A few weeks ago, I travelled back to Lincoln, Nebraska, my hometown, on what’s left of the prairie. I hadn’t been back since my parents moved 15 years ago and, for 20 years before that, only at Christmas time. Now, in a blink of an eye, it was Lincoln High’s 35th reunion, and the first time I’d been back as someone dropping in from the clouds of the past, as a real stranger.
I’ve lived in Malden, Massachusetts, part of Boston’s urban merging of cities and towns for 26 years. Yet, if you tell me what street a business is on, I’ll have no idea where it is. Instead of street names, you have to describe to me the surrounding area and what you pass on the way from here to there. For me, navigating the Boston area is like finding my way back on poorly marked hiking trails–it’s all about how things look and my general sense of direction.
In the old country, start me at 12th and L, tell me to go to 70th and A, and even now, 35 years later, I can get there without a map. You could have said, “it’s on A, past Pius HS,” but I didn’t need to know. Lincoln is built on a grid, the way things should be. [Just don’t venture into the new housing developments, where the corn fields used to be. For example, “Coyote Circle” is actually a cul de sac. Unlike the rows of corn, little out there makes sense.]
When I was in high school, a new mall opened as part of the effort to revitalize downtown. It wasn’t exactly a “mall”: just two floors taking up a city block, or maybe a little less, with skywalks to other buildings. “The Centrum” was a semi-cool place to go hang out, though I didn’t get the concept. Why go shopping unless you intended to buy something?
In any case, as my son and I drove into town, we passed Gold’s, formerly a department store and now just a plaque on a building. As has become my custom on this trip, I was giving color commentary: “that used to be Brandeis. Then they built this mall where my friends wanted me to go shop with them. It was right–hey! It was right there! Wait, it’s a community college?!”
Yep. Now you can go to school at the mall.
Under the Viaduct
When I was little, there was a scary place near some railroad tracks, under the viaduct I rode over on my way to work at Mah’s Garden Restaurant. My sense was there were vagrants (now called “the homeless”), crazy people and some bars down there. It was no place for me to venture on my bicycle, day or night.
When I came back for visits during college, I learned it was a former industrial area and trade center dubbed “Haymarket.” My parents took us to their new favorite restaurant, “Spaghetti Works,” which shared space in a former mill building with an art gallery.
Now, the Saturday farmer’s market blocks off several blocks of four streets, with dozens of vendors. The area is wall to wall people. Among the huge white corn-fed men, strollers, college students, and funky folk, I see two young women holding hands. In public! One wears a shirt “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Rights.” When I was in high school, I knew older gay men and lesbians, but had no idea that teenaged gays existed.
Haymaket sports new buildings with technology and other businesses, a Hyatt hotel, little shops like the one selling olive oil in all forms, the same art gallery, and Go Cornhuskers memorabilia. There are coffee shops and brew pubs, restaurants with outdoor seating, benches, nouveau signage, and a playground with a jungle gym in the shape of a train. It’s lovely down here.
As I sit on the asphalt eating gourmet cold oatmeal soaked overnight in cardamom with fresh blueberries and bananas, I imagine there are still homeless people here at night. I wonder if the Mennonite family I passed sitting just beyond the hubbub are among them. At least now there are clean sidewalks to sleep on and street lights. Maybe it’s a little safer here now, not only for the gay people but also for those without enough.
I remember the heat. I remember walking out of an over-chilled building into a blast furnace. At first, it would feel good being enveloped in a 100+ degree embrace. After 40 or 50 steps, I’d slow my pace to match that of my heat-dulled mind and sweating body. How did I ride my bike, my main means of transportation? How fast was I able to go? My now much older body responds: “yuck.”
Today, it might be in the 80s. I heard people complaining this morning about the humidity and remembered the constant half-joking and half-serious rejoinder “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Sitting in the shade of some planted deciduous and needles trees, the constant wind is keeping my body temperate. I’m happy taking in the sky that stretches from horizon to horizon.
Even here in the city, there is endless sky. The streets and sidewalks are wide, allowing people space from one another’s body heat in the summer and space for plowed snow in the winter. Maybe that’s why people are so friendly here. There’s plenty of room to be sincerely cordial, to say, without mumbling, as though it were a spontaneous thought, “enjoy your day,” and mean it.
I miss the space. I especially miss feeling free: not hemmed in by buildings, steep hills, and (though I love trees) woods. It’s more than the freedom one might pretend one had in childhood. It’s the wind and the sky. The openness. Not the humidity.
Space Equals Time?
A plane that’s left Lincoln, Nebraska may be the safest place in the sky. On our way here from Boston, the 5:30am line was hundreds long. They didn’t ask for anyone’s appropriately-sized plastic bag with my small liquid containers to be taken out of their carry-on. The sun screen tucked inside one of the five pairs of shoes in my soccer bag passed through, as did the small tupperware of powdered laundry soap in an adjoining shoe.
After attending my reunion, we were off to Denver so I could play in a soccer tournament. At high noon in the Lincoln airport, the stores and security point were almost empty. Unlike in Boston’s Logan, there was a sign asking for the liquids baggie to be put in a bin. I hadn’t bothered with the baggie, so I had to put my contact lens solution, toothpaste, and Ben Gay into a bin, loose. I even remembered to take the sunscreen out of its shoe and add it to the bin.
We went through the metal detector without incident, but my teenaged son was pulled out of line for a random bag check. The official examining the x-ray screen pulled both of our backpacks aside. A line, of two people, formed behind us.
Our backpacks were clear of dangerous items and the odor of explosives, but my sunscreen tube in the bin was out of spec. “Would you like to run down and put that in any checked luggage you have?” the baggage searcher asked.
“No, that’s okay, nevermind,” I waved dismissively.
The tube joined all of the other contraband in the trash.
Our time as potential terrorists wasn’t finished, however. The x-ray examiner next referred my soccer bag to the searcher. I held my smartass Boston tongue. The two people in line behind us continued to wait patiently. The searcher was surprisingly blasé about my duffle bag comprised of three pairs of cleats, a pair of nice shoes, sandals, and shin guards. He shook the empty water bottle and each shoe until he uncovered the powdered laundry soap, which apparently can’t be distinguished from a liquid on the x-ray.
It was 12:20, exactly when boarding was to begin. We walked the 20 steps to the deserted gate, then down the jetway. The plane was full. We were the last to board.
The coach of the team I’m playing with in Denver has a saying that goes something like this: “Create open space on the field. Space creates time. Space and time win game.” He means that positioning yourself well on the field enables you to maintain possession of the ball, so the other team doesn’t have it and can’t score. In Nebraska, there is a lot of space. Perhaps that’s what creates time. Time allows security to be thorough. Which allows the US a better chance of winning the war on terror? Some metaphors can only be pushed so far. Never mind.
That’s my news from the Old Country, where the girls are the fairest and the boys are the squarest, and everyone is all true blue.*
*From the University of Nebraska-Lincoln fight song.