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Street corner revelation

Whenever I go back to Trier, I’m looking for the person I once was. I get glimpses, snippets. Mostly, I discover the person I am.

I lived in this ancient city near the border of France and Luxemburg for over a year back when I was 22 and 23. Lost and alone in the work, confused and drunk, I fell into a months-long depression that wasn’t helped by how much more I drank when I suffered depression. A friend called me from a broken payphone in Hamburg. He called everyone he knew that night. I happened to be on the line with him for over an hour and a half.

At the time, I had it in my head that I wanted to own a vineyard someday. I dreamed of making my living from tending vines. It wasn’t a romantic dream. I understood just what hard work with my hands meant, what heavy lifting goes into vineyard work, and the kinds of disappointments weather can create. But I wanted it more than anything I ever wanted in life, besides being a writer.

“If you want to grow vines,” my pal said, “why not come where they grow grapes?”

I was sitting on the floor of my studio apartment in the dark basement of a century-old building. Since I owned couch or chair, pillows had to do. I was drunk again and needing just another snort off the bottle of vodka I kept in my freezer to finish off for the day.

When my friend asked me that question, I took stock of what I had and it wasn’t much. Besides the pillows, my mattress in the tiny bedroom lay on the floor. I owned a 11-inch black-and-white television sitting atop a wooden wine case balanced on a peach crate. My kitchen housed a pot and a pan. I had a few plastic cups and ceramic coffee mugs. Two spoons, a butter knife, a dull butcher knife, and three forks inhabited a drawer. The only piece of furniture I possessed was a glass coffee table on a faux-brass frame. I used my sleeping bag for a blanket. A dusty box fan puffed humid summer air around the place.

I thought of my job. I worked in a liquor warehouse next to a wastewater-treatment plant in North Kansas City. Every day, it was the same. The one thing I did own was a new, inexpensive compact car. It had air-conditioning but no radio. I’d drive to work and sit for a minute in the cool air before walking into the building. Once all eight of us—four delivery men and four laborers (of whom I was one)—clocked in, we’d open the doors and let the stench of North Kansas City’s sewers into the yawning space that would soon turn into an oven under the sun. We’d pick up our dollies and start loading trucks. It was pure, mule-like labor, stacking boxes of liquor and wine into the trucks.

Once we had the drivers on their way, we’d start filling orders for the next day’s deliveries. I’d wander over the whole warehouse, selecting cases from the shelves. It was hot in summer, insufferable. That season, I returned home every evening in prostration—dehydrated from the hangovers, overheated from the stifling air of the warehouse, and worn out from the shear physical labor of the job.

Normally, I liked heavy lifting. It’s probably my only talent. But like other jobs I had, I couldn’t see a future in it. Besides the unchanging warehouse work, I’d spent part of a couple of weeks covering for salesmen on vacation. It was a nasty business. I always felt I was begging. It would be years before I saw the movie Glen Garry Glenross, but it was that kind of job. First prize is a pink Cadillac. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is your fired.

So, going someplace where people grew grapes sounded like a great idea. Three weeks after I talked to my friend, I sold what I could of my stuff in a sidewalk sale. The rest I pitched into the dumpster. I packed a backpack. My grandmother gave me $100. I had made another hundred selling what little I had. I emptied my bank account and with my last paycheck had about $500. I spent $425 on a one-way plane ticket to Luxemburg, where my friend would meet me. I had about $200 in spending money. I tucked $400 away in travelers’ checks in case I needed to return to Kansas City.

Fortunately, I found a paid internship in Trier after spending several weeks traveling the German wine districts, knocking on winery doors and asking for work. The director of the winery where I landed pulled a string and got me a room in the attic of the winery apprentice trade school.

For the next year and some, I lived in an eight-by-ten room with a standing wardrobe, a writing table, and bed. The room had a sink with a small boiler above it. I made my coffee with a pour-over filter and hot water from the boiler, which never really boiled water. Fortunately, a daily breakfast through the week came with the price of rent. I tucked a brötchen and jam or cold cuts into a pocket to eat in the vineyard later.

While I had been frightened out of my wits during my travels around Germany, once my job started, things settled down. I had just enough money—food for weekends, enough to drink, and an English-language paperback every week. I bought a stein of beer and plate of fries from the Trierer Löwenbräu brewery around the corner.

I was very lonely at first, knowing only the other interns at the winery. But every day, I walked to a vineyard on the other side of the city. The work suited me. I was outside in the fresh air. Work changed all the time. Where I might spend a couple of weeks in the harvest, the next couple of weeks, we pruned vines. Then came winter work of tying vines up to the trellises, spreading ground cover, fixing machinery, sharpening shears, and a host of other kinds of work. It kept my attention and my enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, I walked. I spend entire weekends getting to know the streets of Trier, which I can still navigate today better than I can the streets of my own city. I would spend some days walking ten and twelve hours. I began to believe I wouldn’t sleep well if I didn’t walk at least six hours. I toured the town and got to know the hills and vineyards from Trier Nord to Konz, the next city downstream on the Mosel from Trier.

But things really took off when I made a friend in Ivo Rauch, who introduced me to his roommates, all of whom are my friends now thirty-three years later. Once I had a batch of friends, I began to live one of the happiest times in my life. I was working at something I loved. I had friends. I made do with what I had and didn’t need any more. It was simple life and I loved it.

Things would fall apart. I met an American opera singer from Kansas City and gave up on the trajectory I’d made for myself to chase her. I came back to “home” to find that she had no intention of taking up with me.

Years after I sobered up, I went to Trier to find out just who that guy was. It seemed I was one person and in sober life, a different one. I wander the streets, see the scenes, visit the corners of memory and find that the person I used to be is the person I am. I’m the nice guy who made friends easily. I’m the risk-taker who was frightened yet wouldn’t turn back. I’m the man who saw the world through new eyes every day.

I was just in Trier again a month ago. My intention was to see some corners of the city I hadn’t in over thirty years. But that’s not what happened. I was with two friends. I saw the city through their eyes. I saw myself again, the person I’ve become. I learned that when I get bogged down with routines, bills, errands, shopping, I need to take a step back and remember who I am.

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