On the evening of Nov. 21, three strangers rolled up on Dearborn in a 2001 red Ford E-150 they call "The Barn." The Barn has carried them to nearly every state in the continental United States. Their mission is simple: collect true stories by gay people from all over. The I'm From Driftwood crew had traveled to 26 states before they arrived in Chicago, making Illinois their 27th.
A few weeks prior, I was sitting in my studio at the School of the Art Institute when I received a call from an unknown number in Brooklyn, New York.
"This is Troy," said an unfamiliar voice on the other end. Troy explained that he was a volunteer for Nathan Manske, the 30-year-old creator and poster child of the gay, true-stories blog I'm From Driftwood. Manske and his crew needed a place to stay while in Chicago, and I was their first call.
I met them outside my apartment in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. ( I am after all, a cougar divorcee ) . I caught on to their quick/sarcastic sense of humor, which did not come as a surprise seeing as two were brothers.
Why I would let three complete strangers stay for three nights in my apartment, I was not sure. But they came with the promise that they were "clean, friendly and fun" and that their stay was sure to bring good karma; they forgot to mention the rain. Future hosts be warned: the three are notorious for bringing rain to each city, having already brought rain to a drought-stricken suburb of Little Rock, Arkansas. They were in the Chicago less than a day before the city received its biggest rainfall since September in the early morning hours of Nov. 22. Chicago just experienced its driest October in nearly forty years, and Nathan along with his crew, brother Nick Manske and friend Marquise Lee blamed it on a cloud they named "Ray."
( The crew imagined "Ray" to be like the unfortunate cloud seen during the short animation previewed before Disney-Pixar's "Up." )
Much has been written about the "Driftwood" project, but little is known about the entire road crew that makes it happen, especially Nathan's brother ( Nick ) who has remained out of the spotlight through the press frenzy. During one of their video entries, Nick calls "Driftwood" Nate's "big American gay tour."
"That's not what it's called." Nate interjected.
Without a beat, Nick continued, "big very gay pink-unicorn-gay tour."
You can tell the two are brothers.
I ended up bunking with my best friend and neighbor ( Sara ) , and giving my apartment up entirely to the "Driftwood" folk. The first night, Sara and I took Nick and Nathan to Clarke's on Belmont so they could get their first experience of a Chicago diner in one of city's gayest neighborhoods; Marquise, the project's video director and editor, decided to stay behind and get some work done.
While at Clarke's, the brothers explained the project to Sara and I a little further. The idea came to Nate shortly before he was laid off from his job at a large advertising firm in New York City in 2008. Harvey Milk was on everyone's mind that year after the release of the hit film Milk. The movie made Nate think about a famous image of Milk holding a sign saying, "I'm From Woodmere, N.Y."
"I thought it was a little out of left field," Nate explained. "All I knew of Harvey Milk was San Francisco, but he's not from San Francisco. I'm not from New York City. LGBT people are from everywhere."
Since its inception, Driftwood has collected hundreds of stories by gay people from all over the world. The idea to take "Driftwood" on the road was a way of extending the project beyond just any normal "blog." Instead, they have created a growing archive of video stories from people in every state across the country, including Hawaii and Alaskatwo trips which Nick laments he was not able to join Nate and Marquise. When asked, Nick seemed upset and refused to speak further on the matter. I later learned that it was due to finances that Nick was unable to join them beyond the contiguous United States.
Alaska and Hawaii fell at the midpoint of the trip and were very special points during the tour. "They weren't easy to get to," Nate remembered. "But that's why we thought it was so important for us to go." Nate reminisced that Hawaii seemed like a bit of a vacation, having been on the road for nearly two months. They hung out at Hula's ( Honolulu's only gay bar ) every day. While in Alaska, they were recognized by a guy at Mad Myrna's in Anchorage. He turned out to be an excellent tourguide taking them up to Wasilla, a town notorious for one of its residents: Sarah Palin.
"I felt it was important to get a story from Wasilla to show the LGBT youth there that someone is thinking about them in a positive light," Nate said, "and to let them represent Wasilla the way they want it to be represented."
The project has taken them to places like Helena, Mont., where the three guys were nearly recruited to play for a semi-professional football league ( Helena Titans ) by an intoxicated Mickey Rourke look-a-like, jagged teeth and all.
"We all of course judged him immediately based on his appearance," Nate said of the Rourke look-alike who approached them in a diner, "this big hulking figure, drunk at 10:30 in the morning, in a small town in the middle of Montana. What we were doing in town was never brought up...I wonder how he would have reacted. I also wonder how fast I could have run if he didn't react well."
Aside from collecting stories, the Driftwood folk maintain another blog about the tour itself. Readers track Driftwood's own version of the classic traveling gnome: the pink boots. Various photos show the pink boots in different places throughout their travels, among them: the world's largest Radio Flyer wagon in Spokane, Wash., and Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Nate first got the idea for the pink boots while planning a fundraiser for the project in New York. He and the crew were trying to figure out what to collect money in.
"A bowl or a cup seemed so boring," he said, "I wanted something that represented Texas [ where Driftwood is ] and queer; hot pink cowboy boots were the first thing I thought of."
I admit I was a little star struck when I first saw the pink boots in my apartment and I played dumb, asking whose they were ( similar to when I pretended to know who James Garrett was in an introductory text message from Nate, an avid Cowboys fan. Or was that Jason Garrett? )
"People saw them at the fundraiser and fell in love with them. I knew they had to be a regular, iconic part of Driftwood, Nate said of the pink boots.
While in Chicago, the boots posed in Millenium Park under the shadow of the world's largest green roof and by the "Bean."
During the day on Nov. 22, I had the pleasure of spending a little more time with Nick while Nate and Marquise traveled to Evanston to collect a story. Nick is a freelance illustrator living in Brooklyn where he rooms with Nate; as if growing up was not enough, the two brothers have been roommates for the past six years. I gave Nick a tour of the museum at my school ( the Art Institute ) and was delighted to see that even a New Yorker could be impressed with our city.
Nick plays it cool but really seems to be enthusiastic about "Driftwood." As "Driftwood"'s honorary straight ally, Nick may seem out of place. But his role in the project has been vital: getting The Barn from city to city, keeping two queens from killing each other and also maintaining what has become a long distance relationship with his girlfriend back in Brooklyn.
I dropped by my apartment the evening of Nov. 22, thinking no one was home and I could grab a few things I had forgotten while staying at Sara's. I found Nick home alone, sketching at my desk. "I promised I would make her a postcard from each state," Nick said of his girlfriend back home, "I am a little behind."
Nick clearly misses his girlfriend and being able to travel cross-country seems a small reward for the sacrifice he has made in time. After all, it is not his own community he is seeking to help, it is that of his brother's. Some might even say his role is heroic. At this point, Nick had been driving Nate and Marquise for nearly three months, and he had chalked about 11,000 miles.
Chicago seems to be the place that many realize it really is a small world after all, and not just because you can view it from the top of the Sears Tower ( which my guests dutifully called the Willis Tower ) .
Nate and Marquise held a screening at the Center on Halsted on Nov. 22 ( the second night of their stay ) during which they shared stories from the road. They barely made the next northbound red line train ( as their Chicago host I warned them of the long time length in between trains ) . Out of breath, the two felt somewhat frazzled, and noticed a girl staring at them from across the train. She approached the two and only after several minutes did Nate realize that it was someone they had already met in Laramie, Wyoming.
It comes as no surprise that they were a little slow to the uptake. Ever since the tour began, the three have met over a thousand people on the road.
That evening was my last with the "Driftwood" folk as I was headed out to spend time with my family in Virginia for Thanksgiving. Before I left, I had the pleasure of enjoying the crew's official beverage of choice created by Nick and entitled the "Hudson" ( for its murky look ) , patent pending: one part vodka, one part orange juice and two parts Diet Coke. The result is a drink so delicious, you could plop a plane right on top of it. And I would know, I am only one letter away from the pilot's name.
Nick could not keep quiet about his plans to make a pilgrimage to the United Center the next day to see the bronze cast of Michael Jordan, a childhood hero of his. The other two had much more on their mind with another story to shoot the next day and a fundraiser at Roscoe's for their last night.
With each new city, Marquise Lee and the Manske brothers unveil stories waiting to be heard, bringing them to an unknown audience that can be viewed by anyone. And that is the point...bringing stories that would otherwise go unheard to those who need to hear them the most: the ones that are looking for them.
I left my three new friends on their own in Chicago as I headed to O'Hare to catch a late flight. While on the bus headed for the airport I noticed the guy sitting next to me was reading about Nathan Manske on his iPhone. The world had never felt so small and so great.
More info is at www.imfromdriftwood.com ( official blog ) and www.50statestorytour.com ( story tour ) .
Beyond the website, "Driftwood" recently published a book highlighting 51 stories from the website since it began in March 2009. The book is broken down into chapters ranging from coming out to relationshipswww.imfromdriftwood.com/book.