Jolly Misdemeanors (or "Home is Where Baseball Cards Are")

Home is a funny thing. A hometown is not just a place -- it's the content of a place. It's buildings and weather, people and streets, ideas and attitudes and smells and colors. Or, if you are a maggot, it is a porcupine carcass.

I've been thinking a lot about what home means. Three years ago I drove through the town I was born in. My family left for greener pastures in 1992. It's a town on a broad, lazy bend of a big blue river, with little houses and outdated strip malls and a tall red church snuggled into a nook between the river and the steep, dry hills. I pulled off the freeway as I drove through, just because. And I drove the streets I walked when I was a kid, past Jolly's Market, a dim and dingy little store where I used to buy baseball cards but where, in retrospect, I would never let my own children go alone, due primarily to the big greasy guy in overalls named Jim who ran the place and who, with a creepy grin used to tell us kids to "just call me Jolly." I feel like I just committed a misdemeanor by writing that last sentence.

Mosier, Oregon. 2010.
I parked my car in the gravel parking lot above the baseball diamond where I played Little League baseball. The neighborhood was silent and empty on that summer afternoon, and I walked down to the fence and stared over the poofy dandelions in left field where I got sent after coach gave me a chance at shortstop but I threw a routine groundball over the first baseman's head and into the other team's dugout and it hit a kid and made him cry.

And I sat on the playground swings of the elementary school overlooking leafy summer streets below, and I thought about how hometowns change, but how they stay the same too. Mr. Barnhouse, an old man who lived next door when I was a little boy, died somewhere along the line. And the apple tree I used to climb to see into his yard and pester his dog has shrunk over the years, or else I got bigger. Maybe both. But now it's someone else's yard anyway. It looks the same, but it's different.

The playground swing creaked and the warm west wind blew like it does every summer in this town, like it used to when we'd pick raspberries down along the creek bank and I'd watch the water skeeters and scream like a little girl when they got too close to my feet. And maybe, even though everything's different, I thought, even though Mr. Barnhouse is gone and my family moved away and my childhood friends still kicking around town would be doing well to remember that I ever existed, maybe this is still home somehow. Maybe a place can be home even if you're not there.