Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Return to Eden

My travelogue has been aborted. I have about a page of journaling for each day of the vacation, but it's just not that interesting. If it had been a life-changing experience, I would post it. Sorry, Erin. You can call me if you'd still like to hear about it. But I gotta get movin' on the job search and writing my sketch comedy revue and sample articles for City Pages and The Rake.

I was afraid Minneapolis would look dull and drab after visiting all those beautiful and/or bustling metropolises, but it actually looks newer and more interesting than before. Everything has been refreshed, the look, the smell, the feel of the place. Even the breezes seem fresher.

My parents spent last week in Iowa. (Dad was attending a conference.) They left me a car to tool around in, as they often do during trips. On Thursday I headed north to see Cambridge, where we lived until the day after I finished first grade. The trip took an hour, because I started on I-35 on the hunch that it would take me to or near Cambridge. It didn't, so I had to turn west at North Branch and follow State Hwy. 95 for 15 minutes to reach my destination.

I should've taken Hwy. 65, which I drove under shortly after entering town. The population is 5,500, up 2,000 from 1985, the year we left. They expanded 65 and built a hill under it for an overpass. Fast-food joints, car dealerships and strip malls have grown up around the highway since its expansion. As I headed into town, that development quickly gave way to an older working-class neighborhood with some vintage trailers in the yards, the kind Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel took to California.

Then came the skinny railyard. Boxcars waited on the sidetracks as the occasional freight train passed through. The downtown was still two blocks from the tracks, although not quite as vibrant as it seemed when I was 7. I continued past Main Street to Fern, the street I grew up on. Taking a right, I turned onto a world in miniature, as if my childhood had been shrunk to fit into a snow globe. Everything looked so much smaller than it did when I was a kid, but so little had changed. Our church, Christ the King, an imposing, black edifice with a white statue of the Virgin Mary in the courtyard, looked identical to what I remembered, as did the mouldering convocation center across the cracked parking lot, the unkempt t-ball field across the street and the faded elementary school beyond the outfield. The only differences were bright, new jungle gyms around the school and the greatly increased height of the trees lining the ballfield.

That was the field I walked through on my way home from school on the last day of first grade, crying the whole time. The next day we left Cambridge for the 'burbs, in our case New Brighton, but when it comes to the 'burbs, names aren't that important. Seeing my first (and only real)hometown again reminded me why I'd been so heartbroken to leave it. Continuing down Fern Street, the high school ballfield followed my old t-ball field on the right, after which I came to our block. Again, the trees were much taller and more numerous now, providing a canopy that would've drastically altered the sun-soaked memories of my early youth.

Our next-door neighbors, whose son was my best friend, remodeled their house a few years after we moved out, so no nostalgia was unleashed by the sight of it. The same was true for our old house, even though the only big differences were the aluminum siding, the bay window and the badminton net in the front yard. It was still a simple, brown, one-story ranch. Disappointed, I kept on rolling slowly through the neighborhood. A few houses had remained the same, which was a comforting reminder that not all houses built since the 80's have a 2o-year shelf life (even if they look as disposable as those single-use cameras).

At the end of our block there'd been a horse farm with a silo, an abrupt demarcation between town and country. It appeared to still be there, although the many new trees obscured the view from the street. I drove around the perimeter of our three-block 'hood, noting the disappearance of the vacant lots with their crabgrass, bald spots and dandelions. The yards were all flat, spacious and kelly green. It could've been any prosperous, first-ring 'burb, filled as it was with preciously constructed ranch-style houses of the 50's and 60's. The difference was we knew our neighbors and all amenities were located within walking distance. That's only true of a tiny percentage of Suburbia.

It took me two passes to turn onto the bus entrance for the elementary school. I was afraid my persistence would be mistaken for pedophilia. It was still summer, though, so I was probably in the clear. The letters placed high up on the building said "Cambridge Primary School," but I don't remember anyone calling it by that name. The big three-story block by the parking lot was the gym. I remember the day in P.E. when we were told to climb a net to the ceiling of that gym with only stretching mats to land on if we fell. Never too fond of heights or risking bodily harm, I got about five feet off the ground before I came back down. One of the main doors was open, through which I could see a 20- or 30-something janitor operating a floor buffer. I thought about asking if I could look around the place, but it seemed like a creepy request, so I moved on.

Along Old Hwy. 65 (a.k.a. Main St.) was a steakhouse where the old drive-in, Fuzz'n'Dumpy's, and then the A&W had been. The drive-in area was now enclosed in glass. It looked much nicer, but I still missed the drive-ins. I turned off Main St. looking for my babysitter's house, where my parents had dropped off my sister and I before work and picked us up after school. The area was older and lower-income, sparing it the homogenizing and stultifying effects of latter-day affluence. I couldn't find the house, but that was likely a failure of memory. My image of the house is a large, shabby, white two-story in the shade of a huge, old tree. There were no dwellings fitting that description.

My second pass through downtown was more thorough, including a slow drive by some national fast-food chains, a gothic teenybopper (gasp!) tattoo parlor and a still-active strip mall that had opened just before we moved away. I parked and wandered through the same Ben Franklin five-and-dime store I'd visited as a kid. Not much had changed. There were still cheap plastic toys, jigsaw puzzles, model-building kits and generic candy. I didn't talk to the cashiers. It felt like I was intruding, an interloper in Paradise. Next door was the same clothing store my mom had taken me to over 20 years ago. The facade remained a 50's-style suburban classic, "Leader" written in man-sized cursive letters across the second story. Inside was a decor still making the transition from 80's to 90's, although the men's half had a more contemporary look. From there I crossed the street and went into the old, but gleaming-white post office. There was a mural inside I assumed was a product of the WPA, and the brass mouldings had a hallucinogenic effect on me. I swear I saw George Bailey behind the counter.

The Rum River Park was my next stop, a setting for some of my fondest childhood memories. I don't actually remember doing anything specific there, just vague recollections of picnics. The big shock was discovering it was 3 blocks from our old house. Back in the day it had easily appeared to be a car-worthy trip. Then again, I seem to recall driving to church, which was 2 blocks away. The park had hardly changed a bit, although, as with most of the town's preservation, this mainly looked like a case of benign neglect rather than studied restraint. I walked through the greenest-green grass, past a port-a-pottie, a sand volleyball court and a picnic shelter, all of which showed signs of, if not abandonment, then at best half-assed upkeep. It was hilly and tree-enclosed. To get a peek of the wide, lazy river, I had to hike through a wall of towering, deciduous timber. (I'm sorry. I grew up in the suburbs. I don't know shit about trees.) The hills weren't as mountainous or steep as I remembered, but I was happy to see the place mostly unchanged. The only significant landmark I'd forgotten was a large firepit encircled by stone benches. Of course, we'd never been into barbecuing.

I continued roaming the town, noticing the hospital had expanded and was probably the biggest local employer. The road that ran parallel to Hwy. 65 was under construction and unavailable for me to check out the drag where we used to go out to eat or rollerskating. The roller rink held a lot of memories: skating awkwardly to my favorite songs (that I only seemed to hear at the rink), such classics as "We Built This City" by Starship and "Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker, Jr. (Yes, I had to look up "Ray Parker, Jr."), and playing a primitive video game with my best friend Eric, wherein I steered the front end of a fire truck and he steered the rear. I found it to be a rather challenging game. Eric always took the back end because he was better at it, a fact he wasn't shy about sharing with me, and one of which I can be excused, since he was 4 years older. (If you're wondering what it was like to have a best friend who was 4 years my senior, the only word that comes to mind is "normal.")

But I already knew the roller rink was gone, along with the anonymous fast-food place next door where we'd often gone after a good, long skate. Previous homecomings had alerted me to that sobering reality. The time had come once again to bid adieu to my idealized, antediluvian childhood. I headed back south down Hwy. 65, back through the obstinately adolescent 'burbs to my new, mature home in Uptown. There were no maudlin, Movie-of-the-Week-style tears, just a wistful acceptance of the passage of time and the snow globes it leaves behind.

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