The veils of memory tend to obscure the beginnings of things, but for the solitary soul with any imagination, there is no end to the variety of possible endings to a story. The reason or reasons I ended up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1990 are subject to the whims of marriage and family, the conveniences of geography and transportation, and advances in technology, mixed with the fear of the unknown. Replaying in my mind all the scenarios for my departure from Harrisburg nearly three decades later leaves me certain now, from the moment I arrived in Pennsylvania’s capital city from New York, that I would be leaving. The only question at the time was when, how, and with whom. Your story’s hero arrived with the enthusiasm and optimism baked into him of a young person whose path had been cleared for him. He departed with no less enthusiasm or optimism, because life gives us a brutal choice: to either look forward with the persistence of hope or unrelenting despair.
When I first saw Harrisburg, I was 25 years old, and it was Christmastime. I arrived as the unexpected, brand-new boyfriend. I was ready to be pinched, prodded, and otherwise poked by a loose collective of family and friends belonging to my shiny, new girlfriend, who ultimately would become my first wife. I was a curiosity to an insular and mildly inbred community of people who thought of New York or Philadelphia or Chicago as “away.” I thought myself a cosmopolitan sort of fellow, who had grown up in California, been educated by shrewd and astute and dissolute Jesuits on both coasts, and who arrived in Harrisburg on Amtrak’s Keystone Service as a preening man-child who acted as though he had won the lottery.
It is worth noting that, the year before my first visit to Harrisburg, Billy Joel released his song “Allentown,” which contains this depressing verse:
Well, we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
I learned that people in Harrisburg seemed excited that a famous person like Billy Joel would deign to sing about a town in Pennsylvania whose name did not begin with “Phila” or “Scran.” The people of Harrisburg – Harrisburgers, they refer to themselves, somewhat ironically, as I would eventually refer to myself as well – always seemed pleased when they were noticed by people from outside Pennsylvania. Should it surprise anyone that the annual highlight of the Pennsylvania Society is a weekend bacchanalia of politicians and hangers-on gathered out of state at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel?
Upon visiting this town – for, although it is a town at the center of one of the top 100 Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the United States, its populace was decimated by redlining practices and white flight in the 20th century — my thin knowledge of Harrisburg gave me no thought that my life would change. Its impression rested lightly on my consciousness, and I believed that the trajectory of my hopes, dreams, and aspirations would be unaltered. All this would change later, when I gave up my desirable Greenwich Village address – across the street from one the Hines brothers! — and became a homeowner near the Pennsylvania state capitol, buying a townhouse for – by my estimate – 1/30th of the cost of a comparable townhouse in lower Manhattan.
In the year I first visited Harrisburg, one of my favorite singers, Elvis Costello, released his own song “Everyday I Write the Book.” He sings:
Chapter one we didn’t really get along
Chapter two I think I fell in love with you
You said you’d stand by me in the middle of chapter three
But you were up to your old tricks in chapters four, five and six
When you are young, as I was then, you hear these lyrics and maybe sing along — and maybe get the lyrics wrong — but you always consider the object of the song to be someone else, someone in a faraway land, never you. When you are 25 years old, you are blessed with the confidence that you are in control of your life and cursed by the lie that you are in control of your life. What about the heartbreak Elvis Costello limned in his song? It’s just a song, you conclude, a piece of art the composer committed to paper out of his fertile imagination. You can be 25 years old and in love, bolstered by the belief that you will always be young and in love. You honestly believe that those feelings coursing through your veins are unique and powerful and immune to the vagaries and cruelty of the human condition.
Of course, I could have fallen in love with another woman, who could have brought me to another town or city. Because you meet people from all over the world in New York, the new girlfriend could have been from Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari, but she had been born and raised in Harrisburg. She had arrived in New York like a billion other ingenues, dumped onto the Upper East Side by night and Rockefeller Center by day to live out her Mary Richards dream. On that first trip to Harrisburg, we attended a Christmas-time cocktail party in a close-by suburb, hosted by friends of her parents, and I met a doyenne of the Harrisburg suburbs who proclaimed, proudly, that she had not visited Harrisburg proper in more than 20 years.
On that first visit, I strained to gaze upon the skyline of this town, not accustomed to the low-slung nature of its tallest buildings and noted that the traffic signs all seemed to direct drivers to somewhere else. However, I was wrapped not in blankets against the cold of December, but the love of the new girlfriend and the acceptance of her family and friends, who had probably – and rightfully – expected another young man on her arm that season. At the time, it never occurred to me that this other young man, who I had never considered a rival because I was unaware of his very existence until after the new girlfriend had kissed me for the first time, could just as easily crossed paths with us because he was the hometown boyfriend, whom everyone expected would marry my new girlfriend. And why would I think about the hometown boyfriend? He was the past. When you are 25 years old and in love, your focus is on the present. And so, I talked with the Harrisburg family and friends about my hopes, my dreams, my aspirations. I talked to them about safe subjects, such as the virtues of wearing bowties, Sally Ride’s trip to space on the Challenger, the final episode of “M*A*S*H,” Margaret Thatcher being elected Prime Minister, and how much we cried while watching “Terms of Endearment.” However, so naïve was I that the arc of my anticipation was so short that, during my first visit to Harrisburg, I could not imagine that I would move to the Pennsylvania state capital in 1990 with the new girlfriend as my first wife and our first daughter, who had visited Paris only weeks earlier at the age of 5 months.
In retrospect, I should not have treated my first year in Harrisburg in a personal Götterdämmerung, spent in a cycle of recrimination, always kicked off with the question “how the hell did I get here?” Rather, I should have been productive and set myself to learning the folkways of this town, where, ultimately, I learned that you would always be considered a stranger unless four generations of your family were buried in the Harrisburg Cemetery or the East Harrisburg Cemetery or the Paxtang Cemetery or that odd little cemetery in suburban Camp Hill located behind the fire department. And yet, the confusion of those early days was tempered by the optimism of young families looking to bring more life into the world, bathed in the joy of being in love with your spouse and your daughter, and the confidence that you could actually fit the round peg of your so-called career into the square peg of the economy of your new surroundings. You were not fazed at all when the state’s tax department called you after reviewing your tax return and asked what you did for a living because Pennsylvanians did not engage in that particular New York endeavor, which you were importing.
When you are not as young as you were when you first visited Harrisburg, because you are now 31 years old, now a husband and a parent and an actual homeowner. You have already experienced what it is like to have grown up in California – which East Coast residents regard with equal levels of wonder and disdain – lived in an ossified and dull Washington DC, experienced the Walpurgisnacht of Chicago during one of its coldest winters on record, and been a twentysomething in New York, which has been glorified by popular culture as the destination to which every young person should aspire. When you have lived for all 31 years of your life in seven other Metropolitan Statistical Areas, you cannot even fathom the concept that you will spend the equivalent of another lifetime in one place, in this town, the smallest by an order of magnitude, where your wife had been raised and where you will come to be considered an appendage to her and, later on, the ghost who used to be married to her.
What I discovered in those three decades is that every village, town, or city contains its treasures, if only you move at the appropriate rate of speed and focus your mind on the present. I can now see a long sequence of sentimental dissolves, as in a well-made film, and old fashioned trick shots of the Pennsylvania state capitol, the finest in our land, designed by Joseph Miller Huston in 1902 (who later went to prison for cost overruns); the seedy Double-A ballpark built on an island in the Susquehanna River, where during the month of June fans of the Harrisburg Senators must bring umbrellas to protect themselves from the legion of dying mayflies; the Spot Dog, a ghastly culinary delight offered up by Billy Kaldes in his diner, the Spot, which created a reservoir of oniony bad breath that would last for days; the Presbyterian church with the booming organ and fine stained glass windows where my daughters were baptized and where I was ordained as an elder; and the view from my 20th floor bachelor pad, where I could witness the raging opera of lightning storms flash across the Susquehanna Valley one day and, the next day, hear children playing in a public pool 150 feet below my terrace.
And so, I am left to explain why I no longer live in Harrisburg.
Joan Didion, in her essay about leaving New York — which spawned an entire literary genre — described the sense of departure when she promised an older friend that he would see “new faces” at the Christmas party she wanted him to attend. Her friend scoffed at the notion – correctly, as it turned out – that he would see anyone “new.” She took solace in the sight of Christmas trees glittering along Park Avenue and the happiness that a presumably chic dress she had recently acquired gave her. It would be years before she came to an odd conclusion, what she viewed as the moral to this story. In her mind, the city functioned to entertain her, to amuse her, to provide her with a steady supply of experiences that she could not have encountered in her hometown. Maybe, just maybe, in the rarified, “Mad Men” era of New York, attractive, Caucasian, educated, and talented women could expect to extend their social circles to include people whose lives intersected with hers before they would flee or jet to their own destination city. For me, in the world of Ed Koch’s New York, the city existed to provide a living. Each day, you rose from your bed, went to work, ate lunch, and returned home in a manner not dissimilar to people in Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, even. For a young wage earner, what New York provided that was unique was a view of the Empire State Building while walking to work, exceptional bagels, and a daily parade of people who were, on the whole, more physically attractive and more fashionably dressed than people who lived anywhere else.
It would be a long time before I could hear myself tell people that I liked Harrisburg with a soupcon of sincerity. I do not mean “like” in any colloquial way, the way that you may like mustard more than ketchup, the cartoon “Archer” more than “The Simpsons,” or spring more than summer. Rather, it was akin to the fifth stage of grief, acceptance, where you try to make the best of things. I remember walking to a neighborhood convenience store, the central Pennsylvania version of a bodega, and buying seven newspapers every day (the Times, the Post, the Journal, the other Post, the Daily News, the Inquirer, and, what the heck, the Patriot-News), just like I did in New York. I still identified myself as having come out of the West. I had reached a mirage, a place that maybe I could have imagined as an only child growing up in California, but that never seemed real. What child in California would ever consider the capital of a mid-Atlantic state real when their own remote state capital, located in Sacramento, seemed like a town thousands of miles away from any route they could expect to travel, and which they would never visit except as a form of punishment? I stood outside that convenience store with my seven newspapers and a can of Diet Coke on a bright spring day absent the odor of midtown Manhattan streets leftover from last night and its barbarous real estate practices and parents whose behavior mimicked vultures and streets shaped like canyons that admitted few rays of sunshine and considered that this mise en scene, this apparent exchange of wondrous for nice, of excellence for adequate, would cost something sooner or later – because I did not belong there, did not come from the neighborhood where I now found myself – but when you are 25 years old or 31, you figure that later you will have accrued some virtues, some benefits, some cost-savings in the final analysis, and you will be able to pay whatever the costs. I believed that possibilities still lay ahead of me. Not everything extraordinary in my life had already happened, but would continue to happen any minute, any day, any month because when you are 31 years old and in love with a woman and your infant child, even though you are working on commission in a cutthroat business, the belief in the future of young parents in love presumed that the money and the blessings would continue to rain down because the harsh reality is that if you are attractive, Caucasian, educated, and talented, you will always be able to score a gig to ensure that you will never, ever be considered poor. You can freelance ad copy, find temporary office work with employers who like your looks, or become a consultant, and none of that would matter. Really, would it?
Nothing in Harrisburg was irrevocable; everything still remained in reach. Just around the corner lay curiosities and amusements that I had never before seen or known about, like Italian Lake, Chocolate World, the Zembo Mosque, or Sheetz. I could go to a party and listen to a minister originally from the Finger Lakes region describe attending a Penn State football game as a religious experience, meet a Dutch importer who settled in the area and wore an orange tie each St. Patrick’s Day, or a woman who had once repossessed a car in BFE without getting shot at. Everyone has a least one book in them. Everyone has at least one dull success and one spectacular failure in them. Everyone in Harrisburg has at least one good story to tell at a party, given enough of an incentive to speak. Even as a 31-year old husband and father, given a choice between hope and despair, I could make promises to myself and to other people believing that I still had enough time and wherewithal to keep them. I could stay up all night, I could disappear for two weeks, I could go unemployed for a year, and, as a young man, I believed that none of it would count against me in the long run.
You see I was a curious person whose hometown was thousands of miles to the west, but my life in Harrisburg was a real life. It was my real life. I was living in a dream, but it was also not a dream. Every sunrise brought with it the prospect of at least some grinding. Every sunset forced me to contemplate dragons to be slayed the following day. Every morning, noon, and night danced with joy and heartbreak. Never did it occur to me to consciously reflect upon Harrisburg as a mere temporary gig from which I would leave imminently, say, just after Christmas or Easter or the first warm day in May. Certainly, I was most comfortable in the company of others who were not from Harrisburg, but none of us believed – really believed – that we were temporary exiles who had memorized the flight or train schedules to other cities. We were not planning to return to Richmond or Pittsburgh or Charleston or El Paso or Seattle. I not for one second pondered a return to California. After a childhood lived three hours behind what was going on in the world, I was at least thrilled to be living in the Eastern time zone, which encompassed all range of sins. We had all adjusted our internal calendars. Christmas, for example, was less chaotic because it seemed as though people from all over the map came to Harrisburg for the holidays. Have you ever seen Penn Station on the day before Thanksgiving? It appeared that every, single New Yorker was trying to catch the last train to Harrisburg. And, waiting for the desperate New Yorkers to land on our doorsteps, we were akin to colonials in a far country, a country where living was easier than home, a country where we had decided to raise our families, waiting patiently and expectantly for our countrymen to visit us in our safe and known locale.
I am positive that anyone who has been raised in the East has some idea of Harrisburg because either something newsworthy has occurred there, because it is near the Hershey of chocolate and amusement park fame, because politicians assemble there to make decisions affecting millions of people, because they skirted by the town while driving somewhere else on Route 81 or the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or because of the twin destructive legends of Hurricane Agnes or Hurricane Gloria. But to those of us who were not from the East, we knew Harrisburg as being located within the flume of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. In 1979, the world believed – or at least some people believed or led themselves to believe – that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant was melting down or was about to create a nuclear detonation like Hiroshima or was somehow going to depopulate a significant portion of the Boston-New York-Washington DC corridor. It was an infinitely romantic notion, this mysterious convergence of science and science fiction mixed with political and electric power: a film story worthy of Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon. To think of living so close to this fantasy of American carnage was to reduce the supernova to the flashlight. One does not simply “live” with the possibility of nuclear destruction any more than one “lives” with the threat of hurricane, earthquake, or tornado. Three Mile Island fades into the density of our daily neuroses the same way that “The Big One” – the earthquake predicted to crash the California of my childhood into the Pacific Ocean – becomes the punchline for a stand-up comedian.
It would have been difficult in the extreme for me to understand why young people eager to emigrate or settle down would treat Harrisburg as anything but a real place because who lives in a place that is not real? If you sleep, you need buy a bed. If you eat toast, you need to buy a toaster. If you are going to pay money to live in an apartment or house, you probably need to buy a chair and curtains and a table and maybe a rug. If you are like me, you need someplace to put your books because you love being surrounded by books. Some you will read, and some will just remind you of all the other books you want to read. And, while your West Coast wardrobe may be paltry, now that you are living on the East Coast – and to any self-respecting Californian, Harrisburg sure looks like it is on the East Coast – you will need clothes for all four seasons, not just the relentlessly agreeable weather of your hometown. You may pride yourself on your asceticism, but you will acquire more. Similar to the laws of gravity, you will acquire and accumulate material possessions, not because you are a psychopathic hoarder, not because you are greedy, but because you are attractive, Caucasian, educated, and talented and, in these United States of America, those attributes give you privileges that will create expectations of you among your family and peers, accrue wealth towards you, and demand that you play your role as a consumer if you wish to maintain your privilege. You may like to tell your stories like the one about the fraying yellow theatrical silk you spread across the bedroom windows of your fifth-floor walkup across the street from Sloan-Kettering, but those stories become stale by the third telling because the stories you tell about your New York self reveal something different about yourself that perhaps you did not intend and you may not understand why the Harrisburgers are laughing at you, not your cute story. And so, in my 31st year, when I began to live in Harrisburg, I came to believe that the promises not kept did not matter, that the things that are in fact irrevocable did not matter, and that the things that counted – the evasions, the procrastinations, the mistakes, all of it – did not matter. Credits and debits are fungible.
That is what it was all about, wasn’t it? Learning what matters and what doesn’t matter? Now when Harrisburg comes back to me it comes in flashes of insight, or lessons sometimes learned the hard way, sometimes learned the easy way. My memories, so selectively curated, are uniquely mine, distorted by the mnemonic prism I have constructed. I harbor no illusion that my Harrisburg resembles the Harrisburg of my first wife, nor that of my children. Smell is often described as the strongest sense, and for many people, a fragrance or odor will transport them across geography and time to a visit a place, a person, or an event from their life. I can state confidently that Harrisburg contains none of the kind of fragrances or odors that act as time machines. Its power is harnessed in personal relationships.
I suppose that the lot of us who have been young in Harrisburg have similar scenes on our home screens. Welcoming the New Yorkers at the train station; eating dinner in the food court during Farm Show, surrounded by people who simply do not look they they’re from around here; watching the spectacular Independence Day fireworks with your neighbors and feeling the concussion of the fireworks hit you in the chest; attending gubernatorial inaugurations with your co-workers after you have surrendered to a certain kind of inevitable fate — because you live in a government town and, in middle age, you have become a living, breathing bureaucrat; running in the Harrisburg Mile on Front Street with the sweaty masses of people intent on doing exactly what you are doing; or having lunch with friends on the deck of Duke’s and speculating on how the world will end while basking in calming sunlight. I recall when the first Persian Gulf War broke out; I was on the aforementioned Keystone Service bound for Harrisburg after a day of New York business. When I arrived home, my first wife and her mother greeted me, and we held each other while considering our nation entering into armed conflict in the Middle East. People in New York might seek solace with strangers, but in Harrisburg, you seek solace with your people.
It is relatively hard to fight, make love, or be a productive, sentient creature at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning without any sleep, which is why my 31-year old self abandoned long ago the habit of the all-nighter, along with the blackout drunk. At the age of one’s majority, these customs may seem adventurous, taking oneself out of your comfort zone, but experience teaches the young person that sleep deprivation and hangovers are not long-range or strategic choices of self-sufficient adulthood. They are self-destructive, impeding the work. Never mind your career or your bosses or your coworkers, your young self has to be engaged in work that you find remunerative, rewarding, and intellectually stimulating. You have to find work that you actually like. Failing this goal is like failing life. My 31-year old’s job was to think up ideas for books, find writers in places like Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari who are interested in becoming authors, find editors in New York who wanted to publish these books, and take a 15 percent commission. I liked searching for ideas and writers in the seven newspapers I scanned each day and the 20 magazines I read weekly or monthly. I liked creating a business case for the book idea. I liked making arguments that convinced people to hand me money, sometimes lots of money. I loved opening the mailer and taking out a copy of the book fresh off the presses that would shortly appear on bookstore shelves in cities and towns across these United States of America. I loved that my name was acknowledged in print by the authors. In Harrisburg, as a young man, I conducted business mostly by phone, fax, and Federal Express, but I also had to travel. I had to lunch with editors at the business-expense New York restaurants. I had to attend writing conferences in Aspen during the summer. I had to meet with people in Los Angeles because book publishing, ultimately, is entertainment, and if you are going to work in entertainment, you have to meet with people in Los Angeles. If you live and work in New York, you can discuss and reminisce about Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, that diner on 10th Avenue, the building they used to call the Pan Am Building, and the agglomeration of people in Washington Square Park, but what you are really talking about is the scenery you encounter on your commute to and from work. And the dirty secret about the lives of New Yorkers — as well as the lives of people in Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari, and the lives of people in my hometown of Redwood City, California — is that, after most of them finish working, they go home and sit in front of a screen just like Harrisburgers.
Some years passed as I approached the age of 40, and I found myself working in the middle of a corn field. A local college surrounded by farmland made rich by its fertile soil offered me an escape route from what had become my failing book enterprise. An affable administrator – a former student militant who may have committed crimes when she was young — hired me to become the college’s chief storyteller in exchange for the New American Dream: a regular schedule, steady income, and health insurance for my family. In polite circles, this work is called public relations; according to those in less polite circles, I became a flack. At the same time, I began to embrace the sense that I, raised an only child, was not actually alone on my journey, and that, at any given time, there were people who were genuinely interested in me, what I was doing, or where I was going. I liked jogging along the trail that ran next to the Susquehanna River, waving at people I knew and at strangers who waved at me. I liked playing tennis – for free! without needing a reservation! – at the local high school. I liked playing with my children in any number of parks. God, I loved being with my family. I loved the four of us more than anything I ever loved or ever will love. And that love was nurtured in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, though I suppose it could just as easily have been nurtured in Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari. No amount of advantages of those “away” cities — brunches in tony eateries, tourist avoidance maneuvers, or gawking at fashion models — could replace that love.
As I sift through the veils of memory, I recall that, at least partly, I moved to New York to become the next Maxwell Perkins by day and write my Great American Novel by night. There was also a girlfriend, my compulsion to live somewhere other than in the isolation of the Midwest, the promise of the society of college friends, and other reasons lost in the veils. I know now that writers should never move to New York. They should live in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or in the isolation of the Midwest. New York is a hotbed of distractions. New York tempts writers away from their keyboards. Any New York writer who talks about their late-night exploits, the Vanity Fair parties, the weekends in the Hamptons, or all the men or women who have graced their beds is no writer at all. The New York writer is a con artist who has been able to convince editors and publishers to hand over money that will become a sunk cost. The work of the writer is solitary. The writer is lonely, pathetically alone. The writer lives mostly between their ears, constantly lost in thought, always considering how to turn life into a short story, novel, or essay. The writer is a terrible person, whom even Joan Didion admitted, will end up selling out their best friends. For the writer, all life is simply material. A good and interesting life is material. A bad and debauched life is material. For the writer, it is never possible to stay too long at the fair, because as long as the fair plays, there is material to be harvested. I cannot tell you that my 25-year old self understood the life of the writer, nor can I tell you that my 31-year old self understood everything about the life of the writer because the two novels that I wrote in New York – upon mature reflection – were wretched, populated by more miserable sentences than inspired sentences. I believed then, but understand better now, that writers are by nature deeply neurotic, which, at the time still being a fan of Woody Allen, I did not consider to be bad or unhealthy. I know now that as a young writer, I was not neurotic enough.
My first wife and I discussed returning to New York after our children were grown and moved away. I presume this is the same topic all people who marry in New York and move away to have children discuss at some point during their marriages. It is an idea, a fable really, this return to Gotham. It exists as an idea within the construct of the marriage, until it is abandoned upon the realization that you can never return to the New York of your youth. That New York is dead and buried. The New York that you would return to as the parents of adult children would be entirely unrecognizable and, perhaps, uncomfortable because you aren’t as quick, limber, or, especially, libidinous as your younger self. Any maybe, just maybe, you know too much. Maybe, just maybe, New York needs you to be one of its billions of ingenues for it to succeed. And then you realize that, where you live, the grocery stores have entire rows of shelves dedicated only to breakfast cereals. And so, you have given up, tacitly or explicitly, on the idea of moving back to New York, which creates a demarcation line in your marriage. Because you married in New York, you might still harbor certain notions about life; however, upon giving up on those unrealistic notions of the New York of your youth, you may also have begun dissolving the glue holding together your marriage because what is your future other than to live together in the fifth stage of grief?
And what you are left with are the stories that Harrisburgers tell you their one good story about their careers, their children, their pets, their vacations, their relatives, their dull success and spectacular failure, or any number of subjects that you might have heard had you left New York and moved to Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari. And the truth is, you gave up spending your time thinking up ideas for books and turned to re-reading the books assigned to you by the astute and dissolute Jesuits, such as “Ulysses” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The state tax department no longer asks about your work because what you are doing for a living is more in line with what other people in Pennsylvania do for a living. You are not quite home, but you have stopped pretending to be an alien. And so, you join in the conversations about career, children, pets, vacations, relatives, success, failure, and all subjects that people like you are having in Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari.
What follows does not make you a bad person, but you begin to consider the people in your life as fungible commodities: who is in your life now is in your life and who is no longer in your life is not in your life. If the glue that held your marriage together begins to dissolve and, in fact, dissolves, then the notion dawns on you that don’t have to live in Harrisburg anymore. You begin to avoid certain parts of town where you might cross paths with your ex-wife because, while the divorce is still fresh, your wounds do not wish to be salted. You choose to live across the Susquehanna River from her on the White Shore – so nicknamed because the suburbs on the western shore of the river are populated by people with pasty white thighs and there is nary a hint of melanin to be found. For reasons obvious to you, you buy a house close to Harrisburg Academy, where your children matriculate, and close to Cornerstone Coffeehouse, where your children and their friends hang out. You start shopping for groceries at the Camp Hill Giant late at night with all the other vampires. You find someplace other than the trail that runs along the Susquehanna River to jog. You go to fewer cocktail parties because the people who host cocktail parties are more likely to invite your ex-wife, the Harrisburg native. One exception: you tiptoe into your church on Sunday morning, sit quietly in the pew behind your one loyal friend, after the service make small talk with others who are worried about you, then sneak glances at your ex-wife talking to those people who are worried about you, and steal out of the sanctuary without speaking to her.
In the wake of my marriage’s dissolution, I imagine that I hurt some Harrisburgers by becoming a ghost of my former self. I cut off people who cared about me because I could not bear to face them. I was humiliated. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I felt as though I had let everyone in Harrisburg down because I had failed as their favorite daughter’s husband. I cried until I was not even aware that I was crying. I cried while driving to work. I cried while driving home from work. I cried while eating entire frozen pizzas by myself on my IKEA table. I cried as I ate all the doughnuts while watching re-runs of “Sex and the City” on TBS. I cried as I read self-help books to help me stop crying.
I was depressed. My life was forming the basis of a television sitcom that my children would never watch. At least there weren’t as many dishes to wash, I told myself. I was lonely. I did not want to be lonely.
Given the choice of hope or despair…I took the steps necessary to ensure that I would not be lonely. I began to consider with more clarity and incentive the idea of living somewhere other than my ex-wife’s hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with a woman of an appropriate age, also divorced, and a parent. And one of the many, many women I met through a popular online dating service stuck. I began to make plans to leave a town where I had lived for nearly three decades to move somewhere else, somewhere fungible.
It has been more than two years since I moved to a suburb of Washington DC, where I had lived when Jimmy Carter was president, the 930 Club was on F Street, the drinking age was 18, and Georgetown was still rough on the edges. Most of the people who still talk to me think this a good move, not only for my well-being, but because they can still relate to my life. I am comfortable driving through the circles, rectangles, and diagonal streets designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. My life is not that of the young person chasing after dreams, but of the older person chasing after a different set of dreams. Every village, town, or city has its own economy and real-estate market. Every village, town, or city has its own challenges. Buffalo or Birmingham, London or Los Angeles, Tucson or Tucumcari. As well as Redwood City, California, Washington DC, Chicago, and New York. Even Harrisburg. Maybe on the weekend, you can go somewhere else to inhabit a different skin, but then then you return back to your town and put back on your own skin.
There were years when I called California “the Coast,” New York “the city,” and Harrisburg “the burg,” but they seem a long time ago.