Dirtbag in the Big Apple

As a writer, it’s impossible not to have a literary, even romantic notion of New York City. Jack Kerouac called it “the place where paper America is born.” He was my first writing guy. I would say hero, but Kerouac’s life was too sad for him to be a hero. (Like many great writers, he relied a little too much on drugs and alcohol and died young.) He had the prose that made me fall in love with the written word, so much so that I decided one day I would become a writer myself.

So now I write. I write to you. What a strange job it is to be a creative writer, especially writing columns like this. The Telegraph gives you these words for free and asks for nothing in return. I try my hardest, once a month, to entertain you with a short story. In turn I get a modest check – enough for a trip to the desert.

The brevity might be easy for the modern blogger, but it’s a challenge for me to keep it to a thousand words, I like to go long. In this era of short attentions spans, people think beauty can be summed up in an Instagram post. But I’m old school, like Kerouac waxing for thousands of words, trying to capture that magical feeling life sometimes provides and finding meaning even when it doesn’t.

I’ve seen a little magic in New York City. But when I was there last week, I was not looking for a muse, I was just on book tour and visiting my brother, Clint, and sister-in-law, Kelly. They recently moved from Manhattan to the suburbs of New Jersey.

I’ve been traveling and doing presentations for a couple years now. Sometimes I get an eager audience, a packed house that will pay attention to every word. Other times, attendance is sparse, especially when the host doesn’t promote the event. The difference is striking: when people show up, I’m energized and confident; when they don’t, I feel defeated. I believe in my dream though, and I’m willing to follow it wherever it may lead me. Plus, I don’t drown my sorrow in booze or let my highs and lows get too extreme.

We started the trip by driving to New Paltz, a quaint village on the edge of the most famous climbing area on the East Coast: The Gunks. We were accompanied by Lizzy, their tiny, adorable greyhound-chihuahua mix. Usually I don’t like little dogs, especially the “yipper” ones that bark at everything, stuck in their Napoleon complexes and afraid of the world. This dog, rescued from a shelter, is different. She rarely barks, and is cute and sweet as could be. Even her incessant licking is endearing.

She’s also tough and smart. Clint once lost her in Central Park, about a mile from their apartment. He panicked, a 12-pound dog lost amongst the hustle and bustle of New York. An hour went by, and he couldn’t find her. She could be anywhere he thought, in the massive expanse of Central Park, or lost on the busy streets of Manhattan. This was their beloved dog and she could be gone, forever.

While Clint was frantically looking, Lizzy decided she wanted to return home. And she did, running through Central Park, crisscrossing traffic to the apartment. She found someone to let her in, and climbed six flights of stairs to their doorstop. Oh, the places you’ll go, Lizzy!

So the place we’re going, The Gunks, is well loved and appreciated. Our timing is perfect: the leaves have cascaded into an epic variety of yellow, red and orange. The air is crisp, with the nostalgic fall unfolding. Forget climbing, all I want to do is drink pumpkin beer, huddle up by a fire and listen to Frank Sinatra.

After a little bit of climbing, some leaf peeping and a couple pumpkin beers, we roll into downtown New Paltz for my presentation at a local gear show. There’s a packed house, and the vibe is high. I show a Beatnik-inspired short climbing film I’ve been working on, and it’s well received. To be so warmly welcomed so far away from home feels all warm and fuzzy.

The next day, we drive through horrendous traffic back to Jersey, and I get a taste of that aggressive driving they are known for. Luckily, Clint and Kelly live close to a train station, so our commutes into the city are less dramatic than wondering if I’ll die at the hand of some agro Jersey motorist.

It’s nice to have some chill time with my brother; life stretches us apart in this modern world, doesn’t it? We walk around some parks, go shopping for Halloween costumes, and get a drink at a well-lit place. That night, we plan to try to get into the Comedy Cellar, the famous comedy joint in Manhattan. I’d been there years before, with the whole family: mom, dad, grandma, aunt and even some cousins. Now, I come from a conservative Midwestern family, and the material on a Saturday night at The Cellar is profane to say the least, and that night the famous comedian Louis C.K. was on stage. While he ranted about the grooming of pubic hair, amongst other things, I tried to block it out that my dear grandmother was sitting next to me.

You never know who is going to show up at this club, after all it’s New York City, I’m secretly hoping I’ll get to see Dave Chappelle or Jerry Seinfeld. This night, however, we’re waiting standby behind 30 other people, and we don’t even get in.

Our backup plan turns into a delicious sushi dinner. Later, I learn from Clint and Kelly that you can openly drink on the train ride back home. That sure beats traffic!

The next day, I have a presentation at a climbing gym in Brooklyn. Clint and I walk the streets beforehand and stroll through a park. I’ve heard so much about Brooklyn, my favorite musicians hail from there, and in my opinion the hip-hop that came out of Brooklyn in the 1990s is the best rap ever created. As they say, Brooklyn goes hard!

I get a modest turnout at the presentation and a warm reception. Another success. Later, I learned that Jay Z and Beyoncé were playing just a few blocks away at the Barclays Center. While I usually would have lamented missing two incredible artists, arena shows aren’t exactly my thing.

The next day was a marathon travel day, flying back to Albuquerque, and then driving back to Durango. I did get to catch the sunset in New Mexico, a pink and orange cascade that just seemed to keep going with me, as the Subaru drove into the sky, back home in time for a few more weeks of our own nostalgic, stunning autumn.

Luke Mehall




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