On Coming Home
Copyright © 2015 by Lindsey Okubo
This piece was for my last journalism class, Point of View, taught by the man himself, James McBride. The topic was our class trip to Philly on May 1st which also was our final class and how all of us have changed. Enjoy friends xx
Higher, higher, eyes closed. Legs bending and folding at the knees. Back and forth. Momentum. Stomach twisting twice on each descent, a smile curling the first couple times. I was on a swing in Philadelphia at Franklin Square Park, a name that bore no significance and made no promises. “Not enough skyscrapers, the city needs more skyscrapers,” Felipe’s voice echoed in my head. Felipe the classmate who wore suits and ties to class every Friday afternoon, who thinks that life has no inherent meaning, who tells stories about helipads at the Mexican embassy, who drinks his coffee black, who watched me swing and watched another classmate, Christiana with her airy, brown curls and baritone laugh reach from one monkey bar to the next, as if he were our father, or babysitter. Felipe, who never has had a home, or maybe even a childhood, who left his parents care at age 16 to live in Bethesda, Maryland with only the aftertaste of Colombian guava pastries in his mouth. A friend once told me that New York is home to people who’ve never had a home.
I came to New York two years ago while the heat of summer waned at age 20. I thought I would stay. But with just a week of classes remaining a part of me would die with this dream. New York would never be home. I had a one way ticket back to Hawaii. I closed my eyes. Shut them tight. Stuck my legs out in front of me and held them there, momentum sustained, inertia.Feeling out an ending. Sinking lower, lower. I let myself go knowing the air too held a current. I was tired of fighting, tired of missing things, the ocean, the sand, driving, people I loved. With my feet on the ground again I checked the Casio watch on my left arm, it remained on Hawaiian time, six hours behind. I was no good at math. The three of us only had 30 minutes to get to the Foodery on N 2nd street to meet the rest of our classmates and our professor, James McBride. We walked under an overpass of a highway that we would never drive with the windows up or down. We were indifferent to it, our experience was not contingent on anything other than the present. We were walking on a blank canvas with red paint on our feet, we were walking the Earth. A black man was selling red roses from the sidewalk near a traffic light. Holding a few of them in his hands he walked back and forth along a 30 foot stretch of pavement hoping that someone would roll down their window. But no one did.
Before we arrived at the Foodery, my left hand was stuffed into the pocket of my maroon wind-breaker fidgeting with one of those “Hello..My name is” stickers that I had taken to drawing on. Writing the word, GUAVA in black ball point pen and filling in the blocked, “wild-style” letters with a pastel palette. The markers I used had names like purple sage, mint and chromatic orange, along with an electric blue and bright pink Sharpie pens. I chose the name Guava because it reminded me of home, Hawaii. It was inseparable from tropical associations, of palm trees and paradise. I was no graffiti artist per say but I’d been making these stickers, placing them nonchalantly on telephone booths and mailboxes around New York as a way to “leave my mark” I guess.
Guavas grew wildly back at home. I remembered a five hour hike that I had done over the summer on the North side of the island in Waialua above the Dillingham airfield with Cole, my boyfriend and my best-friend. It had been so hot that day, that whole summer. Because he’s a photographer Cole always traveled heavily, with backpacks and hefty cameras, extra rolls of film and different lenses. We had made it to a look-out point and there was a bench there under a metal shack-like thing and he climbed up onto it, sprawled out, groaning, needing water, the drinking kind and the sea. The shack and table had a bunch of tags on it. I took photos of a few of the funny ones but I no longer remember what any of them said. I just knew they were there, they had left their mark, created a dialogue that strangers would read even though they didn’t necessarily want to. The trail snaked and sloped and we had no real idea of where we were going. The dirt beneath our feet and the sun beating down on our backs were the only sense of direction we really had. After hours of wayfaring on end we ended up above a point on the west-side of the island known as Makua Valley. Makua Valley was a place you couldn’t access unless you were a part of the United States military and had training practice there. We’d pass by its gaping passage on the way to one of our favorite beaches, the farthest away we could go from our homes on the east side of the island and always marveled at how the valley had been carved by years of rainfall and the exhales of the tradewinds that jet-streamed over head. From the trail we looked into the valley. Cole used his backpack as a back rest and we sat there eating the snacks we brought, probably nuts and pb&j sandwiches and took turns drinking from the Camelbak I carried. We had never seen the valley this way. This birds eye view filled me like a tide pool being inundated by the high-tide of a new swell. This place, this sense of wonder, awe, refreshment, renewal that came so naturally through the five senses and could be shared made me realize that a sixth sense had developed. This sixth sense was an emotional one, one that awoke usually at sunrise or sunset but could be rustled at the helm of these kinds of experiences. When you realize you are small, that magic exists not in fairy tales but in the freedom that comes with simply being. The scent of wild guavas filled the air as we descended from the mountains cliffs. These formations towered, but did not scrape the sky abrasively, they stood under it like bridges to the Milky Way. Cole climbed up onto the slope of the trail and picked two guavas that the birds hadn’t gotten to yet. He placed them in my backpack. They filled the car with a sweet smell all the way home for the entirety of an hour long drive. When we got home I placed the guavas in the fridge. We never ate them but instead let them infuse the air of the fridge. Every time we opened the door we were greeted by a stream of cold air and the smell of guava.
I slapped the GUAVA sticker onto a door that already had a number of tags and pastes on it. I didn’t mention it to Christiana or Felipe and let them walk ahead. There was something about this silent kind of claim, a quiet rebellion against leaving whilst knowing where I had been and where I had come from without being able to know exactly where I’d be going. I looked back at my name on the door, wondering who would see it, how long before the rain would run through the ink and it became illegible and who would think of a tropical island in the middle of the sea when they read the word: GUAVA.
I managed to snag a window seat on the ride back on the Amtrak from Philadelphia’s 30th street station. It was in the cafe car and sitting in one of those seats that faced the opposite direction in which the train was going making you feel as if you were moving backwards. I tried to take photos through the window of the car of all the graffiti on the walls of warehouses, urban architecture and roofs that comprised what I thought was West Philadelphia, maybe New Jersey, I didn’t know. I placed my Leica D-Lux 5 on the “Sports” shooting mode, the train was moving fast, the camera’s shutter had to move faster. The problem was that since I was moving “backwards” I couldn’t see what was coming up next. I couldn’t see ahead. I had to try to capture what we were passing as we were passing it. Blindly clicking down the shutter I shot as many frames as I could. Most of them came out poorly, blurry or just poorly composed or not composed at all but some of them I was surprised at, even happy about. The lack of planning was frustratingly liberating. About 45 minutes or so into the commute the guy who had been working at the cafe counter came to sit down across from me where a pile of papers, magazines and scratch pads sat unclaimed until now. He was an older guy, I guessed he was probably around 50 or so. He had these glasses that were gold framed and funky, jutting upwards in the corners in an assertion of taste. He sat there for about 15 minutes filling out what looked like a report on the items sold in the cafe that day. When he got up he left a book on the table, the title of it was, “Do what you love and the money will follow”. That kind of broke my heart. I didn’t see him again before we disembarked from the train at New York’s Penn Station. I hoped he was happy.
Being back in New York filled me with a strange sense of relief. I had never felt this way about being back in the city, it usually filled me with dread and nausea. Yet, merging into the heavy flow of pedestrian traffic I knew exactly where I was going, how fast to walk, there was a sense of belonging and ownership of returning to New York from a city like Philadelphia that disenchanted me deeply from the idea of leaving. I had been waiting for this feeling and it had come too late and I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to feel at all. Or maybe I was feeling this way only because I was leaving? New York had shown me where my home was, who I was but mostly who I was not, where my home was not. This place had changed me.
I was skyping Cole that night. He asked me, “are you sure you want to come home?”
“Yes! Yes”, I quickly said. Yes.
New York this semester had been perfect on paper. I ran across the Manhattan Bridge a few times a week, renewed my faith in “journalism” with a slew of interviews, walked away from a few of them with a sense of friendship and elation, drank a strawberrita on a rooftop in the East Village looking onto the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center under a nearly full moon, ate free Georgetown Cupcakes and read magazines barefoot in a bikini top and shorts at Central Park. I would look back on this semester and my time in New York with a sense of nostalgia. But these were not the quiet moments. I spent most of my time alone here. Yes I would walk to class on Broadway and my “campus” was the city itself, I had no one to share it with truly. Yet this is not a sob story, more than anything it is my independence, my lack of dependence on anyone but myself to get me through the extremities that came with this city. Coming back from breaks I’d usually fall asleep crying and then I’d wake up and cry again. I’d be in line at Whole Foods near Union Square, holding back tears while waiting for the color of my lane to flash before quickly wiping away tears before I got to the register. But there were times when I’d walk down the streets beaming for no reason, filled with a sense of presence listening to Gang-Starr. I had made friends with the group of four Mexicans, especially Tomas and Marco who worked at the Bodega near my apartment, they made my egg wrap every morning and with the Korean Couple who owned the place. But now I was going home.
The feeling that I felt at Penn Station surrounded by strangers, waiting for the downtown A-train train that would take many of them home, to family, to dinner waiting on the stove, was perhaps more than anything a sense of my being content with where I was in life, with who I had become. Though you could say the dream is perhaps ending, New York will always be the myth of youth. Someone I interviewed, Jaime Reyes, a Hawaii to New York transplant, former pro-skateboarder and one of the fiercest females I had ever met, once told me, “maybe you were one of those people who was never meant to leave home”. At the time I thought that could never have been the case, but I now know I am meant to return there. Though New York is the dream for writers, young and old, the place to which Joan Didion left and inevitably returned to, I am going to do what I love, I am going to be where I need to be, where the guava surely grows. The money, will follow.