Tours of Places You Used to Live

We were only supposed to be in New York for a couple hours and then it stretched into almost two days and we couldn't seem to get out. We did finally, on a train out of Grand Central yesterday afternoon and headed straight for the beach. Since I'm about to be immersed in places I used to live, I decided to pull a relevant poem over from my other blog to this one.

Tours of Places You Used to Live
January 2010

Do you like to give tours of places
you used to live?
Do you take it personally
when the scenery has changed?
“There used to be a swing set over there,
that was rotten and creaked a lot,”
you might start to say,
rolling down the window
to point to a certain gathering of trees.
But I can tell you right now—
the swing set doesn’t matter
to anyone else on the tour.
And they certainly can’t be bothered
with knowing exactly
where it used to be.

Which parks
used to be bigger, which houses
were smaller,
which church had one time been painted
a bright, Easter-egg yellow,
and is now a dull gray—

None of these is important.
Neither is the fact
that you once lived down the block
from a neighborhood pool,
that first thing in the morning
you could hear kids shrieking
as they cannonballed in.
All these people on the tour can see is a fence,
and a block of concrete.
Whether the pool is closed now for good,
or just for the season,
has little bearing on them.
They are checking their phones,
wondering how long it will take to get home,
starting to worry about work the next day.
To them progress is not a personal snub.

Let’s say for example the town got a lot of money
to modernize the library.
Now it's shaped like a ship,
with all this light streaming in,
and big comfy couches instead
of those sterile little cubicles.
Someone in the group keeps saying,
“Wow” and thinks it’s impressive,
for such a small town.

You want to punch them
because they are missing the whole point.
You liked those sterile little cubicles,
and the water fountain
that never gave more than a trickle.
You liked the dark little children’s room
with a worn-out wooden dollhouse
and the animal books with
the bindings completely shot.
Most of all you miss the fairy-tale stone steps
in the back, leading down
to a field full of goldenrods
and marigolds.

Someone else points out how cool
the train playground is.
“Was that here when you were little?”
Nope. No. They are just not getting
how much you loved
that wild field,
how sometimes in early spring,
while your dad was gathering books on
tax preparation and your mom
reading Bartlett’s Quotations,
you and your sister would wander down
that impossibly long stretch
to the almost-woods where
you knew you weren’t supposed to go.
There you’d look for ladybugs
or four-leaf clovers
and other surefire signs
of good luck.

Or let’s say in the place where
the pool-hall burned down,
now is a festive Mexican restaurant,
with local artwork,
and good happy-hour deals.
You can tell the tour group all about that crazy,
smoky pool hall where, in high school,
you used to run into the local guys,
who somehow had Boston accents,
how every single night without fail
“Hotel California” played on the jukebox.
But they’re looking at a sign
for 2-for-1 Margaritas,
asking about
the vintage clothing shop next door.

As you get back into the car,
maybe you realize
that you yourself are forgetting certain things.
Of course in the obvious Borges way,
like the bike paths that were huge and perilous,
leading off into the unknown,
are now simple dirt roads,
alongside the tracks of the commuter rail
to North Station.
But even things like the fact that
your house was never green,
it was beige at first,
then painted white,
But you could have sworn—
Or something like the fruit trees
that never bore any fruit.
But what about that perfect Empire apple,
after school one day in 5th grade,
you carefully picked off a branch that seemed
to be handing it
to you?

Before you attempt to go any further,
you should probably ask yourself—
Why are you giving this tour?
Is it curiosity, nostalgia,
just a memory-lane type thing?
Is it because you really do want
someone to know how it felt to be you:
a scrawny kid with a 10-speed bike
who loved her cat (the one buried behind…
which poplar tree?),
who loved
those January nights when she would curl up
in the living room,
whose mom would bring her hot chocolate
whose dad would sing Mr. Tambourine Man?

Did you last-minute swerve to catch Exit 27 off 495
so the guy in the backseat
wearing the Yankees’ cap
and one side of his ipod headphones,
(the guy who is right now wondering
if there’s a Roy Rogers
at a rest stop anywhere between here and New York)
will understand what it felt like to be that kid?

Or is it so that you can be that kid again,
wearing pigtail braids
and too-small pajamas?
Is it so your mom will bring you hot chocolate,
and you dad will sing Mr. Tambourine Man?
Because if that’s what you’re hoping to get
out of giving these tours
of places you used to live,
it’s no wonder you feel a desolate fury
as you finally consent
to pull away from the curb
and head back to 495.
Of course you are biting your lip
as you turn your bruised, lavender face
away from the watery view.

And no wonder you have to summon
the restraint of a caged Mountain Lion
to keep your voice steady,
as you crane your neck around
to tell someone in the back seat
(whose face you barely recognize)
“No, that was music store.
The donut shop was across the street.”


  1. Ah Rach, this had me in tears, even before the part about the MPH. And then Ben had the nerve to walk in and interrupt me and make me pretend I was just reading something on the internet, because I couldn't even begin to imagine how to explain to him why I was so overwraught. Sigh. Very nice post.

  2. This is an amazing poem. It is amazing, heartwrentching, brewed all these memories of my childhood that intertwined with yours.

  3. love the concreteness of this poem (but can't find myself agreeing with your choice of the word "progress"...!). i know one thing: wally will love reading about your past!

  4. Love, love love and tears. Just like Liz, I was interrupted and there is definitely no way of explaining.

  5. How did I not thank all of you for these comments? Thank you. (Chances are you will not see this.)


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