There and Back Again

A few weeks ago, after one of my fantasy football drafts took me way out east, I found myself driving back past my old neighborhood.  So on a whim, I turned in and took a quick drive around.  This was the place I did most of my growing up, or at least most of it that I remember.  It was the site of many an epic Halloween, where we’d roam the streets without our biggest fear being getting egged by the older kids.  There were the summer days spent scouring the neighborhood for empty soda bottles that we’d take up to the local convenience store and use the money we’d get back to buy comic books, turns at Donkey Kong, and, well, more soda.  The neighborhood even turns up frequently in my dreams, with the exact same streets laid out in the exact same way, but somehow with a really cool pub smack dab in the middle of it.  So it’s worked its way into my memory, and a lot of fond times I’d gladly go back to were spent there.

So of course, the place is a dump now.

Not that it was the height of luxury when I lived there, but at least then people seemed like they gave a damn about how the place looked.  They kept the lawns mowed and the houses painted, and there weren’t ten cars parked in the front yard, and carports hadn’t become the place you just shoved the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the house.  But the day I drove through, there were lawns that were nothing but a few lonely strands of grass clumped together in a field of dirt.  Trees were either cut back to naked stumps or sprawling out of control over fences and onto roofs.  Even the road looked faded and old, almost as white as the sidewalks.

And the whole place just seemed smaller.  Not the inevitable change in scale from a nine-year old kid to a mumble-mumble-year old adult, the place just seemed … minor.  Insignificant.  The houses seemed to overwhelm the tiny yards in which they sat, like gaudy fat people trying to fit into clothes they’d worn years ago.  Even the streets felt narrower.  The overall effect was as if the place was being sucked into itself, being absorbed by the force of its own dilapidation.

Then there was my old house.

Now, I’m partially color-blind, but even if I had full command of the palette, I’m not sure I’d be able to pin down exactly what color they’d painted the thing.  The first time I drove by it I didn’t even pay attention to it because there was no way something that ugly could be something I once lived in.  They’d also paved the entire side of the yard that led up to the garage we’d built, so the whole thing looked like a parking lot for Hell’s 7-Eleven.  And the worst thing of all, they’d torn out the trees behind the garage, the ones I used to climb up and sit in and read in.  Probably so they could pave more of the yard, I imagine.

Needless to say, my nostalgia for the neighborhood took a major hit that day.  I’m not passing judgment on the people who live there now.  It’s obviously become the kind of place for people who can’t afford much else, and an ugly color scheme and messy yard don’t automatically speak to the character of the people living there.  But the rose-colored glasses are definitely off, and to be honest, some of the things that caught my eye that day were probably there all along, lost in the flush of childhood memories that allowed them to be pushed aside in favor of bike rides and school bus stops.

“Nostalgia” comes from two Greek words meaning “returning home” and “ache”.  And while it’s usually meant to mean a yearning to return to a place or time, in this case, it was more a pain at returning to something and seeing it diminished.  You can go home again; it’s just probably going to be painted a really ugly color when you get there.


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