In my entire life I’ve only ever lived in two cities. I was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, where culture is shaped by hipsters and farmers. Lucky for me, my hometown has a major university, which allowed me to exist in that sweet spot between Going Away to College and Townie. I lived in Lawrence for 29 years but was still able to cobble together a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle for someone who had never been more than a 15-minute drive from the Rubbermaid tub containing his Ninja Turtle collection. I even married a foreigner!
Six years ago, my wife and I moved to Washington, D.C. so that she could attend a fancy schmancy graduate program. I remember the night of our going away party. We drank in a friend’s backyard, played flip-cup, and had a piñata. It felt very much like a dozen other parties I’d attended or thrown over those 29 years, except when someone announced that they had to leave. Then, we hugged and wondered when or if we would ever see each other again. Some, our closest friends, were already looking at dates to come visit, or driving out in two weeks with a car full of my stuff. With others, this was it.
I scheduled a flight to D.C. two weeks before my wife in order to sleep on the couch of fellow Prompter—and the only person I knew in D.C.—Zach Straus, and find us an apartment.
The night before my flight, my wife and I drove to Kansas City to her parents’ house; then I would catch my flight in the morning. Five minutes after passing the Lawrence city limits, I started crying. I didn’t live there anymore.
Within ten days of being in D.C., I found a job and an apartment. I love telling that to people here, because they look at me like I’m out of my mind. Now, I don’t disagree with their skepticism, but at the time, it’s what had to be done: Get money and a place to keep two carloads of our shit. But, until I found our first place, I spent my time looking at every apartment I could find. During the day, the only people I spoke to were leasing agents and the cashiers who sold me food.
It only took a few days before frazzled nerves and lack of substantial human interaction took their toll. When I didn’t have anything to do, I went to to touristy sections of the city. Chinatown became my default area, because it offers easy access to all of the Metro lines and a Kinko’s. But I also found the smorgasboard of chain restaurants oddly comforting. I could eat at Gordon Biersch and feel like I was in Kansas City. There was a Fuddruckers on the corner of 7th and H Streets, just like the one I went to with my sister’s family in Omaha. I didn’t go into the Chinatown Fuddruckers because it’s a Fuddruckers, but visually it was familiar.
Finding familiarity was a somewhat comforting strategy, but it didn’t completely inoculate me from becoming the person who started annoyingly in-depth conversations with a barista. I was starved for interaction and desperately grasping at any thread to drag out an exchange. I could see the forced smile on the faces of these temporary friends, and it was clear that my desperation made them confused and uncomfortable. I was becoming someone I hated. Pointless chit-chat annoys me, but suddenly, I needed it. You might think that I have become sympathetic to people who are permanently like this, but I am not. As soon as I regained some sense of normalcy, I immediately forgot where I came from.
One afternoon while having lunch in a pub, the bartender asked if I wanted a second beer. Deciding to lean into my temporary semi-vagrant life, I decided yes. This was a mistake. Halfway into my second pint, whatever wall or floodgate or bung that was keeping my jangled emotions at bay dissolved in the alcohol. My eyes welled with tears, seemingly for no reason. I found myself staring very intensely at SportsCenter while biting the inside of my cheek and not crying through sheer force of will.
This is what I remember from packing up my life and moving it halfway across the country with only some semblance of a plan. By the time my wife and our friend arrived with our things, I had already started working at my job and had a routine, so I wasn’t much involved in the unpacking and setting up our place. The intense loneliness and the stress of feeling completely isolated in an unfamiliar city—the fact that a bus could hit me and no one would think I was missing for the better part of a day—that’s what I remember.
I write all of this, not to warn you of the horrors of relocating. I think there is value in putting your life into a box and depositing it somewhere alien to you. I moved from a college town in northeast Kansas to Washington, D.C. That’s a jarring move, but it toughened me up and helped me mature (from man-child to man-tween). I still say “ope” like any Midwesterner, but now that I have been molded into an East Coast denizen, I follow it up with “Watch where you’re fucking going.” Moving allows you to become a different version of yourself and mold a different life.
And I’m about to do it all again. This time, I’m headed to the Pacific Northwest. Soon, I’ll be telling all the hipsters in Portland that “HEY! I’M WALKIN’ HERE!” and it’s thrilling. Everything will be new. I will be lost constantly. I won’t know how to pronounce things. A friend of mine clued me in on how to pronounce the river that flows through the city—the Willamette, dammit. In Portland there’s a Couch Street, but it seems that it rhymes with “pooch.” Shit’s wild. And from that wildness, I’ll start to build a routine and a life. But in the meantime, I get to stare and Google Maps and wonder, which coffee shop will I go to in the mornings and which bar will I spend my nights in?
Moving to an unknown city is hard, and it sucks, and it’s exhilarating, and if you do it right you will find yourself on the verge of tears when you cross the city limit for the last time.