Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Speeding Up Memory Lane

I was meeting Martin for a dinner date last night at a spot about halfway between where each of us lives. As it happened, the spot we chose was a half mile or so from the neighborhood where I'd lived from the third through fifth grades... and I arrived at the restaurant about 40 minutes early. So I took a little pilgrimage to see a fondly remembered place...

I remember as if it were yesterday, though in fact it was late summer of 1976, a day when I'd strolled from our apartment over to the library to deposit my latest bolus of recently-devoured Hardy Boys mysteries, and stepping away from the book return box I was suddenly and inexplicably seized with eight-year-old wanderlust. There was a street on the far side of the intersection, tree lined and shady and filled with suburban houses and gardens and parked cars, and I'd never gone to see it up close! It was time to rectify that error. Off I went.

28 years away, I'm no longer sure what held my interest: I surely wasn't paying attention to the fine points of ranch-style architecture or admiring flowers, but something in me loved knowing the streets around my home intimately. In any case, after a flew blocks of wandering along Hacienda Avenue, I did something I might not have bothered to do if I'd been a few years older: I decided to walk to the end of each cul de sac I came to. And so I turned left.

And happily I strolled along, and then I noticed an oddity. There at the end of the cul de sac, off to one side, were two houses that had not one but two parallel fences dividing their yards from one another. What was between those two fences? I looked closer: it was some kind of alleyway. I walked into it, and a dozen yards on, I emerged into... a park.

A city park. A big rectangle of lush green grass, surrounded on all sides by tall fences and taller trees, a well-appointed playground in the middle--slides, jungle gym, half-moon swing, sand--benches and a water fountain and birds singing and nobody was there but me. There were no cars: There was no parking lot. The whole park was completely enclosed, and only accessible through a half dozen little alleyways just like the one behind me, each of them connecting to the end of a suburban cul de sac. In something like a daze, I stepped forward into it, and reverently walked around examining every detail of the place.

Now, you have to understand that when you're eight, and you're exploring, and you find something like this, you don't think Oh, a park! How nice of the city to build such a fine facility for the public's enjoyment! No, you think: I am the first person to discover this park. No one else has ever walked here before me. God put this place on Earth for me, and I am the sole keeper of its secret.

Some time later, I whispered my precious discovery to the woman who babysat me after school, and she said, "Oh, Hidden Park! Which one did you find?"

I don't remember what I said, but perhaps it was "Whahuh?"

"Why, there are two of them, you know."

Well! This was so interesting I almost forgot to be devastated by the news that I hadn't actually been the park's discoverer. So the next time I had a free moment I went looking for the other one, and in due course I found it, a couple of blocks away, concealed just as the first one was. Hidden Park 2 (as I always thought of it from then on) was, oddly, not as nice as Hidden Park 1--the grass was a little scruffier, the playground equipment not quite as nice, and it got more shade in the afternoon and felt colder--but what, I was gonna complain? Two parks!

So anyway. Yesterday afternoon, before my dinner date, I went to visit the hidden parks again. They're still there, still beautiful. The trees are bigger. In Hidden Park 1 they've replaced the playground equipment with the new, safe kind (alas, no more moon swing), and the sandbox was gone in favor of tanbark underlain with foam rubber. But I guess Hidden Park 2 is still a little neglected, though, because it still has the same old equipment I remember: The exact same jungle gym, exact same slides, I'm sure of it. One thing's clear: The parks have both got better PR now than they did 28 years ago, because they were populated: Happy families pushing kids on swings, a girl's softball team practicing throwing and catching, a fella chipping golf balls into an empty flowerpot.

I strolled around for a while, and then went to look at a few other childhood haunts: The library--now apparently closed, either for renovation or for tearing it down and building a new one--and the bridge over the shady creek where I used to scale down the almost vertical banks and catch tadpoles (and let's hear it for eight-year-old intrepidness, because I never realized until yesterday what a scary-lookin' place that was. Pretty, though).

And then I drove off to meet Martin, and as I drove I continued the nostalgiathon: Right about there is where the Sears used to be, and over there is where the movie theatre used to be, and here's the mall: These days it's a hideous shrine to consumerism and capitalist excess, but in those days it was the mall, you know?

And at that moment it came to me: One of the abiding problems of the world is that our nostalgia is out of sync with reality.

Think about it. It seems highly probable to me that when I was a third grader puttering around that neighborhood with its rosy-golden glow of childhood idyll, some thirty-six year old man was driving around thinking sadly about how great it used to be. And lord knows I didn't appreciate those days particularly at the time. Yet I'd pay big, big money to experience one of them again now.

The day before yesterday, surfing the net, I happened across a page about collectibles that discussed cute old signs from Sinclair Oil gas stations, with a friendly green brontosaurus logo. Sinclair itself went extinct in the late '60s, and now their signs are quaint. You suppose anyone thought they were quaint at the time? Of course not.

Here's what I think: We need to find a way to speed up the nostalgia process so we can properly appreciate now. How would this work? Bah, don't ask me: implementation detail. Perhaps a nice "soft focus" spraypaint. Or a pill!

Because someday, someone is going to look at an image like this:

...and think "Oooh, how darling! That takes me right back to 2004! Gosh, I wish I could go back there again and appreciate it properly."

And why can't they think it today, when they actually do have the opportunity to appreciate it properly? It would save so much time and trouble.

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