June 23, 2014

Being there

Three years ago today I showed up for work in Illinois, coffee cup from 7-11 in hand like always. The day started pretty much like any other - I checked my phone, replied to emails, chatted with my coworkers, and then we all piled into a car for our daily jaunt to McDonald’s for (more) coffee and egg mcmuffins. I was usually the driver for our McDonald’s trips but I couldn’t on this day because my car was absolutely packed with everything I owned. Clothes, boxes, and bags filled the trunk, back seat and most of the front passenger seat. I wasn’t going home after work that day. I was going to New York.

June 23rd, 2011 marked my last day as an Illinois resident. As the work day progressed it slowly started to sink in that I was leaving for good. My normal routine started to give way to an informal training of my coworkers, informing them about projects that were finished, projects that were underway, progress on those projects, and where they could find various files and directories so that work could continue on them after I was gone.

We ordered pizza for lunch, receiving special permission from our department head at the corporate office to charge it to the company account, and it became a small, informal going-away party for me. I smiled and joked with everyone about harsh New York winters, whether or not they had Italian beef in Albany (they don’t), and how the company would fare without me (in my coworker Steve’s words, “this place is already swirling down the toilet”) but I was scared. I was excited about the coming trip but I was also terrified. It was unlike anything I had ever done. Heading off to college had been a big step but I had family in the Chicago area - I'd been going there several times a year my whole whole life - so it already felt like a second home to me. I’d been to Albany a few times already to see Court but it still felt remote and unfamiliar.

After lunch I had my exit interview with an HR person from corporate and as the last minutes of the workday ticked away I surrendered my ID badge and shut down my computer for the last time. The colloquial term in the office for quitting time was to “punch it down.” It had been in use since long before I started working there but I believe it had something to do with punching in the code to activate the building alarm when we closed for the day. Before I left I made the rounds along the small row of cubicles in my department to say my goodbyes. Steve’s was the last. He’d been my best friend there and out of all the people I’d worked with he was probably the only one I would genuinely miss.

“Good luck in New York,” he said, shaking my hand. “Next time you’re out here let me know, we’ll hit up Rock Bottom.” (Rock Bottom was a local brewpub we often visited after work.) He started to say something else but then stopped and pointed at me.

“Don’t you cry on me!”

He was joking but I was fighting the urge to at that point. I took one last look around the office and my now empty workstation.

“Punch it down for me, guys,” I said with a wave as I walked out, and then safely inside my car I completely broke down. I cried, tears spattering the steering wheel, until I’d regained my composure enough to drive off, my car’s overloaded suspension creaking with every bump. I cried again when I drove past the “Welcome to Indiana” sign, watching my home recede in the rearview mirror, and a couple more times after that. But eventually I calmed and resigned myself to the long drive ahead.

Making it to New York in one trip would have meant driving straight through the night so instead I took a small detour into the Detroit suburbs where my dad lives, in the house where I grew up. After crashing a few hours on the couch I returned to the road. Ohio and Pennsylvania rolled by under my wheels. Toledo, Cleveland, Erie slid past as if on conveyor belts. I stopped only for gas and food, subsisting off of french fries and caffeine. The terrain grew hillier, the highway winding through the low mountains of western New York as the sun began to dip and turn the clouds to gold.

My thoughts swirled - memories of Chicago and college and friends and past lovers and old jobs and the cats that lived in the alley behind my old apartment churned along with thoughts of Court and our new apartment and Albany and the anticipation and misgivings of thinking about what lies ahead. My whole life I’d been a cool and calculating person. I didn’t like doing anything that involved risk. I always looked over the edge of every cliff, no matter how short, before jumping off. Now I felt like I’d charged blindfolded over the precipice, flailing around in the dark as I fell, unable to find the bottom. The miles ticked by.

I met Court at her grandmother’s house in Oneonta, killing the engine in the street and asking myself over and over again what I had just done. We’d been dating for over a year but the distance between Albany and Chicago had meant that we’d only actually met in person maybe a dozen times, and now we were moving in together. I’d signed a lease for an apartment in Troy, a city which I knew almost nothing about, and apart from an interview at a temp agency I had no job lined up. What had I just done?

The transition period was not easy. For the first six months I felt horribly homesick, lost and disoriented in Albany and its surrounding cities. To comfort myself I’d go to Google Maps and use the Streetview feature to “drive” around my old haunts. I’d follow the old routes I used to run in college, the walk from the Blue Line station in Chicago to where I parked my car, my old commute to work - nothing terribly interesting to anyone else, but somehow retracing the mundane jaunts I used to take every day in Illinois made me feel a little better when I started getting homesick. It was comforting in a way to know that the little daily world I created for myself on the shores of Lake Michigan didn’t necessarily end when I left it.

Adapting was a painfully slow process and it was measured in little steps. I found new food places and coffee shops and with time they began to supplant my old favorites from Chicago in my head. I learned the roads and local landmarks, colloquialisms, and punctuations (that the last syllable of “Colonie” has emphasis, like you’re hiccupping as you say it, so instead of “colony” it’s “colo-NEE”; how to both spell and pronounce “Schenectady,” “Schoharie,” and “Coeymans.”). Stewarts became my 7-11. 97.7 WEXT became my 93.1 XRT. Things that seemed strange and foreign gradually ingrained themselves in the folds of familiarity. I was becoming an Upstate New Yorker.

Three years later I am married, gainfully employed, and a homeowner. Upstate feels as much as home today as Chicago did in 2011, and I know that if I left I would pine for certain things here just as much as I missed certain things about Illinois. I didn’t know what I would find when I first came to New York but it dawned on me that I am product of everything I have seen and every place I have been. College, apartments, jobs, girlfriends, the cats in the alley - I left all of those behind and yet I brought pieces of all of them with me. These people, places, and things - moving didn’t take them away from me. Instead they’ve meshed and joined with the experiences lived through since, forming one unbroken thread. My life didn’t end when I left Chicago and a new one did not begin when I arrived in Albany. It’s a continuing narrative, an evolution. I’m not here because of someone I used to be; I’m here because of who I am.

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