I Met a Man in Alaska Who Told Me: “Time to Grow Up Graig.”
He was dying on a hostel bed and in his mid-seventies. He was a black man with white hair and stared off into the sky when he talked to you as if he were blind. That man changed my life. He taught me how to grow up during those three weeks I was with him, and had it not been for a career tragedy, I never woulda met him…
It all started in Los Angeles.
I was running an entertainment PR agency and had a satanic client that was floating my payroll. I signed a few other clients then felt overwhelmed (like I did when I was a waiter and got more than three tables), and so I hired 6 people. I thought I was makin money but really I was a moron and paid out all my profits to unneeded employees. Slowly each client left. But then my biggest client didn’t renew his contract.
What the fuck do I do now? I’m about to be thirty and now I’m back to where I started from when I was like damn nineteen. Fuck.
Time to Fire Everyone
One by one I called all my employees and politely let them go. I apologized as if I wasn’t cut out to run a business. I quit, I thought.
Then I went to my living room and watched Into the Wild.
The main character goes to Alaska (then dies) and that’s what got me hooked on the idea of going to Alaska. It’s the farthest I can run, I thought. You’re all the way up by the North Pole. I gotta go. I had to. So, I designed a little get-outa-my-head trip:
First stop: Seattle. Second stop: Anchorage. Third stop: Fairbanks. No fourth stop. I figured I just see where life brings me from there.
I got to Seattle and went to the Green Tortoise Hostel and spent a few days roaming streets and drinking ten cups of espresso an hour. I looked at the Gum Wall. I rode the ferris wheel. I took pics of the nude bike parade (yeah they have a nude bike parade). Then I got back to the hostel to decide what my next move was.
“I need a new career,” I told someone in the hostel.
“Who said that?” Some older guy said.
“I got a fishing boat leaving in a week. We’ll be gone for a month. I can pay you ten grand.”
I thought about that but decided to go to the cafe across the street and think of other options. I can barely kill a roach without feeling bad let alone spend a month fishing for tuna or whatever.
What Do I Wanna Be When I Grow Up?
The first Starbucks ever was across the street but there was another cafe next to it and so I went to that one instead. Maybe it wasn’t right next to it, coulda been down the street. That’s not the point. Point is I looked around for some festivals in Alaska on my laptop when I got there to see if maybe I could get a ticket and meet some headie hippie chick to bang out and help me forget my reality.
Good news. I found one.
It was called The Midnight Sun Festival and it was happening in a couple days… oh shit. No. It’s happening tonight at 12AM in Fairbanks.
I bought a ticket to Fairbanks and packed up my shit.
It was June 20th of 2014.
I ran back to the hostel, threw my clothes in my backpack then screamed to the front desk “how do I get to the airport?!”
And they gave me one night free as I blitzed to the train station.
I got to the airport and still had some time, so I looked for a hostel. I found one. I called the number. Some guy picked up.
“Hey do you have any beds?”
“Sure, when are you getting here?”
“Ah, well, I’m at the airport now in Seattle, so I think I land at 11:30pm.”
“Perfect, I’ll pick ya up from the airport.”
Outa all the hostels I’d stayed at no hostel owner had ever offered to pick me up from the airport.
I looked around at the people waiting for the flight.
They looked like total strangers. I mean, they were total strangers, but they looked it too. So this is what people from Fairbanks look like, I thought.
Anyway, I boarded the plane. It was small. We landed at 11:30. The sun was still out. It looked like it was five in the evening.
And So Started My Pilgrimage to Learn How to Grow Up
I called the hostel owner and he was already right outside the airport. Oh, that’s convenient. The airport was a small place and he was just waiting outside like I was in a bagel shop.
As we were driving to the hostel, we passed a buncha people on the side of the highway; a long line of people. All ages. They were wearing costumes and there were random houses along the highway that were each like a half mile apart. The long procession of people stopped inside every house then went to the next. There must be some party, I thought. It looked like a big homecoming celebration but also kinda reminded me of Halloween.
Halloween meets senior prom… Not that I know what senior prom is like, I was locked up by then…
Anyway, I was like: “What the fuck is goin on?”
He was like: “Oh, there’s a festival every year.”
THIS IS THE FESTIVAL? THAT’S WHY I FLEW HERE?
Oh no, the meaning of this trip was far greater than that…
So I get to the hostel, right? It’s in this suburban-trailer parker like neighborhood. The hostel was some house. The house was split into two homes. The family on the other side of the house shared the laundry room of the hostel, so when I did my laundry I kept bumpin into the teenage kids that lived on the other side of the house. But that was after I’d been there for a bit…
When I first got there, I walked downstairs to the basement. That’s where the hostel was. There was a Chinese guy that was camping out in the yard and an older black gent on his bunk bed playin with his iPad. That’s it. Just us three, and the Chinese dude wasn’t even sleeping inside the hostel, just outside of it. It was odd.
Anyway, that’s when I met Alex.
Alex is dead, but before he died, he changed my life.
He Was the First Person That Ever Told Me It Was Time to Grow Up
I walked into my hostel room and there were three bunk beds; six beds total. The walls were that fake wood paneling. I looked over at Alex (the older black dude), and he ignored me. He had all his shit neatly hanging from carefully placed hooks on the wall. It looked like he had been there for a year and had developed a system to keep his belongings organized.
Since he wasn’t much of a talker, I opened up about my entire life. I told him my career was over and I had no idea what to do. He took me on a walk and taught me all about economics (he was a retired economist). He told me about what it was like growing up in DC as a black man in the 60’s. He told me I was living wrong; that I was playing a kid’s game and that I had to learn how to grow up.
His ideas didn’t make sense to me.
He told me I was like Steve Jobs and I needed to find my Wozniak. He was goddam obsessed with Steve Jobs. I assured him I was not like Steve Jobs but he wouldn’t let me accept that.
At night he and I watched his favorite show: Halt and Catch Fire.
In the day we went on walks through the mosquito-filled dairy farms and hiked through the forest.
He told me he had cancer.
“So you’re here cause you have cancer? I thought you live in Miami though. Why’d you come here?”
“Cuz Graig, I was born here, right here in Fairbanks. Right there at that hospital. That’s where I wanna be treated ya see.”
“Oh, I thought you were born in Miami.”
“No, I was born here in Fairbanks, then lived in Washington DC for a long time, longer than you’ve been alive, then I moved my family to Miami.”
That’s when I found out he was married with kids and had a whole life that was not here in Fairbanks. Nothing really made sense to me, but I didn’t press him about that shit cause that woulda been weird. I mean, dude is dying of cancer.
An Unexpected Encounter
We became so close that I didn’t wanna leave. Finally he told me I had to go get back to my life and that he would be fine. I didn’t want him to be without friends. But he said I had to learn how to grow up and be an adult and that I was living like a kid still.
“You livin like a keed Graig! It’s time for learning how to grow up!”
By the way, it turns out he was day-trading on his iPad and before I left, bought a two million dollar home in Juneau, Alaska for his family to live after he passed.
Anyway, I headed back to Los Angeles and tried to apply all the economic concepts he told me about. At one point he said:
“Graig, sometime during your life, the market will crash. At that moment, you take all yer money and put it all in the stock market.”
That happened at the beginning of COVID. I did just as he said. But back to LA in 2014…
I wrote to him a few months after being back and told him about my idea to reinvent myself and to produce a midnight vaudeville festival. I told him it couldn’t fail…
It did. but that’s another story…
Anyway, really I just wanted to impress him that I was taking ownership of my life.
He wrote me back and said:
“I am happy that you found you, entrepreneur, and I like you spunk – you will achieve your goals I am certain. I, on the other hand, did not beat the cancer so I will not be around long. I am not afraid, just disappointed that I can not spend more time with my wife and family or even keep track of your success. So this is probably one of my last messages – I wish you well.”
The moral of the story is: sometimes it takes an unexpected encounter with someone in a random Alaska hostel in Fairbanks that’s willing to give you unadulterated feedback about your life to really understand that it’s time to grow up. Pick someone you trust, get totally honest, and listen hard to their feedback. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, as they say. Who is they? I don’t know. Someone. Not me. But that was the beginning of the question: Am I living like an adult? Or trying to play out a fantasy I had as a kid…
Anyway, here’s a happier story about that vaudeville festival and how I nearly went to jail promoting it…