Sitting on the train from Philadelphia to Penn Station, I'm still inextricably hung up on a thought that's been with me since I stepped off the train running the other way: how little I remember of my childhood home.
I don't have a childhood home the way many people do. I moved too many times, and can't ever answer the question "where did you grow up?" in less than five minutes and, if possible, a thoughtful swig of beer with which to sort out the list of subrubs, cities, and backwaters I remember dimly if at all. When asked where I was born, I say San Francisco, because being born took less time than growing up, and Bell Atlantic didn't have have a chance to transfer my father's job while I was working through it. Since I live on the East coast, saying I was born in San Francisco always lights the questioner's eyes with the assumption that I'm an alien from a better world with blue waters, state sponsored dope, and an absence of New Jersey. Their next question always disappoints them, because I know nothing about San Francisco, since we moved to Pennsylvania six months later.
That put me in Wynnewood, which is the childhood home I just left. I don't remember that particular tenure at all, beyond a single memory of visiting my grandmother, who was living in out attic at the time. It's not as creepy as it sounds; the attic in that house was bigger and better decorated than my apartment, and probably would have cost half the price had she been paying for it. She used to feed me brightly colored vitamins, in the hopes of getting me hooked on them. It helped me get hooked on skittles, and later, amphetamines, but the intent was blameless.
After that we went to Virginia, where I remember having a lot of nightmares. A few years later, we came back to Wynnewood, bought the house from my grandmother, kicked her out of the attic, and that's where I lived from five to nine. Since that's longer than I lived anywhere until I got to Brooklyn, it's as much a childhood home as I'm going to get.
I'm not a parent, but I imagine five to nine to be one of the more horrifying periods of childhood for a parent to endure. The child is still cruel and stupid, but moderately capable of moving around on their own, and most parents feel obligated to let them explore a little. So this was the first home where I could start to take brief trips out into world without supervision.
There were boundaries, of course. Not a well-mapped fence, but a set of check-in times and places, and waypoints where I could be found in case I missed a check-in. Despite these limits, this was a place rich with memories. Kind of.
Turns out there weren't a lot of memories. For a given hot spot, I could summon four or five at most, usually just some vague impressions so old and dim they were hard to distinguish from a dream or total fabrication. Occasionally I'd get a memory of being inside a house, but would have no idea which house. A few memories got fondly remembered for an hour or more, until I realized they were from a visit several years after I'd moved away. After the usual shock of wondering why everything was so goddamn small and closer together (since my legs are now twice as long and I lazily stroll twice as fast), I found that many of my memories were geographically impossible, and must be composites made from other, utterly forgotten events.
I had sunk the entire town into wistful recollection, despairing of the possibility of new memories, and the memories I have are few, spotty, and about fifty percent false.
I think people who live in one place prior to college have a more thorough mental catalogue of their past. When I go through old pictures, my first thought at each is wondering where I was living at the time. If you live in one place, new events happen where old events happened, and the place serves as mute witness, carrying forward memories from the time you were here and talked about the last time you were here and did this and talked about the last time you were there and did that, and so on.
My memory is events and places, but the places are so varied and distant from one another, the location is just a feature, and might as well be another place that looks kind of like it.
Still, I walked around, trying to trace paths forged twenty years ago. They were very short paths. Here we got some change from our parents, and then we walked over here, and, according to my memory, fell unconscious and woke up eight months later in school. Did we walk further down the road? No idea. Probably I was at a waypoint, not to go into the great beyond, and had to get back for check-in time. If I ever went past the beaten paths, I didn't go often enough and nothing interesting enough happened to make it into the mental hall of fame.
I walked over a bridge I remembered as completely as any other feature of the town, only to reach the other side in totally unfamiliar territory. I felt a little like Rupert Everett driving out of town at the end of Cemetery Man only to find out there's nothing outside of town but a giant cliff, and he has to go back to the insensible neosurrealist life he was trying to flee. I walked on, since it wasn't a movie, and there wasn't a real cliff. I was hoping something deep in the town would connect another part of the narrative.
This part of town was called Mainline, for whatever reason, and was populated by the upper middle class, as a breeding ground for fraternity brothers and practical yet expensive cars. This led to a parade of un-ironic signs, which, read as imperatives, suggested activities ranging from the uplifting (Mainline Life) to the hedonistic (Mainline Smoothies) to the sadistic (Mainline Coins). The coffee shop, having either a more developed sense of humor or none at all, called itself Milkboy. It probably would have been a funky little coffee shop anywhere else, but since it was on the Mainline in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, it was basically Starbucks. That's what I was looking for, so I was happy, except that in this Starbucks-but-not-Starbucks, I didn't know the local customs. Was the change too little of a tip? Was I supposed to be happy at them if they weren't happy? Should I reach out my hand for the coffee, or wait for them to put it down? I was an alien here, a stranger that didn't merely read about New York City, but lived there, and probably knew as many as six, even seven black people.
I'm being a little unfair. But I was not from this town anymore. As I walked around the town, I didn't remember anything. I must have come here, often, in the back of a practical car, to shop and follow my parents around. But all that was gone. I went to the local bars, and watched the patrons, wondering if I played with any of them in 1988. All the patrons close to my age were too young, and were almost universally crewcut young republicans, putting on a little beer weight, and wearing a demure stud in whichever ear they thought wouldn't make them gay.
On the way back to my bed at the family friend's house, I knew that I was as far from home as I could get. I crossed the bridge again, and got the then familiar, creeping sensation, where my feet knew exactly where to go, and I was neither immersed in discovery, nor feeling anything familiar and comfortable. Everything was just recognizable enough to not be new, but never sparked any actual recollection or nostalgia. This town, as a place, was dead to my mind.
My memories while exploring the old turf didn't amount to much more than what I remember when my mind wanders on long bus trips. A lot of formative experiences probably happened here, creating thoughts that led to other thoughts, bouncing down the long corridor of the internal monologue I refer to as I. Whatever I am now that came from my past is an echo from a dead musician's chorus.
Now, typing up this meta-memory, I think some urge to embrace the new is in knowing the past is fading. It's not necessarily bad, but I'm pretty sure it's true.