All the Places That Aren't the Same Yet
452 · 25 September 03
I don't know where I belong. Or, more precisely, I guess I don't even know what it means to belong to a place. I was in Texas for eighteen years, and I'm not simplifying for effect when I say that all I can definitively claim to have left the state with is a fondness for Mexican food and the right (seldom exercised) to say "y'all". I've been in Cambridge for another eighteen, and by no stretch of anyone's imagination, including mine, would I be considered a New Englander. Belle, who is enough of a New Englander to write a travel book about it, can't fathom how I've been here for that long without ever climbing a mountain in New Hampshire or cross-country skiing in Vermont or eating lobster rolls in Maine.
I suspect that the answer comes from both without and within. It is only now dawning on me how exclusively I have lived my life in inward-facing places. University Park, where I actually grew up, is a placid college-town (but one with a college better funded than schooled) marooned in the donut-hole of Dallas' doughy sprawl. In my experience it was dull and generic, but big enough that physical escape wasn't practical. Travel vacations were big events, far apart and out of our control. Except for a few record stores, there wasn't much we could ride our bikes to that was any more interesting than anything in our immediate neighborhoods, so we laid our escape routes in the other direction. We read books, and listened to records, and played games, and invented our own brighter worlds. I always knew I would leave the city, but also that it would take more than bicycles, and longer than days.
I could have picked other places, to go to other schools, and maybe it would have been different. But Cambridge, when I got here, felt exactly right: a vital place where University Park was moribund; a city with limitless potential where New Haven and Providence felt wounded and entrapped; a world of warring ideas where Austin and Boulder were company towns for anti-companies; a human-scale place where Manhattan felt like proportion's tomb. There are ways, of course, in which all of these judgments were wrong, but they felt right to me when I visited and signed the paperwork, and right to me when I came and made the implicit decision to stay, and still right when I finished school and made the active decision to stay longer. We make half our decisions without knowing what we've rejected, or even that we've rejected.
And so, after a childhood of escaping from stillness into stories and ideas, I came to a city in which stories and ideas were alive in the air, and thought I had found my home. But college life was insular, and I learned isolated patches of the larger city as if borne on infections spreading out from subway stations and bus stops. Over the map of the city I laid diagrams of record-store tours, and specialty bookshops, and borrowed fragments of other continents' cuisines. After years of Dallas car culture, I loved living in a city where I didn't need a car, but that also meant that by the time I finally got one, it was easy for it to be a tool for solving individual transportation problems (mostly involving soccer), rather than a way to reach other lifestyles. My lifestyle was self-reinforcing. If you had asked my twenty-seven-year-old self why I didn't go away more often, I suspect I would have told you that I was already where I'd have wanted to go away to. I didn't want to wander, I wanted to build.
But I walk around this city, and although I am comfortable, and the streets and a certain amount of their social logic is familiar, fondness and understanding are not the same as identifying. I identify with Newbury Comics and Wordsworth and Boca Grande. But that is a poor, retail sort of identity. I'm sure I don't identify in the same way with Cambridge itself, and certainly not with greater Boston, or New England beyond. I started to realize this when web mail-order reached the point where I no longer technically required my stores, and if that sounds like an absurdly trivial reason for me to change my understanding of my relationship with a place, then that's precisely the point. Even when I was considering running for Cambridge City Council, it was about zoning as an urban-policy exercise, not neighborhoods as personal culture. I would have told you I loved this city. I think what I really loved was an idealization of cities, which I projected onto the one I had.
I've seen more cities, now, than I had when I chose this one, and I don't know whether cities are even what I love anymore. Anonymity poisons communities. People, in the aggregate, have a sad tendency to suck. Some time recently I seem to have lost my old capacity to pretend that that wasn't happening here. Maybe the third Starbucks was the unmistakable clue, but no doubt the damage was done long before the first one. Starbucks is a symptom, not the plague itself. The plagues are selfishness, ignorance, cars, television, money as a social system, and delegating your morality to someone else's rulebook. Our cities are the scars of these wounds, and as inspiring as it can be to believe that the scars prove we can heal, maybe I don't want to live under these bandages anymore.
If I'm right, and cities like these are not my home, then I may not have one. Our cities grow by pretending that we can buy our way into them, even if it doesn't usually work. In small towns or other countries I will be a visiting stranger indefinitely. Maybe hometowns can only ever be inherited, so we either accept the ones we were born to, or we take our places among the homeless. I used to hear that people had gone on epic journeys to "find themselves", and think to myself that if you've lost track of yourself, the last thing you want to do is complicate the search by leaving the last place you were seen. But the idea was just misphrased. It's far simpler: we travel to find other people, and to escape our own patterns. We trade homes for freedom and perspective.
The mystifying irony, of course, is that I always instinctively understood this in every sense except the most literal geographic ones. It was perfectly obvious to me that I needed more records and books and movies and food, and that I needed to learn what could be done with machines, and how boomerangs return, and how to judge corner kicks and how to play guitar. I always hated having to learn things I'd immediately discard, and loved becoming a person who could do or explain something new. I thought this city could be my place, even though I'll never learn the accent or care about the baseball team, because it felt like a place that new stuff comes to, of its own accord, to be discovered. Cambridge believes this about itself, I think, too deep beneath the discourse to ever bother remarking. All the worst errors are self-confirming. So I stayed here, not because I wasn't curious, but because I was achingly curious and desperately afraid of missing something if I looked away. Even if you had phrased the question along exactly these lines, I suspect I would have pointed out that observation is an art of holding still. And the more I saw, the more stories I heard of other people's peculiar dreams and rooted origins, the more I must have thought that if I stood in one place long enough, I too would root.
This is a dumb thing to believe, but not so dumb to want to believe, and I'm a sucker for doomed idealism. Our inability to re-root is both individually tragic and collectively dangerous. Entropy is even more inexorable in culture than in thermodynamics. We travel to find other people, but the more we escape ourselves, the less we are anybody else's other people. The more we meet each other, the less distinct we each become. Starbucks was a neighborhood coffeeshop, once. We prize unique perspectives, but in absorbing them we compromise the uniqueness of our own. If everybody did that, there'd be no strangeness left to visit.
And maybe I am finally comprehending the limitations of Kant, because I see now that that isn't an objection. Or maybe they're complications, not limitations. If everybody on earth quit their jobs and set out to wander the planet, it would be bad, but seeing as most of them already aren't going to, it might still be the right thing for me. Thinking of ourselves as legislators of universal law encourages responsibility, but also engenders a sort of megalomaniacal paralysis. Maybe we should remind ourselves that the laws our choices imply are neither indiscriminate nor eternal. If it's wrong for everyone to leave their homes, it may still be right for everyone curious to follow their curiosity.
And if I'm kind to myself, it may just be that conditions are different now. I didn't understand, until I moved from University Park to Cambridge, how much my old city had been constraining my experience of the outside world, so it makes an oblique sense that I would be slow to realize how inexorably my new city was losing control. The new stuff doesn't come to cities to be discovered so much, anymore. It doesn't have to. I'm not at all sure that the internet will end up being any better for us in the long run than cars were, but for the moment it certainly makes different things possible for me. I never loved Cambridge for what was done here, I loved it for how much of what was done elsewhere was shipped here. But when anything can be shipped anywhere, there's no reason to live in a depot. Pack up the records and the books and the movies, and what's left of Cambridge but restaurants and an unnervingly gelatinous river? And I can cook, and most of the planet is water.
So if I don't know where I belong, and suspect I don't belong anywhere, then there's no reason not to go explore. The wires don't encircle the whole globe, quite yet, and thus the race is on to visit all the places that aren't quite the same yet. Probably the race has been on for centuries, and I've been oblivious, and maybe I'll never see as much as I could have if I'd left my house all those times I stayed. But so be it. I was having fun doing other things, and I'll be dead before I've done a millionth of the things worth doing, so regretting what I miss won't scale. Maybe it sounds backwards that I only embrace emotional homelessness as freedom after I've paid off my mortgage, or that one of the catalysts for my understanding that I'm capable of cutting these ties is a girl I'm also dizzily eager to nest with. Logically, the last eighteen years of my life have built towards quitting my job, stopping the mail, locking myself in my house, and spending a triumphant year doing nothing but reading books. But if the terms of your presumed victory become practical, you know they're wrong. Maybe I'll still quit my job, but maybe I'll replace it with something harder. I've got a lot of books I want to read, but maybe I'll go read them somewhere else. Maybe I'll be here next week, or maybe I'll be halfway around the world. Actually, the internet works both ways. Maybe I'm there now.