The haze of August had turned my hair into something with the consistency of cotton candy, and the rest of my body sticky to match. A hot Saturday in the city is not necessarily the place you want to be, and anyway, I was bored. Anxious. Lonely. I get this way occasionally, and usually the only thing I can do is get in my car and start driving until I end up someplace. I usually don’t even know where I’m going, only that I’m getting away from where I am. And so, I got in my car and started driving west, away from Philadelphia, not entirely sure where I was going.
Not entirely. Some part of me, I think, knew that I was heading for that town (which I will leave anonymous). Like a dog to its vomit. Some part of me still doesn’t know what compelled me. I hated that town, hated living in a place where I was beaten up most days—chivalry being dead and all—and ridiculed for everything from my weight to my dress to my accent. A hick town with nothing but bars and churches, where the biggest event of the year was a crappy little carnival that would roll into town at the beginning of summer, and carnies would dupe kids out of money for not-quite-safe rides and crooked games. A town with one third-run movie theater ($1.50 tickets, if you can believe that, and this is in the 1990s) that refused to show Schindler’s List because it was too controversial, but somehow it was OK for the Ku Klux Klan to organize marches down the main street. The only interesting thing about this town is its farmer’s market, which is fairly large (and frankly, I find you can buy just about anything there, from an anvil to a car to old 78s).
So why did I go? You see, this was also home for six and a half years. I hated those six years, but they did form me. It was here that I first started buying records. Stole my first beer. Sexually awakened (and remained sexually frustrated). It was here that I made friends—a lot of whom I haven’t seen in a long time.
I bought my first album when I was 13. I never had money before, and never dared ask my mom. I’m still not sure why, except I was afraid she’d say “no” and proceed to lecture me about why I shouldn’t be listening to whatever it was I was listening to. So I saved up my allowance, skipping lunches, and bought my first tape (in the days before we had a CD player). It was R.E.M.’s Document. I bought it mainly because I’d heard “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” and for some reason had decided that I was going to learn every single word. So while my mom was shopping at Ames (a Kmart-type store), I went to their electronics section and found a copy of the tape. I paid, and hid the tape in my pocket. That night—and for the whole weekend—I played that tape over and over again, while walking through the woods behind my house, listening on my walkman.
You create your personal culture from pieces of a puzzle. Signals drift in from space, and you sit with your receiver, trying to tune in to whatever you can find. Unsatisfied, you dig, like an archaeologist, though the debris of symbols, signs, and whatever comes your way, until you find something that looks like truth, something you didn’t know existed. This was before the internet was in everyone’s house, but after MTV. This was before the FCC deregulation, but after FM. This was the in-between time. And in rural Pennsylvania, you took what you could find and tried to make something out of it, something you could live with. You create the ever-changing self from debris, from signals from space.
So I drove, and radio signals would drift in and out, rock and roll sometimes replaced by country or gospel. Sometimes it was the other way around. Everything seemed green, everything seemed fresh. It seemed at once familiar and foreign—which is how memories are. Farms—cornfields, cow pastures, red barns with hex signs. Train tracks. Church steeples. I drove around, not stopping until I came to this lake about 10 miles or so out of town, where we used to hang out. No one was there, and I just sat on the shore, occasionally throwing rocks into the water and watching the ripples lap at the sand. I don’t know how long I sat there, just looking out across the surface of the lake, my mind fighting between remembering and being empty. I sat until it grew cold—this place being up in the hills which eventually become the Appalachians—and then stood, got in my car, and drove back through town.
People care about this place. I can see that. People try to keep it clean. People try to keep it neat. They try not to see the decay around them. The drug abuse. The crime. The racism. People secretly—and not so secretly—believing that if you’re different, if you try to create your personal culture instead of accepting theirs, you should be beaten down, conformed, expunged. Whatever.
People try to believe that they live Americana. And it’s a very pretty illusion, but I didn’t want to live it.