Wednesday, November 12, 2003
To get into the Aristo Apartments, you walk through a pair of dented metal doors and up a wide, dirty linoleum staircase. Get there before the sun goes down because the lights don't work in the hallway.
If you look close enough at the old brick building, at its chipping masonry and the 1920s art deco sign that reads "Aristo Apts," you can imagine that this was once a nice building. It's not anymore.
All around it, on the edge of downtown Casper, Wyo., are boarded-up houses and vacant lots.
The retail space below the apartments is a turnstile of animal-rights-violation pet stores and sort-it-yourself thrift stores.
Before you move into the Aristo, you know that the roof leaks and that your landlord will never fix it. You know there are cockroaches. But there is no cleaning deposit required and it only costs $120 a month for a two-bedroom furnished apartment.
It was the perfect place for two transient men to live in January.
Inside their apartment, the walls were painted blue-green and covered with a layer of cigarette soot from years and years of smoking with the window closed.
They called the storyteller "Quack" because he talked too much, he said. Everyone riding the rails has a nickname. They don't use real names, he said, and they don't talk to people who aren't tramps.
Quack told me that he had been riding for more years than he could count, that he rode from Wyoming to South America, that he spoke 11 dialects of Spanish.
He told me there were women on the rails -- tough, drinking women who never spoke to anyone. Women who would gut you like a fish if you got too close.
I didn't ask how they came up with the $60 a piece for their rent. I didn't ask where they grew up or where they wanted to settle. I didn't ask anything. I just listened.
I was 23 and fresh from a trip to Africa. I was swimming in a psychological state called re-entry syndrome (experienced by Peace Corps volunteers) or reverse culture shock.
I cried a lot when I was alone and wondered what was next. My old life seemed foreign to me, and I was open to anything.
When Quack invited me to jump trains with them I was ready to go, and for three days, I was convinced the life of a train tramp was the life for me.
I was convinced for three days that I could disappear into a world of speaking Spanish, growing tomatoes in a shopping cart and sleeping with a knife in my jacket.
Then the phone rang, and I got another offer. I left town on the Greyhound instead of a boxcar.
It was like the click and turn of a Rubik's Cube, making a choice to go one direction instead of another. That constant clicking has been the recurring theme of this week's conversation. It started over tea Sunday afternoon and continued later that day with someone else on the walk up Fish Creek Falls Road. People I interviewed carried the torch on Monday and Tuesday.
Either everyone is talking about choices, or I keep bringing it up.
Mark Koons, the curator of the "Four Virtues" show at the Depot Art Center, decided to move to Wheatland, Wyo., when he was my age, he said. It was an odd choice for a creative spirit ("I moved to a town where dogs sleep in the middle of the road"), but it shaped the rest of his life.
Michelle Ideus, a painter showing her work this weekend, chose to put a horse in one of her still-life paintings. The result has inspired her for the past two years, and people from around the world finally have started to notice her work.
The "choices" conversation ended Tuesday night. A friend commented that he changes the course of his life every day by choosing something as simple as walking to work instead of taking the car. He meets someone along the way. Turn and click.