Off the Cuff: September 2006

I never really understood what Thomas Wolfe meant by “You can’t go home again.” Over the years, I’ve gone back to Easton, where I grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and I always felt nourished by my old hometown. I would visit friends, have a steak sandwich at Uncle Wesley’s café, simply wander down memory lane. Visiting Easton grounded me and reminded me where I’d come from. A few weeks ago, however, I took my nephew — my late brother’s son — up the river for a look at his father’s old haunts. It was a big mistake. And what I saw there, in Easton, has got me thinking about where we’re headed in this country.

The west ward neighborhood where I grew up has deteriorated badly. The houses have gone to seed, and there’s a feeling along Ferry Street of people hanging around, not working. As I talked to old friends, including Tom Goldsmith, who was mayor of Easton from 1992 through 2003, the picture got worse: Drug-related gang violence has reached the point where assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan met earlier this year with leaders of Easton, Allentown, Bethlehem and Reading to brainstorm how to stop the Crips and Bloods and other New York gangs from expanding their business out into the Route 222 corridor. Another friend of mine who’s lived all her life in Easton described simply going to the local CVS in the evening as venturing into a world she doesn’t recognize. She’s afraid.

My old neighborhood — once the province of Germans, Italians, Irish and a few Jews, upwardly mobile first- or second-generation Americans who were working toward better lives for their children — is now largely black and Hispanic. But race isn’t the issue — my friend isn’t avoiding the CVS because she’s afraid of blacks and Hispanics. She’s afraid of drug dealers. She’s afraid of violence. She’s afraid of what’s happening to her town, and realizes that whatever Pat Meehan might try to do is too little, too late.

I’m hardly the first person who’s taken a trip into the past and been sorely disappointed; moreover, the deterioration of our cities and towns, especially on the East Coast, is a half-century-long phenomenon. But something much deeper, and worse, really worries me. It’s that we seem to have no understanding of where we’re headed, collectively. In fact, I think we’re quickly reaching the point where we think of ourselves purely as individuals rather than as citizens of one nation, and the pace of our destructive behavior seems to be gaining momentum.

Examples are all around us. In late July, the New York Times ran an article on the sharp upturn in crime in our national forests — not only in crime, but in selfish, ugly behavior. The Times reporter tagged along with a ranger in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest outside Reno as he checked out a trailhead that had become a dump: Someone had thrown away an old couch there; somebody else had left a makeshift marijuana bong. Last year, there were almost 500 attacks and altercations involving forest rangers nationally; a decade ago, there were 34. We now have an I’m-doing-whatever-the-hell-I-want mentality, which historian Morris Berman sums up in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire: “We couldn’t now, at this point in our history, be further from the republican … notion of virtue, which sees cultures as composed of communities, not just individuals, and sees those communities as the bearer of values.”

My, how quaint that “notion of virtue” sounds. Instead, we’ve learned to tolerate just about anything. Another old friend of mine in Easton still tells me what a wonderful place it is. He chats up a favorite restaurant, then admits in the next breath that there have been shootings in another restaurant right next door, as if, well, that’s just the way things are now. As Garrison Keillor put it: “We have the ability in Lake Wobegon to look reality right in the eye and deny it.” As for me, I don’t think I’ll ever go home again.