When visiting for my graduate school commencement ceremony, I drove a few of my friends from New York around my hometown. We were coming from downtown Syracuse, and we had to pass through the Near West Side on the way to my parent’s house. We drove up Onondaga Street past the housing projects and crumbling mansions that once were regal when Syracuse didn’t have the “post” in front of industrial in its description.
I turned and brought them up Summit. We passed a “Welcome to Strathmore” sign that had been commissioned by a neighborhood association.
“This is where my neighborhood starts,” I told them.
“Are we still in the city?” they asked as we drove along a flowering tree-lined street of mansions.
“Yup,” I replied as I turned onto Crossett and then Roberts, which overlooks Onondaga Park’s Hiawatha Lake, with a white gazebo floating on an island accessible only by a footbridge.
“I’ve gotta tell you, Shame,” my friend, Annie, observed. “This is pretty nice. The way you talk about your dark childhood, I pictured District 12 from the Hunger Games. But this, it’s pretty picturesque.”
I didn’t respond, but looked at the neighborhood through fresh eyes, as I had been trying to do since coming home to study arts journalism for a year at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.
Like washing a window in an attic after decades of negligence, it had taken me a long time to break through the layers of emotional dust and dirt, the loathing and pain, and get down to the clear glass. But, I was finally able to look at the streets on which I had grown up and see them for what they were: The streets on which I had fallen and stood up.
I often try to discern whether I had a happy or sad childhood, but of course it’s not so different. You can retrace the events in your mind, or like me you can drive through and point out milestones, the good and the bad.
“Look! That grassy lawn next to the church is where I learned to ride my bike without training wheels and that house up on the hill is where I gave my first blow job!”
“Oh wow, there’s the bush that I crouched behind every night we played flash light tag after dark where hiding by yourself was just as solitary and creepy as being ‘it.’ Oh, oh! And over there, yes, right there in that parking lot next to the ice cream shop is where I was put into the back of a police car!”
And some locations of our childhood are not so simple; they do not hold just memories that are solely favorable nor memories that strictly disdainful, they hold both.
“My dad, Sarah and I would take our dog, Autumn, for walks up into that little thicket of woods. Just off the path there were two trees, and the way they bent to grow toward the sun over the years has left them in a permanent embrace; forever entwined. We called them the kissing trees and I took a picture of them on my polaroid camera that I won in a raffle, and I used a glue stick to paste them into my scrapbook and scribbled ‘kissing trees’ in blue marker just below!”
But, then you take a minute and the smog rolls back in, maybe slowly, maybe barely, maybe just for a minute, but it is back, and it makes you remember. You will never forget.
“Oh, yes,” you might say, or maybe just think. “Just down here, in the long parking lot below the kissing trees, where there are streetlights. but they don’t do much when the sun goes down, this is where I lost my virginity. It was in a parked car, in that car’s backseat, with a boy who I didn’t like very much, and definitely didn’t love, though I told him I did. And it hurt, physically yes it hurt, but even worse, it made me feel a little dead on the inside, like a shell that had been picked up, fawned over and then left on the beach; it’s not like I wanted to be kept, I just wanted to be put back where I once was.”
Sometimes it’s trying to recall, but it would sting so much more to let it slip away. The streets of my youth were just made of pavement and grass, of houses and the people within. They could have been anywhere, I thought, but I knew I was wrong. It had all begun here, right here. This is where I had bloomed and burst, faltered and flown.