The cities act like street signs to warn me how close I am to home as I drive west toward my Kansas City suburb on I-70.
“Welcome to Odessa: Caution: Close to Independence.”
“Welcome to Grain Valley: Ten minutes from Independence, please be advised.”
“Welcome to Blue Springs: five minutes from Independence, turn around.”
Then, finally, Exit 15: “Welcome to Independence, can’t say we didn’t warn you.”
I’ve gotten to the point now where I always drive into my hometown at night. That way, by the time I pull into my driveway, I can squint my eyes and just pretend like I’m not surrounded by the home and neighborhood I was reared at. I could be anywhere. Not here, but anywhere else.
It’s early September, and the weather is something I can just feel anytime I want, as I walk in toward the house. The oppressive Missouri summer heat is gone, and the still air feels perfect for the first time in months. Fall is hinting at its arrival, but it’s not something you can see yet. No orange leaves littering your yard, begging for you and your friends to rake them into a pile on the east side of the house big enough to jump in. You just start to feel it.
And it’s annoying. The last place I want to find myself after spending three years carving out a new life in college is this stale place.
I pause on my mom’s porch just long enough to hear the traffic from the highway, just two blocks north. Even in the early hours of the morning, 18-wheelers can be heard moving through the heart of this soulless city. As a kid, my mom never let me go farther south than that highway. Now that I’m old enough to get that far from the house, I don’t ever like coming back.
I pause, set my stuff down, and grab a seat on the sagging, slanted bench on Mom’s porch, the one that was my go-to spot when the kid that lived next door, Josh I think his name was, would come over to trade Pokemon cards.
I let my guard down for the first time, and look up the street that runs north from Mom’s house. But I didn’t really need to do that. I can see that road without my eyes. Hell, I could drive that road without my eyes. It’s uphill, curves left, swerves right, then dumps off on another road after about eight seconds of driving. Turn left and that road dumps off on another in about three seconds. Take a right there, head up the hill and wait at the stoplight that takes for–fucking–ever.
You can get anywhere from that stupid light. That stoplight is six minutes from my high school–four with good traffic. It’s seven minutes from my high school girlfriend’s house. It’s two minutes from McDonald’s. Three minutes from Richard’s Sunfresh, formerly known as Richard’s IGA, formerly my family’s go-to grocer.
But none of that matters. This isn’t my home. That stupid stoplight isn’t my stoplight. That street that curves left then swerves right isn’t my street. This bench isn’t my bench. I’ve got my own stoplight, now, my own street, my own porch.
This town is a dump and this neighborhood is dead. Everyone is white trash and unemployed. It was something I cared about only because it was all that I knew. Columbia is home. Columbia is alive. Things happen there. I’m an adult there. Not here.
No, this space isn’t mine. Not anymore, anyway.
I put my head down and drive my legs through the pedals on my BMX bike. It’s a silver Dyno. It’s awesome.
I build up speed as fast as my bike will carry me then lay off the pedals as I show off by putting my hands behind my head. I coast down the road perpendicular to mine. The early summer morning air whips my short, brown hair around and is doing the same to my best friend, Craig, as he coasts on his bike next to me.
We cut in behind the corner house and, ignoring the “DO NOT ENTER” sign posted in front of the tunnels behind the house, go inside.
We ride down the long cavern, and the other side is the entrance to a bunch of trails Craig and I ride every day, and another sign, this one reading “NO TRESPASSING”. We, of course, ignore it. Mom and dad are at work and, now that I’m 12, my big sister doesn’t really care if I go ride my bike around. She doesn’t know we go back on the trails, and it’s probably best that I keep it that way.
The trail opens up into a huge clearing. These woods are owned by the city, but the trails, and this giant clearing with all its ramps and slopes, have been built by local BMXers like Craig and me. Mom doesn’t like me out here, probably because it’s in the middle of woods a mile from my house. Whatever. I know my way around my neighborhood. I’m not getting lost. This is my neighborhood, my home. I’m fine.
Craig and I spend the most of the morning working on a ramp we’ve been building out here, and then start ramping over it. These bike trails might be Independence’s best-kept secret. I’ll be riding my bike back here forever.
Around noon, it gets too hot to be outside riding around on bikes, so Craig and I decide to ride back to his house, where he has a pool. On our ride back, we talk about how awesome it will be when we turn 16 and get our driver’s licenses. How awesome it will be to drive ourselves to high school. How awesome it will be to go to the movie theater and mall over on 39th Street without our parents. How awesome it will be to be able to go get fast food whenever we want. This neighborhood is ours now, in a few years this city will be ours, we say.
I’m back in Columbia a few weeks later. My friend’s girlfriend, who is from a really wealthy Kansas City suburb called Brookside, is talking about home.
“What did you guys think about Independence when you were growing up?” I ask.
She doesn’t even hesitate. “White trash. Old.”
I knew the answer was coming, but I feel aggravation beginning to bubble under my skin.
That’s my home you’re talking about, chick. Sorry I didn’t grow up in a fucking Brookside villa with the Desperate Housewives. Sure its got warts. Find me somewhere that doesn't.
Whatever. I rejoin conversation and forget about what she said.
It doesn’t matter to me anyway, right?