He was Italian, she Slovakian. Stuffed backpacks sit on the ground beside them. I see the guidebook. The entire US of A squished onto the pages of a book the size of a brick. I have held so many of them in my hands, but never, not once, was it my country. I’m shamefully over-excited by them, or more accurately, by that brick-book they have. They hand it to me and I eagerly flip to the page where My City will be rightfully glorified in words.
“Halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo,” it reads, “sits Rochester, NY.” Then, to put it mildly, it tells you to continue on your merry way because everything worthy of seeing is certainly not here. I’m hurt.
I’ve quit my job to travel nine times. But I always return home, to this not-even-a-paragraph-worthy-city in the US. Travel is always an unleashing of sorts. It is not intended to do this, but then we are there and it happens and we return. We leave for a month and we have been away for decades. And everyone else is still, still pushing something heavy up a hill. Only in coming home do we realize the depth of the journey.
“Go to the museum, go to the steakhouse”, I robotically direct the European duo. It’s a pathetic, soul-less suggestion, and I know it. My city has flesh and I had handed them bones. I want to take it back. I want to re-write that sentence in the book.
My hotel is clean and crisp and immediately I itch to get out of there. Dutifully, as a “tourist”, I head to the museum. Yes, to the one I sent Mr. Italy and Miss Slovakia to, but had never once set foot in. I’m one block away from Monet, next to the railroad-track-dump when I see it, a portrait of feet on the side of a building. It is just two feet, but precisely and intensely a person; going somewhere. It startles me. I get lost in the immobility of it, the story of it. There’s a fleeing in them. There’s also a freedom. Then I continue walking, right past the museum.
He’s short, stocky, bald, and smiling and he’s waiting for the same bus as I am. I point over to the feet that blew my mind and he says, “Well, our pockets is ripped out, but we still have hands, right?” He was a Rochestarian, I knew by his ‘a’s. We draw the sound out of our ‘a’’s with a whiny long swagger. The statistics say my city is poorer than I. This frightens me in the way that my mom must have felt when I travelled alone far away. But I was never hurt, bothered, or even cursed in those muggy cities. I walked next to them and they walked next to me. But my pockets are still firmly intact. “We still have hayaands”, he said. We have hope and strength beyond substance. I smiled tightly and slowly nodded sideways like a “no”, which is to say, “ain’t that the truth, though, ain’t that the truth?”
I don’t get on the bus. I just keep walking. I continue past the cascading river and duck in to grab a local blue collar beer. It’s cold and bubbly and tastes like beer, so I have another. There’s a crowd here, listening to music on a Tuesday night. “Roch-ster” people that all seem to want some meatloaf, some spicy hot sauce poured on sausages, and some cold, unpretentious beer. The band plays jazz. These are men with last names like Hochstein, O’Malley, Douglass, and Gonzales. These are men whose great-grandfathers built the railroad and the canal, men with day jobs and neckties, men whose kids draw murals of feet on hidden buildings.
The beat gets stuck in my mind and it becomes my eye-opening soundtrack back to the hotel. Past the old subway stop, past the immense library, past the community garden my mom helped plant, past the mansions and the slums, past all the things I used to just drive by. The bravest thing we can do is to re-examine who we are and where we are and why. Sometimes it takes distance to accomplish this. Sometimes it does not.
I collapse in my foreign bed in my cozy hometown and I have a journal that seems too small to hold all my words. Right here, halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo, in the enchanted land of graffiti-meatloaf-jazz, some flesh got on some bones. I dissolve into my dreams. And a decade passes.
About the Author: Tina Murty is a waitress who saves all her money to travel and never wants to retire. Her journals are her most prized, but most easily burned, possession.
(This story was my first submission ever to a writing contest and won First Place. http://wesaidgotravel.com/winners-independence-writing-contest-2014/ )