By Rachel Petek
I could care less about a lot of “American” things, like having a lawn to mow, scaling the corporate ladder, apple pie, or college sports (I am totally still fun, and American, I swear!). I’m more interested in rock n’ roll, impractical old cars, bison burgers, state and national parks, and interacting with the people and places that make up this gorgeous, bizarre country.
Pushing thirty years young, I have been in college on and off long enough to be a doctor, kind of like Tommy Boy. But I’ve lived, baby! You better believe it! That’s why it took me awhile to earn that overly-glorified piece of paper, and I did it in a mighty beautiful place. I finally graduated with my BA in Art last May from the University of Montana. The only thing I’ve paused at a notable length to consider career-wise is teaching creative writing, but I needed some time away from academia to refresh my perspective by doing something crazy… so I joined AmeriCorps! I figured, since I was already buried in college debt and used to swallowing my pride, that I should try for the gold medal. What I really wanted to do was something outside myself after being in university land. No outstanding jobs had fallen from the sky, and I was anxious to wear out my shoes somewhere new.
Moving against the grain from west to east was one of the coolest, most foolish things I’ve ever done, but I did it with an incredible man by my side. We were both at transitional points in our lives, and ready to shake things up by experiencing a completely unfamiliar part of the United States, so we packed up our earthly possessions and hit the highway. I’ll never forget the glow of those mountains in the rearview mirror. Though I was ready as could be for adventure, it killed me to leave Montana. I could write another essay entirely on that.
After many Red Bulls, hotel hot tubs, and belly laughs with Van’s relatives in Iowa, we reached our new city: Louisville, Kentucky. Upon arrival, we were swindled our rental deposit by a dirtbag of a landlord in Old Lou, ticked off some cops when our Penske truck got stuck in the midst of the St. James Art Fair traffic, and had to post up in a hotel for our first few days in order to find a new place to live. Needless to say, our introduction to Kentucky was a bit rough. We got a bad taste in our mouths that we try to wash down with bourbon and chicken on a regular basis.
Each time we tell a local Louisvillian where we’re from, whether a barista, mechanic, receptionist, you name it, we get the same dazzled reaction. It’s not the naturally inquisitive look one is inclined to give someone so far from home, but more of a “Why would you move here?!” It doesn’t exactly give us the warm and fuzzies. More than once, we’ve been told nonchalantly that, “people in Louisville are as bi-polar as the weather!” (a direct quote). Before we even moved, we were somewhat aware of that schism, having been given explicit advice from a co-worker to avoid any apartments on the west side of town. In December, a church in our neighborhood installed crosses in the yard in memoriam of over one hundred homicides from the past year, a stark reminder that this city has serious issues beyond Mother Nature’s mood swings.
While I believe that it takes a couple years to really know a place, I also think several months is plenty of time to get a sense of what it’s about. I don’t regret living in Louisville; I’m simply unsure that I have the energy, or understanding, to learn to love it. Shortly after we relocated, our country experienced a major political shift that no one could have known how to prepare for. We felt it more acutely here, without the comfort of friends and family, than we perhaps would have back home. Adjusting to palpable societal changes on an almost daily basis doesn’t make anything easier.
There’s such benevolence in this city, but such recklessness too. For better or worse, Louisville is now part of my life, and I am going to do the good I can until my service is up in roughly seven months (not that I’m counting…). I hope to make clear that I don’t carelessly dislike Louisville; I desperately want to see the good in it, because I know it’s there, and because I’ve got no choice. The amazing work people do locally, especially with refugees, is what compelled me to move here in the first place. I chose to come here. I wasn’t forced to leave my home, nor did I have anything to escape from. I am reminded of that when I see mothers and their kids holding hands while walking out of Kentucky Refugee Ministries, clad in Goodwill coats and traditional dress.
Someday, Louisville will be dear to me, in a funny, sad way. We make it fun where we can. We go on hikes, to concerts, and out to dinner. Since Van works from home, he combs through record stores in his spare time, goes to hockey skating lessons, and sometimes meets up with other musicians in hopes of possible collaboration. We laugh and say, “Spread ‘em for Sanders” when we’re at the downtown YMCA, since the hip adductor machine looks straight out at the four-story portrait of Kentucky’s Colonel. Someday, I will shudder to remember the woefully erratic driving (having never seen such accepted prevalence of busted-up fenders and tailgating in my life, and I’ve experienced NYC and LA), and how no one got out of the way for ambulances, of which there were many.
I’ll remember Van being coined the nickname “Van Baby” by the cashier when we were buying furniture, wandering through Cherokee park, and the butter-yellow magnolias on the way to St. Matthews. I’ll think back to our pilgrimage to Buffalo Trace, the first bourbon I ever enjoyed, back when I was a more resilient, but just as sarcastic, version of me. My mind will conjure images of the strikingly grand houses of brick- some with flood lines on them, the hum of strange insects at night, and the occasional reek of sewage emanating from the gutters on neighborhood walks. I will long for beloved chicken wings from the Back Door, and being caught in torrential downpours. I’ll remember when I saw a cardinal for the first time out the window of our cute apartment with its high ceilings, and the street art mural on Fourth Street that was clearly made by someone who loves this city. I will be grateful for the people doing great things in Louisville, even though I probably won’t be here long enough to know them as well as I’d like.
Humanity alone, in my experience, is not enough to bridge regional and cultural gaps on top of starting such a bizarre new occupation. I thought it would be enough. That’s one thing AmeriCorps has taught me. One of the greatest difficulties of my life has been attempting connect to a brand-new city, so far from anything dear or familiar to me. Even the humor is different from the perverse western wit I’m used to, and people here are often reticent to interact with someone new.
After giving my first AmeriCorps site, Beaded Treasures Project, four months of my time and dedication, I pursued options elsewhere. I decided that although the organization had admirable intentions for disadvantaged women in the city, it was not a healthy work environment for me for various reasons. With the support of the Americana and the State Office, I recently started a new gig at Jefferson Memorial Forest that I have a great feeling about. Spring is in the air, and I’m open to having my world rocked.
I am mystified constantly that despite how painfully disorganized and convoluted AmeriCorps can be, that it not only still functions, but facilitates great things. I’m amazed that every year it is still able to sucker so many bright, awesome people- sometimes from significant geographical distances- into heeding its call. I would recommend AmeriCorps VISTA to a very narrow range of folks, particularly relatively local singles, who are somehow unencumbered by college debt and need the raw, humbling experience of scraping the bottom of the barrel. I would never advise anyone to relocate from such a great distance for this kind of service. So far, it has barely been worth the strain on finances, relationships, and sanity. I paid a great price to learn that I don’t have to be so drastic to be a good person, but that’s something I had to do. Taking chances is a tough love.
The combination of the insatiable, and often chaotic or misplaced, requirements of my energy (from both my original site and AmeriCorps in general) have brought me dangerously close to resentment of my decision to do this, but I refuse to go there. It’s not who I want to be. I still get a little bitter that I could afford to take better care of myself in my early twenties, before college, than I can now. I try, in those dark moments, to instead think of the awesome people and VISTAs I’ve met along the way, and how the admirable folks at Americana have been in my corner since the beginning. I think of the fun I’ve had with Van, from kicking his buns at cards to making weird videos at Dinosaur World, and how our humor has made us closer in spite of everything.
Although AmeriCorps, and the Louisville it brought us to, haven’t quite panned out the way we’d hoped up to this point, the whole experience was a catalyst for some needed change our lives. We learned a great deal, like never, ever, to rent an apartment sight-unseen, and I confirmed my suspicion that I am not wired to stare at a screen all day, no matter how noble the cause may be. Whatever happens next, I’m glad we tried it out, as I would have always wondered what life was like on the other side of the country. A friend told me years ago that the grass isn’t greener on the other side; it’s just different grass. I’m looking for grass that’s a little less arduous next time. If I’m a horse in the next life, maybe- just maybe, I’ll come back to Kentucky for one more round.