I grew up in the very small town of Olean, New York, which is about 70 miles south of Buffalo, 10 minutes north of the Pennsylvania border, and about 3 1/2 hours east of Cleveland, Ohio. It was the largest town in the county with about 15,000 people; the county held about 80,000. To give you a reference point, Arizona State, my alma mater, had about 60,000 students enrolled while I was attending.
I don't know how to talk about my hometown, really; the only thing I ever wanted to do was to get the hell out. It's sort of a sleepy place, with very few aspirations. It's very beautiful in the summertime, in that shady, lazy sort of way that any place with a lot of trees and low, rolling hills is beautiful. There are too many clouds there. Once I went home for winter break and there was a 33-day streak of no sun.
I don't hate it anymore, but I used to hate it; now when I go home I don't feel much of anything at all. It isn't my home anymore. I guess I feel very far away from it now; and it is weird to remember being small and living on the brick road where the neighborhood kids used to play kickball, and the tree that used to drop small, five-petaled flowers and long, dried-up, bean-pod-like seeds all across the sidewalks and the road. My parents shared a driveway with the next-door neighbors, and when I was very small we had a carport, with a wavy green plastic roof. It eventually gave way to a small garage.
I only remember the good things about the first house I lived in. I lived there until I was eleven (and even then we only moved a mile down the road), and when I think about it I remember the summertime, with occasional spurts of sledding trips up near the college golf course. But mostly I remember not having any school, and making our own popsicles out of cranberry juice, and drawing in chalk on the sidewalk and being disappointed when it rained and washed it away. I remember massive, 20-kid games of hide-and-seek organized by the big boys and girls, and knowing all the shortcuts between yards. Almost nobody had a fence, and the backyards of the houses on one street were indistinguishable from the backyards of the houses of the next street. There was a chain-link fence behind my house, because it bordered on a lumberyard, but most of the property was unused and overgrown, so thick you couldn't see through it. Once when I was feeling daring I climbed the fence and walked around back there, just to see what it was like on the other side, but mostly I was not a child who broke any rules. There was a blackberry bush that grew up against the fence and into our yard, and I would reach my hands through the fence, while my hands were still small enough, to pick the berries.
I don't remember the area being poor, but now I look at it and know that it was. Now I know that most people in my town never went to college, couldn't afford it--that the average income for families in my area is $33,000 a year, and that almost nobody ever got out--not because it was so impossible, but because it never occurred to anybody to think that they could. Now I know that the roads are badly maintained, that the downtown storefronts are empty and dilapidated, and that a large number of people in my county make a living off dairy farming, getting up every single day every day of their lives at four or five in the morning to milk the cows, and it is below freezing eight months out of the year at that time of day. I know that some of my mother's students get up at three, milk the cows, feed the chickens, do the chores, shower, go to school for six hours, and come home at three to milk the cows again; and somehow they are expected to find time for homework.
But I don't remember those things; I remember my mom bringing home real maple syrup every spring, made in Cuba, NY, by one of the families of her students; I remember horseback riding in the summer out in a field at the base of the Humphrey Hill; I remember canoeing down the Allegany River, and having to watch out for deer on the late-night drives home from the Portville Drive-In. I remember the pressed tin ceilings in all the downtown buildings, leftover from the early 1900s; I remember the marble stairs in my high school that was built as part of Roosevelt's New Deal. I remember the bowling alley, with murals that were obviously painted in the 1970's on the walls, and the old proprietor Ron who was always smoking cigars and would shove your shoes across the counter at you with a grunt for the dollar you handed him. It was called Bowlean Lanes, but Ron died recently, and the building is vacant and unused. I remember the swingset my father built for me, with a ladder parallel to the ground connecting the two sides--I was always too scared to climb across. And I helped him pick out a different project, a stand-alone treehouse, from the lumber yard. It had a tarp roof and a rope swing. I remember going into the storefront of the lumberyard on the way home from school to buy gumballs from the machine, and getting yelled at for playing with the front-door displays. There were usually three doors to a display and they created a little hideaway, and we would hide from each other and chase each other through the doors. I remember the smell inside that building, like cold water and PVC pipe and lumber, and the sound of the gumball machine. And I remember music, always, with my mother singing in the kitchen and my father playing guitar and their band practicing in our living room, on the red rug with the brown couch pushed out of the way to make room for the amps.
I don't know whether it's better that I know the reality of it, now; that I can see all the cracks in the sidewalks, and all the people who slipped through them. I suppose that's the reason I'm here, in love with Phoenix, and I don't regret that; but my hometown makes me sad. I wish the buildings on Union street were filled, and prosperous, and that the pressed tin ceilings were polished and cherished. I wish there were a perpetual band practice in my living room, and brick roads for all kickball games. I suppose I will have to create my own.
*Points if you can name that musician.