Whenever I visit a new place, I try to take a piece of it home with me. It could be anything, my souvenir—a sticker, button, t-shirt, book, you name it. It gives me a sense of actually having been some place—having found not only an interesting knick-knack, but a unique experience as well.
So, let me tell you about this one time…
One of the most unique items I’ve ever found is something I picked up in Asheville, NC. One Saturday morning this passed October, I decided to make a day trip up to the town, just to be out of the house, see some bright fall foliage—to experience something outside of my everyday.
While there, I stopped by a small table set up on a rather busy street corner, where a cardigan-wearing, bespectacled man with a scarf wrapped around his neck sat at a typewriter. Hanging from the sides of wooden table were signs that read, “Give me a word or topic—get a poem.”
Now, I’ve been to Asheville a few times before. I came here a few months ago to spend a few days staying at a hostel in town—I’d seen this guy set up outside then too. It seemed like an interesting idea I’d like to check out.
I’d passed it up then, but this time, I decided my trip wouldn’t be complete without requesting a poem myself.
So, what exactly did I give him as a prompt, you ask? Well, it’s something I’ve written about before—something that’s run through my mind quite a bit the past few years.
Yep, you guessed it.
It’s the idea of Gatsby’s green light.
Specifically, the feeling of always reaching for something in the distance—you can’t quite define it, but somehow you know there’s something ahead pulling you forward. It’s not quite on the horizon yet, but it’s just over the next hill.
You work for it, even feel like you’re waiting for it at times, yet deep down you know it wouldn’t quite equate to the fulfillment you’re seeking. But somehow, you don’t know what else to work toward. Your goal becomes your personal philosophy, in a way.
Essentially, this was the prompt I relayed to the man behind the typewriter (articulated with frequent instances of, “…umm, you know?”).
But apparently, yes—he did know.
He nodded with a sense of understanding, no judgement coming from the eyes behind his circular frames. Only reflection—pensive, thoughtful reflection.
As I concluded my attempt at articulating these thoughts, he began taking notes. He scribbled ideas onto an already crowded piece of scrap paper, dedicating a small section that was untouched by remnants of previous clients to what he’d deemed the themes of my request.
After he’d taken a moment to process his thoughts, he set down his pen. We chatted for a minute, getting to know each other on the corner of the busy intersection, populated with many onlookers and passersby.
Then he settled back into writing position. Hunched over in concentration, focusing on the typewriter, he began putting words to paper.
Click, clack. Click, clack. Click, clack.
It wasn’t long before words began to appear on the paper before me, materializing in an inky group of three. Just one line at first, then a brief pause.
Then, quickly as the first line appeared, another materialized. Then another, and another—
Ideas seemed to be germinating in his mind, beginning with the seed planted by the first few words he’d written. From these came the first stanza and from that came another, then another. It wasn’t long before this tree of verse had many branches, each extrapolating on the roots I’d planted originally:
Gatsby’s green light—the feeling that you’re reaching, but will never quite grasp the thing you’re reaching for.
I could’ve read what he’d written before he’d finished (albeit upside down), but I waited. I wanted to consume it all at once, as one cohesive piece. I wanted the weight of the final product—the full effect intended by the author.
I’m glad I did, because it didn’t disappoint at all.
He pulled the paper off the typewriter and leaned forward. Then in a low voice meant only for me, he read:
who could wrap
his hands around
we choose our
own illusions & we sign
along the dotted line.
the ink bleeds
through the paper. find meaning
in the accidental shapes.
with an older
contract up in flames,
what does one aim for?
Gatsby had it wrong.
only water holds
the light we seek.
it settles in the deep
and does not want.
I got chills as he read through each line. I was shocked as much by my own reaction as I was by the masterful way the words seemed to capture the meaning I’d asked for, both bottling it up and setting it free at the same time. I spent the next several minutes reading and re-reading, looking it over again and again.
There’s something powerful about a complete stranger reinterpreting thoughts for you. They give you their take on something you’ve mulled over countless times before, but with a fresh perspective. It’s a new way to look at things and in a way, almost feels like having your fortune read.
Essentially, the themes of my prompt can be boiled down to just a few words. This was the thinking of the man on the street at least, as he decided to title my poem:
“illusion, longing, reach.”
The title is fitting in my mind, because the poem captures something in how I’ve thought about life the past few years. I felt for a while that I was reaching for something in the distance—a shapeshifting, endlessly alluring mirage of life. But at the end of the day (the end of this day, specifically), what I’ve received is something concrete.
It’s a souvenir that brings me back to a busy street corner one fall afternoon, as I looked for guidance from a man with a typewriter.
These days though, I’ve started to feel more grounded in the here-and-now. I still look toward the future with optimism, but to feel the sense of longing for a perfect future I felt at the time when the poem was written, I find myself needing to reach backward instead of forward.
I guess this means I’ll just need to go back and get myself a new poem then, right? Whatever I decide to provide as a prompt, I’m sure the man with the typewriter will come through for me again perfectly. This time though, I’ll be the one to bring a fresh perspective.