I tried to go back home again; I couldn’t
“You Can’t Go Home Again” is the title of a 1940 novel by Thomas Wolfe.
He is correct. Last week, I tried. I could not go home again.
Affection for the songs of the late country music star Johnny Cash sent me to my hometown of Warren. A tribute singer performed at the century-old Struthers Library Theater, an iconic relic of what Warren had been.
I spent 44 years in Warren, more than half of my 80-year-long life. It began when I was born in 1942, back when billboards at each entrance to the town proclaimed it as the home of “15,000 friendly people.”
Today, 9,000 remain.
Last week, the people were still as friendly as the vanished signs had proclaimed. They filled the 900-seat theater to within one-tenth of its capacity to recapture the man and his music as sung in well-received tribute by Arkansas-born Terry Lee Goffee.
I had hoped to see friends. A decade earlier, at a tribute to Credence Clearwater Revival in the same theater, I had reconnected with dozens.
Last week, I took slow strolls around the theater and down memory lane. I walked to the stage and savored its arch that, in my youth, had framed a CinemaScope movie screen.
I saw not a single person of my acquaintance.
I entered the spacious lobby, reflexively glancing to my left in a vain hope that the once-beloved candy/popcorn stand would somehow rematerialize. It did not. But the gold-tinted ticket taker’s column still stood, its surface worn smooth by generations of patrons and ushers.
Dozens walked past me. All were strangers.
In Warren, I had known thousands of people on a “Hiya!” basis. That goes with the visibility of writing a weekly newspaper column.
My mug shot was seen regularly by tens of thousands of readers. I was well known though, as also goes with my trade, not always well liked. Misspell a grandchild’s honor roll listing; publish a spouse’s drunk-driving arrest; get used to some cold stares.
Famous or infamous, during 23 years there, I had thousands of acquaintances.
In 1990, I left Warren for DuBois.
In 2023 in the theater, much remained. Stuff: the familiar twin stairways to the lavatories, the balustrades in the balcony anteroom, surrounding the kidney-shaped opening to the main auditorium, the smooth blending of colors in the artfully restored theater.
I recognized just three people.
Worse, I remembered the name of just one person – his last name, not his first name.
In earlier visits since 1990, the winnowing had been gradual among folks in their 50s, 60s or 70s.
From age 75 on, we die in droves.
The sense of loss made me melancholy.
Thinking to ease the sting, I stopped after the show in a bar that had been a hallowed haunt on most nights. My work shifts on the morning newspaper usually ended past midnight. This bar was halfway along the mile-long journey from the newspaper plant to my home.
In my time, that post-midnight crowd had been crammed with second-shift workers, sweat-stained and craving beer. Ethnicities abounded: Italians, Poles, Swedes, Germans, Irish.
These days, that bar caters to folks who, though nice enough, are too old or feeble to work in manufacturing plants — if the factories still existed.
The bar patrons mirrored the earlier theater crowd. They were white of hair and halting of stride, their features wrinkled. I didn’t know a soul.
Reflecting, I was swamped by the suddenness with which people I knew had vanished, perhaps beneath the sod, or into nursing homes or to the far South.
The next morning, I toured the cemetery set along a riverbank hill. On tombstones and monuments, I saw Adamses and Angelottis, Browns and Bonavitas … Zavinskis and Zingones. I knew more names in the cemetery than people I had seen sitting with me in the theater.
I remembered the streets where we all had lived, the schools we attended together, the churches, parades, storms, floods, elections … all the things that had made us a community. Those things still occur, but to younger people.
Those younger people now living in Warren still have a vibrant community. My children who live there tell me that is so. They know the people. The people know them.
It is the people who give us our sense of community. For those of us who stay put, younger friends take the places of those who have died or moved.
New faces become new friends. For those of us who have lived away, that does not happen. The scenery is much the same as it was when I was part of that community. The people are not.
I want where I was to be where I still feel at home.
But I can’t go home again.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: email@example.com.