Friday, March 28, 2008

There and Back Again

The closer I bullet towards age thirty, the more I grow tired of America. Take my trip home this past Christmas. I drove through the suburbs of Philadelphia, frowning at the shopping centers and McMansions encroaching on the hills and farmland. I rolled down the window and yelled at the urban sprawl: "Thanks for bulldozing my childhood!"

I wanted to live somewhere untouched by man. So this spring break, instead of returning to Philly, I decided to check out the United Kingdom.

Friends and family were ecstatic. They gushed, "You are going to love it!" They imagined me, as I did, a lone writer, wandering through green lands of crags and castles and cute pale boys with whimsical accents. Together, we chanted the amenities of the UK. The museums! The trains! The architecture! The clothes! The Guinness! It was all talk. I had never been out of the country before.

So… did I love it? No. I didn't love it. On my last day in Edinburgh, I sat in a coffee shop with some Scottish guys and told them why.

"It's just like America," I said.

They gasped, groaned, and grabbed their stomachs.

"No offense," one said. "But we're used to thinking that we're better than America. I mean, the stereotypical American."

"What is the stereotype?" I asked.

"Loud. Obnoxious. Selfish."

This cracked me up. It was exactly why I had left the US, and exactly why I had no intention of staying in the UK. In my travels, I met many obnoxious people. Some were Americans. Some were not.

In London coffee shops, British girls screamed Avril Lavigne songs and left faucets running in the restrooms. On the street, Asian mothers banged strollers into my ankles. Little Indian boys escaped from their parents and knocked me over. German teens blew smoke in my face. Cars clipped my toes at the curb. I arrived at one B&B to find the proprietress not home, leaving me to sit on the front stoop in the blustery cold. On the train to Edinburgh, my seatmate, a three hundred pound Caribbean woman, ate three chocolate bars and passed out on me. Everywhere I went, I saw people acting like jerks.

But I met nice people too. I traveled alone, taking trains from town to town. Each time before boarding, I asked someone if I was headed in the right direction. When I got lost, passersby stopped to help. Many heard my accent and stopped me, wanting to know why I was in the country and what I thought of Barack Obama. Without their friendliness, I would have felt more alone than I was.

In one town, a group of Italian PhD students invited me to a party. In another, two Liverpudlian brothers warned me of tourist traps. A British Air Force pilot joined me for dinner, simply because I sat alone. A couple teachers invited me to their primary school graduation. Old Yorkshire men sat beside me on the train and told me the history of every town we passed by. Just outside of Edinburgh, I looked out the window at the cliffed coast to see two people walking their dog, and waving up to our train.

Even the Scottish guys were kind enough to put stereotypes aside. They hung out with me, and didn't hit me when I gave my thoughtless survey of their country. They let me explain myself.

"What I mean to say," I told them. "Is that we're all the same. We're not as different as we think we are. I mean it in a good way."

They nodded and agreed. One of the guys went, "Awww."

Still, I decided not to move to the UK. Being away made me realize how much I loved America. Traveling alone made everything look lonely. The castles and patchwork fields lost their romance, once they became part of the every day. I thought: Give me the Jersey shore, Valley Forge, and a Target any day.

Landscape has so little to do with what we call home. It's people that make a place. If people are the same everywhere, I'd rather surround myself with the ones that I know and love. I'd rather have a place to come home to, than a place to run away from.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Memoirs of a Vale Rat

I don't remember much from the summer of 1995. I spent it smoking blunts and drinking forties of malt liquor. Every day, that was the goal. I was sixteen.

One night, my friends and I drove around Phoenixville and couldn't find anything. Somebody said, "Hey, let's go to the Vale."

The Vale Rio diner was an electric pink dining car that had sat in the center of Phoenixville since 1943. As we pulled into the parking lot, I wondered why I'd never been there before. It was just the kind of place I'd want to hang out. I wasn't like my friends. When the they talked about moving to Long Beach, California, I smiled wistfully. I wanted to go to New York City or Ireland. I wanted to play my guitar, discuss philosophy and poetry with other intellectual wanderers. My friends wanted what rappers talked about in songs, "A little bit of gold and a pager." But for me, the greasy spoon of the Vale Rio was poetry.

We walked in. The Vale was packed. Kids filled the smoking section. There were band kids from our school, and some of the punks and goths from the Carrie Court apartments. My friends and I tentatively hung at the counter. In no time, the kids that we knew started hollering our names. They introduced us around. We were welcomed into the fold.

A couple punk guys invited me into their booth. Piercings covered their faces; tattoos covered their arms. They wore big ripped sweaters and smoked cheap cigarettes, just like me. They invited me to play Egyptian Ratscrew. When I told them I didn't know how to play, they taught me. We played, and told each other our life stories.

At the end of an hour, we were old friends. The boys admitted to me that they hung out at the Vale, because it kept them from drugs. At sixteen, seventeen, some of them had already been in rehab, psych wards, or Juvy. The Vale gave them a safe place where they could hang out and have a good time.

It came time to leave, and I didn't want to go. The very next night, as my friends and I drove around in search of forties and blunts, I suggested going back to the Vale. Nobody wanted to. It struck me as weird, because they'd had fun too.

The following weeks, I went through a transition. I started my senior year of high school. My summer boyfriend dumped me. By mid-October, I was hanging out at the Vale every night.

My old friends continued to drink and smoke every day after school. Like a bad after school special, they tried harder and harder drugs. Some dropped out of school. Some got stuck in the canticle of drug addiction-on and off sobriety, crime, jail time, homelessness. Some died.

The night before I left for college, I sat out on the corner of my neighborhood, talking to two of them while they snorted coke off a clear glass plate.

"Don't look down on me for this, Anne," one of them said, bending her head into a rolled up dollar bill.

"I don't," I said.

And I didn't. I looked down on our community instead.

We were outsiders. From the first day of school, teachers and school administration dubbed us as bad kids, because we weren't interested in sports, and our clothing and musical tastes skated off the norm. We couldn't relate to them, and we couldn't relate to our parents either. When unleashed from our homes, we wanted to get as far away from it all as we could.

Unfortunately, as of last week, that option doesn't exist anymore. The Vale closed last weekend. The owner sold the lot to the Walgreens corporation. There is talk that the diner will open somewhere else in town. Most townies are doubtful, too disenchanted with all the other recent renovations to Phoenixville. I don't live in Phoenixville anymore, so I don't have the right to say anything. I can only say goodbye.

A man has the right to do what he wants with his business. This is a right that I would fight for, before I'd fight to keep any diner alive.

But still, I wonder what is better for the community. I wonder where the kids are going to go.

The Vale
Photo by Kelly Neff
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Me in the Vale, 1997
Photo by Gregg Oldstein
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