Jamie isn’t thrilled to be living at 923 Oak.
He tells me this early in our conversation over a Bombay and Sapphire (his) and Chardonnay (mine) at Tenn16, East Nashville’s take on “Southern cuisine with a Cajun accent.” Jamie wasn’t up for meeting at his place. He’s in the middle of rearranging, having moved in about a year ago. “It’s a big mess. Like ridiculous.” While the actual structure is an important part of this project, I’m just happy to meet with a resident at all, especially after the last couple weeks of frustration.
I contacted Jamie through Facebook to follow up on the letters I’d sent. He responded immediately – he couldn’t have been more gracious – and now, just a couple weeks later, here we are.
I spotted him as I came through the door – the man I assumed was Jamie, vaguely reminiscent of his profile photo – he waves to me from the last booth on the left side of the restaurant. I weave through a throng of revelers at the center bar, splashed with plastic beadery and “Les Bon Temps Rouler” signs. It’s Fat Tuesday – I’d completely forgotten with all the hullabaloo around Ice Storm: 2014. We were supposed to meet at a coffee bar around the corner, but Jamie arrived first and realized it was about to close. So here we are at Plan B.
He rises from his seat to greet me. What could be an otherwise awkward situation (there’s nothing awkward with a complete stranger tracking another down, asking him to pour out his life stories, right?) doesn’t feel weird at all. Jamie is friendly and relaxed. Tall, handsome and well-built, with closely cropped light brown hair and a smattering of tattoos on his arms, he appears to be a curious dichotomy of a clean-cut thirty-something and rocker dude. No wedding ring, just a simple thin band on his pinkie. (I can’t help it. It’s a habit.)
“Thank you so much for meeting me!” I say, I shedding my multiple layers of winter outerwear.
“Absolutely. Happy to do it.” Trumpets and trombones blare New Orleans jazz and funk from the overhead speakers. I worry that I won’t be able to hear our conversation over the Mardi Gras din when I play back the recording.
Jamie seems to really “get” this project. After I explain how The 923 Oak Project came to be, he confessed that he always wondered about who was inside random homes lit up at night.
“One time, I actually knocked on a door.”
“You did?” I laugh. “Did anyone answer?”
“What’d they say?”
“I just said, you know what, I have no idea who you are, but I’m intrigued because I just picked your house randomly. What’s up?”
“Oh my gosh. What did they do?”
“They thought it was the coolest thing. This old couple, and they’re just like, ‘Wow, this is very interesting.’”
He was on a road trip; it was the early nineties and somewhere in Indiana (of course, people in my home state rock). They invited him in and had a nice chat.
Over the course of our two-hour conversation, and a subsequent six-hour conversation, it’s clear that an entire book could be written just about Jamie. He has packed more than a few lifetimes into his thirty-nine years. He’s a musician (songwriter and composer, guitarist and pianist), a proud Irish-American, a divorced dad of two little boys and an all-around do-gooder.
Jamie moved to 923 Oak about a year ago, after he split with his wife. They’d been married for twelve years, but throughout the marriage, Jamie’s wife battled demons, and soothed them with alcohol and affairs.
“We had a lot of fun, a lot of hard times, a lot of knock-down-get-back-on-your-feet – crazy marriage.” Jamie shakes his head. “She was an alcoholic – it was very difficult to deal with. A lot of hard nights. She was really messed up.”
“What’s your relationship like now?”
“We’ll do anything to make sure the kids are okay. (Their two boys are eight and four.) We work together to make sure the whole thing works, that we’re communicating how the kids are feeling, how they’re doing. It wasn’t a battle. She had messed up so many times; she was the one that wanted the divorce. She’s like, ‘There’s no rectifying what I’ve done.’” She moved out.
I’m fascinated by his story but don’t want to dig into details yet – I’ve known the guy for a total of twenty minutes. “How long have you been at 923 Oak?”
“It’s not been a full year yet. She actually lived at 923 Oak.”
“Wait – she moved from your house into 923 Oak?”
He nods. “I did a lot of research and realized that boys at these ages really need their mom. A lot. And it killed me. But I had to make a very difficult decision – it’s for the boys, not me. So I said [to his ex-wife], ‘Look, I want you to take the home, and I will move to 923 Oak, if you think this is a good idea.’ I love being a dad. It felt like it was taken from me. I had to remove the selfishness part of it and just kinda go, what is best? Man, it was not easy.”
“How often do you get to see them?”
“Every other weekend for five days. It’s kind of a 70/30 split. It was 50/50, but it was too hard on the boys. We didn’t use a lawyer or anything. We did all of it ourselves. Went to the court and the judge literally shook our hands. He said, ‘I want to say congratulations, but … I don’t want anybody divorced, but you guys really did a good job with this. I’m extremely impressed. It’s obvious you care about these boys. And that’s what’s important to the state of Tennessee.’
“So it’s just kinda one of those things. If we get lawyers, we lose everything. What’s the point? And I told her that. I said, ‘Do you want anything?’ She goes, ‘No. I don’t want anything. I don’t care.’ It was just like, we can do this ourselves. So that’s why I took 923. At first I was, ‘Oh my gosh. What am I doing?’ I had this beautiful home that we had built. Together. And I had to get out of that and move into a very small place.”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s small. Scattered. I have music equipment everywhere. I’m trying to rearrange it and make it a whole lot better than it is right now. But it’s alright. I’m never there, so it’s difficult.”
“Does it feel like home?”
“No. Well – not much can feel like home when nothing is similar. But I do know – I’ve spent so many evenings there rebuilding myself emotionally, physically – because at the end of the marriage, I was 275 pounds. I was depressed. I mean, horribly depressed. Divorced man, two children – I just felt really low. I did everything I could do to save this family from absolute destruction, and it didn’t work. My mother was concerned. She knew I was really upset. It was stress – mostly about the boys, and what was going to happen with my life … I started realizing I was unhealthy. So I started juicing, getting nutrients in me. Got very physically active. Started rebuilding my life. Because I didn’t want my kids’ dad to be in poor health. Within less than a year I lost 70 pounds. 923 Oak became my healing spot.”
“What do you think is the best thing that’s happened to you at 923?”
Jamie is quiet, pondering my question. “I’ve been able to look at myself in the mirror a whole lot better. Like face some things that you ignore. You just kind of sacrifice; sacrifice to the point where you’ve got nothing left. Like literally, nothing was left. I was a shell of a person. I had no clue who I was anymore. I had to sit down with people who love me – and say, ‘Please, remind me. What was I like?’”
We’re not even an hour into our conversation and my heart is hurting for this guy. “Do you feel back to yourself?”
“Almost. I feel better. There are a few things here and there that I don’t … that I’m not quite there yet. But I’m getting there.”