Monday, September 21, 2009


I suppose one of the reasons I've stayed with the same insurance agent for many years is because anytime I have to deal with her one-on-one, it means a trip back to my old home town, which somehow turns into a different experience every time I return. This weekend involved a vehicular misadventure which prompted just such a trip, and I found myself lost in time, shuttling back and forth between past lives.

I took the back way to Perry, from through Waukee and Adel, a route I used to drive every day when I shuttled children from all over Dallas County to Head Start in Adel. There weren't that many kids on the route, and they weren't too talkative, so they were forced to just sit there and listen to whatever music I liked, Siamese Dream and Melon Collie-era Smashing Pumpkins, Automatic For The People-era REM, and lots and lots of Beck. None of that shows up in my personal playlist these days, but I could hear it all in my head as I drove down the hill along Highway 6, 1995 fading into early '96, a period where I could feel it in my bones, that finally my life was building to something, when anything seemed possible.

In a sense, that was true. The spring, summer and autumn of '96 were marked by my belated efforts at a libertine period, living life with an abandon I'd never known before, and early in '97, I met what I thought was the perfect woman, and embarked on a whole new life, far away from the places and people I'd always known.

But that life fell apart, and the only safe place to pick up the pieces seemed to be back in Perry, where, due to dire financial straits and a period of unemployment, I moved in with Mom, who had returned to the house I had briefly called my own in that wild period in the mid-nineties. It was many years down the road, but Mom hadn't changed the alterations I'd made to the house: The walls in the living room were still painted gray and the ceiling black, and the chalky white image of a sword-wielding skeleton continued to welcom you into the bathroom, where the walls remained adorned with favorite quotes from James Joyce and Hunter Thompson.

Lord knows why Mom hadn't had somebody paint over all that (though I believe she was particularly tickled by the Thompson quote, which I'd illustrated with a garish charcoal crayon scrawl of a nightmarish clown), but when I found myself back in the house in the late summer of 2002, all those signifiers of my previous life seemed to mock me, to remind me of the person I was, the person I'd never be again.

Life continued there for several months. I got a job, put away some money, made plans to escape. But unlike before, I couldn't quite imagine a future this time. The person who'd painted those walls was someone who pounded out endless streams of wordage, for payment or for his own amusement, while draining six packs of Rolling Rock as The Replacements blasted in the background. But he'd been replaced by a person who no longer felt the ability or desire to write, and who hardly even listened to music anymore. Joy was a thing of the past. Mom tried to keep my spirits up, but I was too old to be mothered, and after striking out in the world, this small town seemed like nowhere.

Perry had nothing to offer me at that point in my life, no comfort to give. Yet today as I drove away from the insurance office, I ate at the Chines buffet at the strip mall by the bypass, then drove through downtown and stopped at the library. And it was all exactly the same, but the feeling was different. For maybe the first time, I remembered that brief period with some measure of fondness. My situation then seemed so hopeless, all I could see, all I could feel was negativity. But now I remembered how good the food was at this particular restaurant, and as I walked through the library, I noticed the shelves still held a copy of Jamie Farr's autobiography Just Farr Fun, which I had checked out once as a joke, and wound up...well, not enjoying, but at least reading. (Skimming, actually.) It was a pleasant memory of a more pleasant time, or at least more pleasant than I'd ever allowed it to be.

I ended my trip by stopping into Alco, the discount store that opened with much fanfare back in '76, part of a regional chain that was once seen as a threat to Main Street businesses, much as Wal-Mart is viewed now. And at the time, Alco was something new for a small town, offering one-stop shopping for everything, toys and electronics and clothes and hardware. You couldn't find everything there, but you could find most of what you'd need for day-to-day living.

Alco today is much like it was then. The clothes they carry are still mostly from Wrangler and Haggar, the electronics are still manufactured by Emerson, and even the piped-in music hadn't changed: Peg, Steely Dan's inescapable radio hit from '77. That was the summer I started really listening to music, and began writing and drawing a comic strip solely for the amusement of my brother, and where, in this very store, I bought a paperback of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and LPs of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and George Gershwin's Concerto In F, and of course, the novelization of Star Wars, and I was struck then as I am now by the fact that this place, so mundane and provincial, contained so many things which would point me to another, better world, which would take me away and, ultimately, bring me back home.