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A Vehicle for Reminiscence

BEFORE––Tomorrow, I’m going to take care of one more complication that stems from moving. In case you’re worried, I’m in no danger of suffering from complication deprivation. These sneaky distractors, byproducts of any major re-location, sucker punch me at unexpected times.

To take care of this one, I’m going to a Toyota dealer for a mandatory inspection prior to re-registering my car from Illinois to Pennsylvania. That’s pretty standard, but what has unexpectedly grabbed my attention and transported me back, shall we say, to yesteryear is the fact that the dealership is located six blocks from where I grew up in West Philly and precisely where I bought my first car from a then-Chevy dealer.

Toyota, founded in 1937, did exist then, but I’m not sure I knew what it was. A small feedbag for little horses, maybe? Anyway, I was committed to buying a Ford, Chevy, or Plymouth, choices available to ultra-economy-minded buyers. If purchasers like me wanted some air as they drove, they used a handle to roll down the windows because there was no automatic gizmo to press. If they were about to drive someplace unfamiliar, they needed a road map, because they were GPS-less. If they were about to switch lanes carelessly, there was no automatic beeping that translated into, “Hey, dimwit! Be more careful!” In other words, I had to take care of myself because my car absolved itself of that responsibility.

Of my new Chevy, I had modest expectations, none of which were exceeded. It got me to school and home during my first years of teaching, which was all I really needed. Visions of cross-country drives hadn’t formed yet. All I really wanted was for the car to behave, but in the four years before I unloaded it, it constantly craved attention. Recollections of the car aren’t fond, but those of the neighborhood where they were formed certainly are.

That’s why, when I take the Toyota in, I’m going to drive by my old house on the way to the dealership. The last time I saw it was fifteen years ago, when we were in Philadelphia for a conference. Some sense of caution within made me reluctant at that time to take it in with the attention it deserved, so I took only a quick look. This time, I’m going to be deliberate in my observations along the half-mile drive from ex-house to ex-Chevy lemon place. Has the house remained as I remember it? Is Mom’s Hoagie Shop, home of the best fifty-cent hoagie imaginable, still in business across the street, and what about Gaubus’s saloon at the end of the block, remembered fondly as the place I imbibed a beer once when I was sixteen? And the State Theater at 52nd and Chestnut, where a young and restless hoard, which included me, spent many a Saturday afternoon spoiling matinees for people dumb enough not to have attended an evening performance.

There’s almost no chance, I know, that any especially meaningful landmark will exist now as it was then. So why invest emotion in what probably will disappoint? Right now, I’m thinking of it as a ceremony, a kind of tribute to the environment that contributed a lot to who the guy is behind the wheel of the inspection-needy Toyota. Just as with Chestnut Street, I know there could be potholes in my reasoning.

AFTER—I’m glad I did it, but I doubt I’ll do it soon again. The drive there was reassuringly hometownish, with unexplained traffic slow-downs every other block. Elaine, who was accompanying me on the pilgrimage, and I were happy to recognize almost everything around Penn, where we spent so much time years ago. Even with the new buildings and extensive gentrification, the familiarity encouraged the feeling that, despite the passage of years, we definitely weren’t strangers in a strange land called West Philly. But, as we continued to drive west, my stomach began to churn. I tried to chalk that up to the third cup of breakfast coffee. As we got closer to my old house, I slowed down, and the churning ramped up.

My old house was reasonably recognizable, even though a brick front had replaced the wooden one I knew so well. The small grass plot in front, which I spent so much time weeding, looked much the same, although I might have jazzed it up a bit. The other row houses snaking eastward were as I remembered them, solid looking but without personality. These were dwellings once occupied by friend-acquaintances, many of whose names I still remember. Driving by, though, I felt a twinge of sadness. Where once I unquestionably belonged, I felt like a semi-tourist. The sense of deep connection was no longer there. In its surreptitious way, time had largely eroded the visceral connection I felt to this place where I had come of age. Other changes, one thoroughly radical, contributed to my feeling of detachment. Of course, Mom’s and Gaubus’s were long-gone, so stopping for a hoagie and a beer wasn’t an option. Most attention-grabbing, large numbers of people, identifiable by their Muslim garb, strolled the sidewalks and browsed the store fronts. In place of my familiar enclave, there were new cultural references. My immediate response was to feel like an interloper, a complete outsider. That response was moderated, however, by a sense that things seemed well cared-for and activity appeared purposeful. That perception helped control the newness panic I was feeling.

As I drove the last few blocks to Toyota-land, I wondered about details of the cultural evolution of that small piece of society I had been part of, and, yes, loved. Once so integral a part of me, it and I had drifted apart. At home later that afternoon, I had time to reflect without being distracted by the compulsion to observe. The car had passed its inspection; the old neighborhood was still in the process of being re-imagined.

Obviously and logically, what we like about our lives we’d prefer to remain the same. Memory tries to assist us by pleasantly refurbishing episodes of the past. Although our recall may not be completely accurate, we rely on it. Pushing myself, I can resurrect lots of things that didn’t exactly add warmth to the past. My social group represented various religions, races, and, even at our tender ages, political identifications. We weren’t immune to their potential divisiveness, that almost always was eclipsed by our good-natured camaraderie. “Almost always” doesn’t mean completely. There were rare times when bad temper prevailed, and religious and racial epithets were exchanged. Still, I believe groundwork was laid for an important understanding. Differences can unsettle us, but when they do and we react inappropriately, in the end we know we’re less than we should be. And we’re not happy with ourselves.

I reflected on the probable response to a Muslim kid suddenly finding himself in the middle of my gang all those years ago. Rare lapses aside, I’m convinced that after a suitable initiation period, he would have been certified as one of us, especially if he played ball well and responded adeptly to our habitual good-natured teasing of each other. The person he was, not a collective identity, would have confirmed his acceptance. I never thought returning “home” would trigger such extensive thought, but it did. And it should have.


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