The toddler screamed next to me. I winced and tried to close my ears, to make myself deaf to the pitiable cries. Before you think me some heartless bastard let me explain. He was doing it on purpose, a scream for attention, for pacification. He wasn’t fooling my uncle, nor my aunt, nor myself, so cry away he did.
It was a fitting beginning to our return to the ancestral homeland. A place whose very name conjures shudders in all those who’ve managed to escape its clutches (a surprisingly small number).
The wooded expanses of northeastern Pennsylvania (a blighted place if ever there was one) rolled on beyond the confines of the car.
Traffic slowed to a crawl, caught up by senseless construction, leaving us trapped in the Friday heat along with all others heading to points unknown for the weekend.
The trees, leafed out in green glory, wave and bid us onwards in the slight breeze, as if to say “Leave us. Keep moving. Get out of here.”
We didn’t listen and continued to roll onwards. The little tyke next to me began to bawl anew. My mind turned inwards, away and into the misted paths of the past.
I’d done the drive before, in all seasons, but for some reason, I always remember snow. There’s great escarpments that rise to either side of the highway as you head north, great cuts in the Pennsylvania rock where humanity carved its way into the landscape. Every time I pass between and wonder at the achievements of those who passed before, I picture snow flurries fluttering about between the rocks.
I could almost see them, in the ninety degree weather, through the stifling heat of late June. Little flakes of white, carried and floating on the howling wind. I longed for them, but they refused to appear, except in memory.
The car climbed a ridge. There, sprawling before us in the Wyoming Valley, was our destination.
The child grew silent as if he could sense the pall, the dismal nature of this city. The mood in the little car dropped as we fell into silent contemplation.
A name clawed its way into my brain, dread and insistent. “Wilkes-Barre,” a distant voice shouted, half-curse, half-sigh.
We crested the ridge and the car nosed downwards into the grey cloud that sheathes the city, keeps it hidden from the rest of the world.
The sun became a distant thing, wreathed in the haze of centuries of industry.
No one spoke as we flashed past mile after mile of dilapidated houses and broken strip malls.
Like some sort of secret code that only locals could understand, the same five types of business lined the same streets. Funeral parlor, Chinese restaurant, pizza joint, car repair shop and used car lot. A pattern unbroken for decades.
The same families jostled next to each other, the small yards littered with old dreams and old feuds.
Here lay the origin of my mother’s family going back as far as our family records could go. I thought to myself, ‘Here, but for the grace of God, I could’ve grown up. I could’ve lived in any one of these houses and would probably still be here, sitting on the same stoop my great-grandfather had sat on.’
There’s something to be said for such continuity, but I’m glad my mom’s family fled this place.
Towns cluster along the bank of the Susquehanna, forming the terrible conglomeration that is Wilkes-Barre. Kingston, Forty Fort, Edwardsville, Plains, Pringle. Borders, distinct only in the minds of inhabitants, are nebulous and ill-understood. The normal laws don’t apply here. People jump red lights to turn left, sitting on the front stoop is still a viable way to pass the time. Neighbors wander into each other’s houses without permission, without thought. Roads twist and turn along shabby houses without rhyme or reason. Potholes gouge out huge chunks of street.
Here and there an effort has been made to resuscitate the city, but these too fade away, forgotten and abandoned.
During the day, it’s a place much like any other old American city, with 1800’s politics and burnt out industry. At night the character of the city changes. The street-lights cast shadows rather than light. People, half-seen in the dark, amble along the canted sidewalks in the light of fireflies.
Coming back here always brings on weird, unidentifiable feelings. I feel a strange sense of nostalgia for a life I never experienced, a connection to family I never met. The city feels at once familiar and utterly foreign.
I had a point when I began writing this, but it got lost in the malaise of reflection. Which I suppose is fitting, considering the subject matter.
I’ll cut this post off early, as its grown long and rambling. Stay tuned for further stories out of Wilkes-Barre.
Thanks, as always, for reading.