On My Way To See The World

It’s been over two years since I started to write this piece, and I’m trying to remember what, if anything, has changed.

On one hand, very little; on the other, almost everything. But let me back up a bit and apologize to my readers for being, to put it mildly, less than faithful in keeping up with this blog. I could offer a panoply of excuses, most of them self-serving or nonsensical, but the unvarnished truth is that both my mind and body have been elsewhere.

Those of you who follow me on social media will know I’ve been doing a lot of traveling. I typed the initial words of this article – long since deleted – at the beginning of September, 2015. It was meant to be the start of a series detailing my trip around the world.

I was somewhere in Greenland at the time, and my intention was to post a story every day or two as I traveled onward through Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, then across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway to China, followed by a week or so in Japan before flying back to the USA.

Climbing a mountain near Sisimiut, Greenland.

Instead I went for hikes, or watched icebergs float by, or scrolled through Facebook or Twitter, and never got beyond the first paragraph. I posted photos, maybe with a one or two line description, of wonders I saw along the way, but never got back to writing regularly.

I was still awash in words of my own creation, it’s true. As I made my way across Europe and Asia emails were flying back and forth with edits and rewrites of my about-to-be-published book, How To Ru(i)n A Record Label. One particular panic-stricken day, the book was all but set to go to the printer, waiting only on a last-minute fact check about Stikky’s Where’s My Lunchpail? album.

The information was obscure enough that all my internet searches came up blank. I was beside myself, worrying that I might have to choose between delaying publication (meaning there’d be no books at the East Coast and West Coast book launches), or risk going into print with a minor but glaring error (get one fact wrong when you’re writing nonfiction and people understandably seize upon it as evidence that anything else you say is suspect).

Thankfully Mikey Erg, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a record collection to match, saved the day. He dug up the album in question and read back the liner notes to me, thus settling the issue and the book went happily to the printer (albeit with an unnoticed typo in one of the picture captions, but who wants to perfect, right?).

This unfolded as I was sailing down the railway tracks between Beijing and Shanghai at 180 mph, during the second week of my first-ever visit to China. Though I had another 13 days to go – and after that a week which would include my birthday in Japan – the end of my journey was looming large.

Outside the Kremlin.

Visiting China had been the main point of this trip. All the other countries had been added as a rather elaborate afterthought. I didn’t regret stopping in any of them and will certainly revisit them if I get the chance, but China had been in the works for literally 40 years, ever since I entered the Asian Studies program at UC Berkeley in 1975.

My plan had been to go to China, which was just then opening up to the West, as soon as I graduated, possibly never coming back. With what would have been a reasonable fluency in Chinese and a Berkeley degree, the opportunities would have been almost limitless, but drugs and alcohol had other plans for me. I dropped out in my junior year and gradually forgot almost as much as I had learned.

I wouldn’t want to complain about the direction my life took instead – it’s been quite an adventure, one that got even better once I said goodbye to the drugs and booze – but what could have been came home to me the second I stumbled bleary-eyed off the train into the massive plaza in front of Beijing Station.

I’d been frantically brushing up on my Chinese for months, and redoubled my efforts during the long train ride across Russia, but I was hopelessly overwhelmed. It was like being a two-year-old again: here and there I could recognize a word, but my ability to communicate hardly went beyond pointing and miming.

Back at Berkeley in the 70s, I’d reached a point in my classes where everything – reading, discussion, writing – was done in Chinese. I wasn’t the best student, thanks to my unfortunate habit of smoking pot before class – at 8 am – in the belief it would help me learn more easily. It might have, but all too often it was a case it was a case of in one ear and out the other. Still, I was a good mid-level student, and could easily hold my own in class discussions.

All that seems to have gone out the window since I left school (when I re-enrolled at Berkeley many years later, I didn’t even try to resume my Chinese studies), and though I’ve been studying and practicing at least an hour a day and am currently on my fourth visit to China, I don’t know if it will ever return. Maybe that will be a lesson to somebody, but probably not…

What I set out to write about, though, was not China – I plan to do that in a future post – but travel in general. On the day I returned from my round-the-world trip, my super stopped me before I’d got in the front door to give me the news that my building had been sold and was going to be torn down. I’d been happy living there in what was once the Italian section of East Williamsburg; left to my own devices, I might have stayed in that apartment for the rest of my life. But finding a similar place in the neighborhood would have at least doubled my rent, and with the old Italian families rapidly being replaced by affluent hipsters and loud, drunken postgraduates, it hardly seemed worth trying.

Tianmen, Beijing.

Instead I indulged a long-held fantasy by getting rid of half my possessions, putting what remained into storage, and setting off on a year of near-constant travel, about equally divided between Asia and Europe, along with a few whirls around the United States to promote my book.

I don’t know what it says about me – that I’ve reached a point of acceptance and serenity, or that I’ve abandoned most of my standards – but I was happy with every place I went and could have stayed indefinitely in most of them. I went so far as to investigate the possibilities of taking up Spanish or Italian citizenship (Chinese, too, but short of marriage to a local, that’s next to impossible).

All this time I’d been on a waiting list for a co-op apartment in Queens, and I was lying awake at 3 am in Beijing when a phone call came to tell me my number had come up. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to put down roots again in New York – or anywhere in the United States, given the way things are going these days – but as much as I was enjoying my travels, having no home was beginning to wear on me a bit.

Every few months I’d stop in Brooklyn to visit my storage space, maybe exchange summer clothes for winter ones or look for items I’d forgotten I needed, but it wasn’t the same as having a place where, as Robert Frost put it, when you go there, they have to let you in. So I took the place in Queens, dropped off all my belongings, and promptly hit the road again. Since officially becoming a Queensian (not a real word, I suspect, but you get the idea), I’ve barely spent half my time there, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

It’s not that I don’t like my new home – I love it, in fact; it’s by far my favorite place I’ve lived in New York City – but I’m at a point in life where age and mortality are closing in on me (more about that in a future post, too) and the number of places I want to see and experience is in danger of outstripping the time and resources available.

It’s also that I’ve arrived at one of those points that periodically crops up in my life where, whether I’ve intended it or not, everything I’ve been doing for the past however many years recedes in importance and interest, and the world jerks its thumb in an indeterminate direction, telling me in a loud, unmistakable voice, “Next!”

The last time this happened was when I started my trek down from Spy Rock to resume my education and build Lookout Records. I haven’t totally turned my back on that adventure or the many wonderful people I met during that time, but just as when I said goodbye to my greaser and my hippie years, there’s an sense that something else out there awaits me.

Hopefully it will involve more writing, definitely (if I have anything to say about it) more travel, and ideally will lead to my finding a new way or ways to be of some use to the world. What exact shape that might take still remains to be seen, but surprises are (usually) fun, aren’t they?

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