Now and then I'm reminded of just how one-dimensional my life experience has to have been so far. Wichita is such a culturally barren place. For example, last night Tandra was telling me about a place in California near where she used to live called the "anti-mall". She said it was like a mall, only full of thrift stores and coffee shops and other beatnik type places. Now this is a moderately cool thing. I'm not sure I would go, but that's not the point. The point is that I immediately knew that a place like that would never even be created, much less survive, around here. There just aren't the right kind of people to support it.
Another reason Wichita is so lame is its location. We're smack in the middle of the plains, the midwest, farming country. Sure, Wichita has around half a million people and is quite urban, I mean it's far from a farming community, but still. It's not a port city, and hence it doesn't have any of the jobs or people associated with a coastal city. It's not in the mountains, there aren't mines around here, so there are lots of kinds of jobs and kinds of people that just aren't around here. Furthermore, as I've bitched many times before, there is no terrain here. No hills, no mountains, very few bluffs (about an hour away), no valleys, no waterfalls, no ocean. Absolutely nothing interesting. Even the lakes are muddy and disgusting.
But there is one place in town that, for me, seemed like a different place for a while. I've written about it before, it's called the Shirkmere. It's an old (circa 1900) apartment building downtown. I lived there for a few months in summer 1998, and was thinking for a while about moving back there to save money.
The first time I went there, it was with my friend Gianna. She was looking for a place of her own, and since she had always loved and been fascinated with downtown, she wanted to check it out. I went with her, and I remember how it felt to be there. Most of it was in my head, of course, but who cares? The decor in the hallways hadn't been updated since the 70's, so you had authentic nasty wallpaper and carpet. Most floors were green/brown, but one was horrid pink and white. The actual apartments were a bit more modern. They had very new windows, the kind you can fold in to clean. The place had steam heating, so there was a radiator next to the main window. Whitewashed concrete walls with crown molding along the top and baseboard along the bottom. Carpeted. Old style doors and doorknobs and hinges. The bathtubs weren't claw-foot, but they did stand up off the floor on legs. Shower curtains hung from rounded bars that went all the way around the tub. The bathrooms had octagonal white tiles for flooring, old small sinks and old small medicine cabinets with chrome trim around the mirrors. The light was a single bare light bulb with a pull chain and an outlet situated directly above the mirror. The steam for the steam heating went up through a pipe that went right through the bathroom, heating up the floor tiles so they felt warm to bare feet. Most of the apartments had murphy beds, though the one I ended up with didn't. (That was okay with me.) EVERYTHING was painted white or whitewashed. The laziness/cheapness of the maintenance crew could almost have been percieved as an attempt to hide or tone down the character of the building.
The thing that really captured me though was the history of the place. It was almost tangible. Looking around at the places where peeling paint jobs had just lazily been painted over, looking at the doors, doorknobs, hinges, and crown molding, it was easy to feel the age of the place. And just knowing the place was as old as it was held some kind of fascination for me. Gianna felt it too, and moved in as soon as she could. I followed a month or two later.
I was lucky. I got a studio on the top (8th) floor on a corner, meaning I had windows on two sides. I could open them almost any time and get a nice breeze if not an outright wind through the apartment. I chose not to have traditional furniture, but to furnish the place entirely in huge pillows, beanbags, cushions, that sort of thing. My bed was a box springs & mattress that sat directly on the floor. My only TV was a small 13" TV that I probably used three times the whole time I lived there. I had no video game system, no computer. For a while I didn't even have a microwave.
Back to the history of the place though. For the entire duration of the time between when Gianna moved in and when I moved in, I was consumed with moving into the Shirkmere. For some reason I wanted to sit there and look out the window, listening to Simon and Garfunkel records. It just seemed really cool to me to be able to do the exact same thing in the exact same place that someone else had done thirty years earlier. I wondered with excitement whether the building held any old spirits. As I said before, I could certainly feel an old presence, almost like the building itself was a spirit, its own ghost, perhaps.
During my time at the Shirkmere, it was like time stopped for a while. Yes, I had outside cares and influences, and eventually it was those kinds of things that took me away from the Shirkmere, but for a while, especially at the beginning, that place sort of was my life.
Much of that, I'm sure, was due to my state of mind at the time. I had just gotten out of jail six months earlier. Jail had a profound effect on me, and when I got out, I was a different person than I had been before, and I was (unfortunately) a different person than I am now. I was open-minded, ready to experience the world in all its wonderfulness, ready to truly appreciate the small joys of life, and I didn't take anything for granted. Also, I moved into the Shirkmere about 6 weeks after a girl I had been dating was killed in a car accident. That was another experience that affected me profoundly. In my new state of freedom I had poured my entire self into this relationship, and she was somewhat of a kindred spirit, for lack of a better term. She held the same openness and appreciation for life that I did at the time. We had only been dating for two weeks when she died, but she had been the first meaningful relationship I'd had in years, and it was the first time I'd lost someone that close to me, someone I cared about that much. That experience only served to heighten my feeling of enjoying life and not taking anything for granted. I lived life for the experience of it, and every experience was grand.
Combine that with the fact that this was the first time I had ever had a place of my own, and you can imagine the feeling of excitement, of humble pride, if you know what I mean. Humble because I knew my place was nothing much, but proud because it was mine, and I loved it. I had just discovered a club that played underground industrial and electronic music and I was captivated. Even better, the club was within walking distance of my new apartment.
You've heard the term "shabby chic", right? Well, this place was just shabby. And I dug it. I tried to enhance it. I decorated with christmas lights and a couple old retro light fixtures I'd gotten from thrift stores. I kept a clip-on utility light with a regular size bulb near my bed to read by at night. And I did a lot of reading while I lived there. I had a box fan and a ceiling fan, and I left them on the entire time I lived there. I loved the air circulation in that place. My faucet dripped and the ceiling had water damage. When it rained really hard, little bits of water ran down the inside of the south wall to the window sill which was fortunately slanted in such a way that it drained out underneath the window-mounted air conditioner. Had it been slanted the other way, that water would have gone right into my bed. The kitchen was tiny. The oven/stove was gas, and was as old as the rest of the place felt.
During the day, I had quite a view. Leaning out a window on the south wall, I could look southeast and see all the way to the east side of town, seeing the oldest apartment building in Wichita which was around four miles away, and I could see the Boeing plant and McConnell Air Force Base, which was more like twelve miles away. To the south I could see the Sedgwick County community corrections residential facility, which was basically like a Work Release facility. Of course during that period of my life I felt grateful that I wasn't living there every time I saw the building. I could also see some of the old historical commercial buildings on Douglas, including the one that housed the Bohemian Bean company, my favorite hangout. To the southwest, west, and northwest, my view consisted entirely of downtown Wichita's buildings. I can't call them skyscrapers, because they aren't, but there were enough large office buildings to take up most of my view. Over them I could see the horizon and make out landmarks here and there on the west side of Wichita. At night I could see the rotating light at the airport, and the bell tower at Friends University. During the day, on weekdays, the place was always busy, as you'd expect. It was downtown, and you could just feel the sense of urgency on the street below. I had a second shift job, so it was really nice to wake up around ten in the morning, make myself some toast for breakfast and lean out the window and just watch. Seeing everyone in such a rush, seeing all the cars in the parking lot across the street, knowing everyone was out there working, it was just cool to see life in action. I'd leisurely shower and clean up and get to work around 1 PM. Coming home around 9 or 10, of course it was downtown so it was always very quiet. I liked that too. I enjoy peace and quiet at night like most people. It was quiet like that on the weekends too. I don't know if I could actually sense the emptiness of the office buildings or if it was just knowing that they were empty, but somehow that contributed to the feeling of peacefulness. Knowing that not only was it quiet, but it was empty.
The way that building seemed to soar into the sky was cool. Yes, I was only on the 8th floor, and yes, there were much taller buildings close to me to remind me that this building really wasn't all that tall, but looking down at the ground outside still made me feel high. I felt like I was on top of the world, even when I wasn't. It's strange how being on only the 8th floor, I still felt sometimes like that building tore a hole in the sky. And don't even get me started on what a fantastic place it was to be during a thunderstorm. I almost felt like I was one with the storm.
I had no telephone, only a pager, so when people came to visit, they had to honk their horns from the parking lot below. Then I had to go down and let them in. It was always nice having visitors, and I always tried to offer something to drink, even if I hardly had anything in the fridge, which was the case most of the time. I ate canned fruit out of the can, and I always drained the juice into a cup which I left in the fridge. When the cup was full, yay, I had a glass of juice. I usually cooked chicken breasts or fish filets in the oven and ate them with sauce. Nothing else. My groceries cost about $25 a week, because that was all I could afford. I remember calculating once that if I could just make $1000 a month, I could afford to live there and pay all my bills.
The summer faded and cooled, and eventually my bills caught up with me. I couldn't afford to pay my rent, and I had to move out. In retrospect I can see that it was necessary in order for me to move on with my life, but I never wanted to move out of there and I still miss it from time to time. Maybe I just miss that time in my life. I've never been so appreciative of life for the experience of it as I was during that time. I took nothing for granted. I was not jaded. I was loving and open-minded and accepting. Eventually that caught up with me though, because I began to grow proud of myself for being so open-minded and good. I got egotistical and that was the beginning of me changing from who I was then. But I remember that time as one of the best in my life. Walking to the coffee shop, hanging out, seeing the regulars, meeting new people, and walking home again with hardly a care in the world. Later on when I turned 21, walking to the club, discovering a whole new genre of music (which is still my favorite), and walking home again (sober, I wasn't allowed to drink while I was on probation, and I didn't need to. I just loved the music.). Meeting new people was easy because I was comfortable with where I was and who I was. Even the negative aspects of my life (like being totally broke and in debt) were okay with me because in some way they contributed to the experience of my life at the time.
I want to find that again. I have this feeling like I'm so amazingly close to it, like it's being covered by some thin veil, and I just have to figure out how to get to it.