One of my favorite songs has always been Bon Jovi’s Who Says You Can’t Go Home. I can relate to the lyrics, which talk about coming full circle in life: from wanting to break away from your hometown to explore the world, but ultimately realizing that home is where you really want or need to be. As so often happens with music, this song has taken on new significance for me over the last few months.
It’s been just a little over two years since I left San Francisco and the apartment I called home for 30 years. I’d just retired from my faculty position, and had decided to move out of California, but my timing left a lot to be desired, as this all took place in the midst of the COVID pandemic. I’d planned to go back to my native New England for a while, and then had dreams of perhaps moving to Italy to teach English and see whether I’d enjoy life in my favorite adopted country. Instead, I was set adrift, uncertain of exactly where to go or what to do. Lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates, travel restrictions, and unnerved friends and family who were not comfortable with me visiting them left me feeling like a sailor unable to find a safe harbor. My car was my trusty “ship”, laden with all my luggage and the remainder of those worldly possessions that I hadn’t already sold or shipped to a friend in Massachusetts who was storing them for me.
My friend Daniel and his family welcomed me and provided me with a temporary place to dock in Tennessee, and I also visited friends in Florida and Ohio. Otherwise, I stayed at hotels and various AirBnb properties, some for a night or two, some for a few months at a time. While that might sound expensive, many AirBnB properties charge reasonable rates for stays of a month or more, and included in those rates are all utilities, cable TV, dishes, pots and pans, etc. So, for almost two years I’ve lived like this, and my travels have taken me back and forth across the country, with long stays in Utah, Florida, Tennessee, Hawaii, and across New England. It’s been great, but I’ve begun to feel that it’s time to settle-in somewhere and figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Thanks to the kindness and generosity of some friends in Massachusetts, I recently began renting a three-bedroom apartment in my old hometown of New Bedford for a ridiculously reasonable rate. The apartment had been the home of a family friend named Dick, who died last December at the age of 92. Dick’s son and daughter-in-law decided to clean the apartment out and rent it, and when they heard I was looking for a place, they offered it to me. It came completely furnished, fully stocked with dishes, silverware, pots and pans as well as a virtually new Keurig coffee maker, an air fryer, a smart TV, etc. It has most of the amenities of an AirBnB, but at a much more reasonable price. Given my indecision about where I want to ultimately be and the state of the economy and the world these days, it seemed like an offer I’d have been crazy to refuse.
New Bedford is a city of 100,000 people located about 30 miles east of Providence, Rhode Island and an hour south of Boston on Massachusetts’ south coast. The area was originally settled in 1652 by some of the Mayflower Pilgrims from whom I’m descended, and officially became a city in 1787. By the 1800s New Bedford had become wealthy and world-famous for its whaling industry and part of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville is set in the city. Also during this time, the city became a key destination along the Underground Railroad that brought escaped slaves from the South to freedom in the North. New Bedford has always been a major fishing port and its economy was heavily dependent on textiles throughout most of the 20th century, but as the textile industry faded, the city began to struggle economically. It unfortunately became famous for having some of the highest concentrations of pollution from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the United States. The Acushnet River and parts of New Bedford Harbor were part of an EPA Clean-up site for decades. And like so many other parts of the U.S., the city has been particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis and associated crime. The population of the city is quite diverse, with almost 1/3 of residents being of Portuguese descent, mostly from the islands of Cape Verde and the Azores. Portuguese culinary treats like kale soup, linguica sausage, and sweet bread are very popular here. Those of French-Canadian, Puerto Rican, or African American descent each make up another 10% of the overall population.
This was the city in which I grew up. My mother and I lived with my grandparents in a large house not far from the downtown area. It was a very working-class neighborhood, and not particularly scenic, though we were only a block away from the Common, a large park that had some monuments, a playground area, and views of the Acushnet River. My mother’s best friend, Norma, lived in the nearby rural town of Dartmouth, and we spent countless hours at Norma’s on weekends. There I was able to play with Norma’s daughters Joanne and Carol, ride my bike free of city traffic, explore the nearby woods, or go to Dartmouth’s beautiful town beaches. As I’ve mentioned in a prior blog, my mother loved to take day trips to Boston, Providence, Cape Cod or northern New England and I always appreciated those opportunities to get away from New Bedford and our rather depressing neighborhood.
Growing up long before there was internet access, television was the primary influence on the way I saw the world (i.e., California was the place to be, New Bedford was not!) and it was a catalyst for the games I played as a child. My house was usually the place where neighborhood kids would gather to act out various TV shows that we loved. For example, the entry hall, staircase and front parlor of our house bore a striking resemblance to the interior set of Collinwood, home to vampire Barnabas Collins and his family in the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which featured other characters who were ghosts, witches and werewolves. With the aid of the Dark Shadows music soundtrack to provide the atmosphere, my friends and I would act out scenes from the show, each of us taking on two or three different roles. This drove my grandmother crazy, as she’s hear one of us let out a blood curdling scream and come rushing to see what had happened, only for me inform her, “It’s OK. Barnabas Collins just bit someone.”
The back porch of my house served as our version of the Jupiter 2 spaceship from Lost in Space, while the back yard and the rest of the neighborhood served as whatever alien planet we had crashed on. Again we’d each play several characters from the show and I was often a confusing combination of Will Robinson, Dr. Smith and the Robot. Had you driven through my neighborhood circa 1967, you might have seen me walking down the sidewalk seemingly talking to myself. As the Robot I’d wave my arms frantically as I warned, “Danger, Will Robinson! Aliens approaching!” and then I’d change voices, becoming the ever-complaining Dr. Smith and addressing the Robot with, “Be still, you Bubble-Headed booby!”
The elevated front porch of the house was the Starship Enterprise from Star Trek, and when we wanted to “beam down” to a planet’s surface (the front yard), we’d climb over the banister and down the sturdy trumpet vine. When my grandmother would catch us “beaming down” like this, she would come out and scold us, but we sort of viewed her as crotchety admiral from Star Fleet Command and continued with our five year mission to explore strange new worlds and go where no one had gone before.
When we weren’t acting out our favorite TV shows, we’d explore the surrounding neighborhood, which seemed almost like a foreign and somewhat hostile country when we’d stray more than a block or so from home. I remember that we used to torment a man who lived a few streets away, racing back and forth past his house screaming, “Mental man! Mental man!” This would invariably result in him coming out and chasing us down the block with a broom or a shovel, lending some supporting evidence to the case that he deserved the moniker we’d given him. But in the clarity of adulthood, I always wondered whether he had originally been “mental” or whether we’d driven him to it.
My neighborhood was a potpourri of ethnic groups: Black, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Syrian. With my red hair and freckles, I stuck out like a sore thumb , which made me an easy target for bullies and teasing. I was terrorized by a gang of kids led by a boy named Kenny Mendez, a thug who made my life a living hell throughout 7th grade. He and his friends would rough me up and steal my lunch money almost daily, and once even terrorized me in a downtown department store to the point where my mother and I had to get a police escort from the store to our car to escape them. Each day at school when we were dismissed, I’d run as fast as my chubby little legs could carry me out a back door, across an athletics field to a cemetery. By the time I could get there, Kenny and the gang would have boarded the school bus I should have been on and ride it, searching for me walking along the bus route. If they saw me, they’d get off the bus to terrorize me, so I’d crouch behind the cemetery wall until the last of the school buses had passed and only then could I walk home in relative peace. This was a routine for many months until the day when we learned that Kenny had broken into someone’s home, was shot by the owner, and was paralyzed. The bullying stopped, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty that Kenny’s misfortunes meant the end of my troubles.
When the Lebanese Civil War erupted in the mid-1970s, I remember how the Syrian family on one side of us suddenly identified as Lebanese, while the folks on the other side remained Syrian. They periodically threw rocks at one another, staging their own little civil war and turning my back yard into a sometimes dangerous “de-militarized zone” with rocks flying over my head as I tried to work in my garden. In junior high and high school, I was placed into classes for students who scored higher on achievement tests, and was therefore separated from many of the kids in my own neighborhood. The new friends I made in these classes were from the city’s wealthier West End and Buttonwood Park area, so I ended up spending a lot of my time in that area of the city, which seemed like a peaceful respite from the rock throwing and gang violence that characterized my own neighborhood.
New Bedford always seemed to me to be a place people wanted to escape from. No one seemed terrifically happy to be living there, and either aspired to live in nicer surrounding towns like Dartmouth, Westport, or Rochester, or to get out of the state entirely. Tourists might briefly stop in New Bedford to check out the Whaling Museum and the Seaman’s Bethel or have a scallop dinner before rushing off to their actual destination: Cape Cod, earning New Bedford the nickname, “Gateway to the Cape.” When I was younger, I was always drawn to and fascinated by the bigger cities of Providence and Boston, and later became obsessed with the idea of going to California, while my mom’s dream was to move to the coast of Maine.
I left New Bedford in 1980 to attend graduate school in Virginia and then southern California. Honestly, while I missed family and friends in the area, I never looked back at the city itself. I always thought of it, and especially my old neighborhood, as a backward place, run down and dingy, with a lot of unpleasant memories. I only visited New Bedford when I was home to see friends and wanted some good scallops, pizza, or Portuguese sweet bread; otherwise, I spent as little time there as possible and the idea that I might ever live there again was inconceivable. I often joked that New Bedford was a really good place to be FROM.
And so, when I was offered this apartment in New Bedford, though I was relieved and grateful for such a comfortable and cheap place to live, I still experienced a lot of ambivalence. I’ve lived in L.A. and San Francisco and have traveled all over the world. Cumulatively, I’ve spent several years of my life in places like Hawaii, Italy and France. Recently I’ve spent months in luxurious AirBnB properties in Florida, Utah, and coastal Rhode Island. The idea of returning to New Bedford and of calling it “home” again after all this time just felt like a huge step backwards. However, the apartment is located in a good and quiet neighborhood in the city’s West End. I can walk to Buttonwood Park past the houses of former high school friends and drive past my junior high school with only a passing thought about what ever happened to Kenny Mendez. My mother’s friend Norma, now 92, still lives in the same house in Dartmouth, only 10 minutes away, and we use her Resident Pass to make regular trips to the beautiful town beach. I have enjoyed our time together and we either go out for dinner or I’ll make dinner for us a couple times a week. Norma’s daughter Joanne lives five minutes away and I have several friends from my college days within a half an hour of me here.
And so, I’m settling into this new apartment. I’ve enjoyed hanging my considerable collection of paintings and photographs that have been in storage for two years and the refrigerator is adorned with dozens of refrigerator magnets from my travels. Unfortunately, the walls are papered with very outdated and gaudy patterns that I’m not a huge fan of, but after staring at them for a while, I convinced myself that they look not unlike what you’d see in older hotel rooms in Venice, so that has helped me to make peace with the decor. Though I am frightened to accumulate too much stuff until I finally decide on a permanent place to be, I decided I had to have a comfy La-Z-Boy recliner and we’ve been inseparable ever since it was delivered. I’ve bought some flowering plants that seem to be thriving in the southern exposure provided by the bay windows of the living room. I’ve unpacked and started to listen to my huge CD collection again. I’ve set up my smart TV and ironically, have been binge watching episodes of the original Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, and Star Trek on various streaming services while enjoying the new version of Lost in Space on Netflix and the new Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds on the Paramount network. It’s provided a strange sense of déjà vu.
For the first time since COVID, I’ve been able to walk the streets of Boston again, unfettered by masks and lockdowns, and happy to see the city looking as lovely as I remembered. I’ve made a couple of trips to the coast of Maine, just two hours away, to cool off in the frigidly refreshing waters of York Beach on a hot summer day and to dine on lobster and blueberry pie for dinner. The White Mountains of New Hampshire are also just a few hours from here, and I’m looking forward to making some mini-road trips there as fall foliage season approaches.
Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying the amazing bounty of produce that is available in the area. I’ve made several visits places where I’ve been able to pick my own raspberries, blueberries and strawberries: Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, RI, Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, MA and Nourse Farms in Westborough, MA (which has been operating since 1722!). I’ve also devoured a lot of our local sweet corn, which we call “butter and sugar” not “bi-color.” I also discovered that I can just go to the grocery store and pick up a couple of steamed lobsters for $6 a pound and make myself a generous lobster salad for lunch, and now that I have a fully stocked kitchen, it’s been nice to do a lot more cooking and baking for myself again.
Best of all, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with the many friends and family I still have in the area. As always, dining out is a popular pastime, and I’ve enjoyed countless meals with friends at some of our old favorite haunts as well as some newly discovered gems. There have also been a lot of homecooked meals, cook outs, and excursions to homemade ice cream stands. I finally got to meet my cousin’s new baby, Emma and have reconnected with other friends whom I haven’t seen since COVID began. There is a lot to be thankful for.
I’m still not New Bedford’s biggest fan. The drivers here are a terrifying breed, displaying the aggressiveness and chaotic habits one sees in places like Cairo, Egypt or Naples, Italy. The New Bedford accent has always made me cringe. My family did have a New England accent that sounded like a cross between President Kennedy and a farmer from rural Maine. But the hard core New Bedford accent is an ugly hybrid with hints of Boston, Brooklyn, and urban New Jersey. The soothing sound of the surf at a local beach is often interrupted by a woman screaming something like, “Hetha and Serra, youz bettah get yaw asses ovah heah, aw so help me gawd, I’m gonna give youz a beatin’!” (Translation: “Heather and Sarah, you’d better get your asses over here or so help me God, you are going to get a beating…”)
When I hear such an outburst, I have flashbacks to my old neighborhood my childhood, and momentary feelings of panic and disbelief that after everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve been in my life, here I am back in New Bedford again. But then I remind myself that for now, this seems to be the place where I belong. I remind myself that the dreams I had as a child, about getting out of New Bedford and seeing the world, all came true. Unlike the old days, I no longer have to worry about being chased by “Mental Man” or Kenny Mendez and his gang and I’m now living in a neighborhood whose residents I used to envy.
Life plays with us and takes us on many strange treks. On this journey I’m learning that we CAN go home again if we really want or need to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going backwards in our lives. Yes, I’m back in New Bedford, but it’s different this time. This is a completely new act in the play that is my life; it’s just taking place on an old, familiar stage. Who says you can’t go home?