One of the great joys of this line of work has been the excuse to travel to new places. These strange and often surreal trips have contributed much to my understanding of myself, and my main regret is not writing more about them.
The below was written during my June trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, for Heroes Con. Because of the logistics involved in traveling to the eastern U.S. from California, I arrived very early in the morning a full day before the show, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. It’s in those moments that I have the most interesting experiences, wandering around with no agenda, waiting to see what happens around me.
My hotel was in the same building as the Wachovia Bank headquarters. Five months and one financial crisis later, I wonder how much remains of the bustling energy I waded through that Thursday morning.
I wrote this that Thursday afternoon.
You are in Charlotte, a place you have never been.
You spent a sleepless night flying over a dark country, your head resting sideways against the airplane window and gradually smearing the lights below into gauzy ghosts. Your checked bag was over the weight limit, its belly full of books, but you asked the ticketing agent for a bag, or a box, or anything, and you unloaded seventeen pounds from the suitcase and carried those lbs. in your arms. You saved fifty dollars, but you spent ten on an airport pizza — though, in retrospect, you might have gotten more nutrition from simply eating the ten-dollar bill.
You rode a bus through Charlotte in the post-dawn. You did not have change for the fare, thirty cents short — you were about to lose a whole five dollars to the fare-machine, for lack of any other option, until a woman fished through her purse and found thirty cents for you in dimes and nickels. You thanked her, and spent the next few minutes wondering how you could somehow give her fifty cents in repayment.
You forgot about the fare when the man slumped next to you, reeking of weed and ash and desperation. He tossed his briefcase (a torn plastic shopping bag containing, you think, shoes) onto the opposite seat and did not move for half an hour. You were sure you were going to be stabbed.
You survived, somehow.
Now, you wander through the city in great loops and clover-leafs, making the back-and-forth snail-trail that is only possible when you are alone and do not have to justify each double-back with words. You use the bag-check service at a hotel where you do not have a room. You ask questions of the concierge at another hotel where you paid nothing. You read free newspapers, and leave them where you finish them. You get free coffee from a place giving away free coffee, and you do not tip, because that would defeat the purpose. You pocket a banana from a conference room, table-set and catered for an event later in the day. You take advantage.
You wander through great mobs of morning workers, dressed each to a man in identical office costumes of black slacks and pastel oxford shirts. You see guys your age and younger who have not shaved in as long ago as you have not shaved, but the difference is that you do not care. This is the earliest o’clock that you have been out among society in quite some time, and you barely recognize its commercial shape from sitcoms and movies about people who go to work in offices in bank buildings. It is a world you do not know, and as you watch them file into elevators, you wonder if those sitcoms are true and they all have unrequited longings for one another, a million bank-employee libidos all shoveled clumsily into one seven-a.m. elevator.
You stroll through the library, and in exploring the various crannies you happen across a friendly librarian, who asks what he can help you find. You invent a need, and he, perplexed, tries to help you, and your request is misinterpreted in such a way that you end up sitting down with a book full of firsthand recollections of battle written by Confederate veterans of the Civil War, and it is fascinating.
You sit in a sunlit chair, reading about men who died before your grandfather was ever born, and you recognize them because they are human in a way you have never seen dramatized before in fiction or history. The place is soft, and warm, and comfortable, and ultimately you are gently reminded by the friendly but slightly embarrassed librarian that you are not allowed to sleep in the library.
You find the convention center where the event will be held tomorrow, and suddenly you have a Purpose — you can pick up a Badge and find your Table and look at the Program and Do Things. There are people here who are sweating — people who are unloading box after yellowed box of comic books, the entire storeroom of a comic store, working very hard. They will have to load all those boxes back onto their dollies in three days, lighter perhaps by a few books here and there, and you do not envy them in the slightest.
You find your pre-shipped books waiting calmly in a room, and you set them on your table, and that is all you have to do. You wander around the convention center, its high ceilings and expansive halls grandly empty in the manner of Things Yet to Come, and you use the bathroom because there is nobody around and you might as well. A man comes in and mops the floors while you are inside the stall, and he drops his mop and curses. He can do that with impunity, because this is still The Day Before, and things are still Being Prepared, and nobody is yet here.
You return to your table, and learn from the program that you are on a panel on Sunday. This is news, but pleasant news.
A man comes around with a map of the show floor, using a marker to write numbers onto each tablecloth. You are sitting at your empty table, calling the comment line of a local newspaper to correct their spelling of a cartoonist’s name, when the man writes on your table. You are in the ‘island’, and so your table number starts with ‘i’. And so he writes it: ‘i622’.
Sitting behind that table in Charlotte, newspaper and telephone in hand, you read the table number upside-down. It looks like it ends with an exclamation point, and in that small moment, you smile.