“I’m from Chicago.”
Those three words have been my identity, go-to icebreaker and security blanket for the past three years. In February 2010, I moved to Baltimore the day before Snowmageddon hit the east coast in all its 35 inches of snowy bluster and relentlessness. As the snow piled up in the streets of my new Charm City neighborhood, I took every opportunity to inform anyone who’d listen about how Chicago had resilience, and snow removers to handle this kind of thing, and what do you mean airports and businesses close because of a few flurries? I told myself I was unique because I came from a place where we classified the different types of snow and knew how to handle it. My exclusivity was my portal of transition; my coping method to let go and hang on to what I knew as home. Then the snow melted and spring was spring. The playing field was leveled and I was a Baltimorean enjoying additional parking spaces that weren’t taken up by mounds of shoveled snow.
For the past three years that I’ve lived in Baltimore, when I met you for the first time, if you didn’t ask me where I was from, I would ask you. And then hoped it prompted you to reciprocate the question so I could flaunt my otherness and segue into a TMI-conversation about what brought me here. Perhaps I’m still coping. It’s a true statement, I am from Chicago, but it is hackneyed. I will always be from Chicago. My birthplace will never change, no matter the days when I wish I was from Dublin and spoke with an Irish lilt. I live in Baltimore now, and have for the past three years. Perhaps it’s time to own up.
Two months into my settling in Baltimore, I began asking other transplants when they relinquished their home-rights from point-A, and transferred them to said Charm City. I was curious if others had gone through this apparent period of transition that I was experiencing, or if it was even necessary. For some, it took seven years away from the place they called home, before they dubbed Baltimore as their new domicile, and even then they don’t remember the transition. It just happened. Others said it was situational. If they were in a conversation about childhood and upbringings, they’d say they were from New York City, Philadelphia, California or India. Those same individuals, in a casual conversation at a local pub were from Baltimore, and Locust Point, to be exact.
For years, Chicago’s streets and grid-like neighborhoods mapped out my life and defined my existence, unlike any other trite metaphor. That happens when you move eight times between ages four and eighteen in the same city, and spend seven years without a car, traversing the urban landscape with your family by bike in the mild months, and by public transportation in the harsh winters. You learn it, and you learn to love it for its grittiness. You snub your nose at posers that pretend to know its soul. One year, seven years, even ten years is a short time to account for transplanting a piece of my identity from Chicago to Baltimore. I was anxious to begin that process when I conducted my first-hand field research of fellow migrants. Three years in, I am just as anxious but done asking questions. I am ready for the answers and outcome of this transformation.
Last August, I found myself in Canton’s Annabelle Lee Tavern, drinking a Brewer’s Art Resurrection beer and watching a Raven’s exhibition game. I posted my situation to Facebook, proclaiming my Baltimoreaness. My Baltimore friends hoorayed and thumbs-up’d in approval. My Chicago network harrumphed. I was torn and likened myself to author Thomas Wolfe’s character George Webber, who after wild literary success and travels across Europe could not acquiesce his feelings of home. “You Can Never Go Home Again,” Wolfe avows in this timeless novel. Several weeks ago, as I packed for a weeklong excursion back to Chicago, I thought of Wolfe’s assertion. “Bullshit. Watch me go home.”
In my July travel back to Chicago, I went by car. When traveling by car, Baltimore is roughly twelve hours from Chicago. Give or take an hour depending on pit stops, along with circuitous dips into northern West Virginia and the western nether of Maryland. If you join the speeding cars slashing the I-70 and I-80 four-lane concrete highways, and keep your potty breaks to a minimum, the trip can be done in less than eleven hours. But you’ll have experienced nothing and your bum will be asleep for two days after the trip. I couldn’t get home fast enough in July, and made it in record timing, with my trusty sidekick Rancho, a 150-pound Rottweiler, giving me the stink eye from the backseat for testing his bladder on the last leg of the journey. For a week, I experienced the city I grew up in and the people I love in all its bravado. After a week, I re-packed my bags and loaded my belongings into my beat-up, bug-splattered Chrysler Sebring, hugged my family, shrugged tears back, and started on the journey…. Home?
I wasn’t so sure. Was Chicago home, or was this Mid-Atlantic place I was journeying back to, now home? I had two days on the road with Rancho to figure it out. Unlike most of my passages across half the country, I decided to break this one into bite size pieces; from eleven-plus hours of speedracer driving, into two days of meandering through pockets of Americana.
Four hours into the drive, Rancho and I made our first stop: Centerville, Indiana. I was a helpless consumer, tempted by the ploys and beckoning of a 5-mile stretch of billboards near the I-70 and Rte. 40 interchange proclaiming offerings of warming candles, pit beef and a winery. Wine from Indiana – I had to taste it. I imagined its tannins bearing flavors of corn oil, cow dung and smog. Indiana was where we went to visit family from my father’s side that we bore no relation to, other than blood. They lived between corn fields, had funny drawls, drove tractors at the age of eight, and thought Capone’s legacy still ran the streets of the Windy City. They were strange folk to me, and I never understood why anyone would choose to live in Indiana, especially when Chicago was nearby. Later in my early-twenties, I’d appreciate the exposure to what I will forever label ‘farm life.’ Until that time, I would make every smartass comment I could about why Indiana was christened the ‘Crossroads of America.’
“No one wants to stop there, see…” I’d say to my brother, unable to finish the sentence without breaking into stiches of laughter.
That day, on my way back to Charm City, I stopped.
Tucked back off of Rte. 40, J&J Winery is a bright spot for the Centerville community. Literally, it leaps out to you on Google Maps as a beacon of culture amidst bail bond storefronts, tired antique shops and gas stations. I stopped for gas, let Rancho out to take a leak and stretch his legs, and asked the gas attendant about the winery.
“I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s nice,” the attendant said. She was young, twenties’ish, with a mousy face and thin hair. She wore a polo shirt with the gas station logo embroidered on the left breast pocket and an oil stain on the collar. Her hand hovered above the cash register and she tapped her index finger lightly on the buttons to remind me where her responsibilities began and ended. They did not include Centerville Tour Guide.
“Do you live in Centerville?” I asked, playing ignorant of her obvious annoyance.
“Yup, my whole life.”
“So it’s home?”
“I suppose. But there’s not much to it.”
“There’s the winery.” I was building a case for her home.
“Yeah, but I’ve never been there.” Case closed.
I asked her for directions and she gave them to me in great detail, being sure to note that if I passed the McDonald’s on Rte. 40, I’d gone too far. I stared at her dumbly. The directions were easy enough – a left, and a right and another left. I was confused by the careful investment she had obviously made in her home. She knew it well enough to navigate smartly, like the back of her hand; but she had no interest in the lines engraved on the underside, the markings that alluded to character, identity and destiny. Some humans master the ability to be alive, but non-participatory, skimming the surface of life, escaping both scars and elation. I confirmed the directions with her and considered inviting her to come with me to the winery. I opted instead for “Have a good day” and headed back to the car. I didn’t want to force the issue.
After five minutes of driving, I was on the road that would take me to the winery. She was right, there was not much to Centerville. The town was in a one-sided, give-all relationship with the motorists and wanderers that passed through it. It catered to their beck and call with extravagant shoppette-style gas stations and fast food joints that allowed them to cross through quickly, without actually touching the Indiana earth. Like sex without kissing, I thought.
The J&J Winery was the only notion that someone had bothered to make this place home, and they’d been recognized for doing just that with a local community improvement award given to the business a couple of years ago. The entrance to the winery was humble, with a modest sign tucked off beside a dirt path that wound its way through a line of gnarly trees. I turned off of Rte. 40 and followed the road back about fifty feet before it opened up to a vineyard paradise. It was small, but it was a haven.
I found a parking space in the gravel lot at the foot of the winery property. I let the windows down for Rancho to have air, grabbed some cash and my ID and walked to the main building. A young girl that hardly looked old enough to serve alcohol was out front, folding up a sign that read “Welcome Lincoln Class of 1985.”
“Is there just a private event this evening, or can I stop in for a tasting?” I asked her.
“Oh, they’re just down by the pond area. The tasting room is open,” she said. I looked around, hoping for some sign that pointed to the tasting room.
“Sorry, you’re not from here?” she asked.
“No. I’m from Chi- … no I’m not from here,” I said. If I wasn’t suspicious before for not knowing where the tasting room was, I was now. The Crossroads had gotten to me. Wierdo – you don’t know where you’re from?
“It’s just around the back of this building. Go through the outdoor dining area and into the main doors. You’ll see it.”
I walked back to the dining area and found the indoor tasting room. It was a cute attempt at country elegance, but lacked luster. Everyone inside appeared comfortable enough and looked right at home, but the physicality of the place – its walls, carpets, tables, hutches, and generic wall hangings – seemed fatigued, worn out by its passive attempts to offer comfort and familiarity to customers that were invested in the place only as much as their glasses remained half-full. It was a sanctuary from the bushed town that lay outside the winery’s tree line, but it was visited by one too many malcontent souls that sought its sacramental offering of home for convenience, rather than redemption.
I ordered a sample of their cabernet sauvignon and wondered what the conversation would be like if the gas attendant ever made a visit to the winery. She was from here, but she would not be able to find the tasting room without some insider’s help. Or maybe she would know. Perhaps there is a collective knowledge bank that we each have innate access to by simply being from a place. For instance, you could place me anywhere in Chicago and I could ‘feel’ which way Lake Michigan was and point you east toward the water. I had no idea where east was out here until I was back in my car with the GPS turned on, set to Baltimore. I set the bottle of J&J cabernet sauvignon I’d purchased in the passenger seat and promised Rancho we would stop again for him to eat, once we got a bit farther east.
Another hundred-plus miles later and four failed attempts to book a cabin in one of Ohio’s rustic state parks, I pulled into the city of Columbus and let my urban street smarts guide me to what appeared to be downtown. I found a metered parking spot, fed the meter with a few quarters and took Rancho for a walk around Columbus. It was dusk and getting late, and the streets were eerily quiet for a nice summer Saturday evening in a city. I wondered where everyone was. I hardly ever feel alone in a city, unless it’s quiet. A silent city makes me feel suddenly abandoned and I begin to wonder if the rapture is true and the Thief In the Night has made His passing. I needed to find a place to stay for the night that was doggie-friendly, and I was also craving a good beer after the day of travel. Thirty minutes later, Rancho had eaten, pooped and I had found us a hotel that would allow his presence. I’d also come across a lovely bar called The Elevator on our walk that was close to the hotel. The Elevator had people inside of it, a good sign given the absence of human life on the outside.
It was 10:30 p.m. by the time I got us checked in, me showered and Rancho settled into the idea of sleeping in a hotel room for the night. I contemplated turning in myself, but was restless from the drive and couldn’t say no to a local brewery that also served food until midnight. I grabbed the Hemingway book I was reading on my way out of the room, and smiled thinking the author would appreciate a dame reading his stuff at a bar like The Elevator, in the wee hours of the night. I also liked the idea.
I plopped myself down on a stool at the bar. The Elevator was much larger on the inside than its smallish front entrance made it seem. It had a ridiculously high, decorative ceiling, stained glass windows, mosaic tile floor, and a hand-carved, hand-split mahogany bar. The bar had history and I immediately felt like the quiet city outside was a fluke. The Elevator, like most good bars, was a malleable home of sorts, bendable and forgiving to accommodate foreigners. It had born witness to brawls, sucker punches and broken furniture; hosted happy holiday memories, promotions and dinners; and kept open doors for the tired and weary to soak in whatever good or evil lay dormant at last-call. Many people had been here, many times. The rapture had not happened, but I had found a wormhole back to the pre-prohibition era. I was right where I was supposed to be.
I ordered a house beer called the Procrastinator Dopplebock. The beer came highly recommended by a friend of mine who had also found himself stranded in Columbus, and in need of brew and brethren. It was also the bartender’s drink of choice, so I was off to a good start earning brownie points from the otherwise stuffy server. I ordered food, drank half my beer, and then whipped out Hemingway. It was a shoddy and awkward attempt to pull the book out nonchalantly from my purse, resulting in me looking like I was possibly concealing a dope sack. I really wasn’t trying to be ‘that guy’ at the bar on a Saturday night pretending to be deep, drinking in heavy suds and classic literature. I normally would not make such a social faux pas like reading literature from a bar stool, but I liked the freedom of being not-from-here; I didn’t have to play by the rules. I polished off my beer before the food came, so I ordered a second and set my book aside to pretend to watch the ESPN news that was on a TV above the bar. There was some replay of a Red Sox baseball player named Ortiz losing his cool, splitting a wooden baseball bat to toothpick shreds in a dugout, obviously angry over a call by the ump. The opposing team was the Baltimore Orioles. I felt like telling someone I was from Baltimore, like me and the Orioles were tight. I scanned my Facebook home stream quickly to see if there was any chatter about the incident from my Baltimore network. That would be worthy conversation to throw out to a neighbor drinker at the bar, I thought. Then the person would know I have a place I belong to, a destination, and that I’m not entirely transient. A couple came in around that time and sidled up to the bar, one stool away from me. I waited for them to settle, hoping for the right opportunity to try my conversation opener out on them. The female-half of the couple beat me to it.
“Is that yours?” the woman asked, pointing to my book.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling sheepishly. I’d turned the book over, so the title was facing down on the marble bar and the spine of the book faced me. I thought it might discourage attention if people couldn’t see what I was reading.
“What are you reading?
“The Sun Also Rises.”
She nodded in quiet approval. “Have you read it before?”
“No, first time.”
“Have you read Hemingway before?”
“No.” I smiled sheepishly again. “First time.”
“What do you think so far?”
“I like it. I like his writing. It’s not pretentious, but you can tell he knows his shit.”
“Yeah. I think most people like the idea of Hemingway, but don’t actually like his writing.”
“Hmm. I like ‘em both.”
We both reached for our respective drinks. While she and I had been conversing, the man she came in with kindly ordered her a drink. I learned later that he was her husband.
“Cheers,” I said. “To Hemingway.”
“Cheers,” she said, smiling widely.
We clinked our glasses and took a solid gulp of beer. She sighed loudly, then turned and began talking to her husband.
My food came out and I occupied my attention with the pot stickers and salad I’d ordered. I finished my late-night dinner and ordered another beer, this time a lighter brew called the Mogabi. I opened my book again and powered through a chapter. The plot was beginning to pick up and I was intrigued by this Brett character; she was consuming more life than she knew what to do with, and presumably approaching a breaking point of sorts.
“Check out the bar-backs’ t-shirts,” the woman said. I looked up, not hearing what she said, but understanding she was directing her comment to me.
“The bar-backs, their t-shirts have a Hemingway quote on them.”
I looked at the nearest server and read the quote aloud.
“Always do sober, what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
“How’s that for irony?” she asked. She was drinking beer and talking to me about Hemingway and irony. I had found my new BFF.
“Couldn’t get any better.”
We drank our beers for a few seconds, soaking in the deliciousness of it all.
“So are you from here?” I asked
“No. We’re passing through.”
“Me too. Where are you guys heading?”
“Nashville. How about you?”
“Is that home?” she asked.
I reached for my glass and took a long drink of the Mogabi, trying to buy time to consider my response.
“I think so,” I said. “I’ve lived there for a little more than three years, but am originally from Chicago. That’s where I’m coming from. But, yes. Baltimore is home.”
There. I’d said it. And it felt good, it felt fresh. It felt right.
“Yup, I get it. This is our second move across country together,” she said, nudging her husband in his ribs gently with her elbow. He turned his focus from ESPN to the conversation and smiled. “He’s from Texas, I’m from Oregon. We moved to Philadelphia for a year, work reasons. But it just never felt like home. Now we’re moving to Nashville. We’re gonna try again. Do over.”
The woman stared at her husband endearingly as she spoke, talking to me, but at him. It reminded me of the way couples talk about having kids, or trying to have kids, or picking themselves back up after a miscarriage. They’d forgiven each other and life for the hiccup in plans and were going to try again, in hopes that this time they didn’t miscarry their happiness in an endeavor to find home.
“Philly’s a neat place, but it was just hard for us to break into it,” the guy said. “After a year, we decided it wasn’t worth it, since it wasn’t originally home for either of us.”
I felt nervous for them. Often times I’ll experience moments of nervousness or anxiousness for other people, even if they are not feeling that way. One year was a short amount of time to give a new place to feel like home. I hoped they would give Nashville a little longer to try out before feeling completely displaced. I also hoped no matter how Nashville rubbed them, both were on the same page.
“I didn’t understand Baltimore or the D.C. Metro region at all when I first moved out east,” I said. “It takes time, and effort. I still don’t have it down, but I know it enough to call it home, I suppose.”
“Yeah, it does take time, but sometimes you just know a place isn’t going to work out, you know?” she said.
“Yeah, that’s true.” I didn’t want to argue or delve into an inebriated debate over home, one in which we were both too tired and drunk to hold as weary travelers stuck in this limbo purgatory called Ohio.
But I was intrigued that they seemed to ‘just know’ Philadelphia was not and could never be home for them. My mind was resisting this notion that a place could never be home. It seemed absolutist. Some don’t have the luxury to decide their home, or the means to change their home, but they figure out a way to make it something they know, even if it’s a fleeting feeling. Through our routines, interactions, and intentions, humans have the ability to take comfort in the crummiest of places and circumstances. A hot shower and shave can transport a soldier stationed abroad back to his home tub and bathroom stateside. For ten minutes, he’s home.
And in other instances when the intangibles of personal habits and thought-power loose their ability to negotiate some semblance of home, perhaps the timing isn’t right for the people to pair with the place. Sometimes the timing is off for people to pair with people. Then other times, the people don’t pair and neither does the place. And that’s what I call screwed.
The next morning around 10:30, Rancho began whining and rubbing his cold, wet nose on my face to get up. It was kind of him to let me sleep in. On top of the three beers I drank the night before, the stuffy bartender-turned friendly had set down a complimentary whiskey, and then another.
“I want Columbus to leave a good taste in your mouth,” he’d said.
“Like Christopher with the Sioux Indians?” I’d drunkenly jabbed back. But he didn’t get it. I could hear Hemingway telling me to keep my mouth shut, drunky. Columbus was home for the bartender and had been for fifteen years. I respected his devotion to the city and desire for others to also feel comfortable there, even if just passing through.
I consulted Siri on my iPhone for brunch options. I opted for a place called Katalina’s Café Corner on Pennsylvania Avenue that was five miles away in the Victorian Village neighborhood of Columbus. It was a scenic residential area with the Ohio State University as its main thoroughfare. Unfortunately, I was not the only one who had the bright idea of a good brunch on a late Sunday morning to munch off the last bit of buzz from the night before. The line to the café extended out of the entrance by 20 people. Katalina’s would have to wait. My stomach was growling and I could not consciously make Rancho wait in the car that long before starting in on the last leg of our journey.
I walked back to the car, poured some water from a bottle into Rancho’s tin bowel and gave him five minutes to lap up the drink. When I opened the back seat door to shovel him back into the car, he refused and sat down on the gravel ground. He stared at me, panting. I conceded and pulled his leash out of the trunk, sending him into an excited fit. At 150-pounds and being of German decent, he rarely looses these sitting contests.
We walked for twenty minutes around the Victorian Village, me taking note of the various items of flare residents had donned on their porches, Rancho taking note of the different smells coming from the unique foliage and sprays from the neighborhood dogs that mark their territory. Presumably, we were both intrigued by the variant yet consistent ways these Victorian home-dwellers had staked their claim and created humble abodes. They were intentional, participating ad hoc, yet collectively to create a surrounding. Every home had the same basic structure, marked most distinctly by the wide, all-encompassing porches that circled the property. Some porches had elaborate flower arrangements; others had rocking chairs angled out toward the street with empty Folger’s coffee cans positioned between the furniture to catch cigarette butts. Many had some form of a flag to message their various affiliations – Irish, Buckeye, American, Gay, Unionized, Veteran etc. It made me want to hang a flag outside of the Little Italy apartment I lived in back in Baltimore, but I wasn’t sure which affiliation I’d claim. I wondered if there was one for “Happy.” I had not even put my nametag on the mailbox of my apartment building yet. No personal flare to indicate my stake in the place, at least from the outside. Inside my apartment, I’d wasted no time settling in and was unpacked by the second day with photos hung and my bookshelf organized by topics.
“It’s important to make your place feel like home,” my mother had said in a recent conversation with her while I was back in Chicago. It was the first morning being home and we were eating cereal for breakfast with coffee. I’d arrived at my parents’ place in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood the night before, a little after midnight. We were talking about my recent life ‘transition’ (the nice word mothers use for separation or divorce). Her gentleness was a thin lining and I could see through it to her aching desire for me to be at home, no matter where it was, but to be there. It appeared I was in a constant state of transition, sliding out of one version of home that was pristine with daily companionship, into something squishy and gray that I had not yet defined. I drove back to Chicago and forth to Baltimore to experience some variety of a physical transition I had control over with my hands on the wheel. As my mother spoke, I wondered quietly if I had reached the pinnacle of exhaustion or if it was still imminent. I wanted to feel settled, to feel home, and to stick my name on a mailbox without risking compromise and mediocrity, or the feeling of being stuck. Our conversation turned to the topic of my family’s numerous moves from apartment to apartment in Chicago. She inquired whether my brother and I ever felt regret for not having stayed in one place for very long, and if we felt like we never had a home as a result.
“No regrets, whatsoever,” I told her. “I’ve never thought of home as just the apartment or building we lived in at the time. It became home with us moving into the space.”
We sat quietly for a few moments, sipped our coffee, each of us probably reminiscing about the various places our family had lived in over the years. Each ‘home’ held its own bundle of memories and served as time capsules that could catapult you back to that time instantly.
“You always seemed so excited about the moves,” she said.
“I was. It was fun to reassemble my bedroom with new themes each time. It seemed like you had fun putting our stuff back in order in each new space too.”
“I always felt you should never waste anytime in making a place feel like home,” she repeated, this time not a suggestion to me, but an explanation for her process and developed deftness in immediate dwelling.
“That must be why I have no memories whatsoever of disheveled rooms and half un-packed boxes laying around.”
She laughed. She seemed happy to know her intentional nesting efforts with each move had paid off. My brother and I had escaped six childhood moves around Chicago, unscarred in our adult lives, and had possibly benefited from them.
After the leisure walk around Victorian Village, Rancho willingly hopped into the backseat. I stopped at a small OSU deli and grabbed a bagel and small coffee to go, and made my way to Rte. 50. It was time to get on the road. The Sunday portion of my trek back to Baltimore would take roughly six hours if I powered through the drive. “Piece of cake,” I thought, still used to the pedal to the metal approach of my drive across the U.S.’s middle-eastern parts. I could take my time and still reach home at a decent hour.
I stopped in Clarksburg, West Virginia. My first attempt to explore the area was a last-minute pull off of Rt. 50, turning onto an access road that narrowed to a dirt path, ending at the expansive front lawn of a dilapidated rancher. A large, bright yellow sign with black block letters that read “Antiques” rested against the side of the building. It had caught my eye from the road and I thought, “Why not.” I followed the dirt path to the lawn. There were no clear parking areas, and I was the only sign of human life, so I slowed to a stop twenty feet into the lawn and turned the car off. It seemed the best place as any to park. I crossed the expansive front lawn, passing several broken porch swings, an El Camino with no tires, and several other broken pieces of old furniture that had ‘Not for Sale’ signs taped to them. I looked back at my car and saw Rancho sticking his head out of a backseat window, ears perked, panting. He had an uneasy feeling about the place. I hesitated, and then kept forward toward the strange home. I wanted answers.
The porch was filled to the brim with antiques – cocktail tables, rusty oil cans, cigarette signs, decorative pill boxes, bar stools, vanity mirrors, plant holders and books on bird watching. The front door was barely accessible, but it had a hand-written “Open” sign hanging from the inside. I straddled a box of books that sat in front of the door, resting my hand on the doorknob for balance and leaned into the door. It didn’t budge. I looked back at the car to make sure it was still there and I hadn’t fallen into a twisted rabbit hole en route to Dante’s fourth circle of Hell with the world’s condemned hoarders. Rancho stared back incredulously, still panting. I stood on the porch, eyeing up the property from my vantage point at the front door. I tried to imagine it as home, and not this forced commercial entity selling or not selling broken memories and timepieces. It was a painful sight – this pretend home with odd relics to serve as constant reminders of what is was not and the conflicts that resided within. A friend of mine says that the cause of most problems can be linked to one of two reasons: either there is too much of something or too little. This place felt like too much bad, and too little good. For a few seconds, I knew deeply a truth that had been scratching at my insides and I wanted to chuck one of the dusty books straight through the house’s opaque windows, exposing it to sunlight and for all of its false advertisements. I frog leaped across the box of books and let the momentum carry me into a run down the porch steps and across the lawn to my car. I turned the ignition hard, the engine revved and I threw the vehicle into reverse. I picked up the access road and merged onto the highway. Rancho gave me a slobbery lick on the back of my neck. If dogs and humans could converse, he’d say, “Never again.”
I was getting hungry, had to pee, and was determined to give West Virginia another shot. I took the North Chestnut exit toward downtown Clarskburg and meandered through the streets looking for a decent gas station. The town had everything I thought the state would offer, replete with John Deer hat-wearing teenage boys, Jesus Saves wall murals, empty movie marquee signs, WIC offices and a construction site for the town’s first CVS store. I stopped in the most civilized looking commercial space – a Hardee’s – and ordered some onion rings and a Diet Coke. It took 15 minutes to get the small order to go, and as I pulled out of Clarksburg and onto Rte. 50 to exit coal country, I realized the additional stop had left me craving familiarity in the forms of my living room couch, Apple TV and a refined glass of merlot. Perhaps like the couple at The Elevator knew Philly was no place for home, I knew in my heart of hearts no time, place or people could ever convince me to make a home in West Virginia.
Rancho and I made good time and by 8 p.m. we were coming in for the home stretch on I-70, passing Frederick, Md. I shut off the GPS. I knew my way from here, or so I thought. Instead of taking I-95 into the city, I meandered over to Rte. 40, which originates as an offshoot of I-70, roughly 40 miles east of Frederick. It is a winding road that dips, lifts and shifts its way through Maryland and into Delaware. In some areas along its twisting route it serves as a wide, multi-lane street crossing through suburbs and towns with big box stores and car sales lots fanning out on either side. In other places, it feels like a back road, running parallel to I-95 and offers shady commercial services to meet any and all vices. If you stay on it long enough, you’ll end up in Atlantic City where it finally ends as North Albany Ave, right at the boardwalk of the casino city’s oceanfront, forever east. But it can also take you right into Baltimore. Before long, I found myself navigating a city street that went by the name of Franklin and then West Mulberry. It served as the main drag through the Baltimore’s west side neighborhoods Allendale, Edmonson Village, Franklintown, Mosher, Rosemont, Penrose, Harlem Park, Poppleton and Seton Hill before finally reaching downtown and the Inner Harbor.
And this made sense to me in theory, but after ten minutes of heading what I presumed to be east on Rte. 40, I had no clue where I was. It was city, it was Baltimore, but I didn’t know it. And I thought I knew Baltimore. It was, after all, the place I’d declared as home just the day before. I refused to pull the GPS out again. I made a quiet promise that I would get lost in the rough and tumble neighborhood(s) I was driving through before being told by Siri to make a U-turn. It also helped having my version of a bulletproof vest with me – my large, hairy canine with jowls that make even the most dog-loving individuals think twice about walking too close to him. The air was warm, but not stifling so I switched off the air conditioning and put the front windows down. I wanted to hear the city and smell it.
Sounds of surrounding motorists blended with police sirens, noisy street conversations, loud bass-heavy music vibrating against car speakers and dogs barking. Traditional Baltimore row houses lined either side of the street, squished one after another. Half of the stone homes wore the familiar marks of Charm City’s depressed communities’ residential structures – wooden planks boarding the windows and doorways, overgrown weeds, missing chunks of brick, derelict foundations – abandoned. The other half of the domiciliary buildings were oddly peopled, animated with life and meticulously maintained. They punctuated the feeling of vacancy emitted from the interspersed depressed structures, with verve. I appreciated the vibrancy and messiness of it all. Despite the boarded-up homes, Franklin-turned-Mulberry Street felt inhabited and alive. I still did not know where I was, but I knew I was in the city I’d been traveling toward for the past two days. These were just pieces of this home I’d yet to encounter and observe intentionally. This was its grit. This was its vivacity.
It was important to me that I noticed all that was happening, all that existed in this stretch of Baltimore. Writer Annie Dillard once said she takes time to stop and smell the roses, literally, so that they know someone is watching and paying attention. Otherwise, what a waste of beauty. I found myself hoping for red lights, to stop and absorb a piece more of this home. And I hoped that I left pieces of existence along my travels for others to take in, like a trailboss paving the way ahead from place to place. It is this interchange of home pieces, after all, that allows all of us to move about, block by city block, highway by state and country highway, by airway and sea, to establish and reestablish ourselves over and over. Whether we stay in the same town and within the same house, or traversed land, water and air to experience irony and life’s audacity, it is human to leave these impressions and outputs of existing. More than carbon footprints, socks fallen behind dryers, eviction notices, divorces, holes in walls and dust bunnies, we leave imprints of attempts to find and make home wherever we go. Some of these imprints are positive or in the least reconcilable. Others, like the fragmented antiques strewn about the West Virginia lawn are weighty and carry ill-fated sentiments that as humans we either avoid or spend the rest of our lies reconciling. It is the soft side of our innate attempts to survive and be the fittest. We seek to belong and we are forever seeking home, even if we stay in one place our entire lives. What we leave behind becomes the fodder for the next person’s attempts at home.
I’d left Baltimore a week ago to go home to Chicago. I’d left Chicago two days ago to come home to Baltimore. I had home pieces in both places. I’d also left a piece in my empty Mogabi beer glass in Columbus, OH; in my signature on the receipt for my J&J cabernet sauvignon in Centerville, IN; and in my awkward wait time at the Clarksburg, WV Hardees. And in-between, was my carbon footprint streaking behind me along the highways and byways of Americana country. I had 27 years of home pieces worked up in Chicago, and three years and counting worth in Baltimore. In between were pieces scattered across Middle Eastern deserts, European layovers, travels in India, bungee jumps over African waterfalls, skydives over swampy Florida paradises, and payphone calls from train stations.
I followed Rt 40, called West Mulberry St, across Warwick Ave, then across Martin Luther King Dr into downtown Baltimore. Rancho stirred in the back seat and sat up, panting, recognizing the smells and thickness of the humid eastern air. I turned off onto St. Paul St and took Baltimore Ave east into my neighborhood, Little Italy. I passed Little Italy’s sweet spot, Vaccaro’s. Patrons were exiting the Italian pastry shop with Styrofoam cups of gelato, starry eyed from heavy pasta dinners and too much wine at Ceasar’s, Aldo’s, Germano’s, Amedeo’s, Amicci’s, Cioa Bella’s or any one of the other decadent Italian restaurants in my neighborhood. I got lucky with a parking space that was any easy walking distance to my apartment. It felt like any Sunday night – a winding down of the weekend, anticipation mixed with deadpan determination to squeeze in the last bit of obligatory duties that should have been done on Saturday and sobering up for the week ahead. I put the windows up and turned the ignition off. The car whined, ticked and whirred to silence. Rancho panted heavily, and hovered over my shoulder in the driver’s seat, staring down at my hand on the keys, waiting for me to get out. He stood on all fours and whined in excitement. Like me, he was ecstatic to reach our destination, and that is was familiar.
That familiarity had not come easy. There had been failed attempts at settling into life here, re-do’s; waves and sometimes seasons of uncertainty, unsure if the move east was a colossal mistake; homesickness for Chicago, and then homesickness for a place and something I had yet to find. It was my part of a constant and collective journey we take and retake as a searching humanity to find and redefine familiarity, community, comfort – home. Some journey without ever leaving their birthplace or altering their namesake. Some never stop journeying, moving from place to place, all the while retreating to castles in their mind to touch the familiar. Some journey to find places where they don’t feel alone. And others journey, leave and come back again to places to remember something. To remember home, and how to find it.
I stepped out of the car and pulled Rancho’s leash out of the trunk. The suitcase and bags would wait until the morning. Rancho jumped out of the backseat and trotted down the sidewalk before I could attach the leash to his collar, stopping at the foot of our apartment door. This was home, and I’d remembered how to find it.