sunday post: hometowns.
by Michael King
Brazil, Indiana. Situated along I-70 between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. Around 8,000 citizens, most of whom are pretty white and pretty straight. A robust marching band program at the high school, small town football Friday nights, parades through the city dotting the calendar year. Churches on hilltops with gravel driveways, cemeteries where teenagers drive and turn the headlights off in search of ‘ghost lights.’ A Walmart, not Super but sufficient, and a 24-hour truck stop restaurant just off the interstate. Tractors periodically parked in the high school parking lot, cars whizzing by fields of corn and soybeans en route home.
We weren’t raised to proclaim our hometown with pride. As teenagers, we spent most of our time rolling our eyes and charting escape routes. Some of us lifted into the wind, and others abandoned those plans and put down roots. The best of us know that none of us was wrong.
Home doesn’t rinse from our limbs so easily; it sticks to our bones, binding itself to the marrow. This small town made of us inventors, the sort of people who can craft a story in the middle of nowhere. When we gather, our eyes dance as we sketch our favorite memories, sidewalk chalk on a wooden table: homecoming lip syncs, Halloween toilet-papering, reckless driving on backroads, fishing trips off the beaten path.
In New York City, when I tell people where I’m from, their response is generally this: Brazil? they say. Images of exotic South American scenery. How exotic.
I smile, shake my head. ‘Not at all.’
Almost 22 years into my story, my parents made the decision to relocate from the house I’d grown up in. In May of 2011, I came home from my Junior year of college and spent four days helping to pack up home for the move to Terre Haute. I stopped in at favorite restaurants, took scenic routes home, and ached with regret at the number of times I’d moved through this world without looking at it.
To my right, the park where my Dad tried (in vain) to teach me to swing a baseball bat. The left, the swimming pool where my older brother and I were baptized on a hot day, and I swam a little bit before getting out. Over there, the spot on the marching parking lot we all kissed as Seniors. The baseball diamond where my brother hit his first homerun, the gymnasium transformed into a dance floor each Fall, the golf course where we dared my friend to put a cicada on his tongue.
I made my first move to New York City that summer, interning on the Upper West Side at Columbia. On my first night, after spending too much money on shampoo and an Ethiopian dinner, I called my mom, then sister, then best friend in tears. I wasn’t sure what I’d done.
‘Wait until the morning,’ my best friend told me, ‘walk around and make yourself home.’ I believed him, so I hung up and exhaled, staring out the window and into a sea of lights.
There in a place I’d dreamt of calling home, and all I could think of was what I couldn’t bring with me.
While working at Ball State, a friend and I followed the opportunity to build a class. Forging it around mutual passion, we wanted to highlight stories that don’t always get heard, to cultivate a commitment to empathy in our students. The topics shifted drastically from class to class –– the #BlackLivesMatter movement, RuPaul’s Drag Race, being Muslim in a post-9/11 United States –– and we decided to invite a friend to discuss his hometown: Flint, Michigan. Vehicle City. Host of an ongoing (then, and now) water crisis.
We left most of the space for our friend to tell his story, to shed light on the deeply human element of this new story. Details like living rooms stacked to the ceiling with water bottles, traded like currency.
But, for our part, we had the class dig into the notion of hometowns. Not only the reputation of the places they call home, but their honest perspective of the people that hail from there. What is it, we asked them to reflect, that people from other places fail to see about your hometown?
We shared, and I realized we all held our hometowns with precarious hands. Our hometowns were ‘more than’ something –– more than cornfields, more than crime statistics, more than bigotry. More than a water crisis.
Our hometowns were teachers who worked their minds to exhaustion trying to crack ours open, friends who held us through tears and laughter, places our parents took us as children to watch our eyes widen, presents frantically opened on holiday mornings. Our hometowns were deeply significant to us, grafted against our roots, still informing the direction of our branches.
Yet, we acknowledged, we were all quite accustomed to joking them away. Mocking their worst corners, shrinking our description of them to match the impressions people already carry.
This past summer, my high school class held its ten-year reunion. We gathered, by popular demand, at a local dive bar called ‘Charlie’s Pub & Grub.’ Reserving the space was as easy as calling, requesting a date, and hanging up the phone.
At that moment in time, I was breathing between chapters: Having moved home from my job at Ball State, I had only recently accepted a job in New York City, and it had been some time since I’d seen most of the people from those years. Walking into the venue, my hands were a bit shaky; I wondered what people might think.
As people began to trickle in, however, that worry melted away. ‘Hey,’ we greeted each other, smiles in our eyes. Arms wrapped around one another, and updates quickly gave way to reminiscing. In those days, we divided our cafeteria into clear social territories; ten years later, we all seemed relieved than anybody remembered us. Stories tied us back together, stitches with threads we hadn’t noticed were hanging from us.
None of us had traveled so far from home, after all. It was with us all the while.
One last story, this time traveling back to the aforementioned summer internship at Columbia in 2011. Given the task of sorting through keys, I was paired with a guy named Tony. For two hours, we sat and glanced at keys, dropping them into envelopes and arranging them for easy access later. At first, we were quiet, but the boredom coaxed us into connecting.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked, and I sheepishly acknowledged Brazil, Indiana. He told me he’d grown up in the City, known it as home his whole life, and I chuckled and told him he was so lucky. ‘I think you’re the lucky one,’ he told me, shaking his head, ‘that’s what I want. A backyard, bonfires and friends. The kind of place where people care enough to notice you.’
I fell quiet. In my mind, a seed dropped into waiting soil: We do ourselves an injustice when we try to gloss over the pages that got us here. Even if we’re called to live somewhere new, journey out and make home of strange lands, we carry our hometowns along with us. Perhaps our hands weren’t meant to let them go. Perhaps the binding of our stories ache when we try ripping pages from their grasp.