Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Highway: 61

There's no getting around it: I got a year older yesterday. And, as always seems to happen, I found myself ruthlessly looking into the metaphoric mirror, trying to figure out what the past year had meant, and what I'd accomplished.

Fortunately, there was a palpable answer to that: a little over two weeks after my last birthday, I said good-bye to Berlin after 15 years of living there, five of which were miserable, for the most part. I realized my dream of moving to Montpellier, and I've been there ever since.

Of course, that's not a totally positive situation: I have been here ever since, only getting out to explore the surrounding countryside once. And the reason for that is that at the beginning of this year, a major part of the grand plan fell apart: the move here was made possible by a project of ghost-writing the autobiography of a minor music business figure of low reputation, who convinced me that his miraculous and medically baffling remission from leukemia had totally changed him. This, in part, was why he wanted to write the book.

Unfortunately, it wasn't true: he announced in late March that he wasn't going to continue, leaving me to realize that $15,000 of the budget I was working on wasn't going to materialize. Worse, a further $5000 which he owed me for work I'd already done, as it developed, he had no intention of paying me. Unfortunately, I have very little recourse. A lawyer has been writing letters to him on my behalf as a favor, but I haven't heard anything since August, so maybe he's stopped. And, since I hadn't been looking for work in the six months I'd been working on this guy's book, I was caught with no income.

Thus, a lot of plans had to be pulled back. A lot of them. Like buying health insurance. Like getting this flat in order by buying bookcases and getting help installing some lights (I still have unpacked boxes from the move, and haven't a clue about the contents of at least one of them). Like travelling around. This apartment costs over double what my last apartment in Berlin cost, and is only about half as large. It's kind of a slum, but so was that Berlin place, which not only had more room, but a better kitchen. Plus, of course, the dollar has continued to slide since I got here, which, with the higher expenses, has also hurt.

So I haven't been out much, haven't made many friends, and haven't integrated much into the community. I know these things take time, as they did in Berlin, where at least I knew a dozen or so people by the time I wound up living there. Going out for a drink is ridiculous: a beer here costs twice what it did in Berlin -- and it tastes nasty. A glass of wine tastes better, but is the same price.

But there's my other problem, the one I couldn't have anticipated, but which weighs down on me as badly as sitting among the dusty, unpacked cardboard boxes: in April, shortly after my ghostwriting client retreated, saying "sue me," I got a cold. Big deal; it happens. Somehow, the cold caused a polyp to grow in my left sinus, and this, in turn, squeezed the nerve taking taste to my brain. I lost my sense of taste. Weirdly, the squeeze mostly happens at night: I can smell and taste during the day, and then, perceptibly, between 6 and 8pm, it fades. I've gone to a doctor, and he's been treating me, and I've recovered a very small amount of my taste at night, but not enough. At the beginning of the treatment, what must have been some radical drugs fixed me right up, as I mentioned here. But as I went off that regime, things got worse.

I figure I'm lucky: I can't afford expensive wines, or to go to a restaurant unless someone else pays, so being broke during this situation isn't too bad. But the part of being broke that means I can't travel, or that I feel incredible guilt when, as happened this weekend, I had to buy a new CD player for €67 because my old one died, or that I have to seriously consider each time I want to do anything whether I can afford it is oppressive.

I'm also lucky in that I have an ongoing gig with Fresh Air, although it is sporadic and pays public-radio wages, so I'm not getting rich. Unlike a lot of the 14,000 professional journalists who lost their jobs in the past twelve months, I do work some. In fact, that was what I did for my birthday: I wrote a story for the Oxford American, for which I'll get paid in a couple of months. That kind of thing doesn't happen enough, but I'm grateful that it happens at all.

It's really not a good idea to try to plan a year in advance, but I do have some goals. First, of course, is to regain my sense of smell and taste as quickly as possible. I should be seeing the doctor later this month, so I'll know how likely that is. Second, try to get more work. I woke up a couple of weeks ago with an idea for re-casting the Berlin book I had so much trouble with a couple of years ago, the one nobody seemed to understand. I think I've got it now, and I've been working on it every day. The agent I've been talking to is sceptical, but I hope to change his mind -- or find another agent who does believe in the project. There are a couple of ghost-writing gigs also in the air, although they're a long way from coming to fruition, and I'm very open to hearing about others.

Long-range, I hope I can get financially comfortable enough to get out more next year, and, in the very long run, I'd like to get a bigger apartment, although in a country that's even more suspicious of self-employed people (and anyone over 60 who's still working and not living on a pension) than Germany was, that's going to be next to impossible without a huge stroke of luck. But at least, as the Willem de Kooning quote by the PayPal button says, at least I'm not poor; I'm just broke. One's a state of mind, the other's a state of bank account.

So I set foot on the highway numbered 61. For those of you who aren't familiar with American folk culture, US Highway 61 was and is the road that ran north from the Mississippi Delta to Memphis, the road that meant freedom and a perilous new life for those brave enough to get on it. A lot of them couldn't handle the big city, but those who could frequently found the power to change not only their lives, but American history. I guess the fact that I'm still working on it is good news. We'll see what's up when I get to 62. Not that I'm in a hurry.


  1. Happy birthday, Ed! I hope you reach your goals this year (and more!).

  2. Happy (late) Birthday Ed!
    Oh, it's your Bday so I'll use it to say I enjoy reading your blog and listen to Fresh Air. I lived and worked in the music business in the US for years...
    Keep on writing...and you do have a friend in Bordeaux,France
    Bon Anniversaire!

  3. You're wrong, Muriel: I now have *two* freinds in Bordeaux! Gotta get up there some day.

  4. Good lord, you'd think I could spell "friends" after all these years!


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