I just passed the highway sign again: HARD TIMES 30 MILES, PROCEED WITH ANGST AND LOATHING. I’ve been here many times before but the place is perpetually changing, like a soliloquy written by a schizophrenic. Of course I come with the requisite baggage: a 24-pack of self-loathing, a Styrofoam cooler filled with interminable doubt, several aged bottles filled with abandonment and parental injustice, a matched set of antique but functional dueling pistols and a well-rehearsed PowerPoint presentation containing a compelling array of my reasons for making this journey. With all of those plus 3 cases of Pacifico and a sandwich bag filled with “shrooms” I should be able to hang on long enough to reconcile my predicament: trying to find comfort between a rock and a hard place.
As I cruise down the main drag, I see that the town looks pretty much the same as the last time I was here. Battered and bloody women running and screaming through the dusty streets; grown men huddled by the side of the road, boldly weeping into their beards; a distant cacophony of shrill screams and soul-drenching moans that create a bizarre yet compelling libretto that welcomes me back to the place that loves to beat you down.
There is no point searching for friends for you have none here. This is a town fueled by loneliness and despair; heartbreak and frustration. I stop the car, take a seat by a business man with a broken spirit, and begin the process of unloading my baggage. He turns his head as if wanting to ask me a question, but immediately realizes the futility and returns his gaze to the garbage blowing through the street. We sit on the curb, each of us drinking in the bile, filling our lungs with all the rancid catharsis that Hard Times has to offer. For me it is the death of wonder, brought on by the weight of no longer being able to make my way in the world.
A woman in a torn and dirty sweater appears at my side from nowhere, whispering the same phrase: “Why can’t I be loved?” My momentary desire to console her passes quickly as she shuffles away, confronting another despondent old man down the road with the same unanswerable question. Unfortunately, Hard Times is a place filled with questions, not answers; filled with despair not resolution; filled with bitterness not joy.
For me, the inability to find work in spite of diligent effort skewed the context of my life so badly that all that I believed became a question, not an answer; a condition welcomed by the despondency that fills the air like a putrid fog in Hard Times. The struggle to regain stasis in my life eventually wore me down, becoming my reality. I expect the woman wanting love had gone through a similar process. The twisted bodies along the side of the road attested to the fact that accepting Hard Times as your home would eventually kill you. Confronting that reality was one of the main reasons to visit this awful place.
I think we all visit a section of Hard Times during our life. The trick is learning to use the pervasive misery and sadness there to awaken the love and hope that lies dormant inside us. It is not an easy task, often equivalent to slaying a monster with a pebble, but it is possible. For me that night in Hard Times was all about recognizing that the present does not equal the future. That each day I continued to endure might indeed bring me closer to a new vision of my life. One filled with compassion and love, not fraught with frustration and anger.
The struggle against the darkness that exists in Hard Times will always be there, for how can you appreciate the good times if you haven’t sampled the bad? The trick is to remember that the only constant in the universe is change and that humans are incredibly adaptable beings, able to re-create their realities at will. To bring about change, all one has to do is immerse themselves in the paradigm, and there is no place better to do that than crawling through the desperate throngs who fill the dusty streets of Hard Times.