Columbus, Ohio doesn’t have an Amtrak station. People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. Thurmond, West Virginia (population: 5 – really, that is the actual population) has thrice-weekly train service to D.C. or Chicago, but if you live in the 15th largest city in the United States, you have to go elsewhere to hop a train. I’ll leave it to others to investigate why such inefficiencies exist in our nation’s passenger train service, but know that that’s why I’m starting my writer’s residency in Chicago. I got here yesterday. My train leaves this afternoon.
Yesterday I walked around a bit and then went to the Art Institute. It’s one of my favorite museums because it has a bunch of stuff I know already. You’re not supposed to admit that sort of thing, of course. But just last week in Columbus 60,000 people paid $100 per ticket to hear the Rolling Stones play “Satisfaction” and “Brown Sugar,” so I figure it’s OK if I paid $23 to see Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” That limited-time medieval Asian teapot exhibit may be wonderful, but it’s equivalent to hearing Mick Jagger say “here’s a new one we’ve been workin’ on …” I’ll admit that I’m a philistine if you’ll just play the hits, man.
After the museum I met a friend for a drink. Met him for the first time, actually, even though I’ve known him in that way you know people on the Internet for many years. Such virtual friendships are an increasing part of everyone’s life, but they’re a much bigger part of my life than others. Once you’re out of your 20s most people’s friendships come via work and romantic relationships. In the past six years I’ve left my regular job to work at home and I got divorced, so traditional friendships have largely melted away for me.
Which isn’t a bad thing, actually. I’m something of a hermit and maintaining acquaintances seems to get harder for me the older I get. The Internet allows you to be on or off with the flip of a switch. You can enter or leave the “room” without having to make apologies and if you disappear for a couple of days no one worries too terribly much about you. There are some drawbacks to this, of course, but I rather like being able to start talking to people without having to make plans and meet up and pretend we want to hear about each other’s kids, jobs and property values first.
Another bonus is that, thanks to the Internet, I am in a position where I “know” people in most cities in the country. I like to travel and I like to socialize in controlled bursts with definitive end points, so this arrangement works very well for a person of my temperament. Last night I could meet Levi for a drink in Chicago and on Saturday I can meet Brandon for lunch in Seattle and on Monday I can meet Rob for a beer in Portland. My hometown is filled with strangers, but I have friends, such as they are, all over the country, and we don’t ask too terribly much of one another.
I have had real life, in-person friends tell me that they worry about me and the amount of time I spend alone or on the Internet. But what seems worrisome is in the eye of the beholder. This morning I had breakfast at a cafe near my hotel. The place was empty except for two twentysomething servers behind the counter who gave off a vaguely and somewhat calculatedly bohemian vibe. I didn’t hear most of their conversation but it was about travel. At one point one of them said to the other, “No, I’m never going to Texas. I promised myself years ago that I will never step foot in Texas.” Later he said that he didn’t like to travel much anyway and that “everything I need is here.” If one can judge by appearances I’d guess that this person has a vibrant social life here in Chicago with a lot of friends, but his comment made me feel sorry for him. I’d rather be alone in any number of places than stuck in a silo with oodles of friends.
As I listened to the servers’ conversation I was eating breakfast alone. Yesterday afternoon I walked through a museum alone. I spend most of my day working alone. I like to go to movies and go out to restaurants alone. Outside of the time I spend with my kids and my girlfriend, I spend most of my time alone. Alone is comforting to me.
This afternoon I’ll be getting on a train and traveling across the country alone. Outside of that drink with Levi, lunch with Brandon and the beer with Rob, I’ll explore three cities alone. Maybe this makes me strange. Maybe it’ll become a bigger problem the older I get. I’m not sure. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. And I’m not sure how else to be.