I can feel the soft cool breeze blowing through my room from the Susquehanna River behind me. I am sitting at a small desk writing this post. My wife is sleeping deeply on the bed to my right. I am facing Front Street. The trucks speed past the town on the Southern Tier Expressway (Future I 86, so the signs say). I am in Owego, New York, the town where I was born and raised.
But something is wrong. Something doesn’t feel right. I am not in my home. I am going to sleep tonight in a strange bed, in a house, the inside of which, I have never seen before this afternoon. For what may be the third time in my long life, I am going to lay down in a place that does not belong to my family…right here in Owego.
How did I get here?
I remember closing the front door of my home at 420 Front Street, walking down our sidewalk and turning left, toward town. I started that journey many years ago. I can still recall the little details…the little fragments of recollections that most people would dismiss as inconsequential. But I remember. Yes, I remember.
The first house I pass is a large red brick structure where Lester and Madeline Sparks live. I just got through playing in their backyard. My brother just hit a softball through Lester’s window. Lester managed the old J.C.Penney’s store on Lake Street. His wife was a nurse. I look to my right and see John Street…the sweet street that led to Harvey’s grocery store where my lawn-mowing nickels were spent on Mars bars or a Baby Ruth. The street where the Gavin’s lived. The street where Craig and Ricky Phelps lived. I played my childhood away with them. Further up John Street was George Forsyth’s house. At the corner of John and Main, lived “Duggie” Dugan.
I continue my walk up Front. I pass the house where “Clyde” my childhood playmate who told whoppers lived for a few years. There was the old Taylor house. Victorian…tall windows…abandonded…and most definitely haunted. Across the street is the reclusive daughter of A. Loring, the Naturalist. John Gorman the Lawyer lived a door or two away. I pass the house where a woman MD practiced medicine. She had a roll-top desk stuffed with papers and samples. I pass the black iron railings of Dr. Amouck’s house…the best lawn-mowing job to be had in town. He paid five whole dollars! I pass a yellow house where Candy S. lived. Then came the “Old Ladies Home”, the Riverview Rest Home where the short-tempered man who voiced one of the dwarfs for Disney stayed.
I cross the street and continue. I’m older by a few years. I chase my dog King back home. He followed me to school one day. “Go home, King,” I would yell. Once I decided to run to St. Patrick’s. I was late for class and I didn’t want to get yelled at by Sister Vincent. I closed my eyes and ran like the wind. I ran like the wind into a large Elm tree. I went home, bleeding copiously from my lips and nose. I never run with my eyes closed anymore.
I pass St. Patrick’s. I went there for eight years and was taught to be a good Catholic. I went into the world of ‘heathens’ (Protestants) in 1961, when I entered high school. At St. Pat’s I fell in love with a tiny third grade girl with short dark hair. She sat near the adorable blonde, Angie. There was Ray Stella. There was his sister, Rita. Toni Montgomery sat close. Linda Dramus and Lenny Schmidt. Jimmy Merrill often walked home with me. Nearby was Pete Gillette. Pete came late into our 8th grade. His father, Dr. Gillette was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1960, so he took his family on a motor trip around the U. S. Across from the school was a large tree with a stone bench. It faced the river. I sat with Mary on the stone on bright nights and watched the moonlight shimmer on the waves of the Susquehanna. The tree and the stone are gone now. Mary lives far away. I’ve seen other couples on the stone bench, they didn’t realize it belonged to two other people…but I said nothing. Near the bench was the first Owego museum that I can recall.
I’m older now and I’m going to a dance at the Elks. First I must pass Dr. Nichols office. He made house calls. He took my brother’s appendix out. He gave me my Polio vaccine.
I’m getting near Pete Gillette’s house. The music of The Kingsmen blared from the Elks whenever someone opened the door.
I’m older and I stop into the bar that is now John Barleycorn. I have a legal drink. I continue up Front Street. The buildings are changing from plastic and aluminum facades to brightly painted shops called River Row. I look across the street and see the Dean Phillips Hardware store. It transforms into the River Row Bookstore. It carries copies of my first novel.
I’m older. I cross over to the Court House Square. I read the names of my classmates who died in Viet Nam. I sat in front of Gary Fawcett in home room. [Years ago I found his name on the Wall in Washington, D.C.].
I pass the Parkview Hotel. An old brothel, I once read. The ladies would be there for the Irish railroad workers from across the river putting down the tracks of the Lackawanna RR. I had dinner there after the calling hours were over for my mother, at Esty & Monroe Funeral Home.
I pass the Historical Society. I once gave two public lectures there (with slides) in a series called “The World Comes to Tioga County.” I think I was well received.
It’s been a long journey from the other end of Front Street. Once I passed this house [The Pumpelly House B & B] to continue to the very end and have a play date with Emerice Perry. I wonder if she remembers my being there at her house?
I may have brought my daughter, Erin and later my son, Brian, Trick or Treating at this end of the street. I always wanted to see what the other houses in town were like.
Now I know.
I came in tonight. I climbed the curved staircase. I feel the river air and see the curtains move slightly. I hear the breeze and it seems to be telling me something…but I can’t quite hear it.
Wait, they’re not stories…they are memories. They’re memories, aren’t they? Or are they dreams? I honestly can’t tell you that some memories I have of my life in Owego were real…making it a true memory, or something I dreamed one night 26 years ago? I am troubled, sometimes, when I have a distinct recollection of an event, or a person, or a house or a kiss that it may exist only in my mind and not in reality.
I’ve spent time wondering about memory and reality and dreams. Maybe it’s time in my life to just let it all fade? Maybe I should pack them up and toss them into the muddy waters off the Court Street Bridge? I could then start with a clean slate. I could walk down Lake Street, sit at Sa Sa Na Loft’s grave on Cemetery Hill and see the village like a tourist. Like someone who never lived, loved, danced, sang and cried here. I could sit on steps of the Coburn Library and not be confronted by a thousand images of my youth. [When I walk into the library, I can still smell the crayons that the nun used when she would bring us (was it 3rd grade?) for art class.]
Pretend that it really doesn’t matter…
No, I can’t really do that, because it does matter…to me.