Place In The Heart
I wanted to go home again. I’ve been told that I can’t. I decided to test that theory.
I’m not alone. Nostalgia has been a big business for a long time, and I’m an easy mark. Even as a kid, I was fascinated by moments, understanding that today is a reflection of yesterday, that the perceivable universe is a deterministic one. That cause and effect are real things. I wanted to understand this process. I wanted to spot it happening at the start. I’ve been chasing moments my entire life, then, trying to capture them so I know where stuff began.
I also have a sentimental streak a mile wide, and distance makes it worse. I’m far away from home, if home is where I was and not where I am, which, in fact, it’s not. I’ve lived in my house for exactly half of my life--if this isn’t home, I’ve made a big mistake somewhere along the line.
But I wanted to try. I was visiting family last week in Arizona, a state where I spent some pretty formative years. I left when I was 25, though, and over the years my time in the desert has become a distant memory, hard to imagine. But nostalgia isn’t so much about place, at least for me. It’s about time, and one particular time, and in this case one particular summer.
I was staying with my mother last week, who lives about 90 miles south of Flagstaff, where I went to college at Northern Arizona University. One summer I desperately needed a job, and so I went to work at a local restaurant/dinner theater called Black Bart’s Steakhouse (it’s Arizona). The owners hired students from (mostly) the university’s music department to wait on tables and entertain the customers with song.
And in the summers, they put on a full-scale, two-hour, three-month-long dinner show, with singing, dancing, and skits by a cast of 8, four men and four women. I was comfortable performing, I could sing a bit, and dancing? They put me in the back row and hoped for a generous spirit on the part of the audience. It was glorious.
It was also a long time ago. We bonded, that group, and began friendships that persist today. I fell in love with a fellow cast member and we were married the second summer, tying the knot at noon and performing for our guests that evening. It was all very hokey and fun, a touchstone for youth and excitement and a last gasp before heading toward adulthood.
I just wanted to see it again, so Mom and I drove north one sunny afternoon, on a personal quest for memories.
The city was disorienting, and I maneuvered through streets that hadn’t existed back then, looking for landmarks. We eventually made it to Black Bart’s on the east side of town, where it always was.
We went into the gift shop, and I bought a coffee mug from the young woman at the desk, who looked vaguely familiar. I told her my tale, and she pointed me toward the dining room and her brother, who was the manager. He was busy but amiable, a pleasant man in his late 30s who seemed mildly curious about my stories, particularly my relationship with the owners, my old bosses.
Who were his grandparents, as it turned out.
This is what 35 years does. It distorts our perception of time by demonstrating its relentless passage. Of course these are the grandchildren. Of course I’m just an old dude, wandering by to reminiscence, to run my finger along dusty walls and stir up ghosts. They had guests to feed and a business to run. I just had memories.
I started to tell my story of Chevy Chase coming to eat at the restaurant one night in 1982 to a couple of the young employees, who seemed interested but, again, only in a mild way. It’s not a great story if your listeners have no idea who Chevy Chase is. I eventually wandered off to explore.
No, you can’t go home again. I don’t think that means you shouldn’t try.
I smiled the entire time, remembering. Climbing on the stage, standing in front of a very familiar backdrop, I handed my phone to Mom to take a picture. She was a little unsure about using the camera, and so now I have a short video of myself, posing, starting to walk off, posing again when I notice she’s having trouble taking the shot.
I’ve watched it a dozen times. I have an old video of myself on that very stage, when I was a young man, and now I have another.
Video is just a series of still photos, of course; only the persistence of vision, and time, give us the illusion of motion. This is a handy metaphor for our existence, too, a series of moments, strung together to show us a lifetime. The moments remain.
As will the video, now. I’m no longer a college student. I’m a few weeks away from my 60th birthday, I’ve got less hair and fewer teeth and less time ahead, far less time. I rock back and forth in the video, trying to stand still for the picture. I’m just a man of a certain age, trying to remember another age, but I stand on that stage and I swear that, through the haze of half-closed eyes, it sort of looks like I’m dancing.