Ten years ago:

There is something about working the photo lab at your local convenience store that sends one instantly spiraling downward into despair. Life at the photo counter, with a little apron and twenty-six bins full of people who never came back for their pictures, is not as simple as working the little machine and handing out brightly colored packets. The impatience of the customers, people who always seem to need their photographs immediately, was only one of a variety of concerns. There is still the rest of the store to contend with, and it is unfamiliar and hostile territory.

Out there, in the land of shelves and prescriptions, there were trucks that needed unloading. There were health-threatening chemicals that needed constant lugging and mixing in order to keep the print machine alive. There were also other coworkers who knew how things worked there. They wandered over by the photo stand with caution, and verbally poked at me to see if I was actually human. At that point I wasn't fully coherent yet, so many of them wandered off bored. A few stuck around, and I told them about the previous few months.

In those first few days there, I encountered a theme that would echo throughout my time in Holland. After talking to someone for a while, they would get a look on their face like they were lost in their own thoughts. And then, the inevitable question would be asked, and it would set off a little wave of homesickness and heartache.

"Why did you move out here?"

Usually, this was a misunderstanding of geography: some folks would assume I was from the city. I quickly learned that there needed to be a specific delineation between the city and upstate in my statements about New York. Sometimes that was all that was needed to clarify things, but for others there was still a sense of confusion.

"Yeah, but why are you here? There's nothing here."

This was simple social commentary. These folks were bored with Holland, or didn't see much appealing about the area. I generally agreed with them, but explained why this situation was better than the one I had been in. The assumption for them was that I would return back east once things settled out, and get back to whatever it was I did when I was there. I empathize with this feeling. I grew up in a town, aching to leave but without the tools to do so. I had clawed and hacked to the exit until I eventually dragged myself away, fists shaking in the air swearing never to entrap myself like that again.

Instead I was here, in a place where the locals perhaps found themselves with the same feeling of entrapment. It was not a morale builder.

 


 

When I got home from my second day at the new job, I got a call that I wish I had received earlier, because it would have made things so much easier in the short run. In my flurry of applications, I had put one in at the Babbage's and the Westshore Mall. It was the only job I applied for where I had relevant experience, so I figured I might get a holiday job there and then figure out what my next move was. But I was in a hurry to start making some kind of money, and I took that Walgreens job when it came up.

But now the manager of the Babbage's had finally seen my application, and wanted me to come in for an interview. I went up close to mall closing to meet up and talk things over. It was the best job interview I ever had.

"Your application said you worked for EB for two years."
"Yeah, I was up for Senior Sales until I moved out here. I ran numbers for corporate, opened and closed the store, and handled incoming and outgoing shipments. My boss let me sleep on his couch so I could continue working for him. If you show me how to ring up a sale, I can run the store."
"Well, I am missing an Assistant Manager at the moment. We could take you on as a Senior for now, and move you into the Assistant position after the new year if things work out. Are you interested?"
"Uh, very yes."

The next day, I went into Walgreens and gave them three days' notice. I explained that I had been offered a management position somewhere else, and they were welcome to give me a competing offer. The store manager was all kinds of upset, and didn't talk to me for the rest of the week. I often found myself yanked away from the photo counter to perform menial tasks in apparent retaliation for my sudden departure. I became very intimate with the loading dock in those last few days there, lugging boxes around while the stockroom manager looked on. I didn't take any of it personally. I was the one that was fucking with them, so it seemed fair treatment.

On my way out of the store, I stopped and talked to one of the women who worked at the cosmetics counter. She had been exceptionally nice to me while I was working there, and I wanted to make sure that she knew how much I appreciated it.

"We should get together once you're settled into your new job."
"Yeah, that would be nice." I said in a polite way.
"Here's my number. Give me a call sometime."
I took it, but I didn't really intend on calling her. But was nice to know that within a week I had been rational enough to make a good impression on someone. I considered it an indication that I was taking the first steps to being a real person once again.

 


 

Meanwhile back in New York, my father woke up one morning and had a seizure in the bathroom. My mother heard him hit the floor, and he was rushed off to the hospital. Since this was my family, my brother and I didn't find out about it until a few days later, when he was already back home and resting. The doctors had run a battery of tests, but were unable to determine exactly why this had happened.

It was the first time that my father had an unexplainable ailment. Although there had been many times over the preceding years that my father was in need of medical attention, usually it was minor or of his own doing. These are the perils of saving money by doing odd jobs, or heating your home for the winter with nothing but a chainsaw and the back forty. But my father had always been healthy otherwise, and the idea that this may not actually be the case anymore hit me pretty hard. My experiences of death and illness within my family were all of elderly relatives, which came with the understanding that it was all part of being old. But my father, a few months shy of 49 at this point, was not in that tier of elderly relatives. The concept of my parents getting older and being ill had not crossed my mind to any serious extent until that point, and I was left at a loss about how to evaluate this new information.

It was the first taste of a feeling that echoed though me for several months: so many things are happening in New York, and I was all the way out west for some reason. I did want to be home, to physically verify that my father was going to be okay. This is something I still deal with today, made even stronger by my younger brother's new family, and my parents slowly growing into their later years. There will never be a good way for all of this to settle in my head, but at least now I am able to travel back to Castleton from time to time.

My brother and I talked about this a bit, as well as our time growing up at home. As much as I tend to complain about my youth, he had a much harder time of things at home. He lived through the death of my sister, and the swirling mess of grief and guilt that surrounded it. As a result, my parents were much more militant and controlling of his upbringing then they were even of mine. But he also had a eight year head start on dealing with these issues, so we were almost in the same place emotionally at this point. We both panicked when we thought about going home for the holidays, and we both felt that there was no way we would be able to live in that town ever again.

This was the second time that I had these conversations with someone. The first was a Thanksgiving the year before, where the kids had assembled in the basement and started yanking skeletons out of the closet one by one. We succeeded in scaring the crap out of the collected cousins, but did little to actually deal with these issues in any way. This time the talking was productive, and demonstrated a new kind of connection that I was building with him. We were able now to talk to each other as equals, instead of letting the eight year age difference drive a wedge in between us. While there was still a power imbalance there, this was the start of breaking down that wall, and it is something that I hold very dear.

 

Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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