Saturday, July 27, 2013

Ode to a Hometown

(This is Part Two of Journey to the Center of the Country.  Part One is back there.)

Toledo, Ohio.  Place of my birth.  It's probably not the most glamorous of locations.  According to John Denver, "Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio is like being nowhere at all."  What a dick.

(RlP, John)

I thought Toledo was great growing up.  I had everything I needed to be happy: a big backyard, best friends as neighbors, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool at our nearby swim and tennis club.

My childhood best friend/neighbor (I'll call her "Muppet") and I regularly did what we called "a Toledo tour."  We walked to the end of our street and crawled through a hole in the fence to go hang out at the nearby mall.  Then we crossed the street to K-Mart to buy cheap make-up.  Then we walked to the hotel next door to ride the elevator up to the top floor and look out over the tops of our houses.  We ended our tour at Peaches Records where we bought-- gulp -- some of those fancy new cassette tapes.

We were 12 years old and would disappear for hours, no cell phones, no parents freaking out.  We came home when one of two things happened:  1) our mothers yelled our names out the back door or 2) the street lights came on. 

I remember driving in Toledo.  I thought it was overwhelming to drive in "the city."  Sometimes I had to sit for a full ten seconds before it was clear enough to make a left-hand turn, a period of time during which I would yell, "Oh my God, this is taking forever!"

In Seattle, of course, a person can sit for hours before accomplishing a left-hand turn, if they're ever allowed to make their turn at all.  Most of us give up and instead attempt a sequence of right-hand turns, with mixed results.

I haven't been back to my hometown since Christmas 2000, six months before Alex and I got married.  I'm a sentimental old fool so cried like one when I drove away from our house that last time.  It had been a happy place to grow up and I didn't think I'd ever see it again given my parents' impending move to Colorado.

Then came July 2013 --  HELLO, TOLEDO!   I AM IN YOU!

Ohio Mom and I drove to her parents' house first.  Their house looks the same.  The screen door makes the same sound when it slams.  The kitchen wallpaper is the same, the kitchen table nook is as cozy as it ever was.  I almost went into the den and pulled out the pull-out bed to sleep, as I'd done a countless number of times before.

Ohio Mom's parents were my second set of parents in high school.  My car could automatically drive to their house and I became an expert at avoiding the tree growing through the middle of their driveway.  I spent as much time sitting at their kitchen table talking to them as I did sitting at my own talking to my own.

It was wonderful to see them but Ohio Mom's parents soon laid some unwelcome truth bombs at my feet. Toledo was not the same.  And some of it would be hard to see.

I hugged them goodbye and got back into my car to begin my solo tour.  I started the tour at my high school, which was down the street from Ohio Mom's house.  The only problem was it was no longer there.


The football stadium is still there but it looks small and tired and sad.  Do you know how many hours I spent cheering and yelling in those bleachers?  I had to -- I had a bunch of boyfriends, real and imagined, out on that field.

I was anxious to go see my house.  Ohio Mom's parents had, just minutes before, told me a heartwarming story of a young woman who came to their door not long ago,  She told them she grew up in their house and would like to come in and see it again.  They, of course, let her in because they are wonderful people.  They gave her a tour and some lemonade and were rewarded with an effusive thank-you note several weeks later.

The same thing was going to happen to me.

I held my breath as I turned onto my street.  And then there she was --

That's our house.  That's our big backyard.  Do you know how many ten-year-old cartwheels it takes to get across that yard?  Billions!

Remember the Father's Day post from Paris where I mentioned the ex-boyfriend-inspired bonfire I set on the driveway?  It was right there.

I pulled around front and stared, tears in my eyes, every inch of the house bringing back an overwhelming number of memories and feelings.

Then a woman with mad eyes tore out the front door and yelled in a not-so-nice way,


Oh sh*t

I had to calm myself then, posse, and resist the strong urge to yell back, "THIS IS MY DAMN HOUSE, BITCH,  WE LIVED HERE OVER TWENTY YEARS NOW GET OUT OR DIE!"

I swallowed my true words and instead said sweetly, "Hi.  I grew up in this house.  I'm in town for my high school reunion and wanted to see it again.  I loved growing up in this house, would it be possible for me to come in for just a minute and see it again?

The response came curtly and through falsely smiling teeth:  "No, no, it's not a good time."  Then she went back inside and closed the door.

My heart.  Oh my heart.  Myyyyyy heeeeea.....

I immediately pulled into the driveway of Muppet's parents across the street and after a strong hug went on a vicious tirade about "the newbies."  They confirmed my suspicions -- the people who bought my family home are terrible human beings and will die friendless and alone.

Muppet's parents then delivered some more truth bombs to add to my rapidly growing truth bomb collection.  An important thing to know about Muppet's parents is they will give you the worst news of your life accompanied by raucous laughter so you're never really sure if you're hearing funny news or terrible news.

Muppet Mom:  Do you remember that cute tennis pro at the swim and tennis club? 
Me:  Yes! He was sooo dreamy and so nice.
Muppet Mom:  Well, he was arrested for making lewd phone calls HA HA HA HA.  He called women from a phone booth and pretended to be a Victoria's Secret representative HA HA HA HA.  He asked them progressively more personal questions about their lingerie needs while he masturbated in a phone booth HA HA HA HA.  He was caught in a phone booth with his pants down HA HA HA HA.
Me:  That's..... terrible?
Muppet Parents:  HA HA HA HA HA

Muppet Mom:  Remember that huge pool they had at the club, the one with a starring role in most of your precious childhood memories?
Me:  Yes, of course, it's one of my favorite places on earth!

Muppet Mom:  There was a sinkhole in the middle of North Detroit Avenue last week.  It was huge.  A woman drove right into it.  HA HA HA HA.
Me:  Oh my God, is she OK?
Muppet Mom:  She was the principal of your old elementary school HA HA HA!
Me:, is she OK?
Muppet Mom:  HA HA. Would you like some lemonade?

I left her parents' house and drove to Muppet's house, where I was staying for the night.

This is why I call her Muppet.  She's got a collection problem.

We went to a typical Italian chain-type restaurant for dinner.  I considered ordering the butternut squash ravioli but then wondered aloud, "But it's not butternut squash season so.... where do you think they're sourcing their butternut squash?"  Muppet looked at me over her menu with furrowed brow and said flatly, "They're frozen, honey."

Whoops, I let my Seattle show.

Muppet also has a peculiar way of delivering news but her style is different from her mother's.  Muppet tends to summarize ridiculous situations into one long, flat, emotionless sentence.  Then it's over and she moves on. Here's just a sampling of Muppet bringing me up to speed on Toledo happenings.

Muppet:  Well, you know our friend Angela married our high school math teacher and a professional wrestler was the best man and they held the wedding in the basement of The Spaghetti Warehouse.
Muppet:  So how are the kids?

Muppet:  And our friend Ron -- well, he did five years in prison because he broke into some lady's house but then he walked straight home afterwards so the police just followed his footprints in the snow.  He saw our friend Angela, who married the math teacher, win the Showcase Showdown on The Price is Right while he was in prison.
Me:  ...... can we back up a minute?
Muppet:  So do you miss Paris?

Muppet:  Two years ago he burned down the back half of his house with a blowtorch.  We found him with his eyebrows singed off.  We bought him fire extinguishers for Christmas that year.
Me:  I surrender to your crazy-ass ways.
Muppet:  Cool.  Should we get dessert?

Muppet invited our other childhood friend/neighbor over to her house for drinks and jokes later that evening.  I'm going to call him Ant Boy because my most profound memory of him was when we climbed on top of a red anthill and got swarmed.  We started yelling and his mom bolted out of his house, stripped us naked there in the backyard and turned a hose on us.  We were old enough to be embarrassed by it.

Our parents would have been overjoyed to see the children they raised side-by-side all together again so we took a few terrible photos to share the occasion --

The next morning, I suggested to Muppet we do another "Toledo tour!"  She asked, "You sure about that, babe?"  and I said "YES!"  and she said "Brace yourself."

Muppet!  Look!  That's where we crawled through the fence to go to the.....


Then we went to...


The tall hotel?  The one where we could see the whole world from the top floor?

Abandoned.  With broken windows to match broken dreams.

The Peaches Records is gone, too, and apparently no one listens to cassette tapes anymore.

Then there was the biggest hurt of all.  Muppet held my hand as she drove me up the hill to our old swim and tennis club, the place with the Olympic-sized pool so wonderful you can't imagine such a place, even in a drug-addled hallucinatory state.


The pool sprang a leak a couple years ago.  It will cost over a million dollars to fix the problem so the club has decided not to fix it, and instead pave over it and put in new tennis courts.

 This one may hurt even more than the house thing.

I walked around this pool like a bereaved person walks around a cemetery.  It was so quiet.  I remember the summer sounds of this place back in its heyday -- the lifeguards' whistles, the kids shrieking, the sound of wet feet slapping against pavement. There was soft-serve ice cream at the snack counter and ice-cold air conditioning in the club room, where we kids would go when the "adult swim" whistle sounded and we had nothing to do for 15 whole minutes.

If I had a million dollars I would fix it tomorrow.  Alex would agree without hesitation because I'd look at him with my serious scary eyes.

Alex and I texted each other often while we were away.  The kids had a great time in Quebec and he would regularly send me photos and updates.  As my time in Toledo progressed, my response time to Alex's messages slowed considerably.  He became concerned when his texts of, "Hello? You still there?" were answered with "Childhood is a lie" and "I'm staring into gaping holes where my happiness used to be."

The good news is downtown Toledo has experienced a rebirth. There are a lot of people down there walking around and looking happy about it.  There are new restaurants and bars and baseball stadiums, unheard of back in my youth when downtown was a scary and near-deserted place.

Muppet and I went to lunch at one of the nice new restaurants downtown and, in a wonderful stroke of misfortune, Muppet's angry ex-boyfriend was our waiter.  She spent lunch hiding under the table while I apologized for my shy and socially awkward friend and asked for the specials.

Muppet and I both ordered Cobb salads.  The salads came deconstructed and the waiter/ex-boyfriend asked if we would like him to mix the elements together before serving?  I said, panic-stricken, "No, just leave the salads in pieces and go now!" as Muppet kicked me hard under the table.  When she re-appeared in her seat, she said, "I sure as hell wasn't going to ask him to toss my salad."

That night was my high school reunion.  I went back to Ohio Mom's house and we got all dressed up.

After a quick meet-up and drink with our old besties, we headed to the roadhouse bar where the reunion was held.  Only in Toledo, Ohio does a 20-year high school reunion happen at a biker bar. 

Exactly as it should be

You know what's funny?  Everyone looked exactly the same and acted exactly the same. The same people who cracked me up twenty years ago still crack me up.  The ones I have no idea what to do with on a social level are still complete strangers to me.

There was a photo booth and I spent a lot of time in it

The cocky guy from high school walked around telling everyone the doctors needed to use "the biggest clamp they could find" to circumcise his son.  The girl we all knew would get drunk first got drunk first and was cut off at the bar within the first hour.

Is the fact nobody really changes sad? comforting?  disturbing?  I don't know, I'm just reporting the facts.

The best part about high school reunions is the gossip.  There was a lot of whispering about how so-and-so screwed so-and-so a couple years back and his wife retaliated by screwing so-and-so in the back of their minivan.  Toledo may be a small-ish city but believe me, there's some serious Washington D.C-type  sh*t happening there.

I loved it.  It was a paltry turnout given the size of our class --

 Exhibit A

Exhibit B

-- but the people who showed up were good ones.  It was worth it, absolutely worth it, to get back there and see them again.

The next day I said goodbye to Ohio and drove back to Chicago.  I ate a lot of Twizzlers --

And the next morning I flew home, heart full of love for the good people of the Midwest.

Always good to see you again, my dear Rainer.

At one point during our visit, as the truth hit me things were not the way I remembered them, I sighed and said to Muppet's parents, "I guess it's true -- you can't go home again."  Muppet Dad responded, "Well of course you can, just don't expect anything to be the same HA HA HA HA."

Fair enough.

Love you,  Toledo.
Love you, childhood in a sinkhole,


  1. All those places you use to frequent as a young'un are now extinct! Kind of reminds me of my older brother going back to our old neighborhood on Guam (dad was in the navy and we lived on base) and finding the entire area remodeled and unfamiliar.

  2. It's sad. Sigh.

    Bye, Mrs. Howard! Happy to see you around!

  3. Remember jumping off the swing to the pointer sisters song "jump". My parents visited Toledo some time ago and told me how much it had changed.

  4. Oh my God.... J.G., is that you???

    1. And yes, yes, I remember. It was so clever.

  5. But the most important part hasn't changed, MJ.
    The People!

    That's why you really went back to Toledo, and they didn't disappoint.

    1. That's the truth, Lou. My city may be falling apart but I'd go back tomorrow for the people. We raise 'em well in the OH.

  6. Yes it is me Jodie! Google has issues with my user name obviously!
    Loved seeing pics even if it had changed. Your parents back yard brings back alot of memories. Is the swing still there? We could go back, swing, drink some wine, and set the backyard on fire for the new owners!!!! How dare her be so cruel!

    1. Jodie, Whoot! I'm afraid the swing is gone, as is the giant corkscrew willow we used to climb. Next time I go to Toledo, join me and we will teach those terrible people a lesson Reagan Woods style.

  7. mj I loved this post... ALL OF IT I felt as if I was on a roller coaster high low what is around the corner WOSH - up down well you get the idea- a perfect chapter to the life and times of you-I just loved it!

    1. Thanks, g! This one was a big one to get through so kudos. It was like "An American Mom in Paris: the prequel."

      Thanks, all!!

  8. I was with you, I kept up but did have to take one time out for contemplation and my own memories of never really being able to go home. This was an outstanding post and but it was NOT the novel I am waiting for!!! Kathy in Iowa

    1. OK, Kathy, I read you loud and clear. I will do it.

  9. LOVE this post! I am also from Toledo and I graduated from Bowsher in '94 - our 20 yr. reunion is next year. Holy crap, where does the time go???
    I've been reading your blog for awhile and I really enjoy it - thanks for the laughs!

    1. You graduated from Bowsher in '94? So we know each other? Unveil yourself, stranger!

    2. :) Amy Dean...maybe french club or french class? I took it all 4 years, I think. I was friends with Michelle Albright (I think that's how I found your blog), Amy Aldrich, Mary Matthews, Kristin Ade. Went to Heatherdowns and Byrnedale.

  10. As sad as it is looking at the former fun spots of your youth I had to laugh. Your mall and KMart look an awful lot like the mall and KMart where I grew up. I always liked Toledo. It was more exciting than Bowling Green, anyway. Seattle water damage

  11. I wasn't sure what to do with you, Mac, being as how your comment is half real and half spam-ish ad. Benefit of the doubt!