I have this knack for showing up in a place at just the right time. I don't intend to do it; it just happens. It's like each place decides to reveal itself in its purest form, lest I think I'm somewhere else. After all, if you showed up in New York City and everybody was greeting you cheerfully and asking about life in your hometown, would you really be having a New York experience?
Here's how my first arrival in New York went: I came in by bus at about 2 a.m. You may think the Memphis bus station is an undesirable place at 2 a.m. -- though as a man who's seen many a bus station, I can tell you Memphis' is on the better side of typical -- but the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan has over 300 gates. The words that come to mind are cavern, labyrinth, catacomb, bunker . I am not exaggerating when I say that after I cleared the diesel exhaust fumes of the bus, the first smell I encountered in the Big Apple was that of urine. And the first person -- no, the first several people -- I encountered tried to rip me off.
My arrival in San Francisco was something else entirely. I was a fresh 22-year-old when I emerged from the old bus station on Market Street -- and that, let me assure you, was a bad bus station -- and out on the street I saw there was a parade going on. I love parades, so I went to check it out. The first float I saw was covered with men wearing leather G-strings and doing the bump-and-grind. I had arrived just in time for Gay Pride Day; the parade was led by a couple of hundred Harley-riding women calling themselves Dykes on Bikes.
At the far end of the sociopolitical spectrum, one Sunday morning found me driving into Charlotte, North Carolina, at about 8 a.m. The freeways were absolutely choked with cars. I thought to myself that North Carolina has a heck of a church crowd. But then I noticed a sticker on the side of a car with a big "3" on it. Holy Trinity? No, Dale Earnhardt. Turns out the swarms that day were not headed for salvation; they were going to a car race. Charlotte is the hub of NASCAR world, and I soon found myself at a rest area where the Earnhardt people and the Jeff Gordon people were making snide remarks about each other's heroes. Imagine an I-55 rest area on the morning of the Ole Miss-Mississippi State football game, and you'll get the idea.
Long before I ever went to Oregon, I had heard the same thing everybody else hears about it: "It rains all the time." Well, it doesn't quite, but naturally it was when I arrived. Now, considering it rains about 150 days a year, this doesn't make me unique. But when I first got there people were kayaking on city streets. About two weeks before, there had been an ice storm that brought down trees and branches all over Portland. Then a day of nearly 100-mph winds had taken out whatever limbs had survived the ice, thus ensuring that no creek or drainage ditch would be flowing properly. Then came the dreaded "Pineapple Express," a warm, wet front from Hawaii that brought more than a foot of rain in four days, with 50-degree temperatures in the high mountains which brought down about 10 feet of the snowpack.
So there was just a bit of water in the system as my friend Chip and I made our way up the coast from California. Every night we would check into a motel -- in the pouring rain -- and the lead story on the network news would be the flooding in Oregon. First it was creeks and rivers out of their banks, then it was coastal towns being cut off, then children were being swept away, then the kayaks came out. A major waterfall on the Willamette River (featured, by the way, in a terrible movie called The Hunted) was completely submerged. By the time we got there, six of Portland's seven bridges over the Willamette were closed, and an army of volunteers had been forced to build a six-foot seawall in a downtown park to keep the river out. On the day we arrived -- on that very day, of course -- the Willamette crested. It was three inches from the top of the seawall.
Weather was a factor on my first arrival in Alaska too. I went up there to work in the fishing business, and when I arrived, right about this time of year, there were still chunks of ice floating around in the ocean. It was also my first union job, so naturally the union went on strike soon after.
First time I ever went to San Antonio? 113 degrees. First trip to New Orleans? Mardi Gras. First trip to Detroit? The annual "Devils Night" binge of arsons, since remade as the annual Angels Night of community activism.
I guess this is all the equivalent of arriving in Memphis for the first time and going straight to the candlelight vigil at Graceland. I can tell you this, though: It keeps me on edge as I approach new places. And I tell my friends that if they want something exciting or classic to happen in their hometown, just invite me over.