Staying Put

  Jerome Shea       March 16, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Old joke:
“Lived here all your life, old timer?”
“Not yet.”

You can blame this wonk on Sally.

She has lived all over the place during the last 45 years, both in this country and abroad. Shea, on the other hand, has been hunkered down in Albuquerque since 1969. So in her email to me a couple of weeks ago, she wondered out loud how it might feel to have put down roots as I did. Then she closed with “probably the grass looks greener sometimes from [Shea’s] side, too.”

No, actually, it doesn’t (and what grass we have in the Southwest isn’t very green, but that’s another matter). I will say right up front that I am glad to have spent more than half my life in the Duke City.* But I am grateful to Sally for making me think about such things.

First, though, let me back up a bit and get some truisms out of the way. The first is that we are preponderantly a nation of immigrants. Our forebears came for opportunity, or to escape oppression, political or otherwise, or were, sadly, shipped here in chains. That’s the first part. The second part is that once they got here many of them had caught the bug to keep moving. Land was opening up beyond the Appalachians and eventually to the Pacific, there was gold in them thar hills, and so forth. Enough of us hit the Atlantic seaboard and kept on running to establish the myth of mobility, and by “myth” I simply mean a cultural construct, a story we tell about ourselves. And those who stayed behind—in Europe, in Africa—we think of as tethered to the same plot of worn-out soil passed down through centuries.

We move out of desperation or because of imagined opportunities: we really have to or we really want to. The Joads surely did not move from Oklahoma to California as light-hearted adventurers (nor do the many Mexicans taking their chances with la migra), but many a young man or young woman or young couple piled everything into the Chevy along with their savings and lit out with high hearts. And maybe their dreams did come true. Now maybe their own kids are lighting out from California to Hawaii. Or Australia. Or even back to Ohio. The myth, the truism, persists and got a boost in the last half-century when we were becoming less and less an agricultural society and as education was exploding. Get that college degree, sign on with General Electric or the FBI, and if they shipped you to Oregon, well, that was something new to experience, and something newer still when they shifted you to the Atlanta office for a few years, and so forth. And you could always fly back for Christmas with the folks.**

I suppose this is all true and there are, I’m sure, statistics to back it up. But my anecdotal evidence gives me pause. I was raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. My brother and his kids and their kids still live in that general area. I would bet the rent that Steve will live out his days on his farm north of Harrisburg. His big move, about twenty-five years ago, amounted to about a hundred miles as the crow flies. The Longsuffering Diana’s parents and siblings and their families are still bunched up in New England. Most striking is the case of my grammar school classmates. Yes, we still keep in touch, had a fiftieth reunion last fall. A grammar school reunion may strike you as a bit much, but not if you realize that about half of my classmates are still neighbors! Half a century later, they still live in Doylestown or within about a fifty-mile radius. It is easy to plan a reunion if you see each other regularly in the grocery store or at church. Of those still on the radar, I am easily the farthest away, with a fellow in Florida taking second place. The rest you could cover on the map with a fifty-cent piece.

So we are not all nomads, not by a long shot. And some of us, as I hope to show next week, fall somewhere in between.

*That’s a popular nickname for our fair city, which was named for the Duke of Alburquerque, in Spain. No one knows quite when that first “r” got dropped.

**In the early nineteenth century, if you headed out to Oregon in the Conestoga wagon, it was very likely that never again would you see the loved ones you left behind. What wrenching leave-takings those must have been!

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