These stories about $w1fT have generated a lot of heated conversation with some people who are very dear to me. They are worried about the content and tone of these posts; that I appear to be a thrill-seeker at worst and dangerously naive at best. Ultimately, they fear that sharing this particular story — as fascinating as it may be — could alienate future 923 Oak participants. (They want me to save it for the book.)
I understand their concerns, and I certainly don’t want to do anything to jeopardize participation in this project. I doubt (hope?!) any future visits will be quite as sensational. But $w1fT is an authentic part of what I have encountered at 923 Oak. As are Faye, Dan and their Iowa farm family. Thomas in Arizona. Mike & Pete in Ohio. As are those you are about to meet: Jamie in Tennessee, Ben in Georgia, and Dan, Sally, Taylor and Mackenzie in Pennsylvania. Whatever the consequences, it feels right to share all of their stories here.
Looking at America through the lens of one address will uncover some pretty interesting, potentially uncomfortable truths. And that’s kinda the point: What do we think about it, and what are we going to do about it?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think?
I want to hear more of $w1fT’s story. Here’s my decision tree:
- I have an opportunity to rent my apartment for two weeks.
- That covers one month of my rent.
- This is music to my currently unemployed ears.
- However, that renders me effectively homeless for 14 days.
- If I need a place to stay for two weeks, and I can go anywhere, I’m going somewhere warm.
- My parents and aunt live in Arizona, and they happen to be a pleasure to spend time with.
- They won’t make me pay to stay there.
- Mom and Dad live about two hours away from $w1fT.
Doubts creep in, for sure. It’s one thing to be adventurous; it’s another to be stupid. I tell myself that my decision falls in the former category. Mostly.
So, after driving down the California coast and spending a couple nights with Mom and Dad, I hop back in the car to make the drive to see $w1fT.
I expect that $w1fT will be at 923 Oak when I arrive for my second visit. He is not. Mark, a friend of Thomas’s I didn’t know, answers the door, smiling to reveal a handful of missing teeth. I greet Thomas with a hug, putting a 12-pack of Bud Light Platinum and assorted snacks I brought him on the counter.
$w1fT is nowhere to be found, and Thomas doesn’t seem to have much information on his whereabouts. I text $w1ft.
Thu, Jan 9, 3:54pm
At Thomas’s … what’s your eta?
Thomas and I are sitting next to each other on the sofa, catching up, sipping Bud Light Platinum. He turns on a DVD of the Eagles Live from Australia concert and strums along on his electric guitar. He is self-taught and has an impressive ear. Suspect, Thomas’s Chihuahua, allows me to hold him on my lap and pet him between his bouts of humping my leg.
That is a Chihuahua with freakishly strong front legs. I can barely pry him off my calf.
A woman named Kayla arrives a few songs into the Eagles concert. She is upset to be $50 shy of retrieving her car from the pound. She retires to Thomas’s bedroom to rest.
The second disc of the live concert DVD goes in.
I text $w1fT again.
Thu Jan 9, 6:33pm
Hey there – are you able to get together today?
A few minutes later, Thomas somehow connects with $w1fT on his phone, and hands it to me.
“Sorry,” $w1ft says. “I had to deal with a few ‘situations.’”
I don’t know $w1fT well, but I appreciate the way that he emphasizes certain words, which makes me wonder what on earth “situations” look like in his line of work.
I agree to pick $w1fT up from his current location, but since I have no idea where I’m going (and have zero sense of direction), Thomas (and Suspect) come with me. We stop by the supermarket first so Thomas can pick up something for dinner.
We drive a few blocks away to a street of tightly packed mobile homes, barely lit by dim streetlights further down the road. The afternoon light is gone. We spot a lone shadowed figure next to one of the rundown trailers. I stop the car.
$w1ft climbs into the backseat of my car, now filled with the pungent aroma of fried chicken. He is clad in black from head to toe, and carries a large bag, which could pass for a hipster’s messenger bag. I wonder what’s inside. We drop Thomas off back at 923 Oak, and $w1fT gets into the front passenger seat.
“Where do you want to go?” I ask.
“Ummm …” he ponders. “Do you want to see something cool?”
“Uh, yeah …”
I expect we are headed to a hidden gem of a biker joint. I have already romanticized the setting in my mind: an old dive with neon beer signs; dented wooden floors; burly, tatted dudes on barstools; stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air.
“Do you want to see something really, really cool?”
Again: “Uh, yeah.”
“I have to warn you; this place is kinda romantic.”
I laugh. “I know I don’t have to worry about you. You’re a married man.”
“I’m not that married.”
Red flag. Well, more magenta. (Even when I dole out “red flags,” I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.)
We drive down dark roads, clearly headed out of town. Before long, we’re headed uphill, and the road conditions worsen. Potholes dot a barely paved road, which soon turns into dirt. Patches of snow appear along the sides of the road. It is pitch black.
We arrive at what looks to be a large parking lot with a dense forest along two sides and a cliff along the others. “Lookout,” $w1fT informs me. This is not a warning; apparently it is the name of our destination.
I stop at what I think is a safe distance from the edge of the cliff and put the car in park. This would no doubt be a beautiful place to be at sunset. Sunrise, too, but I prefer my bed at that time of day.
Suddenly a truck roars up right behind us, its headlights aggressively illuminating $w1fT and me in the car. I look at $w1fT expectantly.