When I was 17, I went away to college, leaving behind the scenic town of Elkins Park, PA -- never, it turns out, to live there again.
Sure, I went back for breaks from school, of course. Spent summers working in the Philadelphia area, living at my parents' house, almost like I'd never left. Except that I had. The day I started college, that house on Cadwalader Avenue ceased to be my house and became "home" (as in "I'm going home this weekend"), and more recently "my parents' house." But no longer my permanent residence. Given, I had a PA driver's license until this year, but that's neither here nor there.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to go back there. I mentioned in my last column that my parents are moving (yes, they found a house, about 10 minutes away from where they currently are), and I had to take all of the stuff I'd boxed up and bring it back to New York. But what really struck me was not that I'd never have "my room" at my parents' house anymore. What really struck me was how ingrained that whole area still is in me.
I was driving around, remembering the sights, sounds, and stories from my childhood, from my formative years. The shortcuts from our house to the mall. The field where we used to play football, baseball, soccer. The buildings on Old York Road that my dad designed. The house down the street where, like a young Corey Feldman, I used to fool around in 9th grade with the girl whose mother was never home, and even sometimes when she was. You know, all the classics.
And it was weird. Like it felt in some ways that I'd never left. I'm sure we all have places like that. Places where you can trace the streets in your mind; where you can, to this day, name them all. I mean I lived in Boston for six years and I'm still not sure what most of the street names were. I can't tell you how many blocks there were between my house and the end of the street. Even where I'm living now, I don't know more than a 4-block radius really well. 'Course it is Queens, so maybe that's a good thing.
Keith, one of my dad's employees, moved up from Texas a number of years ago. He recently made a comment that he knew he'd been living in the area for a long enough time now because he found himself giving someone directions and using landmarks that were no longer there. "Make a left at what used to be the Benson East, and stay straight until you get to where Bloomingdale's was...." And anyone from there knows what he's talking about. But aside from some restaurants that have changed hands, or some old building that's been renovated, or the two liquor stores I looted and then burned, I can't really do that for any of the places I've lived since.
And don't get me wrong; I'm not suddenly filled with this great desire to move back there or anything. I love living in New York; for the most part I'm happy here. But there's just something about visiting the place where you grew up, you know? I had a friend drive down with me this past weekend, and being able to point out these places, and just view the area through the eyes of someone who hadn't grown up there (born and raised in Manhattan), it made me see it all for the first time, too.
What I wonder is whether any other place will feel like that again for me. Of course the places I've lived will always hold memories, unless I get old and start forgetting them, but there's a difference between "remember getting pizza at Nick's?" and "remember playing street hockey on the driveway when Jon Snyder was using a rake to tend goal?" My parents have that now; they've been living in the same area for 28 years. Is there some place that I'll be able to make my permanent residence again?
Just as important: is there some place where my kids (when I have them; two boys and a girl, all named Adam) will feel is always home? I don't think it can necessarily be in a big city. There's something impersonal about a place that attracts tourists. No one has ever been to Elkins Park unless they were visiting someone, moving there, or lost on the way to somewhere more fun, like Jenkintown. Or Vegas.
And I want that for my kids (three girls, no names). I want them to be able to come back to where my wife (named Adam; don't ask) and I are living and I want them to see everything through the eyes of memory. I want them to see the playgrounds, and the ice cream shop, and the Chinese restaurant, and the park, and the schools, and the houses and trees and streets and be able to associate their childhoods with that place.
You don't have to live in a place to know that it's uniquely yours. And that's what it's all about, I think. To have somewhere to ground you, no matter where you end up. To always know that there's one town, neighborhood, hamlet, whatever that you know like the back of your hand. Someday, I expect there will be another place I know as well as Elkins Park, PA, and that will be a good thing. But I also know that I can never know it better. And that feels pretty good, too.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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11.14.03 @ 9:25a
Personally I still think Thomas Wolfe was right, but I'm not going to be argumentative about it. At least not very. I think you can GO home but you can't STAY there. I've sometimes fantasized about going back to the small town in which I grew up after I retire and no longer have to consider earning a living as a major factor in where I live. Then I went back on my way to somewhere else on a trip. None of my ten-year-old pals were there and even if they had been they weren't ten years old anymore. I had to face the depressing fact that neither was I. Good grief! The house I grew up in and which had seemed so huge and roomy at the time now seemed tiny in comparison to my memory of it. The road I trudged to school was nowhere near as long as it had seemed, even though it was still uphill both ways. Some of the parents of my long lost pals still lived in the same houses, and they remembered me, but their progeny were scattered throughout the world with no plans of ever returning except for the occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas or funeral. The weddings for my generation were long over and done with. Often the marriages, too. Everything was the same, and yet nothing was quite the same. I realized I no longer "belonged" there. It was a rather sad experience because one more avenue toward safety, whatever that is, had been cut off. The good part is that I feel perfectly at peace and totally belong where I live now. That's cool, I think, even though in general throughout my life "anywhere I hang my hat is home."
11.14.03 @ 11:45a
I disagree! You can NEVER go back! Well I think you should go back once, so you can fully be aware of why you left. I left a small Virginia town for the obvious, it was small, homey, warm and nuturing, for the distant NYC and all it had to offer, including the free sex on the streets, which is finally coming back! Blech! A few years ago I started missing the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the tranquility that I thought would always remain. But instead I returned to a even more depressed town. Businesses closing left and right. No jobs, too many malls and Applebee wannabees, which for the life me I can't figure out how the inhabitants were paying for all of those consumer prouducts without jobs. My family was even more pathetic, newly unrepressed gay uncles, cousins dating cousins and my old friends all drunks. I knew immediately why I left and realized You Can Never Go Back! Live in the memory it's more accurate and more pleasing to experience!
11.14.03 @ 11:51a
Well, my point wasn't that you can relive some childhood or that nothing ever changes. My point was that the memories and personality-shaping experiences are pulled into sharp relief when you do go "home." Maybe I'm just lucky that the area where I grew up is still nice, middle-income suburbia.
11.14.03 @ 11:56a
Yes you are lucky! And I feel that you can "always know that there's one town, neigborhood, hamlet...that you know like the back of your hand" in your mind and heart, which travels with you wherever you go and it will ground and influence your 3 girls and wife. And you can share your memories with them, which also includes you embarking upon the World, taking, sharing and giving.
11.14.03 @ 1:54p
3 girls, 8 boys, whatever.
I agree that travels, living in different places, etc. adds to who you are. But I'm never going to wistfully drive through Astoria, Queens going, "And here's where I bought that slice of pizza. And here's the corner where I used to cross the street sometimes. And here's where I did my laundry." The memories just aren't really the same.
11.14.03 @ 2:29p
With all the moving our (Navy) family did when I was a kid, I really didn't have anything like what you describe, Adam. The closest I came was my grandparents' house in Orlando, which as of a few months ago is now someone else's house. The same people live across the street and next door who lived there when I was born. If I ever go back to visit those neighbors, it's going to be tough thinking that I can't just walk across the street, across the lawn, into the garage and up the steps to the kitchen.
11.14.03 @ 2:55p
Every place I've ever lived I have those memories of though. I spent 15 out of my first 18 years in Woodland - a suburb of Sacramento with about 25,000 people. And I remember it like you remember your childhood town, Adam. But I also have great memories of the shitty college apartment by the railroad tracks, or the smell of the newly constructed "luxury" apartments I lived in when I moved to Boise after school. I remember my tiny back deck there where I'd drink beer, feed the ducks in the pond and feel like I was finally an adult. And I have tons of great memories of places I've lived in SF - the old Victorian I first moved into and all the adventures I had when the city seemed so new and exciting. Or the huge place on Fell St. and the great parties we threw. Or the Indian man in the laundromat who'd yell at me for using their change machine.
Every place had certain special somethings that made them unique and different. I think I'd have fun going back to all those places and reminiscing.
11.14.03 @ 3:43p
Hmmm...interesting. Do you think any of these places holds a more fond place in your heart than the others? Because I, too, have great memories from college and post-college. But I'm never going to be wistful going back to Medford, Massachusetts.
11.14.03 @ 4:02p
mmmmmm.......past or future? Good question. Hide or seek? We've been playing these games since we were little.
11.14.03 @ 4:17p
Well, I'm not sure what you're saying, but in the future, I do hope that wherever I wind up settling can be a place like where I grew up.
11.14.03 @ 9:53p
I envy you pleasant memories. I've lived in the same town, in the same house for 40 years. Recently I've been having some renovations done and have an old friend helping me with electrical and plumbing upgrades. He's not from town, and lloks at my home town as a really nice place to live.
I have told him some of my cheerier memories, and introduced him to some of the more mellowed people in town. Seeing the town through the eyes of someone else makes it seem happier.
Part of me loves my house, and my property, and I feel comfortable in my town, but I don't know if I feel grounded or that sense of security that comes with familiarity. At least, I don't have that from the place. I have that from within.
I look forward to new experiences in the future, maybe even new places.
11.15.03 @ 3:40p
Well, I do think that without the new places, it's sometimes hard to appreciate the old ones.
11.15.03 @ 11:18p
I can agree with that. If you have nothing to compare with, you can't appreciate the differences.
12.8.03 @ 1:36p
I remember a place called Elkins Park as well. I even remember Jon Snyder.
I still want to move back there someday, though I'm sure it wouldn't be all it was cranked up to be in my mind. (Especially since my dad died and my mom is probably going to move in the next few years.)
I miss New Orleans a bit, although I really only miss the Sushi.