I’ll be speaking about Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong at the Kansas City Public Library on May 6, then flying from there to Chicago to see plays with Mrs. T and Our Girl. First, though, I’m going to spend a few days in Smalltown, U.S.A., at the end of which I’ll rent a car and drive north to St. Louis and west to Kansas City. That’s a long haul, but there’s no good way to get from Smalltown to Kansas City other than by car–the only way you can fly there is if you happen to own a plane–and I need to see my family and walk the streets of the place I know best.
Between Pops and The Letter, I was so busy last year that I didn’t get to visit Smalltown as often as usual. I have a sneaking feeling that I’m not going to have a whole lot of time on my hands in the next few years to come, so I figure I’d better grab any reasonable opportunity to go there that presents itself. This’ll do.
The strength of my home ties is one of the many things that sets me apart from most of the people among whom I live and work. I must be the least alienated intellectual (if that’s what I am–it’s not a word I care to use to describe myself) ever to set up shop in New York City. I don’t think I have any particular illusions about Smalltown, and I wouldn’t want to try to live there anymore–you have to drive too far to see a play–but every once in a while I find myself all but overwhelmed by the desire to be there. While I’m sure this is mostly because my mother and brother and sister-in-law still live in Smalltown, that’s not the only reason, not by a long shot. Even though I’ve lived in Manhattan and its environs for a quarter-century now, I’ve never quite managed to persuade myself that I truly belong here, that I am of the city, citified.
I once wrote a book in which I tried to put this feeling into words:
I am glad to have two homes, glad to be able to catch a cab outside Grand Central Station and, six hours later, step out of a rented car and stroll up the driveway to the back door of my parents’ house and sleep in the bedroom where I slept as a child. Once I thought I would spend the rest of my life in a place like that. I did not know when I went off to college that I would someday stand at both ends of the long road that stretched invisibly before me, beckoning vainly across the continent to myself. I am like a million other Americans who grew up and moved away from the small towns of their childhood. We cannot go back; we are not at home where we are. We are exiles from the lost heart of the land we love.
I wrote that paragraph in 1991. I still feel that way, pretty much.
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Pat Metheny, a fellow Missourian, plays “Letter from Home”: