You can’t help but go home again

a Midtown writer who works at UC Davis

As a general rule, Rhode Islanders don’t leave Rhode Island. They might buy the house down the street—maybe move to the next town over. But they rarely cross state lines permanently. They go to the same schools their parents attended and eat at the same restaurants for 50 years.

Rhode Islanders possess an unexplainable, incestuous bond with all other residents of the state, past or present. They marry their cousins’ friends or their friends’ cousins. Television news anchors are celebrities in Rhode Island, as are politicians, crooked or not. Rhode Island is small-town America disguised as a state.

I lived in Rhode Island for 23 years, vowing through most of them that I would escape someday to warmer, more urbane climes. Now, here I am in California, and Rhode Island has tracked me down.

The Station was in my hometown. Ninety-eight people died in the building that once was my favorite Italian restaurant. It was right next door to the dealership where I bought my first car. In recent years, when home visiting family, I passed The Station and saw Dokken or Motley Crüe or some other washed-up 1980s hair band listed on the marquee and regretted, for one fleeting second, that I wouldn’t be in town to see them.

It’s been almost 10 years since I left Rhode Island—time enough for me to lose the accent. Now, I hear it daily on the radio, in sound bites from the governor, lawyers and grieving relatives. I’ve had 10 years to take on new identities, to distance myself from the insular world where I lived an unsatisfying and dull childhood.

Now, I find myself riveted to the news, combing the lists of victims and survivors, reading the quotes from rescuers and relatives, expecting to see a familiar name. So far, the closest I’ve come is a firefighter, one of the first on the scene, who was a family friend. I even dated him for a while. I heard that as he tried to pull a patron out of the fire, the man’s arm came off.

If I hadn’t escaped my roots 10 years ago, I probably would have been at the Great White concert last Thursday. But instead, I sit here, listening for familiar accents on the radio and mourning for the 98 people who couldn’t escape my hometown with their lives.