Thursday, September 08, 2005

My City Was Gone

I was driving alone through upstate New York, when I saw an exit for Niscayuna. I had seen it before, but I was always with someone or in a hurry. Today I had time to kill, and I hadn't seen my old town since I was a little boy.

I didn't know my way around of course, but I knew the name of my old grade school, Hillside Elementary, and the name of my old street: Van Antwerp. It didn't take long to find it after asking a few pedestrians along the way; soon I was looking at my old school grounds where I had once punched Peter Canal for no reason at all, and ran around like a fool trying to impress the new girl.

I got out of my car, alone in a dark parking lot, and wandered to the swingsets and wondered if these were the same or some newer model. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, as the smell of minty grass triggered the faint sound of long ago, of children laughing and screaming at one another. My friends and I would compete for the farthest jump away from the swing, so I tried it once again, swinging back and forth as the frame squealed in protest; I felt oddly apprehensive to launch myself and convinced myself that discretion was indeed the better part of valor. From across the street, I saw a curtain jerk open and a pair of eyes staring at me, only to disappear as I noticed. It was time to leave.

Van Antwerp wasn't hard to find, as the school was nearby my old home. I felt an old excitement to explore the trails of the old field that once abutted my yard. Maybe Timmy still lived two doors down; I wondered if he would remember me if I knocked on his door.

The house was still there, and didn't look any different. It was on a corner of another street, so I pulled up and parked a half block away. There were quite a few more homes around, so I walked up to where the road dead ended, which was the old trail entrance that once led the way to the golf course. What I saw broke my heart: an upscale neighborhood of beautiful homes. It was late, and I had to see if the old trails were still back there somewhere, so I ran between two homes and looked over the back fence, and still there were more homes.

"Hey!" A voice yelled from a dark doorway of one of the homes on the property on which I was trespassing. "What the hell are you doing?"

"I know how this looks, ok?" I said as if I were negotiating with a jumper. "I used to live here when I was a boy, and I just wanted to see if there were any of the old trails I used to explore."

"It's all developed now," he said with a little more calm, almost sadly. Apparently the man lived here for a long time.

I walked towards the gap between the homes the way I had come in with my hands slightly in the air, trying to look as harmless as I could. At 6'4", 230 pounds, and as a stranger in a suburban backyard, it was no mean feat. "Sorry, really, I didn't mean to alarm you."

No reply.

I got back to the road and looked back. An attractive brunette holding a toddler in her arms and a little five year old girl stared at me from the front livingroom window, with eyes so wide I could see the whites. I waved back and apologized, then wandered back to my old house.

I didn't want to repeat my faux pas, but I felt desperate to look around and see the house. The lights were on in the livingroom, so I knew somebody was home, so I walked up onto the creaky front porch, covered with peeling white paint, and knocked on the door.

An eleven year old blonde haired girl answered the door, and I asked to speak with her father, and I realized suddenly that I had no idea what I was going to say. The man came up to my shoulders, and had a gentle disposition. His hair was slightly curly, and his complexion was fair and soft. He reminded me of Richard Dreyfus.

"Hi," I started nervously. "I used to live in this house a long time ago, and I was wondering if you would allow me to look around in the back yard."

He stared at me incredulously. "Uh, I don't think so."

"No problem, I would say the same thing if I were you. I know how strange this may seem, but I had some of my fondest memories from living in this home." I pointed at the window the overlooked the porch. "That was my bedroom right there."

The little girl lit up, "That's my bedroom now!"

"Uh huh," I said, feeling a roll coming on, "There is a pipe that feeds into the basement through a hold that's too big for the pipe so that you can see through to the bottom.

The man grinned, "I just filled that in; it was letting in a cold draft at night."

His wife stepped into the doorway behind him and looked on curiously.

I said, "There was a little creek running through the back yard, behind the garage. My dad used to feed the raccoons at night that would come to raid our garbage cans."

The man said, "That's all covered over now, but the raccoons are still raiding us at night. Maybe your dad had the right idea!"

They seemed to forget that I was a total stranger, and I reminisced some more, and each memory I shared melted the ice of distrust between us. I decided to go before I lost my ground. I shook hands with the man once more, and stepped down from the porch. The family gathered at the top step and watched me go, waving and smiling all the while.

4 comments:

Mrs.T said...

Things change. I'd have closed the door in your face or never answered it at all. So you're lucky they even talked to you.

I felt betrayed when my grandmother sold the house I spent most of my childhood in. It's hard to think about but I've never had a 'family home', I'm hoping to change that though.

Scott said...

You and me both Mrs. T. I am working diligently on creating a safe home base for my kids to return to. Maybe this is the one, who knows?

Oh, and I would have told me to get lost too!

trinamick said...

I went back to the home in Hot Springs, SD, where we once lived. The house looked the same on the outside, but I was too chicken to ask to see the inside.

I went inside my grandparents' old home, but it was pretty depressing. The new owners let it go to seed, and it all looks rundown. My sister started crying and had to leave.

jenbeauty said...

I still drive by my childhood home. It always makes me smile or sometimes cry.

Such a shame we have to have so much distrust in our world.