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Great Architecture or Illuminated Tombstones? (or: Thinking about Home)

“Great architecture in a great city” or “Illuminated tombstones in a necropolis”? (phrasing borrowed from Tennessee Williams’ “Happy August the 10th.”)

While the classes that I taught in New York in 2012 revolved around Sherill Tippins’ February House, this year I decided to take a different approach with classes: to investigate Southern writers who lived and wrote in New York at some point in their lives. Since this program was founded because of Carson McCullers’ journey to New York City at age 17, I felt that a class that explored McCullers alongside other writers who undertook similar journeys might be, simply put, fun. Because the trip participants are all “Southerners” (if not by birth, then by current residency), I figured we’d all be able to tell about our own journeys as well. We’re reading Capote, Williams, McCullers, Walker—more canonical authors—alongside contemporary authors Karen Russell, Donna Tartt, and Allan Gurganus. Thus far, we’ve discussed the ways that the traditional southern gothic writers described New York and the South in their work, comparing and contrasting the ways these two places intersect and divide.

So, that’s my lens—that’s what I’m thinking about, as a Southerner visiting New York City. And thus far, I’m puzzled. So puzzled that I’m experiencing a little writer’s block. I’ve been thinking that, perhaps, to understand one’s own culture, one has to leave it. And then miss it. And then see it everywhere, even when one is estranged from it. And then understand that leaving it doesn’t necessarily make anything any better. It’s not that there’s no place like home–it might be that there is just no place to call home. Ever.

For instance, in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae Golightly from Tulip, Texas—the wild thing that stole turkey eggs and ran through brier patches. Even in New York, she cannot escape that identity. In Carson McCullers “Who Has Seen the Wind?,” Ken is also an ex-pat Texan, working on a novel about his gritty hometown. The New York literary life eventually drives him mad. In Williams’ “Happy August the 10th,” Elphinstone has filled the bookshelves with such titles as Notable Southern Bullshit, as described by her roommate Horne, a woman whom Elphinstone both loves and despises. In the end, both characters view the city’s buildings as tombstones: “…she watched the city’s profile, creep with understandable reluctance into morning, because, my God, yes, Horne’s comment did fit those monolithic structures downtown, they truly were like a lot of illuminated tombstones in a necropolis” (472). All of these characters are at home in New York, and yet, out of place. They are successes but failures; they are with companions but alone; they are caught between past and present, also between places. New York City cannot save them.

I don’t want to make this the bluest—or the mean reddest—post ever written, but I can’t help but reflect on what feelings of homelessness can do to folks: put them continually on the run and in search of home in people and places (like Capote’s Holly) or make them crazy and violent (like McCullers’ Ken), or if they are perceptive, make them begin to change and to seek different meanings of home (like Williams’ Elphinstone who we think might make amends with Horne despite her now bleak view of the city itself). One thing is certain: this feeling of searching for a home (of a certain sort of homesickness, which McCullers wrote about so often) is not unique to out-of-place Southerners who must flee their region. While some suggest it’s made worse because of the slow—snail’s pace—progress in the South, finding your “place” (considering all the metaphorical meanings of that word) is exhausting, even in one of the most progressive and culturally diverse cities in the world.

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No Place like Home

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 We arrived in Penn Station at 12ish on Saturday afternoon for our train at 2. I had lunch with Courtney, Dr. Norwood, and Professor Steel(e)? I don’t know (he wasn’t my professor but he was really nice). Anyways, we got on the train and it took us 10 hours just to reach and then leave Washington D.C.

These posts…y’all know how much I missed home while I was gone. Knowing that 10 hours out of a supposedly 18 hour train ride had passed and we weren’t even halfway home was beyond irritating. The staff on this train was way ruder than on our way up. Courtney was my seat mate and she spent most of the time asleep, lucky her. Anyway the train was supposed to arrive in Atlanta at like 8 something in the morning on Sunday. I’m not going to go into a ton of detail here, so I’ll keep it simple. Between leaving Washington D.C. and making it to the Amtrak station at some point the bathrooms in our car went out (so we had to use others), our A.C went out and it was hot as mess, and we spent over an hour like 5 seconds away from the Amtrak for kicks and giggles and then once we got there they made us wait again for about that long just to get off the train.

There were people on this trip who loved New York, but I don’t care how much you loved that city. Once you were on the train and heading home you were ready to be home. Not spend 32 hours on a stupid train with stupid people. Courtney did point out that we did get lucky in one respect though. The little kids in our car were remarkably well behaved for having been on the train just as long as us. I have to agree considering I was about to lose my mind. We had a wager going on too about when we would arrive. That the 10pm bet won made me mad.

I was frustrated too because I was counting on the train arriving somewhere near on time. My mom was really excited that I was coming home, just like I was excited to be home so she had planned a movie and dinner with my stepmom, brother, and his girlfriend. Needless to say it didn’t happen. We’re going to dinner tonight instead. Anyways, I was hungry so my mom, even though it was already past midnight by the time I got home, had made food and heated it for me while I took a quick shower and stuff.

32 hours on a train and a shower was very high on my priority list. It was exciting. She stayed up with me and chatted while I ate and then we both went to bed. I slept past noon today. My bed was amazing. If y’all remember my first post, about my dorm room being blank, then I should probably say that not having any real story was kind of sad, but it’s nice to be home, where my story can continue on. I have my room, my dog, and my mother. Even though it took longer than I would have liked, there really is no place like home.

That train staff is going to have tons of complaints and refunds to hand out. My Aunt asked me yesterday what I would do if they offered me a free ticket to anywhere. I said that maybe I’ll use it in 50 years. If ever. 

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Canvas

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The Present, soon to be Erased.

So, this post is coming right after the one I just did. I’m just going to say again that today was/is our last day in New York. Tomorrow we’ll get on the train and head home. We’ll be back on Sunday. Yay!  Obviously, if you’ve been reading this, you know that I have been missing home like a crazy person. Conversations with my mother & my aunt, meeting a friend, the Jack Jr. from Build-A-Bear, and my grandparents visit today has really made this trip less lonely than it could have been.

Really though, even though everyone knows I’m happy to be going home, I’m still going to blog on it. It’s important to me. I mentioned before that I wouldn’t say part of what made this trip so lonely and I still won’t, though some reasons, like family, make it obvious. I’ve been away from home for long periods of time before. Staying with family or even from when I went to Mexico and still nothing was as bad as this. I mean, I loved the Natural History Museum and the Met, I found magic at the Whitney and at the library(even though I never did make it back to that lion—darn!), but still there really is no place like home.

New York is big and busy and is filled with opportunity and excitement. I guess I just don’t like it. My grandfather had me stop and actually look at some of the architecture around the buildings today—from Greek, to Franco, to English and it was really amazing. Though if I have to say, this place filled with opportunity and life is nothing compared to my home or to being in Mexico. And maybe it’s because I was probably even more familiar with Mexico than I am with New York.

 I stayed with e Mexican family and I went out pretty much every night and even though I barely spoke Spanish, I flourished in Mexico. I was happy to go to my biweekly meetings and even though it wasn’t required for me to do the whole thing in Spanish, I had Spanish vomit of the mouth about my home life and the events we did. I loved it. I think I’d like to go back one day. I never felt the need to carry mace or anything like that there, even though I had it. I just…existed with people and it was a friendly and lovely experience.

That’s not to say people in New York are unfriendly. But during lunch I had a conversation with grandpa and grandma about “foreign” and how we shouldn’t look at other people as being foreign. They’re just like us with different beliefs in a different country. Though I have to say, I feel like New York is more foreign to me than Mexico ever was. Like I said, I’ve had fun and a good time here, but I think there really is something about it that makes it lonelier than any place I’ve ever been.

Because this trip, for my class, was based in part of Carson McCullers and her trip and experience here I can’t help but feel that I’m missing something. I don’t know. She flourished here in a way that I think I can’t. The only thing I’ve really accomplished here is spending money and feeling lonely, and these blogs. And there isn’t anything special here. It’s just…me and my everyday experiences that I have to post for class. I don’t know. She turned out novels being here about her home. And me…well, you can see it in this picture and the very first picture I posted.

I said this room was blank, like a canvas waiting for my story. Maybe my story is online now, but it won’t exist in this room anymore. This picture is all that’s left. Because my 11 a.m. tomorrow I have to have every packed and be ready to go. I don’t mind it at all, but it’s sad. Whatever story started here won’t be finished. It will be erased. By my own hand, even, because as I pull everything down and pack it away that story vanishes. What my possessions can do here, is completely different from what they’ll do back home. I’m not overly sad though. Even if I don’t ever accomplish anything spectacular, the story I’ll have in my own room back home, is the one I’d choose over this blank slate.

It’s familiar, it’s love, it’s family. It’s happiness. And we all have the right to pursue happiness. I’m going to do it in the place where I’m happiest, at home with my mother and my dog. I don’t know if I’ll blog again, telling the joys of home and what not, or even if I will blog in the future. There’s no telling. I’m thankful for the chance to experience New York, but I’m still really happy that it’s time to go home. 

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The Past, that looks a lot like the Future.

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