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Bohemian Raillery

Our resident hippie finds out he's really a yuppie.

by Joe Tarr

As I climb out of my girlfriend's Honda Civic at the Strawberry Plains interchange of Interstate 40, she says, "Be careful." I tastelessly joke about getting killed before slamming the door, but the truth is, I am kind of nervous. On this sunny spring day, I'm going to try to hitchhike to Asheville and back. It's supposed to be for a story about hitchhiking—throwing myself at the mercy of the world and my fellow travelers. In my backpack are a wool sweater, rain gear, a sandwich, fruit, Cormac McCarthy and Tim O'Brien novels, a water bottle, and, of course, a notebook for my odd ramblings—all that anyone could really need for such a journey.

Nervously, I walk over to the edge of the grass on the east on-ramp of I-40. I stop about a hundred feet from a sign that reads, "No Pedestrians Allowed."

Timidly, I thrust my thumb out toward the road. My eyes plead for sympathy from the motorists and truckers who rapidly accelerate onto the highway. I aim for a pose that is pathetic but not so helpless as to appear easy bait for someone with devious desires.

Hitchhiking is one of those things that people far braver, more resourceful and cooler than I have done. When I was in high school, a priest teacher I idolized hitchhiked his way across the U.S. and back for a vacation, doing odd jobs along the way. I have friends who have thumbed their ways across the United States and through Africa.

So why is it, exactly, that I feel really, really stupid?

Thirty or 40 minutes later, I'm trudging through the parking lot of a convenience store. I find a phone and call a friend to come pick me up. "Meet me at the Taco Bell," I say. And as I walk into the chain restaurant's sterile—yet comforting—bright blue interior, it hits me: I'm an absolute failure as a bohemian.

Bohemian is, of course, not a word I would have ever used to describe myself. In fact, I cringe at its connotations. To strive for Bohemianism would be a silly, egotistical posture, like calling yourself intelligent, or artistic, or a Writer (with a capital W).

But, at the same time, the ideals of bohemianism are certainly ones I have always striven for, with limited success. (And perhaps, in this age of irony, I'm simply afraid to stand for something.)

To me, a bohemian doesn't care about possessions or money. His or her purpose in life is to live meaningfully today, without caring about the future (for the time in life is short). The bohemian loves art, literature, music, but seeks to create and enjoy these, not consume them. Bohemians live simply but also enjoy life. They are anarchists (trying to destroy all power structures), socialists and they drink a lot. They live in dusty apartments and, on a whim, will pick up and hitchhike across the country. Or, at least that's how I would define bohemianism.

I called R.B. Morris—who, to me, epitomizes the true spirit of bohemia in Knoxville—to find out what he thought it means to be bohemian. Not surprisingly, he wasn't crazy about the label. "I don't consider myself anything in particular. People have called me that. I'm within certain American traditions and all that. I'm poor. I've done some studying on my own," he says.

The idea of bohemia—like its descendant, Beat—has been stripped of any real meaning, R.B. says. It's more of a label now, a commercialized concept.

"You don't start out trying to be this or that—you start out trying to do things," he says. "I don't know anyone who starts out saying, 'Hey, I'm a bohemian.' Maybe art students or something like that. But what's it mean to be a bohemian?

"It's almost a joke to a lot of people—'Oh, you're the starving artist.'"

Artist Cynthia Markert doesn't shy away from the term. "When I write in my journal, I still use that word," she says. "To me, it's about being your genuine authentic self, at the expense of everything."

She ponders a lot about the meaning of bohemianism, but doesn't believe there are any kind of guidelines for it. A lot of people posture as bohemians, but it's evident from talking with them that they're doing it out of fashion or insecurity or whatever, Markert says. "The strongest thing is what you believe, as opposed to what you do to fit in," she says. "Rather than people conforming to trends of the day, responding to their own inner judgment."

When I tell a friend who has hitchhiked about my failed attempt, he berates me: "A half hour? You pussy. I've had to wait eight hours to hitch a ride before. You never hitchhike on deadline."

My sense of shame is real. I am not so much ashamed of my failure to hitchhike as I am that I am not really what I appear to be. Appearance is everything, it seems, and I know that true bohemians don't care about appearances or what other people think.

I've done a passable job of appearing bohemian. I frequently need a shave and a haircut. I favor cheap apartments in Fort Sanders, spend my money mainly on beer, food, books and CDs. But I'm living a lie, it seems. I'm a phony. My posturing slowly fell apart last year.

The end came suddenly. I bought a new car. I'd been without a car for about five or six months. I walked most everywhere, borrowing cars and bumming rides when I needed to. Eventually, I got tired of being a mooch, and I broke down and accepted the reality of monthly car payments. My new car has heated seats, power windows and eight speakers. I'm ashamed when I pull up somewhere, and I get out and click the car locked with my keyless remote. The car beeps slightly, and this small way of drawing attention to myself seems entirely out of step with bohemianism. Although I drive it only a few days a week, when I do drive it, I think I should be walking. Or taking the bus. Like any bohemian worth his salt.

Then I moved into a nice apartment—still in the Fort, but to me, it feels like the domain of a Yuppie. Polished and waxed hardwood floors, real tile in the bathroom and kitchen, nice cupboards. A porch. Suddenly, I want nice things to go with this nice apartment.

I want things. Lots of things. I cruise the aisle of Target and fantasize about fancy household items. A covered stainless steel garbage can with a pedal to kick up the lid. Glass canisters to store my tea, flour and rice in. I want a $120 coffee maker that uses a gold coffee filter, a carbon water filter, and stores the coffee in a vacuum insulated pot, which keeps the coffee fresh for hours and won't burn it. I want to furnish my apartment with cool antique furniture. Or maybe something hip from IKEA. I'd also like a new internal frame backpack, hiking boots, new sneakers.

And for the first time in my life, I'm thinking about buying—gasp—drapes. I want, I want, I want, it seems to me. My consumer lust creates an even stronger guilt. Am I selling out, I wonder?

"Can I call you back later on this? I'm just sort of getting up." It's a little after 11 a.m., and Ed Snodderly, a musician who runs the Down Home in Johnson City, is intrigued by my questions about bohemianism but can't quite think clearly at this early hour. A few minutes later, he calls me back and tells me he defines bohemians as people who "question everything that comes down the pike....Meaning, not just falling in line. You do things because you feel you need to do them, not because you're supposed to do them."

He doesn't define himself as bohemian, but admits, "If you scrape the pollution off of me, I probably would be."

"I live a pretty unconventional life. I let my yard get so high that someone just mowed it. I don't know who it was. I get up in the morning, I play music, I write songs. I also go to the bank and run a music club. I teach. I do all sorts of things. I usually go to bed at 2 or 3 in the morning. I don't watch TV. My house where I live, I don't own a TV.

"I do have responsibilities. I have a couple of kids."

In Snodderly's words I find a bit of hope that I might, after all, be something like a bohemian.

I don't own a TV! And, I fancy myself a critical thinker. (This label is not something I feel I have quite earned, but one I strive for. I may in fact only be extremely negative, which is not the same thing as a critical thinker.)

A common theme among the bohemians that I talk with is that bohemians don't give a damn about what people think of them. So I shouldn't care that I didn't have the toughness to hitchhike.

As for thumbing rides, Markert and Snodderly both say they've done it (I forgot to ask R.B.). Snodderly hitchhiked around town when he was stranded, Markert when she was a teen-ager in Oak Ridge.

"That's a romantic ideal, but in this day and age, you could easily be murdered," Markert says.

May 3, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 18
© 2001 Metro Pulse