There's no place like home

When I was fifteen, I ran away from home... home being somewhere in the northeastern US. I got it into my head that I wasn't going to experience a "real life" there. The town where I lived was one of the largest in my state, geographically speaking, but in terms of population it had fewer than 15,000 people. We were spread pretty thinly, with a backwards, conservative leadership. The local cultural mecca was the town next door, which had a couple of independent coffee shops and -- courtesy the local colleges -- the occasional free concert. There were, as far as I knew, two black families in the whole town, two Jewish, and no Asian people. The local population sang the praises of diversity, but I was 20 years old before I met an Indian, or a Muslim. I can't ever remember feeling like there was enough to do while I was growing up. Fifteen-year-old me ran away to change that. I took the money I'd saved from working my first part-time job, and caught a Greyhound bus out west. 

I wound up disembarking somewhere in the midwest, because I was paranoid that I'd be tracked. It didn't take me long to figure out that I didn't know what I was doing, or have the first idea of how to survive on my own. I didn't have a lot of money with me, and I blew most of what I had on a motel room for the first three nights I was there; it was privately owned, and the owner took my cash and didn't seem inclined to ask a lot of questions (I'd have been caught right there otherwise; I didn't have a story prepared to explain my lack of ID or a credit card; 15-year-old me had no idea that those are typically required to rent a room).

I was in a sizable city (for the first time in my life) and I remember thinking that I should be able to make a living panhandling; I'd heard that people in big cities sometimes made a lot of money doing that. My first morning out looking for a spot, though, I didn't see anyone begging; I only saw street performers who were actually doing something artistically gifted to "earn" it. I didn't have any useful talents when it came to street performing. True to form, I loitered uncertainly within my motel room for those first three days. I remember being in a panic at the end of my third night. I packed up what meagre belongings I'd brought with me, and "fled" from nothing in particular early the following morning.

I made my way downtown, where I found myself on a side street I had no business being on. 15 years old, white, with a bulging backpack, dressed for the wrong weather in the Midwest... I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was approached by a black man; to the best of my recollection, he was clean, clean-shaven, and neatly dressed. He asked me if I had any pills; I shook my head, and mumbled an apologize in absolute terror, convinced that I was about to be killed by a gang member (he wasn't dressed like I expected one to be; to date, I've no idea who he was). He looked at me funny, and next asked if I had any money. Now I was actually more excited than anything else; was I being mugged? That actually sounded like a 'life experience.' As it turned out, I wasn't destined for that either:

"I-I have about $20."

"Boy, you need to go home," he laughed.

"I don't have one, sir."

"Bullshit. 'Sir.'" He was laughing pretty hard now, shaking his head. "Aw man. 'Sir.' Go home boy." It's been 20 years, and that remains one of my most substantial interactions with a "city person." 

I found an unoccupied nook in an alley and spent a few hours sleeping behind some "trash" that wasn't too awful... mostly broken fragments of a wooden pallette, as I remember. I threw my jacket over them. When I woke up it was gone, but nobody had bothered me otherwise. I wandered out onto the street, where within a very short amount of time, someone apparently called the police at the sight of a dirty and disheveled clueless-looking white kid wandering through the wrong part of the city in the early afternoon on a school day. I was picked up by a disbelieving police officer; apparently, at the time, very few runaways reached that particular city; most of their cases involved kids "skipping town," as he put it. Officer Orletti; I just remember him saying his name, I might be botching it horribly there. 

My running away was a news-worthy item in my little town. That's how starved we were for excitement. Apparently nobody in fifteen years had made it as far as I did... just like nobody in twenty years had gone from our local high school to an ivy league university, or played on a professional sports team in 80 years. You'll never see anyone from my town on the news, or hear about a politician who comes from there. People from my town grew up, got married, and settled down locally with a small job in trucking, manufacturing, or with a local business, generally with a fair commute each day. Or, they moved away. So I was news, though I'm sure nobody one town over ever knew my name, and this was before the internet was a widespread cultural phenomenon. I didn't go back to school until the next week, at which point those few other kids who talked to me at all were convinced that I was mugged "and probably raped by a black man," because that was as far as a teenager's understanding of the world went in that part of the US; in that way, at least, I didn't stand out at all. We were all culturally starved, naived, and woefully unaware of the world at large. 

I did eventually leave town again, in my mid-20's... this time for good. I've not been back since, not even to the state I grew up in. I had few friends where I'd grown up, and the fact that 8-9 years later people who knew me still talked about my (grand total) 4-5 day sojourn "out west" like it was news had worn thin with me. By that time, though, I had actually done a few things within the local scene to help establish myself, in my own mind, as having a life. I had joined a writer's group, been published locally, went to poetry readings and comedy nights at those independent coffee shops I mentioned earlier, and had joined a historical re-enactors group. I'd learned some elements of an interesting trade. I made a few connections that actually served me well when I landed elsewhere... in another small town, of course. I'm still not sure what frightens me more: the big city, or the fact that I might never get to experience one in full. 

The only lesson I've taken away from all of this, I think... and it might sound odd, coming from me... is that home is where the heart is. Home is a sense of fitting in, of being welcome, and of honestly feeling a sense of attachment to a place based upon the things you do there -- and the people you share it with. I don't know a lot about the world save for what you can learn through documentaries, which have become something of a hobby of mine (watching them, I mean). Like Robin Williams said to Matt Damon, paraphrasing, I can't tell you what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. My knowledge of the greater world consists of what other people think is important.

I'd still like to get out there someday. I'd like to travel, meet people, do something interesting, and write about it... but as it is, I think I'm better off for my childhood experience. It taught me that simply going somewhere new isn't enough. You have to be in a position to understand and appreciate where you are. Everywhere that I've gone since, I've made friends. I've tried local restaurants. I've listened to local music. And, slowly but surely, I've built up a somewhat interesting life for myself, including some fairly distinctive hobbies, and some skills that aren't too common in general. And the more I add to my own life with what's available where I'm at, the more I feel like I'm home... wherever I happen to be.

User Comments

I can relate to the feeling that one's life is empty and devoid of any real experience. The truth I'm trying hard to embrace now is that our lives are what we make of them for our own sake. It's a long journey, but I hope that point of view is helpful.

Anon-1

I used to run away as a kid, but never made it that far. I'm glad that things worked out as well as they did; it could have been a lot worse! You are more than the sum of your experiences, though; you're who you are by how you act today, and how you head into the future. "Don't get too wrapped up in the past" is a piece of advice that a friend of mine gave me earlier today, and she's absolutely right. 

Anon-2

I've never found a place that I feel is "home," but I'm still looking, and I'm sure it's out there somewhere. A place where I'll enjoy the things I do and have fun with the people I meet, and just "fit in." Home is an extension of the self, meeting the surrounding environment and "clicking" just-so. I hope that you find yours someday; until then, try to enjoy the process of wandering :)

Anon-3

Lol. I've only ever been to one major city. I had one hour there between trains, and I walked a block from the station to a McDonalds. In that span, two black guys approached me asking for pills. Not like mugging or anything, just asking for pills. It felt really surreal, like "Hey, man, gangbanging is hard work; got an Alieve?" I know that wasn't it, but they were both clean, polite, and well-spoken. It so wasn't what I was expecting from someone asking me a question like that.

Anon-4

When I was a teenager, I ran away from Tennessee. I got as far as Florida before I was caught and sent home; it wasn't particularly random. I somehow got it into my head that I could go to one of my aunts for help, and that she would simply 'understand' a need that I didn't have a clear grasp on myself, and wouldn't call my parents to have me brought home. 

I'm really glad that you got home safely. In retrospect, we were both pretty lucky.

Anon-5

I've never run away from anything. Sometimes, though, I wish I had. Is that strange? I feel like I haven't learned anything or otherwise benefited from "the world," certainly not as a kid. I was pretty sheltered and protected by a mother who at the same time told me I wasn't good enough.

Anon-6

I left home at a very young age, and managed to stay away, but there were several years' worth of homelessness involved in that, and a couple of brief stints in county lockup. Overall I wouldn't reccomend it. I know this is just my perspective, but "street cred" is overrated. It's only useful on the street.