Monday, May 19, 2014

A Fundamentalist Continues His Pilgrimage: Pt. 1

I left Pensacola pissed off at my dad. He had talked to me about how my “vacation,” as he put it, was a waste of time and money, and that I should use the money to go back to school. I wasn’t necessarily pissed at that[1]; I was pissed that he believed, in his words, that “it’s not too late for you to go back to BJU.” Seriously? I had two bottles of Rumplemintz and couple tabs of X[2] in my duffle bag, was divorced, and was way past any pretense of being a Christian. Was he not paying any attention to me? That’s what pissed me off - the belief that my dad was willfully naïve about whom and what I was. I had spent twenty-seven years crafting my image, and I didn’t want there to be any confusion, especially not from my own dad. I felt disrespected.

In truth, as I recognize now, he was simply throwing a Hail Mary in an attempt to save me. He wasn’t disrespecting me; he was loving me. He was the father of the prodigal son saying, “It’s not too late.” And, if it “wasn’t too late” at that point, it would never be too late. But, at the time, I hadn’t yet knelt beside the pigs and ate slop. So, I roared out of Pensacola on the way to Atlanta where I spent several days with a girl who believed herself my girlfriend and who believed that I loved her.

We got a hotel room on the outskirts of Atlanta, and stocked up on Jägermeister and condoms. The hotel room was necessary, because as a nineteen year old rising college sophomore, Christine lived with her dad. He didn’t like me. When it was time to leave, she begged me not to go. Having upended her life in terms of convincing her that there was no God, introducing her to chemicals, and causing a rift between her and her dad I felt somewhat obligated, but not enough to stay with her. I did like the fact that I could count on her to be my “home base.” Kerouac had his Aunt; I had a booty call who believed herself to be so much more.

From Atlanta, I drove to Bloomington, Indiana to spend some time with family and visit the theatre department at Indiana University. It had been several years since I had last seen my Aunt, Uncle, and cousins who lived in Bloomington, and I was looking forward to hanging out with them. Greg, my only male cousin, being nine years older than me[3], occupied the same place in my mind as figures like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. And, I knew that my aunt and uncle, not being cultural fundamentalists, would not hassle me even if they disapproved of my actions. Which, although true, was a disingenuous thought on my part seeing how my cultural fundamentalist family members rarely, if ever, hassled me – unless, of course, you count loving me unconditionally while having to put up with my bullshit as hassling me. Anyway, my Bloomington family occupied a different place in my highly prejudiced and categorized mind than my “fundy” family, and I was looking forward to reconnecting with them.

The town of Bloomington didn’t disappoint. In fact, I fell in love with the town; and, after talking with several of the theatre faculty members at IU, considered moving there upon the completion of my pilgrimage. I enjoyed hanging out with my family; exploring the town and its many thrift stores, vegetarian friendly ethnic restaurants, and the world’s best used bookstore; and getting to know my cousins whom, because of age differences and the constraint of distance, I hadn’t spent much time with prior to this visit. So, when I merged onto I70 in the direction of St. Louis, I was the happiest I had been in years.

Before checking into the youth hostel in St. Louis, I pulled off the interstate to see the Arch. Not wanting to pay the money to ride the elevator to the top of the Arch[4], I walked around the park and took pictures with the disposable camera that I had purchased in Bloomington. I didn’t take many pictures, though: one, disposable cameras have a picture limit; and, two, I kept getting interrupted. With outstretched cameras, several families and couples asked me if I would take a picture of them. After about the fourth time being drafted into photographer duty, I became acutely aware that I was the only person there who didn’t have anyone to frame the Arch behind[5] in my pictures. A creeping loneliness began to insert itself into my pilgrimage.

A week later, driving through Kansas on the way to Denver, I saw a farmstead off of I70. Now, this picturesque farmstead was located in the Eastern half of Kansas; in other words, before the Kansas landscape turns into a creepy, children of the cornesque nightmare of never getting any closer grain silos on the flat, grayish horizon. The farmhouse was set back almost one hundred yards off of the interstate[6] and was surrounded by a lush, bluff of poplar trees[7] I pulled my car over, got out, and took a picture. Wondering what would happen if I climbed the fence and went and knocked on the door, I sat down under a tree, pulled out a clove cigarette and my journal, and stared at the farm as I tried to put my feelings on the page. One of the things I wrote was, “I want to live on a farm out in the middle of nowhere with Christine. We can raise our own food, surround ourselves with books, and have kids. I bet I’d be happy.”

By the time I crossed the Colorado state line, some of my pre-pilgrimage optimism had returned. The sign promising mountains when there were zero mountains in sight was slightly irritating, but the high plains of Eastern Colorado have a detached electricity that alludes to change over the horizon.

All of the literature that I had read about the Denver International Youth Hostel used words like “weird,” “eccentric,” and “creepy” as descriptors. Most of the hostel journals rated the Denver hostel as “unsafe.” One of the comments that I read bluntly stated, “I would’ve been terrified if it weren’t for the police sub-station across the street.”[8] I prided myself on my liberal sensibilities so I wasn’t all that concerned, and when I pulled up to the hostel, whatever concern I did have diminished. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about Denver, but I do know that it’s become a hipster paradise, of sorts. I imagine that the gentrification of downtown Denver had already spread out to the hostel, which was only about five blocks from downtown, by the summer of 2003. The hostel was surrounded by houses that were obviously owned by rich-ish white people with eclectic yet aesthetically pleasing taste.  I could tell, however, by the actual hostel itself that the area had at one time definitely been “unsafe.” The youth hostel looked like a squalid tenement house in a movie about the plight of alcoholic twelve year olds working in button factories during the Industrial Revolution. That was fine, but my liberal comfort abandoned me during the check-in process. The proprietor was a short, swarthy man who looked like Bono and Fidel Castro had had a love child while listening to an audio book of Picasso explaining his cubist theories. He even wore a Castro cap. His entire rant about George W. Bush, materialism, and how white people are the enemy of humanity[9] and should all be raped to death was a lead-in to relating to me his plan to open a beachfront youth hostel in South America that excluded white Americans. But, just because he was creepy and racist in a reverse way didn’t mean that he wasn’t a nice guy; he asked me to come by his private room later that night for beer and weed. I politely yet timidly declined.   

Walking down the dimly lit hallway from the office, I passed the common room and peeked in. It looked like it had been used as a set for porn during the seventies and hadn’t been cleaned since. Extremist-feminist literature occupied the same shelf as fetish porn. There was a desecrated Bible on the coffee table; its pages covered with anti-Christian screeds proudly signed by the author(s). The weirdly shaped, faux-leather furniture in the corner that had what appeared to be chains hanging on the wall convinced me that this hostel’s common room was probably best avoided. To get to my dorm room, I had to exit the back of the building, walk along what I can only describe as a first floor fire escape, and reenter the building on the other end.

My dorm room was empty when I walked in. The room had five bunk beds (for a total of ten beds), a tiny kitchen, and scary looking bathroom that had a door that wouldn’t close all the way. And an eight-track player, I can’t forget the highlight of the room – the eight-track player. One of the beds had a suitcase under it and a pile of brightly colored and patterned conglomerate of silk shirts and man-thongs on the disheveled bed [10]; I chose a bed on the exact opposite side of the room. The kitchen was crammed with food and dirty dishes, way too many for one occupant. I had planned on eating in the hostel that evening, but the weirdness/creepiness/filthiness was a tad overwhelming; I decided that spending some of my money at a restaurant would be an investment in my blood pressure. So, I walked the five or so blocks to downtown Denver and found myself on the 16th Street Mall[11].

Denver’s 16th Street Mall is a testament to everything the hostel’s proprietor hated and everything that I thought that I hated. But, for the first time in years, I was happy to be surrounded by excess and materialism. It provided an equilibrium for my own identity. It’s confusingly difficult to be an activist when you’re suddenly confronted with one of the possible conclusions of your type of activism and it’s bizarrely committed and legitimately menacing. Rich, white kids playing “commune” in the mountains outside of Asheville are safe, albeit irritating. Swarthy, Marxist homosexuals who operate a youth hostel that may also be a S&M fetish club and who believe that the revolution should be sexually violent are unnerving, to put it mildly. I un-ironically walked into a chain restaurant, and sat down at the bar.

Not wanting to spend a lot of money, I ordered the cheapest vegetarian option on the menu and a glass of water, which pissed off the bartender. While I was eating my food and wondering if I should stay at the hostel, a man tapped me on the shoulder and asked if the stool next to mine was taken. He sat down, and I could tell that he wanted to talk; I wasn’t about to initiate a conversation, though. After several minutes of obvious awkwardness, he finally worked up the courage to ask me if I lived in Denver. That started a polite conversation. I told him a little about myself and that I was traveling around the country. He told me that he was from Miami, and was in town for business. I wasn’t in any hurry to get back to the hostel. I wanted to make sure that the proprietor was off duty. I’m not too ashamed to admit that he scared me a little; me being white and taking into account his invitation to join him in his room, I was a little worried that I would become part of his revolution. Anyway, since I was lingering at the restaurant drinking free water at the bar while ignoring the stares of hate from the bartender, the Miami businessman left before I did.

I didn’t stay much longer, maybe twenty minutes, but it was late  by the time I walked out of the restaurant. As I turned up the sidewalk, I felt someone grab my book bag. I didn’t have anything of value in my bag, but I wasn’t about to let someone steal it. I turned around with my fist in the air, and the businessman from Miami flinched and jumped back. He quickly explained to me that he had been waiting for me because he wanted to talk to me. I explained to him that I was headed back to my hostel, and he asked if he could walk along with me. Thinking that was a little odd, I replied, “Sure, I guess.” At that point, I began to think he was trying to pick me up. I don’t remember what we talked about as we walked along; I was too focused on trying to think up something to tell him that would let him down easy. But, and it didn’t take long, he put his hand on my arm and said, “I need to get to my hotel.” And, I thought, “Here it comes.” But, what he said was the exact opposite of what I was expecting.

He looked down, and speaking hesitantly and softly told me, “I want to tell you that God loves you, and that someone somewhere is praying for you. I’m not going to preach to you because I get the impression that you know more about the Bible than I do. I just felt compelled to tell you that God loves you.”

He couldn’t have affected me more even if he had hit me in the face with a baseball bat. I was pissed, and wanted to throw him against the wall and kick the shit out of him. In my mind I was screaming, “No! No! No! You can’t fucking do this to me!”

Realizing that my settled worldview was no longer settled, I tried to fight back the image of my mom on her knees praying for me. The business man from Miami walked away, leaving me standing on a sidewalk in downtown Denver with tears streaming down my face.     

[1] From his perspective, and from most people’s perspective, he was correct. I got that.
[2] The kids today call it “Molly.” Or so I’ve heard.
[3] It may only be eight. Sorry if I made you even older than you actually are, Greg.
[4] I looked up how much it currently costs, and, in a demonstration of how much perspective changes, the 2014 John Ellis is having trouble empathizing with the 2003 John Ellis’ decision. The elevator ticket is only $10, and I’m sure that it was even cheaper in 2003.
[5] This was years before the ubiquitousness of the “selfie.” It was a strange time, kids. 
[6] Technically, I think the correct phase is “the interstate was set back almost 100 yards from the farm.” The farm was there first, after all.
[7] I have no idea what kind of trees they were, but “lush, bluff of poplar trees” is, at least in my mind, what surrounds all mid-American farms.
[8] I looked at reviews online to see if I need to add an addendum stating that from I can tell, it’s changed. Apparently I don’t, because based on the several reviews I read, the Denver International Youth Hostel hasn’t change. One review was titled, “Denver Shelter for the Homeless.” Keep in mind that these reviews are being written by the kind of person that stays in youth hostels.
[9] For the record, I’m fairly confident that he was white.
[10] I tried to avoid any and all conversations with the guy the entire time I was there, but some interaction was inevitable. From best I could tell, he was actually living there. He claimed to be an architect from Idaho who had moved to Denver for a job. He never said if he currently had a job, and I never asked. If he was indeed an architect, I have a feeling that he was barred from designing schools and day cares for legal reasons. The day I was leaving, he asked if he could ride with me to Las Vegas. I wasn't that lonely.
[11] The hostel is actually located on 16th St., so I’m not sure that “found myself” is correct. Maybe “inevitably ended up” is more accurate.


  1. This is one of the most fascinating stories I've read in a long, long time. I'm totally hooked. Though this was my favorite line when I read it: "But, just because he was creepy and racist in a reverse way didn’t mean that he wasn’t a nice guy..." the ending became my favorite part. It is so unbelievable. And I know it happens.

  2. I'd love to hear this story from the Miami businessman's point of view. ;) Guess we'll have to track him down in Aslan's Country.

    1. I don't know what kind of church he went to, but if his church had the traditional Wed. night prayer service, I've always wondered if he shared his side of the story with his church at prayer meeting. If he did, how many people in Aslan's Country will I need to thank for their prayers?