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The Subway Diary: 23-Mar-98

Letter I

Paul,

It was great to get your letter. Almost no one has written back. They're weirded out, I think.

In answer to your question, I ended up leaving Semacore, Inc. last year. It finally got so that bonus structure and a 401K seemed less important than being a human being. For me. I just couldn't fit inside of it. They kept hinting about turning into management. It's like running a cattle farm with the cows in cubicles.

So I did a thing I'd always fantasized about. One day I called in and said, "This is Michael. I won't be in again," and hung up. I just decided. I left the apartment and went for a walk. And kept walking. I got about twenty city miles in twelve hours, stopping here and there. I talked to homeless guy named Ed who had the tinfoil-on-the-head thing we always cracked up about. He said it was to keep the messages out. I said I understood and thought of you. I had a salad in Harlem. I was over the George Washington Bridge in that town in Jersey. Then I grabbed a cab and went back to Port Authority and got a bus. For Harrisburg.

I called on my cell phone from the bus and met Mark O'Brian in the Burg and we went out for a beer. He asked why I was wasting my vacation down there, and I explained I'd quit. He just shook his head and smiled. Mark can just shrug his shoulders where everyone else gives advice. "So what are you going to do now, you impulsive fuck?" he said. And I thought for a while, then I took my cell phone out of my bag and stomped it into little plastic chunks.

He nodded, and I asked if he had any ideas. He suggested a long-ass working vacation. "But I'm done with technology," I said. "All of it." That wasn't what he had in mind--he was thinking working with my hands, learning a trade. He told me about this place his sister had gone to called the Center for Cultural Understanding, way outstate. He sold me on it. It's a religious community without the religion, mostly about doing work and thinking. I was waiting to hear the news, you know? So I figured, what the hell, let's go.

I hitchhiked to western PA, around Milton, way outside of State College. I ended up there at two in the morning three days later. A trucker dropped me off. I'd eaten a bunch of pancakes with this trucker at a truck stop, and he hit on me, but he was cool about the whole thing when I said no.

So I arrive at two with nothing except jeans and a shirt and my little bookbag and notebook. And there's a short guy out dressed almost the same. This is Guru Jim, but I don't know it. He insists on "Jim," but he's actually a llama, one of the ones they choose at birth. And he says, "Welcome."

He talks to me for a few moments and I introduce myself and apologize for the inconvenience. "Why did you come?" he asks.

I say: "I don't know." And he says, "what can you do?"

So I say "anything, so far." And he nods.

"Okay, go see Carol," he says. He points: "Third building. The rip in the screen door."

"She won't mind it's so late?"

"Tell her Jim asked her to find you a place to sleep."

So I go and knock on the door. It's two in the morning. A light comes on. And a woman comes to the door, long hair. She's backlit, and she says, "What can I do for you?"

"Jim said I could ask you for a place to sleep. I'm really sorry to wake you up."

She says, "Okay. Hold on." And comes back a minute later with a little bag and a flashlight. "Walk down the road about five minutes. You'll see a cornfield with some bare grass in front of it. Pitch there." And I realize I've got a tent in my hands.

So I slept in upstate PA by a cornfield, until around eight in the morning, and went into the little community dirty, with a sore neck.

They've got me on a schedule, and I'm learning some carpentry skills. No meat, no eggs, no sugar. No alcohol. It's a big change from the old life. I've got to head to meditation, now, but I'll fill you in on the day to day next letter. Write back; people are happy to forget me here but I don't forget anyone.

Love,

Michael


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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