With Google Maps I can drive up to our first house in La Marque, Texas. The owners have expanded it, but the face it presents is largely the same. The door is in the same place, the windows, the driveway, the configuration of lawn, sidewalk, and curb, the property lines and roof line are all essentially the same.
But Google Maps hasn’t perfected time travel yet. So it can’t get on a bike, pump its legs down the street to reach a gas station Coke machine that, with a dime, opens like a treasure chest and reveals caps of bottles submerged in ice. No Yoo-hoo awaits. No faint refinery smell mixes with the scent of bayou mud just below any scratched turf. No kid in the neighborhood football or baseball game shouts, and no highway sighs all day every day until the sound becomes that place breathing.
For me, place grows stranger by the year. Shakespeare’s notion of “A local habitation and a name” resides in two truths: that we think we know the place we inhabit right now and that a name gives it solidity, makes it one place to all people. I live in Chicago, The Windy City, The City of Big Shoulders, Chi-town, Second City, That Toddling Town, City on the Make, the Chi, the Big Onion, Paris on the Prairie, City of Many Baffling Nicknames.
That last one I made up just now.
Not being native, I sometimes try to understand what each name implies, what collectively they might hint about where I am now. I look for meaning in people who have been here always. I’ve decided Chicagoans are tough people who expect equal toughness in others, who are sincere, straightforward, and impatient… but perhaps those are the only ones I’ve met. Maybe all I know is what I’ve met.
The older I become, the more Shakespeare’s first truth dominates. I know where I am. I learn its maps and amenities, but names—instead of making places real—confuse me. The virtual world makes knowing even where-I-am-now problematic—what do names matter when we occupy the same cybernetic space and might be anywhere?
Before moving to Chicago, I lived in Wilmington, Delaware. Its slogan while I lived there was “A place to be somebody” and that slogan captured the faint praise locals often give their home. The expression “For Delaware” accompanied many superlatives: “He is a good runner…for Delaware,” “For Delaware it was pretty scandalous,” and “She represents, for Delaware, quite a departure from the norm.” When the Wilmington News-Journal asked for alternatives to its lame slogan, one of its somebodies came up with “It’s not Philadelphia or New York or Baltimore or Washington… but it’s close to those places.” Wilmington was a stop on Amtrak, a series of exits on I-95, little more than another rest stop on another eastern turnpike. Making fun of small, backwater, overlooked, parochial, nationally insignificant, and boring Delaware was a local sport.
I learned to participate. Yet, while I lived there, Wilmington was more of a place than many of the cities I’ve lived in. It felt warm, intimate, and safe, a manageable place where six degrees of separation became four and friendship was easy and elemental. I might have that feeling anywhere and might find it in harder-bitten Chicago, but something about being in that tiny state induced simpler feelings. Life was a little less complicated, and not just for Delaware. Did the name make that difference? Is Delaware, while I’m half-way across the country, still the place I remember? Has memory slipped to nostalgia?
This weekend, in the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh and Green Bay play, two storied NFL franchises with deep history, vivid associations, and resolute fans. The fans who live in those cities must know their home towns, but what about fans who have spent little or no time in Pittsburgh or Green Bay or athletes who live there only during the season? What do the names mean?
Sometimes languages die and only ghosts speak them. Often I feel that disconnected from place. The world can seem a collection of places I can’t truly know, places I knew and can’t return to, names with no more depth than a label.
Over spring break, I’ll be traveling near La Marque, and I‘m trying to decide if I should visit. Even if the name of the town remains the same, can the “local habitation” still speak to me after so many years? Which is finally real, that place or my memory of it?
I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.