calculus for nomads

I was doomed from the moment I left Las Vegas. Understand this: to grow up in Las Vegas is to constantly plan your escape. This is generalizing, to be sure, and I know now that it is entirely possible to live a full and vibrant life from cradle to grave in Las Vegas. But when I was seventeen, it seemed like my only options were to cut and run or to grow up, marry a real estate agent, pop out a bunch of bitchy daughters, send them to Palo Verde, get fake boobs, and die.

So I ran. I was sure that once I escaped Las Vegas, I would land squarely in the life I was meant to live. I arrived at Vassar and was promptly and aggressively proven wrong. I was cold and lonely and suddenly painfully aware that I didn’t know how to dress myself, even the thrift store hipsters were better dressed than me, and also I didn’t know the word “dichotomy” and everyone was thin and I kept tripping up the dorm stairs. Though I eventually found my tribe, Vassar is located in the armpit of the Hudson Valley, and I would sooner have moved back to Las Vegas than stayed in Poughkeepsie.

In fact, that’s exactly what I did. It wasn’t long until the fear of dying with fake boobs set back in, though, and so I booked a one-way ticket to New York City. Little did I know that I should have spent that money on a camel and a tent, because it was then that I became a nomad. Since then, I’ve drifted back and forth from coast to coast, searching for the corner of the world where I fit best: from Las Vegas to New York to California to D.C., and now, again, I feel the itch to run.

With each move, with each pile of boxes—each forfeited security deposit—each long and arduous trip—I land closer to happiness. I run from whatever series of disappointments is driving me away, certain that a place exists that will transform me from the moody and awkward and unsociable creature that I am into some kind of self-actualized butterfly. It’s this far-fetched belief that a more hospitable world exists somewhere that drives me each day. I shudder to think of what will happen when I abandon hope, should I wake one day and choose to settle.

But the nomad’s life is exhausting—not to mention expensive, and at a certain point, people start to think you’re a little nuts—and I needed a more reliable method of determining my next move. So I wrote a formula: an algorithm based in reliable science and not at all on anecdotal evidence based on a sample size of one, designed to guarantee my happiness on the next perch where I alight:

([TRANSIT + FRIENDS THAT DON’T GIVE ME HIVES] * UNPREDICTABILITY)/TOLERANCE FOR WEIRDNESS

TRANSIT

I take great pleasure in public transit. This is in no small part because I should not, under any circumstances, be behind the wheel of a car in a city with bad traffic. (Especially in a city where it snows.) Road rage aside, my life changed for the better when I discovered that the train is an excellent place to be human and to observe humanity.

Here are the fundamental truths of the train: everybody rides the train. (By “everybody,” I mean “a representative swath of the population.” And I suppose this isn’t precisely everybody, but everybody who is interesting. Billionaires aren’t interesting. Unless they ride the train.) And when the train is the primary mode of transportation for most of the residents of a city, you get to see everybody in just about every possible state of being.

Just think: you’re trapped underground in a metal tube with the spectrum of human emotion! This also means that you’re trapped underground in a metal tube with tourists from the South wearing fanny packs going to a comic book convention at the Verizon Center who don’t understand that they’re in public, and also that you’re trapped underground in a metal tube with a tweaked-out junkie who keeps looking at you like he wants to rip off your face, but there is no opportunity to observe humanity like public transit. Also, no opportunity to smell the spectrum of human body odor. I’m not selling this one very well, am I? Did I mention that you don’t have to drive a car?

FRIENDS THAT DON’T GIVE ME HIVES

I’ve been alive for a quarter-century and over the course of the past several years, I’ve racked up an impressive address book (Facebook friends list, WHATEVER, I’d like to pretend that I maintain a leather-bound book of addresses with a fountain pen and I don’t have to Gchat everyone for their addresses when I want to mail them a postcard). If it weren’t for my crippling social anxiety, I could make lunch dates in most major American cities.

And therein lies the rub: I am a curmudgeon and a hermit. In college, my friends grew accustomed to me disappearing for entire afternoons and evenings at a time. I called it “decompressing” and I think I’ve written extensively enough about my propensity for hermitude (hermitage? Hermitosity?) that I don’t need to explain it further. The thought of calling someone to make a lunch date gives me hives, and so except for a small group of people who know me well enough to have seen me vomit in a kitchen sink, I don’t.

I have to be around this group of people, the friends that don’t give me hives, to have a fulfilling social life. I’m finally reaching the point in D.C. where I can handle sending out the occasional text to make plans, but it still takes a lot out of me. This has the unhappy effect of making me seem like a bad friend and a flake, and it is the great struggle of my life. Sometimes I want to give up and ride on the train all day so I can be surrounded by people without having to reach out to them myself. Social ineptitude: the struggle, as they say, is real.

UNPREDICTABILITY

I don’t gravitate naturally toward the unpredictable life. I’m drawn to routine to the degree that given a few months in one place, I lapse into a sort of catatonic devotion to whatever sequence of events I’ve decided I need to follow to be good or virtuous or productive. Case in point: a few weeks before I left California, I got pulled over. Once the cop finished berating me for driving down the wrong side of the street (it made sense in context, I swear) and sent me on my way with a moving violation in hand, I realized that it was the most exciting thing that had happened to me in recent memory. In a matter of months, I had devolved from a vibrant and deeply alive human into a slightly more verbose approximation of a hamster.

I need to live in a place where unpredictability is forced on me. I like living in cities where sometimes it thunderstorms out of nowhere. (This is when carrying an umbrella as a force of habit comes in incredibly handy. All of the excitement, none of the wet socks!) I like it when I have to take a detour because construction workers are tearing up the sewer and I find a new Colombian bakery where I can’t actually make a decision about what I’m ordering because nobody speaks English, but I point effectively enough that I end up with a bag of delicious cheese bread. When I live in a city where nothing ever changes, I never change. I have to be plucked from my hamster wheel and dropped in the fire.

TOLERANCE FOR WEIRDNESS

Lastly, and most importantly, I cannot live somewhere where, at any given moment, I am the weirdest person within a mile radius. In Arlington, this is my status quo. Everyone here is well-coiffed, and they wear suits and fashionable sandals, and on the weekends they go on bar crawls, and at no time is anyone alone. Everyone is, in a word, normal. Not only is nobody hawking Jesus pamphlets on the corner outside of Fuego, but nobody is even sitting in the corner of Le Pain Quotidien reading the Sunday Times by their lonesome and God forbid you try because your waiter straight up will not know what to do with you.

It’s been years since I felt weird about being weird, but living in Arlington is like being in middle school all over again—like everybody read some handbook that I didn’t. And without even the Jesus pamphlet hawkers to make me think, “Hey, at least I’m just sitting here quietly reading my newspaper alone and I’m not shouting about the Rapture,” I can’t go outside on the weekend without feeling like I might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says “LOOK AT THIS FREAK WHO IS EATING BRUNCH ALONE AND ALSO WOULD RATHER EVISCERATE HERSELF WITH A RUSTY SPOON THAN PARTICIPATE IN A BAR CRAWL.”

So this is my declaration that in a few months’ time, I will once again be pulling myself up my bootstraps, packing up my life, and looking for a new roost. D.C. has been kind, and I expect that I could learn to be happy here, but I can’t wait for that much longer.

The formula is telling me to move back to New York. The first time I moved there, I felt like a rejected organ transplant. I think I’ve hardened myself—and my finances—to the point that I can take the beast on again. I won’t kid myself into believing that moving again is going to satisfy me, but at the very least, I’ll live in a city full of nooks and crannies perfect for a young curmudgeon to disappear into when she needs to retreat, and full of people who speak my language, and full of Jesus pamphlet hawkers who make me feel normal. And with that foundation in place, I believe that I can find… well, if not myself, than at the very least, something exciting.

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4 thoughts on “calculus for nomads”

  1. NYC is full of places to be alone or be with friends, to be the weirdest person around or be by far the most normal person around. In a city as diverse as NYC I have to believe there’s a place for every time for everyone here. I hope you find something that works for you this time, and text me when you get here :)

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  2. Found a space like you seek in the SF Bay Area. Too expensive to live in The City but the burbs are great !~! Diversity up the yin/yang; eateries of Every Tongue on the Planet; spaces to be yourself or alone. Have you ever come west?

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