Some people need to get the hell out of their hometowns and others need to get their hometowns the hell out of them.
“I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Greensboro,” My friend Jim says.
We are sitting in a natty bar on a Friday evening in San Francisco’s Mission District. They serve 16 ounce martinis here, strong ones and nothing else. Jim takes a sip of his drink and glances through the big open window at the people walking by who rival the people-watching inside.
“You know what I mean don’t you?” he says.
It is more of a statement than a question. It’s still in his voice, the lilting southern accent, the gracious manner, the kindness more honeyed than sweet tea. He has soaked up the best of North Carolina just as surely as the summer air above the central valley draws in the cool ocean mist over this jewel in the bay.
We were both born and raised in Greensboro, separated by a few years but not by experience. The 1960’s through 1980’s claimed our youth there, but I never knew Jim then. Both of us writers, I wrote a piece about my neighborhood swim team mascot which was a confederate rebel and he wrote a piece about fried chicken. The words found each other through the Internet and we became friends. The ink of our hometown runs through our stories like blood.
After high school Jim escaped to San Francisco and I made my way to Boston much later, both of us attempting to distance ourselves from the past and licking the wounds of our teenage years. Growing up gay in the south was not a pleasant experience then, probably still isn’t.
We take another sip of our drinks and for a moment, I can hear an echo from the boys on my high school bus.
“BFA, BFA, Butt Fuck Alert.”
It was a crude chant that they had concocted to shout at anyone appearing to be a “homo”. Not exactly a game-worthy cheer, but you had to give them credit for coming up with such a catchy acronym. If I were rating it on American Bandstand I’d give it a 58; great beat but you really couldn’t dance to it.
As if Jim can hear his own version of high school agony, he changes the conversation.
“Best barbecue in the world was Stamey’s,” he says and immediately I can taste the sweet pulled pork sandwiches slathered with Cole-slaw served with a side of salty hush-puppies.
“Which one?” I ask.
“High Point Road, that’s where they made it,” Jim replies.
“Oh, we were Battleground Road,” I say as if it was pre-ordained. People took their barbecue as seriously as their religion in North Carolina. You picked your place of worship and prayed for anyone who could not see the light.
Peering through the bottom of our martini glasses, we look at the past and continue to recount hometown stories, not all of them unpleasant.
There was no Internet, no smart–phones, no DVR’s or anything to connect you to the world at large. Life was Andy Griffith, front porches, whirring cicadas and yawning maids stepping off of the hissing city bus in the early morning hazy sun. It was the feigned face you wore in public versus the pain you felt in private. It was the country club that you did not belong to and the rows of tobacco passing by the car windows like spokes of a wheel on your annual summer vacation to the sandy outer banks. It was Buffalo creek swelling up and spilling over Latham Road during a July gully-washer. It was swim meets, beach music and sweet tea.
It was the place where my daughters drew their first breaths and my father exhaled his last.
It was trying to fit into a world where no one was out.
“Would you ever move back?” Jim asks.
“God no,” I say.
I turn to look at my husband Paul who has been sitting quietly, patiently listening to us and who is a “Yankee” as southerners are apt to call anyone born above the Mason-Dixon Line. People speak of southern hospitality and northern rudeness, but I have a tough time reconciling that. There are no kinder or more loving people than Paul and his family, though I may be biased. And if you were to draw a line separating this nation you’d find a bright red one outlining North Carolina where morality is legislated and “Bless your heart” is a veiled way of saying fuck you.
Jim looks at his watch, time to get back to his husband and partner Nick, of thirty two years. Thirty two years. I envy him that. How many times did I move, dragging along a wife and two daughters hoping each time we’d find home? But I now know that if I had taken any other road or travelled at a different speed, there would be two dark seats where my daughters now sit and I would have missed the intersection where Paul was patiently standing.
We hug and part ways, promising to meet again when our travels take us to each other’s home. Paul takes my hand as we merge into the crowd. We could be walking along the cobble stone sidewalks in the South End of Boston or The Embarcadero straddling the sparkling San Francisco bay. Somehow, they feel the same to me. In that piercing moment when the buzz of the bar fades into the starry night I realize that I could live almost anywhere, because I’m finally at home with myself. Some people need to get the hell out of their hometowns and others need to get their hometowns the hell out of them.
Photo credit: Flickr/jhritz