Thoughts from the Old Stomping Grounds

Last fall I spent a few days wandering around my old hometown where I hadn’t lived in over 25 years. It was an interesting study in memory and change that I’m still writing about, trying to come to terms with what I remember, what I don’t, what the town remembers and what it doesn’t, etc. One of the things that fascinated me was the way I could pinpoint things that were buried under twenty five years of a reconstructed landscape. I was trying to remember an old dam and fire pit that I used to camp beside out in a wooded patch in the midst of long meadows that ran behind the “golden mile” of route 40. At that point it was still pretty much farmland and meadows everywhere. But the town has grown exponentially since then; those fields are now miles and miles of townhouses, malls, and roads. How then did I walk right to the point in the stream–now completely unrecognizable from memory, a complete different stream course and topograpy–and find the remnants of the old dam?

Yesterday, I wandered around another one of my old haunts, Brattleboro, VT. I only lived there about 4 years but it has been 21 years since I lived there. What I found interesting was that my experience was the complete opposite of going back to Frederick: here the changes were minimal. It’s really the same town, same landscape, but it felt completely alien. It’s still the old hippie haven I remember, but I had trouble acknowledging that this is the place I had lived. Sure, I got there the more I wandered around. Twenty years later, the Shin-La is still running with the same family at the helm and the flavors came back to me in a flash, the crisp dumplings, the fresh ginger, the really hot, really good KimChi–I’ve yet to ever find Korean food as good as theirs:

Mount Wantastiquet still looms across the river, the same scene I woke up to every day from our tiny apartment, 6 floors up above the railroad tracks (how I remember that bright morning sun flooding into the apartment as it crested Wantastiquet–being, as we were, too cheap and/or ignorant to get any kind of room-darkening shades).

(that’s our old porch with the yellowish railings in the middle at the very top–great place)

Sure some things have changed, but nothing remarkable. It’s all got the same feeling, despite say landmarks like Three Dollar Dewey’s (the bar where I really learned to appreciate good beer) now having long since become McNeill’s brewery in the old firehouse and the old Dewey’s building long since torn down, turned into a parking lot which is now so old that even it is being rebuilt:

Here’s the “new” McNeill’s, now going on 21 (Ray & Holiday were finishing it up when we left–we got to drink there several times in its early days when I was still coming back to Vermont to finish up school at Goddard and then my MFA at Vermont College, both “low-residency” programs in northern Vermont). It still looks pretty much the same, (well, except for the parking ramp that sprung up behind it) and still has the same long wood tables, dart boards, and green swirled tiffany lights over the bar that were all in Dewey’s as well (I do mean the same, not the same style).

Other things that have changed, though, are actually still pretty much the same. For instance, the hippie co-op restaurant I worked at has been out of business for about ten years (really longer, but it had a couple of “revival” periods until it finally went under for good I think in ’02 or ’03 (I could be wrong on that–fellow Vermonters feel free to help me with the story). Yet, the sign remains, the mural on the wall remains, the beautiful old sun-porch remains even if now looking pretty decrepit (but frankly the building was pretty decrepit back when I was there. I remember when we’d have dances, the whole floor swayed and buckled so much that I was sure it was only a matter of time before the whole place would fell into the lower level–a pharmacy at the time, so that’s changed, but “Everyone’s Books” merely moved down the block into the space so it doesn’t feel like so much of a change).

So what’s all this mean anyway? I’m not sure, but I spent a good few hours at McNeill’s last night (the Dead Horse IPA on cask was excellent, the Oatmeal Stout good, the Dark Angel imperial stout started out incredible but didn’t hold up for a whole pint) wondering why Frederick feels so alien to me yet so in my blood that I can’t seem to forget anything while Brattleboro remains fundamentally the same yet I feel so alien. Sure time spent in each is part of the equation; sure, the age at which certain impressions are made is part of the equation, but I don’t think those things really explain it.

What I’m trying to work my head around is a half-formed theory in which changes in landscape and environment are a kind of working metaphor for memory, the way a city, say, is fundamentally the same as memory in which change overlaps change, history builds up and accrues in the sediment of place. As I say, it’s half-formed, it’s vague,  it’s more just an idea I’m trying to work through. What’s it all mean? I don’t know–I’ll let you know when I finish working on it (and then I won’t tell you anyway, cause I’ll want you to buy the book, right?).

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