It was 10pm last Tuesday. I’d done enough business to make a dent in what it costs to drive a cab for 12 hours. I was in a newer Starbucks opened recently on North Boulevard here in Richmond, VA. I mused to the barrista that the cautionary tale I carry with me turns out to be false. If I didn’t go to college, didn’t find a white-collar union job, I’d end up digging ditches and that would be bad.
He replied that he felt lied to by that cautionary tale. The mid-century promised American Dream was a fraud to him. He didn’t believe that a college degree initiated him into a club whose members could count on a suburban house, a couple cars, a happy marriage, some kids, the life of the Cleaver’s. The Cleaver’s he knew were divorced, their kids in therapy, the Dad incarcerated for child-sex crimes and embezzlement, the Mom struggling to stay off the street and on her meds, and various family members currently addicted to the usual grocery list of upper-middle class back inhabiting monkeys. A college education was a debt burden he didn’t want. He knew welders that were making more money than his Biz-School friends.
I heard the cautionary tale from my retired Electrical Engineer father through my childhood. His Dad, Wells Alan Webb, was a chemical engineer who drifted about through various jobs and locales around the SF Bay Area and Nevada desert. Wells was very much my progenitor. He was restless. He couldn’t stay in one state for very long. He spent some years married to Catherine Janes, my grandmother, with whom he had three kids. These were tumultuous years that ended in a famous dinnertime walk out of the house by Wells, never to return.
My Dad’s greatest wish was a half-century or so of unbroken life living the mid-century American Dream. He got it. He did it. I am the benefactor of that achievement. My Dad’s greatest fear was children who would inherit his father’s wanderlust. I did. I can’t sit still. If I hold a job for too long I get itchy and often end up quietly let go. At least once a decade I lose everything, become homeless, and have to start over.
My last collapse was in 2002. It’s been fourteen years. I am either bucking a trend or overdue for another collapse. I have fans of either outcome. I’m getting old. Another collapse is going to hurt a lot more. I’m a fan of saying I’m bucking a trend.
It was a bit of shock to hear the barista at Starbucks say I’d been wise to go against my father’s vision. His peers look with suspicion at what is offered through college and an alleged e-ticket for Easy Street. In that queue for the e-ticket is a lifetime of indebtedness and misery. College degrees don’t deliver the promised careers. The ditch digger makes more than the willing millennial who owes for student loans on a B.A. in Project Management. A creative can survive even though he or she throws off the bucket list offered by my Dad as an ideal plan.
Here is what I still am surprised by. I am kin and kindred spirit to Wells Alan Webb. He and I are a mess and unrepentant. We saw what was offered to us by modernity and decided to opt out. I did not imagine I’d find my home in a run-down house across the street from the maintenance yard of a garbage truck company tapping at the keyboard of an old laptop. I did not imagine I could rattle along an old country highway less traveled by in my art-car painted Dodge Diplomat taxicab with a cheap Dollar Store dish-tub as a taxi light and survive. I did not/do not believe that a millennial barrista at Starbucks would admire my near-do-well, opted out life of the last 30+ years.
Here I am. 56, typically first world fat with a common set of health problems. I am again a cab driver. This life deprives me of good sleep so I even after a day’s rest I don’t feel well rested. My son is in college, struggling, very much in keeping with his ancestry. It may not be news to you. It continues to be news to me, that I don’t need the white collar union job my Dad insisted I had to have. That I could be a writer, drive a cab, struggle as I have for the last thirty some years, and be happy.
My original prompt for this essay was a syllogism I thought was clever: God loves fools and children, Creatives are fools, ergo, God loves creatives. For as many thousands of years as their have been fools who chose to create art instead of hunt, farm or gather, we don’t seem to die off. We persist. God seems to take care of us in spite of our drama and mess.
My Dad’s fears of my being a failure have some truth. I am a failure if the measure of success is ticking off the bucket list he envisioned for me: a college degree, a white collar union job, a marriage that survives, some kids and by now, some grandkids of my own. I have the college degree . . . in English Literature. I never cared much for the white collar union job. I’ve done better with skilled labor as a computer tech and cab driver. I married a Triad Princess and was divorced by her. I have a 20-something millennial son, no grandkids yet. I continue to be a solid C- citizen of the first world of 2016.
What he didn’t say, what I am proof of, is that you can thrive even if you shun my Dad’s bucket list. There is a good life living against the grain. Not easy, sure. Living on a cot in a church social hall wasn’t my idea of utopia. But that ended and now I have a house. God provided.
You know what? If that’s the call, that’s what you are driven to do–to throw off the promised path I was told and it’s assurances, to be a creative and take the risk, do it. Biff and Buffy, Alice Kahn’s archetypical Yup’s, turn out to be no less free of the angst of first world life than anyone else. My life, repeatedly homeless, occasionally incarcerated, often annoying, isn’t the horror story it was depicted to be. Yeah, it has sucked, continues to suck often. But I’m the worst example of a reason to avoid my wanderlust life because over the decades, things have worked out. You can take my art-car taxicab and make a life out of it. Sorry, Dad, but it has proven to be true.