The Urban Nostalgic

The facet fixtures go first. And the locks and ceiling fans. Then the pantry followed by the neighbor’s garden and the coffee shop on 21st Avenue where the tweakers played chess and hid their drugs in the billowing ceiling. The skyline becomes a snaggletooth smile: some buildings you can conjure with high resolution, others aren’t there at all.

One day you’ll wake up and forget the name of your apartment building. You still remember the street you lived on. That will do for now. But the next month that will be gone, too. It must be written somewhere. You’ll find it later.

Our memory deprives us of our cities. They dissolve among the present needs: the shopping lists and haircuts and flat tires. And in the end, it’s not our forgetfulness we get angry at. It’s the feeling that something is being withheld.

That’s where nostalgia comes in.

I have friends who talk about the place from which they came as if they were still a part of it. How the historic neighborhoods or pastries were just right. The summer thunderstorms or the fierceness with which the locals lived. But the place is not theirs anymore. It never was. It’s a place; it has no personality beyond that which we impose on it.

I’m guilty of this, too. “The culture of Nashville acts like the humidity. It’s ubiquitous and inescapable and you can’t help but be conscious of it,” I’ve told friends in Portland. I haven’t lived in Nashville for two years, but it has a way of creeping to the forefront of my mind when I listen to “Elvis Presley Blues” or spot my bolo tie hanging next to my belts.

Alberto Fuguet, a Chilean director, shares this sentiment. In an essay for a Nashville paper, he wrote,

Nashville was a place — a myth, perhaps — that I knew existed but had no real idea about, except for some clichés that, eventually, would come in handy. Now... I realize that Nashville is inextricably part of my life and always will be. Funny how things work out. It is, no doubt about it, my "second city," my home away from home, the place I will always return even if I never visit it again. There are other cities that I have lived in for a lot more time... but there is something very deep and private about my relationship to Nashville.

Do you see what he does there? He anthropomorphizes the city. Speaks of it as if the city were a former love. Acts as though the city can jetset between Tennessee and Chile when he needs her to. But cities aren’t mobile; we’re the ones who move.

Yet, I disagree that we are as mobile as we like to believe. We can’t hop from one city to another and remain completely whole. Cities don’t leave you, they ooze out of you like sweat, leaving  a trail of unkept, fuzzy memories that may menace or pacify your present without warning. It takes a Greyhound ticket to leave a city but more than a lifetime for that city to leave you. And the tragedy is, you don’t get to choose what stays and what doesn’t.