Pat Brothwell explores what happens when your hometown is on the downward slide and in the process writes a love letter to Northeast PA.
There’s a song from Bruce Springsteen’s 2012 Wrecking Ball album called “Death to my Hometown” that always (well, since last year) struck a chord with me. I think it’s partially because it was the opening number last time I saw him in concert and partially because I like anything with a Celtic sound. Mostly though, and I maybe didn’t want to admit this as much, the main reason it resonated so strongly is that the title describes my life.
The song is about the destruction of a small town. It says how no “dictators” or “armies” or “bombs” were responsible for the demise, but rather it was due to poor economic choices and irresponsible spending by those in government and big business. While I could relate to the title and the refrain’s stately repetition of “death to my hometown”, I really have no connection to the verses. You see, you need some prosperity in order for corporations to take it away. If we’re talking about monetary prosperity then my hometown’s been dead since my birth. We’re not though. We’re talking about a way of life, dreams for the future and my very perception of “home.”
While my home address is technically Browndale, Pennsylvania, a tiny blip on the map about a half hour north of Scranton, I’m going to focus more on Northeastern Pennsylvania (or NEPA as we locals call it) as a region. NEPA initially made most of her money off anthracite coal. If you know anything about coal you know that it hasn’t been mined in PA since the 1960’s. NEPA’s since been somewhat of a laughing stock. Look up the SNL vice-presidential debates and see how Jason Sudeikas as Joe Biden eviscerates his home turf for an example.
Still I love it. I never actually wanted to leave but knew that I had to. Mine isn’t a unique story. There’s an exodus of 20-somethings out of the region simply because the job market is pitiful. I could have stayed at home and lived with my parents and substitute taught for years without having so much as an opening and even then, the employment process is so tedious and wrought with nepotism and small town politics that doing a good job and putting in your time isn’t always enough. That’s part of the reason the areas dying.
I got a job out of college because I was willing to move three hours away. I always had it in my head that I’d go and sow my proverbial wild oats and then return home to the motherland to raise a family. I don’t know that’s a smart option for me.
Growing up there were always plenty of people who did want to just leave town and never look back. I was never one of them. I had a happy childhood and began in college to realize that that childhood was unique. I knew most of my friends since kindergarten, we never locked our doors and still when I return home if I’m at my house or a friends I leave my keys in the ignition. While my college peers spent their days playing video games and going to underage keggers, I played make believe on old railroad tracks and went to bonfires in the woods. NEPA’s always had somewhat of a time warp quality to it, Stand By Me meets Dazed and Confused. It was a great way to grow up.
I’ve been spending a lot of home lately. Being young and not tied down and having the summers off affords me this luxury. I’m also trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life and my parents are my biggest supporters and co-conspirators. At a time when I feel like I have no direction, going home calms and centers me. But home is changing.
Last time I arrived home my parents were out of town for the night. I tried to get in the house but it was locked. I didn’t even know we had keys. I tried the window (sometimes when the doors got locked growing up we’d jimmy a window) but those were locked as was the backdoor, cellar, and garage. Luckily the crisis was averted when I called my sister and she gave me the garage code (I don’t live at home, so I don’t know it). She works nightshift and was sleeping inside and not impressed with my actions. I asked her why the door was locked and was told it was something we’d started doing. Later that weekend my dad lectured me about leaving the keys in the ignition. It just wasn’t smart anymore, he explained.
Driving around NEPA these days, I notice the boarded up store fronts, the excess of “for rent” signs, all the family homes being converted into low income apartments and sometimes the abandoned factories and remnants of the mining the scar the landscape look like junk, rather than nostalgia. It seems like the parts of NEPA that gave it character and quirk, even though they might have been a little backwards too, are dying as well.
NEPA’s always been depressed, but now it seems generically so.
Old Home Week, the town block party that I’ve always scheduled my summer around was cancelled this year. The Coalminers, a real dive a bar, but a dive of a bar that carried a ton of great memories and had breakfast for under $3.00 and was open every day even Christmas is one of the aforementioned abandoned storefronts and just this Christmas break while having a very NEPA-inspired night of drinking and sledding with my cousin I realized they’d torn Holy Trinity down. It was the church my parents got married in, where we buried my grandfather, and home to the only mass of the year, Christmas Eve that I look forward to. Apparently it’d been gone for a while before I noticed. That one stung.
I’m not really sure if I’m going to reach any finite conclusions in writing this piece. I’m not even sure that this story has a happy ending. I do know that the death of my hometown really emphasizes change. Sometimes we fight change and sometimes we embrace it and then sometimes the very constants that you think will stand the test of time and change don’t. What could you do about? Hell if I know.
I do know that I’m going to be a little bit more cognizant of the things I love about home. I’m going to try and not be so rushed and stressed when I go there. I’m going to try and enjoy it just a little bit more than I already do. And for today at least, I’m going to be secure in the fact that a planned visit home in a couple of days will result in a long dinner of burgers and watermelon and corn on the cob and pasta salad (seemingly the only summer meal prepared in my house) on my back deck. I’ll go for fifteen cent wings and six dollar pitchers of Coors light on Thursday night and consume too many of both. I’ll play tennis with my uncle on the shitty local courts where plants crawling through the pavement will disrupt my volley, but that’s how I grew up playing , so it won’t phase me and hopefully I’ll make it down to my favorite bar where your tab usually doesn’t exceed 20 if you play your cards right.
Why mourn something that isn’t completely dead yet.