride back to New York City. I doubted myself every step of the way. I stayed in Los Angeles a few days, with an old high school friend, Laura, a violinist. I ended up in LA an extra day or so because there were some problems getting the bike and preparing it. As the saying goes, everything takes longer than you think.
I fixed up some ammo cans I modded into saddlebags and a day and a half behind schedule, I was out of LA. I took I-15, a route that goes right through the mountains northeast of Los Angeles and had my first glorious taste of beautiful scenery. Greater mountains behind greater mountains faded into a distant shade of blue. Given my delayed departure, the first day was a short journey. That being said, I already felt worlds away from city-life. I was in the desert, surrounded by beat down motels, liquor stores, and abandoned businesses. This theme of buildings would follow me throughout a vast majority of route 66. I pulled into a Motel 6, parking next to a BMW bike that, as I found out the next morning, belonged to a guy from Melbourne, Australia. We got into talking a bit. He looked like he was in that newly retired age. He enjoyed my ammo can saddle bags and asked if he could take a picture of them. He’d shipped his BMW over from Australia and was spending three months touring the states. Funnily enough, over the course of the next few hundred miles, despite going in odd directions, and taking nonsensical detours, I kept passing him and waving to him on the road.
Route 66, California and Arizona
Gassing up the next morning I ran into three older gentleman on their motorcycles riding out to the Grand Canyon. One of them asked my ethnicity and told me about his wife whom he met in Vietnam. (Yes, they were around that age). Being Asian-American this has actually been a pretty common occurrence for me. I find it a little weird for one reason or another, but I know if anything they’re just trying to find common ground for us to talk about. Fortunately the common ground quickly shifted from Asian women to the topic of motorcycles. They were friendlier than I could imagine, asking me if I needed anything for my journey to New York.
California had some of my favorite stretches of route 66. The scenery justified the pages and pages Steinbeck spent describing the west. It was desert. It was dusty. It was lonely as far as your eye could see. But it was freeing. Riding along miles and miles of semi-paved desert road with nothing but the sound of your engine and the wind, you easily felt like some explorer observing a long-ago abandoned land. Eventually the dirty dusty road turned into well paved tarmac that soon began wrapping around mountains.
Route 66 between Needles, CA, and Kingman, AZ had me holding my breath cause 1.) the scenery was absolutely beautiful, and 2.) the road grew steep and curvy and you’d be riding not 5 feet from 3000 foot cliff. Eventually I came in to this absolutely peculiar town lost between the wild west and modern tourism that explained all the donkey droppings I’d begun seeing on the road. I picked up a few postcards to bring back for Susan.
I holed up in Kingman that night where I got to talking with my Motel 6 neighbor. She was retired, headed back to her hometown in North Carolina having left Sacramento earlier that day. She told me she’d been to New York City once, while she was working as a truck driver. She recalled that New York City was one of the rudest, most angry places she’d ever been. She told me if she had been asked to go into New York City again, she would’ve quit. I laughed as she told me the story of the one time she was in the Bronx and had seen more middle fingers in that one day than she had in her lifetime prior.
One thing that struck me, which is probably an everyday sight for people living out west, was the trains. The only trains I really witnessed growing up in New Jersey and New York were NJTransit commuter trains and dingy NYC subway cars. These cargo trains out west, I swear, must have been over a mile long. I would try to measure them by measuring their speed against mine, going 10mph faster than them, and counting the seconds it would take for me to overtake them. They would run parallel with Route 66, twenty feet or so from me. I romanticized to myself the idea of being a train hopper: my bare feet washing in wind, dangling out from an open boxcar, hobosack by my side and all.
I eventually came into Flagstaff, a college town, and the first really modern town I’d run into since L.A. All the other towns I’d pass would have a solid number of boarded up, out of business buildings. It seemed like the only thriving businesses left in a lot of those small towns were motels and gas stations. I’d end up seeing a lot more of this throughout the midwest, especially in New Mexico.
Per my old roommate Ben’s advice, I took a long detour down to Sedona, Arizona. The detour ended up adding a hundred or two miles to the trip, but every last inch of it was worth it. About thirty or so miles into 89a south of Flagstaff, I was surrounded by giant, looming, red rocks. I’d catch myself with my jaw dropped just gazing at these cliffs while riding by. Sedona itself was a beautiful, if touristy town. I stopped by a Baskin Robins for some heat-relief and someone remarked to me, “We don’t see a lot of your type here.” I was a bit taken back, thinking he was referring to my ethnicity. (I swear I’m not usually so caught up in ethnicity, but before leaving for this trip people told me as an Asian I’d be singled out a lot out west. This was never really the case, or at least not in any impactful way.) The person making the comment in fact, was referring to my Indian motorcycle. I was in a Harley town.
I cut back up to route 66, made my way through Winslow (mainly cause of the Eagles), which to be honest, seemed to a bit of a depressing town. It seemed like a town whose glory days had past. I didn’t actually look into how the town was doing, but that was undoubtedly the vibe I got from it.
That night I ended up finding a place in Holbrook, Arizona to sleep. I stopped by a pub near the motel where this one guy was (semi-intoxicatedly) recounting funny stories to his soon-to-be father in law about his fiancee:
“So we were stuck in traffic and I say to her, ‘If it weren’t for these damn rubberneckers we wouldn’t be having this traffic.’
And she goes, in a hushed voice, ‘Don’t call them that!’
So I look at her a little funny for a second and I say, ‘What do you think rubberneckers are..?’
And she goes, ‘Isn’t that what they call Mexicans?”
I set out the next morning after Holbrook with my eyes set on Albuquerque, New Mexico. A wrong turn in the beginning resulted in me cutting through the Petrified National Forest Park, a park known for its scattered petrified wood throughout a stretch of about 30 miles. I ran into my first modern Native American accent when talking with the park ranger at the entrance. He seemed like the guy who could get along with everyone. Easy going, polite and nice, but maybe I just liked him cause he told me it was national park week or something so entry was free.
Between Holbrook and Albuquerque there seemed to be countless old salvaged car lots alongside abandoned buildings. At one point I stopped by what I assumed must have been an abandoned bar. I thought it was a pretty safe assumption considering the red BAR lettering on the side of the building, and the fact that the roof had caved in and what appeared to be decades of dust had settled on every last inch. I also had to take a leak and I thought what the heck. Mid-piss I heard a rustle from the inside and the sounds of someone groaning, getting up. My pants ate the last few droplets of unfinished business as I booked it out of there.
To be honest I loved seeing the small towns, abandoned or almost-abandoned, but once in a while I’d see a giant shiny Walmart with the parking lot packed (with cars of the not abandoned variety).
I was in a bit of a rush to get to Albuquerque. I was due for a 500 mile service check on my bike and there were no dealerships other than Albuquerque within hundreds of miles. It was a Friday evening and any other dealership (the next one coming up would be in Oklahoma city) would be closed for the weekend due to Easter. I thought it’d be a quick check and a go, so as I rolled up at 4pm, I thought I’d have plenty of time as they closed at 6pm. They asked me when I’d like to come in for the service check next week, and I nervously told them I was in a bit of a situation cause I had to be back in New York for work by then. Their empathy and their willingness floored me. They decided that if both the mechanics in the back stopped what they were doing and worked on my bike, they’d have me on my way by 6pm. I asked them if they were sure. I didn’t want to be a hassle, but they said they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Albuquerque was a huge motorcycle city. You couldn’t go 2 blocks without seeing a rider, or more commonly, a group of riders. The Indian dealership was a few blocks away from a Harley one, forming what seemed to be a bit of a turf war.
The next morning I was debating whether or not to make the 50 mile trip up north to Santa Fe. The travel had been wearing me down a bit by now, but in the name of adventure I begrudgingly headed north. I probably made it 20 miles before I said screw it, and went to a Starbucks just north of Albuquerque. I’m glad I did because I met an awesome fellow and his Indian Chieftan Elite. There were only about 300 of them ever made. As soon as I parked my bike outside Starbucks he excitedly came out, having seen my from inside, to greet me. We talked for a bit and he showed me his bike, which compared to mine was more or less a car, stereo system, LED screen, and all. He was an engineer working up in Minnesota or Michigan or something, but he was able to do all his work remotely, resulting in him never needing to physically be at work, which in turn resulted in some badass adventures. I told him I was from New Jersey originally and he told me of his times hitchhiking and how he accidentally ended up in Patterson, NJ. And I say accidentally because as everyone from Jersey knows, you don’t ever go to Patterson on purpose. Unless of course your purpose is to partake in a gang fight. He told me he went to a diner there and the waitress, immediately recognizing he wasn’t from the area, warned him to get out of town before dark. He seemed genuinely entertained about my life, crossing the country, working as a paramedic in NYC. He seemed impressed which struck me as odd cause if you ask me I’m exceedingly ordinary. He also reaffirmed my hopes that Santa Fe wasn’t worth the detour.
Some roads were for locals. They were unmarked, and as far as any map was concerned, nonexistent. The tarmac gave way to gravel and the gravel gave way to dirt. I suppose there was probably a sign a dozen miles ago telling more attentive wanderers to get on the interstate, but that’s the thing around here. These roads were prone to cause daydreaming, and daydreaming gives way to missing signs. After ten miles or so on nonexistent roads, I started questioning my route. I pulled over for a stretch while considering my next move. Standing in the middle of nowhere, the day still in its early stages, weighing my choices with no rush–I found this to be relaxing. I was physically in a place where I had strived so long to be mentally. Quietly unperturbed. I could backtrack and eventually find that exit to I40, or I could push forward and enjoy the risk of adventure. A cloud of dirt in the distance eventually manifested itself in a pickup truck and I waved them down. That’s another thing about these places. I had zero doubts they would stop and offer their help. The pickup truck rolled to a stop and the windows rolled down. A woman and her family told me of a nearby dirt road that cut through a farm, which would eventually lead me back to the interstate.
Things started changing from desert red to fields of green as I got to Texas: a sign that I was finally getting out of the 4000+ feet altitude that had covered most my route thus far. Route 66 took me through the Texas panhandle, right alongside thousands of windmills. No joke, the wind farm stretched from the second I got into Texas right down to the second I got out, a solid 180 miles of them. I stayed on the smaller roads that paralleled the interstate. I could reach my hand out and touch the corn stalks while riding this road. Seeing a classic anvil shaped cloud ahead of me, I knew I had to hurry. Cars protect passengers from lightning strikes due to the cage around the driver. Motorcyclists don’t have luxuries such as not dying from electrocution. The final portion of the ride was spent riding through corn fields as fast as I could, while streaks of lightning found paths of little resistance through the sky.
The next day I was hoping to camp out near Oklahoma City. Route 66 through Oklahoma constantly went right up and down these rolling hills, a shitty roller coaster of sorts. The scenery had definitively changed to lush green. Heading into Oklahoma city was definitely the hardest part of the trip. Hoping to grab lunch in Elk City, and make it to Edmond to set up camp before dark, I took a fall on some loose gravel. It was my first fall on a motorcycle and thankfully it wasn’t a big one. I had small scrapes on my leg and forearm, but all the gear I wore did me well. The ammo cans I had saddled on the side of the bike did well to protect the bike from any serious damage. All in all, it was no big deal, but having that on top of an empty stomach and being a bit worn down felt like more than just a hassle. Within a minute of falling, a blue Ford pick up truck stopped, and a guy got out to help me pick up the bike. He asked me if I was alright and told me how he’d flipped his ATV not a week ago. Oh Oklahoma. He waited to see if my bike was alright and if it’d start up again. It did, but I noticed the rear break pedal had broken off. The helpful Oklahoman then pointed out a motorcycle repair shop not too far off.
Coffee, black. Aspirin. Excedrin. Wake yourself up. A cigarette or some chew with an espresso to get through class. Sudafed, extended release, and a twelve ounce RedBull to make it to the end of your shift. Adderall, cold water, a coffee, and some Alka seltzer when it all comes crashing down.