Time falls away when I visit my mother in Smalltown, U.S.A., though not because Smalltown is in any way behind the times. (No place in America is behind the times–network TV has seen to that.) Rather, it’s because I slip slightly out of sync with my big-city routine each time I come here. So far, this trip has been no exception. Not only do I have no deadlines to hit, but in order to check my e-mail, I have to hop in my rented car and drive to one of the three fast-food joints out by the highway that are equipped with free wi-fi. This has the relaxing effect of cutting me off from the ceaseless hum and buzz of New York, and it also puts me in touch with things I wouldn’t have encountered in my unpeaceable urban cocoon.
On Sunday I woke up at eight, drove to Burger King, and booted up my MacBook to see what was going on in the world. As I sipped orange juice and downloaded my e-mail, I heard playing in the background a song from Stephen Stills’ Manassas, an album that I hadn’t thought about, much less listened to, since high school. (Did Stephen Stills ever expect to become Muzak?) It instantly put me in mind of myself when young, sitting in my bedroom and flailing away at my twelve-string guitar, trying as best as I could to master the complicated guitar licks that I gleaned from the albums I bought each week with my carefully hoarded allowance.
As I drove home, I saw a blood-red cardinal perched on a fence post, and marveled at the gaudy sight. The only birds I see in Manhattan are pigeons, which says more about me than it does about Manhattan. I almost never notice things there. Instead, I think about the next thing: the next deadline, the next appointment, the next show I have to review. Not so in Smalltown, where I have time to look at what’s around me instead of what’s in my head.
Because I grew up in Smalltown, much of what’s around me makes me think of my youth, something I don’t often do when I’m in New York. Each time I open the front door of my mother’s house, for instance, I can see at the end of the block the elementary school that I attended a half-century ago, and if it’s recess time on a weekday, I can also hear hundreds of children gleefully yelling their heads off. Fifty years after the fact, I know that Matthews Elementary School was designed in the prairie-hugging manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, and that incongruously worldly fact makes me smile. Back then all I knew was that recess was the time of day I liked least, the hour when I had to pretend to enjoy playing games. If only I could have pretended that I was good at them! Left to my own devices, I would have been more than happy to spend recess sitting at my desk with my nose firmly planted in a book.
In 1991 I published a memoir of my childhood and youth. It contains the following passage:
The bald facts of a big city, its tall buildings and storied landmarks, give it a surface glamour that needs no explaining. A small town needs lots of explaining. It has no tall buildings, and the landmarks are all in your mind. When you look up, you see the sky; when you show somebody the sights, you see yourself.
It doesn’t seem possible that I published that book–my first book–twenty years ago. Much has happened to me since then, far more than I ever thought possible, some of it hurtful but most of it lovely and amazing. Among other things, I’ve practiced my craft on a near-daily basis, and I hope that I write better now than I did then. Yet I continue to stand by that passage, for it seems to me to embody a fundamental truth about what it feels like to return home to the place where you grew up.
I wouldn’t want to be a child again, much less a teenager, but I’m glad to see the past all around me each time I come back to Smalltown for a visit. It reminds me of who I am and where I come from, and those are precious things to know.