Matt Forney
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The Kingdom of Heaven is Within

“Hey man! Hey sir!”

Jesus Christ, no…

“Hey sir! You look lost!”

The black guy was hobbling after me, clad in a plaid shirt and dirty jeans; the bum’s uniform. I hopped away, not wanting to scuff my nice shoes. Around us, the rain had gone from a sprinkle to a shower, soaking my blazer and pants.

“Sir? Sir!”

Fuck you very much pal. Go find someone else to hustle.

Rochester, New York is a tiny, semi-inhabitable urban core surrounded by a sprawling ghetto. The second you leave the Inner Loop, you’re surrounded by trash-strewn lawns, fat single moms, and gangbangers with sagging pants. Demographics and the compactness of downtown embolden the scum to terrorize the nice neighborhoods. Then again, the fact that I was dressed like a rich guy probably didn’t help.

The black guy was closing the distance. I sped into a half-walk, half-jog as the backs of my shoes dug into my skin.

Where the fuck did I park, where the fuck did I… oh, there it is.

I spotted the dingy lot where I’d left my car, sandwiched between two abandoned brick buildings. I skidded over, tore my keys out of my pocket like I was unsheathing a knife, and piled into the driver’s seat, taking off my jacket and tie and throwing them over the shotgun chair.

Car’s untouched. Safe from the hustlers and the rain.

I hit the ignition and tore out onto the Inner Loop as the rain accelerated into monsoon conditions. Heading eastbound towards 490, I ran into a “Bridge Closed” sign that directed me onto a detour… that sent me in the completely opposite direction. Fine. Following the detour westbound, I ran into a second sign telling me to get off the highway due to a road closure… leaving me exactly where I started.

I pulled into a FasTrac to grab a Full Throttle and get my bearings. This particular station was on the outer edge of the Inner Loop and was manned by a security guard. Not hard to see why, as I stood in line behind a twitching bald guy who kept yelling about how he was “gonna go home and scratch [his] balls.”

I hopped back into the car and retraced my steps across downtown before I finally found a segment of the highway that wasn’t blocked off. The rain was coming down in sheets and the lack of streetlights on the Loop meant I was driving through foot-deep water every ten seconds. I finally found the exit to 490 and sped towards the Thruway, gripping the wheel in anger.

***

I don’t recognize this place anymore.

The old highway exit I used to get home in Syracuse is always flooded with bums. You’d think winter would have scared them away, but nope; even when the mercury drops below sixty, there’s at least one hobo on the off-ramp shoving a “Homeless: Please Help” sign in your face. At least the bums here are polite and unobtrusive. They don’t hustle you like in Rochester or Chicago, spinning yarns about how they need twenty dollars to get home on the bus or trying to sell you a stack of Onions they swiped from a Potbelly’s.

The neighborhood I grew up in is undergoing a renaissance. The infamous run-down block of abandoned storefronts is now full up with new tenants, including a year-round ice cream joint. An empty gravel-filled lot that once was home to a bowling alley back in the nineties was finally sold and developed into a Kinney Drugs. One of the local convenience store chains was bought up by 7-Eleven.

America as a whole is Portlandizing. University Hill now has bike lanes and a self-serve yogurt shop. There’s a new Jimmy John’s out by Carrier Circle. Syracuse is now officially on the indie touring circuit, with Dirty Projectors, Explosions in the Sky and the Melvins playing gigs at the Westcott. The nice parts of town are full of skinny white boys wearing beanies in 80 degree weather and girls proudly showing off enormous tattoos on their vampire-pale arms. Even Destiny USA, that horrendously expensive attempt to outdo the Mall of America, was finally finished… in time for the economy to bottom out. The new wing is still about two-thirds empty.

This place has changed more in a year than it did in the previous six years since I moved away, yet at the same time it hasn’t changed at all.

Everybody I care about is gone now. I talk to my friends on Skype and the phone, but I see them in person once a year, if that. There’s no one else I have anything in common with. I feel like a soldier returning home from a war to find the same people doing the same things, still going nowhere in life.

Recently, Black Knight wrote about how travel is not a panacea for men. He was talking more specifically about game, but his point applies to life in general: if you’re a failure in Bumfuck, Arkansas, you’re going to be a failure no matter where you end up. The Kingdom of Heaven is within.

While I’m a success in my personal life, there’s one urge I’ll never be able to fulfill: the desire to belong.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll always feel like a stranger no matter where I go. I started hiking out of Syracuse last year full of a certain amount of starry-eyed wonder. “Oooh yeah, I’m gonna see the country!” Right now, I’m planning a second hitchhiking trip through the southern states, west to east: start out in Portland, head south along the coast, then back through the states I missed the first time around.

But the optimism, the joy of discovery is gone.

To be sure, I want to see California, the Grand Canyon, the South and whatnot, but that’s no longer my primary motivation. I want to do it because I have to. Because I can’t not do it. Because I have a compulsion to insert myself into stressful, life-threatening situations. Because I’m a junkie searching for an adrenaline high.

And because if you feel like an outsider no matter where you are, one place is as good as the next.

Is it a bad thing? A good thing? I don’t know. But I do know this: if you romanticize this kind of thing, I’m pretty sure you’re missing the point.

Read Next: Crawling Towards Heaven