Color Palette Blue #3
Commuting between Philadelphia and Camden on the PATCO train, I sit on old vinyl seats in a train car that looks like it hasn't changed in fifty years, or has only changed in the ways that the colors have faded or darkened over decades of exposure to skin, cleaning products, and the sunlight that flashes in and out of the windows as the train crosses the Delaware River along the Ben Franklin Bridge. I look at the yellowing walls, the speckled spearmint floor panels, and the durable dark green and tan vinyl, and I know the combination of colors is ugly, but it makes me comfortable. It reminds me of places that make me happy—of other places that haven't changed for decades, like my grandfather's kitchen.
A picture I drew when I was eleven was still scotch-taped to my grandfather's refrigerator when he died fourteen years later. The picture was called "Santa's Workshop." In the background, a single shelf spanning the length of the paper was filled with various toys, including a Jack-in-the-Box, a dollhouse, and some storybooks. A reindeer observed from the sidelines, his head poking in from off the page. My first attempt at drawing the reindeer's head had been vigorously erased but it had apparently been drawn with equal vigor, and the faint outline of its misshapen form was still visible alongside the second, final, version. When I was young, I would draw pictures every time I went to my grandfather's house, and the refrigerator display would change with every visit. "Santa's Workshop," though, was the last drawing. It's rare to be able to pinpoint "the last time" you do something that was, in an earlier phase of life, commonplace. You almost never know, when doing something for the last time, that you are doing it for the last time. Surely, when I drew and colored "Santa's Workshop," I did not know it was the last picture I would draw in that house, but by the next year I had moved on to other small adventures, leaving that drawing to remain on the fridge, the colors fading a little each year until Santa's suit was a washed-out pink sometime in the early 2000s.
Grandpa's couch, which he called the davenport, had hefty wooden arms and brown and orange woolly plaid upholstery. The television was a piece of furniture in itself—the screen encased in a enormous wooden shell that sat alone on the rug beside the rocking chair. Looking at pictures taken when my mother was in college, I would see a room identical to the one I knew so well, different only in that the pictures had a cast of characters that no longer existed: a living grandmother, a father with long hair, and a mother with short skirts. I understand the desire to update a space, to tear out the old faded trappings of a time that has passed, but it's hard to argue that nothing is lost. Memories imprinted on physical spaces are lost. When I was twenty-seven, I moved from an apartment with a bright modern kitchen with white cabinets and a black-and-white checkered floor into an apartment with rust-colored linoleum, buttery yellow cabinets, mustard countertops, and pale yellow flowered wallpaper. There was little natural light but the whole room felt saturated with an old dark glow. All of my friends loved that kitchen, not because it was a throwback to a decade—the 60s—that was nearing its fifty-year revival in fashion and home decor, but because it felt like all of our grandparents' kitchens, imbued with stagnancy and love.
The entire PATCO fleet is being renovated. The main objective is to update the technology of the cars, but the technological improvements will be accompanied by an interior redesign. Over a thousand PATCO riders participated in a survey to choose the color palette for the new seats, floor, and wall lining. "Color Palette Blue #3" won. The new seat cushions and floor will be an icy periwinkle and the walls and the seat frames will be slate grey. Black armrests and handles for standing riders will provide a flash of contrast to the cool tones that pervade. Looking at the computer-generated graphic posted on the PATCO website to display the winning design, I understand the psychology behind these color choices. The cool muted tones are neutral, calming, and evoke a feeling of spaciousness. They are sterile, and perhaps sterility is a good thing for public transportation. They are unobtrusive, intent on not invading our minds and emotions.
The PATCO cars themselves are not being replaced—they are being completely refurbished, but the exterior shell and major structural components will remain the same. In small batches, the train cars are trucked to a facility in western New York where they will stay for two years, gutted and then slowly rebuilt, remade, reborn. The company that works on them is called Alstom. The town in western New York that serves as home to Alstom's rolling stock manufacturing division is called Hornell. In addition to boasting the largest passenger rail car facility in the United States, Hornell is the town where my mother was born and raised, where my grandmother and grandfather lived until they died, and where my mother's only brother lives to this day. It is the place I've been talking about—where my grandpa's house at 13 Mays Avenue didn't change for decades, where I went to buy ice cream cones in the same ice cream parlor where my mom worked as a teenager. It is that place imbued with stagnancy, decades of sameness, and love, and now it is the place that where the train car interiors—the ones that remind me of Hornell, of times and places that are warm and old and familiar—will disappear. It is just a coincidence—nearly all small towns in the United States probably manufacture some small part of the lives of Americans living and commuting in cities—but it's hard for me to think of the PATCO cars arriving on flat-bed trucks in the town where my mother was raised and not feel awestruck by the unexpected places where the past weaves its way into the present and ensures its grip on the future.
When I was young, it was hard to imagine that Hornell existed beyond my knowledge of it. Grandpa lived at 13 Mays Ave and Aunt Eileen lived on East Washington Street. The ice cream shop, the pizza shop, the school and its tennis courts and ball fields were all on Seneca Street, and the pet store was across from the school swimming pool on Adsit Street. The old JCPenney's department store and Friendly's Restaurant were about as far as I ventured, all the way down near the pedestrian mall on Main Street, almost a mile away. There were times when we drove further—to the James Street Park, to Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Gene's house, to the Chinese restaurant that I remember as the only restaurant I ever visited with Grandpa—but these locations felt impossibly distant from my walking world there. Looking now at a map, I see that the James Street Park was just under two miles from 13 Mays Ave., and Aunt Dorothy's place was probably only a mile away, but it was across the four-lane highway that cleaved the town in two when it was constructed in 1972, so they might as well have lived in another city altogether. There were other things in Hornell that I had never seen or even heard about, and one of them was the Alstom Corporation and its rail car manufacturing plant down on Transit Drive.
For the bulk of its history, Hornell was a railroad town. In 1851, pre-railroad years, it was a tiny village with 700 residents. In 1852, after the opening of the Erie Railroad transformed it into a station stop on the first passenger railway from New York City to Lake Erie, the population started to grow. In 1852: 1,800; in 1865, over 5,000; by 1890, over 11,000; and by 1900, 14,000. And Hornell wasn't just any old railroad station town. It became home to the Erie Shops, the largest steam engine repair complex for Erie's rail cars. By 1891, visitors to Hornell would find a town with three hotels, four banks, five silk mills, a fairground with a horse racing park, a shoe factory, and a world-class opera house visited by the Russian Symphony Orchestra, John Philip Sousa's Marching Band, and the magician Harry Houdini.
In 1930, Hornell's population was over 16,000, but like for so many railroad towns, what followed was not pretty. The beginning of the end came in the year my mother was born, 1948, when Erie switched from steam to diesel locomotives that required less service. Hundreds of workers in Hornell were laid off. In 1960, Erie merged with the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad and the Hornell accounting office was closed. In 1970, Erie discontinued passenger service. In 1972, the year after my parents got married at St. Ann's Church with a reception at the Ponce De Leon Restaurant, the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad went bankrupt and the Hornell repair shops closed completely. In 1990, when I drew "Santa's Workshop," the population of Hornell was 9,500 and dropping. After the Erie Shops closed, the facilities were leased for a time to General Electric and then to Morris-Knudsen, and then in 1995, Alstom began leasing the site. In the last twenty years there have been periods of hope and periods of despair as Alstom competes for contracts to renovate the nations's aging subway and rail cars. After years of uncertainty and layoffs, it won the PATCO contract in 2010, and while this allowed the company to start hiring again, it is a trickle compared to Hornell's old railroad days.
I knew none of this when I was young. It's difficult to overstate how much I loved Hornell and how little I knew of its deep, permanent depression. I played with the girls across the street whose father was, and continues to be, the mayor (in office for twenty-eight years so far, he is the longest serving in New York State). I sat at St. Ann's Church for Sunday mass where the priest's arms shook with Parkinson's and they read from thick song books instead of the photocopied song-sheets to which I was accustomed. I spent hours in the must-smelling cellar helping Uncle Bobby with his carpentry projects, occasionally rummaging through the stacks of old board games from when my mother was a kid. I followed Grandpa through the supermarket, smiling as he tipped his hat at the people we passed. He seemed to know everyone, and everyone knew him. Emmett Clancy: lifelong Hornell resident, baseball star, World War Two vet, grocery store owner, snow plow driver, Erie Railroad switch operator. He flirted with the cashiers, much as he flirted with me: "Now don't hit me when I say this," he would tell me, "but you're a good looking girl."
When it was time to leave at the end of a trip, I would hide between coats in the walk-in closet while Mom and Grandpa shouted back and forth about how it was ok, she'd leave without me and I could stay and go to Hornell Elementary School for a year or two. "It's just up the street," Grandpa would say. "You just walk up to the corner and you're there." As I got older I knew it was a joke but I still wished that maybe, someday, I could stay. Maybe for a summer? A summer in Hornell meant trips up to my third cousins' farm and to the old wooded homestead at Hartsville Hill where the small stone foundation of Grandpa's childhood home lay hidden in the woods. It meant playing in the next-door neighbors' above-ground swimming pool. It meant rising early with Uncle Bobby and hiking down Mays Ave to the Canisteo River with fishing poles and lunchboxes ensuring we'd be gone until at least noon. It meant playing tiddly-winks on the green outdoor carpeting in the screened-in front porch as the Hornell Evening Tribune was tossed on the front steps by the paperboy in the late afternoon.
And then there was the food, an unchanging bounty of items that I never ate elsewhere: powdered doughnuts from a box, salted Planters peanuts, bologna, whole milk, yellow slices of cheese, soft sticks of real butter that were never refrigerated, soft sandwich bread with no crunchy grains inside. I didn't know it was a kitchen stuck in 1965, but I knew that it was food I would never see at my own house and would never bother even asking for. I can still taste the Oscar Mayer bologna on soft bread with butter and yellow mustard, served on a white plate at the round table with the faded plastic table cloth and round cloth placemats.
An old bronze grocery store scale sat on the counter next to the fridge, a relic of the days when Grandpa owned a store. After his time as a grocer ended, he never lost his knack for guessing an item's weight—I could hand him an orange or a coffee mug or a carton of ice cream and he would stand in the middle of the kitchen, skinny legs spread with knees slightly bent, and he'd bob the item up and down in his open palm, testing its heft and density. "Ehhhh—fourteen ounces," he'd declare, and I'd scurry to put it on the scale. He was always right, even in the years when he couldn't remember how old I was or where I went to college, in the years when he paced all day between the living room and the kitchen, anxiously tapping his fingers on the kitchen counter and watching through the window for any disturbances in the neighborhood, constantly moving from one room to the next, forgetting as soon as he was in one place what was happening in the place he had left just a moment before.
"I'm losing control," he told me the last time I visited. "Where's Bobby?"
"He and mom went out. They'll be back at nine."
"That's right. Thank you."
"Grandpa, can I get anything for you?"
"No . . . I'm just looking for a can of beer but I can't find one."
"I don't know where to find one either."
"Well, I'm just going to look in here one more time."
The carpet in the dining room along his path between the living room and kitchen was worn thin from his constant shuffling back and forth. There was a stack of old fedoras and fishing hats on top of the refrigerator. He never left home without a hat, but he didn't leave home much anymore. The air in the house felt caged and desperate. Grandpa would wake from his frequent naps and hurry up from his armchair to investigate what was happening in the other rooms, as if life was transpiring in the places he could not see. But no, it was quiet everywhere. There was nothing new to see.
After Grandpa died in 2005, Uncle Bobby continued to live in the house, and upon my mother's insistent prodding, he renovated the kitchen. The space is barely recognizable—the water-stained drop-ceiling panels are gone and the ceiling is two feet higher. The grease-stained peeling wallpaper has been replaced with new drywall painted bright salmon orange. A peninsula counter with tall stools bisects the room, lit by sleek hanging pendant lamps. There are large windows, stainless steel fixtures, maple cabinets, and the old buckling linoleum has been replaced by tiles. It is, by every standard, more attractive and more functional.
I miss the old kitchen, choosing to imagine a time before the anxious sadness began. It is easy to wax nostalgic for old, beaten-down places when you were present for neither their heyday nor the worst of their decline, when you don't remember the time when their colors were vivid and new, when you have no memories of what used to be. That kitchen was old and faded by the time I was born, and so was my grandpa, and so was Hornell. I just didn't know it. My mother told me about an argument she had with her father sometime during college or shortly after. They were bickering about something—anything—when unexpectedly my grandfather erupted with a defeated proclamation: "Whatever I've done, remember that I never asked you to come back to this town." It was the greatest gift—permission to leave, permission to invent herself anew. Permission to extract herself from the constant weight of memory and to have a daughter who can yearn naively for a place that no longer exists. A place, perhaps, that never did.
Several years ago, I was helping a friend and her boyfriend look for a house to rent. Every time we drove by a little bungalow with peeling paint and a teetering porch, she would joyfully exclaim, "It could be so cute! It's a fixer-upper!" The boyfriend and I would correct her: "No, it's just shitty." I think about her while sitting on the PATCO train one morning and I look around at the dingy jaundiced walls and the saturated dullness of the seat's thick vinyl. I think about the elisions that make nostalgia possible. I think about whether it is places or people whose memory elicits the greatest longing. I think about how to love the past without grasping to keep it alive. I wonder if Hornell can be remade like these train cars or if the shell is too big and too broken to be occupied anew.
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