Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How Did I Get (Back) Here?

"I don't want to change the world, I'm not looking for a new England, I'm just looking for another girl..." I listened to that song I don't know how many times when I was a teenager living in Westport, but I never heard that tiny indefinite article. "I'm not looking for New England," I sang along with my radio, and I thought, No, I'm not. I was looking to obliterate its memory forever, to flee and not look back. It never occurred to me that the singer of that song might have been coming from (and singing about) another place entirely. That, I think, is a fault of Connecticut: a self-importance that literally comes with the territory. I also thought the Beatles’ song went "She's got a ticket to Rye." But then, when you've spent countless hours of your childhood on Metro North trains, going back and forth between the only two places that really mean anything to you, what else can you think?

On one of those train rides, when I was quite young, my parents told me that no one lived in Noroton Heights. (They have a strange idea of fun.) I believed it for much longer than was reasonable. No one ever did get off the train there, that I could see...well, you never know. When I was young the greatest dichotomy possible was the start and end of that hour-long Westport to New York train ride. There was the excitement of reaching the little tunnel and then the big tunnel; the dimly lit catacombs of Grand Central; the mystery, more predictable as I got older, of which doors would open onto the platform after the train rolled to a stop. After that there was the moment of stillness bursting into motion; the expectant step onto the concrete; the stream of people out and up and into the world. The trips to New York lasted less than a day, but they were more real to me than anything about my daily Westport life. At the same time they were heightened, fantastical, like dreams. For a few hours I was freed from the suburban prison where I'd been incarcerated, presumably by some sort of administrative mistake, and released into my city, the city where I was born, where I belonged. In my city the sidewalks sparkled and I subsisted on chocolate cookies from Zaro's and red Italian Ices from carts that always seemed to turn up whenever and wherever I wanted. But soon there would be a cab back to Grand Central, a sleepy walk back down the platform, a sluggish side-to-side journey North, and a sing-song male voice that said, "Station stop Weeeeestport..." The train doors would open and my parents and I and the other Westport people would get off. Sometimes only one door would open, as if the town wasn't important enough to warrant both; though it was important enough, unlike some other towns, for every car to platform every time. The other people getting off in Westport had a sort of strutting stance that told everyone else on the train just how important they, and their town, were.

Provincial towns will do that to you, blind you, make themselves seem greater and more central to your landscape than they really are. And so in my mind Westport became Connecticut, and Connecticut became New England entire. I’d sit in my room and do my High School homework and Billy Bragg would sing on static-y WDRE, broadcast from somewhere on Long Island where the lights flashed at night across the Sound, "I'm not looking for New England." A little mis-heard expression of defiance against a place that I hadn’t chosen, that I wasn’t looking for at all.

But maybe, I half admitted over a decade later as I pondered moving to New London, maybe I sort of was. Perhaps you can take the girl out of Connecticut but she'll eventually be compelled to return. Perhaps, like the Pilgrims, trying to reach New York but forced North by a contrary wind, I would end up in New England whether I wanted to be there or not. Sometimes you get blown off-course and the wrong course becomes the only course there could have been. Either I was looking for New England or, in the words of Billy Bragg, I was just looking for another girl. Not the girl I'd been the first time around, the girl I'd abandoned somewhere near the disused toll-booths on the way to New York at 17, but a counterfactual fantasy girl. A girl blown off-course by destiny, or to be super extra New- England-y about it, providence; a girl who could live in Connecticut and actually enjoy it.

The enjoying part was why, when I moved back, I moved to the state’s eastern half. I was still fascinated by western Connecticut and what made it (or rather its Rolex watches) tick. But this time I wanted to live on the other side of the line. And there is a line, as sure as if some Colonial-era surveyor drew it there. I’m not exactly sure where the line is (east of Guilford? east of Madison? down the center of the Connecticut River?) but you know when you’ve crossed it. Suddenly people smile at you; they don’t expect you to look like a J. Crew model and have degrees from three Ivies; they don’t own Hummers, and if they do, they don’t interpret that fact as a mandate to cut you off. A different world. When I'd lived in New London for about a year I drove with an old friend, also from Westport, up route 32 to Norwich and then up route 169 along the Connecticut Wine Trail. We passed through time-warped block-long main streets and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them communities whose classification teetered between small-town and rural. Erstwhile mills remained, abandoned or refurbished, beside rivers. Grand Victorians loomed high on hills, relics of a past great age. My friend stared out the passenger side window and said, 'This isn't Connecticut!' But it was. It is. And it had become a place that I was looking for.

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