I can drive, with moderate success, in most major American cities.
The D.C. beltway? No problem. I even go the right direction, most of the time. Los Angeles to Ventura on the 101? Done it with (extra points!) a puking child in the backseat. Chicago? Boston? Philadelphia? Check, check, check, though I always wonder why the Philly drivers are so mean.
There is one city, one very small city, in which I consistently drive the wrong way down one-way streets, miss stop signs, and drive slower than the speed limit, trying to find my way. And that would be:
I noticed this strange phenomenon a few years ago. One day, after driving the wrong way on a street near my former elementary school, I pulled over, berating myself and thanking God that no one had been coming the other way. How could I be so lost in a place that was so familiar? And that’s when I realized my problem.
I knew how to walk these streets, not drive them.
You see, I was one of those people who wanted one thing from adulthood: to get out of my hometown . It was too small. Too ingrown. Too boring. And so, as soon as I could, I left. In my small gold Nissan I began racking up the miles. College was a three hour drive. North Carolina, where I worked one summer, was nine hours. I did not drive to Northern England, but I lived there for a year, wearing out my EuroRail pass along with my big green backpack.
After college I surprised myself by returning to Western Pennsylvania, but it was Pittsburgh, not Butler, where I found my first job and my first post-college apartment. Pittsburgh is only an hour drive from Butler, but it seems much further. There are ethnic restaurants other than the americanized chinese buffet, people who aren’t white, and community events that don’t involve gun raffles or high school sports teams.
I’ve been in Pittsburgh for fifteen years now, and it can be easy to roll my eyes at my hometown.
But that wouldn’t be fair.
That day in the car, when I realized that I knew how to walk but not drive in my hometown, I also realized that I have never lived as a grown-up in Butler, Pennsylvania. Could it be that my experience there seems limited because I was, um, ten? Could it be that I still feel ambivalent and awkward because my culminating experience was in high school? These were not my easiest years.
And what is beginning to open up in me is not a desire to return to my hometown (no, I like my Indian food too much), but a sense of grace and openness to a place that was once too familiar. I can take my kids to the Butler Farm Show. I can enjoy local marching bands at the Christmas parade, send my husband to hunting camp, and read the local newspaper without mocking it (much).
Because when it comes down to it, I just don’t have as much to prove as when I was fifteen.
And I don’t use nearly as much hairspray either.