Romalyn TilghmanYou really carried around notes for this novel for several decades?

Yep. Those notes have lived in the garages of nine homes in five states during that time. I was 24 years old when I was hired to work with local arts councils in Kansas, and although I’d grown up in Manhattan, Kansas, the rural communities I was visiting could’ve been on the moon. I became fascinated by these towns and wondered why some had a certain energy about them and some didn’t. What was in the water that made people in one town walk faster than those in the next town over? And my, did those towns have feuds! Each competed to have the best arts council, seemingly still carrying animosity from the Civil War days of Bloody Kansas.

to the stars through difficultiesTORNADO DEMOLISHES KANSAS TOWN

NEW HOPE, Ks. (AP)—The entire community of Prairie Hill, Kansas (population 2754) was demolished Saturday evening by a tornado the National Weather Bureau rated EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale. The twister was 1.7 miles wide, on the ground non-stop for 24 miles and 29 minutes, with a wind velocity of 200 mph.

Over 100 injuries have been treated at the nearby makeshift clinic in New Hope. The town was leveled, with churches, schools, businesses and homes reduced to ruins.

“Exactly one wall is standing,” said Mayor Wade Brown. “The front, just the façade, of the old Carnegie library is the only vertical object in the entire town. Otherwise, everywhere I look, there’s nothing but sky. Flattened debris and sky. We’re lucky; we had a 20-minute warning which saved hundreds of lives, but otherwise, we have nothing.”

Why do you write?

Well, Jonathan Safran Foer told The New York Times Magazine that he writes “in order to end [his] loneliness.” I write in order to prolong, and if possible to exacerbate Jonathan Safran Foer’s loneliness. I aim to embody a Jewish American authorial masculinity so totalizing, it not only takes his breath away, but all his friends, his wife, novelist Nicole Krauss, and their two children.

 

Is loneliness a factor in your own work?

It doesn’t motivate writing. Literally it doesn’t motivate writing. I moved to Kansas in July from New York and I’m living by myself in a sad house, alone, and not writing.

 

You moved there intending to write?

Sure. It could be a Foerian Watusi—just self-aggrandizing performance—but I had access to a house. There’s a mortgage my Socialist late uncle was able to arrange via the USDA’s Office of Rural Development. I moved to right-wing Kansas for the welfare, in effect. And also to write, which means first of all living cheaply. And second of all, what it means to me is to summon the kind of intelligence I’d most hope to find in a book. If you’re brilliant already that must be a cinch, but if you are not a brilliant person, you’ll have to take whatever intelligence you have and extend and transform it until it’s capable of apprehending something extraordinary and worth reporting. Or that’s the theory. I’m here as an experiment in “changing,” rebuilding, my mind.

 

What are the results of this experiment?

Yesterday I drank gin. And you can do that in New York: drink gin. So I put a minus sign in my writing journal. I didn’t go outside, talk to anyone, think, read, or work. It was indistinguishable from Brooklyn.

 

You make Kansas sound dangerous.

Indistinguishable from Bagram, excuse me.

 

You seem obsessed with danger, one might almost say dangerously so. Do you deliberately create it, and why?

The path into the life-furthering wisdom is reputedly perilous. One risk being the risk of the false path. Corollary: if you’re sure of your steps, you’ll have failed. I might be wrong, I might have missed something important, but when I was eighteen and taking notes on the matter, it struck me that I’d never met somebody happy who was worthy of respect. No one was happy—but everyone would tell you how to best live your life. The conclusion was that one should improvise, blaze unexpectedly, try to stay weird.

 

Your misery is strategic?

The misery, if any, is habitual.

 

But in the difficulties that you seem to engineer for yourself, is there a strategy?

I don’t mean to say that weirdness for the sake of it, addiction, desperate solitude and elective pseudo-poverty are any kind of universal answer. But I am skeptical of other answers.

 

You’re a man without a clue? No answers?

Good laughs. Canyonlands National Park. Tanqueray. I think the nearest answer is a wholly arbitrary oscillation between absolute doubt, on the one hand, and ingenuous reverence and joy: aloofness, immersion, repeat.

 

Perspectivism?

Say agnosticism sprinkled with Buddhist meditative practice, alcoholism, and a feel for the American landscape. Because that’s what works.

 

What relationship is there between wisdom, happiness and writing?

I don’t know that wisdom leads to happiness. The nature of the universe could turn out to be one of those things that you’re better off not knowing. But like anyone, during bouts of confusion, inertia, or sadness—bouts that come nightly in my case—I look instinctively for guidance from the sages, and the sages that I find most compelling are the writers whose experiential depth comes through in their words. They know what I want to know because they haven’t missed life.

 

To write the kind of books you’d want to read, you’re required to live, then.

🙂

 

 

“Joi, I hear you’re moving! Where ya going?”

“Kansas.”

Kansas?!” they would shriek. “Why are you moving to Kansas?!” As if I had said, “Siberia,” or “New Jersey.” Why, even banshees cry, Kansas, don’t they?

I’d have to go through some variation of the above several times a night in the months prior to leaving New York City. Most often, this would be shouted across a bar. Typically this would be one of the two bars I was tending at the time, but it just as easily could have happened when I was on the other side of the bar, already halfway done with my Hendricks martini, or Hendricks Collins, or hell, Hendricks and tonic if I knew the bartender was inept at making a 2- or 3- step cocktail. I had developed quite the Hendricks habit once I started my drinking-for-free career in New York. It’s inevitable once you are a bartender. Ok, not the Hendricks habit per se, but definitely a top shelf habit.

Sometimes I stuck to Chianti.

I have a penchant for good Italian wines. Actually, I also have a penchant for cheap Italian wines, if it’s on my dime. I truly believe you can’t ever go too wrong with an Italian red (I rarely drink anything other than red wine, so I can’t vouch for the whites). My golden rule for wines: You can always trust the Italians. The French, not so much. And forget the Australians with their far too sweet Shiraz nonsense. California can suck it, for the most part.

You might want to trust my opinion, but if you don’t, I wouldn’t blame you either, as I know I can be bombastically opinionated. I’m not just a drinker with refined tastes. I’m not just a bartender either (no worries. I will not refer to myself as “mixologist.”) I’m all that and more! I owned a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for 4 years and managed or worked in several others after that. This was to supplement my main source of income (a career in social services is my chosen profession, but it’s not exactly going to let you lead a comfortable existence in a city as expensive as New York).

“What the hell is in Kansas?” they’d persist.

Bar customers are a demanding lot and I’ve come in contact with all kinds. I had a remarkable stint at a downtown strip club. I actually worked in the clothed portion of the club, a room with a separate entrance above the strip club itself, where they had a decent sized performance space for bands, etc. By “etc” I mean burlesque shows, comedy nights, porn parties. “Anything goes,” I was told. The catch was, I had to be the “anything goes” booker 6 nights per week. A big part of the job was dealing with my oh so charming Ukranian boss (the venerable owner of the strip club and unintentional downtown celebrity) who annoyingly reeked of salami. He didn’t speak to many of the girls who worked for him. In fact, he usually just referred to his female employees as “The Girl.” He called me by my name from day one, I’ll have you know. On better days he was prone to utter such bon mots as, “I am not a lawyer…but I am very…legal,” and during less jovial moods would sit upstairs in his office glaring at the security cameras to make sure none of the other bartenders were pouring too much, or heaven forbid, stealing (“I once caught a girl stealing from me. I fired her but gave her one more chance. I caught her again. Very bad things will happen to her.”)

I thought I had seen it all after working some pretty crazy nights in my own bar, but working above a 35-year-old Manhattan strip club attracted a whole different end of the spectrum. There was the night I was serving Kurt Russell on one end of the bar, and Moby on the other. They were attending someone’s engagement party. Kurt was very effusive when it came to complimenting the ladies present, including me. At one point he asked me, “Why are you so goddamned beautiful?” and then opened his wallet and splayed out all his cash on the bar. “Take it. Take it all!” he insisted as I rolled my eyes and ignored him. I mean, I’m no Goldie digger. I had a giant little girl crush on him in Junior High. He suddenly seemed so greasy and awful in that moment of indiscriminate generosity. Ok, in retrospect, he was kind of cool. Moby was just quiet and in a raucous environment such as this, it was unsettling. He also complained to the DJ that he needed to play something more dancy. It should be mentioned that my friend was playing 80s pop music. Kids in America, for fuck’s sake. And everyone except Moby was into it! So, deal with it, Mr Grouchy pants who only tips $1 a drink despite having sold all of his songs to various commercials, thereby making him a a billionaire. Yeah, fuck Moby. Not that I’d want to, I assure you. Kurt Russell, maybe. Moby sure as hell wasn’t telling me I was beautiful.

“But, how can you leave this? What are you gonna do in Kansas?”

After leaving the strip club, I got a job as a booker/bartender/Assistant Manager at a world famous drag queen/tranny club/restaurant in the East Village. Here, I was mistaken for a tranny almost every day of my workweek, usually by hopeful “tranny chasers.” In theory, I wouldn’t mind this. In fact, I’d take it as a huge compliment because, hello, have you seen these girls work platforms or stilettos? I sure as hell couldn’t do more than hobble down the rickety staircase to the bathroom in my sensible 5 inch Nanette Lepore sandals. They apply make-up better than any born female I know and they have bodies that would tempt Hugh Heffner out of his smoking jacket. So, go ahead, think I’m a tranny. This wasn’t the problem. The problem was the way these men would assume that I didn’t deserve respect because I was a tranny. And that, I’m sorry, is disgusting. Basic human decency seemed to be a lost art these days in a place such as this. I miss working there, despite the often rude clientele. Sometimes I miss the girls I worked with more than I miss my mom, although, I’ve never had a dysfunctional relationship with a job as much as I did at…Fortunate Chinaman’s. I loved it. I hated it. I loved it. I’d go in on my nights off. That’s typically a no-no in The Unofficial Bartender’s Guide To a Healthy Lifestyle, but when drinks are free and you are surrounded by your friends, why would you go elsewhere?

But, they don’t have Hendricks. Or, a decent Italian red.

Nor did the other place I worked one night a week in Park Slope, Brooklyn in the 4 months preceding my move to Kansas. I will plug this bar here, because it is, for the most part, drama free, as far as I’m concerned. Of course you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar or restaurant that is drama free. Hell, I daresay you’d be hard pressed to find any workplace to be drama free! Anyway, I worked at Park Slope’s only full time metal/punk/goth bar every Thursday night, Lucky 13 Saloon and this was my favorite, and easiest experience working as a bartender.

I digress. You probably will notice that I do that an awful lot. This isn’t about Hendricks. This isn’t about Italian reds, either. This is barely scratching the surface of my New York City bar experiences and that is all beside the point. And I’m still not answering the question of “Why, Kansas,” am I?

“You can always come back,” they’d assure me. “New York will always be there to come back to.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hope so. No, I know this is true. I lived through 9/11 (ahhh, no worries, no gratuitous 9/11 stuff here for at least another 3 weeks). If 9/11 could happen and New York could still survive, well, I think it “will always be there.” New York. It’s in my blood. Of course it will always have to be there as long as I’m alive.

Still, how to deal with the ache of missing it. At any point, some tiny memory will hit me. I’ll miss the rumble of trains on the elevated tracks overhead while sucking the dregs of a white fluted paper Italian ice cup in Ozone Park, Queens. I’ll think of my grandfather shuffling along with his beloved old mutt alongside of me on this day and think of how I’d scream as loud as I could to compete with the squeal of the trains. My grandfather is gone. So is most of what I loved about many neighborhoods. Yet, I still get mad when people say “New York isn’t what it used to be.” Can’t you say the same of Rome, Italy? Give New York a break, haters. I love New York. I will always love New York. I’ve traveled the world and I have traveled this country. There is NO place like New York. I grew up privileged and I don’t mean in a material sense.

In fact, I’ve always loved my city. My earliest memory is being in the backseat of my parents’ car. I could have only been 2 years old, as my brother was not yet born. I recall being enthralled with the tall buildings surrounding me. I recall lying down on the floor their car, the hump hurting my back, to try and see the tops of the buildings. As I did this, I remember the commercial playing on the radio. “More Park’s sausages, mom, please?” And I just had a feeling of love swelling up in me for this moment, for these buildings that became the night sky for me. Even for the kid’s whiny voice in the stupid commercial.

I had lived my entire life in New York and traveled to Europe, Africa and Central America. In this country, I’d been up and down the East Coast, to California, Nevada and Louisiana, but I had never been to the Midwest before last September. I admit it. How limited, a life without even a brief fling with the Heartland, and now I fucking live here.

Why, Kansas?

It’s crazy. I do love it here. Part of me always wanted to live in a big old house with a porch, which seems simple enough to anyone who doesn’t live in a big city. I adore my summer nights spent writing or reading to the relentless sound of cicadas outside where it is pitch dark and I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. Hard to think not too long ago, summer nights were spent walking home from work over the Williamsburg Bridge with Jeremy, drinking from a concealed bottle of Montepulciano and admiring the Domino sugar factory sign still lit up, not to mention the half-darkened Manhattan skyline seemingly looming right on top of it. Standing at the edge of the bridge, I vowed that I could swim the East River home on such nights, although I knew the strong current made it next to impossible to swim from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The distance appears to be much shorter than it actually is. New York is chock full of illusions, and many people become disillusioned living here, but that person would never be me. I still sob for such nights.

“So why are you moving to Kansas?!” they would all but demand after I’d ignore them for a while, or try and change the subject. But sometimes when I was feeling more generous, I’d answer.

“For love. I am doing it for love.”

This, the best of them usually accepted.