November 16, 2000
Where the Heart Is
They say you can never go home again.
Well, you can. Only you might find yourself staying at a Travelodge, driving a rented Ford Contour and staking out your childhood home like some noir private eye just trying to catch a glimpse of the Johnny-come-latelys that are now living in your house.
It's a familiar story. Kids grow up, parents sell the family home and move to some sunnier climate, some condo somewhere, some smaller abode. We grown-up kids box up all the junk from our childhoods - dusty ballet shoes, high school textbooks, rolled-up posters of Adam Ant - and wonder where home went.I'm not a sentimental person, I told myself. I don't need to see old 3922 26th Street before we sell the place. I even skipped the part where I return home to salvage my mementos from the garage. I let my parents box up the stuff, which arrived from San Francisco like the little package you get when released from jail. You know, here's your watch, the outfit you wore in here, some cash. Here's the person you once were.
After a year, San Francisco called me home again. I missed it. High rents had driven all my friends out of the city to the suburbs, so I made myself a reservation at a motel and drove there in a rented car. The next day, I cruised over to my old neighborhood. There was the little corner store my mom used to send me to for milk, the familiar fire station, the Laundromat.
I cried like the sap I never thought I'd be. I sat in the car, staring at my old house, tears welling up. It had a fresh paint job, the gang graffiti erased from the garage door. New curtains hung in the window.
I walked up and touched the doorknob like it was the cheek of a lover just home from war. I noticed the darker paint where our old mezuzah used to be. I sat on our scratchy brick stoop, dangling my legs off the edge, feeling as rootless as I've ever felt.
You can't go home in a lot of ways, I discovered that night, when I met up with an ex-boyfriend. "Great to see you," he said, giving me a tense hug. "The thing is, I only have an hour."
What am I, the LensCrafters of social engagements?
As it happens, his new girlfriend wasn't too keen on my homecoming. We had a quick drink and he dropped me back off at my low-rent motel, where I scrounged up change to buy some Whoppers from the vending machine for dinner. I settled in for the evening to watch "Three to Tango" on HBO.
"You had to watch a movie with a 'Friends' cast member," said my brother, nodding empathetically.
My brother and I met up at our old house, like homing pigeons, though we could no longer go inside. We walked down the street for some coffee, and I filled him in on my trip. He convinced me to stay my last night at his new place in San Bruno, just outside the city. I'll gladly pay $98 a night just for the privilege of not inconveniencing anyone, but he actually seemed to want me.
"I love having guests," he insisted. So I went.
It's surprising how late in life you still get that "I can't believe I'm a grown-up" feeling, like when your big brother, the guy who used to force you to watch "Gomer Pyle" reruns, owns his own place. It was small and sparse and he had just moved in, but it was his. The refrigerator had nothing but mustard, a few cheese slices and 14 cans of Diet 7-Up.
We picked up some Taco Bell, rented a movie, popped some popcorn, and I fell asleep on his couch. Insomniacs rarely fall asleep on people's couches, I assure you. I don't know why I slept so well after agonizing all weekend over the question of home, if I had one anymore, where it was. I only know that curled up under an old sleeping bag, the sound of some second-rate guy movie playing in the background, my brother in a chair next to me, I felt safe and comfortable, and maybe that's part of what home is.
But it's not the whole story. As much as I'd like to buy the clichés about home being where the heart is, or as Robert Frost put it, "The place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in," a part of me thinks the truth is somewhere between the loftiness of all those platitudes and the concreteness of that wooden door on 26th Street.
I'll probably be casing that joint from time to time for the rest of my life. I'll sit outside, like a child watching someone take away a favorite toy, and silently scream, "Mine!"