Where You’re From
Last night we walked up to the bodega on 181st street and got some Cafe Bustelo cheap expresso ground tin can coffee, some bacon, a package of multi-grain English muffins (all they had to choose from)(stacks of multigrain but no reg., baby), a random mixed six pack of beer because people just buy beer all mismatched at that place, so like sure it started out as Sam Adams, but wound up with no Sam Adams in it, couple Sierra Nevadas, an oddball beligium beer not made by a monk, a pilsner from Mars.
All through the bodega, we were followed by a gray bodega cat who rubbed his body against us and loved us. This bodega cat followed us passed the toilet paper and the cheese section, passed the Pringles cans, passed the soups and soap and newspapers and when we paid at the register, and started to walk out through the door with its steel net welded over the window, I thought the bodega cat might come with us and live out the rest of his days with us. Just follow us up Broadway, follow us passed the empty park, follow us up the cracked marble stairs in our bomb-shelter-having pre war building.
But, bodega cat stayed at the doorway, staring out at us on the street and the guy who owns the bodega smiled like “Nice try!”
The other day I was down in NJ in the town where I grew up, driving a filmmaker around so he could get some still shots. Landscapes, mostly. We went to places I knew well, and so I was kinda giving him a tour in a way of my most nostalgia soaked spots, “here’s where my first girlfriend lived”, “oh look at that, they finally tore that down” (points at nothing), “here’s where I almost got my first DWI, almost” … we needed some shots of the marina, and the bay and the pine barrens and the sand pits,with their graffiti concrete end of the world walls and of course if we could find them, renegade dirt bikers.
On the way out of the sandpits, I drove passed the campground where I grew up. We didn’t need any shots from inside the campground, but I pulled in there anyway and as we drove up the dirt road, I was happy to see that the house I grew up in was no longer a house that was rented out, but was more or less exactly the same as it was when I lived there in 1990 (with 70s decor)(dark wood paneling, everything tile and shag rug) and the house was now a ‘Deluxe Cabin’ and get this, it was empty. No one there. I stood at the window peeking in at the living room where I used to sit indian style and draw monsters instead of doing my homework.
Nostalgia is a window with a dirty screen and foggy glass. If you squint through the spiderwebs, you have a chance of remembering why you are who you are. Crazy how we forget, getting caught up in chasing money around, trying not to grow old in a blink, trying not to get lost on new streets aimed at new things.
I’ve been writing about this campground house that I used to live in, and the arcade under the general store (with the window unlocked one winter and we climbed in and played Dig Dug and Mrs. PacMan during a lonley, snowy NJ winter). I’ve been writing about camp fires and first stolen beers out of a vacationers unguarded cooler when my friends and I were 14. The building with the communal showers we climbed up on to look down the sky light at the girls coming back from canoeing. I’ve been going back in my memories to this place, thinking about the purple Ghostbusters slime on the door to mine and my brother’s bedroom, the swing set where I found a $50 bill in the dirt … and unexpectedly, here I was standing at the doorway to this place frozen in my memory.
And trying the doorknob, the door was unlocked and no one was looking.
So, the filmmaker and I walked in. I walked through the room where I grew up, shared with my brother with bunk beds. Through the kitchen where I had been electrocuted by the toaster with wet hands and thought it was a ghost. Into the living room where my mom and dad had payed Legend of Zelda (separate, he was day shift, she was night shift), feverishly trying to be the first person in the house to beat it. Wound up being my mom. Walked down the hallway to the room where my mom and dad lived and I used to sneak in and steal money from her purse while she was sleeping off a night shift at the factory, so I could go and play arcade games down in the basement of the campground general store.
I bring all this up, because there used to be a gray cat that we had. His name was Lucky. He used to follow me all around the campground, no leash. He’d just follow along wherever I walked. Up and down the dirt roads that looped around the campground. Out into the sand pits, walking through the dirt bike trails, just wherever. He was the weirdest cat. More a cat-dog than anything. Just so friendly and so chill. When I met that bodega cat last night, he reminded of Lucky.
Leaving the campground house, the owner of the campground caught me and the filmmaker driving out and he pulled up next to us like he was going to bring the apocalypse down on us. “Can I ask what you’re doing here?”
I told him I used to live the house over on the hill and he looked over in the direction of the house over on the hill and I didn’t mention how we’d just broken in there and taken a bunch of pictures and I had thought about the ghost of my ‘suburban coulda-been bodega cat’ and the owner just said, “Okay, well be careful driving around here, the guys in the machines are really whipping through this place”
He meant the workers in their front end loaders, cleaning up the mess from the winter. Because the campground was just about to open again for the season, the first of the RV owners coming back to the Jersey Shore.
I’m siting at my desk right now, third floor up, in apartment 12 on the intersection of Haven Ave. and 173rd Street in NYC. I’ve got a cup of Cafe Bustelo coffee, I’m listening to the birds outside the window, which is open, because spring is here now. I’ve settled on that. Winter is over and the fire escape window will be open wide as long as I am at my desk, record player going, my hands crunched up like little claws as I type about the good things in my life.