Friday, September 25, 2015

Twenty-Five Miles

Some friendships feel so natural right from the start and with some, I have found myself surprised to discover that I'm just suddenly in the midst of one, after years of getting to know and showing up for one another. One of my most surprising and rewarding friendships is with Jackie, and today, on the eve of my week-end trip to Cleveland, I'm thinking about the first rust belt city road trip I took, with Jackie, a couple of years ago, to Detroit.

Jackie and I met as Cultural Studies students at Mount Saint Vincent University. I returned to university as a mature student, and being ten years older than most of my classmates, Jackie included, I didn't really expect to make friends there. And I definitely didn't expect to make friends with Jackie, even despite the age difference, because she seemed so serious and, well, not a drunk. I was still drinking very much then, and although I didn't show up to class drunk, I was certainly typically hungover, and certainly always aware, by that point, that it was a problem. I was guarded, secretive, ashamed of, and committed to my drinking, and there really wasn't room in my life for people who didn't drink similarly. Until that one time we got wasted together at our professor's barbeque I actually thought that Jackie actively disliked me.

There is something to be said for the power of alcohol as a social lubricant, and I have fond memories of drinking with Jackie. That first night of confessional "I thought you disliked me!" could have been shelved as a fond memory of a person I really quite like, a friendship-that-almost-was. I have so many of those. But instead, it marked the beginning of an actual friendship that has now lasted for nearly a decade.

I think that Jackie, though she likes people, is primarily an introvert, and she can be hard to read.  People like that have a tendency to freak me out. Happy and sad are so easy for me, but the stuff in between often gets transformed into "[she] hates me." We started hanging out. She'd come to rock shows with me, and hang out at the Granite brewery with me, and then, when I gave up the booze, our friendship transitioned, more easily than many, into one that didn't revolve around alcohol. Because, really, it never had. We were school friends.

A few years ago, Jackie and I both found ourselves in southern Ontario. In different cities for most of the time, but in ones that were close enough for week-end visits. I don't know that I thought, consciously, that our friendship would just fade away, but I don't think I thought it would sustain itself the way it has, that she would turn out to be one of the closest friends I have.

Jackie lives her life in such a respectable, true-to-herself, and interesting way. When I think about how, when I first met her, I'd determined that my chaotic, alcohol-and-rock-and-roll fueled life was so separate from her peaceful, suburban, (and, yes, boring) life I have to also reflect that neither of us were, then, living the lives that we wanted for ourselves, in such opposite but equal ways.

Those of you who know me - and I'm quite sure that includes all of my readership - know that I had been trying to get to Detroit for years. When I moved from Halifax back to Toronto, proximity to Detroit was one of the things I was most excited about, and I thought I'd be taking a trip there during the first month I was back in town. But it didn't happen for another two and a half years. It was difficult to convince people to drive there with me, and I don't drive, and the Motor City could not really be done without a car.

Canadians are just crazy about the United States. Watching our much larger, aggressive, flashy, broken neighbour to the south can make us feel superior and it can also make us feel lacking. There's some very interesting stuff going on in Canada, but the United States always seems more interesting. There's some terrible stuff going on in Canada, but the United States always seems worse. I would never give up the security of living in a relatively safe country; having access to universal healthcare and knowing that my neighbours aren't all armed are two things I value very much. But I also believe there's something so romantic about living in a very fucked up situation and trying to make it better on your own or with your community, on a smaller scale. There are so many American cities that are in rough shape because of systemic racism, economic disparity, lack of access to social programs and health care, easy access to firearms, etc., etc., and Detroit is, of course, the most fucked up - and also the most heart-warmingly hopeful - American city of all.

It turns out that Jackie and I share a lot of the same values, and foremost among those is an interest in community-building. So, of course, Jackie would be the best person with whom to travel to Detroit. Inspired by my enthusiasm and her own equal sense of adventure, we finally found a week-end that worked for both of us, at the end of February 2014, in the midst of the coldest winter any of us Ontarioians can remember.

Via roads that appeared not to have been serviced for decades, we found ourselves in small businesses run by and packed with Detroit-enthusiasts, past homes that were caving in on themselves, and to a market filled with produce that was grown locally on repurposed, abandoned land. We listened to The White Stripes, and Motown compilations, and, especially, over and over, Edwin Starr singing about how far he had gone and the increasingly short distance that remained. 

A couple of week-ends ago, I spent time with Jackie at her beautiful home in Hamilton, where I met her friends and ate the delicious breakfast she prepared from food grown on the farm she works on and from neighbouring farms. We talked about the sad and happy things in our lives but I was reminded, again, of how our friendship is not just about the things that we tell one another, but about the things that we do. We keep on showing up, glad to see one other, year after year.

Tomorrow I'm going to Cleveland just to see what it's all about, with a couple of people I'm just getting to know, to see what they're all about. I've made an Ohio mixed cd. I'm hopeful and excited. People and cities and music are pretty much my favourite things, in that order.

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