To Soft Trains and Hard Love.

Whenever I hear Cat Power on the stereo, I always think of the night I left my former home of Denver, Colorado for good.  Movement has been a constant in my life, ever since I was a child.  I needed a break from my life in Denver, but first I sat in my best friend Molly‘s room, in Villa Kula, the decrepit punk house, just west of Broadway we both spent years living in.  I listened to the same Cat Power song over and over.  My stuff was in storage, I said my goodbyes, and all that was left to do was pack my backpack.

Of course, I sat in Molly’s room and cried my eyes out instead.  Life is weird and dramatic like that, especially when you’re 24, and feel compelled to leave home for no other reason than you can’t think of anything better to do with yourself.  I was leaving the best home I had ever known, and I was leaving my community, and my best friend.

Molly and I had met in a punk gathering in Sunken Gardens Park, just off 8th and Speer Blvd when we were 18 and 19 years old.  We bonded over our love of music, zines, radical politics, and both of us being tiny in stature.  Our friendship had only deepened over the years.  We lived together on and off, we traveled together, crisscrossing the country on desolate highways and freight trains.  More often than not, we drank and cried together too.

I think about that sometimes; how I left home on a whim, or it was supposed to be temporary, or whatever I told myself to get out the door, and I never went back.  Denver would enact a pit bull ban just as I was leaving home, and of course, I would be walking back to where I was staying in a city far from home two months later, and adopt a pit bull who I thought needed a good home, even though I didn’t exactly have one…

Luke and I spent a fruitless night of waiting for a freight train in the backyard of the outpost.  The Outpost was another decrepit punk house, this one on the northeast edge of town.  The rent was cheap because it was bordered by a junkyard on one side, and the Union Pacific Railyard on the other.

Luke was part of a group of younger boys who had recently migrated north to Denver from the suburbs.  They all dropped out of high school, and moved into punk houses and squats.  It was like they couldn’t wait to drop out of society and start living reckless lives.

Luke was nineteen years old, and traveling for the first time.  I was 24, and a nearly a seasoned veteran of the road at this point.  We didn’t know one another well, but both needed to head west, so we agreed to hit the road together.  This kind of travel arrangement can be common in punk circles.

When nothing rolled through, Sarah offered to drive Luke and I to the much larger intermodal freight yard a few hours north of Denver in Cheyenne, Wyoming the next night.  Now it was locked in.  I was leaving town.

Kristy came to do a goodbye shot of whiskey with me, right before the car left.  Kristy stomped up the rickety stairs of Villa Kula, and knocked on the door of Molly’s room, I wiped my eyes and opened it.  She set down a bottle of cheap whiskey, and two glasses.

We had awkwardly kissed a few times that summer, and never talked about it again. She was smart, older than me, and seemingly had it so much more figured out than I did.  I was 24, and adrift in a sea of heartache and directionlessness.  She was 27, and so cool.  She worked mornings at the Twentieth Street Café downtown.  It was one of Denver’s oldest greasy spoons, and perhaps a symbol of a largely bygone era.  Denver was changing rapidly, and many of the older, more affordable spots were rapidly giving way to high priced restaurant sand loft apartments.

She also didn’t get mad at me when I gave her scabies.  Oops.

“Maybe I can use it as an excuse to call in sick to work for a few days.”  There are worse ways to look at it.

We kissed one night in her room, after staying up all night planning a benefit for a political prisoner, and another after some super rowdy show at the skate warehouse that was next to the Jesus Saves rescue mission.  The last time I was back in town, that part of the city was heavily gentrified, virtually unrecognizable from the working class, largely empty industrial neighborhood our parents had been afraid to let us venture to far into during our high school years, and the still seemingly less-than-savory, but in the process of being gentrified neighborhood I fearlessly rode my bike through whenever I wanted to as a brazen twenty-something.  I wonder what that warehouse is now.

I was sober that night, a quite a few people had way too much to drink, and I ended up driving them home.  I put my bike in the back of the station wagon we used for Food Not Bombs, and drove the kids home, the whole time praying that I didn’t get pulled over in this fucked up, graffiti covered car, with two blacked out underage kids in the back.  The kids laughed exuberantly at the creepy older men hitting on them at the show that they had manage to duck, and slurred out praises at length for the bands that had played.

As soon as we pulled up to the house, one of the kids puked at least a gallon’s worth of malt liquor vomit all over the sidewalk.  I put both of them to bed, and went back outside with the hose to clean up, which is totally a normal thing to do at three in the morning.  Like, of course, we’re scummy punks who are drunk all the time, and live in this fucked up house, seem to never sleep, eat, or even drink water, but we care about the neighborhood, damnit!  I grabbed the garden hose, and drug it to the sidewalk in front of the house to wash the vomit off the sidewalk so our neighbors don’t have to walk through it, after it’s been baking in the early morning desert sun tomorrow.

With the kids safely in bed, and the house quiet, I laid down on the couch downstairs to tentatively rest.  Kristy rode her bike back to the house, and laid down on couch with me.  I didn’t have a house of my own that summer, and just lived on the couch at Villa Kula.  I had literally spent years of my life sleeping on this couch, or in the basement, or on the roof.  Molly and I did that a lot, when neither of us had a stable place to live.  We would throw our sleeping bags up on the roof before climbing up a rickety ladder to fall asleep together in the late night, only to be woken up by the early morning sun.  The first time I ever did Yoga was on the roof of Villa Kula.  Molly had just gotten home from a cross-country bike trip where upon waking up every morning, our friends would do their sun salutations before the day’s ride.  Again, I wonder at the sight of two punks doing yoga in their underwear on the roof.

Our neighbors had maybe seen weirder things.

There was also the summer we set up a beautiful queen sized bed under a canopy on the back yard.  I slept on that a lot too.  Nobody really seemed to notice, or mind.  If they did, they kept it to themselves.  I was hardly the only person in our crew without a stable place to live.

Soon, Kristy and I started kissing.  She was pinning my arms behind my head, and sinking her teeth into my neck right and I was inhaling sharply with pleasure right as someone barged into the room slurring that they left their backpack with hundreds of dollars’ worth of Food Not Bombs, or Derailer’s money in it.  Would someone who was sober go back across town to the show space and get it for them?  Kristy smiled at me and I knew of course we should probably ride our bikes back across town to the warehouse and retrieve it.  It would be fun.

Out of all the things punk has given me, the feeling of freedom that comes from being a tough as nails scumbag racing across town on a bicycle remains one of my favorite things.  I used the errand as an excuse to borrow a bike belonging to a friend who was similarly small in stature to me.  It was much lighter, and nicer than my own.  It had no breaks, and wouldn’t stop pedaling once you started, and the only way you could stop was by locking your knees, and causing the wheels to stop moving.  We hauled ass across town, running red lights and laughing, skid stopping when we had too.

Fucking fixies.  I think my knees still hurt.

We got to the warehouse, retrieved the bag in question, declined invitations to hang out and drink more with the punks still partying inside.  As we were getting ready to jump on our bicycles outside we found a drunk punk couple a few years older than both of us fighting.  Jeff and Noelle.  They were both sort of notorious in the scene.  One of them for being a wasted dirt bag who had a kid she didn’t really take care of, and the other for being a drunk and kicking the shit out of both of them.  I never really cared for either one of them, but I liked Jeff way less.  He had left town earlier that summer, under duress.  People heard about what he did, and weren’t having it.

Tonight he had shown back up and somehow they both ended up drunk and screaming at each other in the middle of Lawrence Street at three in the morning.  Kristy and I didn’t know what to do; we were both skinny, vegan, and afraid of Jeff, but when he leaned up into Noelle’s face and slurred “I’ll fucking kill you!” we did our best to get in between them.

Two cops were across the street, with a group of homeless men sitting on the curb in front of their glaring headlights.  They momentarily looked up from the group of men they had detained and yelled at us to keep it down.  Jeff took a few steps away from us, stumbling into the middle of the street to yell “FUCK YOU PIG!” at the cops.  Momentarily distracted, we were able to pull Noelle a few steps back, before the cops walked over to arrest Jeff for public intoxication, and just you know, because they were cops and could do so.  Noelle insisted on going to jail to bail him out.  We left her to her own devices to get to the police station.  I never saw her, or Jeff again, much to my relief.

Disgusted, and shaken up, we rode our bikes back home.  Big Mike had taken up residence on the couch we had been making out on, drunk and banged up from a fight at the end of the show.  The mood was pretty much gone anyway.  Kristy decided to ride her bike back up to her apartment on Capitol Hill.  We smiled warmly at one another, and kissed on the sidewalk in front of the house before she climbed back on her bike, and I went to the backyard to sleep on the roof.

Three months later, it’s my last night here, in my best friend’s room, in the house that still feels like the first good home I ever had.  It’s dilapidated, and dirty, full of rowdy punks all the time and sure, sometimes you wake up with mice in your hair, or scampering across your feet in the night.  We’re young and impulsive, and don’t always know how to best care for ourselves, or one another.  Sometimes we stay drunk for days, but at the same time I can come home, and I’m not afraid of anyone.  I’m not afraid of saying, or doing the wrong thing and ending up on the receiving end of someone’s misguided wrath, which is a new experience for me.

Kristy pours both of us shots:

“To soft trains, and hard love.”

I had been going through my first major heartbreak as an adult all that summer, and everyone knew it.  The end of a relationship drug on for months, and that ache was written across my face, or spilled out in my slurred words nights I drank too much and passed out in Molly’s bed.  Maybe it had more to do with why I left home than I cared to admit.  This story isn’t about that heartbreak though, not this time around.  Heartbreak is maybe the backdrop, like so much of our youth, especially when you grow up punk and become an expert in breaking your own heart.

That ache sat there in the background, like white noise.  Molly and I had both been reeling from our failed relationships that whole summer.  She took off for Europe for the summer, and I stayed home and worked a coffee shop job four days a week, and stayed up all night riding my bike, or writing, trying to unravel the convoluted maze in my brain.

Maybe the story goes deeper than that.  It’s about leaving home to find something else.  It’s about a random ten year old toast someone gave me ten years past.  Most importantly, the toast can be seen as a marker for a bygone era.  A eulogy for a gentrified Denver, and a subterranean punk rock era unremembered and unrecognized by all but it’s participants.

The toast made the most sense out of anything that anyone had said that summer.  Easy travels, and loving deeply.  We led charmed lives despite the heartache.  It had never been so clear than in my tipsy brain.  The Cat Power record ended, the needle skipping and popping on a run out groove.  I moved the arm to it’s rest, shouldered my backpack, and we walked downstairs.  Kristy and I kissed goodbye, and she walked down Lipan street, and out of my life.  I would see her two or three times more that, one time when she went on tour with a band and met me for an awkward afternoon in Portland, and twice when I was back visiting.

I took another swig of whiskey on the sidewalk, for the road, and hugged Molly goodbye.  The other punks all came outside to hug me goodbye and wish me luck.  I tried to freeze the image of my friends smiling and alight, framed by Villa Kula in the background.  I wanted to hold onto it forever.  I cried quietly in the back of car as Denver receded in the distance.  I meant it when I said it:  “I’ll never love anything else just the way I love this.”

We got dropped off in Wyoming, and waited around in the train yard all night.  We caught out just as the sun was rising.  Our train pulling up, right as we were about to give up, worried about being caught in the yard, with little cover and nowhere to hide from the rail cop.  We jumped in an open boxcar, and spent the next sixty hours rumbling across the prairie on our way to Oregon.  I tagged the inside of our boxcar with “Ache leaves a ghost.”  It made sense at the time.  The ache of leaving Denver would stay with me for years after that, and I knew it.  I’ve always been too sensitive, and moving through grief and loss feels like pulling a planet out of orbit.

Rolling through the middle of nowhere, maybe in Wyoming or Utah, a full, huge yellow moon rose above the plains.  I stood in the doorway of the boxcar and thought about being broken, about healing, about everything that came before, about what I was riding into.  I had started out 2005 with getting destroyed by a speeding car, breaking my pelvis and shoulder, and I was leaving home barely six months later, with no real plan, except to wander, run from my ache, and spend time in the woods with a faraway lover.

I moved around for years after that; feeling unsettled and rootless, like The Flying Dutchman adrift and forever seeking out shore.  Denver to Portland, to Oakland, then to Richmond, then to a little town in North Carolina for a few months.  After that it was the highway and living out of my perpetually broken down diesel truck for a six month spell.  After that it was back to Oakland, then to Flagstaff, back to North Carolina, and finally settling in Asheville, in the western edge of the state, right near the Tennessee border.  Each mile a story and every town a struggle to make home, or make some sort of a life, none of them ever feeling like they held any place for me until Asheville.

I saw Kristy once more, six years after I left Denver.  Wanderlust had called, and Teal and I were making that cross country trip we had both made so many times before; Olympia to Asheville, I felt like at this point I probably had all the truck stops in Wyoming and Kansas memorized.  What had supposed to be a six month break from Denver had somehow morphed into six years, and the landscape of Denver was now almost alien, yet hauntingly familiar to me to me in it’s gentrified streets, and now long gone punk rock hang out spots.

Teal had been part of that between-time journey too, living together in Richmond, and then spending the next several years seemingly trading places from coast to coast.  We came through some much hell and heartbreak in that space too.   We failed at relationships, friends died from drug overdoses, or suicide, or murder.  “The Big Three”.  As punks are sometimes heard to call them.  As in, you hear about someone dying, and you figure it was one of those three ways, and you are maybe too often right.

We crawled through the hell in the darkness of mental illness, and deep seated identity struggles together.  Teal was there, that fall in Richmond, when I cried and cried, and cried.  “I don’t know how the fuck I’m supposed to fit in this skin.” I dramatically wailed.  Teal was there the morning Mosca died, Teal was there the first few hard months in Asheville, just after Sali was murdered.  It seemed like all I could do was drink myself to sleep, and live day to day.  If we’re being honest, it was usually me coming to pieces in my room, or in some strange city somewhere, and Teal being the steady voice on the other line.

I always say; the debt of life-saving gratitude I owe Teal is incalculable, and I pray she never has reason to collect.

We had just pulled into Denver, and parked in front of Villa Kula.  You could see it from the west side of town, the city skyline we had loved so much was changing.

We needed food, and to stretch our legs.  We pulled our bikes out of the back of her truck and rode them to Watercourse through the snow.  We took the bike lanes on 16th avenue to get up Capitol Hill.  That was always my favorite route to get up the hill.  Not as manically busy, or dangerous as Colfax, or fourteenth, it was a nice and quiet ride.  Going back down the hill though, you wanted thirteenth.  Sometimes late at night, if you timed it right, you could hit all the stoplights as they were green, and bomb your way the whole way to Lipan street, only pedaling once or twice, and never once use your brakes, until you had to slow down to take the left turn on Lipan.

Watercourse had moved from its original location on 13th Avenue, where I used to go get the vegan blue plate special every morning on my way to work.  I always swore breakfast tasted even better when I was hungover, or hadn’t gone to sleep yet.  Scrambled tofu, home fries, and sourdough toast for five dollars.  I’m sure the price is at least double that now, though the portions have probably shrank, and the quality diminished.

Teal and I slid into a booth, and giddily scanned the menu looking for food that seemed like was something either of us wanted to eat.  Watercourse was the hip vegan restaurant in Denver, and both of us had stopped being vegan some years ago, and taking a step backwards was interesting.  How did we ever convince ourselves that tofu tasted good?  I glanced over at the next booth, and Kristy was there.

“Shit, Teal…  I made out with that person twice, and we’re maybe kind of friends?  We haven’t spoken in years, and I don’t want to deal with superficially catching up when I’m this tired and hungry.”  Teal reached across to squeeze my hand while giving me that look that friends who have transcended into family territory give you, the one where they know you, and know where you’ve been, and love you despite, but more and importantly because of all that.  We both giggled at my awkward shifting in the booth, and kept our heads down.

We finished our food, and rode our bikes back down the hill to Villa Kula, well fed, and content.  It had started to snow lightly, but not enough to stick to the streets yet.  I stole a glance at my friend, beautiful and radiant, racing down a windswept and snowy thirteenth avenue.  I got that same old feeling that I got speeding across Denver on my bicycle as a teenage punk, free, invincible, feeling like the world was wide open and ahead of us.  I’ve had it a thousand times since that first time, on bikes in any city, on trains, in urban spaces full of vibrant life and community, and places of almost unbearable loneliness and desolation.  That feeling, like everything is still ahead of you, and your heart feels open and ready.  It’s still never quite the same as Denver.

I thought about that toast, given to me years before:  “To soft trains, and hard love.”

Maybe we’ll spend our lives crisscrossing the country, like ghosts haunting ourselves, creeping across the same lonely stretches of highway over and over, as the world we knew recedes into the distance.  Maybe we’ll still always be wondering what we’re actually going to do, never figuring it out until we’re doing it.  Sometimes this life is hell on our hearts, and our bodies, and we’re hell on wheels for sure, but for tonight, and with friends I’m lucky enough to love as hard as this, that doesn’t seem so bad.

Teal and I hit the corner of Lipan and Thirteenth Avenue without falling off of our bikes.  We pedaled up to the Villa Kula, and locked up.  The hour was late and the night was cold, and we were road-weary and exhausted.  We pulled out our sleeping bags, and curled up on that same couch I had spent my summers on so many years ago.  The highway was waiting, and it was a long road home.  Surely that could wait for another day, though.  The news just came that the house was finally disbanding after nearly a decade.  We could use another day at home.

We led charmed lives, despite the heartache, and we weren’t in any hurry.

April, 2015.