Saturday, November 6, 2010

Running On Empty

There's an exhilaration you feel when you're driving a long distance, whether it's on a Thruway or a long country road, and you know that the next rest stop is not around the next bend, and the fuel gauge on the dashboard is pointing to Empty.

My early driving days were nearly all for long-distance trips, whether embarking on a late-night road trip to Rhode Island in Terry's parents' van, towing Christmas presents back to New York from Syracuse in a salt-stained rental car, or getting lost and crashing into a highway median on the way to Columbus, OH to visit my sister after a business trip in Detroit. I now prefer the long haul to the monotony of city stop-and-go, pedestrians, traffic signals.

But regardless of where I'm driving - regardless of the from or the to - I nearly always push that fuel gauge to Empty, like squeezing the last bits of toothpaste out of the neck of the tube, or adding a bit of water to the dishsoap bottle to scrape its inside walls of the last remaining clinging product.

Even in the desert, in places like the towns around the Salton Sea where its residents drive electric golf carts because of the scarcity of fuel, I drive circles around that sea, down dirt roads along canals, not knowing when I'll get another chance to fill 'er up. The heart pounds. The eyes dart between the road and the dashboard, waiting for the light, knowing there's a lag between the gauge hitting E and the light going on, and a subsequent lag between the light going on and actually running out of gas.

I've never actually run out of gas. But the prospect of it has stared me in the face many times.

My parents kicked me out of the house. They threatened to pull me out of college. The family that took me in for a year and a half eventually kicked me out too, leaving me homeless during school breaks until another friend came to my rescue and took me in.

I increased the amount of my student loans and opened up three credit cards in order to spend a semester abroad in London, a hardship that left me eating Dairy Milk chocolate bars from the train platform vending machine for breakfast, peanut butter out of the jar for lunch, and high-alcohol hard cider for dinner.

With nowhere else to go after college graduation, I moved to New York with a truck full of my dreams, no job, and $200 worth of earnings from three jobs my senior year. When I got my first paycheck at Atlantic Records a couple months later, my funds had dwindled down to $9 - even after having borrowed $20 from my father so I could buy a Metrocard - and I was eating the cheapest lunch I could find, Dunkin' Donuts doughnuts at 60 cents apiece.

The financial fuel gauge started emptying itself again when I was laid off from Atlantic and rode out four and a half months' of severance and a couple months more of unemployment before starting my job at Razor & Tie. I had spent all my game show winnings, and I was $40,000 in credit card debt, not to mention the student loans I still owed.

Somehow, working late hours and being aggressive, savvy and political at work helped me dig myself out, and three years ago, I was finally out of debt. I actually started saving money.

But where's the exhilaration in that?

With a nice little nest egg accruing interest, I considered buying an apartment in New York, potentially draining all of my savings and even my 401K. Heeding the warnings of my financial advisor not to push the debt envelope that far, I decided to wait and save more.

And thank God I did, because all hell broke loose, and soon after I had confidently declared I would live in New York for the rest of my life, I couldn't get out of here fast enough.

With $40,000 saved - not yet enough for a downpayment on a condo or a co-op - I quit my job I was secure but miserable in. I figured it would last me a few months. I didn't know what I would do after that.

It is nearly two years later and the gauge points to E. The warning light is on. I am running on empty but I am still running, blood pumping, breath quickening, eyes flashing. I am looking at the road. I can't take my eyes off of the road, but I don't know what I see but wide open spaces, not a gas station in sight. My foot eases up on the gas to let inertia bring me forward, momentum and wind, but it does not brake. It will not brake. I will drive this unknown car down this unknown road until I feel the one thing I have never felt before: the putter and sputter of an empty fuel tank, engine relenting, the silence of a still machine.

But maybe by then the road will be moving under me rather than me upon the road.

Maybe by then I will have learned to fly, right through the windshield and out into the sky, leaving the road behind.

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