Last January during a visit to New York I was walking through Prospect Park with a few friends on a Saturday afternoon when one of them took an unexpected phone call from his mother in Hawaii. My friend’s voice was immediately shaded with confusion and concern, and the rest of us gleaned that something serious was going on there; residents had received a BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND alert to their phones—“THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” His mom was making her calls. He told her to go to the basement of her apartment building while we looked into it. From Twitter, we soon learned that it was a false alarm, though it took the authorities over half an hour to officially call off the warning (the governor had also been delayed in calming the masses when he couldn’t remember his Twitter password). The incident seemed a stark expression of how messed up everything is right now.
This is a time for fellowship, for drawing your people in close. I’ve been thinking a lot about where the good folks around me come from and how those places shaped them. My friend in Brooklyn grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, the high country; he has such a connection to it, wears it like an article of clothing. Another friend of mine is from Cleveland, Mississippi—to paint a contrast—the heart of the Delta, flat as penny; he doesn’t come from money, and now he’s magnanimous by reflex. A couple of others came up together in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, as it happens, less than a mile from where I now live in Northeast D.C.; it’s a beautiful community over there, thoroughly middle class, and the two of them recently started an employee-owned company. None of us live in our hometowns as adults. For my part, I have found it easier to appreciate where I’m from at a remove.
I grew up in the nineties in Charlotte, North Carolina, my dad’s hometown, then a sleepy city in the Piedmont Crescent lit afire with the New South urbanism that defines it today, a place I considered mostly cultureless and shallow. By the time I finished middle school, my life was oriented around the simple goal of skateboarding with my friends as much as possible. The No. 19 bus went past my neighborhood on its way north down Kenilworth Ave. For a dollar I could take it to the depot uptown, the frequent launching point for our weekend escapades. But when I was in ninth grade, all of my friends stopped skateboarding, in my memory one by one until I was alone. A grave betrayal at an impressionable time. I attended one of the largest high schools in the state—an experience marked by divisions, where everything was segmented, separated, and encased—and it seemed that my friends had given up skateboarding in order to become completely different versions of themselves. Within that arena, my natural bearing—shy, cerebral, antiestablishment—acquired the role that had apparently been assigned it: misfit, indie. That was my caste more or less for all of high school, and I recognize in myself today, a dozen years later, the blooms of those weird seeds that were planted in me then.
One was my uncle’s suicide when I was fifteen, a haunting brush with the infinite delivered via the irrevocable finite, about which I still can draw up only futile words. Another came two years later in a plastic jewel case handed to me by an English teacher during senior year: a copy of the new album Jacksonville City Nights by Ryan Adams & the Cardinals. I don’t remember why she did that—she wasn’t even my English teacher—but somehow she recognized, in that way great teachers do, that I needed it. Perhaps she knew that it would open new psychic geography to me, that I would find my way back to Heartbreaker, Adams’s intimate masterpiece, and Whiskeytown, his early band from Raleigh, and that I would go on to use his songs as a line home in times when I am far, far away.
His songs are about women that rain, read magazines from the back to the front, or dance all night, and men that lose them, go underground with their wedding ring, get strung out like Christmas lights, or just have a gnawing hunger to leave. His songs are also about North Carolina, many of them. Carved from the same grain of heartwood as Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, they express both affection for his homeland—“All the sweetest winds they blow across the South”—and resentment of its limits: “how you burden my soul / How you hold all my dreams captive.” Most of all, his music is about getting lost and getting found and getting lost all over—“happy and sad and back again”—which as far as I can tell is the measure of this grand adventure.