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"Measuring Distance" - Diane V. Rogers

              It’s October, the gray landscape full of soggy foliage, muted but lovely.  Dan is driving me down Route 81, the music blaring so loud neither of us speaks until he switches tracks or turns down the volume to make a point.  I listen carefully, sometimes glancing at his profile, wondering exactly what the music makes him feel.  Sometimes my attention wanders as I look out the window asking myself, “How did a nice anarchist like me end up getting shuttled in a borrowed van, being schooled on a rapper as misogynistic and homophobic as Eminem?”  Then I catch a glimpse of Dan’s face when Eminem raps about the pain of being abandoned by his father.  I am beginning to understand.  As miles disappear beneath the tires, I listen to the stories of familial dysfunction, the violence of poverty, and passion for music.  The lyrics burn themselves into my sense of memory of this journey:  “I’m sorry momma! I never meant to hurt you! I never meant to make you cry…”

                In the North Country, my mom lives in a town small enough to saunter through before you pick up the mail, which she does before lunch as a matter of course, knowing that the post office closes at midday for lunch.  The number of steps between the post office and nearby grocery store is small.  It’s a journey that should feel short, but when walking with my mother, the distance feels interminable.

                It begins just blocks away when she leaves her house.  She steps out the front door.  The neighbor dog bounds toward her, joyously heedless of the leash law.  My mom pets her, slips her a treat while saying sternly “go home,” then acts shocked when the dog trots along behind her.  She contemplates which of three nearly-identical side streets to walk down.  When she gets to the main street, she frets about the dog’s running into “traffic,” as she calls the three cars that pass by slowly.

                There is ritual involved with getting the mail.  She must find the inevitably lost mail key and instruct the dog to stay outside.  At the mailbox, she will explain to anyone present that the dog, who followed her in, is not hers.  After greeting everyone in line, she’ll tell a dog story to the postmistress.  Leaving, she will recognize a neighbor in the lobby and discuss the weather.  Once outside, she’ll remember the neighbor dog is inside and go back for her, stopping to chat with whatever neighbor is trying to enter while avoiding the dog’s excited tail wave.

                Next, she counts the number of cars in front of the post office, remembering how my father avoided the post office at “rush hour,” looks to see who is on the village green, and counts all the parked cars, reporting to me continually.

                Ten steps to the community bulletin board, then an inevitable story about an upcoming dinner.  Last year a group of her friends went together.  This year, they might again.

                She will review an ad for the town film series, musing about how she would rather watch a movie at home.  Then a friend is sure to come by – greetings, exchange of pleasantries, weather chat, dog story, and a few steps more.

                We’re almost there – but wait!  The grocery store has a foyer.  More neighbors to greet.  Whether or not she acknowledges me lets me know if she remembers their names.  Then she will ask what day it is, trying to remember if she has already bought the TI Sun.

                Then, while contemplating cart or basket, she usually meets another friend.  When the shopping begins, she will start, counter-intuitively, in the frozen section because this saves the glory and suspense of her beloved bread aisle for last.  What will be fresh?  Dare she eat white flour?

                I measure the distance from the Cape Vincent Post Office to the grocery store in units of meditative opportunities.  I’m used to the pace of Philadelphia:  home mail delivery, twenty-four hour post office, dogs on leashes, rushed friends who nod when passing or whip cell phones out for complicated negotiations planning coffee dates, long lines in neighborhood bodegas, and hopping on the trolley with errands listed in geographic order for maximum efficiency.

                In West Philadelphia, I measure distance by numbered east-west blocks.  I use SEPTA schedules to coordinate travel.  I know the precise number of minutes needed to get an iced latte at the kiosk in 30th St. Station.  I can flawlessly plot the journey from home to the street corner trolley; from the trolley station up the stairs, across the street and through the parking lot to the train station, to order said latte before getting on the commuter train with just moments to spare.  But this journey is less than meditative.

                When I walk with my mother from the post office to the grocery store, I sometimes greet her neighbors I have come to know.  She might introduce me to someone new, unless she is having a senior moment and forgets the neighbor’s name or mine.  Oddly enough, she never forgets the dog’s name.

                “This is my daughter,” she says with a smile, “visiting from Philadelphia.”  Then “Pennsylvania,” she’ll add, so they don’t think I’m from Amish country farther north where there is a small town called Philadelphia.  Her friends greet me warmly, and often my recent journey is an easy conversation starter.

                Folks ask:  “How far is Philadelphia?”  “How did you get here?”  “How long did it take?”

                These questions are easy and universal.  I answer in distance or time.  “Seven hours on the train, another two by car.”  But in my heart, I have other ways to measure.

                I measure the journey from West Philadelphia to Cape Vincent in cultures and worlds.  In Philly, the humid air smells of exhaust fumes and worse, but a taxi will come to my door, and the trolley runs down my block.  I have to consider rush hour, traffic jams, and diverted trolleys when leaving, then snow belts and capricious weather as I near my mother’s.  To board the trolley for Amtrak’s station, I walk a mere half-block, passing a dry cleaners owned by an Arab-American family, a laundromat owned by a Korean-American family, a grocery store owned by a West African immigrant, a café owned by an Ethiopian woman, a variety store that specializes in international calling cards, and a Vietnamese corner store that sells fresh ginger, rice noodles, Hip Hop Chips, blunts, and tofu sandwiches.

                If I take a taxi, the driver is likely to be an immigrant who speaks at least three languages.  I’ll be half asleep, longing for coffee, and fretting about the train schedule but will ask myself, yet again, why I speak just one.  At the station, I’ll see people dressed in business suits, basketball gear, dashikis, saris and traditional Muslim garb and see homeless people wearing all the clothes they own, trying to sleep in the corner while being periodically rousted by security guards.  I will measure distance obsessively in tasks:  charge cell phone; get train ticket, coffee, breakfast, train snacks; use bathroom.

                The train will be another world with distance measured in units of station stops, snack car open then snack car closed, dropped cell phone signals, MP3 playlists, and climate change as I gaze at trees that have blossoms in Philly, but snowy branches by Syracuse.  But more than the weather changes with the journey.

                I take the train to Syracuse because there is no public transportation to Cape Vincent.  An overcrowded, once-a-day Greyhound to nearby Watertown is the best you can do.  No commuter train, subway, or tri-lingual taxi drivers here.  This journey requires advance planning.  Arriving in Syracuse, I simultaneously experience culture shock and a sense of re-connecting with my past, navigating the social landscape changes with anxiety at best.

                My mother is less good with cars and travels than she is with dogs and neighbors, so it is my job to do the visiting.  When I traveled from my hometown of Rochester, or from Vermont where I went to school, I took the smelly Greyhound.  It was my father’s job to pick me up at the station.

                When I moved to Philadelphia, the logistics of the lone bus to Watertown became more complicated.  Then my father died.  Suddenly, the distance between my mother and me seemed harder to navigate and further to measure.

                As we planned for Christmas, my mother suggested paying her best friend’s son to pick me up at the train station.  My mom knew Dan had friends in Syracuse and that he liked to earn some cash doing odd jobs.

                I was grateful for her problem solving but dreaded a long drive with someone I barely knew and had little in common with.  It wasn’t personal.  I liked Dan.  My anxiety was about navigating the social distances.

                In West Philly, I live in an intentional community with other anarchists… We share politics, projects, chores, and visions.  We see the world and want to change it in similar ways.  I live, work, and play as part of a team.

                Dan was several years younger than I, living in Sackets Harbor, frequenting Home Depot, remodeling his house, and bowling with his grandfather.  He was a regular guy.  He lived in a world where people shopped at Wal-Mart, celebrated holidays, listened to commercial radio, watched television, and ate meat/potato/vegetable meals.

                I am clumsy with a hammer and do not bowl.  I protested Home Depot for their use of old-growth forest lumber and then protested the protest when the leaders refused to focus on the indigenous people living in those forests.

                In my world, people trade homemade mix tapes, listen to pirate radio, rent foreign films, and memorize Simpsons episodes from video tape but don’t watch TV.  They shop at the local co-op and farmers’ markets.  Hippies and punks carry chopsticks and travel mugs in their knapsacks prepared for vegan potlucks with meatless loafs and desserts topped with whipped tofu, not whipped cream.  We “shop” in thrift stores, dumpsters, and free boxes and protest Wal-Mart, the mall, and most holidays.  I feared the distance between Dan and myself was immeasurable.

                So I monitored the weather feverishly, believing it was my only hope for conversation.  Anxiety made my stomach hurt and so did sympathy for Dan, imagining how he must be dreading the hours with me.  Please, goddess, let me act correctly, I prayed, before realizing my paganism was probably also on the list of things we did not share.

                Seven hours on the train left me disoriented.  I fretted when I realized we hadn’t set a meeting place.  My train arrived early.  I looked around for Dan, dashed to the bathroom, looked again, then sat down, promptly hopping up again when I decided that waiting outside was more polite.

                It seemed to me that Dan arrived exactly on time, but he was quick to explain apologetically that some uncalculated circumstance made him four minutes late.  He grabbed my bag, and we headed to the car.  He was smiling an infectious smile.  I found myself smiling, too.

                Dan asked all the questions your own people ask you after traveling:  Was my ride good (yes), had I waited long for him (no), was it warmer at home (yes), and did I need to get a soda or to use the bathroom (no).  When we neared the first McDonalds, he asked if I was hungry.  I was careful not to include the word rainforest in my answer.  Instead, I replied that I was hungry, but that my mom had dinner waiting.

                My mom, his mom, these were topics we had in common.  He was great friends with my mom and full of stories about her.  I asked about his mom and spoke of her lovingly.  We tried to guess what my mom had cooked, if she had made us cookies, and if so, what kind.  Dan hoped for peanut butter, without nuts.

                He gave me the weather report, road conditions, an estimate of how long we would get good radio – yet another way to measure distance here.  He selected a classic rock station.  I smiled to hear the music I grew up with but hadn’t heard it in years.  We were equally excited to hear old Metallica.  While I had nothing to say about current movies or television shows, I could talk about old metal.  So could Dan.

                The things I did not know did not matter the way I thought they might.  In fact, Dan seemed to enjoy catching me up on pop culture.

                Anticipating sketchy radio reception, Dan had brought along a variety of CDs.  Our taste in music was surprisingly similar.  There was no need for forced, awkward conversation.  We spoke when we had something to say and listened to loud music in companionable silence when we didn’t.

                By the time my mom rushed to greet us in her driveway, we were laughing and talking loud, like old friends.  We tromped up the stairs, Dan helping with my heavy bags, then sat at the dining room table admiring the carefully selected seasonal place mats and eating the cookies my mom had made – peanut butter, without nuts, just as Dan liked.

                When he picked me up one morning for the trip home, he had planned enough time so that even with traffic or inclement weather, I would not miss my train.  Neither of us was a morning person, but he arrived on time, cheerful, and with a bag of mini-muffins for my journey.  When we got to the station, he pulled up to the door, got out of the car, and helped me again with my bags.  I felt sad when I said goodbye.

                After that, Dan often brought me to and from the train.  We developed an easy routine.  He was always thoughtful and unerringly punctual.

                On my winter visits, we would compare notes on our Christmas shopping and our Christmas presents.  When heading north, it became my habit to bring some Philadelphia treat for him.  The chocolate cannoli from Termini’s were his favorite.  He talked about visiting Philly one day.  I looked forward to seeing him when I got off the train and was sad when I waved goodbye. 

                Sometimes we talked deeply about situations in our lives or our families.  I felt that we became extended family.  As my mother grew older, he assured me that he would always be there to help her.

                As the years passed, we found ourselves able to talk about even controversial topics.  We had different opinions on some political questions but saw each other’s points of view and could agree to disagree.

                One winter, remembering our talks about music, he burned me a collection of CDs and sent them to Philly.  The package included an Eminem discography.  Dan was a big fan of Eminem, a white hip-hop artist whose lyrics are controversial and often offensive.  Knowing of Eminem’s misogyny and homophobia, and having questions about his racial politics, I chose not to listen.

                On our next drive, he asked me what I thought of Eminem, and I explained my reluctance to listen.  He heard me out with respect but also challenged me, telling me that I did not really understand.

                When he picked me up for the drive home, he had a carefully prepared Eminem seminar on ordered CDs.  In the face of his excitement, I could only listen.

                Dan was right.  I don’t agree with Eminem in many ways, but I also did not understand him.  My respect for Dan, and appreciation of his kindness, opened my mind, bringing me to a place where I could listen.

                As I listened to the carefully selected bits of songs, I heard an outpouring of rage and pain about complicated relationships and the world we live in.  I heard hurt, sorrow, and confusion about the struggle that fatherless boys experience on their journey to become the kind of men they want to be.  I learned a lot about Eminem on that ride, and I think I learned a bit about Dan, too.

                Eventually that ride to the train station and our seminar ended.  Dan asked if I would be back for Christmas, and I said I thought so.

                When I got home, I planned to send him some CDs, music he didn’t know that reflected things I wanted to share, things about my life and politics… some angry underground hip hop I thought he would love.

                Sometimes, I measure distance by distraction.  I put off making those CDs.  I didn’t visit my mom that Christmas.

                It was summer before I called my mom to plan a tentative visit.  We agreed that when I confirmed the dates, she would call Dan.

                But days later, Dan was gone.  He had hung himself in his garage.  When I got the news, I sat on my front stoop thinking of all the journeys that never get taken, the CDs I never made, and the commitments that would keep me from his funeral.

                I will never forget my travels with Dan.  The night before Dan’s family gathered to say their goodbyes, I stayed up all night listening to Eminem on my headphones and remembering.  Hearing “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” was a visceral experience.  I closed my eyes and again was traveling down Route 81.  It was as if Dan was singing to his mother:  “I’m sorry momma!  I never meant to hurt you!  I never meant to make you cry.”

                There are many ways we measure distance.  But the distance between two worlds, between stranger and family, between life and death, when measured with an open heart, is often not far.