The humidity hangs tough as midnight approaches, even though the storms seem to have finally finished with us, they've moved out east for good, hell bent on seeing the Atlantic before the sun rises. I walk down the driveway and take a right and head west on Grand; everything seems clean and clear, the pavement and the sidewalks still wet from all the rain, the streetlights seem to shine a little brighter than usual.
I hate this goddamn place, but I love it, too, and neither impulse makes any sense to me at the moment, so I just let it be.
I walk on, wipe the sweat off my brow, and mutter along to a song ringing through my head..."everything dies baby, that's a fact..."
I walk west, light a cig; the sweat begins to drip down my forehead within a couple of blocks. It's deathly quiet. As it should be, I suppose; there's nothing going on here anymore. Once upon a time, in my childhood, the town seemed hot: bookies on every corner, taking numbers and doubles and baseball and hoop and, most of all, football; local government-type controversy, a school system mismanaged, a church merger shoved down throats of the Italians, my parents up to their eyeballs in all of it.
In the early '70's the railroad and the paper mill pulled out and that was pretty much it. The population seemed to split into two sorts: the old-timers who stuck around because it was all they knew, and their children, who got the hell out as soon as they got old enough to go to college or sign up for the service.
Most of the local businesses died off, leaving behind, with a couple of notable exceptions (like my cousin's deli, for instance) an array of chain dollar stores, drug stores, a supermarket, convenience stores and fast-food joints that take the locals' money, and, after dropping a few bucks an hour in some of the locals' pockets, take it out of town.
"put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty..."
We spent the weekend with my in-laws, in a place America has treated far differently. The pines stand tall and strong, and the saltbox Colonials sell for high six figures. There's breathtaking natural beauty everywhere you look. Instead of drilling middle-school students to pass state-mandated standardized multiple choice tests, the schools teach year-long courses on Greek mythology, history, and language. Hearing about the schools this weekend made me feel like a failed parent, like I'd let my kids down. Sorry, kids, I wanted to say; I'll try to figure something else out, so you don't fall too far behind.
I teased my father-in-law, told him we were going to move into his basement for a few years. He made a humorous fake fainting gesture, and I laughed. Don't worry, I said. I'm only kidding.
"...I got debts no honest many could pay, so I drew what I had from the Central Trust, and I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus..."
I walk along, looking at the houses. I think back to something my old boss said, back when he walked these streets panhandling for votes back in 2008.
"It's an odd place," he said. "You've got these beautiful houses right next door to these places that look like they're about to fall down."
Pretty much everything around here got built between 1880 and 1920. Some of the places have been kept up, and others got ignored. Less than fifty yards from here there's a meticulously restored Victorian right next door to two dilapidated two-family houses. The owner of the Victorian spends his free time keeping his place up; the tenants of the two-family places stand on the porch smoking and hurling epithets at each other.
Still plenty of what we call the old families hanging on, keeping some of the old houses up, but there's more and more transient population; folks who move in and out for a few months, maybe a couple of years, for the cheap rents.
I went to college in Albany, moved down there in '85, and never came back, or so I thought. Met a girl in grad school, fell in love, got married, rented a couple of places and then bought a place, and then another one, down there. Loved every second of it. Stayed close to the family, but not too close. We came up for dinner now and then, talked on the phone once in awhile. This place seemed little more than a place I felt grateful for having gotten away from. I found it far too insular, conservative, and homogenous for my tastes; you couldn't have paid me to move back here.
"...now our luck may have died and our love may be cold, but with you forever I'll stay..."
In 2006, we sold our house before we had time to find another one, and we moved into the downstairs flat of the house my brother and his wife own. It was temporary, of course, just a way station before we found our next place. Three months, we said; maybe six.
A year went by, then nearly a year and a half; we couldn't agree on how much to spend on the next house, I wanted to go low, she wanted to go higher.
Out of nowhere, we found out she had a benign brain tumor. The house hunting got put on hold for a bit, while she had surgery to remove the tumor. This was supposed to be a blip; they said she'd come home in a week, and be fatigued for a month or two, but nothing worse.
Lauren hated this place with a passion. Thought it a backwater, full of ignorance. She didn't like some of the friends Bailey, then eight, had made, and she had no interest in Evie, then nearly three, and Riley, then just over a year, growing up here and making friends of their own. "You have to get in a car and drive at least twenty-five minutes before you're back in civilization," she used to say, civilization to her mind lying in either Saratoga or Albany, both places about equidistant from here.
The night before she went into the hospital, while we laid in bed, she grabbed me tightly and said, "I feel good about this surgery, but if for some reason something goes wrong..."
Her voice drifted off.
"If something goes wrong," she pleaded, "promise me you'll get these kids out of here."
"OK. OK. I promise."
I meant it.
"...down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught up on the wrong side of that line..."
Something did go wrong, of course, and she died a month later.
My mother and father live a block away, and my brother and his wife live upstairs; they all were instrumental in nursing me back to health, and however dismal this town may look on the outside, the fact that I was here when the worst thing that ever happened to me, happened, was a fortunate accident.
And six years later, I'm married to someone else, and while she's not all that fond of this place, either, she's more attuned to the nuance. When the subject of moving comes up, as it does, Bailey loudly objects, and Riley crawls under his covers and cries and says, "this is my house." Humble as it may be, it is the only place he has ever lived.
Evie and her cousin upstairs are more like sisters than cousins. Evie and Riley are deeply attached to my parents. Sophie, at less than two years, adores the woman who cares for her while we are at work each day.
There are places in the area with better schools, more amenities, more diversity, all things we value. But uprooting them from their attachments may or may not be a promise worth keeping. Where do our own desires get confused with what is best for them? It is difficult to say.
I'm wearing an old pair of sandals, so old Lauren and I were living in Albany when she bought them for me. Seven, eight, years old. They're stretched and worn, too loose, and my feet slide inside them, forcing me to walk slowly.
A train whistle blows off in the distance. The trains came back to my old hometown; they rebuilt a large section of the old railyard.
But it doesn't mean much to us.
It hasn't brought any jobs back, and the old town looks the same.
Trucks and trains roll in and out of town, but that's about it; I guess the only thing that's changed is it's a little noisier than it was six or seven years ago.
I walk along, looking at the old houses.
Uncharitably, I suppose, I mutter my verdicts under my breath: nice, dump, dump, dump, nice, nice.
"...well everything dies, baby, that's a fact, but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back..."
Of all the places in the world, my Nana and her family wound up here in 1917 when they escaped from a small village south of Naples, trying to shield her eldest brother from getting drafted into the Italian Army at the height of World War I. They made a life here, and two generations later, their descendants have moved all over the United States in search of a better life.
But a few of us are still here.
I listen to the train roll into the yard as I walk.
I think of the twin catastrophes looming, unaddressed: climate change and the end of the cheap liquid fuel that has powered our way of life for a century.
As a nation, we have chosen to ignore those realities, to pretend that they are not happening, that some deus ex machina will make it all better.
I wonder how the coming changes will affect this place as I walk along.
The changes of the past fifty years or so have not been kind.
Perhaps there is no hope, and we will continue on an inexorable slide into oblivion.
I walk along and wonder what to do.
I have often thought that we should just attach ourselves to the soft underbelly of wealth in a place like Saratoga, or the place where my in-laws live; the rich seem to ride out every storm, after all, and while we have no hope of becoming rich, perhaps mere proximity to the rich will keep the lights on and the stove lit and the heat on.
Or perhaps what is coming will provide an opportunity for small towns such as this; perhaps it will be easier to rebuild the sort of small-scale ecomonies of agriculture and commerce that we'll need in the smaller world that's coming. Perhaps we should just dig in our heels and see what we can make of it here.
I don't know.
The train seems to float further and further away from town. The quiet remains. I hear the hum of air conditioners and the sound of my big old feet slapping down on the pavement.
I don't know what to do. But I'm forty-seven, with a house full of children, and change seems to be coming faster than we're used to.
Seems like time's running out.