The Roads That Guide Us Home.

I made the observation a few months back that certain driving routes capture very specific timeframes of my life–these back roads, main drags, and exit numbers (make your Jersey jokes now) have the ability to launch full-blown nostalgia for me the same way an old beloved song or familiar smell can.

These past couple weeks have found me traveling several old roads, both figuratively and literally.

The Black Horse Pike, one of the major highways that cuts through my part of South Jersey, always reminds me of the year I moved back home after spending the first 6 months post-graduation in Texas. At that time, I was aimless, a little down on my luck, and trying desperately to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life. The Borders I worked at was off the Pike, so I traveled this highway a least twice a day, if not more.

Borders was always my go-to job during summer and holiday breaks while at school. Beyond working on the family farm, this was the job that I knew, and it was an environment that brought me comfort and stability and support. It also always guaranteed a good group of like-minded, interesting people to hang out with after shifts and on the weekends. What could be better?

But for all the comfort I found here while I was in school, I admit that going back after graduating felt like a step backwards. After college, I was supposed to be somebody with a career that warranted a business casual wardrobe and water cooler chitchat. And I wasn’t the only one disappointed in my failure to find this. Friends and relatives all seemed sympathetic when I explained my situation, offering unsolicited sympathy and encouragement. “Have you looked into grad schools?” “Well, something will turn up soon!”

The crowning moment was when I ended up back at my alma mater at a dorm party, talking to an acquaintance a couple years behind me,. I had a red plastic cup in my hand, trying to justify the last 8 months of my life while trying not to sound disappointed.

“Man, I think I liked you better when you lived in Texas,” she said.

I often think back on that moment as the epitome of wishing you had the right comeback but the words totally escaping you–even now, some 10 years later, I’m not sure if I’ve crafted the best response to that (beyond a spirited Eff yourself). Sure, what she said was tactless and rude, but if I’m being honest, it mostly stung because all I could think to myself was, “I kind of did, too.”

But, for as defeated as working at my old job made me feel, it also helped save me. Once again, Borders provided me with the support system needed to feel normal–I wasn’t the only smart, bookish person in South Jersey trying to figure out what the hell to do with myself. In fact, Borders provided me with this glorious refuge filled with interesting, smart, thoughtful people who equally were struggling with their “what’s next” (in addition to providing me with a pretty sweet discount on books and CDs).

It didn’t take too long to form a tight friend circle–there was a large group of people who’d hang out together, with a solid core of 6 who really formed my group. Dan was one of them. I don’t really remember how we started talking–just that he always had shifts at the registers and so when it was slow, I’d make my way up there to talk to him, or would walk to harass/taunt him with the freedom I had to move about freely while he was stuck at his station.

My first impression was that Dan wasn’t the “typical” type who worked at Borders–he seemed more clean cut, more “normal” from initial observation. I remember he always wore this green sweater with a stripe across the front, which made him look a little like a prep. But when I got to know Dan better, I realized he was all classic rock and sarcasm and smart-assery and Grateful Dead and then it made more sense why he gravitated to that store. His main gig was teaching (though the details escape me now if he was already a teacher or still in school at the time). But I just remember being really impressed when I heard he worked with special needs kids and realized that his no-bullshit attitude probably worked really well with them.

In a lot of ways, Dan was a big kid himself–he did things his way, he didn’t care about the status quo, and he wanted to have good, simple fun. Whenever we had gatherings or were planning to have get togethers, he was always down, as long as working one of his other jobs didn’t interfere. When I finally got tired of the Borders scene, and quit without much lined up, he got me a job at the nearby campground he worked at for years (I helped out in their general store and was sometimes their grill cook. I’ll let that reality settle in with you for a sec.) We spent a lot of time stoop sitting, bullshitting, and talking about the lives we wanted to lead. And when we finally hit that point in our lives where we were ready to take the steps toward the Next Big Thing, we parted ways, not because we didn’t still love each other or our friendship, but because sometimes that’s what you have to do to move on.

I guess the fact that anyone’s really able to sustain a continuous connection with anyone for an extended period of time is pretty damn impressive, considering how we’re all constantly moving, and growing, learning, breaking, reforming. Although leaving Borders disconnected me from a lot of the friendships and people who allowed me to get to a place where I could successfully move on, those friendships still remain so dear and reverent to me.

Even though Dan and I weren’t able to maintain the same level of friendship we once had–those feelings of love and respect and support managed to live on. We fell out of contact for years before finally being reconnected thanks to Facebook (love it or hate it, that social media platform has done a lot of good for me), and when we did, the years of silence seemed to dissolve. None of those getting-back-in-touch conversations really led to anything deep or profound, but they didn’t really have to. The small talk and confirmation that my friend was working towards his happiness was more than enough to make me happy.

The last time we talked was exactly one month before I found out he died. It was on my birthday, and he was supposed to come to the gathering I was having at the house. That bastard even promised to bring the guac, but then had to bail because it had been a long day. I wasn’t mad though, just a little disappointed because I was looking forward to actually seeing him. We left it that we would have our reunion once and for all, and soon, both agreeing that it had been too damn long since we were able to catch up proper.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past couple of weeks thinking about Dan–about the time we spent together, the time I let pass without seeing him. A part of me can’t help but ache with regret that we never got that final hangout, that proper reunion, that one last time for old time’s sake. But then I took the Pike back from Philly, ┬ápast the campground that we spent a summer working at together, past┬áthe way to his old house, past the shortcut to my old apartment, and then I realize that he will always be here with me, guiding me on towards home.

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