There’s a tiny road that follows a dirty river with run-down buildings tracing its edges. Even the buildings that are in perfectly working order are eye-sores; ugly squares in desperate need of new paint, new windows, new everything. On particularly gray days I mumble miserable phrases about how they managed to get uglier, if it’s even possible.
The river is a mockery of nature; a polluted, brown stream of running water that is only good for flooding and ruining houses. Nothing good can come from that river, and as a result, even the most beautiful of places that are scattered along its trail are over-looked, tossed aside by some off-putting joke about the smell of it or the darkness of the water or the pollution.
I never wanted to stay here – not in this town that is rapidly losing any chance it had to corruption, poverty and bankruptcy. My childhood home is now surrounded by carcasses of houses that have been rendered unsafe, just skeletons of buildings waiting for the city to send someone to tear them down. The lucky ones, the buildings and houses that were already torn down and exhausted of any memories their floorboards held, have been replaced by nothing but soggy earth or patches of weeds. No one builds here. Not among the meth addicts and children with dirty faces playing basketball in shorts in the dead of winter.
The irony of me coming back here has not been lost. I mocked my college boyfriend for wanting to build a life here and yet, here I am. Stuck, or so it seems. Stuck alongside all the others who are desperately planning their escapes, the ones who complain of harsh winters and decaying buildings and rising taxes that only resemble the empty promise of a one-night stand. Nothing comes from the optimism of pooling the community pot, not really.
There are the others who have confidence in the culture and character of an old coal town, who speak about how it is a grand place to raise a family, but deep-down there’s no denying that Scranton will never be “up and coming.” It had its day, I suppose, although I don’t know anyone who was around to see it. The only thing left is history, and much like ex-lovers with a history, no one is interested in the story because it never went anywhere. We’re all just holding on to something that was gone a long time ago.
There are enough woods and abandoned houses around that people try to keep secrets; with nothing but the trees as their witnesses; people go missing, get murdered, get high. The roots all connect, though, and nothing stays secret for long. This small town spreads rumors like wildfire and continues to let it spread until the ground beneath us shakes with drama. No, high-profile murders and suicides don’t happen often, but once they do, there’s a community digging their claws into the atrocity of it, trying to secretly solve it from behind their computer screens on their quiet little streets, seeking revenge for the death of one of our own.
Still, the fumes of a rotting city are not enough to keep the good people away. People leave and come back, some people stay forever. There’s something about the dodgy corner bars that serve chicken wings just crispy enough and keep Coors Light and Yuengling Lager at just the right temperature. Maybe it will never be known for its health-conscious restaurants, but small businesses pop up and deflate just enough that people are grateful their dreams can somehow, maybe, still come true – if only just for a little while.
People know your name, and while they might only grumble it in a hasty hello, holding onto a grudge from years past, they still know it. It still means something. People will beep at you as you log your mile runs in the morning, not caring if you know what their car looks like or not. They will report back to relatives that they saw you, and that in itself is enough to make you feel safe. No, your new next door neighbors may not be friendly, but the people born and raised here always have their eyes open, they know who you are.
If you ask people why they stay, they might mention their family is rooted here or it’s the only place they know, except underneath there is an invisible cloth that weaves us all together. There are the three bars you go to when you want to dress up, the corner bars you go to when you don’t, and either way, there will always be an older drunk there waiting to speak with you about Joe Crocker and how that man could carry a tune. There are the mom-and-pop hoagie places and pizzerias that no big city restaurant can compete with. There are two high school rivals in one small city, which is enough to get even the most angst of teens excited.
Having moved away for a brief period of time to see “what else was out there,” I found myself fiercely defending this little town with its stingy politics and smoke-filled bars, its small universities and numerous hospitals that even the natives can’t tell apart. No, we weren’t all naïve or racist. We do things… we know things.
If nothing else, we unite in the humor of the local city hall meetings that make uneducated characters into local celebrities, and, hey, at least they’re speaking up. We unite in our pure boredom, for the skimpy ski hills and aging movie theaters are losing their magic. We unite in the name of drinking, in the name of small businesses, in the name of pizza and food, and in the name of proudly pronouncing our own name wrong. We have a weekly high school reunions at our local bars. We are a mixture of city people and hicks and general confusion. We are hopeful people in a city of broken windows and sinking buildings. We are Scranton, for better or for worse.