Hey, Earth, I'm Josh. I'm a friend of Alice's. I'm a screenwriter, which means I spend about 98% of my time not writing. When Alice mentioned that she was starting this new project, I jumped at the opportunity to contribute. Mostly because she's, like, the best. [Ed note: I deny everything.] But also because my write-brain is turning to bisque, and I need something that's going to hopefully turn that soupy tide.
The deal is, she's going to give me a one-word prompt every week, and I'm going to write whatever comes to mind from it. This week, I'm not going to lie, the word does not tie in all that much. I'm capricious and adorable in my inability to do anything anyone asks of me, even when I set the parameters myself. No, really, I'm fucking adorable. SAY IT.
Ha-ha! You don't have to. Anyway, here's a thing that's words.
While you're growing up, you may be convinced that you live in, or near, a terrible, boring, awful city.
But there's a very good chance you may be wrong.
A few years back, Kayla and I were in the Italian city of Piacenza for a wedding. At the expense of sounding like a Julia Roberts movie trailer, it's a magical little city. With its town square filled with vendors selling breads and cheeses, to its cafes selling actual cappuccino-flavored cappuccino, to its Foot Locker, unremarkable in every way except for the fact that it's in Italy, we fell in immediate, pale, American-touristy love with the place.
And we wandered around, smartphones plastered to our faces, clicking millions of pictures of millions of things that millions of tourists had clicked before us, and would assuredly click after us.
It was mid-afternoon, and the local high school was sending its charges home for the day. We discovered this when, all of the sudden, the cobblestone street flooded with kids on their bikes, lazily pedaling away from their responsibilities.
It was, and I say this as half of a couple that unapologetically owns over 25 stuffed animals, the most twee thing I have ever witnessed. If a velour biplane buzzed overhead blaring "Judy And The Dream Of Horses" via Victrola, it could not have been more motherfucking charming.
Then, we walked around the back of the school.
There, smoking cigarettes, and looking FURIOUS AT LITERALLY EVERYTHING, were a bunch of kids in Ramones t-shirts and torn-up jeans. We got the sense immediately that they were really, really good at hating whatever. If there was a game show called, "Does Whatever Suck," they would all go home with brand new cans of spray-paint and a carton of smokes.
And that's when it occurred to me. No matter where you are, no matter how beautiful it may be, no matter how delicious its cheeses or unlikely its Foot Lockers, you are in some punk kid's hometown, and amico, they think it is BULL. SHIT.
But. There is a very good chance they are wrong. The world is a mostly wonderful, magical place, regardless of what you might read on The World's Yelp page. ("One star, terrible atmosphere, too noisy, long lines for the bathroom, not enough drinkable water, etc.") Every corner of it has something to offer, just about.
At some point, I'd like to hope, those delightfully dour kids will look around at the storybook wonder that their corner has to offer, buy a gelato, sigh, and think to themselves, "Okay. Maybe, MAYBE, this particular Whatever doesn't suck."
But that was not the case when we crossed paths. When we crossed paths, all their eyes told me was, "Save us. Also go fuck yourself, you American piece of shit, but then, once you're done doing that, save us."
Their eyes filled me with an overwhelming urge. The urge to fly them all to Hartford, Connecticut, the terrible, awful, boring city I grew up near.
And I would leave them to wander its barren, lifeless, insurance-stained streets for a week. Marvel at its boarded-up storefronts. Stare through the windows of desperately-trying-to-be-trendy bars and restaurants that don't open on weekdays, or weekends, or ever. Gawk at the skyline that looks like Sim City played on a Game Boy. Smudgy. Blocky. Greenish.
They would see this was a city where nothing ever happens. A city that always sleeps. Not only is there no there there, there's nobody there to say there's no there there.
Most likely, those Punk Piacenziens would physically pitch themselves into the Atlantic, and swim back to their land of bicycles, cappuccinos and cheese, lest they spend another SECOND in Downtown Hartford. Lord knows, when it was my time to go at the ripe old age of 17, I practically ran ahead my mom's Boston University-bound car, so excited to finally get out.
I spent very little time in Hartford after I left for college. Occasionally I would check in with family members to see if it had become any better, in the way that one checks in with family members to see if Cousin Bob with the trash can brimming full of empty cold medicine packaging had become any better. I knew the answer already, but it never hurts to ask.
So when the offer was presented to me to go to Hartford, and speak at a con that was being held at the new convention center, my response was, "Hartford has a convention center?" After I had been administered to with smelling salts, I shrugged, and jumped at the opportunity to see my folks. And I got to stay at a hotel, which is pretty much the best way to get me to do anything. I can't help it. I love tiny soaps and complimentary breakfast buffets.
The landscape had changed in Downtown Hartford. A full third of the city had been devoted to a hotel, conference center, and a children's science center that you know has to be amazing, because all of the signs refer to it as "extreme." There was even a snowboarder on the signs. Whom, if you removed his helmet and goggles, is probably Poochie from "The Simpsons."
In addition to the landscape, the population had changed as well. Not drastically. There are still more people in the movie CARS than there are walking around Hartford. But everywhere I looked, there were...Kids.
A word on ConnectiCon: It began life 10 years ago as an anime convention. And although it is doing yeoman's work growing to encompass all 360 degrees of nerd-dom, anime is like the proverbial burial ground the convention is built upon. Those spirits aren't going anywhere.
Anime, as Alice Lee her goddamn beautiful self explained to me on my podcast, is a young person's game, because the emotions are SO BIG AND BRASH, they reflect the emotions the average weird kid has swirling around on the inside, but are all but forbidden from expressing. ConnectiCon, then, was the tiny little white space separating "all but" and "forbidden." Because kids here were going APE SHIT.
Something like 12,000 kids between the ages of 10 and 16 3/4 had swarmed the Downtown Hartford area, singing, playing games, and of course, cosplaying as all of the great anime characters. Like "Big Sword Holder," "Little House On The Prairie Person But Evil," "Person Who's Like A Person In Every Way Shape And Form But With Kitty Ears," and of course, "Flo, The Progressive Girl." I don't know what she was doing there. Maybe she was The Progressive Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
And as I was sitting there, enjoying my complimentary breakfast buffet, I watched them all stream past the window, a blur of hormones, excitement, bad decisions and greasepaint. And that's when it occurred to me. These kids traveled here ON PURPOSE. These kids looked around their terrible, boring, awful cities, and went, "Screw this. I'm going to Hartford."
More amazing still, many of these kids were FROM Hartford. And you could see them brimming with pride, knowing that this was in THEIR backyard. All it took was a quick ride in mom's mini-van, and then they could be in the Coolest. Place. Imaginable. Where they could be with friends. Make new friends. Make out with new friends. Make bad decisions, and then walk away, kitty ears pointed straight to heaven, knowing that they had the greatest weekend of their lives.
The GREATEST WEEKEND OF THEIR LIVES. In DOWNTOWN GODDAMN HARTFORD.
Suddenly, I felt the eyes of those Italian kids staring at me again. "This is what you were complaining about? This is the hell-maw you thought would scare us straight back to Piacenza? Piacenza, a city that looks like every other little Italian city? With it's boring-ass town square, stupid cheese, and sucky cappuccino? Seriously, EVERYONE knows the cappuccino's better in Milan, you RUBE."
They would look at all of the kids running around, being themselves, speaking a language that only they understand, and they would say, "This. This is what we want."
And I would have to agree.
While I was growing up, I was convinced that I lived in, or near, a terrible, boring, awful city.
But, eventually, there turned out to be a very good chance I was wrong.