The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget New York. For writer Saeed Jones, Columbus, Ohio, is the place to be a literary star.

Saeed Jones, author of the memoir “How We Fight for Our Lives” enjoys an evening out in his new home city, Columbus, Ohio. (Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The move wasn’t exactly intuitive. Not long before the release of his much-anticipated new memoir “How We Fight for Our Lives,” Saeed Jones — a gay, black, 30-something poet — fled the Big Apple for the Arch City, the Buckeye State’s capital, the home of Ohio State University and the headquarters of Victoria’s Secret and DSW.

Never mind how the state voted in 2016, Ohio’s capital ticks all the boxes on a typical millennial check list: craft-beer pubs, cafes that could just as easily be in Brooklyn, retro barber shops, independent bookstores and most important, affordability.

But Jones, born in Memphis and raised in a suburb in North Texas, isn’t (just) here because it’s cost-effective and unexpectedly cool. He’s here because after a lifetime of struggle, he’s found peace. (Also a love of tailgating, but more on that later.)

About a year ago, back in New York, Jones, who until May was an editor at BuzzFeed, grappled with serious depression. “The city was wearing me out; my job was wearing me out; America was wearing me out,” he wrote in an essay.

Isolation, fear and anxiety had taken root in his childhood. Growing up, Jones was haunted by the killings of James Byrd Jr., a black man who was beaten by white supremacists, chained to the back of their truck and dragged down a Texas road, and Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old fatally attacked by strangers in Wyoming.

Jones writes in his critically acclaimed memoir: “I was walking through a dusty, fluorescent-lit hallway — halfway to the assembly hall, trying with every filament of my body to look cool — when the two truths finally collided:

Being black can get you killed.

Being gay can get you killed.

Being a black gay boy is a death wish.”

He grappled with angst, desire and a slew of unanswered questions. Carol Sweet-Jones, the single mother who raised him, did right by her son in nearly all the ways that count. (Daily, she tucked sweet notes into his lunchbox; “I love you more than the air I breathe,” she signed off.) Over the subject of sexuality, however, a chasm grew between mother and son.

Even after he came out to his mom around age 19 and lived openly among friends, he was deeply unhappy, engaging in casual — sometimes violent — sex.

“I buried myself in the bodies of other men,” he writes in his memoir, “so I could feel something other than the depression that was rolling in like a fog bank.”

He was earning stellar grades at Western Kentucky University, winning national speech and debate competitions, routinely calling home. And yet: “I was just miserable,” he says.

A 2007 New Year’s Eve party in Phoenix brought a reckoning. A man with whom he got intimate clobbered Jones. Daniel, as he is called in the book, punched and bit, drunkenly “beating the desire” Jones had brought out in him “back down to where it usually hid.”

Jones managed to scramble free. “I think that night in Phoenix, Arizona, saved my life,” he says, “I’m very lucky to have walked out of that room.”

Now he’s in a whole new house.

On a recent afternoon, Jones — exuberant and chatty, wearing a red “Ohio” T-shirt — swings open the door of his Columbus apartment and envelops me in a hug. Any East or West Coaster who enters his amenity-packed home is likely to be thwacked with a heavy mix of emotions: awe, admiration, envy. Mainly envy. Sunlight filters in through an expanse of extremely tall windows. (“I wish you could see the sunset, because girl, it’s crazy,” he says later.) Jones’s wooden writing desk, paired with a cheery orange chair, resides in a corner of the living room, allowing him to compose poems while drinking up the great views of his hip neighborhood. Although his latest book is an autobiography, Jones — whose debut poetry collection, “Prelude to Bruise,” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was awarded the 2015 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry — continues to write poems.

Greenery dots the space — small ferns, a sansevieria, a ZZ plant. The atmosphere is soothing (and the price, $1,400 a month, makes me want to sob).

“I just feel calmer than I think I ever have in my life,” Jones says. His peace is palpable, as is his merriment. Jones has a loud, punchy laugh; it slices the air and fills it with joy.

How do you heal after losing a childhood home? In ‘The Yellow House,’ Sarah M. Broom wonders.

Start chatting with Jones, and you can convince yourself you’ve known him decades. We breezily ping-pong between discussion of the dating scene (Columbus has a large gay population, he tells me; also have I seen how good the men look around here?) to luggage (he just bought a Tumi suitcase, per Roxane Gay’s suggestion) to packing for his book tour. (“Why do I have three ponchos? I don’t need to take three ponchos.”)

In Columbus, he’s embracing everything the city has to offer, including tailgating, an activity whose appeal surprised him.

“When I was in college, this would’ve freaked me out, no question,” Jones says. “Now I’m like, it’s cute.” He grew up around tailgating in Texas, but there, he says, it felt threatening, unwelcoming. (“I felt like being at a football game was to be an interloper in enemy territory,” he clarifies later.)

But now there’s no aggression, not even a whiff of awkwardness. Just ease.

Tailgating evokes images of crowded parking lots, rowdy fans, burgers and beers and the backs of vans or pickup trucks. Yet we begin our afternoon in a large, industrial, rather sedate bar and restaurant two miles from Ohio Stadium, about to order spiked seltzer water. Soon, more drinks are ordered, and Jones and three friends move outside, into the sunshiny, 70-degree afternoon. At last, outside Varsity Club, a sports bar spitting distance from the football stadium, I spy full-on revelry. We flash our IDs then filter into a gated area, the six of us a tiny trickle into a sea of fans. People eat pizza, people loiter, Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache (Jump on It)” plays and people dance, some better than others. Time marches forward, and as we near 7 p.m., Jones and his friend Matt Arnstine — who are attending tonight’s game — start pulling away.

Hours later, after Jones has live-tweeted a considerable chunk of the game to his 125,000-plus followers (“I just surprised myself cheering without irony. OMG.”), he slips out at halftime. OSU goes on to beat Michigan State, 34-10.

Shortly after his departure, Jones is informed via group text that his friends and I are still hanging out. He swings by, and when he spots me, he is incredulous: “You’re still here?” See, he tells me, there’s something about Columbus; you just get swept away. Yes, I suppose. I hail from the Midwest; I understand its charms. This city has a certain warmth, a particular sweetness.

But there’s something else that I can’t pinpoint, another piece. In a recent essay, Jones offered a hint. During a visit to Columbus in fall 2018, fond memories of his mother lured him into a McDonald’s. “My mom used to get sausage biscuits for us on Saturday mornings. Sure, it should concern me that, all these years later, the meat product and bread product taste exactly the same,” he acknowledges. “But how much are you willing to pay for a taste of a bright memory?”

He continues: “I walked into the McDonald’s and a group of old black men sat at a table, reading newspapers, drinking coffee and laughing. Deep, black laughter. Hearty laughter. The way black people laugh in Toni Morrison novels. When they saw me, they let their chuckles settle and said ‘Good morning, young man’ almost in unison. I smiled and politely nodded. The young man at the register was just as warm, just as black, as was his coworker. I remembered then that Toni Morrison was from Ohio and thought ‘black people have been happy here for quite some time.’

“Because, quiet as it’s kept, black people are everywhere and if you don’t understand that, you don’t understand America.”

Later, back in my overpriced D.C. apartment, it comes to me. A quote from, of all places, the third season of HBO series “True Detective”: “What if something went unbroken? All this life, all this loss — what if it was really one long story that just kept going and going until it healed itself? Wouldn’t that be a story worth telling? Wouldn’t that be a story worth hearing?”

Saeed Jones has suffered. He wrestled with desire for decades. He beat back dread. When his mother died in 2011, he stared down grief. Columbus may be a supremely soft place to land, but I suspect that, first, he mended his own wounds. He forged new connections. He fought for his life, and he won.

Nneka McGuire is a multiplatform editor at The Lily, The Washington Post’s website that focuses on the stories of women.

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