An Incident on North 20th Street
If I had to offer you a hardened number, I would say 30.
I would say 30 uninterrupted feet was the space between me and author Tim O’Brien, one of my few living literary heroes. His groundbreaking Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried inspired me to pursue a writer’s life. His novel entertained me, challenged me and forged my ideologies on writing and further reinforced my romantic belief that stories have the medicine to heal.
I’m standing on the North 20th Street sidewalk with a nasty wind snapping at my shoulders. Holding copy of O’Brien’s novel in my hand, I watch Tim watch the smoke from his cigarette curl and vanish in the cold March air. I take a step toward him. 29 feet.
A Septa bus turns the corner and chugs by. It’s Philadelphia. It’s the fifth largest city in America. 1.5 million residents and no one is around. As I tell you this, the night has all the fuzziness of a dream. The lines blurred. The sounds muffled. But it’s not a dream. It’s real. And it’s me and it’s Tim O’Brien, author of arguably the most important modern novel, alone together, on the same street. A giddy heat rushes up me chest. I step forward. 28 feet.
It’s 2010. I’m 30 years old. So far, my life has gone according to plan. I married my high school sweetheart. We bought a little house in the suburbs. We have a blonde hair, blue eyed daughter. I don’t know it, but I’m tinkering a tin mythology. I’m not building a life of passion and risk. My life is orderly. My life makes sense.
At 22, after he had graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Political Science, O’Brien’s plan was smashed. He was drafted into the Vietnam War. Courtesy of the United States government, Tim O’Brien was shuttled from the Minnesota prairies to jungles of Vietnam where he took orders, conducted ambushes, burned villages, kicked corpses and listened to final screams of men who became suddenly aware of the absolute and unflinching truth that they were about to die.
O’Brien had fought his unwanted war and now some 40 years later he’s staring into an immense Philadelphia sky, smoking a cigarette and still fighting, still trying to make sense of it all.
Of course, I didn’t know it that night, but my unwanted war was still some three years away. I was three years away from MRI tubes and CAT scans and confused doctors. From the fine print of life insurance policies and mornings full of medication. I was three years away from discovering that writing would become my life raft, my means of survival. A vehicle for traversing my personal terrain in an attempt to pin down certain truths before it was too late. I step forward. 27 feet.
The wind snaps again and Tim snuffs out his cigarette and sits on a cement step. I’m holding his book and thinking about how to introduce myself like a self-respecting man, not some gushy fanboy.
It’s peculiar. I didn’t read or write much in high school. I mean, I secretly liked reading and writing but I had sports to play and girls to talk to. And yet, for no good reason, I went to college, declared myself an English major and hoped, which seemed much easier to do in those days, one day I might become a writer.
I now understand my life has been a subway ride to this March night. Meeting new faces, accumulating memories. Gliding along, aimlessly watching miles click by, never really in control, never full-heartily doing the thing that I really wanted to do. Never believing I had a story worth telling. Worth reading. 26 feet.
It’s funny how memory works.
How a circumstance, a smell, a passing glance can rip a chord– cause the past to sputter, growl, zoom into the present, only to stall in your brain in both odd and ordinary hours. 26 feet away from Tim O’Brien I was suddenly reminded of something my college journalism professor, Dr. Breslin, told me some eight years prior.
Earlier that evening I sat in the Philadelphia Public Library’s auditorium listening to Tim, with a gravel voice and steely stare speak eloquently about writing, the haunting nature of memory, the Vietnam War, the ambiguity of truth, how imagination helps him cope and how storytelling saved his life.
I’m 30 years old. The writer seeds are in me, under the soil, but I’m not tending to them. I busy living an uninspired life. Tim’s words, his stories help but I’m not ready. The seeds are rooting, slowly, still five years away for producing fruit. Fruit that will ripen when my life spoils. When doctors tell me I might die soon.
Tim finishes, the auditorium claps and I exit the library. I walk along Vine Street, turned up North 20th street. The library is on my right. Author Tim O’Brien steps out a side door of the library, lights up a cigarette. He smokes slowly under a yellow lamp light and watches the smoke curl and disappear into the cold night sky.
I freeze. It feels like a odd, cold dream. One of my heroes stands 30 uninterrupted feet from me. I smile and take a step forward. Then another.
I hear the voice of my college professor warning me to never interview my heroes.
She smiles, walks out from behind her desk and says, “Because you’re never ready to interview your heroes.”
Tim sits down on a little cement step and snubs out his cigarette. I take another step forward. Then another. After the war he didn’t know what to do. So he wrote. He found solitude and hope and love and redemption in words. It’s not Vietnam, but my private apocalypse awaits– gnawing at the edges of my future days.
At 26 feet, I submit. I’m not ready. Not yet.
I tuck The Things They Carried into my messenger bag. I retreat. 27. 28. Tim stares into the night sky. I have nothing to say to him. Nothing to provoke meaningful, authentic conversation. Nothing he would appreciate.
I turn away and walk along North 20th Street. With shoulders hunched, I leave Tim O’Brien behind, probably forever, yet forever carrying him with me.
I’m walking into a darkness. I’m three years from the start of my unwanted war and five years away from becoming a writer. I’m still five years away from having something real, something authentic to say to Tim O’Brien, to say to you.
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