Sunday, November 12, 2006

Road Tripping

I am just back from two days in Big City, where N and I are starting to experiment with what it means to cultivate our life there without the apartment. She has found two bed and breakfasts that are clean, convenient and affordable, at least one of which I suspect is illegal. The one we stayed in last night was particularly interesting, as it was five blocks away from our old apartment and in a part of the neighborhood that was grossly unsafe when I was in graduate school but is now not only livable but also too expensive for us ever to live there again except in the unlikely event that Fox Searchlight Pictures decides to option my next book. One permanent effect of having lived in Big City for twenty-plus years is that I am always checking rents and real estate prices everywhere I go: it now costs $2500 a month minimum to rent a one-bedroom in this neighborhood, close to $700K minimum to buy one. When I first moved there in 1983, my rent was $200 for a two bedroom with eat-in kitchen. And you could buy drugs right outside the front door!

However, things have changed, as they have in cities all over the Northeast, and the only drug dealers who now rule in this part of Big City are the psychopharmacologists. I suspect that the owners of this building -- actually two buildings cobbled together -- are around my age and originally inhabited these properties as a squat, or as shells purchased from the city for a pittance. It has the look of something renovated over the course of decades in, shall we say, a thrifty way. It also looks like an old-law tenement: doesn't have the weird dumb-bell shape that builders adopted after 1890 to conform to reformed city regulations that required each apartment to have windows. This is where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: we walked in the door and I thought, Firetrap! As a historian of the modern United States, visions of the Triangle factory are never far from my mind when I enter converted nineteenth century spaces in Big City, and I always spend the first few minutes looking for at least two ways to get out. My verdict: if the building had gone up we would have been toast. But aside from that it was great. The space which contained our room was a huge, opened-up storefront (the second building), with what looked like large packing boxes (the private sleeping lofts) on stilts down one wall and the rest of the space devoted to the sculpture career that I think the B&B supports. It looked a little like one of those Thai villages built on a flood plain, but inside. Tres funky, but surprisingly clean, furnished with IKEA and, given the fact that the others staying there that night were twenty-something men from Australia, surprisingly quiet. So it was very nice & we had fun being home in the place we lived for decades, together and apart. And I only thought once or twice, Why am I sticking to my guns about being a tenured professor in Zenith, dealing with picky, cranky senior colleagues and over-privileged students, when I could probably find a well-paid administrative job in Big City and never mark a paper or sit on a tenure case again? Could I still write books and have an intellectual life as an administrator? Or would I turn into a "suit," a hideous simulacrum of me, slashing people's budgets, trumpeting new standards for others to meet, and whining about "the faculty" behind their backs as though they were unreasonable children who were too selfish to understand that Expanding the Physical Plant and Marketing Our Image is more important than salaries, pensions and benefits?

At any rate, now I am home for a hot twenty-four hours before charging off to Dixietown for a week of research. There is a lot to do, since I always leave home on a trip, no matter how short, as if I might not return for years -- if at all -- and everything must be Just So before departure tomorrow morning at 5 A.M. Imagine how exhausting commuting must have been for me! Aside from getting together all the stuff I will need for the archives, I must: pick up my dry cleaning; make sure I have the telephone numbers for the colleagues I am seeing down there and send them emails to remind them we are having dinner; put the new registration sticker on the car; pay the bills; re-do my Netflix queue; do the laundry; finish the bookcases; back up my hard drive; plant the tulip bulbs I bought six weeks ago; pick up my study; do the laundry; go to the bank; schedule a cab; pay the bills (did I say this?); call the dog sitter; call my mother; and make sure I don't leave without something vital, say, the electric plug for my computer, or a pair of good shoes I can wear to a restaurant. Oh yeah, and I am supposed to give a talk while I am down there and while I have a clue what I am going to say, I haven't prepared it, even though my hosts called me last week to ask if I need audiovisual support. Oops. But that's why God made plane travel, right? That and reading the papers you are supposed to comment on at the conference, that were supposed to arrive weeks before, but which actually arrived last night.

I love research trips, really I do, and I actually love giving talks too, because in my mind writing history doesn't count unless I can get it to more people than would ordinarily bother to pick up my book or the journals in which I have published. But research is probably the most fun part of my job. First of all, it is a lot of work compressed into a small amount of time and second, because the point is doing things that prepare me ot write, it precludes the vexing task of actually writing. Hurrah! So writing avoidance can be transformed into something resembling virtue that will actually, in the end, lead to writing. Writing cannot occur without research unless you are really sought after for your opinions about history, or your view as a historian on current events, like Simon Schama or Tony Judt. And I also love reading other people's mail, something I have to remind myself forcefully not to do when the opportunity presents. Archival research is the only context in which going through someone else's stuff is work and not -- well, snooping. And the documents don't have old banana peels soaking through them, they are arranged in lovely clean folders by well-trained librarians who want nothing better than to bring you more of them!

And did I mention the Quality Inn? And the rental car? And eating out every night on Zenith's tab? Fabulous. Just fabulous.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post. I haven't/didn't live in Big Eastern City for nearly the length of time that you and N lived in what I'm assuming is the same metropolis--but I share your feelings about the difficulty of adjusting to experiencing as a non-resident a city in which you once lived; in an otherwise mediocre recent essay in The New Yorker Nora Ephron had a wonderful line about how difficult it can be to return as a visitor to a city that is now moving on, perfectly happily, without you.

I wrote about this shortly before I moved to my current top-secret location--about how hard it was for me to leave that city the first time, and about how much I feared leaving it again. So far, I'm quite happy with where I am, but I've already got 2 weeks of squatting in one or another friend's apartment in BEC in January lined up, and we'll see how that goes, and how I feel after that return...

The Combat Philosopher said...

Hi T-R,
This is a very cool post. I do not relate in the slightest. I have been to the cities up there, and hate them all. I came from elsewhere and love the third world country (albeit still, just, the remains of a current US State), where I live.

However, your post reminds me of friends who like the things you do. They are often flakes, but their views are still something I take on board.

I will be back in that part of the world next month, if I can get my reservations sorted (another country's government is paying, so things are a bit complicated). I will try an emulate your enthusiasm.

All that though is not the point of this post. I have been lurking on your blog a while. I have looked at your old posts too. I judge your blog cool. So, I will be adding a link to you. This is not something I do too often, so it may be some kind of honour. Thanks. Keep posting.

The CP