...we never leave the past behind;
we just accumulate
So sometimes, when the music stops
I still can hear the distant sound of
waves and seagulls, football crowds
And I want to go back to my hometown...
--Joe Jackson, "Hometown"
This is the old central business district in North Tonawanda, New York. As recently as my childhood, this was the heart of the city, the place where you went to shop, to get a prescription filled, to do your banking, to grab a bite to eat. It was Main Street, even if was called Webster Street. G.C. Murphy's, the store that sold everything from bolts of fabric to tropical fish to the dreaded "Big Murph" jeans, the lowest rung on the denim ladder, is long gone. So is Ott's, the tiny pharmacy that always smelled of mint and bubblegum. Across the canal in Tonawanda, Jenss' Department Store was torn down decades ago, replaced by a McDonald's and a parking lot. Now there are tattoo parlors and tanning salons where the stores used to be, and everyone shops in Amherst.
That's not to say that the old Webster Street doesn't exist. It does, like all old places do, in the eternal now of memory. We all have those moments, those flashes when we are no longer where we are, but tossed back to some old and former place. Major Rathbone, the physician who tended to Abraham Lincoln in his final hours, is said to have gotten violently ill at the scent of lilacs, for there was a bush in full bloom just outside the window of the room where Lincoln was taken, and that aroma always returned the Major to those horrible events. The smell of spaghetti sauce cooking turns me into a twelve year old paperboy, collecting subscriptions for my route, because there was a lady on Tremont Street who made spaghetti every Tuesday, and you could smell her cooking all through the neighborhood. For reasons less clear to me, the very obscure Tony Orlando and Dawn song, "What Are You Doing Sunday?" fills me with nostalgia, puts a lump in my throat, and leaves me with a burning desire to be nine years old, buying football cards down on Webster Street.
For the first eighteen years of my life, this was the view from my front door:
This is not a black and white photo. From late November until sometime in April, that is the color palette of North Tonawanda. For six months we live in sepia and shadows, interrupted only by those rare and wonderful moments when the sun breaks forth, bathing us in bright blinding light and a sky colored Dutchman's blue.
I'd convinced myself that I hated the place, hated its sourness, its sense of sullen resignation. I hated watching the stores close up on Webster Street, watching the old people die or disappear to Florida, hated watching the young people jump ship for Charlotte or Orlando or Atlanta. I hated its constant change, and I hated its relentless sameness. When I left, on January 2, 1981, I didn't even bother to say goodbye, barely acknowledged my mother in her nightgown, waving on the front porch.
You can run, but Hometown never goes away. It is always there, like Rathbone's lilacs: suddenly I'm eight, running with my sister, the bitter cold piercing its needles into our lungs, along the banks of the Canal; old Mr. Ott is telling me to say hello to my mother; I'm walking to school, mortified, in my brand-new Buddy sneakers ("proudly made in Poland") and my Big Murph jeans. It essential and inescapable. It is my hometown.
What I'm learning is that all those strands of heritage that I'm presently trying to braid into something coherent, are essential and inescapable, too. I am those Protestant Irishmen who stayed loyal to the crown, who carried the Queen's rifles in India, Australia, Canada and the Crimea. That loyalty, that sense of duty is part of me. I am the hardheaded Palatine who couldn't curb his temper, who took up arms against his neighbors and rode with Butler's Rangers, and I am his more even tempered son, who named his own boy "Washington", and rescued the family from a Canadian exile. I am the sharp-tongued Pole, who ran a speakeasy behind his Oliver Street barbershop, and the factory worker who loved the schmaltz and spotlight of show business. I am the Mormon convert, the true believer, who struggles every day with being humble and teachable.
I am my hometown, I am my ancestors. And still, like all of us, I am something completely new, something utterly unique.