Through my '93 freshman and 95' junior years, I attended Herbert Hoover High School. Needless to say, my being a die hard anti-racist punk kid with pink hair, baggy clothes, and a skateboard didn't wash well with most students and staff alike. Fights were a weekly occurrence, and I was suspended and nearly expelled for myriad shit more times than are worth remembering, though now I am. Those years were rough on my family, no doubt.
Herbert Hoover High lies on the banks of the Elk River near the fringes of Clendenin, a town that according to the year 2000 census had a population of exactly 1, 116 folks. We spent the first eight or so years of my life up in Clendenin, living a little red brick house right on the Elk. My mom kept a garden in the backyard where she grew tomatoes and sunflowers. Down in our basement she kept a mason jar of sugar-coated lemon drops on a shelf above the dryer, which I loved. My folks were eager to move us to better schools, so we followed the Elk ten miles downstream, crossed over the Elkview Bridge, and on along the river for a couple more miles. There my Dad, Uncle, and Grandfathers had huge hands in building our two-stored, blue vinyl siding house. That was over twenty years ago. I grew up in that blue house near the Elk in Elkview. Follow the Elk for ten more miles downstream and you'll be dumped from its mouth into the much larger Kanawha River, right in lower-left ventricle of Charleston's barely-beating heart. So, there it is. For my entire life, I've felt as if I were the middle point on a twenty mile stretch between the country and the city. Every person in every car that passed me by snagged and caught my imagination under its tires. They wore me thinner and thinner, over the years, like a hobo's boot heel.
I can explain my wish to escape through the following notion, maybe. The 2000 census shows that Charleston had a city population of 53, 421. 53, 421 divided by 1, 116 equals 47.9. That equation is maybe a ratio – 49:1 – for how I felt, then, about my potential as a worker/artist. I guess I always felt like, if I could just get the hell off Elk River, I could maybe become 49 times the worker/artist that I would be if I got stuck on Elk River. Forever.
I do have love for Elk River – my Elk River, the West Virginia of my family and friends – even with all its faults. We have some strong history. We were home to hardcore Abolitionists like John Brown, and throughout the 1900s West Virginia coal miners and labor organizers continually fought the United States Army and ruthless mine guards over issues of mine safety and fair hourly wages. And they won! Since around 1820 I’m the only male on my dad’s side of our family who has never stepped inside of coal mine, so facts like those tend to make me feel a deep, though conflicted, sense of pride.
I left Herbert Hoover in the first month of my senior year and graduated from Hurricane High School in 1996. Down in southern WV we pronounce that "Her-uh-cuhn.” After graduating, I spent three semesters at a community college outside of Charleston, worked the counter at McDonald’s for like a month, but mostly I just skateboarded, went to punk/hardcore shows all over the east coast, worked as a janitor at a Donut Connection and as an Emergency Room Registration Clerk, got tattooed a bunch, lived in my parents' house, and spent a ton of time having no fucking clue what I wanted to do with my life other than not live on Elk River and be a janitor, forever. A few days after my nineteenth birthday, I moved to Morgantown, WV, which is on the banks of the Monongahela River, a whole 142 miles north of Elk River. From fall 1998 to the end of fall 2001, I was enrolled at West Virginia University (WVU), where I completed a double Bachelor's in Journalism and Sociology. While there, some friends and I started a non-profit, Positive-Youth Foundation, based out in Greencastle, PA. We guided and supported kids nationwide whom were organizing against the bigotry they encountered in their own communities and schools. I spent all my free time outside of school traveling two hours, about the exact same distance between the Elk and the Mon Rivers, over Interstate 68 between Morgantown and Greencastle to work in our warehouse. When I wasn’t there, I was touring to promote our cause/non-profit with bands like Green Day, Rancid, AFI, No Doubt, Hot Water Music, Blink 182, Alkaline Trio, Bad Religion, and many others. We also tabled and toured on numerous festivals and festival-style tours, like Lollapalooza and the Vans Warped Tour. I also spoke in front of meetings and gatherings as diverse as the Washington State Women Voters' Caucus and the North American Anarchist Gathering. Through our non-profit work, I traveled through every province of Canada and every state in the USA but Hawaii and North Dakota. I lived and/or spent tons of busy days and rawkus nights in big cities like LA, Seattle, Portland, DC, Baltimore, Philly, and all the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. I always loved Chicago the most though. At times these memories are near suffocating, and after all this so-called "living" I found myself still a touch lost, but I was off Elk River.
After disagreements with a friend, I left PYF in the summer of 2003 and was feeling pretty much like a waster. I’d quit my dream, a successful one at that. Broke, I took a job at Ticketmaster taking phone-in ticket orders for a couple months back in Charleston, moved back to Morgantown, as quickly as I could, and re-enrolled at WVU to study English and Creative Writing. I always knew, if I ever quit PYF, I would eventually return to university to study poetry. I love to write, as you can see.
Three years later, summer 2006, I’d finished another Bachelor's degree and moved during another August to yet another city, Chicago. Finally. I've spent two years completing my MFA in Poetry here at Columbia. I finished up my degree almost a year ago this week. This is my third year teaching in our Bridge program.
All these ramblings, however, still leave the following unanswered though: am I forty nine times the person I would be if I'd remained on Elk River? Frankly, I hope so, but I don't know. I can tell you, though, that I've started pondering a new ratio for my possible potential – Chicago's population of 3 million divided by Clendenin's 1, 116 equals 2,688.2. 2,688:1 = big numbers.
Well, if you made it this far, thanks for reading all of this. If you skipped down to here from somewhere even in the middle, can't say I blame you. Regardless, I'm excited to get to know all of you. Remember, remember, remember, remember x 2,688.2, I'm here if you need anything.