Yesterday, I took what shall henceforth be referred to as a Vonnegut Walk. The Vonnegut Walk is named, of course, for the eminent and irreverent writer, Mr. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who, in his 2005 work, Man Without A Country wrote about why he refuses to purchase envelopes (when following the link, be sure to go to page 55).
I didn’t (and don’t) refuse to purchase envelopes, but I did have an envelope to mail to a friend of mine, so I walked the five blocks from my office to the post office down the main street of the small mountain town where I live.
It is unseasonably warm and has been for the last few days. We Coloradoans know that it is February, but we’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like early April. The sun has been shining pleasantly and it has been in the mid-to-upper fifties, so I walked without a jacket and clicked along the sidewalk in my leather dress shoes.
It’s a satisfying sound, if I do say so myself. Click, click, click. It’s the sound of getting somewhere of your own volition. Click, click, click. Not unlike the sound of the keys that I tap now. Tap, tap, tap.
The local bookshop is between work and the post office and I decided to pop in to see what was new. Behind the counter, an artist acquaintance of mine, Minna, was scanning ISBN numbers into the system and the scanner gun made a noise like a pebble falling into a puddle- bloop, bloop, bloop.
Minna looked up from her blooping, saw me, and smiled. It is a good feeling to be smiled at by a beautiful woman- regardless of whether or not you hold any sort of romantic feelings for them. (And, I suspect, the reverse can be said- that it can be pleasant for a woman to be smiled at by a good looking man- I’m all about keeping things equitable.)
“Hello, Cyle,” she said and set the gun down. “What are you up to today?”
We talked for a few minutes about art and the studio that she co-owns. My band is playing there next month and we’re excited, so Minna and I spoke about that, too.
“Hey there, Talley,” I had been so caught up in conversation with Minna that I hadn’t seen Shay, another artist friend who also works at the bookstore (and co-owns the same studio, as it happens) come up to the counter. He extended his hand and we shook heartily. Shay is the sort of guy that most men wish they could be, but don’t quite have the courage necessary to try. An artist equally adept at sculpting, drawing and painting, he wears vintage western shirts and handmade leather boots (yes, handmade) and recommends great, if esoteric, novels like “Trout Fishing in America” by Richard Brautigan. When I worked at the bookstore (which explains why I know so many people there), he and I talked about politics and old bluegrass and creative nonfiction and told dirty jokes.
Usually in the same sentence, too.
Minna and Shay sent me off feeling good and I click, click, clicked down a few blocks when I came upon a young guy busking on the corner playing clawhammer banjo. I recognized the tune he plunked out as one that my band plays called, “Flower Blooming in the Wildwood”. Though it sounds happy, it’s a terrifically sad song- the sort of sad song that somehow, despite its sorrow, makes you feel a bit better for having heard it.
I crossed the street singing along.
A young woman and I arrived at the post office at about the same time and I held open the door for her. She seemed confused at the gesture more than anything- so confused, as a matter of fact, that she came to a halt and eyed me with a crooked brow and a slight trace of a scowl. I smiled, bowed low, and made a grand sweeping gesture with my arm- what the hell?- and that broke her. She chuckled and thanked me, the scowl gone and the brow straight and went inside to her post office box. The post office was technically closed for President’s Day, so I made use of the automated shipping machine that isn’t unlike the self checkout kiosks increasingly prevalent in the grocery stores. I’m perfectly adept at using both machines, but I usually prefer to wait in line and speak to a human being. The automated voice is disturbing and brittle and I have the notion that I’m actively pushing someone toward unemployment, which makes me feel horrifically guilty.
My friend Nathan says that it won’t be war that finally kills us off, it will be convenience and ease, and I believe him.
The sun was still shining when I emerged from the post office, bathing my little town in light and washing it out so that it looked like an overexposed photograph. Click, click, click went my shoes on the pavement as they pointed me up the main street and back toward work.
A familiar figure careened on his icy blue road bicycle from the street and onto the pavement, kicking his leg high and simultaneously dismounting and coming to a stop in the singularly graceful movement of a true bicycle fanatic. My friend, Nick. Behind him, another bicycle came, this one fire engine red. A lithe and remarkably blonde woman dismounted in similar fashion. Nick’s wife, Joy.
Joy and I met under circumstances that ought to make our friendship a lot more awkward than it is- she is the older sister of a woman I dated seriously for a time- but thankfully, because she and her husband are jovial sorts who judge each person for his or her individual merit rather than their associations, what should be awkward is actually very pleasant.
“Cyle!” Joy saw me first and smiled broadly. Her teeth are incredibly, dramatically white and only further enhance her ridiculously blonde hair. Turning around, Nick smiled as I click, click, clicked up the street toward them. “You always look so sharp, pal,” she said, hugging me tightly.
“Well, I’ve got to principal while you two are out climbing tall things,” I kicked at a pebble with my shoe and smiled. “What are you up to?”
“Coming back from a late lunch,” Nick said. “I’ve got to get back to work, man. We’re on for the 14th?” He hugged me. We stood in front of the outdoor store where Nick works as marketing manager. I’ve asked him to come and speak to the students at the school and he’s agreed- hence, the 14th.
“Cool cool- catch you later, eh?” He turned to his wife, “Bye babe.”
Joy and I spoke for a few minutes after Nick had left. She’s gotten a job as a ski instructor. “Love instructing. Whoa. So good.” She raved. I asked her about the vacation she and Nick just took with her family to Hawaii. “Gorgeous. It rained a lot, but usually in the early morning and so we just saw rainbows all over the place. It was amazing. And what about you, buddy? Spring Break’s coming soon. You going to stay here?”
“Nah, I’ll have itchy feet by then, I’m sure,” and she smiled, knowing the feeling intimately. When she smiles, she looks a lot like her sister and sometimes I get an odd sense of deja vu. Luckily, they are such different people that it’s easy for me to shake off the feeling. We parted ways and she touched me lightly on the arm as I passed, telling me to behave.
Crossing the street, I saw my stepsister, Jessie- who everyone knows as “Shesh” (which is pronounced exactly as it looks)- coming toward me. She was talking on the phone, but she bent her knees, shook her hindquarters in a little shimmy and ran toward me.
She is a terrifically singular human being.
We hugged and she covered the mouthpiece of her phone. “Gramma Mary is on the phone, wanna talk to her?”
“Sure,” I took the phone.
“Hello Mary,” I said.
“Holy man, you sound exactly like you did as a kid!” Mary has a pitch-perfect Minnesotan accent- her vowels harsh and her voice slightly shrill. I first met her as a twelve year old (which makes me now wonder if I had a deep voice then or have an adolescent sounding one now) when my biological father married Jessie’s mother. From the first, Mary was my favorite of my new stepmother’s family- not just because she was the kindly grandmother type who had us over for the weekend and bought us boxes of baseball cards and took us out for milkshakes, but because she is bracingly funny and cutting and has a wickedly sharp eye.
“How are you, Mary?”
“Oh, I’m fine, I’m fine. Another day, another do- well, I suppose I don’t make dollars anymore, do I? Just another day, then.”
“Have you got any snow there?”
“Oh yeah, oh yeah. Two feet outside my house right now.”
“And more comin’.”
“Why don’t you send some of that our way? We’re dry as a bone here.”
“Be glad to. I’ll go out and shovel it up right now. You can have it all! Fricken stuff comes up to the window! If I had to be somewhere, I couldn’t make it!”
“Well, are you getting to have any fun?”
“Oh, I went to the casino the other day.”
“Nah, but I didn’t lose anything either. Plus, kids bought me a gift card so I was playing on other people’s money! Ha!” She cackles. “What about you? What are you doing? You’re teaching, right?”
“Mmhmm. I’m the vice principal, too.”
“Vice principal? Holy man! And what else? Are you seeing anyone?”
“No, no. I haven’t got time for that.”
“Weren’t you dating a girl a few years ago?”
“Yeah, but that only happens once every few years or so.”
“Huh, I always figured you’d be that good looking guy who dated lots of women- what do they call that– a player? Yeah, I figured you’d be a player.”
“No, I pretty much date my dog.”
“HA!” Jessie chimed in. “You admit it! You DO date your dog!”
Mary and I exchanged a few more pleasantries and I handed the phone back to Jessie. We high-fived and continued on our separate ways.
Click, click, click.
I was about to turn up the block from Main to the next cross street when a young guy glided toward the intersection on his bicycle. Wearing a ice climbing helmet that struck me as severe overkill for what I assumed was an in-town commute, he came to a stop behind a car and turned toward me. It was my friend, Isaac, who smiled broadly. I assumed that we’d just wave at each other and be on our way, but he turns his front wheel and maneuvered his bicycle toward me.
“Cyle!” He shouted.
“Isaac!” I’ve never seen Isaac in a bad mood. He is constantly smiling, constantly happy, and laughs more than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve read that psychologists believe a demeanor such as Isaac’s- constantly laughing and smiling- tends to be a mask or cover for a cut-rate intelligence. Psychology, meet Isaac and be proven completely wrong. Not only is he a joy to be around, he’s also one of the more intelligent people I know.
“What’s up, man?” He hugged me from his bicycle.
“How are you, sir?” It’s a little awkward to hug him from the curb, but I manage.
“Good, good. Busy. Like really, really busy. It feels like I’m getting crushed, but I’m good.”
“Yeah, man. It’s just crazy right now. I’m starting to wonder if I’m studying the right thing. You know, like maybe I should go for writing or something.”
“Oh, that’s the worst. I had that feeling- I hate that feeling. Loathe it entirely.”
“Yeah, just- just a lot of really dense work.”
“How many credits are you taking?”
“Sixteen. And it’s not like I haven’t taken that many before. It’s just that they’re all upper division courses so the work is more in depth, you know?”
“Yeah, but the light is at the end of the tunnel, right? You’re close, yeah?”
“No, I’ve got three more semesters- and maybe more if I can get this study abroad program.”
“Study abroad?! Where?!”
“Uh,” he chuckled. “Actually, the United Arab Emirates.”
“The Emirates! That would be amazing! Where is the program?”
“A town adjacent to Dubai.”
“Oh man, that would be incredible.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve just got to get scholarships, you know? So yeah, I meant to actually call you last weekend to see if you wanted to get a cup of coffee or something, but Julia and I were able to snag this van at the last minute and we went camping.”
“Oh, well, we didn’t make it. The van busted and we had to spend some time working on it- which pretty much took up the whole weekend.”
“Yeah, but anyway, I’d really like to get some coffee sometime.”
“Oh, absolutely. Any time- just say the word. Why? What’s up?”
“I just wanted to pick your brain about writing,” he said and I felt my face begin to flicker with heat. “I’ve been reading your blog a lot lately,” and he went on to say some lovely and very kind things about the writing I’ve been doing lately and I think about how nice it is for someone as intelligent as Isaac to be reading- and enjoying- the pithy things that I spend my time on.
We parted ways and I click, click, clicked back toward my office. It occurs to me that I have had myself one hell of a good time.
Of course, walking like this isn’t always as picturesque as it was yesterday. Occasionally, my click, click, clicking annoys someone or I see a woman scolding her child (“Stop that right now and behave like a normal human being!”) for fluttering down the street pretending to be a butterfly or an airplane. Sometimes I have really great conversations and sometimes not. My friend, Joy thinks I look sharp in my dark jeans and collared shirt and shoes that go click, click, click, but there have been a few occasions in which other people have shouted some very misguided homophobic slurs at me.
I am aware, too, that not everyone gets to live in an idyllic mountain town that is wrapped up in a blanket of scenery and beauty. That a walk like mine in downtown LA might end up very differently than it did in downtown Durango. The world isn’t always a good place, but it is most of the time- or at least, that’s what it wants to be.
Regardless, it’s important to ignore the people who tell us that walking to the post office is a waste of time and that waiting in line is an indignity that we ought never to have to suffer. That’s why I’m coining the term “Vonnegut Walk” and suggesting that you take one at your earliest occasion. We need to heed the man’s words when he concludes his own essay on this very same subject: “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.”