Becoming the Past

Back home for a flying visit over the final dregs of the summer, I find myself in a hotel in my hometown. It’s an odd place to be. As I’ve often remarked to those who know me, I remember living in three houses in this area and all three have been torn down. Looking over the vacant lot where my elementary school once stood, I have a feeling of being erased. Just up the hill from my hotel is a blank space, like when a molar has been removed, where my junior high school once stood. Even the seedy shops I remember from childhood are gone, an entire block of buildings torn down. Wal-Mart opened up just a couple miles away outside of town, and all small businesses got down on their knees and prayed before dying. Being from somewhere is more than just a matter of going away. It’s also coming back.

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Standing outside in the misty morning sipping my coffee, I watch the river flow. There’s a fog rising over the Allegheny this morning and it makes this place look mysteriously beautiful. I think back to New Jersey, where I was at this time the day before, and how I can’t step outside without seeing other people. I go jogging at 4:30 in the morning sometimes. I’m never alone. On this balcony over the river I see no one. That person down by the river is really just a statue. Maybe I am too. What is left of a person when their hometown disappears? My fascination with ghost towns is catching up with me. Once someone said they thought I disliked small towns from the way I talked. Quite the opposite, the statue whispers. Quite the opposite.

If it weren’t for the people I know, would I ever come back here, I wonder. The warm coffee through the styrofoam cup reminds me of Judas. Even he knew how to kiss. This town, shrinking with age, gave me life. When I stamp the streets of Manhattan on my way to work, I know I’m a different man than I was back in this town. I would’ve found it difficult not to want to help anyone in need, back then. This homeless guy’s been sleeping in the same spot all week while millionaire wannabes look the other way. There’s a mist on the water this morning. The Allegheny flows on to the Ohio, and the Ohio on to the Mississippi. Down into the gulf that’s part of the ocean than encompasses us all.

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