Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
I’m going to grab a coffee now, then just get on I-95 and head north. I’m heading home and ruminating on what that means. The most beautiful, poetic, and amorphous version, the one that resonates with most people, is “home is where the heart is.” That sounds good and it actually makes sense, just so long as we don’t get too far into the meaning of “where the heart is.” There’s a lot to explicate there and “the heart” is one of those topics that begins to wilt as soon as you try to explain it. Which is why we have poetry, of course. It also raises the question of whether you can live in one place and your heart can reside in another place.
You could make an argument that home is where all your stuff resides. Home is where all the junk lives. Home is where you have your driver’s license and your library card, and it’s where you vote. Home is where your roots are, and not your old roots, but the things that root you to life right now. As for the old roots, I discovered that Thomas Wolfe was correct – you truly cannot go home again. When I tried to visit the block where I grew up in Yonkers, it was alien. Why? Well, I no longer live there, even though it was once my whole world. It’s where I spent the first 10 years of my life. It looks different now and all of my old neighbors are gone.
That may get to the heart of it. Home may be where the people are. When I was away from New York for a month, on a cross country trip many years ago, I realized that it wasn’t the city I missed, it was the New Yorkers – the people. Perhaps home is where you are when you’re not traveling. That may be a little too facile, but I just turned to Santo in his dog booster seat behind me, before we started north from tropical Florida to frigid New York. I said, “We’re going home.” I wonder if he sees it that way. It could be that home is wherever the two of us are together. Home is with the pack.
That was true with Elko, my last dog. As long as we were together, we were both fine. But I also remember that last trip I took with him, when I realized he was very sick, and I was soon to find out that he had lung cancer. He died within a week of returning. That last mad dash cross country was not easy or fun. He was not doing well. He was in the back seat and I knew he was feeling bad. The vets in Portland, Oregon had said he was okay. But they had also said, “See a vet when you get home.” When you get home. So I hauled ass and drove non-stop for three days, stopping to sleep for a short night in Nebraska and one in Ohio. I wanted to get him home.
There’s that word again. Anyway, we got in on the third day. We pulled into the parking spot in the garage of my building. And when we got out of the car, I put him on his leash and he ran. He ran as hard as he could run up that driveway. We had been away for a few weeks, but he wanted to get out there to his streets, the places that he had marked, the places that he knew, and maybe the places that he loved.
The places he marked and the places he knew. Maybe home is where our history lies. But, what if we don’t live there? And what does that mean, anyway – “I live there.” Does it mean that’s where I stay most of the time? I guess you could call that home. You could also make an argument that, for some people, home is on the road. That’s a fallacy, though, because if you’re on the road, you eventually need to come back. Come back to where? I need more coffee.
When we got back from that trip, and Elko ran up the driveway with his ears pinned back, it felt like desperation. I don’t think it was joy. I don’t know what it was. But he knew where he was. He knew where he was. He was back where he felt comfortable, even though he was sick. But that word doesn’t do it justice either. We talk about “the comforts of home,” but I don’t think it’s accurate to say it’s where you’re most comfortable.
We got an early start today, not because I planned it that way but, when I’m heading home, that’s usually the way it is. I open my eyes and think “No reason to linger.” So the same force of gravity that often makes it difficult to leave town is what pulls me back in. Maybe it’s not the same force, but I think it is. And there is always the moment when I come over that rise on Interstate 78 and all of Manhattan rises up before me. Home.
But, what happens when home doesn’t feel like home anymore, when you want to scream at all the tourists and transplants to “go home”? What happens then? That could be where I’m at now and possibly where I have been for a long time. My parents are gone. My friends are still here, but I have fewer ties to this place than ever before. Gentrification and over-development have left me feeling like a stranger in my own town. I still have my apartment and my stuff and, of the close friends I do have, most are here. My current dog, Santo, patrols the same streets that Elko did and seems to mark the same corners, curbs, trees and traffic cones.
On this trip, I discovered something important. It was his first time on the road since I got him and I had been worried about how he would do. Before I left, I tossed some of his toys in the bag. When we got to our first motel, before I did anything else, I pulled out the squeaky ball and we played catch. It was a familiar thing that we had been doing for months and it seemed to ground him. He relaxed and was not nervous about the strange motel or the equally strange smells outside. I realized that, just possibly, home is where the squeaky ball is.
We got home and I parked the car. Before unloading anything, I hopped out with Santo and he clearly knew – after six weeks on the road – where we were. He ran up the driveway as fast as Elko did three and a half years ago, but he was simply excited beyond belief. We walked around the neighborhood and he raised his leg dozens of times, way past the point where he was able to mark anything. He seemed excited. After we settled in, he spent the next three days sleeping on his favorite end of the couch. He was clearly happy to be home and I guess I am, too.
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