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Tuesday, July 25
There was nobody there.
There has always been somebody there to greet me. After every trip I've taken, it's either been Ma or Pops, a friend, a girlfriend, or, once, even a professor.
But not that night.
Nope. All that welcomed me was the humid evening air of Charleston, South Carolina, the rancid smell of urine leaking from the stalls of the train station's restrooms, and a scruffy looking man gripping a plastic cup half full with coins. That night, I was greeted by a totally new world.
But that was to be expected. I had been preparing for the unpleasant insecurity of this first night ever since my brother had dropped me off earlier in the day at the Amtrak station in Raleigh on his way to work. I had been preparing for my first moment of freedom for far longer than I could remember.
There are plenty of ways to get from Raleigh to Charleston, the city that I had randomly picked out of a hat of twelve other southeastern U.S. cities. You can drive or fly or hitchhike or take the bus. The ambitious, I suppose, could bike or run, but this wasn't that kind of journey. I chose the train because, economically speaking, it was the most efficient choice. And really, I chose to ride the rail for selfish reasons. I didn't want to have to bother with goodbyes once I got to South Carolina's premier port city. Surely whoever dropped me off would have hung over my shoulder for a while to make sure everything was okay.
And I'm glad I chose the train. Even if I had somehow known ahead of time that the ride would be uncomfortable and would arrive three hours late in Charleston, I still would have chosen the train. As it wound along Garner Road, the slow pace of southbound train number 5630 gave me an opportunity to say farewell to my previous life. Yep, that's the same Garner Road that takes you past the YMCA where I lifted weights with Bill, Charles, and Rod and where Jack had taught me how to shoot three-pointers with remarkable precision when I was just twelve years old. It goes past Rock Quarry Road, which takes you to Southeast Raleigh High School where Mr. Geraghty had inspired me to maintain my dreams on the basketball court but to also hold on to my education as a safety net, and past Aversboro Road, which will bring you to within fifty feet of the front doorstep of the home where I grew up. It goes past a collection of fast food joints and retail shops where I ate and shopped, but never worked, and past the sun-tanned tobacco fields that represent a lifestyle far beyond my comprehension, even for a boy from the South.
And now, here I was, alone in Charleston at the corner of Rivers and Durant, wondering if it would be wiser for me to go left or right or if pitching camp under the overpass for the night would be my best option. After all, it was getting late. At least I assumed it was getting late. The actual time? Couldn't have told you. But it was well after dark, and I hadn't seen one person since I had walked away from the train station.
A big-body, black Oldsmobile with tinted windows glided by with a suspiciously high regard of the speed limit.
The tattered map of Charleston that I had found on a vacant seat at the train station was going to prove to be useful. With it, I could more or less find my way on my own. Without it, I would be left to rely on the advice of strangers for guidance.
My first order of business was to find a comfortable place to sleep. Shoot, it didn't even have to be a comfortable place to sleep—just a place, a relatively safe place. As far as I could tell from the assortment of landmarks dispersed throughout the peninsula on the map, the action was happening south of my current location. Perhaps I was being naïve in what could have been a crucial mistake, but I figured that the excitement and opportunity of my new homeland were directly correlated. With excitement came opportunity, and I was looking for opportunity. Left it was.
After walking down Rivers Avenue, and walking some more down Rivers Avenue, the notion of time still hadn't hit me, especially with the expected 6:47 p.m. arrival time of the train prolonged. All I knew was it was dark out—pitch-black dark—and Murphy's Law had thrown off my mental preparations for the trip. A guy asked if I had any spare change.
"No, sorry," I said. I thought about retaliating with, "Do you have some for me? Cuz, uh, I'm actually running a little short myself." But, of course, I didn't. I had always accepted and even appreciated the vagrants that strung a guitar or blew on a saxophone or showcased some other talent at the park or at a subway stop underground, but I had never had any respect for the laziness of beggars.
The sign under Johnson's Chiropractic Clinic illuminated 10:14 and eighty-one degrees. Wendy's and Captain D's Seafood appeared on the right, and my nerves began to ease. Finally! Something familiar. With a little more bounce in my step and determination in my mind, I made the executive—yet uneducated—decision to keep hiking toward downtown for my first night of sleep.
The nagging barks of dogs cooped up in distant neighborhoods didn't bother me as much as the cars whizzing by at blistering speeds. But then again, even the cars didn't bother me as much as the lightning. Terrific! Lightning. Murphy was on a roll.
Or was that just heat lightning? What is heat lightning anyway? Is that the lightning that strikes between clouds or between a cloud and the air? Is it going to rain?Scratch Beginnings. Copyright © by Adam Shepard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream by Adam W. Shepard
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.