Townie

I hear the cries in clusters like  bursts of front yard fireworks on the Fourth of July. I could map them, these small explosions of sound, at their various points of origin, but by now they’ve begun to coalesce and by the time the elevator descends to the first floor I can hear the roar even before the doors slide open. The chanting is furious, frantic– the fever-pitched hollers of young people who don’t give a fuck about shredding their vocal cords. They rush the front doors and the building shudders. I step aside to avoid being caught in the wave and watch them stream out over the lawn, down the stairs and into the vanguard of half-shadowed runners screaming toward towards the barricades. Because I am old and tired, I walk against them, through shouting crowds that emerge endlessly from each building, over darkened yards, out of dim alleys. Moments later, I become aware of the hovering helicopters, the groans and shrieks of advancing riot, the smell of smoke and the crackle of fire. I step carefully over the old brick sidewalks under leafy branches, mindful of Greek-lettered mansions now-emptied with doors left ajar in breathless exodus. I hear the first swell of sirens and think, here we go, and think all of this may be instructive should I ever find myself in the middle of an actual revolution and think I bet there’s no one in line right now at the burrito place. Am I hungry?

I’ve never lived through armed conflict. I have, however, spent the last fourteen years of my life living as an adult, if not always like an adult, in a college town with a competitive basketball team. Having watched the breathless, beer-obscured, FOMO-powered advance of several thousand undergraduates high on victory, I feel like I have some insight into what happens when the mob is unleashed. Here it usually just ends with a handful of DUIS, maybe an overturned hatchback, a flaming sofa or two and at some of skinny boy in khaki shorts leaping over the bonfire, like a high jumper at the witch trials. The college in my college town is a state school but one of the elite ones. Most students aren’t reckless enough to imperil their future law school prospects by committing a felony, at least not a felony they’re likely get caught committing. These are future doctors, journalists, app developers, investment bankers, social workers and college professors. These are not the fomenters of rebellion.

And yet . . . I could, I can imagine it going another way. What sort of armchair historian would I be if I could not envision those same young frantic faces, hungry for whatever narrative might await round the corner of broken brick sidewalk—the possibilities are endless–no matter how irrelevant, no matter how rampageous.

 

 ***

 In the arguments I used to justify my move to a college town after I graduated from college  in a town that was not a college town, the business of basketball[1] entered not at all into my calculus. I came here for reasons both practical—friends, reasonable rent, cultural resources—and sort of ineffable. I was chasing the environmental analogue of a sound—aggressively bright, quick, intriguingly dischordant—that seemed to characterize most of my favorite local bands. I’d spent most of the last decade in a minor key, imagining I’d end up somewhere with a climate to match—like maybe Portland or London. But somewhere at the tail end of the dark days, I grew tired of eschewing sunlight and pretending to hate things like summer and humor and pleasure. I wanted to live some place where I could read novels on the porch for roughly nine months out of the year. I wanted to host cookouts and see bands play and make new friends. I wanted to talk about literature and philosophy and television shows about teenage vampire slayers until 4am the way I’d always imagined I would in college but I never went to those kinds of colleges, or at least I never had those kinds of friends there. You should move to New York, the geniuses all said. That’s the place for you. And figured I would eventually, probably, maybe. Nothing wrong with taking a little time. I’d been long delayed by unhappiness; why not dawdle for the off chance of joy? What was a year, maybe two? I was sure I’d have plenty of time to get hazed by winter and habituated to bitter disappointment by desperate, lonely nights in an overpriced, substandard apartment I’d share with a drug addict or a demoralized actor. Maybe both.

The first two years in the college town I lived in a rambling brick bungalow with at least 3-4 other rent-paying tenants and a rogue’s gallery of all boyfriends, blind dates, friends, family, out of guests and (on at least one occasion) a couple of touring bands. I was completely broke. The house was disastrous. I worked at a record store and graded essays for standardized tests from my bedroom while smoking cigarettes and listening to college town’s equally infuriating and excellent radio station. I about watched seven seasons of a television show about teenage vampire slayers and sat up until 4am talking about literature and philosophy and history. I was, despite the occasional, theatrical complaint, pretty fucking happy. My mother, who kept her distress at my failure to achieve really any of adulthood’s benchmarks at a low-ish volume, remarked that I was “finally having my college experience.” It was a clearly barbed comment—I was about 27 years old when she made it—but she was exactly right. My actual college experience had been brutal, impossibly hard in every aspect except for the academics and classes were, at best, an afterthought. I’d spent about eight years exploring every definition of barely getting by, which is probably why I thought an undergraduate slum full of overflowing ashtrays and underemployed young woman working through our post-adolescent shit[2] in thrift store chic was about two steps shy of paradise.

At the end of those two years, I’d lost two roommates to the charms of my hometown, one to New England and another to a live-in relationship with a man who was making big plans for a move to the west coast. The time had come for me to slough off the charms of the cheap and easy life and make for some entry-level job in a city that had zero interest in my success and a diminishing attraction to me. I mumbled a little something about weighing my options, found a new roommate and rented a little gray cottage four blocks south.

That was twelve years ago.

I’m still here.

 ***

 A few weeks ago, some friends from New York came to town to help celebrate my fortieth birthday. One of them went for a hair appointment. The other and I went to wait for her at table outside the Co-Op on chilly, aggressively bright February midday. We sat wrapped in sweaters, drinking Guinness for lunch and ignoring the grizzled man in the long white robe interpretive dancing in the grass beside our table.

We’d been chatting about our jobs, our friends, our futures. We refilled our glasses. A car coasted by blaring Big Star out of an open window. My friend took a long look around the winter brown lawn; at the other few clusters of bundled up patrons stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the chill. He apologized in advance—it must annoy you, because I’m sure I’m not the first to ask, but why do you live here?

It does annoy a bit because it’s Russian Nesting doll of a question. And I’m never sure what part I should answer, but I do have a stock response. It goes something like:

I like living in a town where I know (and love) my neighbors, where I feel like I’m part of a community. There weather’s nice and I’m better able to tolerate the heat than the cold. I even sort of have a thing about humidity and all the lush greenness it produces—inheritance from the part of my family tree that settled in the deep south, I guess. I like walking places. I like the free buses. I like the good bars and restaurants and nightlife and the fact that none of them are terribly expensive. I like the university at the center of things and how it means I will never want for the company of smart people with interesting ideas, because there’s an endlessly regenerating population of scholars in a variety of different disciplines from all sort of places. I like living where people feel free to be eccentric, punk rock, niche-d out weirdos forever, but the generally the kind of eccentric, punk rock, niche-d out weirdos that vaccinate their kids and give a shit about politics. And sure I may live in a little town with an farmer’s market next to the town hall and an Independence Day parade full of local children on tricycles dressed like tiny George Washingtons, but I’m also in a metro of over a million people, with a bunch of other large universities and museums and cultural resources and the whole real estate agent spiel. I’m exactly halfway between the mountains and the sea. I’m twenty-six miles from the state capitol and about 260 from the Washington DC, so it’s not exactly like I’m off the goddamn map.”

All of that’s true.

Truer is that living in a college town is kind of strange deal.

Most of us who live in college towns by choice (and not because we’re attending the college) won’t tell you this, because we know you look at us at see deferred adulthood, arrested potential and perhaps a stubborn, increasingly scuzzy attachment to youth. It’s undeniably weird being 40 in a town literally teeming with people literally half your age. I’m still old enough to be their mother, so I feel neither judged nor obliged to compete. That’s kind of liberating. On the other hand, I think most of us, whether we realize it or not, indulge in the occasional benign vampirism. Being constantly surrounded by twenty-year olds means being constantly surrounded by people still interested in the new and the possible. They believe the best is yet to come and hey, maybe they’re right. I’m a past-haunter by nature inclined to append all subjunctive verbs with perfect regret would have, could have, should have. Sometimes I need the occasional glimpse of probably will to get out of bed in the morning. Insider knowledge of what the kids wear (the fashion retro-meter is currently hovering somewhere around 1992-93) listen to (a lot of it’s pretty great) and think about is an excellent antidote to those that insist that nothing good has happened since 1998 or 1991 or 1977 or 1968. It’s a nice reminder the cool things are still happening, even when they’re not specifically intended for you, gramps.

College towns are bubbles. In this part of the country, they’re often dark blue polka dots–expensive, privileged and not terribly indicative of the general population–in a sea of red. It can be hard to remember that sometimes, which is probably why I’m often gobsmacked by the opinions of my fellow North Carolinians and unmoored by the actions of my state government. That’s the trade-off though. You can get many  of the best things about the south (music, literature, barbecue, biscuits, people who pronounce “on” like “own”) without the deafening clamor of racist, evangelical, xenophoboic bigots hoopskirt enthusiasts and haters of science. You can discuss the problematic history of the south in the south with fellow southerners that feel just as ambivalent about it all as you do. And you can, even if only for a few minutes, think we can change things, we can swim out of past, we can make something new. And you can sometimes think that’s enough, even though you know better, seriously, you all know better, than to think you’d be the ones to do it.

On days like today when it’s warm and clear and aggressively bright, I wander down verdant paths through University-owned forests and think I‘m luckier than I deserve to be, that maybe I do live in the best place ever, and I should guard that knowledge, lest the rest of the world recognize what they’re missing. On other days, I’m pretty sure it’s half-sham and I’m a sucker for sticking around. I think this is a cop-out. I think it’s settling for comfort, companionship and sunny afternoons. And then I think, well, what the fuck is so wrong with that?

 

***

 A small, but vocal contingent of friends and family are convinced I would be extremely happy if I would just move back to my hometown. It’s just the sort of place people like me end up, they insist, perhaps because they all ended up there, but also because it’s kind of, sort of true. My hometown is a scenic resort town full of excellent restaurants, spectacular views, an endless number of weirdos, artsy people and maybe a few secret geniuses. So, I look at the real estate. They have lots of houses with pointy roofs and I’ll always crush on  a gable. I imagine how it would be there, among those friends. I do like it there. Really, I do.  The architecture’s nice and come summer, I miss the gift of being able to set off easily down a narrow rift between giant boulders and budding mountain laurel and dive into a clear, limestone-bottomed pool at the bottom of a roiling waterfall. But no matter how I try,  I can’t want it the way the do, or love it the way they do. Maybe I’m not outdoorsy enough. Maybe I’m too easily bored.  Maybe it’s because I’m from there and  I see the mountains less as comforting permanence and more an immovable barrier to keep me contained and cut off from the rest of the world.  After all, when you get to the top of the ridge, there’s really nowhere to go but right back down again.

 ***

I spent my childhood standing on peaks dreaming of the sea where I might catch a wind and follow a current to something I couldn’t see beyond the horizon—pirates, sea monsters, another continent, an angry god, the end of the world. The possibilities are unseeable and thus endless. I’m open for whatever. I could. I may. I would. I shall.

I may yet tire of the spring riots. I may shy away from the brightness. I may seek something entirely different and entirely new. I may not stay here forever. I’ve still never lived in a big city. I’ve still  never lived near the ocean. I’ve still never felt like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be.

For now though, I wander down these old brick sidewalks, mostly invisible to the rush of ecstatic, endless youth, and think about why I’m still here. These days, the honest answer is that it feels like home.

 

__________________

[1] In fact, before moving to college town, I don’t think I had ever watched a basketball game through from beginning to end. Not even the Chicago Bulls game I was roped into as part of a family vacation adventure when I was clinically depressed and a lousy candidate for a family vacation adventure. I remember watching Michael Jordan  jog out onto the court and then I remember spending the next two+ hours huddled around this giant communal ashtray in the Union Center smoking lounge, sulking and feeling hurt because my family had seemingly forgotten it was my birthday but had quixotically chosen to celebrate my stepsister’s birthday on the same day in February in how-do-you-miserable-souls-endure-this-cold-seriously-what-is-wrong-with-you Chicago which is just so depressing on so many levels and yet hilariously, appropriately almost plot of a lesser John Hughes movie but without the Jake Ryan or the sports car and if I had been even half as intelligent as I thought I was I would just walked downstairs and caught a cab to Lounge Ax and been miserable with other pretentious nerds but with music and alcohol like a civilized miserable person. But I didn’t. And that was my 22nd birthday.

 

[2] We took to calling it the Estes Drive House For Wayward Girls sometime around the beginning of our second year in residents. It was a joke, but like many jokes funny ‘cause it’s true, y’all.

 

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