Fort Collins, A Year Ago
Just over a year ago, I visited Fort Collins for the first time as a prospective fiction student. I wanted to attend a graduate workshop, acquaint myself with the program in person, and get a sense of what it would be like to live in Fort Collins. I arrived from New York City on a Wednesday morning and checked into my hotel downtown. It was sunny, as it tends to be here, so I decided to walk around a bit. I got lost a few times (a difficult task in a downtown with one main road and a handful of cross streets), but as an East Coaster found myself content amid a tidy string of shops and bars. Old Town felt familiar, not unlike the New England villages I grew up with, but there was a Western, frontier quality that was new to me. And instead of a sea-level salinity the air held a sort of giddy freshness, an elemental reminder that I was thousands of feet above my comfort zone.
I wandered into the Silver Grill Café for breakfast and a Bloody. The middle-aged woman behind the counter scanned my New York license and asked what I was doing in Fort Collins. I told her I was thinking of moving here, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave the East Coast, leave the city. She laughed and said that compared to Ord, Nebraska – her hometown – Fort Collins was the city. She poured me a taste of some local beer they’d just tapped – I wish I could remember which one – and welcomed me to town, saying that she hoped she’d see more of me. Her easy kindness, something that I now realize is commonplace in the Choice City, stayed with me. Back in New York, we are told that people elsewhere are genuinely nice, but we can’t picture it, can’t imagine what niceness is.
Before heading to campus to sit in on Judy Doenges’s 4:00 workshop, I ate a late lunch at Choice City Butcher: a Rueben. My sandwich was about 20% as good as Katz’s in the Lower East Side, which is to say it was by far the second best Rueben I’d ever had in my life. I was beginning to see myself in Fort Collins.
In workshop, I found exactly what I was hoping I would: an environment that was honest, accessible, and enthusiastic. After class, I was invited to tag along with a few of the fiction writers to Avo’s, a quirky bar between campus and Old Town, where some of the poets were already sharing an after-workshop beer. Another thing, apart from a good deli and a thoughtful workshop, that I could check off my list: a strong sense of community among the students. Then about midway through our second round the loudest damn train I’d ever heard came screaming through town, ready to roar right through Avo’s front window. No one else seemed to take notice, except for a comment or two concerning the oddity of this particular freight’s baggage: tanks. I remember finding this appealing in the same way I find Russian literature appealing.
The majority of us left Avo’s around ten. There was writing to be done, lessons to plan, TV shows to stream. I remained, jet-lagged and buzzed, discussing craft with two then second-years, Neil FitzPatrick and Matt Truslow. Neil and I talked about the role of research in fiction, and Matt shared with us one of his favorite poems: Ted Berrigan’s “Red Shift.” It was a good day, and on the way back to my hotel I called my sister in Northern California. Kelsey, I said, I may be heading your way.
The next morning I was ripped from sleep at 4:30 am to the sound of a train whistle. Was this life in Fort Collins? And what the hell was that noise coming from my bathroom? Drip, drip, drip…Drip, drip, drip…I stumbled out of bed, turned on a light, and looked up: a leak. It turns out the guest above me had fallen asleep with his water running. There goes a good night’s sleep, I thought. Not to mention that it was Visiting Day – campus tours and a prospective student meet-and-greet – followed by a graduate thesis reading I really wanted to stay conscious for. I called maintenance and decided to go for a run. I didn’t make it a half-mile before turning around. Damn this air is thin.
I slept through the majority of the meet-and-greet, making it just in time to have a couple of meatballs and shake hands with the amazing Marnie Leonard, the woman who patiently walked me and so many others through the ins and outs of a CSU MFA application. That night, at the thesis reading, I introduced myself to the professors I hadn’t yet met. There were many insightful conversations, but it was my interaction with then fiction professor Steven Schwartz that ultimately brought me to CSU. The reading was about to start, I was exhausted from a lack of sleep the night before, and I didn’t have the time or energy to be anything but honest. I admitted to Steven that I’d been accepted into a program in New York City as well, and that although I was in awe of everything CSU had to offer, I didn’t think I could leave my hometown. I want to write about New York, I said. And I’ll never forget Steven’s response: you won’t write about New York until you leave it.
25 years in New York and I never once wrote a story with the city as its setting. A semester and a half here and I’ve written two and just started a novel where the city plays a central role. Steven was right. Of course he was right. I needed to get out of my comfort zone. After the reading I went back to my hotel for a drink. The hotel bar was empty, and I talked for a while with the bartender, Zach, about local fly-fishing destinations.
Five months later, while moving into a new Fort Collins apartment, I spent my first few nights in town at that same hotel. A hellish day roaming the aisles of what seemed like every damn thrift store in town and my mom and I were ready for a glass of wine. I took her to the hotel bar, where I remembered they had a good Gewürztraminer by the glass. There, behind the counter, was Zach, tall and fluid in his movements up and down the bar. He saw my mom and I enter and sure enough, he greeted me by name, almost a half year later. Alex, he said, drawing us two chairs, welcome back.
Is Fort Collins home? I don’t know. I miss New York, some days more than others, but earlier this winter, when I was back in the city for the holidays, a strange thing happened: I missed Fort Collins. It has been almost a year since my initial visit. My flybox is full of RS2s and I’ve developed an inconvenient addiction to sour beers. I miss the coast, I miss New York, I miss bagels, but I’ve learned (and am learning) to incorporate a new perspective into my writing, and that is an exciting thing.