A few months ago, I wrote a piece for a magazine about Forest Hills, my neighborhood in Queens. In the first draft, though, I lost the thread and started writing about something else entirely—about Forest Hills, yes, but also my own hometown, and the way many of us move from place to place but, like the well-worn chestnut, “wherever you go, there you are.”
After moving to New York City16 years ago, I gave little conscious thought to my hometown, Grosse Pointe, Michigan. But, for reasons still unclear, I ended up setting my new book, The End of Everything, in a barely fictionalized version of Grosse Pointe. And, in talking about the book in recent weeks (a recipe for unbearable self-absorption!), I’ve had this puzzling new access to its continuing resonance for me. The way, for better and worse, it shaped me, and lingers with me.
Eventually, I scrapped that first draft and ended up writing about my favorite Queens wig shop (truly!). What appears below—none of it ended in the final piece other than a few phrases. But I guess I kind of wanted to put the piece somewhere because I wonder how many of us feel the same strange tug of our hometowns? And if we remain in them, does that tug become more about a past time rather than a place?
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It’s a time machine. That’s what it is. Dusty afternoons, dew-struck mornings, I can jump on my bike, pedal a few blocks deeper into the heart ofForest Hills,Queens, and I am transported back. Many years later and a half a country away. I’m age ten again, with a ten year old’s wonder and restlessness, riding my ten-speed through the soundless streets of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a time and place trapped in amber, tripped to life again here.
When I was 22 years old, I fled my serene suburban homestead with the desperate urgency of one exiting a burning building. Also the hometown of novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, who set Virgin Suicides here, Grosse Pointe is a place of lovely stasis. The historic home of auto barons, it remains seemingly untouched by the woes of the Motor City on whose back those barons built the magnificent Georgian and colonial homes that still strut along Lake St. Clair. A lake large enough to seem an ocean, its white Yacht Club tower seeming to pierce the sky.
It is a place once known, in ways staggering to my bored adolescent self, as the Paris of the Midwest. (Alas, my family lived near the freeway, the number of digits in our address the key social indicator—we were three digits away from the Lake, and therefore, three digits too far.)
At age 22, I moved to my dream locale, New York City. The vision in my head was plucked straight from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, and I imagined eating Chinese food and watching Marx Brothers’s movies in bed with Woody, the cityscape glittering from our penthouse window. And it was (is) nearly as wondrous as I expected. I do not, often, find myself strolling the East River at dawn, the cityscape glowing miraculously in the background (and a penthouse does not lie in my future). But I do enough.
Six years ago, however, in need of more space, I found myself living in Forest Hills, Queens, a tidy neighborhood in an outerborough, famed as the former site, until 1977, of the United States Open, which took place at the West Side Tennis Club.
Situated a few blocks from Queens Boulevard, a thoroughfare of delicious tackiness—dollar stores, nail salons, wig shops—lies Forest Hills Gardens, the most exclusive part of Forest Hills proper. Designed in 1908 by Fredrick Olmstead, the landscape architect responsible for Central Park, the Gardens were patterned after a traditional English Village, in Tudor and Georgian style. Each house was built from standardized pre-cast “nailecrete” panels, fabricated off-site and lifted into place by crane—as if an elaborate dollhouse, model train set. Sometimes, it even feels as though it’s a stage set constructed precisely for me. To propel me back.
Two years ago, I bought a bike—my first in two decades. Riding under the heavy oak and hawthorn trees, I’ve come to know the Gardens well. The wrought iron streetlights, the exposed timbers and sloping gables of the homes, straight out of a fairytale.
Soon enough, riding past all these sights, I’m in Grosse Pointe again, its sugar maples and pin oaks draping above me. It’s the classic Freudian “uncanny”—utterly familiar yet marked by some element, some tiny thing, that renders it not. If I turn that corner ahead, maybe I’ll pass the Witts’s bright white house, or see the cherry blossoms carpeting Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Orl come upon my own gabled childhood home, which I haven’t set eyes on in 13 years.
Riding, there comes upon me that uncanny feeling that if I pedal far enough, in just the right way, I’ll find myself not only in Michigan but also 10 years old. that everything is the same. The one thing that’s not—the uncanny element—is me. Like dreaming your way back into your childhood, it’s the same, only different. Or you are. And that’s everything.