I arrived Sunday afternoon for a college orientation which would begin Monday morning, and we were supposed to explore the city that day since there were no official plans or schedules. Those would come the following day. Already upon arrival, I planned to talk about the experience but never had the time or energy to write anything down until now. The streets here burn your feet, tripping you up with uneven stones so that you stumble as you walk. Not that you’re looking at your feet with the historic architecture of King Street looming above you, the high-end fashion store windows volcano-erupting with colors, and the people– oh the people on bikes, in high heels, in capris, in bowties, in jogging wear, in Maseratis, on unicycles.
This is my first few days here as someone not a tourist– instead, a future resident not so much trying to cram in sightseeing landmarks but trying to digest what it would be like to live in this city. It’s only strangeness that pervades everything: a wonderful, spell-binding strangeness, though, that delights, that enchants. You’re left often wondering what impression you’re getting. Whether everyone here rich, poor, or in college. Whether this indeed is some mystical city with the highest ever beard-to-face ratio.
The beauty. Naturally that’s what first shocks you like a defibrillator to the groin. The historic, amazing houses with their perfectly trimmed bushes, immaculate designs of ivy upon the brick walls, every architectural nicety present like a ten-block tour history of buildings everywhere.
Sunday, I arrived and began to walk through the streets lugging my rolling suitcase. Driving here I expected to be a problem but never was; navigating these winding, crossing streets became perilous, like following Ariana’s string through Minos’ labyrinth with the Minotaur at your heels. I found the dorm eventually, being the first to settle in, make up my bed, and put away my bags. Then I set out alone to wander the streets till dusk.
When you come on vacation to Charleston, you feel restricted by a schedule to visit places you’ve always seen: the market, the battery, the waterfront pier, the marina, the college, whatever. I saw all these things but without the requisite urgency of travelling in a group. Alone, you have the leisure to simply sit for an hour, even two by the seaside reading. Or to when eating, not simply eat but enjoy the quiet atmosphere. Perhaps the calmness only comes from vacationing without my family which always prove as hectic as if Chevy Chase were involved. By myself, I am freed from antics and misadventures, meeting only a sort of calm beauty everywhere I went.
Because I arrived four hours earlier than I expected to, I did not feel bad for “wasting time.” I simply walked up and down the streets, along the water, and elsewhere. I even had a delicious falafel for lunch while watching the Portugal-Holland game in the 2012 Euro Cup. At some point, I realized I had an article due fairly soon for Verge. I had already done the interviews, so I sat down at a Starbucks to begin writing. I only finished writing and editing it today and will be e-mailing it very soon, as soon as I can find wifi to send that and post this.
In Charleston, a Starbucks Cafe is not a rarity, but instead like a Zubat in a Pokemon cave, they pop up every few feet. The abundance of cookie crumble frappes and cherry-whipped lattes floating in the hands of flip-flopped business men on fixie bikes astounds me.
As I sat plugging away at a first draft which constituted long quotes and awkward transitions, I watched some interesting things around me. If nothing else in a new city, watch how people interact. There is the homeless guy high out of his mind on the corner screaming nonsense at tourist, the gay barista flirting with every man who walks up to the counter, the goateed English professor furiously grading a grammar test while, in the fashion of Disney villains, twirling his moustache thoughtfully.
Then I saw from the window a girl I went to high school with. I ran down the street after her, slowing down as I reached her since running after anyone screams “I’m desperate for company.” Not that I didn’t enjoy being down here alone, only that I hadn’t much talked to another soul all day except to say, “Yes, I would like the falafel please.”
For a while, we perused shops together, then met with her roommate to eat dinner at this very fine sushi place for very cheap. Around ten, we returned to the dorms where we met even more students who came down for orientation.
I know college will not always be like this, constantly introducing yourself, but it’s not a terrible way to live. You meet a hundred people in a day but only ever have the same conversation.
What’s your major?
What do you want to do?
Where are you from?
Was it a long drive/flight?
Then dazzle them with fun stories of your uncle’s Polish wedding and a summer in Germany.
Tell the same stories again and again and again and again until even you’re bored with them. Then start talking about your job or about writing or about anything. For example, “I’m totally famous online.”
On the next day, this cycle of meeting new people commenced, meeting the guys I stayed with at orientation, meeting the tired, passionless orientation interns, meeting professors, meeting more homeless people.
It’s a very nice thing of course to plot your career path, your intrepid course through college, what adventures the next four years will bring. I admit that is as important as not trying to inhale underwater. But what is more, what really signifies why moving somewhere new, meeting new people matters, are the stories.
You can dress up like pirates, talk to Financial Aid advisors, dream of studying abroad, but it’s all for naught if there aren’t any stories to tell. So that’s what life gives: stories. Each person has one of triumph, loss, or love, and these things, like atoms, build the world in which we live. Even if you’re only recounting what major you’ll take, how hot or cold your dorm shower is, whether your room has a microwave or not, everything can be boiled down to plot, characters, submerged themes.
Charleston is a city of stories, brimming with stories unlike almost anywhere else in South Carolina. Aiken too offers its own unique stories, but even its rich history pales compared to Charleston. Not just ghost stories and tales about “The War of Northern Aggression,” though. Stories reside with people too, even professors if you consider them people—and some people don’t, I believe. Regardless, that’s what Charleston offers, a multitude of stories that can be observed, told, and told again and again and again until only the teller is bored with them.
But me? Never.