THE OPEN ROAD: Where Do I Want to Live, Part 2 …Words and Photos by Paul Vlachos

I’m going to bribe myself to finish this now, so that I can stop beating myself up for NOT finishing it. I don’t know if most people have to work that way, but sometimes that’s what it takes. If I can finish the first complete draft of this column now, I’m going to drink an icy cold bottle of Mexican Coca Cola, the kind made with real cane sugar, and then eat a Kit Kat bar. Sugar kills, sugar heals.

The last time we assembled in this spot , I was raving on about where I had lived in life, places I had traveled that made an impression on me, and ruminating on the causes of my current conundrum, namely: Where do I want to live when I grow up? Forget the part about “grow up.” The ship left the dock on that one. The horse left the stable, then the stable burned down. But where do I want to live as I get older?

I’ll tell you some practical things I have learned along the way. I’m not saying that my next move, should it come at all, will be my last move, but I do know this much: I have observed friends and family grow old and I know that I won’t be driving forever. If I live long enough, even though there will be no children to wrestle the car keys from my fingers, I will eventually have to stop driving. This rules out a lot of possible choices – remote areas become less practical and appealing if I’m stuck in a house and there is no place within walking distance that sells milk, toilet paper or donuts, not to mention the other necessities of life. And don’t tell me I can count on Amazon. I’ll tell you where to go.

Another thing I know is that I don’t want to live in a place that requires stairs. I’m not lazy. I like to climb stairs – to a point, at least – but I have also seen way too many people become prisoners of the first or second floor, unable to go anywhere because they can no longer climb a few stairs. That’s okay, though, as there are plenty of one-story houses out there, along with many apartment buildings that have elevators.

I had been thinking the unthinkable for a long time – that I might want to move back into a house, a structure I have not lived in since I was 18 years old. I have fantasies of having my own garden and a workshop, where I can build things out of wood and make a mess of my own. Those longings have not disappeared, but I’m not so certain I need them now. As with many of the imaginary relationships I have had in my head with women, the reality is not always the same as the fantasy. If it happens, it happens. I’m talking here about the tomato plants, the table saw and, yes, the woman of my dreams.

So, let me get down to business. I’m in Oakland Park, Florida at the moment, working on two books, and this makes me happy. It’s 82 degrees and sunny. My hands hurt. I’m typing too much at a folding table. This particular trip has been good so far. I have been holed up in two Florida locations, one near the Gulf Coast and the other near some train tracks, about five miles from the Atlantic. Every day, I have gotten up, taken Santo on a walk, dodging the iguanas and the rampaging flock of Muscovy ducks that follow me around whenever they spot me and the young hound. As an aside, I’ll bet you did not know that a group of ducks in the water is called a “raft,” a pair is called a “brace,” a bunch of them flying is called a “plump,” and there are other words, as well.

So, we walk, young Santo and I. We return to the lair, where I make coffee and give him some grub. I write and write, then we go out and prowl the suburbs of southern Florida, using old US 1 as our main drag. I then return and either write some more or, lately, work on a collection of my photos and words from this hallowed publication for a book that I’m making. I talk to other people walking dogs. I dodge strange-looking people, having gotten mugged here last year in broad daylight, and then I drive around and shoot photos at night. It’s not a bad way to get to know a neighborhood. Someone from home just asked “are you having fun?” and I thought for a second and said “YES! I am!”

I continue to be consumed, though, with where I might want to live if I were to leave New York City. In the first part of this article, I talked about “the comforts of home” and how hard it might be to leave them. I talked about what “home,” itself means. Let’s squash that whole line of bull immediately. I’m on the road now, living in temporary quarters and, so long as Santo and I are together, we have an internet connection and a place to cook food, we’re okay. We’re home. A good lock on the door doesn’t hurt, as well as a place to park the car, a grocery store nearby, a neighborhood we can perambulate around. These things are important, but you can find them almost anywhere. With every person I meet, I quickly get around to where they’re from, how they ended up here, whether they like it, and whether they would leave if they could. Most of the people here tend to want to stay, with a few notable exceptions. I’ll talk about Florida in a bit, but let me get to the first photo.

Some Motel 6 West of the Mississippi - 2009. photo by Paul Vlachos

8. Some Motel 6 West of the Mississippi – 2009

When I said two months ago that “all I need is a good vacation,” that was not entirely accurate. What I really needed was to get away from New York City, to get some perspective. I don’t even know what a vacation is, really, as I have never been a big beach guy and I lose my mind if I’m not taking photos or writing. I like a road trip where I am exhausted, but happy, at the end of each day. Where I get to the motel room and push myself through processing the photos, then look forward to hitting the road again the following day. Where the only reason to finally go home is that so that I can relax again. If you want to call that a vacation, that’s fine with me. Who cares, anyway? What’s in a word? I’ll take a vacation when I’m dead.

I have thought about subletting my place in the West Village while I make this grand decision of where to live. That would give me an escape hatch, should I decide I want to stay in a place where, apparently, many other people would like to live. Last issue, I went into the reasons I want to move. Let me add one more, the couple above me in my building – which has wooden subfloors – are having a baby any month now. If they don’t move, I’m sure I’ll hear it running around. I love kids, but I don’t want to hear them all the time. So, I might sublet and then move around a bit, rent a place here, another place there, live in my van for a while. We shall see. A full-time life on the road is not sustainable, though. Eventually, you want to be able to pine for “home,” even if you can’t go there.

Wilson, North Carolina - 2015. Photo by Paul Vlachos

9. Wilson, North Carolina – 2015

I broke down in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in 2015. I was on my way to Florida on a quick trip in my van and had luckily pulled off the interstate in a driving thunderstorm, late in the evening, to find a room. Ten minutes earlier, I had distinctly thought to myself “99,000 miles in this van with no problems at all.” The grinding that followed sounded bad. It felt worse. I called AAA, who told me they would not tow my van because they considered it an RV. it is NOT an RV. I was dead in the water. I decided to put it in gear again and, with a noise like chain saws on corrugated metal, I limped a quarter mile to a motel. Like I said, I was lucky.

The next day, I got it to the local Ford dealer. They very quickly told me that the flex plate on the transmission was cracked. It was a Friday afternoon and the part would not come in until Monday. I would later find out – after they completed this repair – that I also needed a new torque converter. I ended up setting up shop in that motel in Rocky Mount, along with Elko, the desert dog, for six days while we waited for parts. My tombstone could read “Always Waiting for Parts.”

I rented a tiny car from Enterprise and I spent that week driving all over the eastern portion of North Carolina. I grew to like it. Every house, it seemed, had a front porch and every evening people sat out on their front porches. I tracked down the spot where Thelonious Monk had grown up in Rocky Mount. I took a ton of photos. I found myself thinking, “You know, I could live here.” The thought alone was an eye opener for me. I’m not sure I’d live in Rocky Mount, but just the idea that I could cracked open some little door in my mind.

El Paso, Texas - 2016. Photo by Paul Vlachos

10. El Paso, Texas – 2016

A year later, I was taking that van across the country. I had just emerged from some remote parts of southwestern New Mexico, not far from El Paso, when I felt something slip in the transmission. I had a new flex plate and a new torque converter, but the rest of the transmission had 105,000 miles on it by this point. On top of that, it was the smaller version of the standard Ford tranny, not the one I would have chosen in my survivalist dreams. It had held up well, but it was about to give up the ghost.

I limped into Las Cruces, New Mexico, the nearest town, and found a local transmission rebuilder. It was as far as the old van got. I had no choice but to trust these guys. Again, I left the van, got a car from the local Enterprise, my new favorite car rental company, and secured a room at a local motel. That began six days of a slow rebuild – they told me it was fast for them – and me driving all over the local countryside, thanking the gods that I had not broken down in Ohio, but near El Paso, Alamogordo, and that string of lonely little towns on New Mexico’s southern tier.

I ended up having a great time in this enforced pause. I found the local donut place and brought the mechanics donuts every day. I took a lot of photos and, once again, I entertained the fantasy of what it might be like to live in Las Cruces. I had stayed there only once before, on Christmas Eve, 2009, in a Motel 6, on my way to Oregon. This time, in April, I found the town kind of charming. The idea of living there or in adjacent Mesilla has never really left me. I had already fallen in love with northern New Mexico decades earlier, although I had come to prefer Albuquerque to Santa Fe as a place to possibly live, but southern New Mexico, with its harsher landscape, had not entered the picture until I broke down there. I still think about it, especially when I ponder the alternatives. I have heard the medical care in New Mexico is not always great, but should I worry about that? Should I worry about something that might only affect me in the last six months of my life?

 Fort Lauderdale, Florida - 2019. Photo by Paul Vlachos

11. Fort Lauderdale, Florida – 2019

As I drove south a few weeks ago, I thought hard about every place I passed through, from the opposite bank of the Hudson River to the Tampa Bay city line. I was mentally crossing off every last town, village, city and vague municipal area as any place I might want to live. These judgements may have been unfair. I was cold, crazy and running from a year’s worth of wild thoughts.

I had been thinking of the Northeast, but I always came back to two things that would sway me from living in the beautiful states of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts or northern New York – cold winters and ticks, along with the multitude of tick-borne diseases that seem to possess my mind. Every time I think I have come to terms with the idea of sharing a lawn with ticks, I hear some horror story of another person I know, brought low by Lyme Disease. I know it’s foolish to live like that and I know that millions of good people live in these places. I may end up in one of them, after all is said and done, but it doesn’t take much to shut down a procrastinating mind.

Florida has Lyme disease and ticks, but not so much of either one. And, when it comes to winter, case closed. I remember well, as a young boy, watching the old guys load up their Buicks and head south in the winter, to return in the spring with big mesh bags of oranges and grapefruits, along with deep tans. I thought they were nuts. I understand them now. The snowbird thing has some appeal.

I have spent more time in Florida over the last five years, either visiting with friends or hunkering down on self-imposed writing retreats. What have I gotten from these trips? Well, I like to shoot photos in Florida. There is good light and some good subject matter. I like the free and easy living, wearing t-shirts in January and February. I like the ocean, although I never visit it. I do like knowing it’s there and I do like smelling it on the breeze. That being said, I have never been here during hurricane season or during the summer, when it can get hot and humid. New York City is no picnic in the summer, either, but we don’t have as many bugs or lizards up there.

I vacillate on Florida. Sometimes, I think I can do it, sometimes I don’t. It’s cheaper down here and money is no small concern. New York is becoming more expensive by the day and I don’t know if I want to keep spending money to live somewhere that pisses me off so much. One reason I’m down in Florida at this moment is for perspective. I try not to think about climate change when I look at houses down here.

Portland, Oregon - 2011. Photo by Paul Vlachos

12. Portland, Oregon – 2011

Portland is another place I never would have thought of as home but, again, my Ford van took my mind in another direction. I bought the van in Portland and had to wait for an extra week before I could pick it up. In that time, you guessed it, I drove around, got to know the place, took a lot of photos, talked to people and discovered that it might be a pleasant place to settle. I have returned a few times since 2009, when I spent that first week there, and my opinion has never changed.

Now, it’s becoming clear that, once I spend a little time someplace, I realize it’s not the same as it may have seemed in my head. My preconceptions are often wrong. Not to say that I’ll like every last place where I’m forced to hang out for a while, but it tells me that even I can be adaptable. Which makes me question what my real reasons are for staying in New York or to even ask if I am unable to leave?

It’s more difficult to contemplate moving as I get older and my ancient roots in Lower Manhattan only deepen. It’s also more difficult to contemplate moving somewhere by myself. I think it must be easier to do as a couple. Of course, I have seen many couples move to New York, only to break up within a year or two of arriving there. I don’t know if that holds true of other places, but it’s a common occurrence in Gotham City.

Anyway, I like Portland, despite the rain and gloom. I still think I could live there easily. There are enough walkable neighborhoods. There is good bicycling. It’s close to many of the western hot springs that I love. Good food, good books, enough people to keep me preoccupied. Maybe I need to go back there before I make any decisions.

Seaside, California - 2016. Photo by Paul Vlachos

13. Seaside, California – 2016

There is a small chance this was taken in Marina, but I’m pretty certain it’s Seaside and, besides, they are only about ten minutes apart from each other. More importantly, they are both close to Monterey, which is another place I had never thought about living until I ended up staying there for a few days while waiting for a friend to fly in to San Jose.

I ended up liking Monterey. The ocean breezes, the French bakery I found and quickly became addicted to, the proximity to Big Sur. Monterey is expensive, but not as bad as Santa Cruz has become. If you had asked me, 25 years ago, where I’d move to in California, I’d have said Santa Cruz. Sadly, I don’t feel that way anymore.

Just a week ago, I had the idea that I could maybe move to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree, two very different desert towns that I have passed through many times and come to love in different ways. Despite what seems like the now-permanent fire season in California, the insane temperatures in those desert towns for half of every year, and a host of other issues, including the cost of living, I still like the idea of living there. The fantasy, I guess. Then I worry about walking the dog when it’s 100 degrees out. Or when it’s 110 degrees out. I don’t think this is just another of my ten million baseless worries. This could be real. Is that a reason to NOT move there? I don’t know. Would I have to reverse snowbird, to go to Montana every summer? Could I afford to do that? Again, I don’t know. But it’s something I thought of a week ago.

I continue to love the Golden State and, if you don’t, God bless you. Also, if you have any jobs open anywhere, especially teaching work, feel free to contact me via this august publication. I’m waiting to hear from you. I’m not joking. I have experience.

San Antonio, Texas - 2013. Photo by Paul Vlachos

14. San Antonio, Texas – 2013

I include San Antonio as a kind of dark horse candidate. Something out of the blue. I include it because Santo is from there and that’s good enough for me.

I have thought about applying for some academic positions in Texas and I especially like it in San Antonio and El Paso. I like US 90 and the whole of West Texas. Could I ever live there? If I had reason to move there, yes. Will I? I don’t know.

In fact, a lot of it comes down to that. I sometimes think I’m putting the cart before the horse, that I should look for some teaching gig and then follow where that takes me. Or do I look for the place I want to be and then find work? I suppose you could make an argument either way. I’m older, though, and the idea of following a career is not as important as living someplace I enjoy. Let the circular reasoning be unbroken, by and by.

I just don’t know.

The New York Subway  System- 2016. Photo by Paul Vlachos

15. The New York Subway System- 2016

And back to the belly of the beast, “Fun City,” as the infamous Mayor Lindsay called it many years ago. I was born here and have spent almost all of my adult years here. My family came here from the old country and this is where my roots are. What does that all mean? I don’t know.

It means that, when I walk down the street, I see ghosts and I hear voices. It means that certain corners of the city make me think about things and other parts make me feel things. It means that I can visit the graves of my parents easily. Does this make a difference? No. They’d be the first ones to tell me to go where I’m happy, although my dad, the ever practical engineer, would probably analyze every factor before making a decision about where to move. He was a rational man. I miss them both, my parents.

Most of my friends are here, and few things are as important as friendship. That means something. The idea of being someplace and needing someone to help out if I were to break a leg looms large. Then again, how long does it take to get to know people in other places? Is this a good reason to remain in one place? I have thought long and hard about the northern suburbs, the Hudson Valley and, despite the ticks, Lyme Disease and cold winters, there’s something to be said for northern New York. That being said, I don’t think I could get somebody from the city to come up and walk my dog if I were in a cast, even if it were only 40 miles north of the Great Machine known as Manhattan.

I have thought that, maybe, I need only leave the West Village, that portion of Greenwich Village next to the Hudson where I have lived for these last few decades. The Bronx! Queens! Bay Ridge! These places are all just 40 minutes away by train, just like my house in Yonkers was as a child. But then, as a teen, that 40 minutes of distance – 28 minutes, actually, by Metro North railroad – became the equivalent of light years. I just don’t know.

And – not to cop out on you all – I may not know until I know. I do know that I have to live in this moment, that I just have today, and that I have Santo on my lap as I type this, as WE type this, and that his squeaky ball is nearby on the floor, so I must be home.

Let me go and get that Coca Cola and Kit Kat. Hell, I don’t even want them anymore.

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