Two months prior to graduating from UCF in May 2008, my longtime girlfriend (and fiancé, as far as I was concerned) broke up with me. I buried my emotions throughout those weeks, under the final semester’s workload, but I could barely fight back tears as my photo was snapped at the commencement ceremony.
Without any job prospects in sight – I was a music major, after all – I took to aimlessly riding my roommate’s bicycle around downtown Orlando. My lease was soon to end, but that didn’t concern me. Neither did I have a plan (unless indefinitely couch surfing and/or living out of my car might be considered a viable plan... again, as a music major, I wasn’t sure that I had many more options). My therapist said that I should channel my frustration and depression into writing, journaling. Even poetry.
I wrote some anguished haikus. I was a wreck.
The accident nearly claimed my life and I should be happy to be alive, I was told, but I couldn’t believe it. I was alone and listless, without a home, job, ambition. Without meaning. How could I be happy in light of all this?
My older sister encouraged me to serve with AmeriCorps, so I signed up as a tutor at a high school near Orlando. For one year, I was provided a home, modest stipend, and meaningful work, the foundation I needed to begin piecing myself – and my future – together.
Early in my service term, I began busking in downtown Orlando. I would sing and play guitar as loud as I could, into the din of the city and the wee hours of weekend nights, earning a little bit of extra scratch, supplemental income. I also honed my poetry and began writing songs. By the end of the service term, I had written, recorded, and produced my debut EP,Life Is A Bike Wreck (Better Wear Your Helmet), with plans to travel the country and move to New York City.
I hadn’t always wanted to move to NYC. In fact, I was decidedly against the notion a few years back, when the aforementioned life-wrecking girlfriend insisted that I consider it. But in the mean time, a few of my church leaders in Orlando moved to New York, to plant a church here. I was intrigued by the idea of church planting and absolutely in love with Chicago (perhaps the reason I was against NYC in the first place), but I suspected that a solo venture would not be advisable, especially without any experience, expertise, or resources. Perhaps I should first join up with a church plant, somewhere. The folks in NYC were all that I knew.
So in September 2009, I loaded my possessions into a minivan and drove up to the big city, to learn about church planting while establishing my music career. But things didn’t go exactly according to plan. The head pastor of the church indicated that they were not presently church planting in Manhattan, where I’d moved – I would have to move to Brooklyn for that kind of experience – but I could otherwise plug into a small group that was beginning to form in Washington Heights. And writing anguished love songs was not really to my taste anymore either – with all kinds of poverty, oppression, and evil all around this Empire city, I felt responsible as an artist to document what I saw and show another way forward.
Two things became clear rather immediately: that I would not be leaving Washington Heights any time soon and that I would struggle as a starving artist if I were to focus on writing protest songs!
But I was not phased, as I felt that I was called to live this way, in this place – my work, my vocation – I wrote and recorded protest songs; took up busking on the subway trains and teaching Really Really Free Guitar Lessons at city parks; joined the freegan.info group, regularly rescuing food from the city’s curbsides and hosting freegan feasts and DIY house concerts at my apartment. I worked hard, in obscurity, embracing my inner starving artist and wondering when my music and influence might reach some kind of tipping point.
After almost two years scraping by in Washington Heights, I began to see things and people coalescing there. The church small group was no longer very small, having nearly grown into a full-fledged neighborhood parish; and perhaps more significantly still, a new bookstore and community space popped up in the neighborhood – Word Up Books.
One month later, in August 2011, I released my first EP of original songs written in and inspired by the city, Protest Songs (Are Dead). The songs were about poor and oppressed people, victims of our Pax Americana – homeless veterans, migrant and sweatshop workers, and casualties of war in Afghanistan. Each song was a long, hard look at the human effects of war, greed, capitalism, consumerism, and apathy in our day and age. I knew that I had to tell their stories. But who would have the eyes to see and the ears to hear?
I was sure that this question was answered when I saw the throngs of people at Zuccotti Park on September 17th, the first day that Wall Street was “occupied” with protest. I spent one full week camping and demonstrating (with my guitar, of course!) at the park, an experience that was incredibly moving. Inspiring, even! In fact, when I produced my debut full-length album Heliotropism one year later, half the songs were about my experiences with the Occupy Wall Street movement. But I couldn’t stay in the financial district. After three weeks or so of regular visitation to Liberty Square (as Zuccotti Park was called at the time) I determined that I needed to “occupy” my own neighborhood, to really invest my time and energy in Washington Heights.
But this was no easy task. Rent was rather high in the city and my income too meager; taking my music on the road had proven to be much cheaper than staying in the city. If I really wanted to lay down roots in the neighborhood, I would have to pick up a day job. Thus, after I completed Heliotropism, I began working a barback position at a coffee shop in the neighborhood. I often consoled myself with the thought that everybody wants a revolution but nobody wants to do the dishes!
I only worked at the coffee shop for about nine months, but it was there that I met the baker who was later to become my wife.
At the end of each day, I’m happily married and more deeply rooted in my community than ever. The bulk of my time is still spent in activities that give me joy and meaning while also providing for my needs. And I have tons of friends and family who love and support me through it all.
I very nearly died back in 2008 and was unable to understand the meaning of my pain, loss, and heartache. But now I can look back to over five years living and working in New York City and Washington Heights, to see that it was not for nothing. I was – and am – blessed by that bike wreck, everyday.
Though I do still wonder whether Chicago will ever happen…