“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Why did I come to Gainesville? People often ask that question. Actually, it is entirely the wrong question. It’s not that I am not happy in Gainesville; it’s not that this isn’t where I belong; it’s not that this isn’t home; it’s just that I didn’t come to Gainesville at all… I left Akron. It’s that simple. The correct question is: why did I leave Akron?
Well, besides the obvious reason. Akron is a depressing shithole… THAT is the obvious reason, but there is infinitely more to it than that, and it is infinitely more personal at that. But before I begin having the “fun” of explaining why it was so important that I leave Akron (and escape once and for all), let’s talk about how certain I am that I needed to get the hell out of there. Nothing could have made me more certain that getting out of Akron was essential to me than having briefly returned to it last year.
Last year I had a small window of time to dash into Akron, clear out my storage unit, and dash back out. The whole experience of AKRON was bleak and depressing. Matters were made worse by my not being able to see any old friends. Since I didn’t want to prioritize or pick and choose between them, I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. I saw no one… not even family. I cleared out my storage unit and got the hell out of there. I plan to come back for brief visits, and next time I plan to tell everyone, and I plan to do it soon.
But here is what I discovered on my last trip to Akron: it was far uglier and far more dreary than I had remembered–especially without the prospect of seeing my friends to brighten the place up. Driving into town up through Canton I felt a deep sense of dread. I felt like I was entering a city of lost hope, a city that was not merely devoid of color but of contrast as well… a city that was one big mushy low contrast duoshade of rust and battleship gray. I had forgotten how horrendously ugly everything was, how shitty every other car in Akron was, and I swear it seemed that every rusty wreck was being driven by a fat ugly depressed person picking their nose. I was astounded by just how hopeless, rusty, overcast, cold and dreary a place it was. The snow was gray, the sky was gray, the cars were gray, the buildings, people, the air… all gray. I mean, I knew this while I lived there, but it really hit home after I had been away, among palm trees, blue skies, lakes and wildlife. I could not imagine how I had survived so many years in that wretched and dismal city. Not only was the air itself dim with despair, but no one looked happy. The people of Akron looked like stale saltines dipped in cold black coffee. Of course I had many friends in Akron who were vibrant, beautiful, happy and creative, but I wasn’t seeing any of them. I was just seeing the city of the walking dead, the lowest common denominator–which is plentiful in Akron. I doubt I have many friends there who wouldn’t agree.
Gainesville is full of people who have chosen to be here, Akron, in my experience, is full of people who feel trapped there. That distinction makes a world of difference.
It may seem as though I have just answered the question… why did I leave Akron? but I have not.
I had to leave Akron. Being there had broken my spirit. I had needed out for years, but nothing worked, no matter how far I went, I always seemed drawn back to that shitty little city. I felt connected to it, felt that it was home, but hated the place. I was deeply conflicted. It was home, I had roots and truly amazing friends to light up the long dark and dreary winters, but deep down I knew I inherently hated the place. Yes, I had friends, but I was surrounded by many skeletons and ghosts in Akron.
My best friend from childhood, Andy, had jumped off the Y-bridge in Akron. I had to cross that bridge frequently, and every single time I crossed it I thought of Andy. I wondered what he felt as he was walking the bridge for the last time. I imagined his nervous physicality as he climbed up on the rail. I pictured the clumsy and awkward way Andy would have jumped, his lower lip trembling as it did when he was stressed. I could not help but feel deeply the horror he felt as he was plummeting to the ground below. I wondered if he regretted his decision half way down–what a horror that was to carry in my being. I wondered if he felt relieved. I imagined the mess of the impact. A short while after Andy had jumped, after the initial hosing down, I had to clean up the clumps of hair and flesh-and-blood details left in the aftermath of my father-in-law’s fall from a second story scaffolding; his head had exploded upon impact. Having scrubbed the remains of such a mess down all by myself, I could well imagine the gore left in the wake of Andy’s impact. Thankfully I hadn’t had to clean up the initial mess in all its horror, but the fine cleaning that needed doing the evening of the funeral was something I dutifully stepped up to perform in order to spare the family the horror of having to see it. The initial cleaning had left behind bloody footprints, clumps of flesh and hair, and splatters of blood that had sprayed all the way along the inside of the wall in the garage. That bit of detailing was gruesome enough to imprint on me in a very powerful way.
Andy’s jump had happened 15 years ago, or so, and it never ceased haunting me, especially not when I had to cross that bridge. On the other side was the mental hospital Andy had escaped from to make his final decision and jump. Andy was the boy I used to talk to about monster movies in school. We both loved the Cleveland horror hosts Hoolihan and Big Chuck with all our hearts. We had our vivid imaginations as the bond between us.
Over and over again, in the years that followed, in my darkest moments I would think to myself, ‘I’m coming to join you Andy.’
Three times during my last year in Akron, on three different occasions, I had driven across that bridge, and not to get to the other side, but to see if I could work up the courage to join Andy at the bottom.
My life in Akron had become a living hell. I was working a dreadful job as part the ACME Freshmarket cleaning staff. It was easily the most miserable I had ever been. The job was horrible. The restrooms were places of dread to me. Getting up and going to that job seemed to be the final exclamation point on a succession of failures and disasters. I had a closet full of empty whiskey bottles, fallen soldiers; soldiers who were slowly defeating me as I emptied them. I was living under the cloud of an inevitable divorce, declaring bankruptcy and losing my home. This of course all happened after cancer and a number of other devastating events. Add to this that I was undergoing the early stages of the BIG change, and was finding Akron to be disturbingly unhospitable to an uncompromisingly individualistic person such as myself. I had been mugged at gunpoint and routinely circled by vicious and ignorant predators.
All that misery culminated in my getting in the car to take the third and last purpose-driven journey across that bridge. This was last time I tried to work up the courage to join Andy. I drove back and forth across that bridge three times on that third and final occasion. On the final crossing I went so far as to park my car in the lot of the park across the street from the hospital. I had it in mind to leave my car and take that walk, the same final walk Andy had taken. As I sat in that car I realized I had to do something, it had come to that. In the end I walked into the hospital and collapsed in the office of one of the doctors, finally wholly broken, completely unable to hold any of it together anymore. I sobbed uncontrollably, recounting every misery and heartbreak that had led me there.
The inside of a place like that is a level of Hell unimaginable to anyone who has never been in a mental hospital, especially someone who really didn’t belong there. There were 2 beds (in 2 private cells) and 5 inmates. Do the math.
I couldn’t get out, they had locked me in for observation. I had managed to worm my way into one of the cells with a single book to keep me company, “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. I was up all night listening to the woman in the cell next to me screaming, moaning, wretched!
In the morning I met with THE doctor. She knew immediately that I did not belong there among “them.” She treated me as a person of intelligence, as a person who had simply been broken down by too many disappointments, heartbreaks and stresses; broken by being victimized merely for having the courage to live life on my own terms. She knew that I was not “one of them.”
In the end, after a brief evaluation, she sized me up and told me simply this:
“You are different, very different, this is not the right place for you. Get out of Akron and you’ll be fine.”
Honest to God… THAT was her take-away advice.
“GET OUT OF AKRON.”
I was astounded, still am, that her professional advice was that I was fine, Akron was the problem. Think about that for a moment. I’ve thought about it for a lot of moments.
That is why I left Akron.
And I am never going back.
(End part one: part two… how I came to Gainesville.)