Melissa Bastian: A Biography Of Sorts
I was born in the middle of a storm, or at least that’s what I’m told. Akron, Ohio was gripped in a raging blizzard, but a scheduled cesarean is a scheduled cesarean - mother and child both would likely die should labor occur - and so out I came amongst the ice and snow that second week of 1978. Born in a storm, and maybe that explains it. Maybe.
Four months later the foursome, mother, father, and daughters - toddler and infant - left Ohio for Texas and for good. But Texas was neither the reason nor the answer, and soon enough they were headed for Slidell, Louisiana, and then back to New Orleans, and then to Oklahoma for a moment or two, and then back to Houston... or was it the other way around? Stop that; reverse it. Neither adults nor children have succeeded in drawing the proper lines between each of the dozen or so moves that eventually landed the family in Sarasota, Florida in 1981. Sarasota stuck, though, for a time at least, and I spent my true childhood climbing trees barefoot and digging live coquinas out of the gulf coast sands. Idyllic childhood it wasn’t; there were my uncle’s suicide and my father’s motorcycle accident to keep us busy, and in the eight years there I managed to go to four different schools. The Florida years, though, are likely what imparted me with a solid and profound love of trees and water.
At age 11 I would have to say goodbye to my tree in the backyard, an elm that was probably my best friend within my secluded self-build world. A man of uneven temperament, my father had exhausted employment possibilities in Sarasota and even in Tampa. So we were moving to a suburb just northeast of Washington D.C., where the job market seemed inexhaustible (and my father was not yet known in the industry). Things were a little different on the east coast. Our ranch house was replaced by a fourth floor apartment, which was robbed and which we abandoned within a year of our arrival. My tested-into gifted school was replaced by an overpopulated public school which frankly had little need for new students in March (March!) of all times. Suddenly my German / English / French / Sicilian heritage was a paradox, with my neither ethnic nor black but extremely tanned skin and my dark hair; I wasn’t “the right kind of white” but I certainly wasn’t anything else. And anyway I wasn’t like the rest of the kids in my neighborhood, which is really enough to get you chased home from the bus every day anyway, isn’t it?
Our years in Maryland would bring us three different “homes”, my mother’s cancer and subsequent remission, the true blossoming of my father’s alcoholism, my sister’s withdrawal from high school and earning of a GED and then her departure for college (don’t worry about her - she’s got a master’s degree now), and the greater bulk of my teen years. One month after graduating from high school - oh yes, under doubting administrative eyes I finished, with honors - we moved to the place my parents swore was my home too, though I held a unique position in our foursome for having never lived there.
New Orleans, the city that care forgot. It was familiar; we’d been taking trips to visit family there once or twice a year for my whole life, and in fact my grandpa’s house was the only place recalled from early childhood that I still had access to. Coming from the east coast of the 90’s, though, I was not prepared for the city’s laid back ways and was daily accused of being tense and defensive, which I was. The city, it tried to tell me it wasn’t the place for me, tried to spit me back out. But much like its residents, it wasn’t going to go to a whole lot of trouble or energy to prove the point to me. It would let me show myself how wrong I was to be there. It would let me learn the hard way, work it out on my own.
I was thwarted at everything I attempted: relationships, school, jobs, apartments. One catastrophe after another. Following the pattern ingrained in me from birth I moved at least once a year, and sometimes much more, working my way around the city. I was never more than three weeks away from life dissolving into complete chaos, for the first few years at least. At seventeen I had become inexplicably ill, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was twenty-one - with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. None of this seemed terribly unusual to me; as far as I knew life was supposed to be constant struggle, everything I accomplished would be done without any assistance whatsoever, and nothing was ever supposed to work the first time.
But eventually, slowly, surely, I learned to trick the town into letting me stay; I got things done my way by working within its channels. (Don’t fight against it; it will only pull you down further, like quicksand. Learn to float.) I learned enough about living in my own life and body to get through college; after seven and a half years I earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental geography. I thought I was being practical, completely denying my urges to take theater and art classes; those were merely a waste of time (and if you don’t know it just ask my dad). So yes, a degree in environmental science, my second love, was the way to go. I settled into a family owned house, a place that actually felt like a home for the first time since I’d left Florida so many years before. And I became involved with a man who was employed, didn’t regularly do anything illegal, and wasn’t abusive - in other words, an adult with whom I had the potential to have a real relationship.
Once degreed, I hoped to leave the world of minimum wage retail. I briefly succeeded, and worked for four months as an artisan for a furniture designer applying faux finishes to cabinets and wiring chandeliers. The irony was not lost on me. But it was not meant to be; I like to say that the designer and I had “creative differences” rather than saying she was bat shit crazy. Believe what you like. Either way, I was once again plunged into retail hell and ended up managing the coffee shop in a bookstore for $7.50 an hour. The job came with one major perk: the bookstore became my own personal library.
After one semester out of college, I was bored out of my mind. So I went back to the University of New Orleans, this time finally for art. In the months preceding my enrollment my partner had informed me that I was actually already an artist - see that collage there? Watch the way you combine colors and arrange things on tables! And look at all the work in these zines... - and merely needed to gain some confidence and acquire some skill. I half believed him, and it gave me courage. But after two drawing classes and an art history course, I could no longer afford even the cheapest university in town. No matter, though; I had a new plan. My bibliophilia had run head on into my love of design, fostered by the bookstore job, and I’d realized that my true calling was to design book covers. I enrolled in the the local tech college for a course of study in graphic design, and felt that I was finally on my way to a career.
I’d gone to one week of classes when Katrina came. I was at the bookstore that day; we closed early so that the employees could evacuate. When a national retail chain closes, you know that something big is going down. We didn’t even close for Easter. So we packed up the dogs and the cat and the laptops and a few days’ worth of clothes - since we’d be back in a few days, right? - and headed up and east to Mississippi. That was August.
You probably know that we weren’t home in a few days. You probably wouldn’t be surprised if I told you that we couldn’t even get into the city to find out what had happened to our houses and possessions for two months. Of course, I had made a pretty good guess about my house; it was a mere quarter mile south of the breach in the 17th street canal and waters there had risen at least 12 feet. I also knew what must have happened to my new school career, to the school that lay just southwest of city park. Most of what I had grown to know and love in that city, the one that had always been trying to spit me out, was irrevocably changed, if not simply gone.
My partner and I decided to do what we’d talked about doing some time in the indefinite future, when I finished school maybe, or when he was ready to sell his house: move to New York City. We needed a plan, and after all that was a plan. After four weeks of evacuee refugee status, holed up in a distant friend’s relative’s house in the middle of nowhere, I was slipping into a dangerous depression and fading quickly. So the decision was made: I would head to New York to start getting a life established for us, and he would stay nearer the city until we were allowed access and he could see what had happened to his house. Whether he ever fully agreed to this plan I will never know. Later he would say it was never what he wanted. Either way, I did come to New York and establish a life for the two of us, but it was one that I would carry on alone; he never came.
New York City, yes! The mechanisms that brought me here and left me alone were, well, awful. I was lost and traumatized and incredibly lonely. But New York! This was a town that understood me and my fast paced ways, my obsessive organization, my desire to Get Things Done. Whereas New Orleans had said, “Daughter, this ain’t the town for you, now calm yourself or get along, a’right?”, New York said “Darling! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you!” and welcomed me with open arms. “Want to be vegan and shop locally? Why sure! Here’s a vegetarian grocery owned by your neighbor located eight blocks from your house that carries all your favorite brands. Oh, and don’t forget the dozens of amazing vegetarian restaurants around town. Don’t like driving? Have you tried our brilliant subway system? Ahh, you need to pay the rent. Well your friend’s friend at the law firm will get you an interview, and you interview well now don’t you dear? Hmm, I see, you’re single now. Well, might we offer you a wonderful man named Jonathan? He’s actually a much better match for you than the others you’ve been with... we’re guessing around your second anniversary you’ll be engaged.”
After a minute on my friend’s couch in Brooklyn and another two or three in a Harlem sublet, I settled into a wonderful pre-war one bedroom in Astoria where I still reside today. It is safe and quiet and mine, all I’ve ever looked for in a residence. I’ve managed to take classes in letterpress printing, paint, and in color at the School of Visual Arts, and am currently learning screenprinting from an independent shop here in long island city. I have grown steadily more productive in my artwork, and am amazed at the value of having a true studio space to work in.
In my first few months here I was able to accomplish more than I had in my nine years in New Orleans. Finally, finally, finally. I would work at getting something done, and it would get done. It remains so to this day. Like a miracle as far as I’m concerned.
Like coming home.