Thursday, September 10, 2009

Town of My Dreams

Sometimes at night, as I drift off to sleep, or when I can't sleep, I play a game with myself. I imagine that I'm in Bethel, Connecticut, my home town, circa 1965, when I was seven years old. I imagine myself walking down Greenwood Avenue, the town's main street, and into its stores as they were back then.

The object of the game is simple and it is this: to recall, as vividly as possible, the town I grew up in, as it exists in my earliest memories.

Bit by bit, store by store, I put together the town of my childhood, now of my dreams. I start with Tony's food market, at the north end of town where the main street climbs up a hill. I see the meat section there, and the mounds of ground beef that looked, to me as a child, like spaghetti. Tony Junior stands in his bloody white smock behind the meat counter, while his father, Tony Senior, works one of three cash registers, the one nearest the door. Tony Senior's hair has gone gray, but he's younger than Tony Junior today; younger than the man dreaming this now (Tony Senior has passed away).

From the meat department I go down the aisles one by one, seeing the cereal and oatmeal boxes, the stacked cans of soup, vegetables, and fruits, the frozen peas and lima beans and ice cream boxes in their freezers, the racks of spices and baby food, the bins holding oranges and peaches and other fresh produce, the pyramid-like stacks of tomatoes.

And it all makes me happy. Why?

From Tony's I head down to Noe's clothes store, where for years my mother outfitted my twin brother and me. As I step in the door I smell the blue jeans piled up on shelves, a deep, rich, cottony smell. I see Mr. Noe with his yellow tape measure behind the counter, and next to him a white-haired woman, I forget her name—but she's always there, with red lipstick and pinched face.

In the dream I see and even recognize some of these people, but they can't see me; I'm invisible. It makes me wonder. The ghosts whose presences we feel every so often, are they people like me lying in bed and dreaming in some future that I will never live to see? Will somebody somewhere someday dream up me?

I could name all the stores going all the way down the street: the hobby shop, with its glass cases and golden trains, Jerome's Five-and-Ten-Cent store, with its candy racks of Life Savers and Pez (and Mr. Jerome on crutches with white shirt), Nelson's hardware, Norton Jewelers, Elsa-Edna, the Booklet: the little white house where books were sold, and where I first fell in love with a book (called The Ship, packed with beautiful, full-color illustrations)....

When I dream my town this way, I always feel a sense of wonder and warmth: for the boy I was back then, and for the town that was so much a part of me it seems to have been one with my substance, and vice-versa.

Later, as I grew older and sophisticated, I would find things to complain about, how my town was boring, how small its minds were, how little it had to do with the world, how small, how drab, how provincial, how dreary—how the only hope it offered was that of escape.

Later still, my attitude would soften. As life in the big city dealt me blow after blow after blow, I would think back on my small-town past with a nostalgia as sweet and brown as honey, but that my occasional visits back home failed to support. In this alone I may have something in common with Samuel Johnson, who, in middle age, found the experience of returning to his childhood Litchfield less than satisfactory:
I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My play-fellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young. My only remaining friend had changed his principles, and was become the tool of the predominant faction . . . I wandered about for five days, and took the first convenient opportunity of returning to a place, where, if there is not much happiness, there is at least such a diversity of good and evil, that slight vexations do not fix upon the heart.
If I were to return bodily to Bethel now, I too would find the town that I knew as a child gone, replaced by one vastly less charming. Now the only way back there is through my dreams.

Tonight, I'll go there again.

I never get tired of going.

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