Vol 11, Num 15 :: 2012.07.20 — 2012.08.02
Does anything good come from Alton City? Does anything good originate from Reading, Pennsylvania? How about from Fleetwood, Pennsylvania? Here, let me ask the question again in its original form: does anything good come from Nazareth?
I’ve asked this question of my hometown because I like the way the words roll off my tongue (an invention — kind of like asking, who is John Gault?) I asked it the other night as I ran through Fleetwood at 1:00 a.m., which isn’t very different from how it is at 1:00 p.m. Quiet. I enjoy this question, but I think it’s slightly unfair. It reveals a discontentment in the inquisitor and proves that he will never be happy — unless he changes — whether he is in Montreal, Quebec; St. Paul, Minnesota; Auckland, New Zealand; Portland, Oregon; Seoul, South Korea, or if he’s speaking Creole in New Orleans. And, most importantly, it neglects to honor all the good people who are trying to do good in a bad place.
From what little I have read of John Updike, a good man, it’s my understanding that he writes positive, beautiful things about Reading (pronounced: Red-ing), Pennsylvania. It could even be argued that our mutual hometown was what bolstered him to literature stardom. I do not share his sentiment. We are two writers divided by many years, growing up on the opposite sides of the tracks, and like two grumbling lovers we share opposing views on an object that ties us tightly together: Alton City (Updike’s nickname for Reading).
It was through short stories like “A&P,” a coming of age tale set at the local grocery store, that I imagined Updike calling upon memories of his childhood in Alton. Although a stronger case is made that his longer works, The Rabbit Angstrom series, depict Reading. Regardless, Updike wrote stories that drew heavily on a time in American history when a white-picket fence was the norm and the goal. All stories contain instances of conflict, and I’m sure the Reading of the 1960s was no church sanctuary, but the Reading of my era is considerably more vacant and conflict seems to be its defining quality.
Consider the New York Times article published in September of 2011, “Reading, Pa., Knew It Was Poor, Now It Knows Just How Poor,” and you’ll understand how different Alton is from Reading. After giving examples of female workers in Reading trying to support families on tight incomes, the article goes on to state:
These are common stories in Reading, a struggling city of 88,000 that has earned the unwelcome distinction of having the largest share of its residents living in poverty, barely edging out Flint, Mich., according to new Census Bureau data. The count includes only cities with populations of 65,000 or more, and has a margin of error that makes it difficult to declare a winner — or, perhaps more to the point, a loser.
This is not the working class city that Updike wrote about in his many works. There is no longer a train station for riders to pick up the Reading Railroad (a feature on every monopoly board). Reading High School, a school of almost 3,000 students, struggles with overcrowding. The candy, foundry and textile companies outsourced their operations to more economical locations years ago. This is not even the Reading that many older residents tell tales of from their youth. Upon reflection, some of my older friends recall adventures at the drive-in movies, which is now a Sam’s Club, and the race track, which is now The Fair Ground Square Mall.
It is my understanding that John Updike went to college in Oxford. Had he stayed I wonder if his career would have taken off. Maybe every great story about home begins with our leaving. I ask myself the same question as I prepare to make a move to Boston, Massachusetts. If I stay in Reading, will I ever become a writer? This isn’t me giving up. I don’t believe Updike ever surrendered his love for Alton. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have made it the subject of many of his books.
I believe it is possible for two people to stare at a sunset, or the skyline of a city and imagine two very different things. This is a quality that defines human interactions, but maybe time is a greater cause of differing perspectives. The Reading of the 1960s is not the Reading of 2012. One day when I return from Massachusetts, what will I see blooming forth from the concrete vacancies? Will there be jobs or education reform? Will Reading, Pennsylvania be worthy of something more than an article on poverty? Will bookstores abound? Will people write novels about my hometown again?
I’m of the school of thought that in order to make something better you must first take it apart. Deconstruct it. Once you see why the parts don’t work then you can imagine how they could work. In other words, sell Reading as something bad, and people will come to make it great. Another school of thought says to sell all the good things in Reading and good things will happen — but so far they haven’t.