You swallow hard when you discover

You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city. You say, ”It happened overnight.” But of course it didn’t. Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. (Ten months ago? Six years? Fifteen? You can’t remember, can you?) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people’s other cities. Or 15, 25, 100 neighborhoods. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.

Colson Whitehead

7 thoughts on “You swallow hard when you discover”

  1. Damage has been done to your city.

    If the city were your property, you would have grounds for complaint. It isn’t, and you don’t. Complaining because the whole city did not freeze exactly the way each bit of it was when you first encountered it? Please. I would make a violin small enough to express my sympathy for Mr. Whitehead, but I have no idea how one would make musical instruments smaller than an atom.

  2. I think I read the OP as a nostalgia piece, although that Sol Hurok quote made me laugh out loud 🙂

    A while back I visited my childhood neighborhood. I shall not do that again. It’s not that the place is “bad” so much as it’s now bland. Someone surgically removed all the charm. The houses used be different colors; some had siding and brick, and some were timber. The house sported primary colors, as well as brown. Mine was timber, with a fake Tudor facade, and sadly, a boring chocolate brown. I’d wished for red or green like my friends’ houses.

    Now the new management has given all the houses siding, in dull neutral colors. Even worse, they took away the “wonder.” You see, scattered here and there were these tall swing sets: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. Each of them had two “arms,” with a swing hanging from each arm. Us kids looked and looked, but we never found Dorothy and Toto. We heard legends about their whereabouts, but none of us ever discovered them.

    The Scarecrow stood on a field behind my house; we’d pass by him on the way to the hill where the playgrounds were. There were three playgrounds on the hill, two at each end, and one in the middle. I lived closest to the middle playground.

    I still remember the day my brother scrambled up the Scarecrow’s tall yellow legs to escape from a stray wolf dog that seemingly teleported onto the field. I watched from Emily’s porch, surrounded by her mom, my honorary aunt, and the mother of my brother’s best friend. A phalanx of mothers, so I had no fear: I still thought adults were invincible. My poor brother clung fiercely to the Scarecrow’s head while the wolf dog circled below. I silently willed him not to fall, and he didn’t. Soon enough the beast lost interest in him and trotted off.

    But the Scarecrow is gone now. All of the sweet details I remember are gone. Yet, the neighborhood as I remember it is sometimes resurrected in my dreams. Perhaps Whitehead’s neighborhood may dwell in his own dreams, too.

    • Tom Wolfe wasn’t wrong.
      You can’t go back home.
      Because the past only exists in our memories and the past of our memories has been…modified by time. The land of memories most often bears but a slight resemblance to the reality that was. In the best cases the memories are kinder than reality.
      In all cases, Entropy rules…

      (Been there, done that, gave up.)

  3. The way I read the OP, Whitehead is not complaining about change. Rather, he is saying that we are all complicit in it. The pizza place closed from lack of customers and Whitehead was one of the customers who didn’t come. (I assume that the “you” in the piece is Whitehead talking to himself.)

    This is something I agree with.

    I’m an anomaly these days. I live on a dead end country road named for my grandfather, on the farm my grandfather homesteaded and my father was born on. I’ve never left. Now my son farms the place. When I look out our living room window I can see two barns that were built by two of my great-grandfathers.

    I’ve had one little area under my microscope for seventy years now. Some things have not changed and I like to think they stayed the same because I did a little to keep them that way, but more has changed than not. Some of the weeds that grow on the road side are species I never saw when I was a kid. The undergrowth in the woods is different. Much changed when I didn’t choose to carry on dairy farming when my father no longer could.

    For at least thirty years, almost every neighbor within a mile was a relative. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations have all been dead for decades. My cousins are beginning to disappear, they’ve all left the road, and only my wife and I and our children and grandchildren remain on “our” road.

    I suppose you can’t go home again, but I wouldn’t know because I never left.

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