Invisible cities

Invisible citiesYou know what we should do? We should play a game. You like games, don’t you?

This is an easy game. Nothing that requires keeping score or counting cards. Far too hot for that sort of nonsense anyway, eh?

Okay. So I sort of only made up this game just now. But here’s how it goes.

I was checking my visitor stats the other day, and I noticed that I had some sort of association, no matter how fleeting, with almost every single place that one of my more recent visitors was from. Even if I hadn’t been to their particular town in the flesh, something came up to the surface for each town, each city, each state. A memory. A sensation. A thought.

And then I thought, I bet that’s true of everyone. Everyone has different associations with other people’s hometowns and old stomping grounds. You can see these associations when you talk to people about where you’re from, glimmering in the distant corners of their eyes. People hardly ever speak of them out loud, for fear of offending, or of revealing too much. But they are there. And they can get in the way of helping us really understand each other.

For instance, I live on Cape Cod, and I was born and raised here. Now, maybe you’ve never been to Cape Cod, and what comes to mind when you hear those words are vague, unsettling flashes of the Kennedy Compound, a lonely bridge just off of Martha’s Vineyard, dastardly rich people who get away with murder, and also lime green pants.

On the other hand, a whole lot of you might have deeply etched memories of spending your childhood summers here, so the words Cape Cod evoke in you something else entirely — something innocent, a little wild, smelling of suntan lotion and Noxema, all accompanied by the low, barely audible hum of your grandparents harassing your mother again in the kitchen late at night, about something you could never quite catch.

Or maybe you loathed having to spend two long, dull weeks here each summer with your father’s cousin’s weirdo family, who — despite being intensely weirder than your family could ever hope to be — never treated you like you were more than two steps above the dog’s water dish, and only wanted to go dirt biking in the sand pits on the edge of town, or shooting rifles at the extremely creepy gun club in Yarmouth. So when I say Cape Cod what you hear are the crashing cymbals of boredom, resentment, and maybe just a little bit of simmering rage.

For me, talking about my Cape Cod childhood means things like books, old houses, empty beaches, and hand-me-down clothes. Plaid bell bottoms and Snoopy t-shirts. Jane Eyre, bowling with my Dad on alternate weekends, wet Newfoundland dogs that curl around you when you sleep, and the ghosts of sea captains pining for their lost mermaid lovers.

So you can see how we might sometimes think that we are talking about the same thing, when we are actually, really, very deeply, not?

Well, it’s the sort of thing that I think about, anyway. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t see eye to eye. I mean, I had that weird distant family that I was forced to visit to0, only mine were in Greenwich, Connecticut, they had a membership at the snooty tennis club across town, and ate luncheon on the verandah with tightly clenched jaws and steely gazes that never stopped scanning the horizon for the next bon mot.

But maybe Greenwich was where you met that boy, or saw that movie, or first tasted really good fresh bread, or bought that amazing prom gown that you saved your money towards for years.

All I’m saying is that place names aren’t really good universal shorthand. But I firmly believe that they can be an excellent doorway to one.

So you can play if you want to, either here in the comments or on your own blog. I’ll get things rolling by writing up a line or two about a few of your towns and cities, based on what my computer thinks it knows about you. At the very least, I figure it’ll be fun to write about somebody else’s hometown, for a change. I hope you’ll play along. After all, we all have our own personal memory maps, and I love hearing about other people’s, too.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Mom and I stopped here on our way back north from one of the epic road trips we were always going on when I was a kid. On this trip, it was just me and Mom, no older brothers, so it must have been that time when we visited each of my uncles and their families in turn, each one of them impressing themselves on my 14-year-old mind in unexpected and sometimes alarming ways.

The career army uncle in Georgia, who had a neighbor kid who asked me, quite mournfully, if I cussed. As if it were a lifestyle choice that his church might be able to help me out with. The aunt in Sarasota who was comfortable enough in her own body to come into our room late at night quite topless, to say goodnight in her sweet, unaffected way, while my cramped, pinched little Massachusetts brain hissed hippie at her departing, freckle-covered back.

Philadelphia was unbearably hot, and I had just lost a contact lens, so I saw all of its historic sites and buildings through my one clear eye, my other eyelid clamped down hard, like a pirate without his patch. But Philadelphia was a place that was so much more recognizably like home than anything south of DC had been that I was perfectly content to be a sweaty, myopic pirate, if that’s what it took to get home.

I squinted at the Liberty Bell, squinted at the lines of people on the street, squinted at the backs of taxi drivers as we shunted ourselves from site to site. I did finally open both eyes to take in the museum’s towering portraits of ladies in hoop skirts and men in powdered wigs with my feeble, walleyed stare. Because I knew these people. These people were my people. And I was so very, very happy to be back among them again.

Kalispell, Montana. 

I did a prolonged spell of geologic field work in Jasper, Banff, and Montana when I was between my junior and senior years in college. When it was time to leave, we flew out of Kalispell, returning to the place we had started after three long weeks of camping in some of the more remote reaches of back country. Back country, mind you, that was simply crawling with grizzly bears.

In Jasper and Banff, I had been stunned by the beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies. But I was just as terrified of the stories of marauding bears that seemed to follow us wherever we went. Because of the threat of bears, we had very conscientiously kept all scraps of food out of our tents, kept any scented lotion off of our hands, bathed in mountain springs with unscented soap, and deodorized our armpits with unscented salts. Everything we did, it seemed, was focused on not smelling like dinner, in fact on not smelling in any way whatsoever appealing to a bear.

Back in Kalispell, I was ever so grateful to be surrounded by more people than I had seen in weeks. My advisor was livid that the only campground we could find was a KOA — she hated being right smack in the middle of town after three whole weeks of splendid, rustic isolation. Our tiny tents were dwarfed by rows of massive RVs and trailers, their radios blaring into the dark Montana sky.

After I took one of the longest showers of my life, I walked into the canteen and bought three big, thick, glossy women’s magazines — the kind with the tear-out perfume samplers every few pages — and two candy bars of highly questionable vintage. And brought them back to the tent with me, where I snuggled down into my sleeping bag and reveled in smelling like the very worst kind of corner store.

Oakland, California. 

My old girlfriend from college moved to Oakland shortly after we broke each other’s hearts back in the early ’90s. She’s making a very comfortable living now, I hear, doing extremely naughty things with consenting adults who have lots of money, when she’s not busy rather tamely teaching biology classes at the community college a few counties over. She works in San Francisco, but was living in Oakland the last time I knew.

I always picture her in a warm, sun-filled kitchen, humming a soft song of nonsense words to her beloved pair of Manx cats, who twine themselves around her ankles in ecstasy while she fills their dishes with cat food, which she fluffs up carefully with a fork. I haven’t spoken to her in years, but I imagine that Oakland is a very good place for her to have landed and put down her roots, despite being a Connecticut farm girl at heart.

Columbus, Ohio. 

A good friend of mine got married in Columbus when we were all in our twenties. I rented a hideous old beast of a car (which was all that my phenomenally lousy credit would allow me to rent at the time) and drove out there for the wedding with another friend. I can’t remember who brought along the Tori Amos tape (I have powerful reasons to suspect that it was not me), but it got stuck in the tape player and we listened to Little Earthquakes all week long.

I ran into a much longed-for old boyfriend at the wedding, one who I should have guessed would be there but did not, and literally went weak at the knees when I saw him striding slowly up the aisle in his formal black frock coat and tall black boots. We were both in serious relationships again by then, and both rather tediously faithful by nature. Still: Frock coat. Boots. Eyes that could make you forget that awful song by that awful girl that you haven’t been able to get out of your pounding head for seven long, painfully celibate days.

Toronto, Ontario. 

I lived in Syracuse for seven years, and took the bus once to visit a friend who was attending grad school in Toronto. She was studying English Literature in a setting that felt closer to what I imagined Oxford must be like than anything I had experienced before. She had, naturally, a circle of glittering friends who made witty, acerbic remarks to each other about people and books that I hadn’t heard of. None of which stopped me from trying to keep up, of course.

My friend, who has always had the most sensitively calibrated bullshit detector of anyone I have ever known, started looking at me oddly out of the corners of her eyes when I began affecting the mannerisms of the boy with the long scarf and high cheekbones who only wanted to talk about Keats. But she said nothing, and even loaned me the money I didn’t have later that day to buy a beautiful linen dress in a pale shade of lilac that hung down to my ankles and made me feel lovely. I’m not sure that I ever paid her back. For any of it.

Gosport, Hampshire.

This is a place name that I quite frankly would never have recognized until a few years ago, when I became newly obsessed once more with 19th century British history. As it is, I can only see the barest outlines of this town in my mind’s eye, and even still it is through an impossible muddle of old maps, post carriage inn routes, and questionable maritime lore.

Because it sits across a hands-breadth of water from its more famous cousin Portsmouth, I think Gosport must be at least something like the towns that lie just on the other side of the Cape Cod Canal, here. Towns that missed out on the tourism boom of the last few decades, that never shared in the glamour of the place just across the water from them. If so, then it is probably also similar to those towns in that it proudly holds itself apart from the false glitz and glam of the higher rents that they can see twinkling in the lights just over the shore.

In short, I am guessing they know, in Gosport, that no place is really all that it’s cracked up to be, nor is any place on the map quite exactly what it seems.


So now, my friends, the game is afoot. If any of these towns are yours, you should feel free to tell me in the comments just why I’ve got it all wrong. If I didn’t do your town, tell me about it. Or tell me about mine. Or somebody else’s. That’s the game. Tell me about your invisible cities!


Image by dziner

2 Thoughts.

  1. Well, I would love to see some men in frock coats around Columbus, but alas, most of them are wearing red or gray t-shirts touting The Ohio State University and its football team. I have to agree that there is a sort of bittersweet quality to my hometown.

    I went to Cape Cod for my honeymoon – 28 years ago next week. I have many fond memories of your corner of the world. And when we finally bought a home, I had to plant rugosa roses because they remind me of that time and place.

  2. My town is Provincetown, also on Cape Cod, and these (in no particular order) are what it has meant to me over the almost 17 yrs since I first visited, 12 of which I have lived in the area. Blustery beaches. Walks in the dunes with the dog. Exhausting summers. The awesome smell of fall. The best friends I have ever had. Really expensive restaurants. Amazing inspiring art galleries. Tourists. Seriously worrying if I’ll make enough money each summer to make it through the winter. ridiculous real estate prices. Never being able to enjoy the summer because I work so many hours. Loving the winter and the slower pace of life. Whales. Dogs. Gay and straight people really truly living side by side and not caring who the other sleeps with. Creativity. Being a really long way from everything. Bike paths through the National Seashore. Everyone knows my name. And everyone knows my business. Running on the beach.

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