Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel titled ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ which told of an author who wrote about his hometown, and though the novel was a success the people in the town he wrote about took issue with how he portrayed them. The author, then, could never return to the home he knew.
Leaving home, leaving what we’ve grown to know, perhaps love, can be a traumatic experience. When we leave we take with us a snapshot of the place we knew. That snapshot never really changes, but the places we called home does.
I left home on my 18th birthday. Up until that point the furthest I had gone was a field trip to Philadelphia. I knew there was a world and a life beyond the streets of Baltimore, joining the Air Force allowed me to experience it. If I had stayed I likely would have found a way to stay out of jail, maybe get a decent job, but the things I’ve seen and done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met would not have happened, and all of that has changed me, made me what I am today for better or ill.
And all while I was seeing, experiencing, and being in foreign places, home was changing too.
My life growing up in B-more was not easy. Juxtaposed to the good memories of summer nights playing with kids on the block while our parents gossiped, drank and laughed are memories of going hungry, stepping over drunks lying in the gutter, and a near constant sense of hopelessness that hung as heavy and dense as a thick morning fog.
Those who never experienced such things often wonder why people stay in situations like that. Seeing it from both sides, I now think I understand why. The fog analogy is a good one. When you’re in a thick fog the only thing you see, the only thing you know for sure is what’s immediately around you. Poverty is like that fog, it restricts your view of the world, limits your options, intimidates you with the unknown and you wind up getting accustomed to those limitations. It becomes your world and it is very hard to leave it.
For me, leaving wasn’t just a choice, it was an imperative. Staying would have drove me to seeking distractions, like so many others do when life isn’t what they believe it should be. So, I am not the man I would have been had I stayed and Baltimore is not the place I left.
The house on Harlem Avenue, where I lived as a young child, is now boarded up. I hear it was a drug den at one point. The neighborhood has also changed. Gone are the stores that used to line Edmondson Avenue; the Five and Dime, clothing shops, even the theater where I spent many Saturday afternoon watching bad sci-fi movies are all gone. So, too, is Public School Number 135, the elementary school I went to. The three story squarish brick building and the adjoining asphalt playground have been replaced by a community center. The other places where I lived, Light Street, Lanvale Street have also changed and not for the better. Gentrification took over the house I lived in on Light Street, while decay claimed the house on Lanvale Street. The people are all gone too.
Had I stayed I may have been able to keep up with a few of my friends. I still have family in Baltimore, a sister, cousins, aunts, nephews, nieces and others, some of whom I’ve not met. They are the only ties I have left to the city where I was born. When I drive through town I recall a few places, but so much has changed that I may as well be visiting a new city in another country.
I was in Baltimore recently to attend a celebration of life service for a family member. While in town I took the opportunity to stop by some of the places where I lived. As I have said, so much has changed and while I have recollections of each place I visited, the house on Harlem Avenue is special, it’s the place where I have my best and the worst memories.
I drove up and parked in front of the house. It was early morning and the street was empty, but I didn’t feel safe enough to get out of the car. Still I sat there a good 10 minutes, looking, thinking, reminiscing. I remember the marble steps I used to have to scrub with Ajax until they seemed to glow. Those steps are now dingy with age and disuse. The front bay windows I used to sit by at 2 AM while everyone else in the house slept are boarded up. Below those windows are the windows to the cellar where I and my brothers played during the day, but I avoided at night. I believed there was a monster lurking in the rear of the cellar and it wasn’t until I was nearly 9 years old before I was brave enough to venture back there. I found that the only things that sat in the dark back there was old furniture and dank, dusty boxes.
I really wanted to find a way in and see the places where I slept, played, ate, and lived. In the end I just snapped a shot of the front of the house and moved on.
That place on Harlem Avenue was home to me and as I drove away I realize how true the adage and Thomas Wolfe’s book title is: you can never go home again. At least, it’s true for me.