I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, back when suburbs were leafy and dense, with public transportation connecting them to downtown.
But my hometown is Urbana, Illinois, where I went to high school and college.
You can’t imagine two places more different. My Brooklyn-bred parents never acclimated and my mother eventually homed back on the city and moved to Chicago. My father is still there, but it’s never felt like a natural fit to me, despite the fact that he passes for a native, corn-fed wife and all. The landscape is flat. There are no rocks. Public transportation hits the edge of town, if you’re lucky, and turns back around like there’s a force field preventing you leaving.
Eventually, of course, most everyone leaves. The diaspora from my high school graduating class stretches from Chicago to Texas to Manhattan to California to Tasmania. I left with a man, homing in on Chicago, his hometown. And now, I suppose, more than 30 years later, I’m a Chicagoan.
Growing up in a college town comes with a strange dissonance, because millions of people your age also “gorw up” there, so that having conversations with people about your hometown often ends with “oh yeah, I lived there. That’s where I went to school.” They think they know Urbana, but they don’t remember when there was a movie theater in downtown Urbana, assuming they can even find downtown Urbana. They don’t remember when the Courier Cafe was actually a newspaper office, complete with printing presses, which was my secret source of giant endrolls of newsprint. I used to bring it to the art department when everyone else was buying it at the art supply store. Because I was from Urbana and knew where to go. Even those of us who stayed home to go to college think of ourselves as “town” not “gown”.
As has happened with high school classes across America, mine reconnected several years ago via Facebook. So many years after graduation, you find that the petty issues of high school are gone. The cheerleader and the freak are friends. The freak discovers that the cheerleader was probably a cheerleader because she’s so damn friendly and nice, and the cheerleader discovers the freak was a freak because she’s so quirky and creative. And everyone discovers this bond that is the hometown. “I know what you know” is a powerful glue.
I homed in on home this week, because the man that I left here with, 30+ years ago, left our home today. I couldn’t bear to be there to watch him strip away half my life so that he could start a new one. And as I drove down I57, through the cornfields, past the familiar towns, and turned onto Lincoln Avenue I realized that you carry your hometown with you, and no one can take that away.
There really is no place like home.